Veterinary Surgery (Testing for Tuberculosis in Bovines) Order 2005

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:42 pm on 18 November 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Spokespersons In the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 2:42, 18 November 2005

My Lords, I am sorry that the measure was not included in the Minute. The reason for bringing this measure before the House is underlined by the fact that the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee has drawn this and the following measure on the Order Paper to the attention of the House. The committee states:

"We question whether the pilot programme, which will deploy only non-veterinarians drawn from the State Veterinary Service, will offer an adequate basis for assessing the wider use of 'lay testers'".

I have several questions for the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. The Explanatory Notes clearly acknowledge the fact that the use of non-veterinarians for testing purposes is a very sensitive issue for the profession. However, the NFU supports the measure as its members are as well aware as anyone, including vets, that it is undesirable to have a backlog of tests.

I understand that about three years ago, after the foot and mouth epidemic, the statistics in regard to the late running of lay testing were challenged and that British cattle vets undertook a survey. The survey showed that 3,000 tests were waiting to be done. However, the results also showed that some of the parties surveyed did not exist or had given up farming, or that the TB test had been completed but had not been signed off by the SVS office because of staff shortages. So before we talk about the details, will the Minister confirm how many tests are outstanding and say whether she is confident that the situation of three years ago is no longer true and the figures apply? It is an enormously important point.

The noble Baroness will also be well aware, because she has been spokesman on this topic for some time, of the Government's desire to see greater working in the farming community and improved animal healthcare. The most important way of achieving that is by the proper use of veterinary surgeons. At this stage I should perhaps declare an interest, as I am sure others will shortly, as an associate member of the BVA. It does an amazing job. Vets may well be called to a farm to respond to a specific problem that may be nothing to do with lay testing, but while on the farm notice that other matters are not quite as they should be. Their expertise is greatly valued. One of the BVA's big worries is that lay testing will jeopardise that close link. The Government should consider that very seriously.

On the financial side, the vets will be paid for lay testing. However, if it is done by non-qualified people, that income will not go to practices which otherwise would have received it. As I am sure the noble Baroness will realise, there is still a question mark over the viability of large animal practices. The small practices are not the worry; it is the large ones. Every time one of those practices disappears or loses a partner or a vet, the response time and the mileage covered is increased and the service is closer to being jeopardised. If there are fewer such practices and they have to cover a wider area, it is likely that their fees also will increase. It presents a no-win situation. The Government are pushing on the one hand to try to improve animal health and welfare, but on the other, really through default, they may be jeopardising the very objective they are trying to achieve.

The order deals with setting up the test programme, which we are told will last 12 months and involve about 1,100 tests. Will that number be broken down into a certain number of farms in certain areas? How do the Government propose to define their "test area"? That information would be helpful to the House. Will the information gained in doing the tests and from any observations made on the farm on a given day be passed back to the local vet who normally provides veterinarian services to the farm, or will that vital information be lost? That issue has not been addressed at all.

Finally, I turn to paragraph 34 of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee report, which states:

"We note that in 2003 DEFRA's initial proposals for lay testing was met with extensive disagreement on the part of the profession (46 out of 88 responses).

It then goes on to say that it recognises that Defra has responded by deciding to conduct the pilot programme before deploying lay testers more widely. However, we are not clear that the pilot programme as planned will necessarily produce the sort of evidence needed to meet some of the concerns expressed, and I would be glad for clarification on that point. This statutory instrument raises important issues about the way the department views the value of vets per se and how it will establish and maintain that vital link in keeping the health and welfare of animals on the farm in its main criteria for future welfare. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Order, laid before the House on 25 July, be annulled (S.I. 2005/2015). [8th Report from the Merits Committee]—(Baroness Byford.)