Workers (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:41 pm ar 8 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord de Clifford Lord de Clifford Crossbench 1:41, 8 Chwefror 2024

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and the committee on this excellent report in an area where I want to learn more and of which I want to widen my knowledge. The veterinary industry, in which I work, has faced a recruitment challenge for the past few years. Brexit and the pandemic had a significant effect on the availability of qualified veterinary surgeons. If you speak to many veterinary practices and businesses and ask them what their most significant challenge has been this year and in the past few years, it has been the retention and recruitment of veterinary nurses and veterinary surgeons. The demand for these qualified individuals has increased, due to the significant rise in pet ownership and the additional vets needed to facilitate the export trade in meat and live animals.

The industry has identified three areas which have caused this shortage of labour. The supply of new vets has changed significantly. Back in 2018, the number of vets being registered by the RCVS, the governing body, was 810 new graduates from universities, while the majority of new registrations, 1,158, came from the EU. These numbers changed significantly over the next four years, with 970 new grads being registered from universities and only 329 vets coming from the EU. The reduction in the number of EU vets coming to work in the UK is due to the increasing burden of applying for visas and requiring sponsorship from practices, which causes them increased costs. Also, the RCVS now applies a proficiency in English test, due to the loss of free movement of people.

The second reason, which is more appropriate to today’s debate, is the retention of staff. We are registering significantly more new veterinary surgeons, but the dropout rate from the industry is significant, with the average time of registration for a veterinary surgeon now at seven years. In 2021, the industry looked into what was causing vets to leave the industry. There are varied reasons but some recurring themes: a lack of flexible working; unsatisfactory pay; a poor work/life balance; cultural issues; and a lack of support in a high-stress environment. Since 2021, we have seen an increase in veterinary surgeons’ and nurses’ salaries, but other issues persist. According to the latest BVA Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey, 47% of people questioned said their work/life balance was either not good or terrible, and 25% said that job-related stress was extremely high.

The number of vets registered has started to increase since 2021, but the make-up of the workforce is changing too. Back in 2018, 70% of veterinary nurses and vets worked over 36 hours per week; now, it is just 52%. Part-time and flexible working was 28% in 2018; the latest data shows it is now 36%. Only 50% of the profession work full time. Without doubt, the veterinary industry needs to improve its HR and the management of its staff. These skills are being highlighted and pushed by many organisations, and the industry has started to embrace these skills: other industries should consider this too.

The retirement of long-serving vets within the industry has also increased. The last 10 years have seen notable changes in the ownership structure of practices, with large, established companies purchasing practices throughout the country. A number of veterinary practice owners have sold their practices and, now that they are financially secure, have left the industry, possibly becoming economically inactive, as others have mentioned in the debate.

The sector I work in, and other sectors that have a vocational skills bias, such as doctors, nurses, teachers and the care professions, all meet the demands of their customers to the best of their abilities, but the workload often overwhelms the available workforce and creates stressful and demanding workplaces, resulting in poor morale, increased sickness, increased mental health issues and, ultimately, poor retention. With changes in society’s attitude to work and with many seeking a good work/life balance, I encourage the Minister to invest in research and improved data, echoing the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Bridges and Lord Willetts, that will help us address the issues facing these vocational professions.