Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 21 May 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Veterinary Practices: Discussion
I remind members, delegates and those in the Visitors Gallery to make sure their mobile phones are turned off completely as they interfere with the recording and broadcasting services, even when left in silent mode. Mobile phones should remain turned off for the duration of the meeting.
We are meeting to discuss the regulation of veterinary practices in veterinary medicine and the ownership of veterinary practices. From the Veterinary Council of Ireland I welcome Mr. Peadar Ó Scanáill, president, and Ms Niamh Muldoon, registrar and CEO. I thank them for coming before the joint committee to discuss the regulation of the practice of veterinary medicine in the context of corporate ownership in Ireland. I Ms Muldoon every success in her recent appointment. I am sure we will be seeing a lot more of her for many years to come.
I draw attention to the fact that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Ms Niamh Muldoon:
I am the registrar and CEO of the Veterinary Council of Ireland. I am joined by Mr. Peadar O’Scanaill, president of the council.
On behalf of the Veterinary Council of Ireland, I welcome the opportunity to discuss with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine the important issue of the corporate ownership of veterinary practices. I thank the committee for its invitation. I will say a few words about the role of the council, as it is very relevant in the context of this discussion.
The Veterinary Council of Ireland is the statutory body responsible for the regulation and management of the veterinary professions, they being veterinary practitioners and veterinary nurses. The council was set up under the Veterinary Practice Act 2005, as amended, and is under the aegis of the Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Its principal function is to regulate the practise of veterinary medicine and veterinary nursing in the Republic of Ireland in the interests of animal health and welfare and veterinary public health.
The functions of the Veterinary Council of Ireland 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.
The Veterinary Council of Ireland ensures that all registered persons meet the necessary standards in terms of education, skill, competence and professional conduct to perform their duties, in accordance with the prescribed codes of professional conduct and ethics and in accordance with legislative requirements. Any practitioner must be registered with the Veterinary Council of Ireland to practise as a veterinary practitioner or a veterinary nurse. The Veterinary Council of Ireland safeguards access and maintenance of the register, with 2,842 veterinary practitioners and 935 veterinary nurses currently registered.
The Veterinary Council of Ireland sets standards for all undergraduate education programmes and works to ensure veterinary education and training remain up to date and are benchmarked to the highest international standards. The Veterinary Council of Ireland also requires that all veterinary practitioners and veterinary nurses fulfil ongoing professional education requirements to ensure they keep their knowledge and skills up to date throughout their professional lives. The Veterinary Council of Ireland provides guidance to veterinary registrants on matters relating to conduct and ethics through their code of professional conduct. 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 of Ireland is also the designated body to which members of the public may make a complaint against a veterinary practitioner or a veterinary nurse. One of the functions of the council is to take disciplinary action in cases of professional misconduct. In 2018, the Veterinary Council of Ireland held five fitness to practise inquiries, following consideration of 21 complaints.
As the committee will be aware, the topic of corporate ownership of veterinary practices is a very divisive one and has been the subject of much debate in recent times. Since January 2018, there has been significant ongoing work in the Veterinary Council of Ireland to progress consideration of the regulation of the practice in regard to corporate ownership. This is a very divisive and challenging matter for the profession. Nevertheless, the Veterinary Council of Ireland must continue to ensure the highest standards of veterinary medicine in the regulation and management of the professions.
Historically, section 54(2) of the Veterinary Practitioners Act 2005, was interpreted to prevent a body corporate from owning a veterinary practice, and this understanding was reflected in the code of professional conduct published by the Veterinary Council of Ireland. However, legal advice received by the Veterinary Council of Ireland advised 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. The Veterinary Council of Ireland has no legal powers over the regulation of the market in relation to corporate ownership of veterinary practices. The parameters of our powers as established under the Veterinary Practitioners Act 2005 simply do not extend to this area. In light of this, in December 2017, the Veterinary Council of Ireland amended the code of professional conduct to explicitly state that corporate ownership of veterinary practices was not prohibited. Following reaction from the veterinary professions and farming bodies citing a lack of consultation on the matter of corporate ownership, the Veterinary Council of Ireland, at a meeting in January 2018, decided to put the proposed amended section of the code of professional conduct on hold and carry out an extensive consultation process of stakeholders on the subject of ownership of veterinary practices. Consultations conducted to date include the following: 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 on other veterinary regulators internationally and; research and analysis on other regulated professions in Ireland.
The Veterinary Council of Ireland has also benefited from legal advice on the matter, and all these inputs, together with the results of a consultation process and survey of the public, are to be consolidated into a report by Grant Thornton. It is hoped this report will be available shortly for consideration by the Veterinary Council of Ireland.
The Veterinary Council of Ireland is the statutory body responsible for the regulation and management of the veterinary professions. It is worth noting that as an independent regulator to the veterinary professions, there is no express legislative role for the Veterinary Council of Ireland to determine the ownership of veterinary practices. The Veterinary Council of Ireland is also about to embark on the development of a new corporate strategy for the five year period of 2019 to 2023. The council will look to work with partner bodies to shape the professional lives of veterinary registrants to ensure that the development and oversight of the veterinary professions continue to foster best professional practice in the best interests of animal welfare and the public interest. We will continue to work to ensure that the high standards expected in the veterinary industry are upheld, and that quality of veterinary care is continuously improving into the future. I would like to thank the Chairman and the committee for the invitation to address them today. Both the president of the Veterinary Council of Ireland Council, Mr. Ó Scanaill and I, are happy to address any questions the committee may have.
I thank the witnesses for coming in today to enlighten us on this situation. To put a little bit of context to this, we have received correspondence and some lobbying from various organisations and individuals on the issue of corporate ownership. People fear that it will become similar to the situation with Boots pharmacies or a fast food type of situation where a whole lot of veterinary practices around the country will be owned by a company which would primarily be interested in profit and would probably concentrate on the aspects of veterinary practice which are most profitable and leave the others. From the committee's perspective in looking after the interests of farmers and the primary producer, we are talking about the larger animals such as when a cow is calving or a sheep is out at night that needs assistance and a vet cannot be got. In many areas of rural Ireland there is already a problem with that and if we went down the route that is feared with the corporate ownership creeping into the situation, there would be great fears for many people in the farming community that this would happen.
I want to ask a few questions on that. Ms Muldoon outlined in her opening statement that one of the Veterinary Council of Ireland's key responsibilities is to ensure that duties are performed in accordance with prescribed codes of professional conduct and ethics. In the context of vets who are employees of a company which is not the vet, I would like to get detail on how the council expects to be able to make sure that happens, to make sure the control is there and how the council would find that.
In referring to the background, Ms Muldoon said that "Historically, section 54(2) of the Veterinary Practitioners Act 2005, was interpreted to prevent a body corporate from owning a veterinary practice," but that legal advice told the council otherwise. When was that and at what stage was that advice received? Later on Ms Muldoon stated that the council went into a consultation process and said the Veterinary Council of Ireland has benefitted from legal advice on the matter. I assume that is separate legal advice since then. Can we get the details of that legal advice? What is the situation with that?
On the practices that have already been bought out by companies, and I understand that some companies from Britain have come here and bought practices, how many of them have they bought? Is that vision of chains of practices starting to develop? Are they focusing on a particular type of practice? My understanding is they are focusing on the small animals and equine practices and that they are not as interested in the other practices that would be more general for the farming community out there. The fear that people have is that if that will be the focus and if a veterinary practice or partnership sells off a portion of its practice to a company, it is selling off the portion that is most profitable and the other part of it that is not so profitable will end up going into decline. Therefore, we will see a situation where the farming community, which needs a service, which deserves a service and for which the Veterinary Council of Ireland is responsible for ensuring that a service is provided, will see that slip.
On the issue of partnerships versus limited companies, my understanding is that many veterinary practices became limited companies years ago. For the last 20 years many of them have been limited companies. There is nothing wrong with that and that has gone on, and yet the Veterinary Council of Ireland is saying that section 54(2) of the Veterinary Practitioners Act 2005 prevented it from happening or was interpreted in a way that prevented it from happening. I do not get that. If, until recently, the Veterinary Council of Ireland thought there could not be companies then why were there companies? That is a simple question.
Nobody has a problem with a vet or a number of vets setting up a limited company.
The issue is that if a group of investors came together, set up a company, decided to buy a couple of veterinary practices and expand the company further, they will not have any skin in the game in that they will have no concern for anything other than profit. That is a matter of concern.
An associated matter that concerns me, although it is slightly different, is that people have told me it is difficult to find vets who are interested in working with the farming community. One of the big issues is that many of the vets who qualify are interested only in small-animal practice rather than the tougher and less profitable aspects. What can be done to ensure that vets will work with the farming community?
I turn to the number of vets qualifying in Ireland. I have teenage children who attend college. Through them and their friends, I hear what is going on. One chap who lives not far from me had his heart set on being a vet but he was 25 points short on his leaving certificate and there was no hope. His family was not wealthy enough to send him to Budapest to train. That problem needs to be addressed. In many other countries, people studying other disciplines can progress to train in veterinary college and, while there may be an element of that in Ireland, there is limited scope for it to happen. Could access be made more open? Many people who take courses in agricultural colleges have a keen interest in veterinary medicine and would probably make excellent vets, not least because they come from an agricultural background. They find veterinary medicine is closed off to them, however, because of the current system. Will our guests comment on that?
The Veterinary Council pointed out that a change had been made to the code of professional conduct. Did some members of the board have a conflict of interest, or were such conflicts ever declared, given that they were in the process of selling their practices to bodies corporate while they were working on the code?
I thank Ms Muldoon for her opening statement. The major problem is the shortage of large-animal vets in rural and, in particular, peripheral areas. What is the Veterinary Council doing to address that in the immediate, medium and long terms? That a veterinary practice is a legal entity is not an issue for us. Rather, it is about the availability of vets and what the Veterinary Council is doing in respect of education. How much communication does the Veterinary Council have with University College Dublin and the other education providers to ensure that a sufficient number of large-animal vets are available?
How many vets are needed, given the number of large animals in the State? Are they mapped geographically to ensure a proper geographical spread? What is the Veterinary Council doing about qualifications, the number of leaving certificate points required and the pathways to qualification? Is the Veterinary Council aware that SUSI grant aid is allotted to vets who train abroad but in their final undergraduate year or while studying for their master's degree, they cannot secure funding? Why are so many large-animal vets leaving practices? I wish to learn what the Veterinary Council is doing to address these issues because we are going down a route similar to that relating to a lack of priests in some areas. We need to take tangible steps. Some might say vets are much more important than priests but I will not get into that argument. Nevertheless, we need to address the matter. Farmers in places such as that from which I come from in Belmullet and elsewhere in County Mayo need certainty. Due to the additional requirements for herds that are now made and so on, they need to know that an affordable vet will be available to meet their needs in order that they can continue farming in the way they need to.
I thank our guests for appearing before the committee. I have a couple of questions, although they are quite similar to the previous two. Section 54(2) of the Veterinary Practice Act, at the time of the Bill's enactment, was interpreted as being able to prevent a body corporate from owning a veterinary practice. Why was there a review that led to a revision of the code of professional conduct? Why and when was that legal advice sought?
The Veterinary Council stated that it has no legal powers regarding the regulation of the market. Is it seeking further powers in order to extend its activities into that area?
Many students who graduate seem to join smaller-animal practices. Has the Veterinary Council reviewed that trend and examined the position regarding the number of graduates who join large-animal practices? For example, does the council have any idea how many graduates joined large-animal practices in the past five years?
The Veterinary Council is developing a new strategy for the period 2019 to 2023. Will the consultations it has conducted with stakeholders form part of the review of ownership?
I thank our guests for their presentation. While we have concerns about rural areas and the future provision of services at large-animal practices in rural Ireland, the principal point we wish to discuss is the corporate ownership of practices. One matter is whether this is good for the industry but another is whether it is legal. I found part of the presentation to be contradictory. Ms Muldoon stated:
The Veterinary Council of Ireland has no legal powers over the regulation of the market in relation to corporate ownership of veterinary practices. The parameters of our powers, as established under the Veterinary Practice Act 2005, simply do not extend to this area.
That is a clear and concise statement and it was made on the basis of legal advice. Ms Muldoon went on to state, however, that the following month the Veterinary Council decided to suspend the decision it had made in December because of the views of various stakeholders. She listed five points of research the Veterinary Council would carry out in respect of the decision it made in December. However, she clearly outlined that the decision made in December was clear-cut and that the legal advice indicated there was no ambiguity involved. A month later, following reaction from vets and farming bodies, the Veterinary Council suspended the decision it made in December, even though Ms Muldoon stated that its legal advice was clear. I find that contradictory. We are in a state of flux whereby a review to determine the correct action to take is being conducted and whereby Grant Thornton will publish a report. However, practices continue to be purchased by bodies corporate while the review is ongoing. I would have expected a handbrake to be applied in respect of all sales while the review is ongoing. It seems that somewhere between December and January a lack of confidence in the legal advice to the Veterinary Council emerged, particularly in view of the fact that after receiving legal advice and making a decision, the council began a consultation process.
The train of events does not make sense. The consultation process should have taken place before a decision was made by the Veterinary Council to allow corporates to purchase practices. Deputy Martin Kenny has already asked if there was a conflict of interest in the making of the decision by the council. The purchase of one well-known practice has attracted much media attention, with many questions asked as to whether there was a conflict of interest. I would like the sequence of events involved to be explained. One paragraph of the presentation is unambiguous but the following several paragraphs contradict it. The Veterinary Council going into a consultation process has put question marks over the legal advice it received. It took a serious decision on that legal advice in December 2017 and then sat back from it in January 2018.
The Veterinary Council deals with disciplinary action in the case of professional misconduct. How does this work if a veterinary practice facing such action is not owned by a vet? How do the powers of the council sit with taking disciplinary action when the ownership of a practice rests outside the profession?
I am not happy with the sequence of events here. Something does not sit right with me. I would like to see a copy of the legal advice. One can ask two good barristers the same question but get two different legal advices. I cannot see that practices acquired by corporate entities are providing better services. I have serious concerns about this matter. It also raises questions about the disciplinary role played by the Veterinary Council. This all hinges on the interpretation of the Veterinary Practice Act 2005. To enter consultations after making a decision means that the council is not confident regarding the decision it took in December 2017. At the very least, sales of practices should be halted until the position is clarified once and for all. I am baffled by the sequence of events, particularly in the context of a report being sought from Grant Thornton after the initial decision had been made. Will the council provide an explanation?
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 antebellumnot 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 Journalin 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.
Ms Niamh Muldoon:
I will deal with some of the questions and I will ask Mr. Ó Scanaill to come in on some other matters. In response to Deputy Martin Kenny, whom I thank for his questions, the Veterinary Council has no role in ownership. It has never had a role in ownership and it will not have a role in ownership into the future. It is a statutory body and it oversees the quality of the services delivered by its registries. The Deputy referred to profit focus.
The Veterinary Council of Ireland will be very strong in its role in ensuring the integrity and quality of the provision of veterinary medicine and services will always remain of the highest standard.
The Deputy queried the legal advice received. As a body corporate, the Veterinary Council of Ireland received advice in 2017 and 2018. It is very informed and engaged. It is very aware of the importance and significance of the role it plays and takes no decisions lightly.
The Deputy is correct that there is one programme of undergraduate education in Ireland. The Veterinary Council of Ireland accredits programmes of education, but it is not within its gift or control to initiate new programmes. It is outside its control to increase the number of registrants. I can say there is very good communication with UCD on the programme of education delivered. All members will acknowledge the standard of graduates produced in Ireland in the field of veterinary medicine.
The Deputy referred to the conflict of interest with board members. I am happy to confirm that the Veterinary Council of Ireland takes all decisions as a body corporate. No one member carries particular interests. There is a mixed profile around the table and all members elected and appointed as public interest representatives wear public interest hats when sitting at the table.
Senator Conway-Walsh talked about the geographical spread of veterinary surgeons and nurses and the pathways to qualifications. I do not want to repeat myself, but there is one programme of education accredited by the Veterinary Council of Ireland and it is delivered by UCD. As I said in my opening statement, the council is about to embark on the development of its corporate strategy. Pathways to qualifications, the geographical spread of veterinary surgeons and nurses and all of the data available to the council may well be covered in the strategy for its role, influencing policy in the Department and otherwise in the future. That is a matter to considered in the strategy, work on which has yet to commence. Ultimately, the strategy will be determined by the council.
Deputy Corcoran-Kennedy asked whether the council would seek further powers to extend its remit. It would be wrong for me to predict how the council will act. The strategy will be developed later this year. The council is precluded from acting in respect of ownership, but it will use all of the regulatory tools at its disposal to ensure continued high standards in the practise of veterinary medicine. The consultation embarked on by the council in recent months has illuminated several aspects for the council to consider in its strategy and in the future. Therefore, in that sense it has been very beneficial.
Ms Niamh Muldoon:
It was sought on the basis that it was believed there were inconsistencies in the code of conduct. It has been in place in its current form for many years. Before significant changes were made, legal advice was sought, as any regulatory body would seek advice before embarking on such changes.
To respond to the question asked about decisions taken by the council, all of its decisions are taken as a unit because it is a body corporate.
Ms Niamh Muldoon:
I cannot answer that question offhand. It might be the case that research and analysis will be carried out by the Veterinary Council of Ireland in the coming years, but I do not have the data or information sought to hand.
Deputy Penrose has correctly stated the Veterinary Council of Ireland acts in the public interest and the best interests of animal health and welfare. He referred to deregulation of the system. To be clear, the council regulates the practise of veterinary medicine by registrants, the individuals acting in their roles. At no time will the council allow for any diminution in standards. It will always safeguard the integrity of the clinical discretion of its registrants in the best interests of the public and animal health and welfare.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
Gabhaim buíochas don Chathaoirleach, do na Teachtaí Dála agus do na Seanadóirí as ucht an deis teacht os comhair an choiste.
I am very pleased to be here to answer as many of the questions asked as I can. They are pointed and relevant.
To provide some background information, being a veterinarian is in my bones, on both sides of my family. My dad was a vet, as were my uncles on my mum's and dad's sides. I have cousins who are vets and a daughter who is studying veterinary medicine in Budapest. That was mentioned and I will return to the point. My area is large animal services. Believe it or not, my grandmother and great grandmothers were dairy farmers on the main street of Swords. Cows were milked in Swords and my brother Padraig continues to do so. He has a substantial herd in the Swords area and appears on milk cartons. There were 11 of us in the family, two of whom are vets. Therefore, the profession is very important to us.
Before I answer Deputy Martin Kenny's questions, this issue came up in the council for several years. I am its president and proud to be. This is my eighth year on the council. A good while ago, three or four years ago, questions were being asked about who could or could not buy a practice and whether a corporate could be involved. It was clear to us that a corporate could not be involved. The question was always about ownership. There were provisions in the code that were almost contradictory. There is no doubt that there are vets who work for corporates. How, therefore, could a corporate not own a practice? The council had to study the Act. Had we done this beforehand, we would have been far better for it. By the time we got the reaction of stakeholders, we realised we needed to go much wider. As the registrar said, there is no mention of ownership in the Act. In fact, the practice, as an entity, is not mentioned. What is clear is the description of the practise of veterinary medicine as anything to do with animal health and diseases, any advice thereon, any treatment, surgery and certification provided. It goes on to mention the post mortem and rectal examination of mares. Anything to do with animals is laid out in it. It is very clear in section 54 who can or cannot do this for reward or otherwise. If it concerns veterinary medicine, it is very much confined to veterinary practitioners only. If it is related to veterinary nursing, it applies to veterinary nurses only. That is our focus. When we were being asked who could buy and sell a practice, if a practitioner was to retire but would continue to own the practice or if a spouse owned half of the practice, the council was never involved. We were asked these questions and when we examined the code, we found inconsistencies and felt clarification was needed.
In response to the statement that there is no prohibition on ownership, it is the consequences of such a statement that are the problem. As a stand-alone statement, a practice and its ownership are not mentioned in the Act. These statements have knock-on effects and Deputy Penrose picked up on the point that it was the operation of the practice that mattered. People were not really talking about ownership, although they were using the word "own". They were actually trying to become operators. The Act is clear in its description of a veterinary practice, who can and cannot practise for reward or otherwise for animal owners, an industry or an educational employer. To answer the question about how to control such things, heretofore we were never interested in the ownership of a practice. We were only interested in vets. Our role will involve the regulation of the service provided for the public. Ownership is a sideline issue. It is a distraction and has been very divisive and distracting, but in the consultation we are absolutely and specifically following what the Act tells us, that only a veterinary practitioner can carry out what is described in section 53 as the act of veterinary medicine for a third party and animal owners for reward or otherwise.
That is what we are primarily speaking about here - the farming community, horse owners and animal owners in general.
I was asked when we got legal advice on section 54. We got various legal advices, some dating back as far back as 2014. In its legal advice, which goes back even further than that, the Competition Authority described the section as vague. The legal advice that we were coming in with was that owners were not there. As I said, the wording was introduced we would be the first to put our hands up and say that consultation would have been far better if that had come beforehand. The consultation is now going ahead and everyone knows that this is definitely under review.
Who is buying and selling? Practices have always been bought and sold. The Veterinary Council of Ireland has no hand, act or part in any of that. It has no remit in respect of who is buying or selling practices, which are usually passed down from generation to generation. Very often, they are in the hands of others or there may be part owners or investors. However, owners and investors do not influence in any way the decision of how many blood tests, services or X-rays are performed. The clinical autonomy of service must at all times be in the hands of the vets and that is where we are heading with all of this.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
As I said, we got various legal advices on section 54. There is no doubt that the most recent advice reiterates the issue of ownership. Who can buy and sell really is not our responsibility. As to how many practices were bought at this time, because we have genuinely never known who owned a practice and the Act does not describe a practice, we do not have a handle on the matter. We do not ask anyone who owns the practice. The issue is who controls and runs a practice, an issue Deputy Penrose mentioned. The important question is how come or why that suddenly disappeared and that is where our remit comes in.
Does Mr. Ó Scanaill not accept that ownership and control are important? Is it is the case that ownership is not the focus of the Veterinary Council? If Mr. Ó Scanaill is saying he does not care who owns a veterinary practice and it is fine if Donald Trump wants to buy a practice, people will have a problem because they will feel the code of ethics may not be as followed as strictly as it would be if the practice was owned by vets who have trained and have a complete knowledge of the industry. That is the issue. For Mr. Ó Scanaill to say he does not care who owns a practice seems to sidestep the issue. The council has a responsibility. Surely its responsibility is to make sure everything is done correctly and not simply say it does not care who owns a practice as along as everything is done correctly. What about a practice requiring its vets to use only particular medicines? We discussed earlier the issue of closed loops in the farming industry in terms of beef production. If one has a similar situation in a veterinary practice, how well will that work in the long term? To say one does not care who owns a practice is to slightly step outside where the council needs to be. If it is to be in control, it must care who owns a practice.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
Perhaps we should. Let us see about that. When we are finished with our consultation, perhaps there could be legislative change. We may have to appear before the committee when we have concluded our considerations and we would love to have an opportunity to do so. However, we have to work within the current Act. We are adamant that the control of veterinary medicine is completely in the hands of the vet in respect of who carries out the practice of veterinary medicine and where it can be carried out. A certificate must be supplied by the council to an applicant who must be a registrant and must be a vet. The certificate is non-transferable and applies for four years only. We can also add conditions and apply limitations to it. As far as we are concerned, the regulation of a practice involves regulating the practitioners that provide the service to the public. That is exactly our role and focus. It is not the case that we do not care but the other aspect is a side issue. If an owner wishes to influence the veterinary practitioners and the latter have any concerns about the matter, then it is to ourselves. We have issued a certificate to that premises at and from which the service starts. If there are concerns that the owner is doing anything because of the autonomy of service and the questions that the vets have in terms of how they tend to the animals or what drugs or surgeries they use, that is completely in the hands of the professionals working in it. There is no contract and no one can enter into anything that lowers or diminishes that in any way. It is not that the council does not care but that the Act does not empower us to anything about the specific or actual owner. The Act specifically refers to who provides the service and, specifically, that is practitioners only and they are under our regulations.
Let us say a farmer in Drumkeeran in north Leitrim calls a veterinary practice requesting the urgent assistance of a vet because his or her cow has suffered a prolapse and the calving bed is out. What if the company that owns the practice says it is sorry but there is no vet working?
The reality is that a vet will attend because vets get out and do their work. We complain about the health service and many people tell us that veterinary practitioners are often better than the health service in many places. that is because they respond and get out to farms in the middle of the night. The difficulty people have is where a company is in charge of a practice and may say to a vet he or she will not be paid. That is the point that we need to get to.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
To clarify, it is not the company that provides a service. The vets, with their certificates of suitability, basic degrees and continuing professional development points, at the premises identified on our register are the only people who provide that service. It is with those vets that the farmer makes contact. They will answer and they are obliged to provide 24-hour cover. The others are investors who are not influencers, do not answer the phone and do not provide the service. The service is provided by the vets. The ownership is not within our remit but service provision is very much within our remit.
Surely the owner of a practice dictates to veterinary practitioners what is done? If a corporate owner decides to close a practice on Sundays, surely the vet who works for that owner must comply with that decision?
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
That is exactly where the code comes in. The veterinary practitioner cannot act outside the code. The Act is very clear that it is not the corporate. As Deputy Penrose has said, the corporate is completely excluded from providing the service. It is only the vet who can provide the service, as specifically stated in section 54(2)(c). Vets cannot assist somebody else to provide a service. The only person who can perform veterinary medicine and provide that service are the vets working in a practice. As I said, a practice is not described in the Act. What is described is the certificate of suitability, which is given to a vet and a vet only if it is veterinary medicine he or she is giving. That is the premises and the vets who are working in it are listed on the certificate of suitability. That is the service to the farmer. Vets cannot enter a contract that affects them in any way or diminishes their answerability to the Veterinary Council of Ireland, the code and the basic core principles of veterinary medicine. It is not that we do not care. We are acting with the registrants and the service they are providing at and from the premises for which we have given a certificate of suitability. The ownership issue is dragging us into an area where we are not on solid footing because the Act does not mention ownership or even a practice. We heard that people have bought practices. People have always been involved in practices and there have been investors but they cannot be influencers. The people running the show, in control and with their hands on the wheel are the vets.
The Veterinary Council of Ireland was asleep at the wheel. We gave it an opportunity, when we contacted it, to suggest changes that may be required to the Act to clarify this matter. We expected it to go beyond a "Yay" or "Nay". Some the points that have been made by Mr. Ó Scanaill are accurate but not all of them. I still believe the section provides for a prohibition but I will leave that issue for a minute.
If the council allows anybody to own a veterinary practice, by implication it undermines its ability to regulate the operation of a veterinary practice in Ireland. Anybody can own a veterinary practice and an owner is in a very powerful position. Apart from getting into the niceties of the ownership and operation of a practice, this will turn into a supermarket job or a job for some other large body and rural Ireland will be left on the hind teat and wiped out. That is the direction in which we are moving. The council needs to speak to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
The witnesses have a direct line to him. What representations have they made or have they just gone through the motions at the Veterinary Council meeting and adopted the position that an awful problem is not part of its purview at all? If it is not, the council should get back to the Minister. That is what we are here for. There are Opposition spokespersons waiting for the opportunity to bring legislation forward or to make amendments to Acts. The Government would take it on board to solve the problem. It is the Government of Ireland and it knows bloody well that this has implications. I am surprised at the Veterinary Council. Mr. Ó Scanaill has long experience but there was indecent haste in what happened. When one has indecent haste, there must be an underlying motive. What we want to get to is the motive for the change in December without awaiting the outcome of a review which is properly being carried out. I have no doubt that it is properly being carried out. Ms Muldoon will have a feather in her cap when this is carried out. However, it is very hard to unscramble the egg. That is the problem.
I apologise. We had to go away to vote in the Seanad. I pick up on the tail end of Deputy Penrose's contribution. When one leaves, one can end up going over old ground because one does not know what has been discussed while one was away. As I say, I pick up from the tail end of Deputy Penrose's response. What I wanted to know from the council was what the catalyst was for starting the procedures that commenced at the beginning of 2018. Why would the council in its role seek private legal advice when section 54(2) is law in my reading of the game, albeit I am not as well qualified or versed in the law as Deputy Penrose? Why did the council not come to us? We are the legislators in this land. The Minister has the ultimate responsibility. What was the catalyst for the council to turn a blind eye on the back of private personal legal advice when we have an Attorney General and agriculture committees of the Oireachtas, Deputies and Senators and Opposition parties who, as Deputy Penrose says, are only too willing to have a go at a Minister or Department if something is wrong or some flaw exists in legislation? What was the catalyst for all of those changes? The question may have been asked when I was away from the committee.
The council has undermined its primary role. Just before Senators left, mention was made of how many points one needs to become a vet and how much money a family needs behind it even with the points. Now one can win the lottery, not have a point to one's name and never even have done one's leaving certificate and buy a veterinary practice and employ veterinarians who, in my reading of the council's own report, the council will have no power or authority to regulate. It will be the owner of the practice who is answerable to the council. However, if he or she is not a practitioner, he or she is not really answerable to the council while his or her employees are answerable to the practice owner. The council has nullified its own role and overstepped the mark by dealing with matters outside its remit. By Mr. Ó Scanaill's own admission, the council had to seek private legal advice as to the ownership. That should have been hard-balled back to the Minister straight away or back to the committee. We do legislative scrutiny here. It is up to us to look at section 54(2). That is our role, not the role of the council or of a private barrister or solicitor, whichever was employed. As Deputy Penrose concluded, while the council might have done the prudent thing in commissioning a report, it did not wait for its outcome. Veterinary practices are being purchased as we speak and are now beyond regulation. What was the urgency and what was the catalyst for doing what the council did? I thank the Vice Chairman and apologise if there was repetition in my contribution.
Ms Niamh Muldoon:
I thank Senator Paul Daly. On the role of the Veterinary Council, it is a statutory body and it is right and proper for it to seek its own legal advice. Quite simply, it does not have the option to go to the Attorney General or to come to the committee to ask it to interpret legislation. The practice of veterinary medicine is carried out by individuals who are on the registers maintained by the Veterinary Council. There is no question but that the practice of veterinary medicine is, squarely, being regulated and will continue to be regulated. The Veterinary Council is very strong in ensuring the integrity of veterinary medicine and veterinary services nationally will always be under the council's watchful eye. The high standards enjoyed by all stakeholders around the country will be maintained. Of course, while it is regrettable that there was not a period of consultation before these changes took place, there has been a very robust period of consultation that is ongoing. That consultation has illuminated a number of issues which will now be considered by the council in due course following receipt of the report. I might hand over the to the president of the council.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
In fairness, this whole question was considered for a period in our legislative and ethics committee because we were being asked about it and, in fact, we were being told that practices were being bought and sold and that corporates were buying them. Meanwhile, certain parts of our code would lead one to think our interpretation went against what another interpretation of the Act might be. We had legal advices. As someone said earlier, the answers one gets can depend on which barrister one gets and what questions one asks and that can be confusing. In fact, we asked the Attorney General and the Department and, in fairness, were told to seek our own legal advice, which we did. We have said it before and I will say it again; tá an brón orainn. There is no doubt that with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been far better had the review occurred beforehand. That is why we had hardly attended another meeting when we put a line through it.
As I have said before and do not want to repeat too much regarding ownership in itself, it is about the operation of the practices. Why was operation removed? Operation was removed because the Veterinary Council of Ireland recognised that it is via the operation of the practice that the Act permits us to regulate the practice of veterinary medicine. That is what we were doing and that is what we will be doing. While I cannot predict as the council has to make that final decision, it is very likely to emerge through the consultation that it is the operation of the veterinary practice and who is providing the service and has their hands on the wheel that is very firmly in the hands of the practitioners in a practice. The Act is clear on it. It cannot be the case that a boss above the practitioners can allow them to reduce their ability to carry out what they should carry out. The practitioners are answerable to the Veterinary Practice Act, the Veterinary Council, the codes, regulations and any limitations placed on certificates of suitability for practice, including in respect of premises which open to provide that service. That is where our focus will be. It is not that we do not care about it, but the owner issue is a secondary one and it is not in the Act. We cannot go in there.
As to whether we want legislative change, we were not looking for it. We were being asked a specific question. There is no doubt that we had said several times that those making inquiries should seek their own legal advice. We asked the Department and it told us to seek our own legal advice. The Office of the Attorney General said it could not provide it. "Seek your own legal advice" was our line for a long time but meanwhile practices were being purchased and matters were developing. It is happening across the world. As such, we needed to make a statement. That was one we made before quickly realising we needed to do a consultation. Our focus will be on who is providing the service, how the service is provided and on the fact that the service must remain completely independent and in the hands of the vets and nurses working at a practice or from a premises.
We are extraordinarily proud of the vets - ladies and gentleman - working in the northern, western, and southern seaboards, across the Twenty-six Counties, from Malin to Mizen, as I say. They provide a fantastic service of which we are extraordinarily proud. It is very tough to provide that service, which we recognise. No one recognises that more than those of us who are actually giving that service. One of the council's roles is to promote the practice of veterinary medicine. It will, in time, require investment of some sort to maintain these practices. They are acquired. We are not like post offices leaving the villages or the banks leaving the towns. We are still there and the role of the council is to ensure it does not make any change that might affect the service that is currently provided. That will be our focus. At all times, we will focus on ensuring that the vet has autonomy of service. In response to Deputy Cahill, no one else is going to say who does what and when. If a cow has a prolapse, it is the vet who is called who will decide how to deal with that prolapse or whether there is someone in a better position to do it. It will not be the case that a vet will be involved in some contract which does not allow him or her to provide that service.
That cannot be the case. The practices will be regulated and the vets will be the providers of the service for reward or otherwise. Section 54 is quite clear on who can provide the service for reward or otherwise.
I have a brief comment on that answer to my question. The Veterinary Council of Ireland did not start with the Attorney General. It was advised to get its own advice and all of this has been explained. When that advice was received did the council highlight issues with section 54 whereby the council thought it prudent to highlight to the Department that there may be an issue, rather than just taking the advice verbatim and running with it? Mr. Ó Scanaill said advice can be obtained to go in any direction depending on the question asked. Does Mr. Ó Scanaill not think the council should have reversed the process and gone back and highlighted to the Department that, based on the advice it had received, there may be issues and perhaps a need for a change in legislation? Why did the Veterinary Council of Ireland accept the advice and run with it?
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
In fairness, the Department is aware of what we are doing at all times as it receives an annual report. The executive meets staff at the Department four or five times a year. Ms Muldoon, the registrar, will answer this question. Only yesterday, we met the Secretary General. We meet at various times. The Department was aware we were chewing on this because we asked it about it. We were not running around looking for legislative change because it is not something that can be obtained terribly easily or very quickly. We knew what was in the Act and what was very clear in the Act. The Senator is right that it would have been far better had we done the review before December 2017, and I have said this a few times. This was why in 2018 we asked for it to stop. This is all about operating rather than ownership, as Deputy Cahill said. Our difficulty is that the owner is not in the Act. It is the operator, the person providing the service, who is in the Act. The Act is quite clear this is a vet and must always be a vet. This is what we are working on and it is in the code of conduct.
Mention was made of education and going abroad.
We had to leave for a vote. Will Mr. Ó Scanaill go through the timelines prior to December 2017? How many internal conversations took place on changing the code? Where did they take place? What was the focus? Will Mr. Ó Scanaill then go through the timelines after December 2017? Was there a change in staff in the organisation? If so, when, how and why did it happen? Will Mr. Ó Scanaill elaborate on whether there was a change in board members? I believe there was. Will he go through the process? The word on the street was there were major changes in the organisation over that six-month period. We need to get clarity on what those changes were, why they happened and where we are now in the process. I realise the council is going through public consultation but we need to find out the history of how we got here.
I want to raise an issue raised by a number of rural veterinary practitioners, particularly along the western seaboard. They believe they have been totally neglected by the Veterinary Council of Ireland, in particular through its refusal to intervene to ensure we get more vets who want to go into large animal practice from the veterinary school in UCD. As we have all said, we do not produce enough vets for cattle practice and there is a shortage of cattle vets in rural Ireland.
Another issue highlighted is that vets who qualify in other countries with lesser qualifications are being brought in. They have no experience of large animal practice and may not have experience of surgery, such as caesarean sections, on a cow. This is leading to complications in animal welfare. Will the witnesses respond to this and set out how the council is addressing this issue? We have corporate entities being created but the first step is to deal with the fact that there are not enough vets. What can and will be done to address the prevailing circumstances? Many of the vets who have complained spoke about severe emotional and physical distress and pressure in trying to keep up with the workload they have. We all know dealing with large animals is a very heavy type of job and if people are under pressure, they could easily get injured. It is far from being a desirable situation. The fact it is not being addressed means more Irish qualified vets are being driven away from large animal practice because those working in them have no life.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
I will answer Senator Mulherin. Her comments that vets on the western seaboard have been totally neglected by the Veterinary Council might be a little unfair. There is no doubt that quite a few years ago, perhaps four, five, six or seven years ago, we recognised it was hard to get large animal practitioners. In fairness, UCD is a top class college and is world renowned, so much so that its graduates have the world at their feet and very often go abroad to further their education. We recognise that times have changed. Traditionally, many graduates on to the register here in Ireland almost immediately and then went into large animal practices. If many of those graduates, who obtained very high points and were very highly achieving students and are highly achieving vets, do not want to work in large animal practices, we cannot make them want to do it. What has happened, which is good, is that many Irish undergraduates who could not gain access to the Irish school are going abroad for their education and coming back. This year, we noted that more of the new graduates on the register have come from abroad than from the Dublin school. This has its own connotations and we will have to look at them. These are Irish boys and girls who have gone abroad. My daughter is away studying at present and there are many others. She is in her second year. In fairness, one must temper this particular point by stating the Dublin graduates can work in the US, Australia and a much wider field than the Irish graduates who go abroad for their education and come home. There is no doubt it has helped. A total of 26 from Budapest and 14 from Warsaw came onto the register as new graduates. Almost every one of them indicated to the Veterinary Council of Ireland that he or she will work with large animals. They are an extra tranche coming in and we are glad to see it. We recognised the issue but the market is fixing itself. This is to be seen across the board.
I do not know whether the vets would accept this. It sounds like the market is correcting itself. What particular interventions, even if they are not within the council's competence, would Mr. Ó Scanaill suggest to address the situation rather than seeing many of our students going abroad? The issue of points has been highlighted. High points do not always reflect somebody's aptitude or suitability to be a vet no more than to be a doctor. What does Mr. Ó Scanaill suggest?
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
I will ask Ms Muldoon to speak on this question. We are in contact with UCD, and a question on this was asked very early this afternoon. We are in regular contact with UCD and we have made contact with it to state we find that fewer and fewer vets are available. Jobs have been advertised in large animal work but there have been no applicants for them, whereas there have been plenty of applicants for small animal or equine work. It is very difficult to change this. When people qualify as vets we cannot tell them where they must work. We recognised there was a need to do something. As I have said, the market is correcting itself but we recognise the issue and we will not just sit back. We would like to go visiting and we will explore that possibility. I will now hand over to Ms Muldoon, the registrar, because, in fairness, this is just unfolding as part of our strategy.
Ms Niamh Muldoon:
I thank Senator Mulherin for her question. Ultimately, this is a matter of policy, which is bigger than simply the Veterinary Council. The Veterinary Council has access to a huge amount of data in terms of the number of registrants on its rolls, including their profiles, their ages and where they are in practice, and these data will probably come under consideration in the strategy. It might be that over the coming years the council will carry out research to produce reports that will seek to inform and influence policies in this area but it is outside the sole control of the Veterinary Council. It is an area it is discussing. I can say no more than that on the matter.
Challenges to the profession were mentioned, including health, well-being and the stressful environment in which many members of the profession find themselves.
That is acknowledged by the council in its code of conduct and many other initiatives, including a booklet, Safe Vet, produced a number of years ago to give guidance and support and acknowledge the strains and pressures on registrants. It is a worthy initiative and available on the website. It is given to all new entrants. The council supports a number of initiatives to protect health and well-being and support its registrants in the public interest.
My apologies to Senator Lombard. He asked about the process involved in making decisions. There are committees that support the work of the Veterinary Council. The legislation and ethics committee referenced previously by one of the Senator's colleagues considered this matter over a long period. As the president outlined, ultimately it made a number of recommendations to the council which were considered by it in 2017 and following which it took decisions. That is the process involved. As with any regulator, there are a number of committees that support the work of the council.
The Senator questioned changes in personnel. I am not sure that is fair or relevant. It is the decision of the Veterinary Council as a body corporate. In terms of the changes in personnel or individuals beneath it, it is of no relevance.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
There has been a very large change, but the council is a body in perpetuity set up under the Act. There are changes at all times. It is a clever enough Act in the way it was set up in terms of the way people move in and out in different periods. At a two-year point, five come up for election. Two years later four come up for election, giving nine elected members. The appointed members sit on the council for four years. Some stay for four years, some for a shorter period and some for a second term of four years. As it happened - it was only a coincidence of time - there were only four or five members - I am not absolutely sure which - remaining at the end of 2017 and into 2018. In fairness, it is a body in perpetuity. A decision of the council in 2005 is a decision of the council in 2005. Decisions are not made because the council has now changed and we are all different. The change is made to have different thought processes and different inputs. As the registrar said, it is unfair to say it has to do with the fact that there has been huge change.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
There was a change of registrar and almost immediately I went in as president. In fairness to the registrar, she had been with us for 14 years at the time. She had given us three months' notice, from the middle of January until the end of April. We had an interim CEO or registrar and then a second interim CEO while we were trying to recruit. We have now recruited a full-time CEO. Therefore, there were changes which took place over a long period. We would be far happier if we had concluded the process much quicker. The change of registrar and the new committee members coming in would have added to the difficulty in getting to the bottom of it, but we are almost there.
It is mentioned in the opening statement under the heading of independent statutory regulator that the Veterinary Council of Ireland is the statutory body responsible for the regulation and management of the veterinary professions, they being veterinary practitioners and veterinary nurses. Section 54 of the Act relates to offences in the practise of veterinary medicine and the use of the title. The council regulates the practise of veterinary medicine. Whether a practice is owned by a corporate, an individual or a partnership, is it correct to state the council's job is to regulate the practise of verterinary medicine because that gets to the nub of the matter? The problem is, if a practice is owned by a corporate, how will the council be able to regulate appropriately? Is the council setting conditions? Does it issue a certificate to the corporate or the vet? If it issues it to a vet, he or she is employed by the corporate which the council will have to regulate. If it is not prepared to do so, it is abdicating its responsibilities.
Ms Niamh Muldoon:
The practise of veterinary medicine lies in delivery by individuals. A body corporate cannot go out and section animals. The individuals who engage in the practise of veterinary medicine are on the register maintained and safeguarded by the Veterinary Council. They come through programmes of education accredited by the council and are subject to continuous professional development overseen by it. They remain on the register and are subject to the code of conduct. As I said, the delivery of services is carried out by individuals who are absolutely regulated at all times. That will not change.
The point I am coming to - I concur with Deputy Penrose - is that when it comes to corporates taking over or being predominant within the sector, there seems to be a hole in the legislation such that a corporate, as the owner of a practice, will not be regulated by anyone. It is clear that there is a hole in the Act that needs to be filled.
Is the legislation and ethics committee a sub-committee of the Veterinary Council of Ireland? The council has a sub-committee dealing with legislation and ethics. I am sure it also has a disciplinary sub-committee. I do not agree with the definition by which sub-committees are bound. I want to know how many members are on the legislation and ethics committee. How many members participated in the vote in December? There was a vote on 14 December because the decision was conveyed on 15 December. Was the decision to make the changes unanimous? Did anybody feel compelled to absent himself or herself from the meeting because of a conflict of interest?
Ms Niamh Muldoon:
As referenced previously - I do not want to sound like a broken record - any decision is a decision of the council as a body corporate. The council has the support of committees in considering individual matters that make recommendations to it, but, ultimately, any decision is a decision of the council as a body corporate.
I cannot let the horse run away without receiving responses to my questions. On what day did the legislation and ethics committee meet? Did it meet on 14 December? Was the decision it made unanimous? Ms Muldoon should be able to answer that question. Were there abstentions? Were their committee members who absented themselves from the meeting? If what Ms Muldoon says is correct, the decision of a sub-committee must be brought to the full council to be endorsed. Nijinsky did not move as quick. The haste associated with the decision was mind-boggling. The committee met on 14 December and took a decision. I would like to know whether it was unanimous. I will not find out, but I could hazard a guess. On 15 December the decision made was put up on the website. When did the council convene to endorse the decision made by the legislation and ethics committee?
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
No, it was earlier. The meeting in December 2017 referred to was a meeting of the full council. It considered a proposal from the legislation and ethics committee which had met quite a few weeks earlier. I am sure it does not usually meet the week before. It is usually meets several weeks before to have the papers ready for the meeting of the full council.
On the issue of unanimity, I am not sure - the registrar would have to tell me - who shouted for and against the proposal.
The Act came into force in 2005. It was fine until December 2017, then changes were made and in January of 2018 the council got worried about those changes. Deputy Penrose and the other members are not happy about this process. We are not at all happy with it. There should have been consultation before the changes were made. There has been undue haste in the decision and, as a committee, we are concerned about the process. That is putting it mildly.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
We glean that from what members have said. There is no doubt that we are not looking back and saying that it was our finest hour. We know, with the benefit of hindsight, that the consultation should have occurred before 2017. We are stating, however, that good will come of this. We are seriously chewing over this issue.
Deputy Martin Kenny inquired as to what will happen if corporate entities buy practices and who will own and run them? The running of practices is the focus of the Veterinary Council. The question is who is providing the service, for reward or otherwise, to a third party. That is where we have always been. If a practitioner owns a practice and is married, does his spouse own half of it? Is that the law of the land? Ownership was not a question we went into. We looked into the operation of the practice. If I happened to have borrowed in the bad times, for example, the bank would have owned a lot more of me than I ever owned, but it could not influence my decisions or tell me how many blood tests to run, how many X-rays to perform or how many bottles of this or that to prescribe. Those decisions are mine alone. I operate the practice and I provide the service. The Act is quite clear on that. A body corporate cannot get involved in that and nor can a vet help it to do so. A body corporate cannot provide any service. The legislation refers to "any act, matter or thing the doing or performance of which forms part of the practice of veterinary medicine". The reference to veterinary medicine means that it is a vet and a vet only. The reference to a veterinary nurse is only in respect of veterinary nursing.
It would have been nicer for Ms Muldoon and I to come before the committee when our consultation was complete and at which time we could inform it to as to the point we had reached. We will be available to do that the moment we have more information.
That is fine. From January 2018 up to now, sales of practices have been continuing. There is a consultation process in place but the handbrake has never been applied. As far as I can see, anyone who wants to sell his or her practice will have it done before this consultation process is complete. To come back in here and tell us the result of the consultation process is grand but if it reaches a conclusion which differs from the decision taken in December 2017, the horse will have bolted. I cannot understand why, when the council started a consultation process, a clause was not put in that while the consultation process is going on sales of practices can only take place as heretofore.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
No, it was not. The Vice Chairman is right. We recognised that this was coming. It was occurring in almost every other state in the world. The sale of practices was something the Veterinary Council could never be, and never was, involved in. It cannot stop that. We have no legislative powers to stop the sale or purchase of practices. Many practices had investment partners who were not vets. We have always regulated the service provided by the practice. We could not, in 2018, have made any statements about it, if we had not been doing it in 2008 or 1998. We were never involved in the sale, purchase or handover of any practices. There are sons of vets who would have been left practices in wills. I do not know. We never were involved in that. That said, however, the word "owner" is often used when operating is being talked about. Operation is different and we are very involved in that. The operator of a veterinary practice is a veterinary practitioner only.
If a veterinary practitioner operates a mixed veterinary practice and a corporate body buys it and decides it will focus on small animals, what does the council do for the 50 farmers in that area who suddenly have no vet?
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
The sudden decision that there is a corporate involved in it is not something we get involved in at all. The provision of the service to that farmer was by the vets only. If they enter into some arrangement with somebody else that affects their ability to give a service and there are complaints about it we will examine those complaints but we would be answerable to the vet.
Mr. Ó Scanaill is stating that the council can bring a vet to task if the policy of the corporate entity for a practice is to do A, B, C or D and in respect of small animals only. If the vet sticks to that policy and does not accommodate large animals, the council will step in and direct that he or she must deal with all animals. That is the core issue. There are multiples that could buy up practices and state that they are dealing with the cash customer who can pay them and who will be financially beneficial for the business and that they do not want those in agriculture involved. Mr. Ó Scanaill is saying if that was to happen, the council would step in but that it would not attack the corporate, it would be attacking the operator. Is that true?
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
While it is recognised that there are corporates which are doing something. whatever it is we do not know and we do not get involved in that aspect of the business. However, we are stating that, before any corporate gets involved anywhere, the only person who can provide or influence the service, or decide whether to do X or Y, be it to small or large animals, is the veterinary practitioner.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
We are saying to the committee that there is not a fourth party. The first party is the vet. We are the regulators, the second party. The third party is the animal owner, the provision of service is to the animal owner. There is no fourth party. It is not allowed under our Act. That has always been the case.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
We only regulate the vet. Our core function is the regulation of the practice of veterinary medicine. The Act allows us only regulate the practice of veterinary medicine and the registrants. We could not go against our core function and if we did that would be to allow the development of a fourth party. There is no room for the fourth party. It is the vet who provides the service. The owner asks for the service and we regulate it. The owner is the third party. We are the regulator.
Has a complaint ever been made that a vet would not deal with a large animal and the council was dealing with the policy of a vet or corporate which would provide a service only to small animals? Has that ever come to the council?
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
I am saying the Act is quite clear, there is no fourth body here. There is the vet who is providing the service, for reward or otherwise, at or from a premises to which we have given a certificate of suitability, and we are regulating that in its entirety. That is our core and primary function.
Ms Niamh Muldoon:
The role of the regulator must be remembered here. It is not within the gift of the Veterinary Council to force the hand of any registrant, for example, two vets in partnership in County Kerry to provide particular services. That is not open to us.
We cannot control every facet of every practice around the country. We oversee and supervise the integrity of the services provided through access to the register for vets and veterinary nurses, education, continuing professional development and fitness to practice. It is just not within the gift of any regulator to control every facet of every practice all over the country.
I asked what was the catalyst for change. The submission states "Historically, section 54(2) of the Veterinary Practitioners Act 2005 was interpreted to prevent a body corporate from owning a veterinary practice" so from its inception until December 2017 or January 2018, the council worked with a basis in its interpretation that a corporate body would not be allowed to buy a veterinary practice. The witness said earlier that veterinary practices had been changing hands and that is no problem. It is in black and white in the report. Why was the interpretation changed or was legal advice sought to change the interpretation? As has been asked, why did the council change the interpretation of the section in the Act over two months when things had worked from 2005 to 2017 with the previous interpretation? What was the catalyst for change and why did the change come about? It is frustrating in here to see how long it takes when we try to introduce, develop or change legislation. The council will definitely be in next year's Guinness book of records in how it changed interpretation of a section of an Act over two months. What was the catalyst for that process and the haste involved?
Ms Niamh Muldoon:
There were deemed to be inconsistencies within the code of conduct. As the president referenced, this matter was considered by committees over a long number of years. Ultimately, advices were taken and the matter was considered by the council in December 2017. That is the basis for the amendment. It was not considered in haste but as Mr. Ó Scanaill outlined, it happened over a long number of years when queries came to the Veterinary Council of Ireland. The council acts in public interest and the best interests of animal health and welfare. If there are inconsistencies, it is important for it to carry out its role in ensuring the position of the council is clear for the benefit of registrants, the public interest and the best interests of animal health and welfare.
It is regrettable that there was not a period of consultation in advance of those amendments but following a reaction based on that amendment, a very thorough period of consultation has been conducted since. All the stakeholders and engagements will be reflected in a report. All the matters that have been illuminated for the council will be considered in time and the Veterinary Council of Ireland will take whatever action it believes appropriate.
The witness is basically saying a decision was made that it was in the best interests of animal health and welfare, veterinary practitioners and farmers to change the interpretation of the Act so corporate bodies could buy veterinary practices.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
We recognised that multinationals or corporate bodies were around and we were being told they were buying this or that. We do not have any direct absolute evidence and even to this day some references are made to certain practices. We would have as little or as much information as members might have and this is not enough for us to make absolute statements of fact.
The Senator asked what was the catalyst and we were asked a good few times if this was possible and if parties could sell or buy in this respect. That was going on the whole time and, in fairness, it was being considered at the legislative and ethics committee. It made a recommendation and this was an effort to clarify matters. We immediately recognised this confused more than clarified matters, which is why we began the consultation process. As I said, we would love to revert to the committee nuair a bheidh sé críochnaithe and we have the report.
I am very frustrated with what has happened in the past few hours. It is nearly a line of self-regulation gone mad and I am quite disappointed with the answers. When will we have the report? With the deepest respect, December 2017 is a long time ago and this is a really important matter. It is amazing that we do not have the report before us by now. Will the report be published in the next few days, weeks and months or will it go for years? Is that really the way we are going? I have been here for the past three or four years and we have had many hearings, most of which I attended. This is one of the most important matters to come before us and it concerns who owns veterinary practices. It is a big issue on the ground. I am a bit annoyed by the answers and the lack of clarity from this afternoon's discussion. We need to have the report published and it should be brought back to us as soon as possible.
Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
We want this finished as well, in fairness. We had a change of chief executive officer and registrar as part of a major change in personnel. In fairness, that did not speed things up but rather it did the exact opposite. We would like to be finished with this. As one of the council members described it, the matter is sucking the oxygen out of the room. It is taking way too much effort and we need to clarify matters and finish the report.
That completes this part of the meeting. We look forward to seeing the witnesses before us again. I apologise as I had to slip out for questions in the Dáil earlier. We look forward to seeing the witnesses sooner rather than later to complete the process from our perspective. I thank the delegation for coming in today.