I thank the Chairman, Deputies and Senators for inviting us to appear before them today. I am joined today by Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill, president of the Veterinary Council of Ireland. We welcome the opportunity to appear before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine for the second time, to discuss the important issue of corporate ownership of veterinary practices. We look forward to continuing this discussion on an area of great relevance and importance to the veterinary sector.
The Veterinary Council of Ireland is the statutory body responsible for the regulation and management of the practice of veterinary medicine and veterinary nursing. The principal function of the veterinary council is to regulate the practice of veterinary medicine and veterinary nursing in the Republic of Ireland, in the interest of animal health and welfare and in the interest of veterinary public health. The functions of the veterinary council include protection of the public through the supervision of veterinary education, the maintenance of the register of veterinary practitioners and nurses, the registration of veterinary premises, and through disciplinary action in cases of professional misconduct. In order to legally practice veterinary medicine in the Republic of Ireland, a veterinary practitioner or veterinary nurse must be registered with the council. The practitioner or nurse must also carry out the practice of veterinary medicine at and from a premises registered with the veterinary council. There are currently 2,933 veterinary practitioners and 966 veterinary nurses registered with the Veterinary Council of Ireland. We also have 752 veterinary premises registered under the council’s statutory premises accreditation scheme, at and from which veterinary services are provided to the public. These include veterinary clinics, veterinary practices and veterinary hospitals.
As the committee will be aware, the topic of corporate ownership of veterinary practices is a challenging one and has been the subject of much debate. Further to our appearance before the committee in May of this year, the veterinary council has since clarified the position with regards to ownership and the provision of veterinary services to the public, having benefited from a period of extensive consultation on the matter. It remains the role and remit of the council to continue to ensure the highest standards of veterinary medicine in the regulation and management of the professions.
I will briefly recap the history and experience of the veterinary council as it relates to this issue. Historically, section 54(2) of the Veterinary Practice Act 2005 was interpreted to prevent a body corporate from owning a veterinary practice, and this understanding was reflected in the veterinary council’s code of professional conduct. However, legal advice received by the veterinary council advised that the legislation does not speak to the ownership of practices, and thus the council has no legal authority in determining such issues. The parameters of our powers as established under the Veterinary Practice Act 2005 involve the regulation of veterinary services to the public and the practice of veterinary medicine within that service. They do not extend to the area of ownership of practices. In light of this, the veterinary council initially amended its code of professional conduct in December 2017, explicitly stating that there was no prohibition on a non-registered person or body corporate owning a veterinary practice, provided that the practice of veterinary medicine was carried out by a veterinary professional registered with the council. This amendment was then put on hold in January 2018 to allow for a period of comprehensive consultation with the public, stakeholders and members of the veterinary professions. The results of this consultation have been compiled in a report by Grant Thornton offering an analysis of the VCI consultation on corporate ownership of veterinary practices, which was shared with members of this committee along with the clerk of the committee in July of this year.
The council commenced the public consultation in early 2018 which concluded in summer of this year, culminating in the report by Grant Thornton. The consultations conducted, which are reflected in the report, included a survey of the general public conducted by market research company Behaviour & Attitudes; a consultation process whereby any interested parties could submit their views; a survey of the veterinary professions conducted by market research company Behaviour & Attitudes; research and analysis of other veterinary regulators internationally; and research and analysis of other regulated professions in Ireland. The veterinary council has also benefited from legal advice on the matter and all of these inputs, together with the results of a consultation process and survey of the public, have been consolidated into this report. Overall, the responses to the introduction of corporate ownership of veterinary practices in Ireland were divided. Some were opposed, while some were in favour of the idea. Industry perspectives on corporate ownership can sway dependent on the circumstance.
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. The majority of other professions examined allow corporate ownership to exist with the exception of the legal profession. The council sought independent legal advice on the issue of corporate ownership with regards to the Veterinary Practice Act 2005. This advice highlighted that the governing legislation does not provide for a role for the veterinary council in the ownership of veterinary practices. The council’s role lies in the regulation of the practice of veterinary medicine in the public interest. Our focus therefore is on the regulation of veterinary services to the public, the licensing of the veterinary premises and the registrants who provide that service, at and from those premises.
Following the period of consultation with stakeholders, the Veterinary Council of Ireland updated its code of professional conduct in respect of the matter of the provision of veterinary services to the public and the ownership of veterinary practices. The council provides guidance to veterinary registrants on matters relating to conduct and ethics through their code of professional conduct for registered veterinary practitioners and veterinary nurses. The code of professional conduct consists of the rules and principles which govern veterinary practitioners and veterinary nurses in the exercise of their profession.
The Veterinary Council also regulates and licenses veterinary premises at and from which veterinary services to the public are provided. Registrants are bound by the code and the regulations relating to the veterinary premises where the practice of veterinary medicine occurs.
The council continues, as always, to use its statutory powers to ensure the highest standards of clinical governance are employed in veterinary medicine within the State. Those standards are to be found in the council's code of professional conduct and the regulations which underpin certificates of suitability. A certificate of suitability is the licence issued by the council to persons registered with it who wish to provide veterinary services at and from the premises to which the certificate relates. A certificate of suitability for the veterinary premises is required before any veterinary service to the public may begin from that premises, and the certificate is renewed on a four-year-cycle. Only individuals registered with the council may apply for and be granted a certificate to provide veterinary services to the public at and from a veterinary premises. For example, a veterinary practitioner cannot provide veterinary services from a premises without such a certificate in place.
The regulations relating to that certificate are one of the means by which the council regulates veterinary services to the public. The certificate of suitability for veterinary services involving the practice of veterinary medicine may only be held in the name of a registered person. The code of professional conduct is another means by which the Veterinary Council regulates the practice of veterinary medicine and nursing in the State. The code of professional conduct and the council regulations underpin veterinary services to the public. The Veterinary Council issues the code and regulations, and determines the issuing of the certificates required to enable veterinary services to be delivered at and from a veterinary premises.
The update by the council to the code on 11 July 2019 reaffirms that veterinary services to the public, the performance of which forms part of the practice of veterinary medicine, must at all times be provided by the veterinary practitioners who usually practice 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, welfare and public health. This decision brings clarity to the matter.
The council's words updating the code clearly state that the veterinary practitioner provides the veterinary medicine service to the public at and from a premises, certified and licensed by the council. The code of professional conduct and the regulations relating to the veterinary premises are the means by which the Veterinary Council regulates that service in the public interest. Ownership bears no influence on the provision of veterinary services.
The Veterinary Council's updating of the code of conduct of veterinary practitioners clarifies that only veterinary practitioners may provide veterinary services, the performance of which constitute the practice of veterinary medicine, to the public and also strengthens the clinical discretion and autonomy of registered veterinary professionals in discharging clinical duties.
The Veterinary Council recently began its period of public consultation for its strategy for 2019 to 2023, which is to be published later this year. The strategy will seek to work with partner bodies to shape the professional lives of veterinary registrants and to ensure the development and oversight of the veterinary profession continues to foster best professional practice, in the best interest of animal welfare and the public.
Its proposed strategic objectives are leading animal health and welfare in line with one health, one welfare initiatives; maintaining the confidence of the public and veterinary professions in the Veterinary Council of Ireland processes; enabling good professional practice and professionalism through education; supporting the health and well-being of registrants; supporting and developing the role of the veterinary nurse; and enhancing and influencing and informing policy through insightful research and meaningful engagement.
While a number of different challenges face veterinary practitioners and nurses in Ireland today, the council will continue to work to ensure that registrants continue to provide best in class services, and that registrants are supported in their provision of veterinary medicine services, in their development as professionals and in their own personal well-being. We will continue to work to ensure the high standards expected in the veterinary industry are upheld, and that quality of veterinary care enjoyed in this country continuously improves.
I thank the Chairman and the committee for the invitation to address them today. The president of the Veterinary Council, Mr. Ó Scanaill, and I are happy to address any questions the committee may have.