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Baroness Byford: I am grateful to the Minister for her response, to which I shall return, and also to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who, like me, is fielding very heavily on behalf of his party. Perhaps this is not his natural home ground, but we are grateful to him for his support. I am grateful to both my noble friends. My noble friend Lord Kimball has had a long association with the royal college and the long and highly recognised work of my noble friend Lord Soulsby within the veterinary profession is greatly valued.

I deliberately did not go down the line of talking about bovine TB and controls of TB apropos badgers. I thought I was very calm this morning, but since the noble Baroness has opened the door—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Byford: No, no, my Lords, the noble Baroness did. I cannot possibly resist the temptation to come back on that. If only the Government could get their act together on the whole question of how we control the spread of bovine TB in our wildlife population as well as within the cattle population, we would not need so many testers long term. That is as much as I will say today, but I must put that on record. I know that the Government have spent a long time considering ways to control bovine TB in wildlife and what is the connection, but the longer that they delay, the worse the situation gets. I cannot not stress that at this moment.

The noble Baroness talked about para-professionals—another word to add to my veterinary vocabulary. I will be interested to know what the response to that is. If we are to have some super para-professionals who will be moved to do certain things in different ways, where will that stop? But that is for another day.

I thank the noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. As I said, it is important that we get to grips with the disease and stop it from spreading, whether in wildlife or cattle to cattle. I hope that the Minister will reflect on what I said earlier about my fear that the order will make things more difficult for some in large veterinary practices. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
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Supply of Relevant Veterinary Medicinal Products Order 2005

3.16 pm

Baroness Byford rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 7 October, be annulled (S.I. 2005/2751) [11th Report from the Merits Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it only shows how diverse this topic is that we now have a change of batting order on the Government Benches because, instead of being a Defra veterinary problem, it now becomes a Defra/Department of Trade and Industry problem. I welcome the noble Lord and am grateful that he will respond to the debate.

Again, I am raising this issue because the Merits Committee brought it to the attention of the House. Its summary stated:

As the noble Lord was in his place while we debated the previous order, I shall not go on at great length about the financial implications, because that is one of the major problems, of which I am sure he is well aware.

The Explanatory Memorandum states that the order prohibits veterinary surgeons from charging a fee for the issuing of prescriptions for a period of three years. I direct the Minister's attention to paragraph 15 of the Merits Committee report. It states:

Of those 105 responses, 75 were from vets. How many were manufacturers and how many individuals or consumer groups made up the bulk?

I understand from paragraph 16 of the report that there has been no meeting of minds between the DTI and the veterinary surgeons on the issue. So we know where we stand from the very start. I should like to share with noble Lords the British Veterinary Association's position, on which it has sent us a brief, in case noble Lords have not received it. Veterinary practices have traditionally subsidised the cost of their consultation fees with the income that they receive from the sales of veterinary medicines. If the legislative changes are successful in opening up the market for POMs, it is likely that that practice will have to cease. Inevitably, if that occurs, veterinary surgeons will naturally seek to maintain the same level of income by increasing some of their consultation fees—the Minister is nodding; he must be well aware of that—which will have to be borne by the consumer at the end of the day.
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The veterinary profession feels that there is a lack of transparency in the cost of prescriptions to clients that the new order promotes. The Competition Commission was highly critical of the profession for failing to provide itemised invoices to clients. The profession has risen to that challenge, yet its members now find themselves actively encouraged by the Government to hide those very costs of providing a prescription in their overall consultation fees. We seem to be going round in a rather funny circle. The frustration that that has engendered has been further enhanced by the fact that the cost of providing a prescription will have to be borne by all clients, irrespective of whether they require a prescription or indeed veterinary medicine.

My concern, as I explained earlier, is obviously for the health and welfare of animals. If, as a result, we see a fall in medicine sales and fewer consultations, that will have the same effect on farm visits as I described. Any reduction in the number of veterinary surgeons with expertise and experience in farm animal medicine could have serious consequences for the biosecurity of the UK's food production in animals. I wish to reply to the Government's original response to the consultation. I quote:

this is the Government's comment—

I am very grateful that the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, is still here. She will be able to share her thoughts with the Minister because the two departments overlap so clearly. The briefing goes on:

I need not add to that, as it is self-explanatory. I beg to move.

Moved, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Order, laid before the House on 7th October, be annulled (S.I. 2005/2751) [11th Report from the Merits Committee].—(Baroness Byford.)

Lord Addington: My Lords, I feel on slightly firmer ground in my second step along this path, for the simple reason that I heard the subject discussed on "Newsnight" several months ago. On that occasion, a vet shrugged his shoulders and said, "If you do not allow us to charge extra on prescribed drugs, we will have to put it somewhere else to keep our profit margins up". That seemed a situation of zero net gain for the consumer, but a bureaucratic process. Larger-scale users of drugs may well benefit from the changes.
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I wish to gain some idea of the Government's thinking. What evidence is there that manufacturers were over-charging? That is the nub of the situation. It has been common currency for a long time among anyone paying even the slightest attention to the issue that certain areas of veterinary practice have been under considerable pressure. If we expect them to keep on functioning and to make their businesses viable, and if the Government do not object to their shifting how they generate their income, should they not have been dealing merely with manufacturers or finding some other way forward there rather than putting vets in the odious position of having to increase the cost of minor, routine surgery on, say, small animals?

A minor cost may have been the drugs. With a larger animal the same thing would apply, but it might put off the treatment of the animal again. It is clearly a danger, which probably will occur in a few cases. I would be interested to know whether there has been a study into how much effect this will have. It seems that on this occasion the vets are piggy in the middle. The obvious way to ameliorate the downside effect is merely to shove the cost to somewhere else. In an itemised bill, some people may economise in certain areas.

3.30 pm

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