HL Deb 24 June 2004 vol 662 cc1391-406

2.7 p.m.

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: The dramatic downturn in farming has resulted in a loss of 75 per cent of farms clients to the practice in the last ten years. The most difficult consequence for me"—

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: The dramatic downturn in farming has resulted in a loss of 75 per cent of farms clients to the practice in the last ten years. The most difficult consequence for me has been that my colleagues have no exposure to large animals and consequently do not feel confident in dealing with them. This means that unless I am prepared to always be on duty, we are not providing a proper 24 hour service. As a result, it has been decided that the practice will cease to do farm work". 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 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 implications of the Competition Commission's recommendations and report the results in time for them to he 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.

2.17 p.m.

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 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. 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.

2.22 p.m.

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.

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.

2.28 p.m.

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 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 he 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 he 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.

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.

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.

2.38 p.m.

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.

Especially in the light of the pandemics that noble Lords mentioned, the current career structure and rundown 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.

2.44 p.m.

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.

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?

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.

2.51 p.m.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I have a very quick question on cross-compliance, which both the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and I mentioned. If it will be part of the scheme, which we accept, is the Minister confident that there will be vets there to carry it out? That is the question that has been raised.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, the requirement under the inspection is that 1 per cent of farms will be inspected every year. In terms of checking on one's entitlement to cross-compliance, a considerably higher number or farms are inspected for veterinary purposes in random or intelligence-led checks. I do not therefore expect a significant increase in the load on the State Veterinary Service as a result of that. If problems arise, we will clearly have to take them into account.

My thanks to everyone engaged in the debate. I shall check on other questions and reply in writing.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 3.10 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 3.7 to 3.10 p.m.]