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Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, this House should be grateful to my noble friend for initiating this debate, which is appropriate to the animal health situation in the country.

I shall not linger on the devastating catastrophes that have beset the livestock industry, many of which we are still recovering from. Those pandemics have changed the face of farming, with many livestock farmers going out of business, or contemplating doing so, or moving to arable farming, and with farmers' sons and daughters being increasingly unwilling to follow their father's footsteps. That has been particularly so in marginal land where life consists of long hours, hard work and poor rewards—where that is the order of the day. That has a direct effect on the veterinary profession, exacerbating an already existing decline in veterinarians' numbers in rural practices.

The progressive decline in farm livestock makes it increasingly difficult to provide veterinary services—although some veterinarians continue to do so, even though it is uneconomical. One should remember that the veterinary practice is a private endeavour, and possibly only 10 to 12 per cent of veterinary manpower is devoted to large animal rural practice. That is in stark contrast to the situation of some 50 years ago, when I was in veterinary practice—I declare an interest in that respect. Then virtually all veterinary work was with farm animals, and the only dogs that we treated were sheepdogs.

In addition to treatment of sick livestock and the provision of preventive measures such as vaccination, local veterinary practices were the eyes and ears of the disease situation in local areas. It was the vets who spotted deviations from the normal health situation, reported them and set action in progress to deal with them. Consider the situation now, when many livestock endeavours never see a veterinary surgeon from one year's end to another. Of the 7,000 veterinary practices, some 900 offer cattle work and only 350 of those regularly use the diagnostic services of the veterinary laboratory agencies.

The situation is very depressing. It means that the surveillance of disease and welfare in the rural farming areas is seriously affected, and serious pathogens, such as West Nile virus, Salmonella newport, and others including foot and mouth, which we have had recently, may not be spotted because a veterinarian is not there.
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Details of the situation have been collected and analysed by a number of bodies. To my mind, one of the most effective investigations was that in the House of Commons report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on vets and veterinary services in 2003. There have been others that I shall not mention because of time. What solutions do those various reports propose to safeguard the health and welfare of livestock?

First and foremost, there is the urgent need to get vets back on to livestock farms in a meaningful way. Contrary to some reports, I do not believe that there is a major disinclination of young vets to go into rural practices. Many young graduates would wish to do so, but there are simply not the jobs available to them. Similarly, the feminisation of the veterinary profession is often stated to be responsible for the decline in large animal veterinary services. I do not concur with that, as, from my experience as dean of the Cambridge Veterinary School, many female graduates would wish to go into large animal practice. Again, however, there are not the jobs available to them.

Not all is doom and gloom, however. As the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, there is a private enterprise known as NADIS, in which veterinary practices are doing surveillance on their own. They are doing an excellent job, and I hope that Defra can help them out in their needs and that the Minister will respond positively to that suggestion.

I understand that the department is about to publish an animal health and welfare strategy, maybe even today. No doubt the Minister will comment on that. It may contain implications that all animal keepers should be vigilant, with good biosecurity measures to maintain high standards of animal health, and have a legal obligation to employ private veterinarians to meet their responsibilities. The Royal Society, in its report on "infectious diseases of livestock", recommended that all keepers of livestock should submit the name of their nominated veterinary surgeon and a health plan approved by that veterinary surgeon.

Those developments, along with the action that is being taken on the report by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, on teaching and research in veterinary schools, promises that we shall have an effective service in future. I hope that those various measures will go far in providing answers on a partnership basis to the problems that have been identified in this very short debate.

The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, I start by declaring that I am an honorary associate of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and an honorary member of the British Veterinary Association. I thank my noble friend Lady Trumpington, as others have, for allowing us this brief opportunity to discuss the problems facing rural veterinary practices.

My noble friend Lord Soulsby referred to a number of reports, including that of the Royal Society. That report, on infectious diseases and livestock, was one of several reports commissioned after the foot and mouth outbreak. The animal health and welfare strategy
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being announced today will in part respond to some of the proposals made from a scientific standpoint on how the United Kingdom might prevent and combat further invasions of highly infectious livestock diseases.

The report, prepared under the chairmanship of Sir Brian Follett, gave some very important advice on how, at the working level, farmers and veterinarians need to be more aware of the risks and more familiar with the symptoms of rarely encountered diseases. It notes that effective surveillance depends on close collaboration between farmers and their veterinarians and between them and the State Veterinary Service—now, I understand, to become a Next Steps agency. It suggests that farm animal disease surveillance needs to be strengthened. Defra has sponsored a new veterinary service strategy.

A major issue is our poor understanding of how highly infectious diseases are spread locally. This is something to which the rural veterinary practitioner can make a great contribution on the research side. The Royal Society report argued that a targeted research initiative, with the clear aim of improving standards of biosecurity at the farm level, should be put in place.

It must be accepted that heightened animal disease surveillance on farms can be achieved only through effective interaction between vets and farmers. It is the vet who is the first to pick up an observation, perhaps a casual remark from the farmer about an animal that is behaving in an unexpected way or about something that is a little unusual. It is that insight that sometimes can be shared with other vets in the field. It is that which sometimes gives us the opportunity to spot a new infection, perhaps even a new infectious epidemic, such as BSE or foot and mouth.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and my noble friend Lord Soulsby referred to the National Animal Disease Information Service, which I visited a week or so ago at Newbury. It is an excellent example in the spirit of the Royal Society report. As we have heard, 40 veterinarians, together with the six veterinary colleges, have hands-on sharing of information, which is pushed out to rural veterinary practices through monthly communications. Every time each of the 40 vets goes on a farm he records what he comes across and gives information that can be entered into a central databank. So I join the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and my noble friend Lord Soulsby in saying that this seems to be an extremely appropriate hands-on initiative, sponsored by two commercial companies, dairy farmers, through the Milk Development Council, and the MLC. There is room for more sponsorship and perhaps the Next Steps agency, or Defra, might consider whether it should join in sponsoring it. It would be good value for money.

I am not entirely clear about how Defra sees the National Animal Disease Information Service fitting into the wider national surveillance strategy. It would be very helpful to hear how the Minister sees the role of NADIS.
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2.32 p.m.

Lord Plumb: My Lords, I join with noble friends, all noble friends I think, in congratulating my noble friend Lady Trumpington on raising this question. It is very timely. Indeed, it is overdue. It is extremely important, for many of the reasons that have already been given.

We should remind ourselves that the Government have stated, and are on record to have said, that vets have a key role to play in implementing their strategies on veterinary surveillance, animal health and welfare. As we recognise, between livestock farmers and the veterinary profession this country has a very proud record of achievement. I speak from experience as a farmer, a member of the BVA and an honorary associate of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. The profession has led us from science to practice through the ages.

But the days of the life of James Herriot as seen on television are over. It is time to move forward on all matters of animal health in today's circumstances. Of course, we recognise that change is the law of life. Recent events, emanating from the various crises that have already been referred to—foot and mouth and BSE, the on-going problem of TB and the reform of the CAP—have accelerated the speed of change. As we have already heard—the noble Lord, Lord Carter, made particular reference to it—the availability of vets and veterinary services is extremely worrying. The conclusion of the Commons committee report of last October, which we have all read and referred to, highlights those concerns, which are due partly to the structural change that is taking place in farming but mainly to the economic climate of British agriculture.

I hope that the Minister can tell us very clearly why there has been so much delay when the Government know full well that animal welfare and welfare strategy require a greater on-farm presence of veterinary surgeons. The State Veterinary Service and private practice have always worked extremely well together—I have experience of it—particularly in times of crisis. But if, for example, we had another foot and mouth outbreak— which is always possible due to lax import regulations—does the Minister believe that the profession could cope, particularly if we were to start a scheme of vaccination?

In today's world, no one can expect to persuade veterinarians to concentrate on farm animals alone when there is a large demand for service, particularly for domestic pets. Consultation documents and working groups do not provide solutions. Action is needed. Surely, encouragement through training, to make veterinary careers in farm animal practice more attractive, is necessary and the delay in answering Select Committees only adds to frustration. Does the Minister agree that perhaps the time has come to review a scheme in which I was very much involved many years ago? Believing that prevention is better than cure, it required a visit from veterinarians, a sort of Denplan, to advise the stock farmer on matters of health and welfare. It would, of course, be voluntary but it needs government support.
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Finally, in her opening remarks my noble friend Lady Trumpington referred to the perilous state of agriculture in recent years and posed one of the most important issues for the veterinary profession, the concern regarding the supply of prescription-only medicines following the competition commission inquiry. It would boost the morale of the profession if the Minister would acknowledge the serious consequences to the health and welfare of animals and would satisfy veterinarians by making a full economic impact assessment, recognising the responsibility that they take when diagnosing, prescribing and dispensing veterinary medicines.

We know that veterinary work is a 24-hour service. The present situation is totally unsustainable in economic terms and is exacerbated by many of the regulations, not least the Working Time Regulations, which make life even more difficult for veterinarians and all concerned in the business of veterinary work.

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