I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important Bill because it affects the agricultural sector, which is vital to our economy and our exports.
The veterinary profession has played a major role in the development of the agri-food sector. The professionalism and commitment of its members in the area of animal diseases has enabled our livestock sector to progress and improve and by so doing, provide a safe raw material for our developing food industry. Developments in veterinary medicine and treatment techniques have ensured that considerable progress has been made in combating a range of animal diseases which would have threatened the stable food supply we now take for granted.
Veterinary practice was traditionally based on animal medicine and disease control and prevention. However, in more recent years food safety, trade and animal welfare have become extremely important issues. The veterinary profession now carries out inspections and certification functions at various stages in the food chain to verify both the standard of animals entering the chain and the standards of the processing operations. This is vital to the security of the food chain and the high standard of Irish food products on the international market.
It is important, given the onerous responsibility placed on veterinary practitioners, that regulation of the profession meets the highest standards. Regulation should also facilitate the further development of the profession and its individual members. Some of the legislation goes back almost 70 years. While it was appropriate at the time, it no longer keeps pace with changing practices and technology. This new Bill updates the regulations and takes account of the various changes in veterinary medicine that have taken place in recent years, as well as planning for the needs of future development.
I welcome in particular that the Bill makes it an offence for a person other than a veterinary practitioner to practise veterinary medicine. Stringent penalties, which can range up to €130,000 and-or five years imprisonment, are provided in the case of a first offence.