Why Future-Proofing Britain’s Veterinary Sector is Key to Animal Health and Welfare
From pet owners to farmers, people rely on the nation’s vets to ensure the health and welfare of their animals. But how can we create a veterinary sector that can meet growing need in an ever-changing world? The House sat down with Malcolm Morley, President of the British Veterinary Association, to discover how Britain’s vets are modernising, and to explore what government can do to help.
Britain is a nation of animal lovers.
Almost 200 years ago, it became the first country in the world to start a welfare charity for animals. Today almost half of all households have a pet.
Looking after the health and welfare of the nation’s animals is the role of the UK’s vets. From remote farms to our busiest cities, the profession ensures that animals are kept in good health. However, with more than 30 million household pets and over 100 million farm animals in the UK, that is a truly enormous task.
It is a challenge that Malcolm Morley is all too aware of.
As a practising vet and the current President of the BVA, Morley has seen first-hand the way that the sector is responding to growing demand. He is understandably proud of the way that his members are adapting to meet the changing needs of society and making a real difference to the health of the nation’s animals.
“Vets are pretty amazing people,” he tells The House. “A lot of people see it as a kind of calling. They're devoting their lives to animal health and welfare.”
We may not always realise it, but that contribution ultimately benefits us all. From ensuring a safe and humane food supply chain to tending to a much-loved family pet, vets are an essential part of national life.
But with a contracting workforce, the profession is struggling to keep pace with increasing demands from farmers and pet owners. This has been exacerbated by the explosion in pet ownership sparked by the Covid pandemic.
Morley believes that the profession needs to adapt to respond to changing times. He sees this as a responsibility shared by both the profession itself and government.
On his side, he is committed to modernising the profession to ensure that more is done to support hard-working vets and ensure that there is a workforce in step with modern needs. This is, he believes, the only way that skilled and qualified vets will be retained within the profession.
“We need to make the workplace fit the workforce, not the workforce fit the workplace,” he tells us. “Modernisation is key – we need to make our workplaces fit for the 21st century.”
However, Morley is equally clear that steps taken by the profession to modernise can only ever be part of the solution. He argues that government also has a critical role to play in updating the legislative and regulatory environment within which his members operate.
He points out that the key legislation that regulates the sector, - the Veterinary Surgeons Act, was introduced in the 1960s. Morley feels that the regulatory settlement established by that legislation increasingly feels out of step with the profession, with society, and with other regulated sectors.
Modernisation is key – we need to make our workplaces fit for the 21st century.
“It is completely out of date and it's a credit that everybody's just kept putting up with it for so long,” he says. “But we are at the stage where it's beyond the tipping point and it is having an impact on our profession.”
He sees some signs that legislators do understand the changing shape of the sector, but in other areas, he warns that delays to legislation, and outdated regulatory rules, are acting as a brake on progress toward a modern and effective animal welfare system.
One area he highlights as being of particular concern is the slow passage of the Kept Animals Bill.
Initially introduced in 2021, the Bill was intended to deliver key manifesto commitments to end the export of live animals for slaughter, crack down on puppy smuggling, and ban the keeping of primates as pets.
However, with pressure on parliamentary time, the Bill appears to have stalled. Morley tells us that this delay is a major source of frustration across the profession.
“This is a bill which has a lot of the most pressing animal health and welfare issues all rolled into one,” he explains. “It could make a massive difference to animal health and welfare. We would really like to see it come back onto the parliamentary agenda.”
Morley is certainly not alone in this view. A desire to strengthen legislation to protect the welfare of animals has also struck a chord with the wider public.
A recent online petition to find the time to pass the Bill into legislation attracted over 100,000 signatures, reflecting the weight of public concern about animal health and welfare issues. This has led to a Westminster Hall Debate being scheduled for early December. Morley hopes that public and political pressure will encourage the government to identify space within the legislative timetable to pass this critical Bill into law.
And the Kept Animals Bill is not the only piece of legislation that concerns Morley. He points to the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, as another area where vets believe there is scope to strengthen legislation by adding some much-needed protections. He tells The House that legislators need to “stop and think,” to ensure that a proper regulatory framework is in place when it comes to gene editing of animals. He is hopeful that this issue will be picked up by peers when the bill enters its Lords Committee stage later this month.
What is clear throughout our conversation is the sheer number of touchpoints between the profession, government, and the lives of farmers and households across the country.
Morley shares his views on diverse challenges, from vet medicines in Northern Ireland becoming unavailable due to Brexit, to finding new ways to minimise the use of non-stun slaughter whilst respecting and meeting the needs of different UK communities.
In many ways, the wide-ranging nature of the discussion reflects the way that veterinary science is so central to many of the everyday functions that we take for granted in the UK, from buying food in a supermarket to walking the dog in a park.
As the profession steps forward to embrace change, Morley hopes that government will also play its own role in creating a profession ready for the future. That combination, of professional and political action, will ultimately benefit the nation’s pet owners, shoppers, and animals alike.
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