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Leaving the EU: Veterinary Profession in Wales

Volume 639: debated on Wednesday 18 April 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the veterinary profession in Wales.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Hosie. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the future of the veterinary sector in Wales, and particularly the impact that leaving the European Union will have on it. It is a profession that does not always receive due attention, but it is nevertheless hugely important, not only to my constituency of Ceredigion and other rural areas in Wales but to the whole of the country.

I begin by emphasising that, regardless of one’s opinion of the UK’s membership of the European Union, we can all agree that that membership has significantly shaped the veterinary sector in several ways, including through legislation on animal health and welfare standards, the invaluable contribution that freedom of movement has made to the veterinary workforce, and the accessibility of safe, rigorously tested veterinary medicines to name but a few. Those are key pillars of the sector and will undoubtedly be impacted by the Government’s decision to leave both the EU single market and the customs union. As such, it is important that the Government address these challenges, to ensure that preparations are thorough, so that the veterinary sector is in robust health and is able to operate effectively in a post EU-membership climate.

I know that those of us here acknowledge the importance of the veterinary profession and its particular contribution to making rural communities sustainable. A strong veterinary workforce is vital to maintaining high animal health and welfare standards, food safety standards and overall public health in Wales. We should not underestimate the role that local vets play in their communities.

I should declare an interest: my wife works for Carmarthen Veterinary Centre and Hospital back home in the motherland. I was recently at a leaving do for Mr Phillip Williams, who founded the practice 40 years ago. One of the farmers—Mr John James of Tŷ Llwyd, Felingwm, who is a very famous farmer in Carmarthenshire —made a tribute speech and said there are only two people he trusts in the world: his GP and his vet. Does that not show how important vets are to the rural Welsh economy?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It illustrates what important pillars of communities vets are, particularly in rural areas.

On that point, there was always a theory that if something was doctored it was slightly suspicious, but if it was vetted it was generally considered to be sound.

The hon. Gentleman succinctly makes the same point. It is true that, in rural areas, whether in Wales or any other part of the UK, the vet is very much a pillar of the local community. Whether by bringing solace to weary pet owners, safeguarding standards in the meat processing sector or supporting farmers to rear healthy livestock, they perform a crucial service.

We often hear about the function of the financial services sector and how it helps to keep the economy of London and the south-east ticking, but just as important, although seldom commented on, is the role played by the veterinary profession in rural areas and how it keeps the very heart of those areas beating. Whether in times of tranquillity or turbulence, the local vet is the very foundation of the agricultural community—a constant and dependable figure, as perhaps best conveyed by the books of James Herriot. I must declare that I was not alive to witness at first hand the scenes depicted by those books; in fact, I was not around to witness the first TV series based on the books. However, the role that vets play in sustaining communities in Wales—as the backbone of the rural economy—is just as indispensable now as it was in the 1930s.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is my constituency neighbour, for bringing the debate. I know about the veterinary profession not from books but from having managed a veterinary practice employing 14 vets before coming into this place. On the basis of what I have so far heard from the Government about their plans to allow vets into the country, if I was still running that practice I would not be concerned. However, he is right: it is a vital industry.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is my constituency neighbour, for his intervention. I very much hope that I will today be as reassured and convinced as he is that the Government’s plans to ensure a robust future for the veterinary profession are well founded.

It is true that, given the volatility that the agricultural industry all too often faces and the likelihood that further changes are on the horizon, safeguarding the veterinary profession must be a priority. Plaid Cymru has consistently maintained that continued membership of the single market, customs union and other EU agencies would be the most constructive way forward to do that. I will elaborate on that later.

The agricultural and food sectors are underpinned by veterinary services—I know I am labouring the point, but it is important—which contributed £62 million to the economy of west Wales alone and £100 million to the economy of Wales in 2016. In Wales, 3,500 people are employed in the sector, almost 1,400 vets having graduated in the EU and settled in Wales, benefiting from the ability to live, work and study in 28 countries as part of single market membership.

The veterinary sector is not the only one in Wales that is supported by a workforce from the EU, but leaving the single market, and potentially losing the ability to easily attract the vets that we need, will have serious repercussions. The profession is relatively small, but its reach and impact are significant. The ramifications of losing just a small percentage of the workforce could be substantial. For example, the British Veterinary Association has detailed the profound consequences of losing official veterinarians from slaughterhouses, where up to 95% of vets registering to work in the meat hygiene workforce graduated overseas. That would potentially increase the risk of food fraud and animal welfare breaches and would undermine a level of public health reassurance to consumers at home and overseas, which could indirectly jeopardise our trading prospects.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour on securing the debate. I note the contribution that vets and farriers make to our home lives, and possibly the contribution they have taken from my bank account in the past as well. Does he welcome past comments from Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that emphasise that technological methods of oversight, such as CCTV cameras, can in no way replace official veterinarians in safeguarding animal welfare and food standards in our abattoirs?

My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour makes an important point—it is not an either/or situation; it is a matter of enhancing confidence in animal welfare and animal hygiene standards. It is not a matter of having one or the other; it is about having both. These are serious concerns, so I would welcome reassurances from the Minister that they are being addressed, and that measures will be in place in good time before the UK leaves the European Union.

Another, perhaps more long-term challenge that we face in the veterinary profession, and one that has a particular relevance to Wales, is our capability to educate and train our own vets. Given that Welsh agriculture is overwhelmingly constituted of animal husbandry, it beggars belief that we still do not have a centre for people to undertake veterinary training in Wales. Rather like traveling from north to south Wales by train, for somebody to become a vet in Wales, they have to go through England first.

I am pleased that plans to bring veterinary medicine training to Aberystwyth University in Ceredigion are being discussed with the Royal Veterinary College in London. Unsurprisingly, I wholeheartedly support that endeavour, and I hope that the agricultural industry and Welsh Government support the realisation of these ambitious plans. I strongly believe that doing so would ensure a continuous supply of high-quality vets in Wales and would also encourage more individuals from areas such as Ceredigion to enter the profession.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous with his time. I should put it on the record that I am delighted and honoured to be an honorary associate of the British Veterinary Association. On this very point, I was in Hong Kong last week, and when I quizzed Hong Kong’s Minister of Agriculture on veterinary services, she said Hong Kong and China and many other parts of the world look up to our academia and training for veterinary surgeons in this country. Those are held on a pedestal right across the world.

I again thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I wholeheartedly agree with him. It is a real asset to the United Kingdom that we have such high-quality veterinary training and research. I just hope that Aberystwyth University can, in the very near future, contribute to that revered status and reputation.

Research conducted recently by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has shown that nearly one in five EU vets are now actively looking for work outside the UK. Fulfilling demand for veterinary surgeons will be essential not just to maintain animal welfare standards and hygiene, but to our trading prospects. The BVA has warned that in the short to medium term, it will be impossible to meet the demand with UK nationals alone, so the profession does face the possibility of a workforce shortage and Wales faces a significant new barrier to trade.

The import and export of animals to third countries requires veterinary certification, and that in turn depends on having sufficient numbers of adequately trained vets. Official veterinarians both certify and supervise the import and export of live animals and provide official controls at food exporting premises and border inspection posts. Should the UK leave the single market and customs union and subsequently fail to enter into a form of customs union with the EU, administrative checks would apply to UK imports from and exports to the EU, as well as to any other countries that the UK trades with. The demand for veterinary certification is already increasing, and if that becomes our default trading position, the demand will only grow exponentially.

Nigel Gibbens, the UK’s former chief veterinary officer, recently warned that such a scenario could mean that the volume of products requiring veterinary export health certification would increase by as much as 325%, at a time when our ability to recruit the very vets that we need to issue certificates was significantly hindered. I therefore urge the Government to maintain the working rights for non-British EU vets and registered veterinary nurses currently working and studying in Wales, and the rest of the UK, and that the veterinary profession be added to the shortage occupation list—a call that the BVA itself has made.

Before concluding, I must stress the importance of a strong veterinary profession to the continuance of Welsh agricultural exports. Any prospect of a thriving agricultural export market will be realised only if we have enough vets to maintain the high standard of Welsh produce. Confidence in animal welfare and hygiene standards bestows a premium on Welsh products, and we cannot allow that to be undermined.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s giving me the opportunity to raise something that is a particular source of concern in Wales. We suffer from the fact that 70% of Welsh cattle are exported to England for slaughter. We need to maintain our slaughterhouses, our abattoirs, as effectively as possible, with veterinary backing, but the side effect of exporting 70% of Welsh cattle is that we are losing out on the Hybu Cig Cymru red meat levy, which is currently going to England. That needs to be addressed; it has been waiting to be addressed for a number of years now.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising a very important point, which has been under discussion and close scrutiny in Wales for quite some time. Successive Welsh Affairs Committees have raised it as an important point to be addressed quite urgently by the Government. I hope that perhaps it can be addressed now, before we leave the European Union, because a considerable amount of money is going out of the pockets of Welsh farmers, essentially, that could otherwise go towards marketing the premium product that they have to offer.

It is a strong veterinary workforce that minimises the risk of food fraud, promotes animal welfare and provides public health reassurance, making our produce attractive and thus helping to preserve the viability of Welsh agriculture. To conclude, therefore, the role of the veterinary profession in facilitating trade and protecting public health, food safety and animal welfare is essential. The immediate challenges facing the workforce require the Government to ensure the continued flow of trained professionals from the EU and overseas. To prevent future shortages, however, we must also increase the number of UK veterinary graduates. As I have said, I very much hope that Aberystwyth will be considered as a location for one of those centres. The value of the local vet to our communities, and of the veterinary profession to our agricultural and food industries in particular, mean that we cannot turn a blind eye to the challenges facing the sector. I therefore urge the Minister to ensure that whatever agreement the UK reaches with the EU, the role that the profession fulfils to enable trade, protect animal health, safeguard animal welfare and retain consumer confidence is recognised and addressed. Diolch yn fawr, Mr Hosie.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on securing the debate on what I agree is an important issue.

In Wales, and indeed the rest of the United Kingdom, EU nationals make a significant contribution to the veterinary workforce, and the Government are committed to ensuring that EU nationals can continue working in the UK post EU exit. This debate is therefore timely, as preparations continue apace towards our exit from the EU in March 2019. As the hon. Gentleman points out, the work of the veterinary profession is crucial in so many aspects to our economy and society. Whether they are working in private practice, industry, research, government or a host of other roles, members of the profession play a vital role in protecting animal health through surveillance and treatment to prevent, detect and control disease outbreaks, and in safeguarding public health by similarly addressing the threat of animal diseases that affect humans and by encouraging and supporting the responsible use of antibiotics in animals to reduce the spread of antimicrobial resistance.

Vets maintain, improve and assure our world-leading animal welfare standards. As has been eloquently pointed out, vets also facilitate trade and, we hope, the growth of trade in animals and animal products through the process of certifying, verifying and inspecting export and import consignments. Finally, they ensure food safety, especially by carrying out statutory official feed and food controls, which guarantee consumer confidence.

The Government recognise that certainty and continuity are of great importance as we leave the European Union and are keen to seek a constructive and beneficial working relationship with the EU as we go forward. I am talking about certainty on the high standards of animal health and welfare and on the ability to trade animals and animal products, the continuity of a thriving veterinary profession and continuity in our world-class research and development. We will look to enhance existing animal health and welfare standards and international commitments on food safety, transparency and traceability, while securing our position at the forefront of the global agri-food industry. We are a nation that trades on a reputation for reliable, good-quality and fairly priced products, and we have an opportunity to enhance that.

In all areas of veterinary work, I fully recognise, and want to place on the record, how much we owe to members of the profession from outside the UK. A fundamental part of ensuring the future success of the veterinary profession in the UK and the successful delivery of the vital roles that I have outlined is ensuring that we continue to have access to a talented workforce, both in Wales and in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman will know that almost one quarter of all practising vets in the UK are from the rest of the European Union, as are 50% of all new vets joining the RCVS register to work in the UK. I can assure him that the Department is fully aware, in relation to veterinary public health roles, that about 95% of the official veterinarians who are contracted to work in meat hygiene roles are non-UK EU citizens. For Government, industry and the profession itself, it is vital that after we leave the European Union non-UK nationals currently based here continue working in veterinary roles in the UK; we want them to continue to do so. That is particularly important because, based on current numbers, we cannot rely solely on our domestic graduates to fill the demand for veterinary surgeons.

A key point that we want to ensure the House is aware of is that we are absolutely focused on mutual recognition of professional qualifications. The Government are seeking a negotiated deal with our European partners within which we want to continue arrangements for mutual recognition of those qualifications. As part of that, two significant agreements have recently been reached. First, agreement was reached at the December 2017 European Council that existing rights under the mutual recognition of professional qualifications directive, under which EU nationals can register to work as vets in the UK, will be retained, so that existing EU nationals in the UK veterinary workforce will be entitled to continue working in the UK after withdrawal, and vice versa.

Secondly, agreement was reached at the March 2018 European Council on the transition—the implementation period—until the end of December 2020. That means that between the end of March 2018 and that date, EU nationals will continue to be registered to work in the UK as vets, in accordance with mutual recognition arrangements that will be incorporated into UK law. Those two agreements, if incorporated into the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, will go a long way towards securing a veterinary workforce that meets existing requirements. However, that will depend, understandably, on the continued desire of EU nationals to remain in the UK and to seek to come here to work after we leave the EU.

As I have already indicated, the Government’s long-term aim is to build a sustainable, thriving, diverse and modernised UK veterinary infrastructure, which is resilient to workforce impacts and able to take opportunities upon leaving the EU. To achieve this, the veterinary capability and capacity project has been established as a collaborative initiative in which the Government, through DEFRA and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, are working in close co-operation with the Food Standards Agency, the devolved Administrations, including the Welsh Government, and key stakeholders, specifically the regulator of the veterinary profession, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and the representative body of the veterinary profession, the BVA. We want to develop a flexible and skilled workforce that meets the UK’s needs to fill essential roles in Government and the private sector.

The chief veterinary officer for Wales, Christianne Glossop, represents the Welsh Government on the board of this partnership, along with the chief veterinary officers for the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland Governments. This ensures that issues specific to Wales can be addressed, although many of the same concerns about vet shortages and reliance on EU national veterinary surgeons are shared. The FSA uses the services of 258 such vets in meat inspection roles, and around 40 of those are in Wales. I pointed out earlier that 95% of officials across the UK are non-UK EU citizens, but in Wales all 40 are non-UK EU nationals. Wales also relies on EU national vets as part of its bovine TB eradication programme. We fully recognise that any future restrictions on EU migration could therefore have implications for the functioning of the food supply chain in Wales and bovine TB eradication measures. The partnership is looking at a range of initiatives, in addition to ensuring that processes are in place to secure non-UK veterinary resources, including strengthening retention of existing vets in the workforce and increasing the longer term supply of UK-qualified vets.

On the question of increasing the number of home-grown graduates, I am aware—the hon. Member for Ceredigion is too—that there are currently no university veterinary schools in Wales that are accredited by the RCVS. However, I am very pleased—I am sure that he is particularly pleased—that Aberystwyth University has been exploring possibilities for achieving such accreditation with the RCVS. A few years ago, a small number of universities had veterinary graduates or courses. That is gradually increasing, but I am very conscious of the substantial costs in creating new courses to achieve that. I really hope that this partnership, which Aberystwyth University is progressing, succeeds. Encouraging more people into the veterinary profession is not a new issue, particularly into the farmed and agricultural environment, rather than the domestic animal environment, but together we recognise the challenges and we will keep working at it.

I am really grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. It is a really important aspect of our withdrawal from the EU.

Will the Minister briefly comment on what the British Government are doing to work with European partners on disease surveillance post Brexit? At the moment, data can be shared across the EU. How will that function after Brexit, to ensure that our livestock are protected?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the laws we have in place and the reporting lines, although some of those might have a slightly different agency responsible for them straight after leaving the European Union. It is in our collective interest, where we want to have free and straightforward access to each other’s markets, to continue that collaboration. I am not in a position to provide a detailed assessment of where that is, but in all the relationships I have had with EU member states, at ministerial and commissioner level, the issue of biosecurity and animal safety is absolutely paramount. I believe that there is good intent to ensure that some of those issues that could become a barrier do not do so. The hon. Gentleman might wish to contact Lord Gardiner in order to get further details on that issue.

In closing, I hope that the hon. Member for Ceredigion and the House recognise that the Government are focused on the issues, challenges and opportunities that the veterinary profession faces. I again thank him for bringing this important matter to Westminster Hall. I assure him that the Government are actively involved and committed to ensuring that these challenges will be addressed and resolved.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.