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Veterinary Practices

Baroness Trumpington rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how they see the future of rural veterinary practices in the United Kingdom.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the importance of the subject of this debate is reinforced by the quality and expertise of those noble Lords who have so kindly agreed to speak. I am most grateful.

The head of a Sussex veterinary practice recently wrote to a farming friend of mine, as follows:

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords—

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the noble Baroness talking to me?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, if the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, will forgive me, I wish that noble Lords leaving the Chamber could have conversations outside, as it is quite difficult to hear the noble Baroness.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I hope that that interruption does not count as part of my 10 minutes. I shall start the letter again:

That letter just about sums up the present deteriorating situation.

Your Lordships will remember that not so very long ago we debated the plight of rural pharmacies. I make no apologies about returning to my roots, since I share the view, espoused recently by the director of the
 
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Scottish Crop Research Institute, John R. Hillman, that agriculture is relatively more important than most other human activities. It is, as he said, the basis of sustenance and civilisation. But nowadays, in terms of the perception of too many of those who live in our towns and cities, and of the body politic, it seems less important than entertainment, celebrity, sport, recreation or just about any other activity.

In recent years, the agricultural industry has suffered its greatest series of tragedies for over half a century at least. The veterinary profession, too—at this point I should declare an interest as an honorary member of the British Veterinary Association—and particularly those in rural veterinary practice, also feel that their backs are up against the proverbial wall.

Since the viability of farm veterinary practice is directly related to the viability of the agricultural livestock sector that it serves and the level of public support for services provided in the public good, concerns as to its future are not new. Vets have regularly in recent years pointed out that farm animal practice is becoming increasingly uneconomic and unfortunately the situation continues to deteriorate.

The recent development of the animal health and welfare and disease surveillance strategy documents seems to indicate that the Government recognise that biosecurity and vets on farms are fundamental to ensuring that crises such as those experienced with BSE and foot and mouth disease do not occur again. Nevertheless, the veterinary profession continues to navigate uncharted waters with regard to the future of farm animal veterinary work—an important topic in a country in which livestock farming, I dare to hope, still matters. However, as a recent editorial in the Veterinary Record pointed out, there is little point in developing an animal health and welfare strategy if, by the time it is finalised, the infrastructure needed to apply it is no longer there.

The inquiry report published last October concluded that, although there were sufficient vets in total, there were concerns about whether there were enough large animal practitioners. At a time when the Government's animal health and welfare strategy appeared to require a greater on-farm presence of vets, the economics of farming was leading to less use and further reducing the attractiveness of large animal practice. The report outlined difficulties in obtaining veterinary services in some parts of the country, the declining interest in large animal work among new graduates and the exodus of experienced large animal practitioners. The letter that I quoted from when I began bears out those statements.

The report further pointed out that Defra needed to be aware of the impact that its strategies and changes to European food safety rules would have on current and future demand for vets, and expressed concern that the Competition Commission's recommendations on the supply of prescription-only medicines could lead to a reduction in the number of practices providing large animal veterinary services, which could affect Defra's ability to meet its objectives. It recommended that Defra should urgently assess the
 
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implications of the Competition Commission's recommendations and report the results in time for them to be taken into account when the animal health and welfare strategy was finalised. Have the Government undertaken this economic impact assessment and what was the result? If it has not yet been undertaken, why not?

The Government are on record as stating that vets will have a key role to play in implementing their strategies on veterinary surveillance and animal health and welfare. Given the importance of that role, the fact that they have delayed their response to EFRACOM is clearly worrying vets, not least since it indicates to them a lack of urgency in the Government's approach, which hardly engenders confidence.

The delay in the Government's response to the EFRACOM report has been made all the more frustrating because it has intensified the problems highlighted. With every passing day, veterinary practices throughout the UK are making strategic business decisions to withdraw farm services due to insufficient levels of farm work remaining to justify specific overheads. That results in the surviving farm animal practices travelling much further to service farms. Not only does that have severe animal health and welfare implications, since, in an emergency, the vet is no longer 10 to 15 minutes away but an hour or more, but it also has an economic effect because there are increased costs of attendance to the farmer. Despite the Defra consultant's views, that is not welcome news to farmers.

The EFRACOM report also called for Defra to conduct a risk analysis of the consequences of not having enough large animal vets in the country against the background of the cost to the taxpayer of not being able to deal adequately with either the threat or an outbreak of a serious animal disease. It does not take a genius to realise that decreased veterinary attendance on farms results in fewer opportunities to collect surveillance data. After all, BSE was first reported due to the clinical expertise of practising vets present on farms. So I must ask whether the risk analysis has been carried out or whether it is in hand. If not, then again I must ask, why not? Cost is clearly an issue for the Government, but they need to weigh the cost implications of their strategies against the cost to the nation if disease control fails. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, for enabling us to have this short debate on a very important subject. I declare an interest as an honorary associate member of the British Veterinary Association. As the noble Baroness said, farmers, the veterinary profession and the Government face a serious situation which could produce serious problems involving both animal and public health if action is not taken.

In the four years between 1998 and 2002, the time spent by rural vets on farm animals halved for cattle and more than halved for sheep and pigs. That reflects
 
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the fact that the number of full-time vets working with farm animals dropped by 29 per cent. A number of factors are involved and the noble Baroness referred to some of them. The main one is falling farm profits. If money is short, the vet is not called out. If the values of animals are falling, is it worth calling the vet out? At the same time, we know that legislation requires the attendance of the veterinary profession for TB and brucella testing for export certification and so forth. The vets on a farm are the first to pick up the presence of disease. The noble Baroness mentioned the example of BSE. It is obvious that the proposed animal health and welfare strategy and the veterinary surveillance strategy will require more vets on the farm if the strategies are to work at all. If the State Veterinary Service is to be effective it needs sufficient skilled, experienced, local veterinary inspectors—or vets on the ground. If, God forbid, there were another outbreak of foot and mouth disease, have the Government calculated how many vets would be required compared with the present number of vets, or would we have to import vets as we did last time?

The noble Baroness also referred to a further issue that is compounding the problem—the possible loss of cross-subsidisation of the cost of farm visits if the rules on prescription-only and veterinary medicines are changed. Where are we on that matter? Sixty-three per cent of practice income in large animal practices is derived from the sale of veterinary medicines. Have the Government calculated the effect on practice incomes if prescription-only drugs are declassified? What is the Government response to the report by the Competition Commission?

We know that farmers are having to face up to cross-compliance and all that that entails. To take an example, what would be the effect on the demand for veterinary manpower on the ground if farm assurance standards form part of cross-compliance, as they are intended to do and those standards require regular inspections by the farm vet? At the moment, I believe that the inspections are quarterly for the assurance standard for pigs and six monthly in other cases. If all farms are required to meet farm assurance standards as a part of cross-compliance and those standards require the input of vets, do we have enough of them?

I conclude with a brief mention of NADIS—the National Animal Disease Information Service—which started eight years ago and has grown to 40 veterinary practices, known as sentinel practices, plus the six UK veterinary colleges, throughout the UK. The vets involved record every day all the diseases that they encounter on their farm visits. That information is loaded on to a central database and collated every fortnight. As a result, reports can be provided on a regional or national basis for any given period over the past eight years.

The NADIS target is to increase the number of sentinel practices to 120—to treble them; to enable reporting vets to be paid at LVI rates, and not the very small fee that they are paid at the moment; and to strengthen case definition in the sample and the quality assurance of the scheme. I believe that Defra has been asked for assistance in the expansion of the scheme.
 
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Will my noble friend the Minister say whether help will be forthcoming for that extremely important service? It would provide an excellent means of early warning if diseases developed; if vets all around the country reported a particular disease that had not been seen recently on a farm, something would obviously be happening, and the information could be obtained very quickly.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, farmers, veterinary surgeons and the Government are facing a very serious situation. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can give us some good news on the matter in his reply.


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