Supply of Relevant Veterinary Medicinal Products Order 2005

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 18 November 2005.

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Photo of Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Conservative 3:30, 18 November 2005

My Lords, again, I thank my noble friend Lady Byford for tabling this Motion. I have declared my interest, so I will not do it again. The Competition Commission's inquiry in 2003, as has been said, concluded that veterinary surgeons had, in effect, a monopoly in the supply of prescription-only medicines—generally known as POMs—for animals. To redress that and to promote competition, the commission recommended that for a period of three years veterinary surgeons should provide prescriptions at no additional cost to the client beyond that of consultation.

Traditionally, veterinary practice has included income from the sale of veterinary medicines, along with consultations. The two go together. The income part of the advice on veterinary surgeon care to an animal or a flock is important in the whole package. Now the profession is asked to issue prescriptions for free after a clinical examination or a consultation. The animal owner receiving such a free prescription can have it filled elsewhere; for example, at the local chemist, the pharmacist, a feed store or even on the Internet—the latter is quite common.

It is possible that a pharmacist will carry only high turnover products with a high margin of profit. If that is the case, it is unlikely that the overall cost to the client of a veterinary package—that is, consultation and medicine—will be reduced because he will not be able to get more specialised prescriptions of POMs elsewhere. He may have to go to a supplier who charges much more than a veterinary surgeon who would carry such products.

Like it or not, there is a cost to veterinary practices for issuing prescriptions. They do not come for free. Veterinary practices are not subsidised, as is the case with the National Health Service. The cost invariably will be incorporated into the consultation fee, which will increase veterinary fees overall. As the noble Baroness pointed out, that is of wider concern, especially in agricultural practices where an increase in fees may deter owners to consult a veterinarian to the detriment of the health and welfare of an animal, flock or herd.

At the same time, farm animal practice is increasingly precarious, as mentioned by other speakers, and uneconomic. If there is a decline in income, either as a result of a fall in medicinal sales or fewer consultations, it may reduce the number of veterinarians with expertise and experience in farm animal medicine even further. That would be to the detriment of the biosecurity of United Kingdom food production animals and their welfare.

As a final comment, perhaps I may mention the concern about the proper use of medicines in farm animals. I am particularly concerned about the use of antibiotics and the development of antibiotic resistance. Within the livestock industry and the veterinary profession, a consortium has been developed called RUMA, the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture. Livestock owners and veterinarians have adopted this important and innovative approach to safeguard not only human health, but also animal health by the responsible use of medicines. It originated in concern about the misuse of antibiotics, but now it has spread over a much wider area. I cannot see that the Competition Commission's recommendations sit helpfully with the aims and objectives of RUMA. I hope that, after the three-year trial period, the progress made by the consortium—and I can assure noble Lords that progress is being made on the more responsible use of medicines in livestock—is acknowledged and the order bringing forward a no-charge policy for prescriptions is acted on favourably. I say that because I believe that RUMA will illuminate the way ahead.