Welsh Affairs Committee writes letter of concern to farming minister seeking further assurances on veterinary laboratory services in Wales.
The Welsh Affairs Committee has today written to James Paice MP, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food at Defra, expressing ongoing concerns about the impact of the proposed closure of some veterinary laboratory facilities in Wales. The Committee has been inquiring into the future of the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) regional laboratories in Wales, following the announcement by AHVLA regarding the proposed discontinuation of laboratory services in Aberystwyth and Carmarthen.
Chair of the Committee David T.C. Davies MP, said:
"In November 2011, the Welsh Affairs Committee invited written evidence on the future of the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) regional laboratories in Wales, at Carmarthen and Aberystwyth. We also held two evidence sessions in November, and visited the AHVLA laboratory in Carmarthen, where we spoke to staff from both sites.
I am writing to you on behalf of the Committee to seek reassurance on a number of matters which we felt were not fully addressed during the evidence session we held with you and the Chief Executive of AHVLA, Catherine Brown, on 29 November 2011. To assist us in continuing to monitor the future of AHVLA laboratories in Wales, the Committee would be grateful for responses to the following questions:
Agriculture is considered a key sector within the Welsh economy. Welsh farms account for approximately 11% of the total UK cattle, with 2 million cattle in South and Mid Wales—the second densest area within the UK for dairy cattle. In addition, there are 5 million sheep in Wales. We are concerned that the centralising of laboratory services out of Wales could have a detrimental effect on the local, rural economy. What account did you give to the importance of agriculture to the Welsh economy and to the density of farm animals in Wales in reaching your decision?
Witnesses expressed concern that the decision to centralise testing would mean that it would be necessary to forward samples for bacteriology and parasitology testing which would otherwise have been tested immediately in Wales. On 13 October 2011, you told the House that a 24 hour delay to diagnosing disease would be unacceptable. However, under your current plans, we are not clear how this would be avoided. Today, over 50% of samples are hand-delivered to the laboratories in Wales. Under the proposed changes, there would now be a delay in testing while they were collected and transported to a centralised location. Could you please give us more information about how delays will be avoided, with information about transport and timings?
We are also concerned about the risk of sample deterioration during transport and during postal transfer. Without a local service, there would be an increase in the number of samples sent out of the country. During the evidence session, we did not receive sufficient reassurances that sample deterioration could be avoided, thereby leading to a need to obtain additional samples from farmers and vets, causing delay to the results. What plans do you have in place to reduce the risk of the samples deteriorating in transit?
There is currently a strong and close relationship in Wales between farmers, local vets and AHVLA staff. This is vital for intelligence gathering and for the identification of new and emerging diseases. We are concerned that the new arrangements if implemented would break this link and erode important relationships, leading to an increased risk to livestock. What assurances can you give us that the closures will not have a negative effect on overall disease and scanning surveillance? What guarantees can you give us that your current plans will lead to an improved and more efficient service?
During the evidence session, Catherine Brown did not recognise the potential impact of the loss of staff knowledge under the proposals. For example, there is currently over 300 years of staff experience in the laboratories in Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. The laboratory in Aberystwyth currently acts as a referral laboratory for diagnostically difficult parasitic diseases, and the decommissioning of laboratory testing at this regional centre could lead to an overall reduction in AHVLA parasitological expertise. We would be grateful for confirmation that sufficient consideration has been given to the knowledge that will be lost to the organisation.
Many witnesses expressed concern that without laboratory testing at Aberystwyth and Carmarthen, it would not be financially viable for them to continue post-mortem examinations in the long-term. This would result in carcasses being transported across country to England for post-mortem. We seek an undertaking from you that you do not intend to remove post-mortem services from Wales.
We appreciate your consideration of this matter. We expect to receive a response by Wednesday 9 May."