I AM always suspicious when I hear that a batch of work, in whatever field, is to be put out to tender. I am particularly sceptical when it is the public sector that is doing this, be it local authorities or central government.
Especially as they invariably say that the prime purpose is not to cut costs but to improve the service and ensure “value for money”. I would like to debate with some of them exactly what they mean by “value for money”.
My reasons for being suspicious were confirmed a few weeks ago when the plight of workers who provide personal care to people in their own home was highlighted in the national news.
Most of these workers work for private care companies which have presumably tendered for the work to the local authority. And presumably been awarded the contract largely on the basis of lowest cost.
How do such companies manage to keep their costs so low? By paying their staff appallingly low wages that in terms of the hours spent on a shift is often below the minimum hourly wage.
They get round the law on this by only paying their staff when they are actually in people’s homes caring for them and not for the time spent travelling between calls. Travelling time which can often be substantial.
So when I read about the tendering process that is currently underway for TB testing the national herd from April 2015 onwards, I couldn’t help but be cynical about the whole thing. Especially when I read the quote from the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s (AHPA) veterinary director, Simon Hall, on the Government’s website:
“Testing will always be performed by a fully qualified vet but the new arrangements will help ensure that on-farm testing is as effective as it is possible to be in detecting disease, and that the taxpayer is only being asked to pay what is necessary for the testing.”
Weasel words which, when decoded, mean that it will be done at the cheapest possible rate. Now, one could of course argue that the taxpayer deserves to get the testing done as cheaply as possible. However, that ignores the question of value for money.
I suspect that many of those vets who end up doing the testing will be from across the channel where veterinary salaries are frequently lower than the generally already pitifully low salaries that are paid to many vets in practice in the UK.
The reasons for these low salaries are too numerous to cover in this piece and at any rate are incidental to the point I am making here.
I have no dislike or disrespect for our European colleagues. Those I have had the pleasure of encountering have generally been a joy to work with. What I would say, though, is that they will almost certainly be prepared to work for less money than most home- grown graduates because they will have different personal agendas.
And I suspect that many of them will have little understanding of the structure of UK agriculture and the pressures that farmers are currently under. Nor of how the time spent performing a TB test can be usefully spent discussing all manner of animal health and welfare-related issues based on a full understanding of the client’s farming system.
APHA reassuringly states in the same press release containing the quote above that: “APHA understands the importance of the relationship between individual farmers and their vets in protecting the health and welfare of animals.
“For this reason Delivery Partners are contractually required to offer testing work to veterinary businesses operating within their geographical region.”
I am of the opinion that this does not necessarily mean what on first sight we take it to mean. I suspect that “veterinary businesses operating within their geographical region” can easily mean a contract TB testing company that has a business address “within their geographical region”.
Or a contract TB testing company that has TB testers all over the country who are “operating within their geographical region”.
Even if it did mean what we might at first sight assume, i.e. an existing farm animal or mixed practice “operating within their geographical region”, I am fairly certain that the fee on offer from AHPA’s preferred “delivery partners” (in plain English: the companies awarded the TB testing contracts) will be substantially lower than that already being paid to the practices concerned.
Some of whom will no doubt cry “foul” but accept anyway in an attempt to maintain veterinary staff at a reasonable level in order to cope with out-of-hours work. Others will see it as one step too far, lay off assistant vets and try vainly to make up the difference in lost income by working even harder.
We are likely to see one of the biggest shake-ups in farm animal practice since the horse was replaced by the tractor.
In the same aforementioned press release, APHA has cunningly covered all bases by stating: “Livestock keepers will be able to express a preference for a particular sub-contracted veterinary business to do their testing, and this will be honoured where possible. Keepers who wish for testing to be done by other vets can continue to pay for this privately.”
In other words, farmers who kick up a fuss if their own veterinary practice is not the one contracted to TB test their herd will be told politely that they are within their rights to have the testing done by whichever vet they wish. But … they will have to pay for it.
All in all this looks to me like another attempt by government to bash the private veterinary profession and our colleagues in the public sector seem happy to be complicit in this process.
No doubt when the time eventually comes that many large animal practices are no longer viable and swathes of the rural community are bereft of meaningful 24-hour veterinary cover, that self-same government will wring its hands and wonder how it came to be so.
Examining its proposal to put out for tender the TB testing of cattle in 2015 will be a very good place for it to start to find the answer.