I have looked carefully at section 13 of the Veterinary Practice Act 2005. It states that the principal function of the Veterinary Council is to regulate and promote the practice of veterinary medicine in the interests of the public. Section 26 deals with disclosures of interest by members of the council or any committee attached to it. One understands that changes to the Act may well be warranted over time and that nothing stands still. Change should only take place, if at all, after proper, full and comprehensive consultation with all stakeholders.
Some of the matters that have been outlined to the committee are unbelievable. The council referred to making changes. The peculiar thing is that the council stalled the process after making the change instead of carrying out the consultation prior to that change. That does not make sense. It is an enormous matter for a reputable body.
I am concerned about what some of my colleagues have stated regarding large-farm and large-animal practices. I come from a small village where we are lucky with our vet, Charlie Murtagh, who has been there for the past 40 years. When he retires, what should we do? The profession has become elitist too. It was elitist in 1974 when I was young agricultural science student. I always enjoyed playing for the "ags" against the vets because it was good tough stuff with good rural people, one against the other and no whingeing. One had to have 40 points more to study veterinary medicine than was the case for agricultural science. In fact, agricultural science is a far wider discipline of which I am proud and which allowed me to go into other areas. The best young people would make great vets if it were not for this issue of leaving certificate points. A person might have 600 leaving certificate points but might know nothing of animals. The person with 250 points, however, could be great with animals. He or she might be able to detect redwater disease from looking at a cattle herd from a half a mile away. While this may not be the council’s concern, it should follow up on it because it wants to get the best people into veterinary practices.
Section 54(2)(a),(b) and (c) of the 2005 Act specifically prohibit corporate bodies from practising veterinary medicine or surgery. A body corporate can employ or engage a registered vet but he or she has to be bound by the code of ethics of the council. What the council did in December 2017 represented a significant departure. It was embarked on unilaterally by the council, with little or no input from anybody including the Oireachtas, the job of which it is to deal with legislative amendments. The council interpreted the primary Act. Whoever advised the council originally did so correctly. The council, however, does not have uninhibited powers to do what it likes and disregard the legislative framework. In one fell swoop, the council introduced a system of deregulation that is expressly prohibited under the provisions in the legislation.
Ms Muldoon is a solicitor and knows this better than I do but she was not there in fairness. The term "shall" means that something is mandatory while the term "may" indicates that it is discretionary. The term "shall" does not brook any other interpretation. We were sending signals about this but the council had no interest. The council sought advice from the Minister but it did not wait. For some reason, the council was impatient. We have to find out why that impatience grew into an unusual unilateral decision which effectively deregulated the system. I was taken aback by the fact the council made a decision in December 2017 and then a few weeks later in January, after eating Christmas dinner, it decided it was unsafe. Deputy Cahill is correct. Something was triggered and somebody shouted "Stall the Horse" at a point when it was already galloping away from the stable.
We have been rooting around in respect of this matter and there were many concerns expressed at the council's meetings in March 2017. I am sure that, like other organisations, the Veterinary Council has a legislation and ethics committee in place. I am a barrister and there is such a committee in place in my profession. There were lots of concerns expressed before a decision was made. How did those concerns, which were wiped away like the snows of winter, re-emerge following the decision? After January 2018, having decided to consult everybody, which is a very good thing, the matter was going to be distilled in a Grant Thornton report to come out whenever the sun rose again. However, that did not stop a body corporate getting involved in June or July 2018, six or seven months afterwards. If the Veterinary Council had second thoughts in January 2018, why was any corporation allowed to proceed to purchase a practice six months later? That does not make sense. I would like to have a body like that whereby I could give an opinion one day and write an opposing opinion for a different crowd the next. That is the analogy. I am absolutely flummoxed by this. I am probably a bit dull. The question has to be asked as to why this review and extensive consultation with stakeholders on the subject of veterinary practices did not take place and inform the process? Why, while this was being done, did the status quo antebellum not prevail? Ms Muldoon will know the term. It means the one before the decision, before any wars happened. That should have prevailed and it should have been maintained pending the outcome of the review.
We have been on about this chairperson for the past 18 months or so. The matter was raised in the Irish Farmers Journal in December 2017. I recall it very well because it happened at Christmas. I come from a very rural area. It is back in the sticks, as they say. There would be no one around. Do our guests believe that corporations or the like would worry about us living miles out from Mullingar or Athlone? We would be lost. In June 2018, the incorporated body purchased a veterinary practice and proceeded to own and operate it. This brings us to the kernel of the matter. Our guests will have to answer this question or we will be obliged to find out why they will not do so. While the ownership of the veterinary practice was under review, which has been stated plainly earlier, why did the Veterinary Council allow non-vets to purchase, own and operate a veterinary practice? Let us ask a basic question: do our guests believe that non-vets should be allowed to own and operate veterinary practices?
There was relating to Germany that was taken to Europe in 2009. It was about pharmacies. A parallel situation arose and because of the issues regarding the protection of health, welfare and everything else, that was outlawed. It was argued that it went against the freedom of establishment, freedom of movement, etc. However, the European Court of Justice found that a state can put in place particular rules that it can operate. Deputy Cahill inquired about the legal advice the Veterinary Council received in 2017 which allowed it to change specific elements of the code of conduct. Our guests have stated that council received that advice. Having done so and implemented the change, why did the council then second guess the advice? The action it took in January 2018 indicates that it doubted the change and had second thoughts about the advice. I say to both of our guests in good faith that the council has no right to change anything until the Veterinary Practice Act is amended. That is the way to proceed. The Minister should be taking a hand in this. I am not stating that our guests are not entitled to argue for changes in the Act. Of course they are. The Act is 14 or 15 years old. I was here when it was passed and I know a small bit about it. However, I am perplexed by they way the whole matter was turned upside down in the space of less than a month.
Ms Muldoon only came into her position in April. I wish her well in it. In fairness, she is trying to provide answers. I am sure Mr. Ó Scanaill was there before so he might answer for some of this. If the Veterinary Council allows a corporation to own a veterinary practice, how does it regulate its operation? That is important. The original guideline included the words "own" and "operate". Then the recommendation was brought forward and it only contains the word "own", which is significant. The conjunctive was taken out of it and only the word "own" remains. The council has left itself somewhat open to charges that it changed course in the space of three to four weeks at most. That is unbelievable. The council is entitled to change its mind. Its members might go back to their committee and state that they had another thought about the legal advice or had obtained further advice. They might go to some of the big boys to obtain their advice. They might have decided to take advice from the likes of me and then stated, "Jeekers. No, we will get somebody who works in area of competition law" or something of that nature. That is grand. However, at that stage the council should have stalled the process and reverted back to what its code of conduct stated at the time. Then there would not be any question.
The Veterinary Council is still waiting for Grant Thornton to distil the various findings from the investigation. The consultation process has been prolonged. That is grand. Our guests indicate that they are expecting it in June or July. Perhaps they might give us an idea of when this consultation process will end and when we can expect the reviewed position on ownership and operation of veterinary practices to be issued. I and my colleagues have raised a number of important questions and very salient points and I hope we get some answers.