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Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as an associate of the British Veterinary Association. I would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, for introducing this very important debate this afternoon.

Last summer, I made a train journey through Texas for the first time and I was appalled to see dead cattle lying by the side of the track. I had never seen that before but, the way we are going in this country as far as the numbers of vets are concerned, we might possibly get to the situation of seeing it here in my lifetime. I do not think EU regulations would allow it. I must say that I was appalled at what I saw.

I have worked closely with vets all through my life on farms and also in colleges and I have a fairly acute understanding of the difficulties they have in operating. What appals me at the moment is that quite a number of private veterinary practices are closing down. That seems to be an extraordinary state of affairs. In the 1980s, I was driven to distraction when serious proposals were put forward to close the University of Glasgow Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Cambridge Veterinary School. Fortunately, both were saved by a massive campaign. Many veterinary practices do not think it profitable to treat large animals. As noble Lords said, because of cost, many farmers are doing their own veterinary work.

Inadequate numbers of young men are going into veterinary practice; indeed, girls now comprise some 73 per cent of UK students going to veterinary schools. There is nothing wrong with that—there are many able young girl veterinarians—but the large animal practices are consequently often understaffed. Another extraordinary statistic is that 50 per cent of students at UK veterinary schools—which have very high entry standards—are from overseas. Some EU countries have more veterinary schools than we do. Every Spanish region, for example, has a veterinary school.
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Especially in the light of the pandemics that noble Lords mentioned, the current career structure and run-down of the State Veterinary Service—attempts are being made to put it right, but the number of state vets has halved—is a very serious matter. The number of state vets has decreased from about 620 to 310, although I gather more are coming on board.

Rural veterinary practices should have a number of aims. They need to have able, qualified and younger vets who are prepared to turn their hand to anything. The practices need to be financially viable and have vets with all-round ability in treating both large and small animals. Veterinary practices are a crucial part of the rural infrastructure. They are vital to animal health.

The next time we have a foot and mouth outbreak, there may not be enough retired vets around to help out with their knowledge and experience in snuffing out these terrible diseases. Like the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, I believe animal health should be monitored continuously. As he said, all livestock farmers could strike contracts with vets. The farmers could then have an annual programme of affordable animal testing and health checks. Not only would that benefit farm animals; as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said, it would ensure proper monitoring of disease spread. It could be picked up in the early stages and serve as an early-warning system.

The incidence of vets' visits to cattle has decreased from 14 per cent in 1998 to 7.5 per cent in 2002. The incidence of visits to sheep has decreased from 4 per cent to 1.3 per cent. The British Veterinary Association has identified a number of critical factors in the decreasing use of vets to treat large farm animals. First, the animals' value has decreased. Secondly, in some cases, animal numbers have decreased. Thirdly, farming profitability has decreased. The combination has led to a situation in which it costs more to ring up the local vet, who often has to travel the distances that noble Lords have mentioned, than the animal is worth. It is a very serious situation.

I sincerely hope that the Minister will have good news for us, especially in relation to the EFRACOM report.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for securing this debate on the future of rural vets and congratulate her on her timing. I believe that the strategy is being launched at Nobel House at this very moment. I hope that many of the issues raised in this debate are recognised in the strategy. Without a sufficient supply of qualified and experienced vets across the country, I fear that animal disease could again threaten rural livelihoods.

Like other noble Lords I should declare an interest as an honorary associate member of the BVA—there are not many of us not declaring that interest this afternoon—and also remind the House of our family farming interest, although we are now without livestock.
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As other noble Lords said, the number of vets working with large animals is declining. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons manpower survey of 2002 found that the number of full-time vets working with farm animals had decreased by 29 per cent between 1998 and 2002. I think I am the third speaker to refer to those figures. I hope that that underlines our concern.

My noble friend Lord Soulsby reflected on the fact that so many farms have not been making money and that that is one of the good reasons why vets are not called out unless it really is an emergency. Will the Minister confirm that, in the past year, there has been a reduction in the number of State Veterinary Service vets as well?

Like other noble Lords, I understand that 80 per cent of vets in training are women. That is good news. Consequently, however, the profession has a problem. It will have to cope with career breaks, a possibly lower investment capability and a further decline in the number of those going into large animal practices.

As many vets leave university with debts of between £20,000 and £30,000, they are naturally attracted to work in urban areas where they work mainly in small animal practices. They question the wisdom of working and investing in rural practices when the future of livestock farming is so uncertain. Have the Government considered the possibility of paying a proportion of those university fees in return for a commitment to work in a rural practice for a few years when they qualify? Have they considered, for example, giving rate relief to veterinary practices based in rural areas?

My noble friend Lord Soulsby talked about the lack of opportunity for newly qualified vets to gain experience working with large farm animals. I hope that some of my suggestions might help in that regard. My noble friend Lord Selborne referred to the work of the Royal Society which clearly highlighted the risks and symptoms of disease and the need to share information on a central database.

On 11 April the Competition Commission produced an 800-page report on the possible monopoly in the supply of prescription-only veterinary medicines. The OFT picked that up and went out to consultation. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons met the 16 May 2003 deadline. The OFT reported to the DTI, since when, despite repeated calls, there has been no outcome. Does the Minister accept that that is totally unacceptable and a total shambles?

Has the Minister received the BVA's recent survey showing that 63 per cent of the income of large family practices is derived from veterinary medicines, compared with only 38 per cent for small ones? The profession has a tradition of cross subsidy. Ending that practice will mean a spiral of increased veterinary fees, fewer farm visits, lower vet incomes and further falls in vet numbers and a consequent worsening of animal health standards. What is the Government's response to this dilemma?
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The situation will be even more serious if the decrease in large farm numbers and the increase in the number of hobby holdings continue. Will the Minister comment on that? Furthermore, smaller holdings are without the traditional support of large family practices. It is not really reasonable to expect farmers to pay the sorts of prices that may result if service provision is severed from the supply of medicine. Even without that separation, in 2003, the State Veterinary Service found that 1,341 out of 4,964 farms failed to meet the statutory standards. So we recognise that there is work to do.

Finally, I refer to the question asked by my noble friend Lady Trumpington: who will pay for this new strategy to get more vets on to farms? How will that happen if vets have to compete with supermarkets in the dispensing of medicines that the former have traditionally carried out?

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, referred to the very important issue of cross compliance and the linking of that to more farm visits. But who would pay for that? It is certainly not clear.

How does the Minister reconcile the situation highlighted by noble Lords with the statement in the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy that the veterinary profession, the stakeholders and the Government are working to ensure that vets are equipped to play a full and fundamental role in disease control and prevention? We await answers to that question.

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