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Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine debate -
Wednesday, 30 Mar 2022

Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013: Post-Enactment Scrutiny (Resumed)

Witnesses giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. This means that witnesses have full defence in any defamation action for anything said at a committee meeting. However, witnesses are expected not to abuse this privilege and may be directed by the Chair to cease giving evidence on an issue. Witnesses should follow the direction of the Chair in this regard and are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that, as is reasonable, no adverse commentary should be made against an identifiable third person or entity. Witnesses who are giving evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as witnesses giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Privilege against defamation does not apply to the publication by witnesses, outside the proceedings held by the committee, of any matter arising from the proceedings.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make any charges against any person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Parliamentary privilege is considered to apply to utterances of members participating online in this committee meeting when their participation is within the parliamentary precincts.

I welcome Ms. Vivienne Duggan, president, and Ms Niamh Muldoon, registrar and CEO, Veterinary Council of Ireland, VCI; and Mr. Martin Blake, Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Patricia Reilly, deputy chief veterinary officer and head of animal welfare division, and Dr. Mary McCarthy, principal officer from the same division, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I thank them for coming.

Both groups have extensive opening statements. We expect a vote in the Dáil around 8 p.m. so if they keep their opening remarks as tight as possible it would be much appreciated. I will call on the Veterinary Council of Ireland first.

Ms Niamh Muldoon

I am registrar and CEO of the Veterinary Council of Ireland, VCI, and I am joined today by Ms Vivienne Duggan, president, veterinary surgeon and associate professor of equine clinical studies on the University College Dublin, UCD, veterinary medicine programme.

On behalf of the VCI, we welcome the opportunity to assist the committee in its deliberations on the post-enactment scrutiny of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, in respect of the matters of canine artificial insemination, ear cropping, microchipping and fertility clinics.

The council is the statutory body responsible for the regulation and management of the veterinary professions, being veterinary practitioners and veterinary nurses in Ireland. The VCI is a statutory body set up under the Veterinary Practice Act 2005, as amended, and is under the aegis of the Minister of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine. The principal function of the council is to regulate the practise 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 council include protection of the public through the supervision of veterinary education, the maintenance of the register of veterinary practitioners and veterinary nurses, the registration of veterinary premises, and through disciplinary action in cases of professional misconduct.

On ear cropping, the Veterinary Council has no authority or role in the oversight of canine welfare matters relating to this abhorrent and regrettable practice by non-registered persons, and this may be a matter more relevant to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Our submission to the committee makes reference to section 16 of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, which provides that a person shall not carry out or permit another person to carry out, on an animal, an operation or procedure which involves interference with, or the removal of, the sensitive tissue or the bone structure of the animal unless they are carried out for the purposes of veterinary treatment or unless they are procedures listed in regulations, that is, for long-term welfare or animal management benefits, control or reproduction or identification purposes.

It is not permissible even for a vet to perform ear cropping for aesthetic purposes. If a veterinary practitioner performs ear cropping, he or she is committing an offence under the Act and may leave themselves open to prosecution and-or to disciplinary action before the VCI’s fitness to practise committee.

Veterinary practitioners take an oath to join the register of veterinary practitioners in Ireland to act in the best interests of animal welfare and frequently advocate for animals throughout their careers. Any act such as canine ear cropping would be liable to a finding of professional misconduct and-or disciplinary sanction if undertaken by a vet. The veterinary council has never received a complaint relating to the involvement of any veterinary practitioner in commissioning such acts on an animal for aesthetic purposes in living history.

With regard to non-registered lay persons performing ear cropping, this is a matter on which the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine may wish to comment.

The council is the statutory body responsible for regulating the practise of veterinary medicine in the State. The practise of veterinary medicine may only be carried out by a veterinary practitioner, suitably qualified and registered with the VCI, with some limited exceptions allowable in respect of research or such projects, authorised or licensed by the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA.

Pursuant to section 106 of the Veterinary Practice Act 2005, as amended, the practice of veterinary medicine must only be undertaken from a premises for which a certificate of suitability has been issued by the VCI, a state premises, a premises such as a farm where care and treatment is being delivered to an animal under the care of a veterinary practitioner or from an exempted premises.

The VCI maintains registers of veterinary practitioners, veterinary nurses and veterinary practice premises for which a certificate of suitability has been issued, following inspection by the council.

Section 53 of the Veterinary Practice Act 2005 sets out that the practise of veterinary medicine includes diagnosing disease, injury, pain, deformity, defect or state of health of an animal, identifying and carrying out treatment, whether surgical or medical in nature, or any such matters, performing a surgical procedure on an animal, giving advice on the above and furnishing certificates on these. For the avoidance of doubt, any invasive procedures, involving the entry to a body cavity, are acts of veterinary medicine confined to those persons qualified and eligible to practise veterinary medicine in Ireland, on the Register of Veterinary Practitioners, pursuant to section 53. If an unauthorised or unqualified person carries out an act of veterinary medicine, he or she has committed an offence, contrary to the public interest and will be liable to prosecution by the VCI before the District Court. Section 54, as amended, sets out offences in the practise of veterinary medicine or use of the title, which states that “a person, other than a veterinary practitioner, shall not, do or perform any act, matter or thing, the doing or performance of which forms part of the practice of veterinary medicine”.

The term "veterinary" is protected and may only be used by those persons qualified, insured or indemnified, and authorised to practise veterinary medicine in the State.

Some of the services offered by canine fertility clinics, including artificial insemination, could constitute the practise of veterinary medicine. Canine fertility clinics offering services such as taking blood samples, artificial insemination, semen analysis and diagnostic testing, without such services being delivered by a registered veterinary practitioner operating from a premises the subject of a certificate of suitability could be committing an offence and be liable to prosecution. The veterinary council is the body tasked with acting in the interest of animal health and welfare and public health to ensure that services proffered in the delivery of veterinary care and treatment to animals are of a minimum standard, based on educational qualifications and continued professional development and competence, on which members of the public and animal owners can safely rely.

The Veterinary Council initiated nine authorised officer investigations in 2021, into matters requiring investigation in the public interest. The Veterinary Council also initiated three sets of District Court proceedings in relation to matters regarding the practice of veterinary medicine, and the practice of veterinary medicine at or from an uncertified practice premises. The Veterinary Council is active in its role of supervising the practice of veterinary medicine and veterinary nursing in Ireland, including the initiation of investigation and legal proceedings where required.

It should be noted that some aspects of artificial insemination in greyhounds may be carried out by non-veterinarians, subject to licence and veterinary oversight. This is provided for by the Artificial Insemination of Greyhounds Regulations 2005, as amended. Rásaíocht Con Éireann is responsible for the licensing and enforcement of these regulations. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine may be better placed to speak to these regulations.

On canine artificial insemination and fertility clinics, the Veterinary Council currently has a number of investigations under way under Part 10 of the Veterinary Practice Act 2005. These investigations are being carried out by authorised officers appointed by the council. The investigations were initiated by the Veterinary Council in 2020 following concerns raised to the council about services that may infringe on the practice of veterinary medicine. These investigations are under way with a report anticipated in early course. Accordingly, the Veterinary Council can make no comment on any specific matters under consideration or investigation.

The Veterinary Council collaborates with other agencies and, as required, can investigate any matter in tandem with other authorities or agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, local authorities, the Health Products Regulatory Authority and An Garda Síochána. We highlight that the Veterinary Council will always act in the best interests of animal health and welfare and public health in a reasonable and proportionate manner, discharging our duties as required through investigation or prosecution as appropriate in the public interest.

Statutory Instrument No. 63 of 2015, pursuant to the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, introduced a legal requirement for all dogs from March 2016 in Ireland to have a microchip. The regulations set out requirements to have dogs microchipped and registered with dog identification databases, and confirm that those authorised to insert microchips are vets, veterinary nurses and other suitably trained persons.

The Veterinary Council will continue to work to ensure that the high standards expected and enjoyed in the veterinary industry are upheld, and that the quality of veterinary care in Ireland is provided by those persons suitably qualified and authorised to deliver such services in the best interests of animal health and welfare, and the public interest. The Veterinary Council will continue to be proactive in its investigation and prosecution, where necessary, of any matters contrary to the interests of animal health and welfare, and the public interest. I thank the Chairman and the members for the invitation to address the committee today. The president of the Veterinary Council, Vivienne Duggan, and I are happy to address any questions the committee may have.

I thank Ms Muldoon. I invite Mr. Martin Blake of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to address the joint committee.

Mr. Martin Blake

I thank the Chairman for the invitation to address the committee on the implementation of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, with a particular focus on canine welfare and the topics of artificial insemination, canine fertility clinics, ear cropping and microchipping. I am joined here this evening by my colleagues Dr. Patricia Reilly, deputy chief veterinary officer and current acting head of the Department's animal welfare division, and Dr. Mary McCarthy, principal officer in the animal health division.

The 2013 Act was introduced after much public and stakeholder consultation, and with the legislative expertise of many members of this committee, present and past. The Act updated and consolidated legislation, modernising it in line with the knowledge and understanding of animal welfare. It provided a regulatory framework for the welfare of all animals and assigned a science-specific responsibility for animal welfare policy to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It has provided a strong basis for many positive developments. As our understanding of the welfare needs of animals expands, the legislative framework continues to accommodate the development of strategies and actions to further enhance animal welfare.

The Department has a strong history of supporting the welfare of animals. Animal welfare has never been in a more important place in terms of policy, resources and practical implementation than it is now. The 2013 Act enables the Department to regulate and support animal welfare through concrete tangible measures. The Department has in excess of 200 authorised officers carrying out welfare inspections in every county, and they are out on the ground every day providing advice and support to the keepers of animals. Members of An Garda Síochána, as well as inspectors from the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ISPCA, and the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, DSPCA, are also authorised under the 2013 Act.

The 2013 Act ensures that in addition to being able to offer their advice and expertise, authorised officers have the legal basis to issue improvement notices and compliance notices, which in the majority of cases are very effective. People are rarely intentionally cruel or neglectful, and most animal welfare risks can be resolved before they become critical. Where necessary, however, legal sanctions are imposed and prosecutions are taken when other efforts to ensure compliance have failed or there is a blatant disregard for an animal's welfare. More than 100 successful prosecutions on behalf of the Minister have been taken to date under the 2013 Act, of which 72 relate to dogs. A number of other investigations are ongoing.

Last year, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, launched Working Together for Animal Welfare - Ireland’s Animal Welfare Strategy 2021-2025. Ireland’s first stand-alone animal welfare strategy is a living, action-focused document, responding to priorities raised by stakeholders during extensive dialogue and consultations, and reflecting the significant animal welfare commitments in the programme for Government. Real progress has already been made. Delivering on the strategy and in response to the programme for Government commitment to advance initiatives on responsible pet ownership, the Minister has established a new advisory council on companion animal welfare. Independent members with a range of expertise and experience have been appointed. The council is up and running and will advise on policy matters and, where appropriate, issue guidelines and recommendations in relation to companion animals.

The strategy acknowledges that animal welfare is a complex and evolving concept, which can mean different things to different people. Perspectives on animal welfare are influenced by both science and values, which explains why there are often diverging views in society and sometimes between scientists. This council, therefore, is a critical stakeholder grouping which will assist the Department in prioritising and advancing policy initiatives relating to companion animals.

Other key actions of the strategy include the establishment of the first chair in animal welfare and veterinary ethics at UCD's School of Veterinary Medicine; financial and policy support for excellent research that focuses on the "one health, one welfare" approach; and the development of initiatives to promote responsible animal and pet ownership, including through education. The Minister has also refreshed and renewed the membership of the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Council, FAWAC. Since its establishment 20 years ago, the FAWAC has produced 17 detailed guidance documents and codes of practice. It has also revised and expanded the early warning system, relaunching as the farmer and animal welfare network, which takes a "one health, one welfare" approach, acknowledging and emphasising the relationship between the well-being of people and animals.

The Department acknowledges the valuable work done by animal welfare organisations, and our officials work closely with many of them every day. Since 2002, the Department has financially supported eligible NGOs. What started as a modest scheme has grown exponentially, with record assistance of almost €3.8 million awarded by the Minister to 98 animal welfare organisations last December. Of this, almost €2.7 million went to 68 organisations directly supporting canine welfare. The Department is on track to meet the programme for Government commitment to double funding within two years, subject to the availability of Exchequer funding. The Department’s animal welfare grants support inspection, control, rescue and rehoming activities. The Act has enabled the Minister to appoint as authorised officers under the Act a number of employees of certain animal welfare organisations, who have assisted with inspection and enforcement activities. Nine of them are officers of the ISPCA, and five are officers of the DSPCA. The Department liaises with other Government Departments and State bodies that have responsibilities relating to the control of animals, as well as with many stakeholder groups contributing to animal welfare initiatives.

I will turn to the specific topics that the committee asked the Department to provide information on, beginning with the topic of canine fertility clinics and artificial insemination. Many of the services offered by these clinics constitute the practice of veterinary medicine. The Veterinary Council of Ireland is the statutory body responsible for regulating the practice of veterinary medicine in the State, as indicated by Ms Muldoon. There is no legal requirement to approve or register canine germinal product establishments, and the Department does not maintain a list of canine fertility clinics. The Artificial Insemination of Greyhounds Regulations 2005 introduced a regulatory framework around the practice of artificial insemination in the greyhound industry and prescribed that the practice is licensed and subject to veterinary oversight. Rásaíocht Con Éireann is responsible for these regulations and enforcement is carried out by the Irish Coursing Club.

Ear cropping is an unnecessary and painful mutilation that is already illegal in Ireland under section 16 of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013. Experts are united in their opposition to this practice. There are no welfare benefits and many lifelong consequences for the animals, who frequently suffer permanent discomfort and recurrent infections. This mutilation also has long-term detrimental effects on a dog’s behaviour and ability to communicate. Reports from animal welfare charities on the numbers of dogs with cropped ears being seized and surrendered suggest that, notwithstanding its illegality, the practice may be growing in Ireland and ownership of such a dog seems to be a status symbol in certain circles.

A number of challenges face us. There is no law against owning a dog with cropped ears and the burden of proof in relation to where mutilation took place and who carried out the procedure is often difficult to establish. In practice, authorised officers have no legal basis to seize dogs or otherwise sanction those in possession of such animals unless the owner admits to carrying out the procedure or having someone carry out the procedure on his or her behalf.

The Department, therefore, believes it is now necessary to revisit this legislation to support more effective investigation and enforcement and reduce the demand for dogs with cropped ears. On that basis, the Department is currently in the process of drafting legislation, which will be brought forward by the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, in the coming months.

The Department has responsibility for the Microchipping of Dogs Regulations 2015. The primary policy objectives of this legislation were to protect the welfare of all dogs, assist in uniting stray dogs with their owners, act as a deterrent for those who abandon dogs and assist in identifying marauding dogs. All dogs more than 12 weeks old must be microchipped and the possession, movement, sale or supply of unchipped dogs is an offence. This helps ensure the security and improves the chance of the safe return of a dog that is stolen. The system is effective in helping to reunite stray or lost dogs with their owners and is recognised among EU member states as an excellent model.

Data indicate a high level of compliance, with almost 600,000 dogs microchipped since 2017. Database operators inform us that from their knowledge, all major breeders in Ireland are compliant. Among the conditions of funding for recipients of the Department’s animal welfare grants, animal welfare organisations must ensure all rescued and rehomed dogs are microchipped.

The four approved database operators are required to provide details of the microchip data they hold to Europetnet, a Europe-wide umbrella group of associations that register owner information for microchipped pets. Europetnet is easy to use and the microchipping regulations can be enforced by any officer authorised under the Animal Health and Welfare Act, including officers of the Department, An Garda Síochána, dog wardens, members of local authority veterinary services, customs agents and officers of the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ISPCA, and the Dublin Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, DSPCA.

I re-emphasise that the Department operates a confidential, dedicated animal welfare helpline, through which members of the public can report concerns about the welfare of any animal by phone or email. The helpline can be contacted at a call save number, which I have provided in my submission, or by email at The Department received 881 reports in 2021, and 268 have been received so far this year. Each report is followed up by a Department official or an ISPCA or DSPCA authorised officer.

By way of further background, I have provided an attachment for the committee summarising many of the animal welfare initiatives that have taken place since the implementation of the Act. I hope I have given committee a good overview of the Department’s responsibilities, commitments and actions in implementing the Animal Health and Welfare Act, particularly in respect of dogs. My colleagues and I will be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.

I welcome Mr. Blake and Ms Muldoon to the committee. Both of their reports were very comprehensive and extensive. I thought they might have had an executive summary. We have already read them but it is great to have. I will start by saying I found Mr. Blake's briefing note especially helpful. So much has been achieved. I feel that is important to acknowledge.

I also acknowledge, of course, the absolute commitment of the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, in terms of the stand-alone Working Together for Animal Welfare: Ireland’s Animal Welfare Strategy 2021-2025 document. It is something I do not think we have given enough attention to in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I acknowledge his absolute commitment and personal interest in it, which is to be welcomed. I wish to put that on the record.

I will take the witnesses through one or two comments and questions. I will start with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Rather than criss-crossing, the witnesses might be able to share the questions or do whatever they think is appropriate. I thank them again for their detailed submissions.

Mr. Blake said that perspectives on animal welfare are influenced by both science and values. I thought that was interesting because it puts two different perspectives on it. I am not asking Mr. Blake to comment but I thought it was well put. I want to acknowledge that. He might comment at some later stage because, again, I am only going to deal with issues he raised in his submission today rather than go off on a tangent. He talked about the chair in animal welfare and veterinary ethics at UCD’s school of veterinary medicine. At some point, it would be helpful for the committee to have an update on that. Someone might send us in something because that is exciting and has great potential. The Department may perhaps forward details at some point.

I am a little bit concerned about a number of issues here. Mr. Blake said, "There is no legal requirement to approve or register canine germinal product establishments, and the Department does not maintain a list of canine fertility clinics." I am somewhat shocked and surprised by that. Mr. Blake might share his view on it. Would he like that to change? Does he have a strong recommendation on that? I am somewhat surprised by that statement. That is news to me. He might comment on that.

Mr. Blake said the Artificial Insemination of Greyhounds Regulations 2005 introduced a regulatory framework around the practice in the greyhound industry and that the practice is licensed and subject to veterinary oversight. That is somewhat different. We have two different regimes operating here, both with dogs. He also said the regulation and enforcement is carried out by the Irish Coursing Club. I am not sure if that is right or appropriate. This is only a question. I have no hard views on it. I am somewhat surprised. Is that the appropriate body for enforcing and monitoring this? Does Mr. Blake have a particular view? He might have no view, and that is fair enough.

Moving on, Mr. Blake noted reports from animal welfare charities on the numbers of dogs with cropped ears being seized and surrendered and the issue of illegality. I know he cannot comment on specific cases but that is of concern. Somebody is carrying out these practices. Who is investigating them? What sanctions are in place? I know it is very hard to prove and all of that. There may be a particular cohort of people who want to parade these dogs out in the streets. Again, however, it is concerning. Mr. Blake said the Minister may be bringing forward some legislation or regulation. As chief veterinary officer, what would Mr. Blake's view be in addressing that? He said the Department believes it is now necessary to revisit this legislation to support more effective investigation and enforcement in the area of cropped ears. Mr. Blake might tease out what he is thinking there.

Mr. Blake concluded by saying that the Department operates a confidential animal welfare helpline. That is marvellous but I do not think enough people know about it. I go to animal shows throughout the country. We need to have a campaign. I would like Mr. Blake to take that back to the officials in his Department to see how we can open a campaign with regard to this. I do not know if people know about it.

I have been contacted about people keeping tropical and exotic animals such as parrots or reptiles in their gardens, which causes all sorts of problems. When people try to talk about it, however, they are told not to in no uncertain terms, in unpleasant language, and are basically threatened with violence. They are told that if they want to keep living next door to the owner of these animals, they must keep quiet. That is not good enough. People ask whether the confidential contact number is really confidential. They ask if these guys can get at them or get their name under a freedom of information, FOI, request. I am aware of one particular case where a person was told that he or she could be identified through an FOI request. There is, therefore, much fear and intimidation around all this illegal or unmanaged activity. It might not be all illegal but it is uncontrolled. There are issues for animal welfare, nuisance behaviour and the residential amenities of people. How do we safeguard that? These are just issues Mr. Blake raised.

What is most alarming is that the Department received 881 complaint reports in 2021. We now know that 268 complaints have been received in the first quarter of the year so far. That is a considerable increase in only three months. I would like Mr. Blake to comment on that. As I said, he may not have a comment on all these issues.

I will move on to the Veterinary Council of Ireland. Ms Muldoon said the Veterinary Council initiated nine authorised officer investigations in 2021 into matters requiring investigation in the public interest and three sets of District Court proceedings.

What is happening? They are a long time going. What is the outcome of any of these? Are these all ongoing investigations? I want to hear what sanctions are in place. We hear about investigations but we do not always hear the outcomes or, more important, the sanctions. If they are live cases, clearly Mr. Blake cannot comment on them.

It should be noted that some aspects of the artificial insemination in greyhounds, which is an area of real concern, may be carried out by non-veterinarians. I presume the Veterinary Council has a very strong view on that; I would like the committee to hear that view. There are issues around licensing and veterinary oversight. People genuinely have concerns about this practice. Do we need to beef or tidy up the legislation? What are Mr. Blake’s views?

I know I am asking many questions, but on fertility clinics and canine artificial insemination, the Veterinary Council currently has about ten investigations under way. Again, these were under way in 2020, but this is 2022. They are still under way – or are they not? Mr. Blake identified that these were happening in 2020 and it is 2022 and he is not in a position to comment on them. I respect that. However, that says there is a problem. If an investigation lasts two years, the likelihood of being successful in that investigation would be slightly hampered I would have thought, by just the time delays. That concludes my commentary.

The issue, as I said, of regulating artificial insemination in animals, who is doing it and how it is managed, controlled and how all of that is accounted for is an area of serious concern and I do not have the answers. I would like to hear what Mr. Blake thinks would be important in terms of beefing up the legislation in that regard.

Mr. Martin Blake

As the Senator said, he asked a lot of questions. I hope I can-----

Mr. Blake might even follow up with a note to the committee. That is good enough for me.

Mr. Martin Blake

Fair enough. The Senator might let me know if there is something I forget. He started off on the lack of need for registration of canine germinal products on premises. The difference here is this applies to many of the farm animal species. That has come through either historical or EU legislation. The practice of artificial insemination in dogs does not have the same history and it is only becoming an issue that is actually hitting the public’s and Department’s attention in recent times.

As the Senator said, back in 2005 it was known and practised in the greyhound industry. Legislative arrangements were put in place to control the use of artificial insemination in greyhounds. This is an industry sport and it is run by a State body so it was important back then to ensure that there were parameters put around the use of artificial insemination in greyhounds. I am afraid I cannot speak from that space myself, but I am assuming that was the reason that was put in place back at the time.

Mr. Blake can have a view on that.

Mr. Martin Blake

It is something worth now looking at in the context of the interest and reports we are getting in relation to artificial insemination in canines. It is something we need to look at, perhaps in the context of the Veterinary Council’s views on it.

That is a good, strong recommendation.

Mr. Martin Blake

On ear cropping, again, as I said, it is banned. It is clearly banned in our Animal Health and Welfare Act and our subsequent statutory instruments. As I said, it now appears from reports from our animal welfare charities that there are increasing numbers of these turning up in society. In the context of control, I understand we had one successful prosecution some time back. The difficulty is that unless one actually finds someone doing that, it is well-nigh impossible to actually build a case with sufficient evidence to prove it. We do not have any ability to actually seize a dog whose ears have been cropped. It is an issue in the context of trying to get that balance right in relation to the welfare of the animal. Notwithstanding it might have gone through some pain and suffering with its ears being cropped, but the animal did no harm. As I said, we are looking within the Department at policy initiatives we might take, supported by our legal services division, as to what extra we might do. The Minister has committed to bring forward some proposals on that later this year to try to address that lacuna.

In the context of the animal welfare line, we try to use every opportunity, be it in response to any announcement we have, grants we issue or responses to press queries or parliamentary questions on animal welfare, to promote the availability and knowledge of this helpline. On the pattern, I do not think a trend can be drawn in the pattern so far this year because there will often be more reports in the winter than in the middle of the summer. I do not have any data to reference the first three months of this year, but-----

We are coming out of Covid as well and there is, strangely enough, an impact on animals in relation to that.

Mr. Martin Blake

The Senator went on to then talk about the Veterinary Council investigations.

Yes. Mr. Blake handed it over very quickly and swiftly.

Ms Niamh Muldoon

I want to thank the Senator for his question. He made a few comments. First, we had nine authorised officers investigations last year. Where do they go and what happens to those investigations? If and when a matter of concern is brought to the attention of the Veterinary Council, invariably, if it is credible, we will initiate an authorised officers investigation. Those investigations are reported to the council. If there is a matter to be followed up, that might lead to District Court proceedings, which is exactly what happened. There would have been authorised officer investigations prior to the three sets of District Court proceedings initiated by the Veterinary Council. Often, our authorised officer investigations will conclude that there is no matter of concern or evidence of any wrongdoing as such. From time to time, there are matters of concern, and in that case, the Veterinary Council will take action, such as the three District Court prosecutions initiated last year.

Are all those matters concluded? Yes, they are. In two of those matters, the prosecution was success and a fine was imposed by the District Court. In the third matter, the individual entered a guilty plea and ultimately mended their hand in relation to operating from a premise that had been certified by the Veterinary Council. In that instance, the court accepted a donation to an animal welfare charity in lieu of a fine being imposed by the court. Those are three instances where authorised officers investigations were carried through to decisive action by the Veterinary Council in the public interest and in the interest of animal health and welfare that lead to an outcome, be that a fine or conviction.

I apologise for interrupting. Was anyone struck off in terms of Veterinary Council membership for serious misconduct, such as one of those cases? What does it take to be struck off? Has the Veterinary Council struck off anyone in the past two or three years?

Ms Niamh Muldoon

We have had a number of individuals suspended.

I am asking about people being struck off, not suspended.

Ms Niamh Muldoon

There was one practitioner removed from the register last year, which was in relation to an indictable offence. The person had been found guilty of an indictable offence and on that basis was removed from the Veterinary Council register. That was one vet.

We have suspended a number of individuals. There were a handful of vets suspended both in 2020 and 2021. All of those matters arise against vets where there has been a finding of professional misconduct, they travel through our own disciplinary procedures and a sanction would then be imposed by the Veterinary Council based on a finding of professional misconduct. That would then be overseen by the High Court because that is dealing with the constitutional rights of an individual to earn a livelihood and to protect reputation and good name. In the instances that I am talking about, that have been investigated by an authorised officer and then led to a District Court prosecution, there was one vet who was the subject of one of those prosecutions, which was related to operating from a veterinary practice premises that had not been certified by the Veterinary Council and the other matters were against individuals who were straying into the practice of veterinary medicine without being qualified, eligible or insured to do so.

There are two very separate wings. One is in relation to non-qualified vets straying into the practice of veterinary medicine or nursing, and the other wing is where a complaint, a fitness to practise inquiry and ultimately a sanction is imposed against registered members. There are about 1,100 veterinary nurses and some 3,200 vets registered with us who would go through our own disciplinary proceedings.

Does that make sense?

Yes. I have one last question, which is open to anybody on the panel who would like to respond. In regard to the fertility clinics and artificial insemination, do we need tighter controls around that area and, if so, what would the witnesses recommend?

Dr. Duggan indicated there needs to be a review of some of these practices. Will she elaborate on why we need to revisit this area and introduce tighter controls and accountability around this practice?

Dr. Vivienne Duggan

In regard to where fertility falls in terms of veterinary work, working vets are very involved in fertility work. The natural breeding is run by breeders and that does not need veterinary intervention, but where there is a problem or where things need to be more applied than the natural cover, the vet is called in. As set out in the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, where any practice is invasive or interferes with sensitive tissue or requires a vet to diagnose a state of disease, which includes fertility, that is where the vet should come in in the best interests of animal welfare.

The council would like to see improved legislation in that area.

Dr. Vivienne Duggan


We would like to hear more from the council on that. We have all read the papers and we were very impressed by them. I thank the witnesses for their questions and answers. If anything else occurs to them, they are welcome to engage with the committee on it. The VCI is very professional in terms of its business. I acknowledge that. It is because of that professionalism, experience and knowledge we want to hear strong recommendations from it.

I welcome the witnesses. I want to follow up on a point raised by Senator Boyhan. With regard to the inspections carried out by the nine authorised officers, am I correct there were only three prosecutions arising?

Ms Niamh Muldoon

There were three matters that led to District Court prosecutions being initiated.

The making of agreements with people who have been found guilty at a District Court level to pay into a poor box or fund will not be a deterrent to any person engaged in this practice. I would imagine there is a lot of money involved in it, so having to make a small donation to Dogs Trust or any other organisation is not a deterrent.

I will not ask the witnesses to comment on a court decision.

My next question is to the Department. The VCI has stated the practice of ear cropping by unregistered laypersons is more relevant to the Department. What measures has the Department put in place to bring the practice and extent of illegal ear cropping to the attention of the public? We have all seen animals, in particular dogs, that have had their ears cropped. Senator Boyhan mentioned the need for a campaign. The practice appears to be widespread.

Mr. Martin Blake

It is difficult to say how widespread it is. I can say with certainty that the Department has not received any report alleging cruelty or concerning the welfare of an animal in regard to ear cropping. We have an animal welfare helpline. We have not received any such report. The information we have comes from the animal welfare charities in regard to the number of dogs they see. I am aware of one incident in respect of which we have supported an investigation and carried forward a prosecution. There may have been more in the past, but I cannot recall offhand. The aforementioned case was in regard to a person who had admitted to having cropped the ears off a dog, in respect of which the case was taken before the courts.

On the basis of what was discussed earlier, there are a number of issues that are coming into the public consciousness that we will need to respond to. We are committed to responding to them. The Minister will bring forward legislation on a number of these types of issues later this year.

I appreciate that the Minister has established a new advisory council on companion animal welfare. When is that likely to conclude? Is there a timeframe for when the policy results arising will come into effect?

Mr. Martin Blake

I will ask Ms Reilly to take that question.

Ms Patricia Reilly

The advisory council was established by the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, towards the end of last year. It comprises a number of independent experts. It is an ongoing council, which has terms of reference but no specific timeline. That does not mean it is open-ended. The council has had two meetings to date. Its focus at this point is on the broad area of responsible pet ownership. One of the topics that has come up for discussion under responsible pet ownership is a communications campaign in very general terms about exactly that. Specifically, ear cropping has been discussed because the Minister is particularly interested in responding to this need. The council will not conclude its discussion by a particular date but it will have outputs over the course of the coming year and for as long as it is in place.

My next question is for the VCI in regard to canine artificial insemination. Does the VCI have the power to inspect veterinary premises? In an effort to identify some of these unauthorised practices, does it have the power to carry out spot checks or does it rely on concerns being raised by members of the public?

Ms Niamh Muldoon

We do carry out inspections. We are not in every county in the country, but every veterinary practice premises in the country is inspected before a certificate of suitability is issued. Before a practice can open, it is inspected by one of our assessors. During the lifetime of that licence, the certificate of suitability being a four-year lifespan, there will be a further inspection. If and when matters of concern are notified to us, we will initiate an authorised officer investigation. We can legally enter any premises. There are wide-ranging powers available to our authorised officers, which include the power to enter and inspect in pursuit of any particular investigation.

I welcome the witnesses. Ms Muldoon made an important distinction between those who are carrying out the practice of artificial insemination who are not qualified and veterinary practices. She mentioned there were District Court proceedings, two of which were in regard to non-veterinary practices. In February, a parliamentary question was tabled to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine about concerns around surgical artificial insemination. The Department responded that it was not aware of any animal welfare issues regarding surgical artificial insemination. That is on the public record as recently as 15 February this year. I am glad we are all in the same room now and we are very much aware of the issues around the growth of these fertility clinics.

I have a question for the Veterinary Council of Ireland in regard to the practice of surgical artificial insemination. Regardless of whether it is carried out by a vet, is it a practice we need to consider banning by way of following the British model? It is an invasive procedure. Tim Kirby, a practising vet, appeared before the committee. He told us that, for the veterinary practitioner, the priority is to act in the best interests of animal welfare because there are risks that come with general anaesthetic and so on. Do we need to move to the British model and ban the practice of surgical artificial insemination?

Dr. Vivienne Duggan

It is something we have under consideration at the moment with our legislation ethics committee.

We recognise that the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, RCVS, has moved in that direction. From speaking to veterinary fertility specialists in Ireland, it is something that would only be done very rarely, on the odd occasion, and not as a routine or frequent thing in practice. It is something we have under consideration with the council.

Is there a need for a stud register? Part of the problem is that there is no register for the stud end of the reproduction. The breeding bitches are on a register with the dog breeding establishment. Would the VCI support a register for stud dogs? I put that to the Department as well.

Mr. Martin Blake

Sorry Senator, I did not quite catch the question.

There is no register for stud dogs. Part of the problem with these canine fertility clinics, and anyone can go on Facebook and see this, is that people are running them out of the back of suburban gardens. They advertise either frozen semen or stud activities but there is no register for stud dogs. We are missing 50% of the picture with regard to puppy breeding and breeding in the companion dog world.

Mr. Martin Blake

I take the Senator's point but we need to look at the approach across all other animal species. For example, in the past we registered bulls but we do not anymore. We do not register stallions. We need a consistent policy approach to things. We registered bulls in the past because we wanted to make sure people were breeding appropriate bulls. There are a lot of uncastrated dogs in the countryside. They will breed and those pups will come up for sale.

To give one example, I calculated €250,000 worth of stud rights from the Facebook page of one individual. Even from a revenue point of view, you would think the Government would be interested in collecting some of that revenue.

Mr. Martin Blake

Indeed. As these things come before us, there are issues we have to consider from a policy perspective.

Is Mr. Blake considering them?

Mr. Martin Blake

I was not thinking of them before today but I will now.

On another matter, is the helpline only available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday?

Mr. Martin Blake

It operates on an ongoing basis. If someone does not answer, people can leave a message and they are called back. That operates over weekends.

Does that mean someone will get back to them at the weekend or that there is no one answering the phone at the weekends?

Mr. Martin Blake


It is just Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then the calls are followed up on?

Mr. Martin Blake

It is monitored over the weekends as well. However, someone will not answer on a Saturday the minute it rings. The call could be picked up on a Monday morning, depending on the level of risk. The email is there as well.

I would like the IVC's opinion on this. We heard in the previous session about the lay implantation of microchips and that the quality of data from microchips that are vet-verified is much better in jurisdictions that make that compulsory. Would the VCI have any objection to taking on that workload for the other three databases, if the law stated implantation had to be vet-verified? It could be done by a veterinary nurse either, just not by a layperson.

Ms Niamh Muldoon

The statutory instruments set out that there are certain suitably qualified individuals other than vets and veterinary nurses who are currently authorised to do that work. The VCI has no direct role in the database relating to microchip information. I am not sure it is necessarily an area where we could agree to take on more work, purely because we have no role in that database.

Mr. Heslin from Fido said it will only allow vets or veterinary nurses to do the implantation. That way, it can stand over the implanting of the microchip and who is carrying it out. Maybe this is a matter for the Department. The microchipping laws are up for review. Is that something the Department would take on board?

Mr. Martin Blake

It is probably something we need to look at in terms of policy coherence across all animal species. Farmers identify 2.5 million calves and 1 million sheep every year. They are self-identified and these are animals in the food chain. It is just a matter of policy coherence across these things. If we prescribe it for one species, why not for another? All these things come into the conversation regarding the cost-benefit. We have to ask if the benefit outweighs the cost of us needing us to step outside policy coherence for a particular activity.

Agriculture has an awful lot more regulation. The Minister's advice to somebody going to buy a puppy is to do their homework, check if it came from a puppy farm and check that it is not stolen, but the public cannot do that. That is what we heard in the earlier session. The pilot scheme by Fido and has a pre-verified system but the other three databases do not. As vets are not doing the implantations for them, large-scale dog breeding establishments are moving to those other databases because they know they will not be under the same scrutiny. Agriculture and animals that go into the food chain are very well-regulated. We are identifying lacunas in the area of companion animals. We are telling the public to do their homework but they cannot.

Ms Patricia Reilly

I take the Senator's point. I was not around when the microchipping regulations were being conceived. There would have been input from the Houses as well. We might need to tease this out but I expect that part of the motivation behind expanding the ability to microchip would have been compliance. If breeders or others are allowed to microchip, the owner does not have to bring the dog to the vet to be microchipped. They can do that but it is easier if they can buy a dog that has been microchipped already. It may well have been about compliance in the early days. However, I take the point that it is worth considering.

Would the Department review again the issue of greyhounds being brought into the microchipping regulations? It is a separate system. Greyhounds are separately done.

Mr. Martin Blake

The policy decision has been taken that we regulate greyhounds in that way. If someone changes it, we will do that. The greyhound industry was under some scrutiny last year and it has responded very significantly to a lot of the issues. I do not have direct involvement with the greyhound industry but I am aware it has improved its traceability system and its response on animal welfare, devoting significantly more resources to that area. One of the debates on microchipping was whether we should have a central database or use the databases that were there. One of the issues that comes up is whether the State should be putting private industries out of business. These were existing databases. The policy decision was not to displace the private industry but to work with it and put systems and security in place around it. The policy effect is that, if we have a microchip number, we can find where it is and who issued it.

In the earlier session, Fido stated that it accepts that these are commercial bodies and will not want to be sharing each other's data. However, it was definitive in calling for a single portal, where the Department collates those data and holds them in one single place.

Mr. Martin Blake

We have access to the data. We get information back from the databases on the numbers they register or microchip on a yearly basis. We have a similar process in place for horses. In that case, we did not have anyone else co-ordinating that information. At the moment, for dogs that is co-ordinated through Europetnet, but for horses there was no private industry bringing that together, so the Department put an overarching system in place. Again, it is one of those policy decisions. It is a question of the benefit that will accrue versus the cost of doing it.

The Senator asked who does the microchipping. I am not sure we have had any complaints about any problems with any lay microchipping data. It has not been reported to us. The database owners are required to train and authorise these people to do the microchipping. If they are not doing the business, the database owners can get rid of them.

There was a high profile case of a seizure of dogs from an apartment block in Tallaght. Those dogs were microchipped. Somebody implanted microchips into those dogs, which were then sold with the microchips. It is a perfect example. Mr. Blake says the Department has not had any reports. That case went all the way to the courts. What is the process? The Veterinary Council of Ireland has outlined clearly it does spot checks, carries out investigations and those investigations are followed through. Where is the enforcement by the Department? The dogs in the case in Tallaght were microchipped. Who follows up on who microchipped the dogs? I will not name the database for which the microchip was done. Surely that is traceable all the way back? It should not just be about the person who is selling the dogs and has an illegal puppy farm in his or her apartment. Who is enforcing the microchip laws by going all the way back up the chain? Somebody implanted the microchip and registered it on this database.

Mr. Martin Blake

That falls to our authorised officers to follow through. We have to start somewhere. I cannot say we constantly monitor the media for potential breaking of the law. If matters go through the courts, they are prosecuted. I take the Senator's point.

The point is the person who implanted was not prosecuted.

Mr. Martin Blake

I do not know the specifics of the case, so I cannot comment on it. The Senator is right that anyone can go on the Internet and buy a microchip. That is possible and it identifies an animal. That is criminal activity.

If the microchip turns up on a dog, who follows through on enforcement? If I bought a microchip, decided to implant it in a dog, then a vet scanned it, that microchip is not registered to anyone, so surely there is an illegal act if somebody is registering that microchip? Who follows up on it if the microchip shows up anywhere or the dog shows up on the streets?

Mr. Martin Blake

If someone comes to us with such evidence, we will follow up. If that microchip is registered on some database, that is where issues arise. Putting the microchip in the dog is not actually contravening the Act because it is not registered. The two go together. As I said, it is possible to buy microchips. The Department will follow up and every one of the 880 issues reported to the Department was followed up by a Department official, the ISPCA or the DSPCA.

There has not been a single enforcement case of the online sale of pet regulations, according to a parliamentary question we tabled last year.

Mr. Martin Blake

I take the point. That is true. It is not that we have not endeavoured to ensure their implementation. We have acknowledged we can do better on that legislation and we are looking at it at the moment. When it was put in place, it was a significant step forward from what was there before, which was nothing. This provided a mechanism by which potential purchasers could check something. We understand that one Act will not close all the loopholes, but it gives a reference point. We are working on that to improve it.

I get that. We have heard that the microchipping legislation in Ireland is better than in other jurisdictions. One can have the best of legislation, but if it is not enforced, then it is not worth the paper it is written on. To give the example of online sales again, many of the animal welfare organisations will state they are dedicating the time of their volunteers to go through online sales and report advertisements that are not in compliance with the online sale and supply of pets regulations. They have to do it a number of times before the advertisement is taken down, and by the time the advertisement is taken down, the dog is gone. They report those, but not a single enforcement case has been taken for any breach of the online sale regulations. They say they report hundreds of advertisements.

Mr. Martin Blake

We investigate everything we get if we can, to the extent we will prosecute it if we can.

So I should advise animal welfare organisations to flood the Department's inbox with all of the examples of the illegal advertisements.

Mr. Martin Blake

They can come with evidence.

That is the evidence. One example was a microchip belonging to a horse.

Mr. Martin Blake

To build a case to take to court is a significant effort. It is not a matter of taking the advertisement and hoping the judge will see it our way but of building evidence and arguments.

I thank the officials for coming in from the Department and the Veterinary Council of Ireland to participate in today's meeting.

At the next meeting, on Thursday, 31 March, the committee will continue exploring technologies and opportunities that may exist to help the effort to reduce emissions in the agricultural sector.

The joint committee adjourned at 8.07 p.m. until 1.30 p.m. on Thursday, 31 March 2022.