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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1660-ii
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Welsh Affairs Committee
The Future of AHVLA Services in Wales
tuesday 29 November 2011
Geraldine O’Connell and Carl Padgett
RT HON James Paice MP and Catherine Brown
Evidence heard in Public Questions 38 - 124
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Taken before the Welsh Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 29 November 2011
David T. C. Davies (Chair)
Mr Robin Walker
Mr Mark Williams
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Geraldine O’Connell, National Secretary, Prospect, and Carl Padgett, President, British Veterinary Association, gave evidence.
Chair: Good morning. If we may, Ms O’Connell and Mr Padgett, I would like to start right away, as time is of the essence this morning with the statement coming up. Mark, will you ask the first question?
Q38 Mr Williams: My first question is to Mr Padgett. Would you explain how the current system works, how lab testing is undertaken in Wales, how the samples get to the laboratories and what time it usually takes to get a result? I think the timing involved is quite critical to the debate we are having over the closure of laboratories in my constituency and that of Jonathan Edwards.
Carl Padgett: If I approach that from the point of view of a practising vet on a farm who is investigating a particular scenario that is occurring on that farm, I would look at the animals there, and I would often take the samples myself or advise the farmer to submit the samples to the laboratory if he was able to drive backwards and forwards to the laboratory. Either that or the practice would post them to a suitable laboratory-if we were taking small specimens, for example, or pieces for a post-mortem that I have taken. If it is a carcase, we would almost certainly advise the farmer to take the carcase to the laboratory. There it will be given a full post-mortem, or the sample that we have sent through will be looked at more closely. It is then suitably prepared and testing is done on it, whatever the appropriate tests are.
When looking at turnaround times, it all depends what testing process is required for a particular investigation. There are some-for example, parasite investigations on faeces-that can take a matter of hours, with a result coming back to the veterinary practice very quickly. There are other bacteriological examinations that can take anywhere between 24 and 48 hours, or even longer-a week or two-to come back, depending on what one is looking for. The need for a rapid turnaround in a disease picture that is evolving on a farm is absolutely crucial.
Q39 Mr Williams: If the farmer is taking the carcase or whatever to the lab, the geography-the location of these offices-is quite critical, is it not?
Carl Padgett: It is quite critical. From my conversations with AHVLA, I understand that its survey work suggests that 105 minutes is the maximum one-way journey to a lab that people will undertake. If it is any more than 105 minutes away from a lab, they will not. That will be averaged across all of them. A similar figure, or just a bit less, of 90 minutes was quoted to me recently by the head of the SAC in Scotland. It is a time-limiting factor rather than a distance-limiting factor that seems to be at play, and that, undoubtedly, is how it fits into the farmer’s day.
Q40 Nia Griffith: If the Carmarthen or the Aberystwyth office is to close, where else apart from Shrewsbury would farmers in the southern half of Wales be able to go?
Carl Padgett: It is important to recognise the difference, in that the time limit that we are talking about is for gross specimens. It would be submissions for post-mortem or the taking in of a piece of liver, for example, which I do at my own laboratory; I work in the Preston area, so I am able to drive there very quickly. The principle is still the same; they are gross specimens. Once we get to the stage of taking a sample, preparing it for a lab test and posting it off, that is a different kettle of fish altogether. My understanding is that at the moment the PM facility aspect will remain as it is.
Q41 Mr Williams: My next question is to Ms O’Connell as well. How much of a surprise to you was the announcement that testing would be discontinued at Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, or had you been consulted beforehand?
Geraldine O’Connell: The announcement was a surprise to the staff at both Carmarthen and Aberystwyth. There was an ongoing review of the future of the regional laboratories when they were owned by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. This was prior to the merger with Animal Health in June last year. However, the recommendations of that review were never published.
There was speculation in the lead-up to the announcement that there would probably be some downsizing of the laboratory services, but it came as a complete surprise to the staff that the whole of the laboratory services directorate in both laboratories was identified for closure. Prospect, along with its sister union, had two meetings with AHVLA on 16 and 30 August; essentially, we had two weeks’ advance notice of their proposals. The difficulty is that it was all confidential; we could not brief any of our members at either laboratory. In essence, that was the only consultation that we had.
Q42 Mr Williams: Are you suggesting that it was a done deal?
Geraldine O’Connell: It was a done deal.
Q43 Mr Williams: Are you particularly concerned about the lack of an impact assessment in terms of the decision?
Geraldine O’Connell: We were taken by surprise, given the enormity of the decision and its regional impact, not only in Wales but in England as well. We might have anticipated a public consultation exercise with stakeholders on the lab closures. We asked the specific question whether the Welsh Government had been consulted about the decision. We were told that their opinion had been sought and noted, but that was the only feedback that we received in relation to the Welsh Government.
Carl Padgett: Mine is a slightly different story in terms of the strategic discussion on how it impacts on animal health and welfare in general, and on the veterinary role within that in a wider sense, and also how it interrelates with practice and so on. Immediately prior to the joining of Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, and immediately afterwards, we had-for want of a better phrase-some higher-level, more strategic discussions about how, in the current atmosphere of the spending review with its cuts, we were going to maintain some kind of good quality surveillance and diagnostic service that interrelated with the veterinary profession and the farming industry in a way that would provide us with the information we needed. However, that was high-level stuff, rather than the direct specifics of a plan. That progressed, I suppose, from May through to August, and we had two or three discussions of that nature. But the announcement itself that the labs were definitely going to close and on what the plan would be was a relative surprise, yes.
Mr Williams: It surprised my constituents as well.
Chair: I shall have to speed things gently along a little, if I may.
Q44 Nia Griffith: First, could I mention my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? What discussions have you had with the Wales Office or the Welsh Government?
Geraldine O’Connell: Personally, Prospect has not had any discussions with the Welsh Government, principally because the laboratory services directorate is part of AHVLA, and the legitimate course of action in terms of a consultation affecting staff in both laboratories rests with AHVLA.
Q45 Nia Griffith: What about the Wales Office?
Geraldine O’Connell: We have had no discussions with the Wales Office, either.
Carl Padgett: We have had no discussions with the Wales Office directly, or with the Welsh Assembly Government, on staff. We have had a number of conversations with the Chief Veterinary Officer, with whom we communicate quite regularly. We wrote a letter to the current Minister suggesting that we were concerned about what was happening, and raising our concerns that the maintenance of an efficient, fast turnaround service with respect to laboratory services would be needed to back up the PM facilities. We received a letter back recognising that those concerns were shared.
Q46 Nia Griffith: You made reference briefly to the lack of consultation. What do you think should have been done to take account of the views of people in rural Wales?
Geraldine O’Connell: As I said, there was no public consultation. We raised concerns about stakeholders, principally in relation to the farming community, and, indeed, the private veterinarians who interface with the laboratories. We were told at the time that it was not critical or influential to the decision that was going to be made.
Q47 Jonathan Edwards: In evidence last week, the National Farmers Union said that it normally expected to get diagnosis results back within 24 hours. I asked the Minister about this a few weeks ago, and he said that anything over 24 hours would be unacceptable. In your expert view, based on the current proposals of the agency, are they going to be able to deliver within that time scale?
Carl Padgett: The 24 hours question is difficult to quantify, because it depends which test one is talking about. There is the quick faecal examination test or the simple 24-hour culture, but even a 24-hour culture will obviously need extended time; it will be nearer 48 hours by the time you get the turnaround. But I take the broad point that a short turnaround is very important. The success of that will depend on what carcase-side testing remains available next to these carcases when they are being post-mortemed. Can some basic bacteriology and parasitology still be undertaken next to the carcase and then turned around, but with the more complex tests being moved on; or, once you have finished with the carcase, will all the lab work get moved off? That is in the detail that we simply do not understand and do not know yet.
Q48 Jonathan Edwards: The agency’s view is that consolidating the services will create a more efficient and expert service. Do you agree with that viewpoint?
Carl Padgett: I can see the potential, but we need to see the details of exactly what testing will be moved to where and what the projections are, and also to understand a little more about the contingencies for managing the threat of isolating some of the more fastidious organisms, which may be destroyed in the transportation process. We need to understand those threats a little more before I can fully answer that question.
Q49 Jonathan Edwards: That may be a question for the union. The agency has to make savings of £8 million, I believe. Where should it make the cutbacks, if not in this particular area?
Geraldine O’Connell: It would be churlish of us not to recognise that the agency faces challenging times in relation to the cut in its finances. It holds a significant estate, given the merger of the two agencies that took place last year. In the first instance, we would always advocate looking at the size of the estate and whether there is an ability to rationalise it. For instance, if one looks at the location of the regional laboratories and the other Animal Health offices, not only in Wales but in England, they are all co-located at least in the same county and some within the same town. We believe that that might be a more appropriate way to start looking to meet some of its challenging targets.
Q50 Chair: This next question is more for Mr Padgett, but please feel free to answer, Ms O’Connell, if you wish. I am interested in the question of post-mortem examinations. I understand that they will continue at Carmarthen for the time being, but the testing itself will take place elsewhere. One fear is that at some future point, after the next review, the post-mortem service might be lost as well. If you had an absolutely cast-iron guarantee that the post-mortem service will continue in Carmarthen, would it reassure you both?
Geraldine O’Connell: The difficulty, in terms of the post-mortem facilities, is the recommendation that certain tests-you would clearly need to turn to an expert to spell them out-would need to be undertaken at what is called pen-side, alongside the post-mortem facility. Those largely relate to parasitology and bacteriology. Once the announcement was made on 1 September, we were told that the concerns that we raised about the ability to carry out certain of those tests would disappear if the facilities closed and that they were going to review this position, with a proposal that certain test facilities would remain. We have not had any feedback on what that would entail, or, indeed, whether it would entail any of the current staff.
Q51 Chair: Admittedly, and quite rightly, Prospect does not want to see people lose their jobs; nor, I would hope, does anyone else. As for the argument being put forward over the loss of services, if you received a cast-iron guarantee that post-mortem examinations would continue at pen-side, would it reassure you that at least we would not see a loss in the service that the farmers themselves received?
Geraldine O’Connell: Potentially, but it could still lead to a loss of considerable expertise, given the closure of the other laboratory services on site.
Q52 Chair: Mr Padgett, you have spoken of the need to get things turned around within 24 hours. According to the information that we have, the results are usually telephoned through or e-mailed, so the increase in length of time will be the time it takes to get the samples from the farm to a laboratory in Shrewsbury, minus the time it would have taken to get them to Carmarthen. That is only a matter of two or three hours, is it not? What makes you think it wouldn’t still be possible to turn things around within 24 hours?
Carl Padgett: Those are the sorts of studies we need to see and understand more. It is not just from the farm. It is back to this post-mortem aspect of the samples being gathered at a post-mortem facility and then moved off from there. It adds another element of time into the process. Instead of the carcase starting its journey from a farm, if I, as the veterinary surgeon on the farm, take a blood sample and post it directly to the relevant lab, which is possible-and it happens with biochemistry samples to Shrewsbury-that is a relatively quick turnaround.
With the more detailed examinations of tissue and carcases, we get the tissue to the lab first. That will remain; the animal or the tissue will still go to the lab. It is then prepared and a sample is taken, and is then moved over again. Another transport process has to occur to a second laboratory. If it is a relatively simple test that could be done next to the carcase-such as a basic bacteriology or parasitological examination that might take only an hour or two within the lab where the carcase or tissue is-that will maintain the 24 or 48-hour turnaround; whereas adding another transport process, and another afternoon and evening to get to another lab before beginning the analysis, could add on 12 or 24 hours to the turnaround.
If we go back to your original question on premises and cast-iron guarantees of one premises staying open, it is the facility of being able to handle the carcases and the tissues that is absolutely important. Given the geography and transportation in Wales with respect to Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, we have this time limit on how far people are willing to travel. That is where the complications really start occurring if we remove those facilities.
Q53 Chair: Do these labs work 24 hours or do they work late into the evening?
Carl Padgett: No. They do not work 24 hours; indeed, a few years ago it was decided to remove Saturday services as well. One of the statements that we received from AHVLA is that, as a result of pooling these lab resources, it could start some limited Saturday testing again. That would go back to the efficiency argument, I suppose.
Q54 Chair: I cannot go into all the ways in which the transport could be carried out, but, having worked in that field, I know that it is perfectly feasible to move large loads from south Wales to Italy within 15 or 16 hours. I am having some difficulty with the idea that it is beyond our capacity to get small samples from west Wales to Shrewsbury in a couple of hours. Let me put it this way. If you were to receive a cast-iron guarantee that results that are currently turned around within 24 hours would continue to be turned around in 24 hours, with an explanation as to how it is to be done-whether it meant late working at Shrewsbury, using some sort of DHL service or doing something else that can be investigated-would that provide both of you with some reassurance?
Carl Padgett: If current performance was at least maintained, if not enhanced, through such a cast-iron guarantee, it would be a help. That is purely on the laboratory side of things.
Geraldine O’Connell: We would also want to consider the capacity side of the laboratories undertaking this testing, because there would be no increase in their capacity. They would have to absorb this work.
Q55 Geraint Davies: My concern is that, if there is a outbreak of, say, TB or foot and mouth in a remote hill farm near Aberystwyth, and it is detected on a Saturday when these facilities are closed or whatever, the question is whether their closure will increase the expected transmission of those diseases. What is your view, in a worst-case scenario, of the impact of these decisions on the spread of foot and mouth if the outbreak was in a remote hill farm and, given sod’s law, things went wrong?
Carl Padgett: That all depends on the individual disease scenario. If you take a highly infectious disease such as foot and mouth that had somehow been missed at farm level and was possibly going to be picked up at one of the centres in gross pathology, those PM services are currently remaining. I am not absolutely sure that it is the containment of a big disease problem that is the major problem. It is passive surveillance for new, emerging and ongoing issues that could be lost in terms of expertise here that I am more worried about. For big things such as foot and mouth, the reference laboratories have been at Pirbright for some time; those facilities come into play less with that big type of disease.
TB is an interesting one. You have a different issue going on there, with particular stratagems being put in place in Wales, and there is an argument to suggest that they may need to retain their particular diagnostic services for that.
Q56 Geraint Davies: Can you quantify it? We know there is an attempt to save £8 million, and we know that the cost of foot and mouth was £8 billion. The issue is what the marginal cost will be of the extra transmission spread due to the delay caused by the closure of these centres.
Carl Padgett: I cannot quantify that at all. We would need proper epidemiological expert advice on it.
Q57 Geraint Davies: What about a timing quantification-for instance, if we knew that the spread was occurring for an additional half a day, two days or whatever? These are big impacts, are they not, to the farming industry?
Carl Padgett: Any delay in lab turnaround has the potential to cause what you are saying, but it is almost impossible to quantify it because every disease picture is different. With slow-moving diseases such as TB, the effect may be less, but with rapidly moving diseases such as foot and mouth, any delay will be difficult.
Q58 Geraint Davies: How big could the delay be in a worst-case scenario due to these closures?
Carl Padgett: On the lab services side, as we mentioned before to the gentleman who asked a question before the Chairman, it depends how long the transport takes to get backwards and forwards to the lab in terms of lab tests alone.
Geraint Davies: It could be days.
Chair: I think we have explored that point very well.
Geraint Davies: We haven’t got an answer.
Q59 Karen Lumley: We asked the last few witnesses about the service that operates in Holland, where carcases and samples are refrigerated, and testing takes place in one location. Would it be possible to do that in the UK, and specifically in Wales, given its topography and its poor transport links?
Carl Padgett: It is an interesting theory, and I understand that it works. They pool all their resources into the one lab and have very dedicated expertise within that lab, sharing all their ideas and expertise as one follows a case through. I understand that, in effect, the transport system starts at the periphery and then works in through the day, picking up samples and bringing them in centrally. It would all depend on whether the plan would fit with our road and traffic infrastructure over here, because it is a very different place from Holland with their particular transport and motorway infrastructure. We would have to do the time and motion studies to see how applicable it could be, but it is an interesting idea.
Q60 Karen Lumley: Do you think it could work?
Carl Padgett: As we move forward into an area where we will be considering post-mortem type issues, as future strategies are developed beyond lab services-we will be beyond 2023 by then-those are the sorts of things that we might have to look at and understand better, yes.
Q61 Mr Walker: We had some evidence from the Farmers Union of Wales that talks about the increased use of private laboratories if these changes go through. I note that the BVA evidence says that there are some concerns about the ability of the private sector to invest. Would you expand on that? Do you think that there is an opportunity for the private sector to make up some of this?
Carl Padgett: There is always an opportunity, if the market is there, to spend on the testing. We are alluding there to the fact that, if there is not current high demand for diagnostic testing in certain areas, the market may struggle to provide. It will be fine if there is a high volume of testing coming through for the regular every-day diagnostics, as private enterprise will step into the breach. If we are talking about diseases that hardly ever come about, we will need to maintain a surveillance capacity to be able to test for them. That is where the private element has a less good history of maintaining that expertise, because it is not making money for them.
Q62 Stuart Andrew: Last week, the FUW were concerned about the loss of scientific expertise, and particularly they mentioned that within both of these labs there are people with specialist knowledge on, for instance, bacteriology. Do you have specific concerns about what might be lost, and what, in particular, do you think will be lost if these two laboratories were to close?
Geraldine O’Connell: Originally, 14 posts were identified to be lost in Wales; that has now reduced to 13. These are scientific posts. There are concerns because those specialisms have been developed over a considerable time. That is not to say that specialists do not exist in the other laboratories; clearly, they do. My understanding, though, is that Aberystwyth is a centre of excellence in parasitology, and that expertise has been used by other laboratories on occasion. There is a real concern that that will be lost to the region. There is very little possibility of staff redeployment in Wales in relation to their specialisms, and there is little prospect of redeployment elsewhere within AHVLA because of the geography involved.
Q63 Stuart Andrew: Are you concerned that there has been no offer of relocation for the staff?
Geraldine O’Connell: In fairness, if job opportunities were available in other regional laboratories and if individuals were willing to transfer, AHVLA would make funding available in those circumstances.
Q64 Jessica Morden: Did the decision to discontinue laboratory testing in Wales take account of the fact that Wales is a high-density livestock area? Was that a problem?
Geraldine O’Connell: No, I don’t think it did. You will clearly want to ask AHLVA about its decision-making process on this, but the whole premise, or predication, of the decision was that the number of tests has been reducing and, indeed, the setting up of sites of excellence in the laboratories that have been retained. I do not believe the density of farm animals in any particular location has been taken into account.
Q65 Jessica Morden: The FUW said in its evidence that it was worried about a two-tier system springing up between Wales and England. Is that something that concerns you? Do you agree with that?
Geraldine O’Connell: Clearly, one of the first things mentioned by the membership in Wales was that Scotland has retained its laboratory at Lasswade and that regional laboratories will be retained in England, and they asked why Wales has not retained a laboratory. As I said, that was predicated on other factors, but that has been a major concern. Another issue that has been raised is whether regional laboratories will test their own samples first or those sent to them.
Carl Padgett: My understanding is that, if there is a loss of current performance and rapid turnaround due to the carcase-side testing that is going on at the moment, then it will become two-tier for those in Wales because they will not be accessing the services as much and they will not be getting information in a timely fashion.
Q66 Nia Griffith: What effect will the proposed discontinuation of AHVLA services have on the relationship between local vets, laboratories and the agricultural community in Wales?
Carl Padgett: If the scenario that I have just painted becomes a reality, it will erode the relationship between all three elements-the surveillance element, the practising veterinary element and the farming industry.
Q67 Nia Griffith: Do you think that the savings made by this discontinuation could be used to make the service more efficient? Is there a positive side to this at all?
Carl Padgett: The whole thing is predicated on the fact that there could be enhanced performance, but we have not seen that detail yet. I need to see that detail before answering. I could see scenarios where maybe it could, but, without seeing in absolute detail where the money is going and how it is going to be organised, it is difficult to answer.
Q68 Nia Griffith: Ms O’Connell, would you like to comment on that?
Geraldine O’Connell: No, I do not think I have anything to add.
Q69 Guto Bebb: I take you back to the line of inquiry that Geraint Davies was pursuing. In October, the National Farmers Union indicated that figures of TB cases in Wales had seen an increase. On issues such as TB or foot and mouth, would Wales be in a worse position or a better position as a result of the proposed changes if they were implemented?
Carl Padgett: I am not convinced that these direct proposals on lab closures would mean that we were in a worse position to handle the outlook. However, if we progress to the nightmare scenario of losing the PM facilities and expertise, there will be an effect; we will be in a worse position. I will qualify that slightly with the lab set-up. Carmarthen has category 3 premises, so it can handle risky materials such as TB. If we remove a lot of the lab facilities from there, some of the local epidemiology work, for example, may not be carried out in the same way. That is very much a Welsh focus within the Welsh plan for dealing with TB and how it decides to go about that, but any removal of that expert-type facility has to be a threat.
Geraldine O’Connell: You also have to recognise that the staff who will be affected will not be available for deployment in potential outbreaks of notifiable diseases, which they were in the past. Then, they came out of their labs and assisted field staff on the ground on anything that was required. Given the numbers involved in the 2001 outbreak, that is obviously of some significance.
Q70 Mr Williams: Following your earlier answer about the long-term future, do you suspect that in a couple of years we will be inviting you back to talk about the final closure of the laboratories in Aberystwyth and Carmarthen? Is that the direction of travel?
Carl Padgett: I am scared that that is the direction of travel or at least one of them. The closure of only one would mean that we would start hitting the time limits for submissions, unless some other facility is put in place.
Q71 Mr Williams: Is that your suspicion, working in the field with your expertise, or is it something that has been discussed with AHVLA?
Carl Padgett: That is my suspicion and my feeling of the general direction of travel over 20-odd years in practice.
Geraldine O’Connell: Clearly, our concern when the announcement was made on 1 September was whether it was the first tranche of closure of the full regional laboratory. AHVLA have given assurances that we should not draw any conclusions about their proposals on laboratory services, but that doesn’t mean that the regional laboratories won’t close. However, we were promised the outcome of the surveillance report at the end of October, and it has not materialised, so there are some pressing concerns as to what might happen in the longer term.
Q72 Mr Williams: What would the complete loss of those two laboratories mean in terms of numbers of people losing their jobs? You have talked about the potential for redeployment, but only the potential. What would it involve, and how many people would be affected, not to mention the loss of expertise and specialisms?
Geraldine O’Connell: I do not have the total number of staff employed at Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, but I can submit it later.
Chair: Thank you. We have two very brief questions. The first is from Geraint Davies.
Q73 Geraint Davies: Given what we have heard about the risks, the delays, the loss of expertise, the issue of proximity to high-density cattle and the failure to consult the Welsh Assembly Government, do you feel that the whole question should be looked at again in order to see whether there is a more rational and less risky way of moving forward in terms of cost management?
Geraldine O’Connell: Yes, I do. The two issues involved have fundamentally come down to the length of time that it takes to transport a sample and the return analysis on that, and how that sample might degenerate in transmission. They are two key areas on which we do not feel we have bottomed out, and it would be useful to have reassurances on both before pressing forward with the proposals that exist at the moment.
Q74 Geraint Davies: So there may be ways of making costs savings with less risk and less damage to the skills infrastructure, and a fairer deal for farmers in Wales.
Geraldine O’Connell: We believe so, yes.
Q75 Jonathan Edwards: You have answered my question, Ms O’Connell. Perhaps Mr Padgett would like a go at it. Will there be a deterioration in the quality of the sample as the delays go along? Obviously, the greatest concern is that longer delays between post-mortem and testing will have animal health implications, but is there a deterioration in the quality of the sample?
Carl Padgett: Depending on the test being undertaken, the sample itself can deteriorate if we are looking at pieces of tissue, for example. But, more importantly, some organisms that are difficult to look after-for instance, once they are taken in a swab and put into some sort of transport medium-can die very quickly. So, the faster they are put into the correct culture environment, the better. We need to do some work to understand what postage or other transport issues, with time delays built into them, will mean for those organisms.
Q76 Chair: Thank you both for coming along and giving evidence this morning. Finally, before you go, it is a cheeky question, but is there anything else that you would like us to put to the Minister, who is coming to give evidence in a moment? We are going to ask about guarantees, transport, samples from Wales being treated less favourably and a couple of other things. What would be the key question that you would ask the Minister if he were sitting before you and you could ask him anything you wanted?
Geraldine O’Connell: Following on from your line of questioning, we would like to know when the surveillance report will be published and whether there will be any guarantees associated with it that none of the regional laboratories will be closed as a consequence.
Chair: We have all heard you make that point. I have a funny feeling that question may now get asked. Thank you very much.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Rt Hon James Paice MP, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Catherine Brown, Chief Executive, AHVLA, gave evidence.
Chair: Minister, thank you very much for coming along this morning. I also thank Catherine Brown, from AHVLA. Guto Bebb will ask the first question.
Q77 Guto Bebb: Good morning, Minister. Could you tell us when you became aware of the agency’s decision to discontinue with laboratory testing in Wales?
Mr Paice: It was towards the end of August. I can tell you the date precisely. It was 23 August.
Q78 Guto Bebb: What input did you and your officials have on that decision?
Mr Paice: Virtually none. It was considered to be a decision for the executive of the AHVLA. When the decision was brought to me on that date, my immediate reaction-and we have double checked the paper trail to ensure that this is correct-was to identify that the proposal was to close laboratory testing in the two centres in Wales. I asked for clarification from Catherine, chief executive of AHLVA, and she informed me later of the reasons for it. The decision therefore stood.
Q79 Guto Bebb: Would it be possible to explain the reasoning behind the agency’s proposal to stop laboratory testing in Aberystwyth and Carmarthen?
Mr Paice: Of course, but, if you do not mind, I shall ask Catherine to do it, as it was an executive issue.
Catherine Brown: The fundamental "ask" of me, in terms of getting the agency fit for the future and being able to deliver services, was to reduce expenditure by £34 million over the next four years while protecting delivery and outputs and inputs, and particularly still being able to respond to foot and mouth and other exotic outbreaks.
It is a 30% cut, and there is a specific request that we also look for a 30% cut in surveillance. There are some particular things about post-mortems that are very important, such as the link between our vets and private vets and farmers in terms of carcase material and post-mortems. Although it was urgent to make a decision to work out how we could start saving the money-because some of it is for next year-we wanted to be clear about whether we really needed to plunge into making urgent decisions on post-mortems and carcase submission or whether it was possible to look at things that were significantly less impactful.
We undertook an expert review, in which the CVO of Wales and the epidemiologist from Defra was involved, which came to the conclusion that we could split the place where you did the testing and the place where you did the post-mortem. That is not entirely new news, because less than 20% of tests on Welsh material are done in Wales anyway. None of the TB testing samples are processed in Wales, and no testing for notifiable diseases and no testing for foot and mouth is being done in Wales now. We knew that, but it was confirmed by the review.
At that point, we said okay then, let us put aside the question-this goes to Geraldine’s point about why there has been a delay in the post-mortem surveillance review outcomes-and take more time to think and talk with people about that, because it is extremely sensitive in terms of the impacts it will have. However, we need to make savings for next year, so let us look at the lab services, and work out where the optimum place is to deliver lab services that will save the maximum amount of money while safeguarding the results. As I said, less than 20% of Welsh testing is done in Wales; less than 2% of the testing that we do currently is done in the Welsh labs. We had to think how to save the maximum amount of money while delivering the maximum amount of excellence and expertise in services. There are benefits to bringing things together into bigger centres. It is not great any more to have lots of tiny centres, because, although we have heard and talked about expertise, such a system does not sustain expertise. [Interruption.] I am getting a stop sign so I will stop.
Chair: I apologise. Thank you for that detail, but we have to rattle through things a little faster.
Q80 Guto Bebb: Thank you for that answer. How much money will be saved under the plans that are to be implemented in Wales?
Catherine Brown: Of the £2.4 million, it will be £450,000. That is only the direct costs of the staff involved. It will be a little more than that. There are also some on-costs and some equipment-type costs, but it is of that kind of magnitude.
Q81 Guto Bebb: Just to provide us with a context, what sort of cost savings is the agency pursuing at this point in time?
Catherine Brown: We are pretty much there on the £8.5 million that we had to make this year compared to last year. It is roughly between £8.3 million and £8.7 million over the next three years; it is that kind of scale.
Earlier, people mentioned estate rationalisation, and we are looking hard at that. At the same time as we made these changes, we agreed to move and consolidate in Newcastle, to close an office in Taunton, and to consolidate field work into the Shrewsbury lab site. That is another £500,000 or £600,000 of savings from estate rationalisation, and we will certainly be looking to do more. We have to get to the bottom of the question of surveillance and post-mortem sites before we can work out which are the best sites to keep open and which are the best sites to consolidate. All of these things are being looked at all the time.
Q82 Stuart Andrew: Can you reassure us that the decision sufficiently took account of the fact that Wales is a high-density livestock area?
Catherine Brown: The crux issue here is that laboratory testing generally does not need to be carried out where post-mortems are carried out. As I said, only 20% of Welsh testing is currently carried out in Wales. It is correct to say that livestock density was not a major driver of the lab rationalisation proposals. Where it is significant is in the post-mortem locations and the relationship with private vets. When we come to a conclusion about the best way forward for surveillance and post-mortems, we need to be clear that it really does take account of livestock density and the particular features of farming in the different places we are considering.
Q83 Stuart Andrew: Why was there no consultation on this issue or no impact assessment produced?
Catherine Brown: There isn’t a requirement to do an impact assessment because it’s not a policy change. As my objective was to deliver the savings and minimise any negative impact, there was obviously a lot of thinking about what the negative impacts might be and how we could mitigate them, and whether we could come up with positive impacts. Opening on Saturdays across the network will significantly improve the proportion of the testing that we do, and the speed of some of the work and the results that we can send back. There was no impact assessment but lots of thinking about it.
Mr Paice: May I intervene? It is important to recall the first point that Catherine made, which is that this decision was the consequence of a review that certainly did involve consultation. The question was whether it was necessary to have laboratory services on the same sites as post-mortem facilities. That most definitely was a wider issue, and it involved the Chief Veterinary Officer from Wales. The decision about which veterinary laboratories should cease operating was consequent on that wider consultation.
Q84 Stuart Andrew: What representations did you receive from the Wales Office on the decision?
Mr Paice: The honest answer is that the Wales Office was concerned that it was apparently not informed. However, the Chief Veterinary Officer for Wales definitely was, and an extract from her correspondence is in our memorandum of understanding. I am afraid that communications within the Welsh Government and/or the Wales Office are not a matter for me, but the Chief Veterinary Officer was properly consulted as required, and you have seen her response.
Catherine Brown: I have arranged to meet the Welsh Minister quarterly from now on and establish a more direct input as well.
Q85 Nia Griffith: When you say the Welsh Minister, do you mean the Welsh Minister in the Welsh Government?
Catherine Brown: Yes, John Griffiths.
Q86 Mr Williams: On that point, do you mean representations from the Wales Office or from Ministers in the National Assembly Government-Elin Jones previously and now Mr Alun Davies? To whom did you speak?
Catherine Brown: John Griffiths.
Q87 Mr Williams: You have spoken to him. Do you plan to talk again with him?
Catherine Brown: Yes.
Q88 Chair: Minister, will your Department be publishing the AHVLA sustainable surveillance report?
Mr Paice: We have not got to that stage yet. The issue of surveillance is a major consultation which we are developing at the moment. It will be early next year, Catherine, when you plan to publish. Correct me if I am wrong.
Catherine Brown: We are coming to that, but, because it is so complicated and locality sensitive, we thought we would set up an advisory group-I agreed this with Mr Griffiths the other day-with the English and the Welsh. Although it is obviously very reasonable to concentrate on Wales, it is about a single network.
Q89 Chair: But there is going to be a report, and it is going to be published.
Mr Paice : The consultation.
Catherine Brown: There is going to be a group, and we would anticipate giving it the report. The group will include people from Wales such as vets and farmers. It will not be a secret report.
Q90 Geraint Davies: You said that there will be a 30% cut in surveillance. That will be done on the back of a report that people have not seen-the sustainable surveillance project report. People want to see the report and the basis on which you are making your decisions. A lot of what you are now saying was not known to the Committee beforehand, and people seem to be shooting in the dark. It does not seem to be a very professional way of moving forward together. To reiterate the previous question, the industry wants to know when you are going to publish the surveillance project report. Who made the decision that there will be a 30% cut in surveillance, and why?
Catherine Brown: It is not that there has been a 30% cut in surveillance. I have been asked to look at the expenditure on surveillance, but this is not new news. Fundamentally, I have to make a 30% cut on all budgets. There are issues around the best way of doing surveillance. The surveillance report that we are referring to will not answer all the questions, such as where we should have labs or sites where we do post-mortems.
Q91 Geraint Davies: You are self-evidently an expert, but would you not agree that simply saying that you have to make a 30% cut in surveillance is the wrong way to consider the issue? The question is what the risks, the benefits and the costs are, and how we manage change in difficult economic times, rather than making a 30% surveillance reduction, which might impose a risk on transmission, industry costs and the rest of it. Where does the 30% come from?
Mr Paice: The 30% figure is the reduction that Defra has imposed on the agency, as has been imposed on Defra and virtually every Government Department. The agency has to make a 30% reduction over the period of the spending review, and it is for the chief executive and her colleagues to decide how those financial reductions should be made. However, Mr Davies, you should not confuse reducing money with cutting surveillance. The purpose of the wider work on surveillance is to maximise our surveillance within whatever budget Catherine has.
Q92 Geraint Davies: What will be the increase in the transmission of disease due to the reduction in surveillance?
Catherine Brown: In terms of these laboratory changes, I do not think there will be any impact. In terms of our surveillance review, I hope we will be able to come out with something that is better, but that will require a bit of flexibility.
Q93 Jonathan Edwards: Can you explain some of your thinking on why you have decided to retain Shrewsbury rather than a Welsh centre, considering the density of livestock in west Wales?
Catherine Brown: That goes to the fact that it is not a decision about post-mortem sites; it is only a decision about laboratory services. As I said, at the moment less than 2% of our testing work goes through the two Welsh laboratories and more than 10% goes through Shrewsbury, which is a bigger centre with more staff. Basically, there are significant savings and potential quality improvements to be had from having a smaller number of larger centres. We are not looking at the full model of a single centre, but we are looking at centres of expertise. You could build up a centre of expertise in Carmarthen, for example, but you would then be recruiting and you would simultaneously be making people redundant elsewhere. First, it would cost more, and, secondly, it would seem wrong to lose the expertise and the staff that we have in other places. The key driver is to do with expertise and scale.
Q94 Nia Griffith: We heard earlier that the BVA is still unsure what tests will remain with the post-mortem and which will be discontinued. Can you explain exactly what the situation will be, and can you tell us whether all lab testing will be moved from Wales?
Catherine Brown: No. All lab testing will not be moved, because a small number of tests will need to be carried out right next to the carcase. I am not an expert, but I obviously work with experts, and we have been through this. With things such as anthrax diagnosis, some of the parasites in samples die very quickly, but you can see them while they are alive. The things that we are keeping include sustaining a microscopic examination in order to discover things like Brucella or Q fever, but that will still be next to the carcase, along with anthrax diagnoses and various other wet preparations. The things that we consider to be most sensitive or most urgent will remain there. However, the large majority of things will obviously not be there-but then, the large majority of things already aren’t.
Q95 Nia Griffith: Some people are very worried about delays, wondering how long it will take for things to go to England and to get the results back. What assurances can you give people that there will not be unacceptable delays in the results coming back?
Catherine Brown: For notifiable diseases, we do not test in Wales, so, if there is a question about onward transmission and economic impact, it will not be affected. As soon as there is any suspicion, we send a vet on site; they look at it, and if they are the slightest bit concerned they send samples hot-foot to Weybridge, or, if it is foot and mouth, to IAH at Pirbright. There is no effect on that.
The kind of samples that we generally get in through the post-mortem side are not always urgent, and at the moment we reckon that less than half of the results come back within 48 hours. It is a very small number of things for which there is a real driver for only a few hours. In those cases, if we thought that there was a really strong veterinary reason, we could use the process we use for notifiable disease samples to send things on.
Q96 Nia Griffith: What do you anticipate will be the maximum time from sample-taking to laboratory testing? For example, if something had to be sent to a particular centre in England-even there, the labs have specialities and so forth-what is likely to be the maximum time from something being taken for testing to actually being tested in the laboratory?
Catherine Brown: It will depend a little on the time of day the post-mortem is received, but I suppose it might be 24 hours.
Q97 Nia Griffith: What sort of assessment have you made of whether there will be any deterioration of samples in that time? Given what you propose, is what will happen to the samples still going to give you the best quality results that you need? What assessment have you made?
Catherine Brown: We have evidence from the three places where we have not done any local testing-our two surveillance centres and the vet schools. Our Newcastle site has been using this system for a year, and there has been no evidence of any deterioration there. However, we are doing studies now to check that. For instance, we are doing some research at Thirsk. The parasitology piece of research that we are going to do will be co-ordinated by the team in Wales, which will be testing and comparing the results. So far, no differences are emerging, but, if there were, we would look at what we could do to ensure that there was no impact.
Q98 Nia Griffith: The NFU talks of having collections made directly from the farm by the local vet. Is that an option that you have considered?
Catherine Brown: That is an important thing to be considered in the context of surveillance and the post-mortem; it will certainly be part of the mix that that group of people will be thinking about.
Mr Paice: It might be worth making the point on surveillance that we need to recognise the dramatic change that there has been over the last few years in the private veterinary sector. Local practices are now much more sophisticated; they are almost centres of excellence, with many vets in a single practice. The days of the single-vet practice are dramatically reduced. That gives us opportunities that we did not have before. As Catherine said, that factor will be built into the wider surveillance work that we are commencing, to see how the agency can work more closely with the larger private-sector veterinary practices, many of which are extremely well equipped.
Q99 Nia Griffith: Will you sum up for us the exact effect that these proposals will have on surveillance and on the early diagnosis of disease outbreaks, and what further actions will you need to take as a result of that?
Catherine Brown: This set of proposals-the changes that we are making now-will have no impact on the things that you describe, except by saving the £2.5 million that I would otherwise have had to save somewhere else. Indirectly, that is a good thing. As for the work that needs to happen on surveillance more widely, and the post-mortems and how we work with others, it is not just about the post-mortems that we do; there is an emphasis on working more with other people, and using other people’s surveillance data more.
Q100 Nia Griffith: How will that £2.5 million be saved? Are you expecting more work to be done with the same number of staff in the English centres? Where are the savings to come from? They will possibly come from buildings, but how will you ensure that the personnel can achieve them?
Catherine Brown: Over the six years, volumes will have dropped by 75%, staff costs will have gone up by 6%, and staff numbers will have dropped by 5%; and this is at a time when there is more technology to make things less human-dependent. We are confident that we will be able to absorb this work, and we would not rule out the possibility of further efficiencies.
Q101 Chair: Thank you. We must move on a little. May I interject to ask if you would consider Saturday testing at any of the laboratories in England if it were necessary, or late working?
Catherine Brown: Yes. We have already said that we will introduce Saturday working; that will be a significant improvement.
Q102 Jonathan Edwards: May I bring you back to the 24-hour delays? I know that it is a bit more complicated than that, as we heard in previous evidence, but the Minister said on the Floor of the House that a 24-hour delay would be unacceptable. You now say that it would take about 24 hours. Is the 24-hour delay being unacceptable still your policy or not? What is the situation?
Catherine Brown: I would say that it would be unacceptable for there to be any delay in foot and mouth or notifiable diseases. It would clearly be very negative and unacceptable in Wales for there to be a material delay in getting the TB test results. None of that will occur. For the minority of tests currently done in Wales that will not still be done in Wales, it will not prove material for many of them, but, if a significant veterinary risk was associated with it, we would commit to taking special measures, as we would with notifiable disease samples.
Q103 Karen Lumley: Last week, we heard about the system that operates in Holland where they collect the carcases in a refrigerated service. Is that something we could use in the UK?
Catherine Brown: It is something that we will want the surveillance review to think about. It is very important that we keep our local vets with local knowledge and relationships with local private vets and farmers. Whether you need to do the post-mortem in the same place where that relationship exists is one of the things that the surveillance review should explore.
Q104 Mr Williams: I return to your relationship with the National Assembly Government. You plan to achieve a single network of laboratories with existing service provision, but animal health and welfare matters are devolved to the Assembly. I was going to ask you about TB, but you mentioned that no TB testing has been undertaken in Wales anyway. However, there could be a situation in other policy areas where there has to be a complementary approach. How will you guarantee such an approach between policy initiatives in Cardiff and your agenda in London?
Catherine Brown: Not all the budgets are devolved. The Welsh Government and Defra agreed that there was benefit in looking at surveillance across England and Wales together, so they did not devolve all budgets. Instead, they set up a steering group, which the CVOs of Wales, England and Scotland are on, to think about evidence and surveillance and to govern those shared budgets. That, I think, is the place where I will go when I get the outcomes from the advisory group, which will include Welsh inputs. I will look to go to that GB-wide place, and talk about that with all the CVOs together, and then we will make submissions both ways-to the Welsh Ministers and Defra Ministers.
Q105 Mr Williams: On TB testing, what was your time frame? You say that no testing is undertaken in Wales, but what was the time frame of those tests? Have there been any particular problems with the time frames?
Catherine Brown: No; there were some issues with the gamma interferon testing, but not so much with the time frames. When we first introduced that test-it is one of the tests that we do for TB-there were some issues with the temperature of the samples, but those problems have now been resolved.
Q106 Mr Williams: Was TB testing ever undertaken at these laboratories?
Catherine Brown: Yes.
Q107 Mr Williams: When did it cease?
Catherine Brown: There was a little testing going on in Carmarthen until fairly recently. When we merged Animal Health and VLA, the decision had been taken to consolidate the TB testing in other sites, so the small amount done in Carmarthen was in the process of being moved.
Q108 Mr Williams: Was it within the last five years?
Catherine Brown: Yes. It was within the last couple of years, certainly.
Q109 Mr Walker: We have also had evidence from the Farmers Union of Wales that referred to an increased role for private laboratories. I wonder what you, respectively, think about that. Do you see an opportunity there for the private sector?
Catherine Brown: One of the things we say is that, strategically, it is not about us insisting on doing everything ourselves. It is about working in partnership, including with the private sector. We want the surveillance review to think about that, and we are going to have somebody from the private sector involved in that review to ensure that we take account of their perspective.
Mr Paice: It is not an ideological issue. It is simply about maximising all of our facilities, whether they are private or, as in some parts of the country, charitable in some sectors, including the state sector. It is a question of how we can work together to maximise our surveillance.
Q110 Mr Walker: In our previous witness session, we heard that the BVA is concerned that the private sector might be interested in the more routine testing, but less so in the specialist work and rarer issues. Is that something that your agency will need to consider?
Catherine Brown: It is certainly something that we need to be mindful of. As we consider where it might be suitable and proper for the private sector to have more of a role, one of the things that we will be thinking about is exactly that. What is the right mix, is there a risk of cherry-picking, and how best should we manage it?
Q111 Jonathan Edwards: We have received some concerns about the deterioration of samples if there is a delay between the post-mortem and testing at the labs. How are you going to address that issue, because that is quite a significant problem, I would imagine?
Catherine Brown: Yes. The things that we think there would be a definite issue with we are keeping next to the post-mortem, which I mentioned at the beginning. We will look to keep those very sensitive things next to the post-mortem. For everything else, it is our experience that it has not impacted on quality at the three places where this is already in place, but we are also doing studies to ensure that there is not any impact. So far no impact is showing. If there were to be any impacts, we would look at how we could mitigate those; there are things we could do.
Q112 Jonathan Edwards: The FUW said in evidence that both Carmarthen and Aberystwyth are centres of excellence. How can you as an agency afford to lose that expertise and staff?
Catherine Brown: Of course, all our laboratories have very good people and are centres of excellence to some degree. We have a lot of experience among the staff at our Welsh labs, but, with the exception of a little bit of specific expertise in the Aberystwyth lab in some of the parasitology, that expertise is generally available across our network.
Chair: Nia Griffith is going to ask about the proposed discontinuation of AHVLA services and the relationships with vets.
Q113 Nia Griffith: There is a relationship between the local community and the vets, but the way things are going there will obviously be an impact. We covered the matter slightly when we mentioned the personalisation of veterinary services and so forth. How do you see the impact of the changed relationship between the farmers and the vets on the testing procedures?
Catherine Brown: This should not make any difference. We will still take post-mortems and samples in the same way as we always have. As I said, there will be some improvements, with Saturday opening and speeding up things coming back. Although there might be some marginal changes around the edges with some of the non-urgent tests, it will not make any difference. What people are worried about is the surveillance relationship-the local VIO and private vet relationship. That is at the core of what we need to think about in our post-mortem and surveillance work. However, it is completely acknowledged that it is at the core, which is why you cannot simply say that a very efficient model would be to have everything in one place. It would not be very efficient if it broke that link and we did not get the submissions any more.
Q114 Karen Lumley: Can you reassure us that, as a result of the changes, Wales and the UK will not be less prepared and less effective if there is a future outbreak of foot and mouth or TB?
Catherine Brown: Yes.
Mr Paice: We cannot overestimate the importance of that. I am absolutely determined that we have every preparedness-indeed, Defra runs exercises to check on our preparedness-for foot and mouth or any other of these diseases, which are peculiarly called exotic diseases. As you have heard, suspected notifiable diseases such as foot and mouth would not be affected by these changes at all, as the samples would go straight to Pirbright.
Q115 Chair: I assume from previous answers that you are both unable to give any guarantee as to the future of the Carmarthen laboratory or any of the other regional laboratories, because there is to be a move to look at what you call restructuring, but, basically, looking at closing some of them down. If everything remained as it is in Carmarthen, would it make it any less likely that Carmarthen remained open?
Catherine Brown: No, I don’t think so. We obviously had to think quite hard about that before we decided that, yes, we could push on with these lab service changes before knowing what we wanted to do about the post-mortems.
Q116 Chair: To summarise, there is a risk to the future of Carmarthen-we should be honest about that-but it has not become more risky as a result of these changes. In short, is that your position?
Catherine Brown: Yes. It has not become more risky; that is correct. But, in order to be clear, I think it is very unlikely that we won’t have a presence in Carmarthen. We have a field site in Carmarthen as well as a lab site, so I don’t think we are talking about not having a presence there. The question will be what is the best way of delivering services.
Q117 Mr Williams: When you talk of Carmarthen, are you referring to Aberystwyth as well?
Catherine Brown: The question was about Carmarthen; so, no, I was referring to Carmarthen. One of the things that we are looking at across the board is how to get the best benefit. You need local field staff, locally based, so we will need field staff and vets in Aberystwyth, and maybe in other places where we do not have them yet in order to improve the service. Whether that means we need dedicated sites is a different question.
Q118 Mr Williams: What is the future of parasitology? You talked about the specialisms of Aberystwyth, but what is their future?
Catherine Brown: We are looking at parasitology across the piece. We do not have deep expertise in parasitology.
Q119 Mr Williams: You said that there was in Aberystwyth.
Catherine Brown: Yes. We have a key person who is our "intelligent customer" for parasitology when we put work out of the agency. We are looking to persuade that person to input into Shrewsbury, and we will be looking to training other people.
One of the risks with the current model is that we have individuals-on their own, nearly-who know a lot of things that it is very difficult to get out of them and into the wider organisation. Having them together in big groups will help with that.
Mr Paice: When these proposals first came to me, my initial reaction was to seek assurance that no post-mortem facilities were at that stage being proposed for closure. What worries most farmers, and it certainly worries the general public, is the idea that potentially infected carcases or parts of carcases are being carried all over the country. It was Catherine’s assurance that those post-mortem facilities would remain in place that persuaded me not to intervene-not that I strictly have the powers to intervene anyway.
Coming to your point about assurances on Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, or anywhere else, the assurance that I would give you stands. We do not want carcases or parts of carcases being carted all over the place. It should be convenient for farmers or their veterinary surgeons, and, while we cannot make guarantees about individual current facilities, the ability to have post-mortems done in a relatively convenient location is very important to farmers.
Q120 Chair: Minister, another of the concerns that has been raised is that, if all the testing is being done somewhere else, say, at Shrewsbury, is there not a danger that the people working there are likely to be slightly biased or in favour of dealing more quickly with samples from the local area than with samples that have come in from Wales? I am not suggesting that they are going to say, "That’s from Wales, so we’ll put it to the back of the queue." However, it might be that the face-to-face relationships that exist with local vets might make it easier for people living in those areas to have their samples done more quickly.
Mr Paice: In most of the laboratories that I have visited, the samples only have numbers anyway, so, even if that bias existed, it would not be easy to practise. I do not really envisage it happening.
Q121 Chair: People certainly have these fears and concerns, which need allaying.
Mr Paice : Of course.
Q122 Chair: They are worried, too, about transport and the speed with which samples can be delivered to laboratories in England. Would you consider giving much more detailed information about how these things would work, such as timings, transport and so on, in order to allay some of the fears that people have?
Catherine Brown: I don’t see why not. Because we are having specialist centres, different things will go to different places, but I don’t see a problem in publishing an outline of how things should work.
Q123 Chair: Minister, do you foresee this leading to a better service overall or simply giving us the same service but delivered at a slightly cheaper price to the taxpayer?
Mr Paice: Catherine may have a specific answer, but, if I may, I shall make a general answer. We are in the process of making pretty dramatic changes to the whole way we go about animal health and welfare. I fully appreciate that it is not the same in Wales, but in England we have developed the new Animal Health and Welfare Board. Experts from outside are now on the inside of the decision-making process; effectively, they will advise us on disease control and animal welfare policies in England. Obviously, Wales is a different issue, but I am convinced that that will make a dramatic change to the way in which we go about our work of surveillance and prevention and so on. The board has met only once. It has only just been formed, so it is early days for making convincing predictions, but its whole purpose is to have a radical re-look at how we go about doing all this and what, indeed, the policies are themselves. They need to be challenged as some of them have been in existence for a long while. We need to see whether there are better policies or a better way of delivering them which may or may not be more cost-effective. That, however, is further down the line.
Yes, it is all about the whole concept of improving what we do and ensuring that the industry feels that it has ownership of disease management and control policies and, therefore, that the decisions taken by the board, via me as the responsible Minister, will be ones that the industry, we hope, is much more comfortable with in the future. I accept that that does not apply to Wales. If the Welsh Government want to set up such a board, that would be for them to do.
Q124 Chair: That sounds very good, but I just think that some of the Welsh farmers we deal with are going to be saying to us, "Is this going to lead to a better service overall for us in Wales, or will it simply be the same service at a cheaper rate, or even a lesser service at a cheaper rate?" What should we tell those farmers?
Catherine Brown: It won’t be a lesser service at a lower rate. At worst case, it will be the same and we will save some money, and we will aim to make it better where we can.
Chair: Thank you very much.