Veterinary Education Facility

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:30 pm on 13th April 2021.

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Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP 12:30 pm, 13th April 2021

5. Mr M Bradley asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on the options analysis for a veterinary education facility. (AQO 1838/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

There is an increasing acceptance that the Northern Ireland agri-food industry requires a more assured supply of veterinarians than is available from the existing sources. However, there are a number of possible options for meeting that need. In my absence in early March, Minister Gordon Lyons met the vice chancellors of Ulster University and Queen's University Belfast. He proposed an analysis of the options for the supply of veterinarians and a more-detailed consideration of the various delivery models, structures and locations in order to inform a business case for a facility for veterinary education in Northern Ireland. It was agreed with the two university vice chancellors that the Strategic Investment Board would be asked to carry out that analysis as soon as possible. It has now been commissioned to undertake it, and it will go forward over the next six to nine months, with input from staff from the two universities and the support of DAERA officials.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, as you rightly said, recent developments have highlighted the shortage of vets across Northern Ireland. Will the Minister's Department provide a brief to the AERA Committee as soon as possible outlining progress? I have raised that issue at the Committee and in the House, and I am keen to see progress be made.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Department will be happy to update the Committee, and, indeed, the Member, as we go along. We have commissioned work from the Strategic Investment Board, and I would like to see that work completed as quickly as possible and a way forward identified.

Clearly, we have a shortage of veterinarians. As a consequence, veterinarians come from other countries to help sustain our agri-food sector. Our agri-food sector is worth some £5 billion to our economy, so it is critically important that we achieve the number required. It would be much better, however, to have the appropriate number of veterinarians educated here in Northern Ireland. We would then have less leaking of young people who take up a veterinary course on the United Kingdom mainland, in Europe or, indeed, in the Irish Republic.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

The Minister stated the fact that we have a shortage of vets here in the North. Over and above that, perhaps the Minister can outline the benefits of having a veterinary school here for animal health and welfare and for the agri-food sector.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We have an excellent research facility in Northern Ireland in the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, and, indeed, other sources. We have some large pharmaceutical companies in the agri-food sector as well, so we are a country that is moving forward on all those things. A tie-up between a university that specialises in veterinary courses and the agri-food sector and the pharmaceutical sector for agri-food would therefore be hugely beneficial for research and for encouraging young people to take up a locally available veterinary course.

It is an expensive course to undertake, so universities have to take all those things into account when bringing one forward. Nonetheless, it would be hugely beneficial for Northern Ireland as well as for whichever university or collaboration of universities took up the opportunity.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Has the Northern Ireland protocol, particularly the Trade and Cooperation Agreement when it comes to the recognition of qualifications, increased the pressure on the availability of veterinary services and vets in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The protocol has certainly created pressure, because, if things do not change, between DAERA and local council staff, we will require around 600 officials at ports. We would be looking at needing close to 200 vets, and they just do not exist. You do not train vets in six months. You train vets over five years, so the vets do not exist for that job.

The problem is this: if we draw vets from other services, are we damaging animal welfare? Are we taking away from practices vets who are out on farms or vets who are engaged in small practices? We are left in this ridiculous position in which vets would be checking food that has come here for years without being subject to checks and is going to be consumed in Northern Ireland, leaving them unavailable to do things that are required for animal welfare. It therefore certainly does have a very significant impact.