I thank Deputy Cahill for bringing forward the Veterinary Practice (Amendment) Bill 2021 and for the opportunity to discuss the effective regulation of the practice of veterinary medicine in Ireland. The roles of the farmer and the vet are the most crucial in all the agrifood sector. There is a symbiotic relationship built on trust, respect and mutual appreciation. One cannot function without the other and both appreciate each other.
However, it is not just at farm level where our vets play such a crucial role. The highly skilled and trained veterinary practitioners uphold the integrity of our global food network as a food-producing nation that exports 90% of what we produce. Through certification functions, veterinarians deliver assurances to our international trading partners regarding food safety and authenticity. Their role will become ever more important in the post-Brexit trading environment. In working with the farmers of Ireland, they assist in ensuring animal health and welfare standards in the livestock sector are maintained at the highest levels, supporting their farmer clients in optimising animal-based production and thus farm profitability, while mitigating the negative impacts of poor animal health on climate and the environment. Outside the agrifood sector, veterinary practices around Ireland also provide ongoing support to the pet-owning public.
The issue of ownership of veterinary practices has arisen in recent years and was examined extensively by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine during the term of the previous Oireachtas. This followed a clarification by the Veterinary Council of Ireland, VCI, that its remit did not extend to the ownership of veterinary practices. The VCI is the statutory body under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, established under the Veterinary Practice Act 2005, as amended, with responsibility for the regulation and management of the practise of veterinary medicine and veterinary nursing in Ireland in the public interest. The council is made up of 19 members: nine elected veterinary practitioners, one elected veterinary nurse and nine appointed members. The appointed members are four nominees of the Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, one of the Minister for Education, two of the National University of Ireland, one of the Director of Consumer Affairs and one of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
The principal function of the VCI is to regulate the practice of veterinary medicine and veterinary nursing in the interests of animal health, animal welfare and veterinary public health. Some of the main functions of the council include protection of the public through the oversight of veterinary education, the maintenance of the register of veterinary practitioners and nurses, the registration of veterinary premises and disciplinary action in cases of professional misconduct. The role and remit of the council are to ensure the highest standards of veterinary medicine through the regulation and management of the professions.
Section 54(2) of the Veterinary Practice Act contains provisions regarding offences relating to the practice of veterinary medicine or use of professional veterinary titles. This section was the subject of much debate in the recent past, particularly in the area of ownership of veterinary practices. Ownership of a veterinary practice is not referenced in section 54(2) of the Act. Consistent with the statutory remit of the VCI, the section refers specifically to the practice of veterinary medicine. On the matter of ownership of veterinary practices, I am aware this has been a sensitive topic in recent years. In January 2018, the VCI clarified in its code of professional conduct that the legislation does not speak to the ownership of practices and thus the council has no legal authority in determining the ownership of practices. In essence, the parameters of the VCI’s powers as established under the Veterinary Practice Act 2005 do not extend to the area of ownership of practices.
Following concerns raised by industry stakeholders, the council engaged in a period of consultation and further analysis. The issue was extensively assessed in a 2019 Grant Thornton report, commissioned by the VCI, entitled Analysis of the VCI Consultation on the Corporate Ownership of Veterinary Practices.
The public consultation for the report undertaken by the council in early 2018 included a survey of the general public; a consultation process whereby any interested parties could submit their views; a survey of the veterinary professions; research and analysis of other veterinary regulators internationally; and research and analysis of other regulated professions in Ireland. I understand the council also benefited from legal advice on the matter, and all of these inputs, together with the results of the consultation process and survey of the public, were consolidated into this report.
Overall, the responses to the introduction of ownership of veterinary practices by corporate entities in Ireland were divided, with some opposed while others favoured the idea. Responses indicated that stakeholders' perspectives on ownership by corporates or non-veterinary professionals can vary depending on the circumstances. There were different views on corporate entities depending on whether the corporate might be in the ownership of veterinary practitioners. Analysis of other professions in Ireland, in addition to veterinary professions in other jurisdictions, is also reflected in the report. Consultations were held with different jurisdictions globally to understand the issue of corporate ownership. It was apparent from the consultations that corporate ownership is prevalent internationally, but how it is regulated varies across the jurisdictions. Most other professions examined do not prohibit corporate ownership.
Regarding any perceived deficiencies concerning existing legislation on the matter, the Grant Thornton report explained that there was no requirement to bring greater legal clarity to the issue. Its view is that the provisions in section 54(2) of the Veterinary Practice Act 2005 do not impact on the matter of ownership directly and that the legislation is broadly consistent with legislation underpinning other regulated professions in Ireland and the veterinary professions in other jurisdictions, in line with the Veterinary Council of Ireland’s role. The Veterinary Council of Ireland code of professional conduct states that veterinary services can only be provided by veterinary practitioners and that they must practise veterinary medicine at and from a registered premises. Practising standards are to be found in the council’s code of professional conduct and the regulations which underpin certificates of suitability which are issued by the Veterinary Council of Ireland in respect of registered premises.
For those veterinary practitioners hoping to provide services at and from specific premises, a registered person must apply for and be in possession of a certificate of suitability issued for that premises by the Veterinary Council of Ireland. A certificate of suitability for the veterinary premises is required before any veterinary service to the public may begin at and from that premises. The certificate of suitability issued in respect of any premises from which veterinary services are provided may only be held in the name of a registered person, namely, a veterinary practitioner or a veterinary nurse. It cannot be issued in respect of a corporate body or in the name of any person who is not a registered person. The regulations relating to that certificate of suitability are a primary means by which the council regulates veterinary services to the public. The code of professional conduct also provides other means by which the Veterinary Council of Ireland regulates.
Veterinary services to the public, the performance of which forms part of the practice of veterinary medicine, must always be provided by the veterinary practitioners who usually practise veterinary medicine at and from the registered veterinary premises. The clinical discretion of the veterinary practitioner is paramount, acting at all times in the interest of animal health, animal welfare and public health. The council’s clearly stated position is that the practice of veterinary medicine is undertaken by a veterinary practitioner at and from a premises, certified and licensed by the council. I am open to proposals which can further strengthen the regulatory framework for the practice of veterinary medicines, if and where evidence is presented of particular regulatory challenges where legislative change may be needed. In that regard, my Department engages in ongoing consultation with the Veterinary Council of Ireland to assess whether any specific amendments are deemed necessary to strengthen the Act. I am happy to consider any such proposed legislative amendments as they arise.
The Veterinary Practice (Amendment) Bill 2021 proposes to amend current legislation such that a veterinary practice can only be owned by a veterinary practitioner. I understand that the central policy reasons cited for proposing to restrict ownership of veterinary practices to registered veterinary practitioners only are that ownership by non-veterinarians leads to increased prices and a diminution of the services provided to Irish farmers, such as a lack of 24-hour cover, and to protect the provision of large animal veterinary services in rural Ireland. The availability of veterinary services and ensuring that there is a competitive market are worthy objectives. The introduction of primary legislation, however, requires careful consideration and scrutiny of all kinds.
Ownership of veterinary practices was the subject of a recommendation from the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, in 2008 which is still outstanding. This Bill may benefit from scrutiny on Committee Stage to determine whether its provisions are consistent with the CCPC recommendation. The provisions of this Bill seek to restrict ownership of veterinary practices to "eligible veterinary practitioners" only. It is unclear what impact this would have on existing practices which are not owned by veterinary practitioners and this aspect will need to be considered further.
All veterinary practices, regardless of ownership, are commercial concerns that can only continue to provide services to the public if they are economically viable. This is consistent with other providers of regulated professional services. While there is an ethical and legal requirement to comply with standards set by relevant regulatory bodies, businesses can only continue providing services if they remain economically viable. These two conditions of providing regulated services are not mutually exclusive and are, indeed, complementary. Professional service providers, such as Ireland’s highly respected veterinary professionals, recognised as operating to the highest standards are likely to retain and increase their client load.
I note the concern that ownership of veterinary practices may be perceived to lead to a diminution of services to the public, such as the requirement to offer 24-7 services. However, it is a legal obligation of every veterinary practice, regardless of ownership, to provide that 24-7 cover for veterinary services. This is a condition in the Veterinary Council of Ireland’s determinations on whether to approve an application for a certificate of suitability, which I referred to earlier. Under the Veterinary Practice Act 2005, a certificate of suitability can only be held in the name of a registered person and the certificate holder is accountable to the Veterinary Council of Ireland in this regard.
As well as restricting ownership of veterinary practices to veterinary practitioners, the Bill also proposes that a certificate of suitability may only be held by an eligible veterinary practitioner. An eligible veterinary practitioner is defined as a veterinarian who is registered with the Veterinary Council of Ireland, owns a veterinary practice in whole or in part and seeks to obtain certificates of suitability for veterinary premises from which that practice can deliver the practice of veterinary medicine to the public. Existing legislation permits a certificate of suitability to be granted to any registered person. A registered person refers to a veterinary practitioner or veterinary nurse who is registered with the Veterinary Council of Ireland.
The continued sufficient availability of veterinary services in rural areas is a concern across many countries in Europe and beyond. However, the Department sees this as a separate issue which is not related to ownership of veterinary practices. As an action arising from the national farmed animal health strategy, the Department researched the distribution and accessibility to farmers of large animal veterinary services in rural Ireland. This analysis suggests large animal veterinary services are available within 20 km of more than 95% of Irish farms. My Department continues to monitor this position closely to ensure Irish farmers are adequately supported with the provision of veterinary services in the best interests of animal health and welfare.
I again thank Deputy Cahill for introducing this Bill and I look forward to listening to the contributions of Deputies. The key for all of us here is to ensure that our animals, both large and small, are cared for by trained, qualified and committed veterinary officials in the four corners of Ireland.