First, I thank my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), for coming to the House to help with a matter that is of such concern. The entire veterinary profession will be grateful to her.
My hon. Friend will know that for some years I have served as a Privy Council-nominated member of the council of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. As a lay member of that council, I express my alarm at the concern that is continually voiced by my veterinary colleagues on the council and in other sectors of the veterinary profession that there is no uniformity of standards in education and training across the European Union and the European economic area.
My years with the council have left me in no doubt about just how seriously the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons regards the maintenance of standards within the United Kingdom veterinary profession. It is jealous indeed.
I need not remind my hon. Friend of the crucial need to have common high standards of theoretical, practical and ethical training throughout the EU and the EEA if there is to be public confidence in the ability of the European veterinary profession to provide for the safe movement of animals into and throughout the EU. With the removal of border checks, there is an increased need for standardised, reliable and unambiguous certification and all that flows from that in terms of confidence, especially among livestock owners. There is also a strong link between basic veterinary education and certification as we have in the United Kingdom.
My purpose in raising the matter today is to press for progress in achieving the goal of comparable high standards across all the schools in Europe. As the royal college is obliged to register anyone who applies and has a recognised qualification from a European veterinary school, it must be beyond doubt that the letters MRCS have to be unequivocally a hallmark of quality that is completely reliable.
I first became alarmed in early 1993. I need not rehearse the legislative background that resulted in the establishment of the Advisory Committee on Veterinary Training back in 1978 in line with the European directives, with its responsibility
to ensure a comparatively high standard of veterinary training in the Community".
I am now alarmed by the fact that the committee is being denied the means to discharge its work. I refer to the reduction in the number of meetings and the withdrawal of financial and managerial support for the system of visitations to veterinary schools.
The importance of confidence in the quality of veterinary qualifications was brought home to me by a reported experience in a United Kingdom abattoir when a Spanish official veterinary surgeon was unable to recognise the nervous symptoms displayed by a cow during an ante-mortem examination. It became clear that the OVS was not familiar with the signs of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was unsure what action to take and did not have the nous to read the operations manual.
I am reliably told that much of the training of Spanish vets in food hygiene can be extremely good-perhaps better than ours. However, we need to know that it is uniformly good so that we can be confident in hiring a vet with recognised qualifications from Spain or elsewhere overseas.
I am also reliably informed that veterinary faculties have been opened in some regions of the EU—particularly Spain, Italy and Portugal—purely on the ground of local political pressure and without regard to demand for their product or the inadequacy of funding.
It is clear that the system of visits is vital and that they should be as rigorous and penetrating as those that have been practised in United Kingdom schools. Whereas United Kingdom schools have been visited every seven years or so, it is worrying to note that in the past 10 years only 22 of the 52 EU schools have been visited. We must bear it in mind that there is also the need to visit EEA schools and those in non-EEA states that have common borders with the EU. With visits currently planned at about four per year, there will be an interval of nearly 15 years between visits—far too long a gap.
It is also worrying that an excessive number of veterinary students are being trained in Europe, while there is a perceived need to increase the numbers being trained in United Kingdom schools. As the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe put it in its discussion paper of May 1996:
Excessive student numbers add to the growing unemployment figures of veterinarians in a number of countries and result in a lowering of standards in schools which has implications not only for the state concerned but other members who are the recipients of exported animals and migrating veterinary surgeons.
That is particularly important for the United Kingdom, as Mr. Roger Eddy, a council member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons pointed out in his address to the British Veterinary Association congress in Chester this year:
In each of the last five years more graduates from overseas have been registered than from the UK. In 1995 only 45 per cent. of registrations were from the UK and there were more graduates from Spain than from Ireland which has always been a supplier of graduates to the UK.
It is worrying that some courses in Italy have such deficiencies that they are technically in breach of the directives. Schools which should be declared delinquent are still turning out graduates whom the royal college still has to accept. It is also worrying that such a rigid attitude should be taken by the European Commission. Directorate-General XV appears to be concerned only with the regulation and the internal market when perhaps it would be sensible for it to collaborate with DG VI, which has to deal with the consequences of inadequate veterinary standards, as was pointed out in 1994 by Mr. Barry Johnson, the then president of the royal college, in his letter to DG XV.
In 1994 the matter was raised in another place by Lord Soulsby, a distinguished former president of the college. He expressed the worries of livestock farmers that there was an animal disease time bomb ticking away as a result of the mad rush to a single market in the movement of animals without ensuring that the necessary standards of veterinary education and veterinary practice applied throughout the EU. He went on to say that those responsible in the Commission would bear a heavy responsibility if our worst fears regarding imported animal disease were confirmed. An equal responsibility will lie on the Council of Ministers if it allows the Commission to get away with it.
I do not think that the noble Lord had BSE in mind, but that catastrophe serves to demonstrate the scale of the problem when things go wrong. Let us not forget swine fever, Aujesky's disease or foot and mouth disease, all of which can easily achieve pandemic proportions. It is an important matter, given the need for many United Kingdom cattle farmers to restock in the aftermath of the BSE culls.
In his reply, Lord Howe, the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, expressed his shared concern. In the light of the Commission's December 1993 report on subsidiarity, he said:
The United Kingdom supports the application of subsidiarity and will, of course, examine the results of any such review. Nevertheless, the potential costs to the Community and the UK of inadequate standards of veterinary training are such that any proposed changes would have to be examined very carefully.
Two years on, the question must be: what further thoughts does my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary have? Subsidiarity may be all right in the United Kingdom, where we trust our standards, but can we trust standards everywhere else?
Later in his reply, Lord Howe said that
financial arrangements for the EAEVE visits are still unclear and discussions are continuing with the Commission to resolve the question of funding.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 July 1994; Vol. 556, c. 1218–19.]
If I understand the position correctly, the Commission has now completely backed off funding, leaving it to the deans of the schools. Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that or put me right?
The then Minister referred also to the withdrawal of support from the sectoral directives, which would have the effect of doing away with the Advisory Committee on Veterinary Training. Given that the Department of Trade and Industry is espousing the deregulation exercise through the simpler legislation for the internal market—SLIM—initiative, how does that square with the implied support by the then Minister for the ACVT? This is particularly worrisome because one of the ACVT working party meetings for 1996 has been cancelled. All the signals are that there is no support for the mechanism that is to be used to examine training.
Given the conflict between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, what interdepartmental consultations are taking place between the Department and the Ministry that might parallel the consultations that should be taking place between DG XV and DG VI within the European Commission?
At the end of his reply, the then Minister said that assurances had been received that the principle of visitation is one which the Commission firmly supports. Pressure would be maintained, he said, to ensure that the proposed voluntary scheme for visitations would get off the ground and that there would be a proper programme of visits. The then Minister said that he would ensure that if deficiencies were identified, the Commission would be pressed to take action. Alas, it is clear from the correspondence between the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the Commission, and from the concerns and frustrations expressed by the Federation of Veterinarians in Europe in its paper, that little progress, if any, is being made.
Throughout all the papers and comment that I have read and heard runs a common thread. That is the need for strong political pressure to be applied by most member states.
We are fortunate in the United Kingdom in that legislation bearing on veterinary surgeons promotes a close relationship between the governing body of the profession, Ministers and Parliament. Other veterinary bodies in other member states are not so well placed. It behoves the United Kingdom, therefore, to take a strong lead in securing the equalisation upwards of standards in European veterinary education and training. I note that my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who take a keen interest in veterinary affairs, nod in assent. I know that many other colleagues who serve as honorary associates of the BVA, as I do, will share my view.
I press my hon. Friend the Minister and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to take a lead and to ensure that visitations take place at a proper rate. There should be at least twice the number of visitations, or more. They should take place with proper rigour and depth. There should be proper support to ensure that there is swift analysis and reported results. We have had a hint from the BSE crisis. We just cannot afford to get things wrong.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Sir C. Shepherd) for bringing about a useful debate on an important matter. It is obviously of importance to my hon. Friends who are in their places in the Chamber. Given the amount of correspondence that I receive about animal welfare, it is a great pity that veterinary standards are not, apparently, of interest to Opposition parties.
I think that we are all agreed that to ensure the health of animals and the safety of animal products moving both within the European Union and into the Community from third countries, we must deal with extremely important matters. I agree with the concerns that have been expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford.
It is important that veterinary surgeons from all member states who are responsible for the certification of movements are trained to a comparably high standard. We can all recognise that to ensure confidence in the internal market, it is necessary for all veterinarians to be trained to a comparably high standard in accordance with the two sectoral veterinary directives. Deficiencies in training could lead to a failure to recognise serious animal disease, and could put the EU at risk by the spread of disease through the movement of animals or their products.
Perhaps I might draw on the specific case mentioned by my hon. Friend regarding an official veterinary surgeon and the identification of neurological symptoms. I have not been given the full details by my hon. Friend, and if the case that I refer to is not the one that he referred to, perhaps he will correct me.
My hon. Friend mentioned the case of a Spanish veterinary surgeon acting as an OVS at a slaughterhouse in Cornwall. The OVS was carrying out an ante-mortem inspection when she observed an animal exhibiting nervous signs. She sought advice from a senior colleague, the principal OVS. The principal OVS could not attend the slaughterhouse as she was some distance from it, and advised the OVS that she should seek the opinion of a Ministry veterinary officer. That officer attended the slaughterhouse, examined the animal and ruled out any suspicion of bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
I can assure my hon. Friend that the correct procedures were followed and that any inexperienced veterinary surgeon would be expected to follow the same procedure in similar circumstances. It might be helpful if I say that, in the case of BSE, in about 20 to 25 per cent. of the animals which are slaughtered showing the clinical symptoms of BSE, it is only on post-mortem pathology that it is identified that the disease is of a different neurological kind.
If I have referred to the case that my hon. Friend had in mind, I am reassured that the right procedures were followed. If it is not the same case, I would wish to take immediate steps to investigate the matter to which my hon. Friend referred.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying the matter, which was one that worried me. I was unable to arrive at the detail that my hon. Friend has presented to the House. My hon. Friend has set my mind at rest. Nevertheless, the importance of standards and the ability to recognise BSE symptoms are important.
Indeed. I think that my hon. Friend and I are at one.
It is important that the public, too, have a right to expect the same high level of competence when their livestock or companion animals are treated by a veterinary surgeon, irrespective of his or her country of origin. In the single European market, a prerequisite for trade in animals and animal products is that consignments meet all the conditions of intra-Community trade. That is dependent upon properly completed and valid veterinary certification, to prevent the spread of disease and to protect the welfare of animals in transit.
There have been occasional errors in veterinary certification. I can assure the House, however, that they have been taken up immediately with the member state concerned. The RCVS, the BVA and MAFF have drafted 12 principles of certification, which have been adopted by the Federation of Veterinarians in Europe, the FVE. The United Kingdom is pressing for harmonised EU standards of veterinary certification, based on these 12 principles.
The regulatory body and competent authority for the veterinary profession in the United Kingdom is the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Its council is constituted under section 1 of the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966. It is comprised of elected members of the profession, members appointed by the six universities that provide veterinary training and members appointed by the Privy Council. As my hon. Friend mentioned, he is one such appointee and has been a member of the council of the RCVS since 1983. We are all grateful for the knowledge, experience and expertise that he brings to this debate and to many others.
In 1978, two European Community directives prescribed procedures for training in veterinary surgery and for the mutual recognition of qualifications in the EC, and provided for the freedom of movement and right of establishment of veterinary surgeons. The directives, which were implemented in the United Kingdom in 1980, require member states to allow any veterinary surgeon who has undergone the prescribed training and obtained a scheduled qualification to practise on any of their territories.
The Advisory Committee on Veterinary Training was established by Council decision in 1978. Its task is to help to ensure a comparably high standard of veterinary training in the Community. As many of my predecessors in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have said, we are most anxious for uniform, high standards to be applied throughout the Community and we think that the ACVT has an important role in carrying out that task by exchanging information on training methods and on the content, level and structure of theoretical and practical courses provided in member states.
The ACVT includes three experts from each member state, one representing the practising profession, one from the veterinary science teaching institutions and one from the competent authority. It is supported secretarially and financially by the Commission. As an advisory committee, it can make only recommendations to the Commission, which holds the legal powers to ensure compliance with the veterinary training directives.
In the United Kingdom, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has a statutory duty to carry out visits to our veterinary schools to ensure uniform standards. Visits take place at regular intervals and the reports of those visits are discussed in an open forum at the RCVS council. The standards of UK veterinary training are therefore not at risk.
In 1993, the Commission stated its intention to withdraw its financial and secretarial support for the system of visits to veterinary schools by the ACVT at the end of that year. That naturally caused considerable concern to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the British Veterinary Association. The Government shared that concern and the then Minister, my right hon. Friend who is now the Secretary of State for the Environment, instructed officials to enter into discussions with senior Commission officials in the hope that they would agree to support the ACVT.
Later that year, MAFF officials and representatives from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons met the Director-General of DG XV to discuss their concerns. They were encouraged by that meeting to believe that the Commission was sympathetic to their arguments. In January 1994, the RCVS was informed by the Commission that it acknowledged the value of the present system and proposed that the responsibility for visiting should pass to the European Association of Establishments for Veterinary Education-that is, to the deans of veterinary schools, as mentioned by my hon. Friend.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the then Minister, together with senior veterinary officials, met the president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and his colleagues in February 1994. Following that meeting, she wrote to Commissioner Steichen expressing her concern that the Commission was withdrawing support from the ACVT. Assurances were received from Commissioner Vanni that the Commission would continue to monitor the results of visits by the EAEVE and to receive the opinions and recommendations of the ACVT. I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it is in the nature of my job to come across long names, which we try to abbreviate somewhat.
The EAEVE visits are currently funded by a one-off grant from the Federation of Veterinarians in Europe and by the schools themselves, but I understand my hon. Friend's concern about funding and I shall deal with that question in a moment. A further approach was made to the Director-General of DG XV by our permanent representation in Brussels, asking the Commission to maintain direct support for the ACVT and its visitation programme. Unfortunately, the reply received indicated that further approaches were unlikely to bear fruit. Consequently, in further discussions with the RCVS by senior veterinary officials, it was agreed that the approach of the RCVS would now be to gain active support from other countries in the European Union through the FVE.
The position has moved on somewhat since the speech by my noble Friend Lord Howe in another place, but I share my hon. Friend's frustration, and the Government and the RCVS are both still concerned about standards, and about how those standards are monitored and implemented. My hon. Friend mentioned the SLIM initiative, which the Commission is currently reviewing and which affects the legislation that covers the mutual recognition of professional qualifications.
The United Kingdom has submitted a paper explaining the benefits of the sectoral committees, including the ACVT, because we consider it paramount that they be recognised, while suggesting possible improvements to their operation. My hon. Friend mentioned subsidiarity; the necessary definitions are still being discussed, and I share his concerns about that.
Commissioner Monti will make proposals for simplification that have resulted from the SLIM review at the Internal Market Council in November. Once they are received and we can see what they comprise, the Government will discuss the proposals with the RCVS, because we think that it is important that its views be taken into account.
The increased trade in animals and animal products as a result of the single market places increasing reliance on veterinary certification at the point of origin, as my hon. Friend said. That is a principle of the single market, and for it to be successful it is vital that satisfactory EU standards of veterinary education are maintained on an international basis, and that a common understanding is developed and put into practice on the principles of certification.
Previously, we have been assured that the Commission will continue to monitor the results of visits by the EAEVE and that member states will receive the recommendations and opinions of the ACVT on those visits. I share my hon. Friend's concern about the length of time that it has taken for the visits to be put in place and I assure him that we will maintain pressure to ensure that the proposed voluntary scheme for visits to veterinary schools in member states continues with a proper programme of visits and that, if deficiencies are identified, the Commission is pressed to take action, because only the Commission has the power to ensure that action follows inspection. My hon. Friend drew the parallel between the system of visits and inspection in state education. It is vital not only to inspect but to follow through when deficiencies are found.
Some of the schools can still opt out of the visiting process by saying that they cannot afford it, so we have to maintain pressure on the schools concerned, especially on those that do not come up to the mark, and ensure that they cannot cop out on that basis. How is that to be done?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We shall certainly talk to the Commission about how that is to be effected, because it is clearly unacceptable for schools to opt out simply through lack of finance. I can assure my hon. Friend that I will investigate the matter and will pursue it as vigorously as possible.
We await the proposals of the Commission for simplification as a result of the SLIM initiative with respect to mutual recognition of professional qualifications. We shall want to discuss that with the various bodies in the United Kingdom including, of course, the RCVS, but before we can agree to any proposal for change we would have to take into account the potential costs both to Europe and to the United Kingdom of inadequate standards of veterinary training. If the standards were inadequate, the possible cost would be unacceptable to many of us in the House. I am anxious that the House should be aware of our determination in the matter.
The Government continue to support the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in its efforts to ensure the maintenance of high standards of veterinary education throughout the EU. Coincidentally, I have a meeting in my diary for three weeks' time with the RCVS and in view of the case made by my hon. Friend, I shall raise the matter with it then.