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Veterinary Personnel

Volume 820: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with representatives of the veterinary profession about the availability of qualified veterinary personnel following the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and in doing so I draw attention to my relevant registered interests.

My Lords, my officials are in regular contact with the veterinary profession, including the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the British Veterinary Association, concerning veterinary capacity across the UK. We have been made aware that there has been a long shortage of UK-trained veterinary graduates, which began before the UK voted to leave the European Union. Defra has been working with stakeholders to understand the reasons for this shortage and develop potential solutions.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that since the ending of the free movement of people following Brexit, the number of EU-registered vets coming to work in the UK has fallen by 68%, down from over 1,100 in 2019 to just 364 last year? Is this not yet another example of the total disaster that Brexit has been for the UK? So, what additional funding will the Government make available next year to expand the number of UK university places for veterinary students, and how many years will it take to train adequate numbers?

We already have new vets coming into the profession from the University of Surrey scheme, which was brought in a few years ago. Since then, we have new schools appearing at Harper Adams and Keele, the University of Central Lancashire and the Scottish royal colleges, and a collaboration between Aberystwyth University and the Royal Veterinary College. This will bring on stream new vets, trained in this country, to work here, alongside other measures we are bringing in to resolve the shorter-term problems that the noble Lord identified.

My Lords, have the Government considered some of the allied professions, such as chiropractic, osteopathy and physio- therapy, for the treatment of musculoskeletal problems in animals, especially horses and dogs? All of these professions are well qualified, evidence-based and self-regulated, and this would enormously ease the pressure on veterinary practices.

Some of the practices that my noble friend raises certainly have an impact on animal welfare and dealing with animal illnesses. But the most important thing is that we get more trained professionals in the veterinary profession, which is what the Government are seeking to do, by a range of measures.

My Lords, the Government already have a shortage of doctors and nurses, and now vets. What are they planning to do to make sure we get the support we need in this country to supply the professionals we need?

There are a lot of different veterinary roles besides general practice—we have to have official veterinarians as part of our products of animal origin process, and in abattoirs. Working with the royal college, we have changed the required language standard, which has resulted in more coming in. We have successfully negotiated with the Home Office to get this profession listed as a shortage profession, which has brought more in. We are also consulting and working in a whole range of ways to get more veterinarians working in this country.

My Lords, the reasons for the current shortage of vets are complex, but involve the three Rs—recruitment, retention and, particularly, encouraging returners back to work after career breaks. With reference to recruitment to veterinary schools, nearly one-quarter of veterinary graduates produced by UK vet schools are actually overseas students, mainly Americans, who are unlikely to devote their careers to strengthening the UK workforce but whose high overseas fees are essential to make up for the underfunding of the UK student core grant. Will the Minister press the Government to raise the core funding for band A veterinary students in the UK, which would displace the need to take overseas students and immediately increase very substantially the number of UK students undergoing veterinary training in our universities?

We should all be very grateful to the noble Lord for his involvement in creating the new courses across a number of different universities. I shall certainly take his suggestion away and make sure that, across government, there is an understanding of the very real need to get more veterinary surgeons in this country trained in our universities and functioning in our veterinary profession.

My Lords, numbers have fallen sharply, with the number of registered vets from the EU being less than one-third of the expected figure. A large proportion of public health veterinary work was done by vets from European countries. The real problem is not the number of UK students graduating, but the fact that they want to work not in public health but in private clinical practice. What are the Government going to do to rectify that?

Working in an abattoir or assessing the viability of products of animal origin is not necessarily why everyone goes into the veterinary profession, but they are important professions and part of it. We are working with the royal college to make sure that it is a career people want to go into. We are working with the Food Standards Agency, which is now going to recruit 25% of official veterinarians itself, rather than going through a third body, to make sure that we can career-manage them to stay in the profession and prosper in it.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the British Veterinary Association and congratulate my noble friend on the work his department has done. However, on the question of abattoirs, does not he accept that the shortage of veterinary workers is causing the scandal of the backlog? How does he intend to address that?

I think it very important to say that there is no threat to human health resulting from the shortage of official veterinarians working in abattoirs. There is adequate coverage. It is a problem, and we are seeking to address it in a number of ways that I have already stated, and others. I hope we can reassure the public that, while there is a shortage, there is no risk to public health.

My Lords, officials at the agriculture department in Northern Ireland have indicated that, if and when the so-called grace periods under the protocol end, the number of agri-food certificates needing processing will be close to the number currently processed by the European Union as a whole. It is 20% even as things stand. That would require an enormous number of vets, and the Chief Veterinary Officer has said that he simply does not have them. Apart from the principle that these checks are unacceptable, they simply are not workable in practice. What are the Government doing about it?

The Chief Veterinary Officer for Northern Ireland recently referred to

“available veterinary resource located in Northern Ireland points of entry, delivering efficient controls on sanitary and phytosanitary goods entering Northern Ireland through third countries and Great Britain”.

The veterinary resource remains at 12, and the DAERA Minister has put an embargo on further recruitment to operations in ports. In Northern Ireland, official meat inspection in approved slaughterhouses is delivered by a team of DAERA officials, and Northern Ireland meat-inspection services are currently fully resourced.

My Lords, there is a way of ameliorating the problem. Under the trade and co-operation agreement, there is a specialised committee on SPS measures. It has so far met only once, in September last year, but it could be very useful in dealing with this problem. What plans are there for the committee to meet again and discuss this problem?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. That committee could well have a very beneficial effect, and I will go back and ask officials when it is next due to meet and let him know.

My Lords, all this was exactly predicted by the EU scrutiny committees of this House before and after Brexit. We took evidence and knew what was going to happen. The noble Lord is quite right: the shortage did occur before Brexit; I do not deny that. The last Labour Government started scholarships; this Government started Keele and Harper Adams in particular. However, what we need is food-production animal vets, not companion animal vets. That is the problem and given the current situation of banning people coming here from Europe, I do not see how we are going to solve it. While there is no safety issue in the abattoirs at present, there will be if things carry on like this.

The noble Lord is quite right to point out that this has been a long-running problem. In fact, it is large-animal vets we want to see more of. We want to encourage people into the profession and to go not just for the smaller animal sector, but for farm animals as well. We were, however, successful in negotiating with the Home Office to have this profession listed as a shortage occupation, and that has resulted in more vets coming into this country. We want to see more of that.