Veterinary Practice (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]

I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

I am pleased to be allowed to present the Veterinary Practice (Amendment) Bill 2021 to the Dáil. The urgent need for this amendment to the Veterinary Practice Acts 2005 and 2012 has arisen because the Veterinary Council of Ireland made significant changes to its code of professional conduct regarding the ownership of veterinary practices in 2017. The Veterinary Council of Ireland appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine, on 21 May and 24 September 2019. Its presentations to the committee on why changes were made to the code of ownership of veterinary practices were very unsatisfactory.

As a result of these presentations, and following consultations with all stakeholders involved, I deemed it necessary to bring forward this amendment to reinforce the original legislation, which was not specific on the ownership of veterinary practices and without which regulation of veterinary antibiotic and antiparasitic use, and other activities such as TB testing, animal welfare, etc., cannot be regulated. It is imperative that the legislation is clear. I stress at this point that if veterinary practitioners do not own practices, it is impossible for the Veterinary Council of Ireland to regulate them. This is a public health issue.

On 14 December 2017, the Veterinary Council of Ireland deleted four sections of the code and one new section was inserted.

The amendment Bill brought forward today is focused on that. That decision was not in the interests of public health. In cases of lay ownership it is impossible to regulate veterinary practice, which leads to inherent dangers for the consumer. Lay ownership of practices has clearly been shown in other countries to reduce greatly the availability of 24-hour services. We have seen that in Derry, where a corporate took over a practice, and in the lack of services in neighbouring Donegal. It also has been shown to be cost prohibitive and, as a direct result, will have a major impact on animal welfare as animal owners will not be able to afford the cost of what will be charged by corporates for a 24-hour service. The cost of services for consumers in both urban and rural areas will significantly increase, with a reduced service, as has proven to be the case in many other countries. Urban practices are more financially attractive than rural ones. They will be cherry-picked by lay operators, who will make decisions that will not be in the interests of animal welfare for rural or urban consumers. This will lead to a reduction in services, and increased costs will be the inevitable consequence.

A survey in January 2018 showed that 86% of veterinary practitioners were in favour of retaining ownership of veterinary practices. All these were members of Veterinary Ireland. Another survey in October 2020 showed that 80% were in favour of only veterinary practitioners being allowed to own veterinary practices. Some 77% of veterinary practitioners who responded to the survey said lay ownership would be bad for the public. Lay ownership makes it impossible for the Veterinary Council of Ireland to protect human health and animal welfare.

I wish to make a number of points to emphasise that this amendment is essential. Monopolisation by corporate bodies will lead to a narrowing of competition, an increase in fees and a reduction in credit terms to the public. Twenty-four service throughout the country will be compromised. Inefficient, out-of-hours cover in rural areas and significant increases in fees for the provision of services will have a direct impact on animal welfare. The experience of the UK corporate model suggests the discontinuation of large animal veterinary services on a 24-hour basis. Cherry-picking of profitable services and clients, with a significant emphasis on urban areas with a large number of small animal practices where they have the ability to increase the profit margin significantly, and discontinuation of voluntary work in agricultural shows, point-to-points and the care of injured wildlife will all be consequences of corporate ownership of practices. There will also be the discontinuation of participation on a voluntary basis on State bodies and committees.

Veterinary practitioners employed by corporate bodies will be constrained to use only drugs and services of virtually integrated corporate groups that own pharmaceutical companies, laboratories, referral hospitals and crematoria, which will compromise their professional discretion. They will be required to work to protocols established by corporate bodies to maximise returns. Investigation and treatment regimes will be dictated by management to maximise profits. This will compromise ethical standards. Corporate entities will be driven by the need to return profits to their investors. It will lead to a deprofessionalisation of the profession. The future generations of veterinary practitioners will have limited opportunities. At present, large animal practices are having great difficulty attracting newly graduated veterinary practitioners, and if the opportunity to purchase practices is denied to these young practitioners, this will become even harder. Newly graduated veterinary practitioners would see entering large animal practice as an unviable financial option. Without the opportunity to purchase and buy into practices, current and future generations of graduates will choose a different career path. In the long term it will result in a lack of professional motivation and, therefore, a fall in professional performance.

We are very fortunate to have excellent veterinary services in our urban and rural areas at a reasonable cost to the consumer, with the highest ethical standards prevailing. The Veterinary Practice (Amendment) Bill 2021 will ensure public health and animal welfare remain priorities and veterinary practices can be enforced and regulated. This amendment will be attractive to young, newly graduated veterinary practitioners, as they will see career progression for themselves in both large and small animal practices. This is essential to attract young veterinary practitioners into this part of the industry. Most importantly, the Veterinary Council of Ireland will be able to regulate veterinary practices successfully, which will ensure public health and animal welfare standards are protected and maintained. This is my reason for bringing forward this amendment. I believe it is essential to ensure the high ethical standards of our veterinary practices are maintained and protected.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Senator Pippa Hackett)

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.

I want to clarify that Deputy Fitzmaurice wishes to speak in this section as well. Is he on the list?

Yes, that is fine.

I thank the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, for being here. I commend and thank Deputy Cahill for introducing this Bill to the House. As a member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I express my thanks to Deputy Cahill for his steady chairing of the committee. We do not always agree on everything, as I am sure the Deputy will acknowledge, but I have found him to be incredibly fair with all members of all political parties.

This Bill is a good example of Deputy Cahill seeing a potential problem for Irish agriculture and bringing forward a pragmatic proposal to address it. To my mind, this Bill is introducing nothing new or controversial. It is simply bringing us back to the position we were in before the Veterinary Council of Ireland revised its guidelines in 2017. My understanding is that the council revised those guidelines when it came to understand that there was no statutory basis to limiting the ownership of veterinary practices to veterinary practitioners. The current network of veterinary practices in Ireland has been referred to as the hold-out against the trend of corporate ownership which has developed elsewhere.

There is good reason for Ireland to hold out, given that locally owned veterinary practices complement our unique family farm network. The Minister of State essentially acknowledged that the horse has not bolted yet but indicated, in many respects, that we will wait until it has bolted before doing anything about it. This legislation is timely and it is apt that we are discussing it now. There are good practical reasons for seeking to limit the ownership of practices to vets.

We know that internationally, where corporates have acquired local practices, there has been a derogation of the services offered. In February 2018, an attorney from the legal affairs division of the department of consumer affairs in the state of California issued a lengthy legal opinion stating that corporate ownership had amounted to corporate entities ultimately "practising the licensed profession of veterinary medicine". She went on to state that the employment agreements contain net revenue percentage incentives to sell the corporation's animal care products that may or may not be in the best interests of the animal and that this creates an environment where veterinarians may believe that their employment is at risk if they are not selling those products. A 2019 survey of the veterinary profession carried out in Britain heard concerns from many practising vets. One said that it was a great mistake to allow non-vets to own practices because as soon as they take over, the "prices go sky high". Another said that the ability of huge corporates to do just as they please will continue to get worse. There are references to a "commercialised profession" more interested in commercial gain for large conglomerates than in caring for patients and clients. When corporate ownership was permitted across Britain, the proportion of corporates went from 0% to 10% of all practices between 1999 and 2009. It had grown to 50% by last year and is forecast to eclipse 70% by next year. It is quite clear that we need to make sure that this horse does not bolt.

These are the same corporate players that are currently just dipping their toes into the Irish water. We have witnessed what large-scale corporate ownership could mean for rural communities with the experience in the Minister's constituency of Donegal Animal Hospital. Having been acquired by a corporate, we saw a situation develop which almost resulted in the loss of the 24-hour service in that county. Fortunately, that situation was resolved but it was local veterinary practitioners who ensured that the service was maintained, not the new corporate entity. We cannot allow a situation to arise whereby corporate entities can put pressure on local vets to increase margins through either delivering a poorer service to smaller or more peripheral farms, or even through incentivising the sale and use of veterinary medicinal products we are seeking to decrease reliance on.

Our farmers practice, and rightly so, the highest standards of animal husbandry anywhere in the world. We need practitioners in this field to rely on their own expert judgment rather than the interests of a new and separate master whose primary motivation will always be profit. It is important to note that this Bill is supported by Veterinary Ireland, while the majority of vets oppose corporate ownership entirely. I encourage all Members to support it, not simply because vets agree with the proposal before the House but because it is quite clearly the right thing to do. Some aspects of society, and particularly of the corporate world, need to be tightly regulated and this is quite clearly one of them, especially in the context of what could become a global crisis in antimicrobial resistance. We must ensure that the people at the coalface who are prescribing medicines for animals on farms and for our pets have a long-term interest in the community and in the welfare of those animals.

On the issue of veterinary medicinal products, I ask the Minister of State to urgently seek to resolve the impasse between the Department and those in the licensed merchant sector with regard to EU directive 2019/6. So-called "responsible persons" in the licensed merchant sector and pharmacists are expertly trained to provide services locally that meet the highest standards and the needs of our farming communities. Many of them watched the hearings of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and saw the cross-party unanimity on the question of a continuing role for them, particularly in the context of an almost identical regime in the North, and of Britain availing of a derogation that the Irish Government chose not to. I understand that those people who graduated in September 2019 from a course that cost €995 were addressed by none other than the current Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I have no doubt that at the time that the Minister spoke to them about how their hard work and study would pay off as they embarked on new careers. What does he intend to ask them to do with their costly training, which now appears to be pointless? What will the Department do to rectify that situation?

Again, I commend Deputy Cahill on bringing forward this very important legislation. I encourage and implore the Minister and the Minister of State to approach this constructively and positively. I look forward to further deliberations on Committee Stage to make sure this Bill is as robust and strong as possible and can withstand any challenges that may present. The horse has not yet bolted. We are in a unique situation whereby we know what will happen if this type of legislation is not introduced. We have seen the consequences elsewhere, across the water, in other parts of Europe and across the globe. Now is our time to make sure that the bolts are tightened and that we have a veterinary system in this country of which we can all be proud.

No doubt we will keep a tight grip on the reins.

I would like to be associated with Deputy Carthy's remarks about Deputy Cahill. He has been a very fair Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, of which I am also a member. I also welcome the Minister of State to the House.

The network of Irish family farms has a unique and personal relationship with the country's vets. Our vets know the farms that they deal with. They know the history of the livestock, the kind of land they are dealing with and the farmers' needs and demands. This unique relationship must be protected. We must ensure that this important relationship, which works for everyone involved, continues unimpeded. One thing that is certain when it comes to the welfare of our agriculture sector is that nothing can be left to chance. We have seen that at the aforementioned Oireachtas committee in the context of the demands of our foresters and the situation in which they find themselves. We have also seen it when it comes to the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and how seemingly small details like the wording of parts of the good agricultural and environmental conditions can have a huge bearing on the ability of farmers to farm their land. Of course, we have seen how the setting of ambitious targets without adequate preparation have left those industries reliant on horticultural peat in fear of their livelihoods.

In 2017, the VCI analysed its code of conduct and clarified that contrary to previous interpretations, there is no statutory basis for requiring the ownership of veterinary practices to be limited to practising vets. This has the potential to open the door to corporate ownership, which could have a severe and detrimental impact on animal health and the ability of our farmers to get the help they need when they need it. Why do we have these fears? First, there is the corporate mentality that has the habit of putting profit margins ahead of the common good. Right now, veterinarian-owned practices have a unique relationship and bond with our farmers. They feel that it is an absolute necessity to ensure that a 24-7 service is available to all farmers and that the same high standards would apply, no matter the size of the farm. If such decisions were left to corporate-owned practices, then profit margins could dictate who is worth calling to and who is not. This would have a significant impact on small farmer's livelihoods. This is not the kind of service that would be good for our farmers, their livestock or the industry as a whole.

Second, there is the matter of standards. Right now there are concerns that corporates incentivise the sale of antibiotics.

We are in a time when the animal welfare policies in the EU and Ireland are moving in opposite directions. The EU is trying to ensure that antibiotics are only used where absolutely necessary. Otherwise, their effectiveness may fall and an animal health crisis will be on our hands.

Then there is the issue of oversight. Individual vets are overseen by the Veterinary Council of Ireland but corporate practices themselves are not. This could put vets in an uncomfortable situation, being torn between the demands of their employers and those of the regulatory body. Veterinary Ireland is in favour of practices being owned by vets and a Behaviour & Attitudes poll from March 2019 found that the majority of vets are against corporate ownerships. This is not without good reason.

History shows that once corporate ownership of veterinary practices takes hold, their growth is rapid. Thankfully, only ten practices in the South are owned by these businesses but in Britain and the North, the rate of corporate ownership went from 0% to 10% between 1999 and 2009, and grew to 50% by 2020. It has been forecast that this could reach 70% by 2022. We cannot risk this happening and that is why I am supporting this Bill to prohibit anyone other than a veterinary practitioner from owning a practice. Our family farmers are under enough pressure. They do not need any more unexpected challenges coming their way.

I thank the Minister for being present and I wish to pay a compliment to Deputy Cahill. As well as bringing this Bill forward, he is Chairman of our committee. With Deputies Carthy and Martin Browne and the Senators on the committee, we might have disagreements but it is an enjoyable committee to be in, and I have been on three of them. Deputy Cahill is very constructive. He raps us on the knuckles when we need it but he is a fair Chairman so I want to compliment him on that.

The first thing is that we need cattle in the country for all vets to survive. On the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, scheme, the Minister will notice that his Department sent out letters to farmers at different times to tell them how they were getting on. Farmers and their sons might have joined their herd numbers together and there are farmers that have dealer numbers as well. They have hammered it all together in May and they have blown a lot of farmers out of it with the BEAM scheme. I do not know if it was designed that way or what the reason is. The message went out in January or February that everything was sound and lovely. When couples could not get married they decided to marry their herd numbers in recent weeks. This ended up blowing up the BEAM scheme for a lot of farmers who had applied for it so I ask the Minister to look at that.

Deputy Carthy touched on the licensed merchants. These people need a solution. I endorse everything Deputy Carthy has said for the simple reason that they have done their courses. We can say that nothing is changing and that if one has a piece of paper, one can go anywhere. That is right and they stayed on but one will look well if one goes to the vet and asks for a prescription before going to Johnny down the road in the co-op. Farmers will have a puss on them if that happens. That needs to be looked at.

On this Bill, one will get a vet quicker than a doctor in this country and that is the reality. If one has a cow calving at 2 a.m, 3 a.m., 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or any night of the week, within 15 to 20 minutes one will have a vet on the scene. One could wait three, four or five hours for a doctor. That service is great, as is the relationship between the vet and the farmer. The vets around the country who are giving that service must be commended. Problems have started happening in cities but it has moved to certain counties and we are aware of it because the Minister was on the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the previous Dáil. We are aware of the problems that have started in other areas. The Minister of State stated earlier that 24-7 cover is required and that is true but a vet can provide 24-7 cover and tell someone that he or she will be with them in three or four hours because he or she is with Johnny, Paddy and Mary before that. That still ticks the box that covers the vet. It does not provide the service that there is now.

I have a near relation who is a vet. As a youngster he worked in different countries and he was down in the south of England. I just happened to be talking to him one weekend when he was on call and they had to cover about 80 or 90 miles. They were going into the side of London and some of that farmland is not as intensive as it is here. That showed me that when corporate entities are looking after something or taking over something, money is the bottom line for the likes of them. We have a seriously good relationship between vets and farmers around the country. There is a trust in every farmer to ring one's local vet and there is a relationship there. The vet nearly knows the cattle the farmer has in most situations to be frank about it and he or she knows the type of farmer involved.

However, when an entity comes in, let us be blunt about the fact that some of them are coming in from other countries that want to take over the different practices here. There will be the odd vet who will look at the money. They will ask to be shown the money and they will want to take it but we have to think of more than the vet in this. We have to think of the farmer, the service and the country. If one listened to the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, she talked about Ireland. We export a lot of product and we need vets to certify everything that goes out. We have a high standard of animal welfare and we need to keep that going because we are competing with other countries.

We need to make sure that we keep this relationship between the local vet and the local farmer going, because we need to think of animal welfare. If a cow is calving and she is left for seven or eight hours, what situation would she be in? At the moment, within 15 minutes one will have a local vet on the scene no matter what hour of the day or night it is, if one has a ewe lambing for example. This is the service we get throughout the country and we need to appreciate that. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is mighty at shoving its nose into some things but when it came to competition in the beef trade, it was not half as fond at looking at the likes of the factories. It likes to rattle the farmer then, however, and it would nearly leave them with no vets if it could, only big corporate entities in different places.

We cannot have the west of Ireland or a county with one vet on call at weekends and shut down the rest. I will mention the likes of County Galway, for example, where I live. It is as near for me to come to Dublin as it is for me to go to Connemara where Deputy Ó Cuív is. One cannot have one vet on call in a county if the corporate entities take over all the practices and that is what is shaping up, whether we like it or not.

We have seen the first red flag that has been raised and we are lucky that we saw it. It was in the Minister's county that the first flag was raised of problems arising. It is good to get a warning and one can learn from a warning or if a mistake is made. We are legislators and we should let this Bill into the committee. I am sure Deputy Cahill will bring us through all of it, along with the legal people and everyone, and we will thrash it out. I ask one thing of the Minister, I have heard a few bits of stuff here and there about this being a Private Members' Bill. I will ask the Minister to send it into our committee as soon as possible, because the clock is ticking on what is happening.

I understand that there are certain practices in cities that are looking at the small animal sector. I understand there is pretty good money to be had from giving a bit of Ivomec, or whatever they give them, to dogs or cats. These guys are trying to hone in on that sector and they have diverted people. If one looks at England as an example, it has gone down the road of getting people to insure the small animals. This is the new craic that is going on. People are insuring the dog, donkey, pony and everything. The vet will come out then and he or she will nearly bring the animal to the operating theatre to do everything with it but the bottom line on it is that the ordinary person is paying. When one looks at a farmer, he or she could not be insuring every ewe and cow in the place. We need to do realistic things. Farmers would not be able to afford the way that these new corporates are bringing people. Let us not fall into the trap that other countries have fallen into.

Let us make sure that we stand up for, and give credit to, the type of service we have got in recent years. I ask the Minister, the Taoiseach or whoever chooses to push Bills forward or hold them back, to put this Bill into our committee as soon as possible. That way, we will get the ball rolling. The clock is ticking. There have been warnings in Donegal and in cities around the country where things are happening. We need to make sure we stay ahead of it. As Deputy Carthy said, we are lucky insofar as we can get ahead of these issues if we take action now through working together in the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We will take input from the Minister and anybody else because we are always willing to listen. We should get working on this Bill as soon as possible, get it through the Dáil and into action to make sure we protect the farmers who rely on vets and the service they give.

I thank the Deputy. I hope there are not too many vets prescribing Ivomec for dogs or cats. That would not be a great idea.

I thank Deputy Cahill for bringing forward the Veterinary Practice (Amendment) Bill 2021. I recognise the tremendous commitment he has made and his investigation into, and assessment of, this issue as a member of the previous agricultural committee. I also recognise the work he has done in drafting this Bill and bringing it forward on Second Stage so that it can proceed to Committee Stage. I thank everyone who has made a contribution on the Bill.

As the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, outlined earlier, the relationship between farmer and vet is truly unique. The vet exists because of the farmer and the farmer exists because of the assistance of the vet. There are few relationships like it. A farmer can make a phone call and the vet is likely to be in the yard within 15 or 20 minutes. It is that speed, that skill and that relationship that ensures that a calf or lamb lives or dies. I think I speak on behalf of everyone here tonight when I say that this is the key priority for all of us. We must protect and maintain the world-class service our vets provide to the farmers across Ireland for both large and small animals.

Confidence in the ethical provision of veterinary services has never been more important than in today’s modern society. Our expectations of how animals are cared for has never been higher. Veterinary practitioners and veterinary nurses are central in supporting farmers and the animal-owning public in caring for their animals to the highest standards. When representing Ireland internationally and in trade discussions with prospective partners, I can always speak with pride of the robust food safety and authenticity systems we have in place. These are underpinned by veterinary certification procedures that allow Irish food to be marketed as a premium product around the world while supporting the livelihoods of thousands of people in every part of Ireland.

I am encouraged to note from the VCI that we have never had more vets registered to practice in this jurisdiction than is the case at present. As of March this year, there were 3,061 vets registered with the VCI. Over 66% of those were associated with 769 private practices providing services to the public. The data suggests Ireland is in a good position in terms of the availability of veterinary expertise in serving the public, which should promote healthy competition.

A concern raised in respect of the Bill relates to the perception that ownership of veterinary practices by non-veterinary practitioners could lead to a loss of competition and, therefore, result in higher prices or a drop-off in services provided. That is not something anyone here or in the farming community wants or needs to see. The Minister of State referred to the fact that the Companies Registration Office identifies a significant number of veterinary practices that are now incorporated. It is fair to surmise that many of these practices are owned by non-veterinary practitioners. The VCI is the State’s independent statutory body responsible for the regulation and management of the practice of veterinary medicine and veterinary nursing within Ireland in the public interest. In order to offer veterinary services from a practice, it must first have attained a certificate of suitability, COS, granted by the VCI. The COS can only be granted in the name of a registered person, that is, a veterinary practitioner or a veterinary nurse. Part of the VCI’s conditionality in approving a COS application is that the practice must commit to providing 24-7 emergency service to their clients in compliance with the code of professional conduct. This requirement is incumbent on all veterinary practices regardless of ownership. Department officials work closely with the VCI on policy issues and are open to considering additional measures which can further boost the existing regulatory framework for the practice of veterinary medicine in Ireland. Separately, I note Deputy Cahill’s concerns in respect of the provision of large-animal veterinary services in rural Ireland in support of our farmers.

As I said at the outset, any farmer in Ireland will tell of the value of their vet and their services which can be called upon often in challenging circumstances in the middle of the night. Farmers often remark , as Deputy Fitzmaurice mentioned, that it is sometimes easier to get a vet than a doctor at difficult times. The adequate provision of large-animal veterinary services is something my officials and I will continually assess and it is something to which I am deeply committed.

Thankfully, analysis to date indicates that rural Ireland is well served with veterinary services which are critical in supporting animal health and welfare. We must ensure that this network is protected into the future, through whatever means necessary, so that this generation of farmers as well as the next can be safe in the knowledge the vet will be on the other end of the phone at 3 a.m. when they are needed in the farmyard.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I thank Deputy Cahill for his work in bringing it forward. I look forward to seeing it progress to Committee Stage when the various issues it raises will be further examined and teased out. I also look forward to Deputy Cahill's closing remarks.

I thank the Minister and the other Members of the House for some of their comments about the work required to bring forward this Bill and the work of the agricultural committee. There are three other members of the committee here and I enjoy working with them. We have done a lot in that committee in the past 12 months.

I will address a few points. The Minister and the Minister of State made the point that the Companies Registration Office has identified a significant number of veterinary practices that are now incorporated. That is correct, but the vast majority of them are owned by veterinary practitioners. Those practices become limited companies for various business reasons. While a number of practices in this country have been bought by laypersons and corporate interests, the number still is not huge. We can close this door. As Deputy Carthy stated, the horse has not bolted yet. We can still close the stable door before it is too late.

These companies have come in and are picking rich companies. They started with equine practices and moved to small-animal practices. They will move on to large animal practices in strong agricultural areas. That model has not worked in any other country so how can we expect it to be any different here? It is a more immediate concern in urban areas. People who take their pet for a service in a local veterinary clinic will find that the prices area an awful lot higher. I have been talking to a large number of vets in my research for this legislation. There have been instances where a corporate buyer has taken over a small animal specialist clinic and services have become restricted while the costs have gone up significantly and quickly to exorbitant levels. One of the pet projects of those corporate buyers is to sell pet insurance. As soon as a corporate buyer takes over a small animal practice, the main job in the practice is to sell pet insurance. The latter makes the profit margins a great deal more attractive.

The principal issue and concern I see with this is the Veterinary Council of Ireland. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, will be aware that the Veterinary Council appeared before the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine on two occasions in 2019. It gave reasons for changing the interpretation of the legislation that was in place and change it did. For a number of years, the Acts interpreted that only veterinary practitioners could own a veterinary practice. That existed for virtually ten years after the legislation was passed. It changed that legislation and changed its interpretation of that legislation. After then allowing a number of high-profile practices to be bought, the Veterinary Council set about a consultation process with stakeholders within the industry. This was definitely a case of putting the cart before the horse. Then, after that consultation, it decided that the changed interpretation was correct. I fundamentally disagreed with that, as did the vast majority of committee members.

By allowing laypeople to own veterinary practices, the regulation of those practices will be beyond the powers of the Veterinary Council. That is the nub of the issue. If one is going to regulate, one will need professionals in charge of those practices. The only way a professional can be in charge of the practice is if he or she is the owner. A case was highlighted recently where a practice owned by a layperson was left without a vet for a month to six weeks. It had no vet on hand but a large quantity of drugs were owned by the practice. The Veterinary Council had no ability to regulate that or control those drugs.

We are seeing huge controversy with another aspect of the agricultural industry at the moment with regard to the doping of racehorses. Our committee will have hearings on that issue in the next two weeks. The Veterinary Council's principal job is to regulate the industry and ensure that food safety and animal welfare are sacrosanct. Allowing laypeople to own these practices diminishes its ability to do that. It takes away the Veterinary Council's ability to do it because it regulates veterinarians, not laypeople.

That is the fundamental point of why this legislation must be passed. Yes, we have costs, whether they are to farmers or pet owners. We have the availability of services in rural areas. We have all those questions. If corporates take control, they will just look at the bottom line. They will not look at the quality or costs of service.

While those are important reasons, the fundamental reason is regulation. Our reputation as food producers is paramount and our veterinarians are an integral part of that. The Veterinary Council being able to regulate veterinary practices to keep the ownership in veterinarians' hands is absolutely essential. That, therefore, is why I appeal to the Minister and the committee to proceed with this legislation as quickly as we possibly can. It is essential, for all the reasons that have been laid out tonight, that this amendment is put on the Statute Book. It is essential for one reason above all else, which is to preserve our reputation. As the Minister and Minister of State said, our reputation on the world stage is very good. To give the Veterinary Council of Ireland the proper authority to maintain that reputation, it is essential that veterinary practices are owned by veterinary practitioners.

I very much thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving us the opportunity to bring this Bill forward to Second Stage. It is an essential piece of legislation, which will ensure our practices and the reputation of our industry are maintained. As has been clearly said, our veterinarians deliver a great service to us. They have an extremely high reputation on the world stage. We have an extremely high reputation for producing top quality-food. Our veterinarians give it a stamp that is recognised worldwide. Let us ensure that we keep that reputation intact.

The amendment to this legislation, namely, the Veterinary Practice Act 2005 and Veterinary Practice (Amendment) Act 2012, will ensure that is the case. Hopefully, we can get this Bill through Committee Stage quickly and back onto the floor of the Dáil to get this amendment put into the legislation, which will be of benefit to consumers, the industry and veterinarians alike.

I thank Deputy Cahill and congratulate him on producing a piece of legislation that has only received positive comment.

Question put and agreed to.
The Dáil adjourned at 8.25 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 29 June 2021.