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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 (Schedule 3 Amendment) Order 2002

First Standing Committee on

Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 16 April 2002

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Draft Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966

(Schedule 3 Amendment) Order 2002

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 (Schedule 3 Amendment) Order 2002.

How nice it is to see you in the Chair, Mr. Benton. I look forward to your supervision of the Committee. I very much appreciate the attendance of hon. Members and my hon. Friends to discuss an important and uncontroversial statutory instrument that is designed to assist the agricultural sector.

The Government committed themselves, as part of their action plan for farming, to reviewing the scope for properly trained and regulated paraprofessionals to undertake certain acts of veterinary surgery. The proposed amendment to schedule 3 of the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 is the first step in a series of proposed changes to the legislation that would allow fully competent and qualified lay people to carry out certain acts of veterinary surgery, without detrimental effect on animal welfare—an important consideration.

It may benefit the Committee to know that the 1966 Act provides that only veterinary surgeons registered with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons are permitted to practise veterinary surgery in the United Kingdom. That is the regulation that we are discussing. However, schedule 3 of the Act specifies a range of people and procedures exempt from that general provision.

Currently, a qualified veterinary nurse is permitted under the 1991 amendment to schedule 3 of the 1966 Act to

    ''administer medical treatment or carry out minor surgery not involving entry into a body cavity on companion (pet) animals, at the discretion of their employing veterinary surgeon.''

We agree with the representations made by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the British Veterinary Nursing Association that the current legislation is unnecessarily restrictive and that a significant number of veterinary nurses are qualified to undertake more than is currently allowed by the Act. The principal reason for the proposals is the desire to extend the role of veterinary nurses in animal care. The current legislation restricts the development of skills and the aspirations of those already in, or wishing to join, the profession.

There are essentially two main points to the amendment order. First, it will enable registered veterinary nurses who have had the appropriate training to carry out any medical treatment or minor

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veterinary surgery, not involving entry into a body cavity, on animals of any species—not just companion animals—provided that the directing veterinary surgeon is satisfied that they are qualified to do so.

Secondly, it will allow student veterinary nurses to give medical treatment and carry out minor surgery during their training. It must be under the direction of a veterinary surgeon and under the direct supervision of a veterinary surgeon or registered veterinary nurse. Animal welfare will continue to be safeguarded, with training requirements and supervision by a veterinary surgeon or suitable qualified veterinary nurse as an essential element.

As part of the consultation, a wide range of interested parties was consulted and all who responded broadly welcomed the proposal, provided that nurses were qualified to treat the species involved. Some respondents, especially in the equine industry, said that there would be significant benefits from the legislation. Qualified nurses would be able to carry out procedures on horses that previously only veterinary surgeons could undertake.

The Department has produced guidance for the industry on the amendment order, which emphasises that the welfare of animals undergoing treatment or minor surgery is ultimately the responsibility of the veterinary surgeon. It will also be the responsibility of the veterinarian to ensure that the veterinary nurse carrying out the treatment or minor surgery is fully trained and competent.

A copy of the consultation that I mentioned has been placed in the Library of the House. The guidance is available on the website of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The proposed amendment to schedule 3 of the 1966 Act is a reflection of the Government's commitment to listen to the representations of professionals in the veterinary and allied sectors.With that in mind, the Government believe that the order is important, and I commend it to the Committee.

10.34 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I add my support to the Minister's comments. As he said, the order is eminently sensible. It is a tidying-up operation; there has been widespread consultation and it has the support of the main professional body.

For the purpose of clarification, I should like to ask the Minister a few questions. How many student veterinary nurses are presently in training? What percentage of students has failed to qualify in the past? With reference to new paragraph 7(c), what is an

    ''approved training and assessment centre'',

and how many of them are there? Are any non-UK people currently undergoing training as veterinary nurses, and how many veterinary nurses in practice are non-UK nationals? I would be grateful if the Minister were to answer those points.

10.36 am

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. As a supplement to the Conservative spokesman's questions, I checked out

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the view of both the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and vets in my constituency, and I concur that the general view is that the order is welcome and that it will help. In particular, it will increase the attraction of being a veterinary nurse, which is currently a rather restrictive job in terms of the skills that one is allowed to learn and deploy. It will consequently release vets to use their higher skills rather than having to do some of the more routine operations, which a nurse will be able to carry out. That will benefit both vets and nurses.

On a wider point, will the order contribute towards the training and greater deployment of vets? Given the problems that we have had during the past 12 or 18 months, he will know that the shortage of vets in Government service and the shortage of competent private vets was so severe that we had to recruit people from abroad, some of whom I have no doubt have returned to wherever they came from. If the order encourages more people to train as veterinary nurses because the job has a wider scope and is more interesting, it will help the service.

The order will be beneficial if it releases vets from routine operations and enables them to use higher skills. As a matter of record, I checked out the number of Government vets—I do not know whether the Minister will concur with these figures—and found that it has fallen from 394.5 equivalent in 1995 to 286 in 2001. It appears that internally and externally—in the public and private sector—we are short of vets, although I appreciate that the order is mostly determined to regulate the operations of private vets treating companion animals and pets. However, I understand that the Minister will confirm that the order will apply to all animals, including farm animals.

10.38 am

Mr. Morley: Some of the questions from the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) were quite detailed. I may have to write to him on them because the answers may be hard to obtain. I am not sure whether we keep records of qualified veterinary nurses in relation to their nationality. I do not know whether we have those figures, but we can certainly find them. I can tell him that there are about 4,000 qualified veterinary nurses in the country, and significantly there are approximately another 4,000 veterinary nurses who are not currently registered. The order may encourage many of them to return to the profession, which would be quite useful. In relation to his other questions, I am happy to write to him with any information that we can find.

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At the peak of the foot and mouth outbreak, 2,000 vets were working for MAFF and then DEFRA, but it is unrealistic to maintain 2,000 field vets. I believe that the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) was alluding to the fact, and I agree, that the changes will increase flexibility in veterinary practices and enable vets to be released from some of the more routine work that can be properly carried out by veterinary nurses, reflecting their skill and experience and giving them more responsibility, which I am sure they will welcome. That will increase vets' availability and flexibility and I welcome that as I know the profession and those in the agricultural and equine sectors do.

On the number of state vets, I counsel caution when comparing numbers from 1995 to the present. There have undoubtedly been changes in the number of state vets since the previous decade and a number of changes have been made in recent years whereby vets who are employed by the Ministry have moved to the Veterinary Laboratory Agency and elsewhere in the Department following reorganisation. I urge caution when making comparisons without knowing where vets are in the overall work force and their availability in the Department. My understanding from the chief veterinary officer is that following changes during the past 10 years the number of state vets has been approximately the same. However, there have been some recruitment difficulties. Recruiting to large-animal practices, the state veterinary service and the public hygiene sector has been a problem because many vets when they leave college have not been interested in those areas of work. Ironically, the foot and mouth outbreak, which focused on epidemics, farm animals and disease control, had the unexpected side effect of attracting interest in the work of the state veterinary service and the number of people applying for posts has increased, which is welcome. The changes in the order provide opportunities for veterinary nurses to widen the scope of their responsibilities, which is also welcome.

I welcome the fact that there is broad support for the order. It is logical and assists with veterinary support and care in the livestock, equine and pet sectors. It provides more flexibility in veterinary provision and recognises the professionalism and responsibilities of the veterinary nursing profession. All those aspects are welcome and I appreciate the Committee's support.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 (Schedule 3 Amendment) Order 2002.--[Mr. Morley.]

        Committee rose at seventeen minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Benton, Mr. Joe (Chairman)
Ainger, Mr.
Bailey, Mr.
Bradley, Peter
Bruce, Malcolm
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Lucas, Ian

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Luke, Mr.
Morley, Mr.
Munn, Ms
Picking, Anne
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Swayne, Mr.

 
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Prepared 16 April 2002