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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, for initiating this debate. It is clearly an important issue in terms of the support that the farming industry receives from the veterinary service and in terms of the quality and welfare of our farm animals.

Concerns have been expressed in this House and by members of the professions and, indeed, by the agriculture sector itself. I shall begin by attempting to remove a couple of partial misconceptions. Of course it is true that there has been a decline in the number of farms. That will doubtless continue. There has been much less of a decline in the number of farm animals due to mergers of flocks and herds. Although that may continue, it is not anywhere near as drastic as is sometimes claimed in terms of the restriction of demand on the veterinary service.

As we are all aware, farming has gone through a very difficult time economically. Certainly, three years ago when I was appointed to this post, farming was at its absolute nadir. There has been a significant recovery in farm incomes in most although not all sectors. The demand on farm vets reflects the state and structure of the industry, the number of enterprises operating in the industry, the number of animals in it and the profitability of the industry. In that sense things are not moving quite so drastically against the interests of the veterinary profession as was perhaps implied.
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I shall come back to my next point, but there is no shortage of vets in this country. People are entering the veterinary schools. Nor is there any shortage among those entering the profession of people who desire to work with large animals. That applies to both male and female students. In saying that, I hope that I have removed a misconception that I believe was implied. Indeed, the elective parts of veterinary courses concerned with large animals are, if anything, oversubscribed. On graduation, many students do wish to enter large farm practices. I refer not to the attitude of students themselves or of those entering the profession, but to the structure of the profession, the rewards that it offers to some extent and to the question of location.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Trumpington and Lady Byford, the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, and perhaps others indicated that they were concerned about the delay in our response to the Select Committee report of another place. We have yet to respond to that report. The response will be given in full before the Summer Recess. We sought the agreement of the Select Committee and of colleagues and interested groups to delay the Government's response while we set in train work with the veterinary profession looking into the many issues which the report raised. As a result, we have carried out some useful work with the professions culminating, as was said, in the issuing today of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy. Work is also under way on the action plan for veterinary support. That will probably be issued with the final response to the Select Committee report. As I say, we delayed the response to the report with the agreement of the Select Committee and of the professions.

Looking at the economics of the situation, it is clear that there is no lack of vets. It is clear also that the issue concerns how we attract and keep vets in large farm practices and the structure of rural veterinary practices. Students and incomers want to move into that area. There is increased recognition and awareness among the agriculture industry as a whole of the need to work closely with vets in order to achieve higher standards of welfare and biosecurity and to minimise potential costs arising from disease and welfare problems. We have built on that understanding with the agriculture and veterinary professions. The outline strategy that we produced last summer set up a working group with the veterinary profession to address some of the issues raised by the Select Committee and the professions.

As the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, said, prevention is better than cure. Vets have a major role in prevention. It is one of the main strategic pillars of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy. The Government are making a significant effort in that area and in farm health planning so that under the strategy and the forthcoming action plan we develop a way in which vets get on to farms and work in partnership with farmers and animal keepers on a long-term basis. We shall ensure a planned approach to animal welfare in the whole of the livestock sector.
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I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, asked whether there would be a legal obligation on farmers to use or register with a vet. We do not state that in the strategy. Making that a new regulation may be to go a little far, but on the other hand it might make it clear that animal owners have responsibilities, which include the responsibility of ensuring that they get professional advice for the welfare and health of their animals. It is a question of the balance of incentives and sanctions that are needed where they fail to do that. I believe that to go an inch further in that direction might work. We are looking at that area.

The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, referred to my next point and to the affordability of vets. The affordability in part reflects the general profitability of the industry but also the structure of payments to the veterinary profession. For the farmer there is almost always a return on having good veterinary cover at the present rate of fees, and probably with a significantly higher rate of fees. However, that is not always obvious in terms of the other pressures to which farm incomes may be subjected. Given the diminishing number of individual practices, it is important that we provide a system whereby farmers can call on vets 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year, and develop a greater tendency for veterinary practices to co-operate among themselves, as suppliers of a health service, to provide that cover. There has been a tradition of viewing practices as competitive rather than as collaborative. We need to address that problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, referred to the State Veterinary Service. The State Veterinary Service is about to change its status to become a first steps agency, as the noble Lord said. That will focus very much on delivery and moving it out of the core of the department so that it will be able to provide a better service within rural areas. The noble Lord mentioned figures that I am sure are completely wrong. On previous occasions I have explained the apparent decline in the figures with regard to the State Veterinary Service over the long term in that some vets have moved out to the veterinary lab and some have moved out to the Meat Hygiene Service. I shall write the relevant letter again—although the noble Lord will no doubt find a copy in his files from two years ago—explaining how the apparent decline in terms of field offices is not the case in reality. There has been a very slight decline and some unfilled posts have arisen over the past year, to answer the noble Baroness's question.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I am merely repeating an answer that, when I was a Member of another place, I received from MAFF.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in relation to the noble Lord's intervention two years ago, I tried to explain that part of the decline was a transfer out of the State Veterinary Service into the Meat Hygiene Service when we set up the FSA, and part of it was due to the previous classification of researchers. Not all the decline is covered by that, I agree, but he used a figure of 600 state vets compared to just under 300 now. A
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large part of that is explained by the institutional changes; that is the only point I make. The change in status and focus of the SVS will also help.

A number of noble Lords were concerned about what would happen if—God forbid—we had another outbreak along the lines of that of foot and mouth in 2001. We are much better prepared for such an outbreak than we were then, and have improved our emergency preparedness. Some noble Lords will be very familiar with the contingency plans that we have issued and worked on recently. Parts of those ensure that vets who will have identified themselves previously—they will include some retired vets, but will mainly be privately practising vets—will be able to come in immediately to help. It will be a sort of territorial army of vets, as picked up from the report from Sir Brian Follett and Iain Anderson on the outbreak.

We also have to answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, about needing to bring in some private vets from abroad. We have already made arrangements with English-speaking countries and our EU partners to ensure that we can get—

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but did I mishear him? Earlier, I thought that he said that there was no trouble in getting graduates to go into larger-animal practices. If that is what he said, it totally disagrees with the letter that I read out from the senior partner of a veterinary practice.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, there is no problem with getting new graduates to indicate that they wish to go into large farm practices. However, the number of opportunities for them has diminished because of the structural change in the number of large farm practices, to which the noble Baroness referred. It is also true that the attractiveness of the small-animal sector becomes greater as the career goes on. At the point at which veterinary students graduate, a lot of them still want very much, by preference, to go into large-animal practices. That is the position that we have established in our discussions with the profession and the training institutions, and with graduates themselves.

Noble Lords also referred to the issues relating to the Competition Commission and various other measures on prescriptions. There has clearly been a lack of transparency in veterinary charging over the ages. There is a very substantial element of cross-subsidy—of income from medicine prescription into covering the cost for the actual visits and veterinary services. The Competition Commission and general competition policy does not like that sort of thing. In general, it thinks that charging should be transparent. That seems a generally important principle, so one might accept it. We are looking, however, at the economic implications. The obvious one is that, although the costs of medicines may come down, the charges for visits and other services may go up. We are therefore in continuing discussion with the industry and the profession to see how we follow through what has happened on the competition side.
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My noble friend Lord Carter, the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, and others referred to NADIS—the National Animal Disease Information Service—and the help Defra can give to it. Our officials have been engaged in quite lengthy discussions with it on how we can expand that service. We are looking at that now and expect the final report to come out by the end of July. Defra has put in some money to ensure that we look at how we can generalise some of the lessons from that.

My noble friend Lord Carter also raised the issue of cross-compliance, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, also referred. That is part of the European prescription of the conditions for the single farm payment, which will relate to cross-compliance in animal welfare regulation. That applies from 2006 and 2007; it does not come in absolutely immediately. It will be a condition of receiving the single farm payment that those minimum European standards are met. Of itself, that will not cause an additional inspection activity—some people are worried about that—but it means that the existing law will have to be observed, so far as treatment of animals is concerned and care for their health and welfare, if people are to receive payment.

I have answered a number of the questions. There may well be others, but we are running out of time.

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