A strong veterinary voice in the House of Lords

Posted on July 31, 2017 by Professor The Lord Trees

Brexit EU flagOn 17 July the House of Lords debated the EU Committee report on Brexit: UK-EU movement of people, and Lord Trees took this opportunity to speak on the workforce issues affecting the veterinary profession:

My speech highlighted that whilst the veterinary profession is relatively small, it has a crucial role in our society, and the workforce crisis it faces are a metaphor for those in many other sectors, especially in science, technology, engineering and human healthcare.

The importance for the UK workforce

I explained that around a quarter of the 20,000 or so vets registered to practise in the UK are non-UK EU nationals. This is much higher than the national UK workforce average of 7%. In certain veterinary sectors, the percentage is even higher for example 30% in the larger clinical practices, 45% in government veterinary services and over 90% of the Official Veterinarians working in our abattoirs. Even in our vet schools, over one-fifth of the staff who teach the vets of the future and contribute to the advancement of our subject via research are non-UK EU nationals.

This dependence on imported professionals has been slowly developing for some years. There has been a recent worrying downwards trend in the number of applications by UK students whilst many practices are reporting recruitment difficulties ( 40% of clinical veterinary practices took over three months to fill a vacancy - over three times the national average of 29 days). This problem is exacerbated by an increasing drop out rate of graduates, which is disturbing and ill understood, but which the profession is now examining. I described the situation we face as a perfect storm of underproduction, increasing postgraduate attrition and the probability of a reduction in imported personnel.

I spoke about what vets do for society, from safeguarding the health and welfare of our animals, guarding against and dealing with catastrophic outbreaks of diseases such as bird flu and foot and mouth - the 2001 outbreak of which, I reminded the House, cost the country an estimated £8 billion. I also mentioned our crucial role in safeguarding public health, largely through oversight of the food chain and facilitating trade through veterinary certification - a requirement that is likely to increase after Brexit.

Are EU nationals less welcome?

I welcomed the Government’s assurances so far regarding EU nationals working in the UK but explained that this has not fully addressed the concerns of our EU colleagues. A recent survey conducted by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, has shown that following the Brexit vote, 64% of non-UK EU vets currently working in the UK feel less welcome, 40% are more likely to leave the UK, and 18% are actually actively seeking employment overseas.

Some of these issues, such as expanding indigenous veterinary graduate numbers and reducing postgraduate attrition, can be solved only in the long term. They are being addressed, particularly by the British Veterinary Association and the RCVS. Some solutions may be achieved by the profession working alone, but some may require government intervention and facilitation. However, far and away the most pressing need is to retain the non-UK EU nationals currently working here.

Assurances and responses

I asked the Home Office Minister to give assurances that non-UK EU nationals currently working in vital sectors such as veterinary science will be given the same rights in the future, mirroring those that would have applied if we remained in the EU. I also asked whether the Home Office will urgently restore vets to the Shortage Occupation List, from which they were removed in 2011 and suggested that this was an essential first step in addressing the shortage of vets which we face.

In her response, the Home Office Minister of State, Baroness Williams of Trafford, said that her Department has made it clear that the best and brightest will continue to be welcome to come to the UK, and future policy will be based on the consideration of the available evidence. She felt sure the veterinary profession would want to contribute to that evidence picture; and that many of the significant statistics I gave would certainly form part of this consideration. On the subject of the Shortage Occupation List, she explained that that list is produced by the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), and the Government do not act independently of the MAC in this regard. Baroness Williams also stressed that the Home Office has made it clear that so long as the UK remains a part of the EU, EU citizens have full rights to come here and remain welcome.

The full debate, which I’m sure many of you will find of interest, can be read in Hansard.

Highlighting the challenges to the veterinary profession

I’m pleased to add that my contribution was warmly welcomed by the House, including by: Lord Cormack “We have just heard in the splendid speech of the noble Lord, Lord Trees, how a very small but vital sector of our economy could indeed be damaged in a most dangerous way if we do not behave with suitable sensitivity.”; Lord Stunell “I was interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Trees, had to say about vets—for recruiting, retraining, mentoring and developing a UK workforce.”; and Lord Kennedy “The noble Lord, Lord Trees, highlighted the problems regarding the challenges Brexit poses to the veterinary profession, and to other science and healthcare professions. He made the point well in respect of Brexit further exposing the risk and the crisis that is looming large.”

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Professor the Lord Trees

Written by Professor the Lord Trees

Crossbench life peer, Veterinary Editor in Chief of Veterinary Record and In Practice, and Chairman of the Board of the Moredun Research Institute

Professor the Lord Trees is currently the only veterinary surgeon in the House of Lords. A former President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and Dean of Liverpool University Veterinary School, Professor the Lord Trees was appointed a Life Peer in 2012 to sit on the Crossbenches. Lord Trees’ work in the House of Lords is supported by the Veterinary Policy Research Foundation.