Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 20 July 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Alleged Issues in the Horse Racing Industry: Discussion (Resumed)
This morning's meeting is a discussion on alleged issues in the horse racing industry with officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This follows on from our meetings with Horse Racing Ireland, the Irish Horse Racing Regulatory Board and Irish Racehorse Trainers Association. This series of meetings was called on foot of recent allegations made in the media. However, it must be stated, we are not a committee of inquiry, so we are not here to judge the veracity of statements made or explore any allegations of wrongdoing against any person. Our only objective is to establish what systems and processes are in place and to see if they are up to international standards and to discuss any policy issues arising.
I remind witnesses and members that I will not allow criticism of anyone in particular and anyone who is not here to defend himself or herself. I remind them of the parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I welcome the following officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine: Dr. Kevin Smyth, assistant secretary general; Mr. Michael Sheahan, deputy chief veterinary officer; and Mr. Tim Drea, head of the investigation unit. They are joining us from a witness room in Kildare House. We have received the opening statement and briefing material which has been circulated to members. All opening statements are published on the Oireachtas website and are publicly available. Dr. Smyth will be given ten minutes to make the opening statement before we go into questions and answers.
Before we begin, I wish read an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence relating to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I call on Dr. Smyth to make his opening statement.
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
I make the opening statement and my colleague, Mr. Sheahan, will speak about the "Panorama" programme but we are limited in terms of what we can say.
Successive governments have acknowledged the importance of the thoroughbred horse racing industry and have supported it through legislation and policy. The support provided by public funds through investment in the industry has enabled Ireland to develop a world-class reputation for excellence in thoroughbred horse racing and breeding. The most recent estimates provided by Deloitte in 2017 show employment from the core breeding and racing industry, off course betting and secondary expenditure resulted in 28,500 jobs and generated €1.84 billion. Ireland is the largest producer of thoroughbred foals in Europe and the third largest in the world, behind the US and Australia. Some 60% of Irish thoroughbreds born annually are exported, with 80% exported to Britain. Thoroughbred breeders are based in every county and 92% own five mares or fewer. The value of thoroughbreds sold at public auction in 2020 was €151 million. Britain accounted for €123 million of this amount.
Horse Racing Ireland, HRI, is a commercial state body established under the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001. It falls under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Horse Racing Ireland Act 2016 provides that Horse Racing Ireland is responsible for the overall administration, governance, development and promotion of the Irish horse racing industry, and for guaranteeing funding to the racing regulatory board to carry out its functions through an integrity services budget which is agreed annually.
Financial support is received from the State through the horse and greyhound racing fund under section 12 of the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001. Some €96 million was allocated to that fund in budget 2021, of which €76.8 million was allocated to HRI.
Oversight of the role of HRI is provided through a shareholder’s letter of expectation, the HRI strategic plan, compliance with the code of governance for State bodies, and regular liaison meetings among other things.
Since 1 January 2018, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, IHRB, is the regulatory body for all horse racing in Ireland. The IHRB is a company limited by guarantee set up by the Turf Club, which was established in 1790, and the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee for the purpose of carrying out the regulatory and licensing functions for Irish horse racing. This body is responsible for protecting the integrity and reputation of Irish horse racing in Ireland. The Irish Horseracing Industry Act 1994, as amended, provides for the IHRB to have the following functions: to regulate horse racing; to make and enforce the rules of racing and in so doing to promote integrity and fair play in horse racing; to provide adequate integrity services for horse racing; and to license racecourses under the rules of racing. Legislation provides for the IHRB to be responsible for the “making and enforcing of the Rules of Racing”, including “making all decisions relating to doping control, forensics and handicapping in respect of horse racing.” Funding is provided by HRI on the basis of an agreed annual budget.
In regard to welfare initiatives, HRI has an industry assistance programme in place called EQUUIP which provides education and upskilling with other supports through industry assistance programmes. The Irish Thoroughbred Welfare Council was formed in January 2020 to guide HRI policy in this area. This is a project working to ensure the widespread adoption of International Federation Horseracing Authorities, IFHA, basic standards. HRI and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine work closely with the Irish Equine Centre, and its impending redevelopment is a future keystone of horse care in Ireland. HRI’s policy is reflected in the document Promoting Responsible Thoroughbred Ownership, to which bodies concerned with welfare within the horse racing and breeding industry subscribe. The key message is that those who own or keep a horse are morally and legally responsible for its health, welfare and safety. HRI directly supports the Irish Horse Welfare Trust which seeks to rehome and retrain thoroughbreds no longer active in training or racing.
In regard to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's role in investigations, the Department is the principal regulator of the agrifood sector with regard to non-compliance with the illegal use of veterinary medicines and animal welfare issues. The IHRB regulates horse racing, as previously described. There are common compliance issues of interest to both regulatory bodies. The investigations division was established in 2014 as part of the ongoing modernisation of the structures of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the wider public service reform process. The division’s mission is: to support the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, its agencies and other relevant bodies by providing the capability to have investigations carried out as requested and to ensure that such investigations are carried out to a standard that will withstand legal scrutiny; to contribute to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's capacity in horizon scanning and risk analysis; and to support the implementation of control regimes and the development of legislation underpinning these within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and its agencies, as required.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's investigations division supports the work of IHRB through a memorandum of understanding, and the Department's principal regulatory activity involves risk-based inspection regimes and non-compliance generally, which attract financial and administrative sanctions. The Department carries out thousands of inspections annually in many diverse areas.
As members will see from my statement, the relationship between the Department, HRI and the IHRB is complex. The Department’s remit covers not just the issue of finance but also issues of governance and standards in areas such as welfare and inspection. The operation of the rules of racing and doping controls are clearly within the legislative remit of the IHRB, which is set in statute, to safeguard its operational independence. I am happy to take questions but first, with the Chairman's agreement, I would like my colleague, Mr. Sheahan, to say a few words about last night's programme.
That is fine. I thank Dr. Smyth. Many of us saw the programme last night and it was extremely disturbing. It was not pleasant viewing for anyone who loves horse racing. I enjoy a day at the races, and am involved in horse ownership. It was not a nice programme, so we would welcome a comment from Mr. Sheahan.
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
I will not comment on the programme in detail, as, like the members, I saw it for the first time last night. I will need to watch it again to pick up on some of the points in detail. Obviously, a few issues came up. For me the most striking issue was that of horse slaughter, so I might say a few words on that point in particular. There are other points as well, but the horse slaughter and the footage from the abattoir in Swindon struck home with me most. I will say a bit about what happens in Ireland in regard to horse slaughter.
For background, until January of this year, there was a so-called tripartite agreement in place which effectively allowed for the free movement of horses between Ireland, Britain and France. That free movement meant that there was no need for a health certificate or any other documentation apart from the passport to move a horse from here to Britain or to France. That has changed since 1 January 2021. Since then, if you want to move a horse from Ireland to Britain, you have to go through the full rigours of involving a veterinarian, obtaining a health certificate and so on, so it is now more complicated than it was before. Until January, horses could be moved between here and Britain and vice versawithout any difficulty.
In regard to horse slaughter, I have been involved in this area for about 20 years within the Department. At various times, we slaughter horses in Ireland. The number slaughtered varies from year to year. At one stage, we had as many as four slaughter plants in Ireland involved in slaughtering horses. Currently, we have only one slaughter plant. We have two approved plants, but one of them is out of action because there was a fire on the premises.
I am happy to say we are very satisfied with how the slaughter plant here operates, or how the plants operated in the past. They are operated and regulated in much the same way as beef or sheep slaughter plants. We have a full-time official Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine veterinarian present at all times when slaughter is taking place. Ante and post-mortem inspection is carried out, and temporary veterinary inspectors carry out the post-mortem inspection, supported by technical staff. We have very detailed guidelines as to how the slaughter plant operates, and in fact we have a 51-page standard operating procedure detailing every aspect of how the horses are taken in, the documentary and identity checks, the ante-mortem and post-mortem and so on.
I have been in our slaughter plants, although not in the last two years due to Covid-19 restrictions but certainly in the past, and they operate to a very high standard, as do our other slaughter plants. Probably, for those who saw the programme last night, and for myself certainly, the single most surprising thing about it was the apparent method of slaughter of the horses. What we saw on the footage appeared to be horses being led into a room or ante-chamber, and we appeared to see a slaughter-man with a rifle. In some cases, it appeared that he was taking a shot at the horse from a distance and in other cases it looked like he was holding the horse by the halter with one hand and apparently trying to shoot the horse with the other hand.
I have to say it was, to put it mildly, very surprising for many reasons, including health and safety reasons, and from an animal welfare point of view. For the avoidance of any doubt, that is certainly not something that happens here. I do not know if it happened in the distant past, but it certainly did not in my time. That does not happen. When horses are slaughtered in a slaughter plant here, they are dealt with in the same way as cattle. I am sure members have seen how slaughter plants operate. The horse, bovine or sheep goes up along a shoot and into a restraining box where it is properly restrained, stunned and killed. There is no question that we would allow an animal, such as a horse, to wander around a room or to be held by an individual attempting to shoot it. That was a surprising element of the programme, and that is certainly not what happens here.
As recently as 2019 we were audited by the European Commission's DG for Health and Food Safety, which used to be called DG SANTE. It did a comprehensive audit of our whole horse slaughter procedure, including the identification issues, residues, the ante-mortem, the welfare and so on. Their report is publicly available. In general, it was a very positive audit, as I would have expected. There are other aspects of the programme I can talk about, if the members so wish. However, for me, the aspect of slaughter was certainly the most striking.
I thank Mr. Sheahan. I will move to questions, but I would like to ask Dr. Smyth some questions first. I return to the opening statement which states that legislation provides for the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, IHRB, to be responsible for the making and enforcing of the rules of racing, including making all decisions relating to doping control, forensics and handicapping in respect of horse racing and that funding is provided by HRI on the basis of an agreed annual budget. I have two questions on this and a third question for Dr. Smyth. Does he think it is appropriate that the membership of the IHRB is self-appointed from within the horse racing industry, given the fact that it is responsible for all surveillance of controls? In order to have proper governance and to restore public confidence in the system, is it time this legislation was revisited and the appointment of people to IHRB was re-examined? This has come up at our two previous meetings. It seems odd in the modern world, and in the context of proper governance, that the people who are in charge of the industry are appointed from within to govern the surveillance and the integrity of that industry.
The second question to raise its head is that the IHRB is funded by the HRI, with very significant State funding being contributed. Does Dr. Smyth believe it is correct that the salaries of senior members of the executive of the IHRB are not publicly available? What is his view on that?
I cannot understand, in this age of computers and traceability, how there is not a proper traceability system for horses to enable us to know where they are all the time and all their movements. I am a farmer. If we take cattle to the mart, that movement is recorded. If there is movement from farm to farm, that is also recorded. It is done on computers and in a seamless fashion. I cannot understand how every movement of horses is not tracked and monitored by computer in such a valuable industry. If we had that type of modernised tracking of movement in place, I do not think we would have seen last night's programme investigating the movement of horses to slaughter.
An important issue was raised last night. Today may not be the day to address this aspect, and we might need another meeting in that regard, and I also do not expect Dr. Smyth to be fully briefed on it, but the programme last night dealt with the case of a horse being raced in Fairyhouse. The horse had an accident on the racecourse and had to be euthanised. Five or six years later, that microchip turned up in Swindon. That was a serious finding in that programme last night. Dr. Smyth may not have had enough time to have researched the details the programme last night and I respect that. This is an issue that the committee will be returning to in future. If we had a properly computerised and monitored traceability system for the movement of horses, I do not think we would be dealing with a situation such as this. I ask Dr. Smyth to address those questions first.
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
I will deal with the first two questions and then leave the matter of the identity of horses to Mr. Sheahan. On the first question, it is clear in law where responsibility lies regarding the regulation of horse racing. The IHRB is legally responsible for making and enforcing the rules of racing. It makes all the decisions regarding doping control, forensics and handicapping, and the organisation is independent in respect of what the law states. Having said that, strict controls are imposed on the IHRB concerning corporate governance and financial accountability. The issue that seems to be arising, and the one the Chair has referred to, is the make-up of the committee. It has six members and one chairperson and there are two issues in this regard. One concerns whether it is necessary to have an independent person or persons on that committee. A second issue which has come up is the gender balance of the committee. It is not for me to dictate its make-up, but a strong message is coming through in that regard.
Turning to the funding of HRI, the €9 million and the situation with the salaries, this is a complex issue and it does not just apply to the IHRB. Several State bodies do not report the exact salaries of their staff. That is permitted under the 2016 Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies in respect of provision 1.4 of the subsection on business and financial reporting requirements. State bodies covered by this provision are allowed to publish details of the number of employees within pay bands. From €60,000 upwards, it is necessary for such bodies to report in lots of €10,000 roughly what is being paid to their employees.
Generally, what is reported is just the amount paid and the number of employees in that band. That is perfectly permissible. It is being done by HRI and the Irish National Stud as well. It is allowable under the code of governance. The actual salary of the chief executive, for example, is reported to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Exact details are provided, but that information is confidential and commercially sensitive. It would be a breach of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, to disclose it.
I am not asking Dr. Smyth to disclose the information. I accept fully that an agreement exists with the chief executive and I made that clear at the last meeting. I am asking Dr. Smyth if it is correct for there to be such a lack of transparency regarding public money in modern Ireland.
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
There are two aspects to this matter. The Chair is absolutely correct that this is taxpayers' money and that it is accountable. What is paid to the majority of people by the Exchequer is known and the information will be disclosed. However, there are limited cases where it is not, and that is allowed for under the regulations. It is not just an issue with the IHRB, because many other State bodies also provide limited information. We are talking about limited transparency, but this is allowed under the rules.
I thank Dr. Smyth. We will move on because many members want to contribute and then return to traceability and the movement of horses later. As he has an engagement later this morning, I call Deputy Flaherty.
I will not take up too much time because my colleagues wish to comment as well, but I am thankful to be allowed to contribute now. I thank the officials from the Department for coming in. The Chair has touched on some of the issues already and the programme last night was harrowing to watch. However, not every horse going through that abattoir was a racehorse. Many of them were ponies and probably sport horses originating in Ireland and the UK. We have an issue regarding the traceability of horses in this country and the responsibility in this regard is spread across several regulatory bodies, including the HRI, Weatherbys and Horse Sport Ireland, HSI.
Mr. Finnian McLoughlin, a constituent of mine, contacted the Department last November and highlighted that 18 horses on the sport horse register were still registered in his name. Of those 18 horses, two were dead, two had been exported and were dead, another two had been exported, nine were sold, one he had never owned and two more had been sold and exported. When Mr. McLoughlin contacted Horse Sport Ireland, he was informed that it was the responsibility of the new owners to complete the transfer of ownership forms and not his. Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine permits were issued for at least two of these horses and Mr. McLoughlin understood that at least two more of those horses were disposed of in one of the Department-approved abattoirs mentioned earlier. Mr. McLoughlin also understood that four more horses had been exported to the UK. In that instance, however, the new owners are not required to complete a change of ownership form with Horse Sport Ireland.
Therefore, we can see that there is a major grey area regarding the ownership of horses in Ireland and we have a responsibility in this regard. We are a horse-loving nation and we take great pride in and highly value our reputation as an equine nation. The onus in this regard must be on the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to get to grips with this issue of horse ownership. As the Chair rightly said, and as my colleague, Deputy Fitzmaurice, stated at our last meeting, we know exactly where a calf has been from the moment it is born until the day it ends up on a plate. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for horses originating in Ireland. This is a major grey area. I appreciate that the witnesses are not going to be able to wholly address this aspect with us here today, but we must get information on horse ownership, traceability of horses, where and how horses are sold and where they are exported to collated in one central database. In this modern age, it is inconceivable that we have not been able to hack this. I appreciate that other members have questions as well, but I would like the witnesses to address this issue before the close of this meeting and to state what the Department is going to do in this regard. I refer to going away, examining this issue and then trying to devise one central source of information on the ownership of horses and the tracking of horses post-sale.
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
I agree with the Chair and Deputy Flaherty that traceability in the horse sector is nowhere near as good as it is in the cattle industry. I have no hesitation in saying that our system of traceability for cattle is, if not the best in the world, then definitely among the best in the world. It is a superb system and the envy of every other agricultural country in the world, and indeed of health systems. We really do have a Rolls Royce-standard system in place when it comes to the traceability of cattle. Having said that, it has taken us more than 50 years to develop that system. We started off with tagging and blue cards and since then we have slowly but surely built up the system over the years. A huge impetus came from the bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE, crisis, which basically forced Ireland, and other countries, to develop the exemplary system we have now.
We do not have such a Rolls Royce-type system for horses. We have come a long way in this regard, however. I was first involved in this area back in about 2007.
There was very little traceability of any sort in respect of horses. Things have improved considerably since then. For example, we now have premises registration legislation, which, I believe, was introduced in 2014. There are now 27,000 premises registered in Ireland. At least we now know where the vast majority of horses are. We have the change of ownership legislation, which we did not have previously. We also have a central database within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It is not as good as the cattle database, but it is good. It is a pretty good start.
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
We do not know exactly, but we do know it is very high. In the thoroughbred sector it is 100%. There is no question about that. With regard to the non-thoroughbred sector, I will give an example. We started going to the Ballinasloe horse fair. Everybody knows that the Ballinasloe fair is the biggest of its kind in Europe. We started going there about ten years ago when we first started making a move to improve traceability and identification. We set up a number of checkpoints with the co-operation of An Garda Síochána around the entrance and exit to the Ballinasloe fair. During the first year we did this, it is fair to say that the number of horses with passports and microchips was very low. We are talking about 10% to 15%. Obviously, these were not thoroughbreds. During that first year of checkpoints, we advised people that if they turned up the next year without a passport and microchip for the each horse, they would be turned away. The second year the compliance level was very high and the third year we had nearly 100% compliance. This was even among the horses belonging to the Traveller community who would frequent the fair at Ballinasloe, and including a lot of horses at the lower end of the market as well as the top-class sport horses.
Even at the Ballinasloe fair end of the market, the compliance levels are now light years ahead of where they were. We have come a long way, but there are still a few more pieces of the jigsaw to be put in place before we have the sort of traceability in the horse sector that exists in the cattle sector. There are plans in place for that. My colleagues on the equine identification side are working on having an equine census in place before the end of the year. This will be another bit of the jigsaw to improve the traceability. There is still a way to go. The sector is on a journey. It is clear that this committee is of the view that more should be done and perhaps it can give the issue of traceability a further push.
I thank the Chairman and support in full the questions he asked a few moments ago.
The intersection between doping in horse racing and what emerged from the "Panorama" documentary shown last night is the matter of animal welfare. Doping often involves considerable cruelty to the horses involved. Obviously, what we saw on the programme last night was extremely disturbing. As a person who sees horse racing on television every week, I am always struck that in the presentation of it to the public, and the reason people like it so much, a great love for the horse is projected in all the talk around the sport and in the commentary about the animals. The picture we are getting in recent times in Ireland, however, is that while we might be a horse-loving nation - to use Deputy Flaherty's phrase - and while there might be many people in horse racing who do love horses, there seem to be many people in the horse racing industry who do not love horses and who see them as machines and entities to be used for making money. One of the reasons we are so concerned about the possibility of a massive drug problem in Irish horse racing is because we know what is going on in America where horses have been broken down and given drugs to mask pain so they can be used to death. We have now seen a documentary that tells us 4,000 horses are being slaughtered in Britain.
I thank our guests for coming in. My questions for them today really come down to whether they are being too conservative in approach to their work and whether they are actually pursuing an animal welfare agenda. I will start by asking the officials whether it is against the law in the State to transport over a long distance injured animals for slaughter? If this is not against the law, why is that the case? While the officials cannot comment here because they cannot criticise policy, and their answers here today are very guarded, they are the people responsible for encouraging policy-making and urging legislation. The officials are behind the legislation that is brought before these Houses. If such a practice is not against the law why is it not? If it is against the law how is it that the Department is not enforcing the law? With great respect to the officials, it is hard for us to believe that they are very surprised by what was on the documentary last night. Most people would feel that the Department had a fair idea for some time that this kind of thing is going on. Am I being unfair?
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
I will leave the aspect of the welfare and transportation of injured animals to my colleague, Mr. Sheahan. I can state quite categorically that I knew nothing about this until I saw what was on last night. I had no inkling. There is a legitimate way of dealing with injured animals or animals that require euthanasia. It can be done in a humane way in this country and there are abattoirs for that. Some of the 4,000 figure includes animals that have been put down humanely in this country for legitimate reasons. I had no inkling whatsoever of what was in that programme.
Perhaps Mr, Sheahan will clarify the regulatory position on the transportation of injured animals.
I would like to clarify one thing. To be fair to the thoroughbred industry, of the 4,000 horses no figure was given in last night's programme as to how many of those were thoroughbred. We must be clear on that. All classes of horses are being exported. I would have serious concerns about the amount of microchipping there is in the non-thoroughbred horse industry. To be clear and on the record the 4,000 horses are not all thoroughbreds.
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
Senator Mullen asked if it is illegal to transport horses over long distances if they are injured. Absolutely. There is no equivocation about it. This is in European legislation, Council Regulation (EC) No 1/2005 is the regulation that deals with the transport of animals. There is no doubt about it whatsoever. It is absolutely illegal to transport animals if they are injured if it is judged to add to the pain and suffering. On last night's programme we saw pictures of a couple of horses that were obviously very lame and one in particular was clearly holding its leg and was visibly lame. There is no doubt that if this animal was loaded on a box and transported in that condition, it would clearly be against the law. To be fair, I do not know if that was the case. Perhaps-----
Is it not an indictment of the Department that having such a Rolls Royce system for cattle that it has not been applied to horses? Is it not the case that the Department has not been pursuing an animal welfare agenda with vigour?
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
On the cattle side, there is European legislation that requires us to have a traceability system. For better or for worse, the same does not apply to the horse racing system. Also, for better or for worse, on the horse side, European legislation has been much slower and, even now when things have improved, the requirements are much less onerous than they are for cattle.
I do not disagree with the Senator; there is a need to move forward. There are plans to have one of the final pieces of the jigsaw in place before the end of the year. We have the premises' registration in place. We also have the central database in place and the plan is to have the equine census carried out before the end of the year. We have come a long way. One could always argue that things should have moved faster. Even though the number of horses is far fewer than the number of cattle, there are arguments as to why things are a bit more complicated with horses.
If I could turn to the question of doping, one of the problems with the claims being made about the fear that drug taking is a major problem in Irish horse racing is that it is very difficult to catch. Those who do this kind of thing are very skilled at staying ahead of the investigators. We know how they had to be brought down in America and that has brought changes, including to governance and the make-up of governance bodies of the horse racing regulatory sector.
I understand what happens when the Department sends people to seize imported products from the customs authorities. My source for this is Mr. Louis Riordan, a name the witnesses will know, a man from within the Civil Service. He pointed out to me that often when customs seize imported products they write to the consignee giving him or her a warning and sometimes asking for permission to destroy the product seized. Given that it is unlikely generally that customs will seize a consignment, when that happens it is a rare opportunity to find out who is using drugs, but very often there are not controlled deliveries. Is it the case that the Department sometimes sends people out who have no pharmacological qualifications and not a lot of experience in the area and sometimes they do not carry out controlled deliveries, therefore frustrating our ability to know who is importing the drugs? Has that been happening?
Mr. Tim Drea:
I cannot comment on the individual speaking to the Senator, but in terms of the way this operates, in the past three years the customs seized very large amounts of unauthorised animal remedies. Most of them constitute people buying veterinary medicines on the Internet. The administrative process Senator Mullen describes addresses that. We take the product from customs, write to the consignee and we destroy it. That happens in circumstances where the product is not of significance. The vast majority of the products in that category are for small animals. The risk in terms of food safety or public health is minimal. That is seen as an administrative approach to dealing with the large numbers we had a few years ago.
Is Mr. Drea in a position to tell me, first, that he has the expertise on site to know if the drug that has been seized by customs could be used in horse doping and, second, where that happens he does not warn off the consignee and seek permission to destroy the drug but that a controlled delivery is done in all of those situations in order to find the wrongdoers? Could he guarantee that he does that in those situations?
Mr. Tim Drea:
No, I cannot, and the reason is that controlled delivery was only used in a small number of very specific instances in the past. Controlled delivery basically means identifying a product when customs seize a dangerous product and allowing it to be delivered to farms and end users and then carrying out an inspection or raid to find the product after it has been delivered.
Mr. Tim Drea:
There are a number of very significant risks with that approach. The principal one is that one does not find the product so there is a judgment call around releasing product of that nature. Those judgment calls are made on a case-by-case basis. We have full support from the veterinary medicine division, which is the expert in this area. I have three vets in my division who are involved in this work as well.
Mr. Drea stated that the controlled delivery has complexities attached because one would not necessarily find the product. I am talking about a situation where drugs have been seized. Is there expertise on the spot when that happens to know that they could be used in horse doping? Serious allegations have been made affecting the reputation of the Irish horse racing sector, which is extremely important to the economy. We have heard all of that. Is Mr. Drea in a position to know when he is dealing with horse doping drugs? Surely a controlled delivery then is about managing the delivery of the drugs and being on the spot when they are taken in. Therefore, one knows the wrongdoer because the consignee has been linked with the drugs imported. Why is that not being done?
Mr. Tim Drea:
The number of products we intercept that are being used for doping horses is very small. In fact, in the past, in some of the instances where controlled delivery has been carried out, the prosecution afterwards was on the basis of product found that was not part of the delivery. We have carried out controlled deliveries and the product has not been recovered. This must be done in a careful way on a case-by-case basis.
Does the Department have the pharmacological qualifications? If I understand it correctly, Mr. Drea is in a role that was previously a veterinary role. I know there was some change to the system. I also understand that a lot of people with veterinary and related experience have left the investigations division and that there is a small number of veterinary inspectors with relatively recent experience. Is there a danger that the Department does not have the experience it needs in order to police this issue aggressively?
Mr. Tim Drea:
I would like to have more staff with more experience, but I have three veterinarians. There were never more than three for the past ten or 15 years in my division. The former head of this division and his predecessor are both working in the Department in the veterinary medicine section. They are available and they do assist us.
Okay. What happened in the Zilpaterol case? This is a case that we have discussed at previous meetings. It relates to testing done in France and the withdrawal of certain horses from races by Ballydoyle. There was a report that there was a contaminant in material produced by Gain Equine Nutrition. We were told by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board that it was satisfied that it could not have detected this because the French laboratory had a more refined way of testing. I did not get a chance to ask a further question I wanted to ask. I understand that time was limited. I wanted to ask whether that ended the IHRB's interest in the subject. I am not at all clear whether an investigation was done to establish that whatever contaminant was in the feed was not there for a nefarious reason.
I do not know whether it was a contaminant that got into particular horse feed or whether it got into horse feed used by certain stables or yards. Did the Department chase that down and did it act in time to take samples? What did it do in that case involving Zilpaterol and what did it find?
Mr. Tim Drea:
I welcome the opportunity to put this on the record because the Senator is not alone in his understanding of the Zilpaterol issue. Zilpaterol is a beta-agonist that is illegal in Europe. It is used in the USA, South Africa and other countries as a growth promoter for beef cattle. When discovered in Ireland, it is treated as a food or feed safety incident, which triggers our incident management plan. The Department's response is governed by the official control of foodstuffs regulation, namely, Regulation (EU) 2017/625, which requires all member states to have the capacity to respond to these types of incidents. In practice, all the relevant staff in the Department, the Food Safety Authority and associated agencies would have been brought together in a small group. This all happened over hours and days so it was all done very quickly; as quickly as the laboratory results could be generated. It is a requirement of the official controls regulation that the animal feed industry has full traceability from raw material to finished product and out to the customer, and Ireland has that. Once this issue was identified, Department staff would have gone to the feed mill, gone through its feed milling process and sampled the raw materials, and then gone back to the importer. Within a very short period - from memory it was a matter of a few days - the origin of the problem was discovered.
The origin of the problem was a molasses mixing plant in South Africa. It was the first shipment from that plant to Europe and that plant had a mixing system that allowed it to incorporate Zilpaterol into molasses as a growth promoter in beef cattle, which can be done legitimately in South Africa. That is the practice in America as well. Unfortunately, an importer, a Belgian multinational company, bought molasses from that plant. The level of Zilpaterol identified in the samples was very low. We got samples and tested feed and raw materials. We communicated with the European Commission and other agencies. The level of Zilpaterol in both the feed and the raw material was low enough for us to conclude that there was no feed or food safety issue, which is our focus. However, the fact is Zilpaterol was there and that is also an equine doping issue. We and the equine industry have no tolerance for Zilpaterol. You cannot have it so when it is there our focus is around food and feed safety. We were satisfied that it was not a food or feed safety issue. All the product was withdrawn and taken out of the feed chain as a precaution. The conclusion of that investigation is that this was what is described in the legislation as a contained isolated incident of external cause. We are absolutely satisfied that this was not deliberate. There was no logic to the possibility that there could have been a deliberate cross-contamination here and there was no line of sight between the raw material importer and the end user. The zilpaterol came from South Africa in a load of molasses.
It echoes the Chairman's own. It seems to me that our guests are the ones who are going to shape policy. Will they take steps to bring forward legislation, or whatever measures are necessary, to bring about more independence in the body that is responsible for the regulation of something as sensitive as equine doping?
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
This issue has come up as regards the make-up of the central committee within the IHRB. This message has been coming through from a number of people. It is not for the Department to dictate the make-up of that committee. My understanding is that the message coming through from this committee is that it would like to see more independence and a better gender balance on the IHRB committee.
I hate to be critical, but nearly an hour has been spent on one contributor. I see on the screen that there are an awful lot of people looking to get in.
I have questions for the Department following up on what we have heard and I also have questions about last night's television programme, though I do not know if the witnesses are in a position to answer them at this stage. Some €96 million was allocated to the horse and greyhound racing fund in budget 2021, and €76.8 million of that went to HRI. According to the Department's submission to the committee, an investigation division was established in 2014, with three of the main purposes being:
1. To support [the Department], its agencies and other relevant Bodies [like the IHRB] by providing the capability to have investigations carried out as requested and to ensure that such investigations are carried out to a standard that will withstand legal scrutiny.
2. To contribute to [the Department's] capacity in horizon scanning and risk analysis.
3. To support the implementation of control regimes and the development of legislation underpinning these within [the Department] and its agencies as required.
What does the Department have to say to the whistleblowers who have been critical of the IHRB's handling of these allegations? If they were to contact the Department directly, what would its course of action be? Have such allegations come across the witnesses' desks directly? If so, what actions have they taken? Since this controversy arose, I have been refused details about the number and nature of concerns that have been submitted to the IHRB's hotline. Much of what we have heard from the IHRB we have to take on good faith. Would the Department consider demanding a full account of the allegations that have been made to the IHRB and how these allegations have been assessed? Has the Department considered holding an inquiry into the operations of the IHRB and HRI to ensure full transparency at this stage and to ensure that all allegations are being fully followed up?
There seems to be a difference of opinion between the IHRB and the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association about whether authorised officers should conduct inspections without the presence of a vet. Is the Department aware of this difference of opinion and what is its view on that? Why were the results of the PRISM Leadership and Change Consultingemployee survey? These have not been made public. Millions of euro of taxpayers' money are given to the industry each year, but we are not allowed to see the issues that report may have uncovered. Are the witnesses comfortable with the lack of transparency there?
Those are just my questions on what we have dealt with already. I would like to come back in later to ask about last night's programme, but I know there are more members wishing to get in. Maybe we can get those answers first.
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
With regard to whistleblowers and allegations, the Department is more than happy to meet with anyone. There is a particular prominent person who has been in contact and has been in the newspapers. They have not met the agriculture committee. They have spoken to the heads of the IHRB and HRI but if they wish to speak to the Department we will be more than happy to arrange that. We have a method of dealing with whistleblowers and protected disclosures and if there is evidence or details we can get we would be more than happy to deal with them.
I will respond to the question of an inquiry into the activities of Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, IHRB, and Horse Racing Ireland, HRI. I would like to know what the basis of that inquiry would be and what exactly we would inquire into? I leave the other questions to my colleagues.
Mr. Tim Drea:
I know the question of the authorised officers came up before. There are no formal qualifications necessary for authorised officers. The Minister authorises officers to carry out regulatory functions across all of our areas. We treat IHRB authorised officers like our own authorised officers. There are couple of important points about authorised officers. Authorised officers in the context of the IHRB act as part of a team. While there are concerns about individual qualifications, the legislation underpinning this authorisation is the veterinary medicines legislation. It requires people who carry out any of the functions of an authorised officer are authorised to do so. I think in the last session there was a discussion around an example of five or six people arriving to a racing premises to carry out an inspection. All those people need to be authorised officers. For example, the man who stands at the back gate to make sure a lorry does not drive out needs to be an authorised officer. He does not need to be a vet. That is how my division functions, and has functioned for years. The division I manage has all four streams of Department staff. All of them are authorised officers. Basically, the requirement to be an authorised officer is to have the capacity to fulfil the duties of the job. In the case of IHRB, that would be to have a knowledge of horse racing and to have experience in a role in the IHRB. Maybe this information will help members understand about the qualifications and the authorised officers.
We should go through the original agenda. We can see at the end if we can get back to it. However, there were most definitely serious questions. I raised the question of the microchip that appeared on a horse that had been euthanised five or six years previously. There are serious questions there, but we might have to have a separate session. If we have time at the end, I will let the Deputy back in.
I welcome the officials from the Department. Deputy Browne mentioned the "Panorama" programme. I could go on for the full remaining hour about last night's "Panorama" programme. Without being flippant, I am conscious that we convened today with a different agenda, which was formed prior to the airing of last night's programme. However, I would hate to miss the opportunity to get the bottom, or as close to it as possible, of the accusations of doping. I will concentrate on that. We may have to have a separate, stand-alone meeting on last night's programme. There are many unanswered questions. As a horse owner, I had a pit in my stomach last night watching the programme. I could only visualise my own horse. The vast majority of owners would look at it in that way. There are questions to be answered on last night's programme. If there is time at the end, the Department might comment on how horse agents are registered. Are they registered or licensed? There are many questions to be answered which were not asked of horse agents, hauliers, and both the proprietors and management of the abattoir in question.
I want to move back to the agenda, which was on the recent articles with accusations of doping. I have a few questions for the Department. It was in its submission to us, and it is a historical fact, that the Turf Club was founded in 1790. That was under a different administration. Which came first? Was it the chicken or the egg? We had a Turf Club and we had horse racing before we had an Irish Department. If it is the monitoring and controlling body, how did that relationship evolve? It had a stronger foundation. The Department might comment on how it thinks things evolved there. Who has control of the situation?
I want to go back to the well-documented issue of the quarter tonne of nitrotain that came in. That was an equivalent of 62,500 doses. Did the Department pursue where that went? Where were they administered? Does it have any idea in what establishments the horses were based? Where were 62,500 doses going? Where did they possibly even get to?
On the question of the zilpaterol, who brought the horse to France? If nobody brought the horse to France, would we have ever discovered that within our system? For how long could it have been going on? For how long could it have been prevalent? If the horse had not gone to France and if the French had not detected the drugs, for how long could it have been an issue here? How far behind the curve are we?
I presume the Department has a regulatory role for feed contact. Maybe it is a different section of Department but is it not analysing feed? It would be the source of the drug. We seem to be looking at the blood and urine samples of the horse. If the feed had been tested, the problem would have been solved straight away. How long would it have taken if the horse had not gone to France?
With a view to solutions to the issues at hand, to the issues highlighted by some people or to the accusations that have been made, what changes can we make going forward? What changes can the Department make? Could the Department comment on the role of the Irish Equine Centre in Johnstown. What role does the Department have there? A major capital development project has been put forward in plans by HRI. Does the Department believe we could possibly do our own testing on a national basis in the Irish Equine Centre in Johnstown? How well would that improve the control of doping, or suggestions of doping, here? We would not be exporting samples or using labs outside of Ireland if we had our own national lab in the Irish Equine Centre.
As I said, I do not mind questions on last night’s programme being deferred to the end. It is important we deal with what was on today’s agenda.
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
I will deal with two of the questions. The first question was on what has changed about the Turf Club. The Senator was correct that the Turf Club was set up in 1790 and the Department of Agriculture was set up in the 1 April 1900. These entities are a great deal older than us. However, there has been a sea change since 2018, both in corporate governance and in accountability. The IHRB has a strong relationship with HRI. It explains how it spends money, its integrity budget, its regular meetings, and how its accounts for it. It is still independent with regard to the rules of racing. Its accountability, from a financial and corporate governance point of view, has moved greatly.
The second area I want to deal with is the issue of the Irish Equine Centre. The Senator is correct that there is a commitment in the programme for Government for a major overhaul of the Irish Equine Centre. We are expected to invest €24 million in upgrading the facilities there. I have no doubt that it will have a role to play in testing in the future. I will pass over to my colleagues on the nitrotain and zilpaterol issues.
Mr. Tim Drea:
I will comment on the question of nitrotain. The figure, which is well documented in the media, is about 225 k of nitrotain. That figure came from the supplier who provided the 6 k that were seized in, I think, 2012. It was imported by a vet who was subsequently prosecuted. The evidence, which is not disputed, was that individual had purchased 225 k of nitrotain over at least ten years. It was over a long period, but it was still approximately 25 k per year, on average.
I do not have the historic data on when that started and finished, but I know it was a ten-year period.
In terms of the Department's follow-up, it was well before my time. I know a little bit about the case. There was one prosecution and there may have been a second. A number of premises were visited. The person who imported the Nitrotain refused to reveal where he had used it. The only evidence I am aware might have existed at the time was certain weak material that investigators tried their best to use to arrive at a point where they could take it further. I had no knowledge of the case beyond that, other than what I know from colleagues who are no longer with our division. A significant effort was made at the time.
There are real evidential problems. If residue, the physical product or something else that has evidential value is not minded that is always a challenge with this type of things in terms of getting to court. The national residue control panel in the Department tests for zilpaterol. Under that plan, I understand that approximately 900 animals are tested, including cattle, sheep, horses and anything that can end up in the food chain. Zilpaterol is one of the things for which tests are carried out. Testing is carried out with a view to identifying food or feed safety issues. We have never found zilpaterol under the national residue control plan. Would we have found it if it had not cropped up in France? I cannot honestly say that we definitely would have found it. The level that was found in that sample would not have indicated a food or feed safety issue. We might not have found it. That is all I have to say on those two issues.
Mr. Tim Drea:
The functions of the feedstuffs division in the Department are covered by the official controls Regulation (EU) 2017/625. It carries out sampling of raw materials and finished products. All feed compounders in the country are obliged to keep samples and have their own HACCP plans in place to prevent or identify these kinds of problems. Would it have found zilpaterol? I cannot say it would have, given the levels it was at. That system is in place. It was really useful when we became aware of the problem because we were able to get the samples of finished product and raw material and run it back to source very fast. The focus of the whole structure is around food and feed safety.
I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee. Dr. Smyth described the relationship between the HRI, the IHRB and the Department as complex. On the basis of the evidence we have heard over three meetings, I would describe the relationship as being far too cosy. On a number of occasions, Dr. Smyth described the IHRB as an independent body. Part of the difficulty in terms of building public confidence is that it is not seen as independent. Rather, it is seen as being an organisation run for and by the industry and there is no independence in terms of the board. Everybody on the board comes from within the industry.
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
With regard to the salary, it is based on a personal contract for the CEO. The salary is disclosed to the Minister. What he received in 2018 and 2019 is known to the Minister. I have seen that letter. It is commercially sensitive and private information. I believe it would be a breach of GDPR and his contract if we disclosed that salary. We are aware of what he is paid.
With regard to the banding of salaries, it is permissible under the 2016 code of governance. A number of other State bodies have the same arrangement, with permission. It is a relatively common practice. HRI and the Irish National Stud follow that practice as well.
Why is that in the contract? Why is the head of the IHRB, a body charged with regulating the sector, not being transparent enough? It is the most simple of processes. Why was it agreed that the contract should be clouded in a veil of secrecy and who agreed to that?
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
This is a private contract. The person has been given a guarantee in that contract. We have respected that. We would be in breach of the GDPR if we disclosed that information. The salary is known to the Department and has been disclosed to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
Dr. Smyth is speaking to a platform where everybody's salary is published on an annual basis, usually multiple times, in national various national media publications. The GDPR is a cop-out in my view. I do not know whether there is an appreciation within the Department of the damage that is being done to a sport that everybody in this meeting has a great affinity for due to a lack of transparency.
I accept that I will not get an answer to that question, but I want to put on the record that it is something I will not drop. Does Dr. Smyth accept, in respect of the regulatory board, that the make up of directors is not good practice and does little in terms of building public confidence?
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
I go back to what is permissible under the code of governance. There is limited transparency with regard to the payment of certain employees. I have explained the situation with regard to the contract with the CEO. In these cases, there is a reporting arrangement and it is possible to deal with that. What was the second aspect of the Deputy's question?
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
The message that is coming through to me clearly from this committee is that the Deputy does not see it as best practice. We do not dictate who is on the board, but the message that is coming through clearly is that the committee wants a better gender balance and more independence within the board.
Reference was made to the programme last night in terms of the quantity of Irish horses are slaughtered in Britain, and the circumstances in which that happens. Dr. Smyth or another witness stated that there was no inkling within the Department of this practice. It was referenced in a couple of cases that there were large stables in which one in six racehorses have died since 2015. Considering the average lifespan of a horse is 25 to 30 years, is there no mechanism within the Department whereby that would raise alarm bells and warrant further investigation?
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
I understand that the Deputy's question was about the mortality rates in certain large stables. I do not know about that. Generally, in the Department we do not keep records of mortality rates in trainers' yards.
I am aware that the IHRB has in recent times been doing more in terms of statistics of horses dying on the racetrack or whatever, but I am not aware of a system for keeping a record of the number of horses in a particular trainer's yard that might have died over a period. We have records in our central database of horses that die. We have records when a horse is euthanised, goes to a knackery or whatever. That passport is returned to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. There is a system of keeping tabs on horses that die, are euthanised or are slaughtered in the country. It is supposed to be the case that, when horses are slaughtered abroad, the passport is returned. Whether that is working to the extent it should be with regard to horses being slaughtered in England in that particular abattoir, I do not know. We can follow up on that.
There is a certain amount of record-keeping as regards mortality levels, but down to the level of individual stables there is not, to the best of my knowledge. Within the Department, there is no system of recording the mortality rate over a period in a specific stable. Whether there should be is another question.
On the traceability question we talked about earlier, on the cattle front it would be possible relatively easily to work out mortality rates because, as I said, we have a Rolls-Royce system for cattle.
We have an investigation when we have a second set of twins, never mind the mortality rate on cattle farms. While I accept last night's programme raised a huge number of questions, I kept other speakers to the agenda for today.
Okay. Going back to Dr. Smyth, we know HRI receives a substantial level of State funding and we know how important the horse racing sector is to many rural economies. This year there was an increase in HRI funding from the Department from €84 million to €96 million. That is a €12 million increase, which is substantial at a time when many sectors would have given their right arm for something similar. With that extra funding, were there any additional conditions with regard to regulation, monitoring, enforcement or with regard to the distribution of that funding?
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
Yes, the funding was increased from €84 million to €96 million. Some 80% of that funding goes to HRI. The €12 million extra was given to the horse and greyhound fund as a response to the devastating economic effects Covid had on horse and greyhound sectors. It was a financial support to enable those sectors to deal with losses. The horse racing industry lost catering and spectators. The income numbers were affected very badly and it was a support mechanism. That was the simple reason the money was put in.
In 2014, Exchequer funding was €54 million. It went to €68 million in 2015, €74 million in 2016, €80 million in 2017 and €84 million in 2019 and 2020. The funding is increasing all the time. I accept there is an economic rationale for that but I am asking if the additional funding is matched with additional conditionality. I take it from Dr. Smyth's response the answer is "No".
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
I would not take that from my response. Look at the money going in and the return we get from it. It provides 28,500 jobs and is a €1.8 billion industry. We have had possibly the most successful year for Irish racing in terms of track. The taxpayer is getting a good bargain for €84 million, or €96 million last year.
I accept there is an economic benefit. Are we sure it is the maximum economic benefit? We know from our previous hearings that HRI distributes that money largely through prize money. Almost pound for pound, the Exchequer funding is paid out in prize money. Look at how that money is distributed. In terms of the top ten trainers for flat all weather, it is about 50%; for national hunt, it is over 60%; and for flat, it is over 60% again.
A very small number of trainers draw down a substantial amount of the funding delivered through the taxpayer. Has an economic appraisal taken place as to whether the money is best spent to ensure the sector provides, as Dr. Smyth says, an economic benefit, is robust and distributed regionally? Smaller trainers and breeders have contacted members of this committee to say they essentially get no support. It is all diverted to the big boys through the prize funds. Has an economic appraisal been carried out by the Department to ensure the money is being well spent?
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
We have jousted on this point before. I think this is the third time we have come to it. No economic appraisal has been done on that basis but 60% of the income of HRI goes towards prize money. The Deputy is right that it is done in a way that the more valuable races tend to go to the bigger trainers. It does not always happen. Some 70% of people who ran horses at racetracks last year picked up some form of prize money, which is not a bad return. The other thing is that smaller breeders and trainers are capable of selling their horses on. It is the way the market operates. Internationally, prize money is the basis on which the markets operate. In Australia, Ireland, England and France, it is the exact same system.
I have asked the Deputy before what alternative he is putting forward to the use of prize money as it is done at the moment.
The difficulty I have is when we talk about prize money, international practice such as the United States is put to us. When we talk about regulation, we should be looking at the United Stats model but we are not. If we will approach this from an international best practice point of view, we should do so across the board.
The only question I have asked, and I have asked it repeatedly, is whether the Department has carried out an economic analysis to ensure the money is distributed in the most effective way from an economic and a social point of view. I take it the answer is that has never been done.
I will ask a question on doping. It touches on last night's programme but is relevant to the agenda. Last week, I asked a representative of the industry if it was possible for an animal that had been treated with bute to make it into the supply chain. The committee was told in categorical terms it was not. However, one finding of last night's documentary seemed to indicate this commonly occurs. Will the Department respond to those allegations and engage with all parties, including the IHRB, to ensure this concern is addressed as a matter of urgency?
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
I will make a few comments on it. The Chairman mentioned the horse which was shown in the race at Fairyhouse and whose microchip apparently showed up some years later. From what I picked up from the programme, the system worked in that the animal was detected when something fraudulent was attempted. At least the system appeared to pick up the animal and it did not enter the food chain. I did not particularly pick up the point Deputy Carthy made about bute in the programme last night.
I will have to watch it again to see exactly what point he is making. We have said all along that if there are lessons to learn from the programme, we have only seen it once. We will look at whatever we can learn. My colleague, Mr. Drea, might comment on that.
Many questions which I had have already been asked. I thank our witnesses for being here. Regarding identification of horses, the manual passport system was introduced in the 1970s. Surely we have to bring the system up to some standard. The witnesses are talking about the Rolls-Royce standard. We as farmers have a system called animal identification and movement, AIM. Why have the witnesses been lagging behind and not bringing this system from the 1970s up to standard? This passport system is costly for horse owners. It costs about €100 or €150 for a passport. The system that is there for farmers is cost-efficient. The witnesses say that they are bringing this up to standard. What kind of standard are they bringing it up to? What will the cost be for horse owners registering a horse? Will it be the same as for a farmer registering a cow or a calf?
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is responsible for racing. Is it comfortable that the IHRB, a private limited company with directors appointed by a self-elected club, should receive €10 million from the Exchequer each year? Should HRI not be responsible for all regulatory matters?
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
Regarding the receipt of the €10 million, €9 million goes to the IHRB from HRI. There is a two-year memorandum of understanding dealing with the matter. It runs to 24 pages and goes into some detail about how Irish horse racing is regulated. It explains exactly what the money is for and how it is accounted for. There are codes of governance and financial standards.
Certain issues that we are dealing with here do not just relate to HRI. The Department also has to deal with welfare and other concerns. I will hand over to Mr. Sheahan to address the question on the identification of horses.
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
Deputy Michael Collins asked a good question about why we are still dealing with passports, markings of horses and so on. That is what EU legislation requires. EU legislation on this has been updated a number of times and extra safeguards have been built into the system so there is now a more standardised system of passports. The reality is that in Britain, for example, there are 90 different passport-issuing bodies. Germany has a similar number. We have a relatively small number of passport-issuing bodies but they are all governed by EU legislation. That dictates that horses have to be accompanied by a passport in a relatively standard format. They have to be microchipped and so on. There is room for improvement regarding traceability, as I talked about at the start. While we have a central database, which is required by EU legislation, it is not as slick an operation as the AIM system, which the Deputy mentioned earlier. There is a worldwide system. Horses travel all over the world for competition for the passport and microchip system is the internationally recognised standard.
As already stated, there are moves towards more digital systems. Those who are involved in the sector will know that this year, for the first time, Weatherbys in Ireland and, presumably in Britain too, has started to issue the so-called smart card in addition to the standard paper document. That is something that will develop further over time. We will probably move more towards electronic systems. At the moment, nationally, at EU level and indeed internationally, your book, passport and markings taken by a vet, as well as microchipping, are the standard system. It has improved a lot. It is not foolproof but over the years, many extra safeguards have been built into it.
Mr. Sheahan did not give a figure. In a previous session of the Dáil, representatives came before us to talk about horse welfare. At that stage, we were told that 19% to 20% of horses were not microchipped. Every county is the same. We still have welfare issues regarding horses. When there is a welfare issue and that horse is picked up, the horse is not microchipped in 90% of cases. Has that figure of 19% or 20% improved in the last two to three years or are we still at that level of non-compliance?
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
That seems high to me. We are all clear that in the horse racing and sport horse sector, lack of microchips is not an issue. It is really a matter of other sectors, such as the leisure horse sector, urban horses and so on. The places we check are at ports, when horses are sold and, as I mentioned earlier, even Spancill Hill and Ballinasloe fair. Ten years ago, the level of compliance in places such as Ballinasloe at the lower end of the market was low. Over the course of a couple of years, that compliance got very high. I cannot give a figure about the total level of non-compliance, no more than I could say how many dogs do not have a dog licence but 20% seems high to me. When we get the census done later this year, that will probably give us more information and we will be in a better position. It is not 100%.
Comparing it with dogs is not exactly fair. There is a food safety issue. We had a scare with horse meat before in the food industry. We will move on from this, because I am getting away from the agenda myself. Horses can leave this jurisdiction and be slaughtered without any traceability. In this modern age, that is not acceptable and it is happening with a significant number of horses. This legislation has been in place for a number of years. I cannot understand how compliance has not been insisted on. It baffles me. That is an argument for another day. We will move on. I am breaking my own rules.
I thank the witnesses for attending. There have been a number of high-profile busts by the Department's special investigations unit which have led to prosecutions. Two notable cases come to mind which have been highlighted, the Philip Fenton case and the Pat Hughes case. Those involved speak of long hours, sometimes days or weeks, spent outside vets' premises or in trainers' yards, with people from the Department gathering evidence and intelligence. I understand that the unit does not just investigate the equine sector but also other matters. According to figures reported by RTÉ, it carried out at least 115 investigations in 2012, 34 in 2018, and eight in the first half of 2020. Will Dr. Smyth give details and confirm how many investigations were carried out in 2020 and to date in 2021?
Mr. Tim Drea:
I do not know the origin of those figures.
There have been more than 30 investigations to date in 2021. The figure was somewhat lower for investigations in 2020. It is important to note that the definition of an investigation changed a few years ago so one will see statistics that were very high a number of years ago. The definition of a special investigation was, for example, an investigation assigned in circumstances where an unauthorised animal remedy was bought or something was seized by Customs and Excise. The Department does not assign investigations on the same basis that it did in the past when there were more staff in the special investigations unit. In 2010 or 2011, there were more staff in the division. There are fewer staff now. Currently, there are eight and the number of prosecutions taken has been static. That is, more or less eight or ten prosecutions for the last ten years. There is a change in the way that we do the work compared with how it was done. There is a deliberate effort by the Department to change that, which is to move from a model that existed 20 to 30 years ago when we had-----
Perhaps Mr. Drea can come back to me on that. The horse population in Ireland has very much increased over the years so it does not make sense that Mr. Drea would say there are fewer people staffing the investigations unit. That does not make sense to me.
Mr. Tim Drea:
If one looks at the numbers in our division in isolation, then it would look that way. Compared with a few years ago, however, the way we work now is a lot more with line divisions in the Department. The regional veterinary offices in the Department are putting more focus on taking prosecutions and carrying out investigations themselves. A couple of my new vets in the past few years came from those regional veterinary offices. They spend a fair bit of time in support of regional veterinary offices in trying to deal with these things at that level. Currently, we do more work in the food safety space then we used to. We are reconfiguring but I do not believe we are any less effective.
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
Deputy Kehoe is correct. There is regulatory independence from the IHRB, however, and for good reason. As stated earlier, in my view there are difficulties in the make-up of the committee, such as a lack of independent members and a lack of gender balance, which is a problem. The independence of the IHRB is guaranteed by statute.
No. I am asking Dr. Smyth if he has shared concerns about the independence of the board and about the gender balance on the board, or has he only raised these concerns with us now because he is appearing before the committee? Has he raised these concerns with the IHRB previously?
The Department oversees it on behalf of the taxpayer. Dr. Smyth is being paid by the taxpayer to oversee the goings-on in HRI and the IHRB. Am I right in stating that the Department has not said anything to them about the independence of the board or the gender balance on it?
Okay. Given that they are receiving more than €9 million in taxpayers' money, has Dr. Smyth ever thought that perhaps they should publish the salaries of the staff within the IHRB? Dr. Smyth has said there is commercial sensitivity but who are they comparing themselves with commercially?
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
There are two sides to this. There is no actual right answer. The Deputy is absolutely right that it is taxpayers' money, and we must look after taxpayers' money and be accountable. At the same time, however, there are commercial sensitivities, there are the GDPR issues, and they have the right with permission to report in bands what employees receive. We are looking at limited transparency-----
My thinking on commercial sensitivity would be if there were similar companies who did not want to publish salaries because they did not want their competitor to know. I am not sure who the IHRB's competitors are when it comes to commercial sensitivities.
On animal identification, Mr. Sheahan stated that we have the Rolls Royce of such models and that Ireland is renowned right across the world when it comes to cattle movements and so on. How does Ireland compare itself when it comes to horse movements. I do not wish to compare racehorses with cattle, but in the context of their movements, passports and so on, how do we compare with the rest of the world when it comes to horses?
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
As I said earlier, without a doubt the traceability system for horses in Ireland is nowhere near as good as the cattle system. Those involved have come a long way from when they started this journey to improve the traceability in 2007, but there is still has a long way to go. I am most familiar with the British system. Our system is broadly similar to the British system in the context of standards. It is also broadly similar to the French system. From what I know of the Hong Kong system, ours is arguably not as good. Hong Kong is a very different operation. It does not have trainers dispersed all over the country and it does not have the same level of movements. I am not as familiar with the American system. It varies but the Irish system is broadly similar to what I know of the other European countries. There is European legislation governing the whole identification and traceability of horses. It does not set the bar as high as it does for the traceability and identification of cattle. There is not too much doubt that there is a need to further improve the traceability. They have been on a journey in that direction and there are also moves such as the work on the equine census that will take place.
I am very disappointed. I am of the view that the Department has been dragging its feet on this matter. The ordinary farmer driving cattle cannot move anything without reporting it, yet there are horses worth millions of euro on the move and we can see what is happening within that industry. We are very lax on some of the rules and regulations.
Have the Department investigators ever had any trouble accessing yards or stud farms? I am specifically thinking of the gated premises. It is probably an awful lot easier to get into Mountjoy Prison than it is to get into some of these studs.
Mr. Tim Drea:
I can take that. In the past 12 months my staff have encountered a gated premises but they were not delayed very long. We can go around or get over the gate. The gates are closed as we arrive unannounced. As the Deputy mentioned about the long hours in the past, there is still an element of that. It is part of the job. When teams from our division go out, or go with Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board now, quite often we go with no notice and we are clued into the fact that we have to get in quickly.
Mr. Tim Drea:
We do not bring them with us normally. Since IHRB's officers are authorised, they are not new at the role of authorised officer. Part of the commitment we gave them was that our staff would accompany them and work with them so that they could get up to speed on aspects of the job, such as searching and seizing products. We intend that the authorised officers from IHRB will serve as extra authorised officers for the Minister and that this will give us more scope to be on more premises and to have a better chance of finding product. We often must find product before we can go down the legal route.
I note Deputy Fitzmaurice wants to contribute. I have one further question for Dr. Smyth. Has he or any of his staff in that section of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine ever received any hospitality from the Horseracing Ireland, HRI, the IHRB or any horse trainers?
I thank the Chairman. At long last, I got in.
I thank the witnesses. I concur with Deputy Kehoe that we need to go back to last night's programme. I am not going down that road now.
Let me go back to the previous questions Deputy Kehoe asked in relation to authorised officers. Am I correct in saying that the Department handled all this years ago and then there was a change that it was basically put out to HRI?
I would query authorised officers. I would have seen them with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and other State bodies such as Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI. However, the IHRB does not have the same liaison with the State the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has.
When the authorised officers go to a place, have they a warrant in their pocket or must they go for a warrant if they are refused access?
That is not correct. There is legislation. I went through this fairly well previously on a different issue in regard to bogs. If they are refused entry, am I correct that they can get a warrant from a judge?
Mr. Tim Drea:
Correct, but they have powers of entry. It is an offence to prohibit them from entering. There is an offence in the legislation on veterinary medicines around obstruction of an authorised officer and somebody refusing entry would be putting himself or herself in the position where he or she could be charged with obstruction.
It is actually for entering property because I have seen it previously in regard to bogs. I will move on because my time is limited.
Several members spoke about taxpayers' money. We need to get it into our heads that everyone here supports the horse racing industry but we do not want bad news going out about it and it needs to be investigated. Dr. Smyth stated earlier that the IHRB, HRI, etc., run the whole show. Is it not the case that it is the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that writes the legislation, which comes in to us, as Deputies, and that, at any stage, the officials in the Department can propose a new statutory instrument or new legislation to change the format of whatever we want?
Dr. Smyth stated earlier on about where we, as Deputies, have concerns about the set-up of these groups or where I have concerns about wages not being discussed or transparent. Bear in mind that if a farmer gets €3,000, €4,000, €10,000 or whatever from the EU, it is there for everyone to look at regardless of data protection. I am asking whether the opportunity is there to change legislation if it is not transparent. It is the Department that writes the legislation for the Minister and if there is willingness on the part of the Minister and the Department, am I correct that it can say that 50% or 70% of the board has to be one sex or the other, that the wages have to be transparent and that it can put in whatever preconditions it wants in the legislation if it involves taxpayers' money?
Dr. Kevin Smyth:
I do not believe the Deputy is correct on either. First, if we dictate what the make up of the board is, we will fundamentally take away the independence of the IHRB. If it was the decision of Government to change the policy with regard to IHRB, it would be fine but we would not unilaterally do that. It is independent and it is guaranteed.
The second issue, the disclosure of the remuneration of people, is a wider one than the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the State-sponsored bodies. If we were to change the law, we would have to change it for all Departments.
I compliment Mr. Sheahan who spoke about the animal identification and movement, AIM, system for cattle. If it takes me 50 years to build something, and if I move it on to something else, doing so is not that complex. With the horse industry, why have we not brought in a chip, DNA and AIM system where there is a card set up for each horse? If a farmer wants to move a calf, a weanling or a bullock, he or she can go online and do it in a matter of five or ten minutes. It is no big deal. If it goes to a mart, the mart will do it automatically.
If an animal is exported it basically tells them straight out so you can write them off. If an animal dies and goes to a knackery, it is the same system.
There was talk of the EU wanting this and the EU wanting that, in the line that we are sort of doing what the EU wants. For an industry that is so important, why is Ireland not leading the way ahead of everyone else? Mr. Sheahan talked about Hong Kong but he also mentioned the UK, France and other places. When we have probably one of the best systems brought in for cattle why are we not leading the way? Will we lead the way in the next six months because of the controversies and the dangers involved with the talk at the moment about all of this? There was a programme last night but I did not see it. That programme covered the investigative side of it, the doping side of it and all the different angles. Why are we not European leaders on this? Forget about EU legislation; we should ensure Ireland is out there in front and has the transparency. That system is on our right hand because we have had it done for some time. Fair play to the Department, over the years it is one of the best systems ever seen.
The witnesses talked about horses going outside racing or whatever and it is very easy to prove something if someone goes to a site. However, at the moment it has been admitted that when the veterinary girl, I forget what she is called, goes out to a site-----
Dr. Hillyer, yes. When she and others go out to a site, they do not know for definite how many horses are there. Are the officials telling me that the Department can go out to any farm around the country and have a list of everything they have, in cattle, calves, sheep and whatever else, but it has not got this for the industry that is being questioned at the moment?
Should the first move by the Department not be to say that within six months we are going to have this foolproof system and we will be able to say where every horse is? To be quite frank about it, it could be done over a six-month period provided everyone is told. Everyone has an equine number if he or she has a horse, at least, or he or she has a herd number. Generally though, it is an equine number. If everyone were told he or she had six months to regularise that animal, that it must have a chip in it or he or she must have a card for it, and we got that up and running, would it not be a massive step towards putting Ireland to the fore first of all? It would cut out a lot of this stuff that is going on, sort of under the breath, about what is happening in Irish horse racing. We hear it day in and day out that horses can go out the back door when the boys or girls come to the front door.
There is an onus on the Department to lead the way on this. It is not as if we have 2 million horses born every year like we do cattle, and we are able to fly through the cattle situation. I am asking the officials if they will give a commitment that within the next six months this system will change, that it will be foolproof and that we will have DNA sampling. It my understanding that registering a horse is pretty expensive at the moment. I know DNA costs but they would have a DNA sample, we will have a chip in them and we will have the card like on the AIM system, which is foolproof. Will the officials give us that commitment to tidy up this whole horse industry once and for all?
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
I will answer that one, Chairman, if that is okay. I will answer most of it anyway. I do not disagree with most of what the Deputy has said there. It is important to say an awful lot of the building blocks are already in place. The Deputy talked about DNA sampling, which is already part of the process when a person is registering in a stud book, as the Deputy well knows.
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
The microchip is already part of the system. The passport, or now the smart card, indicates whether the beast is part of the system. We already have a central database. As I said, it is part of our AIM system. It is not as sophisticated as the cattle one but it is there. Thus an awful lot of the building blocks are already there.
As I said earlier, it took us a long time to get to where we are with cattle but we have gradually improved it. In fairness to the horse sector, it has come a long way in a fairly short space of time as well and, as I said, a lot of the building blocks are there. That final step, that is, the movement thing, is the one step that is missing. As the Deputy said, on the cattle side, when a person's calf moves to the mart, that is recorded electronically, and when it moves to another farm, that is recorded. The movement side is the one piece that is missing in the horse sector. The other parts of the system are in place so it is not going to take an awful lot to move it on and to have it be something like what we have in the cattle sector.
Mr. Sheahan has much work done and I have praised the cattle system. There is a fairly big cloud over this between comments that have been passed in the media and then this programme last night, which I hope we will look at later on. For the sake of an industry that is pretty big in this country, can we not give a commitment to be the leaders in Europe? We were the leaders at stopping people smoking in a pub. Can we not be the leaders in this, in such a way that we will go down this road within the next six months and say there is an amnesty or whatever you want for the next six months? After that, for each horse, the Department or whatever authorised officer will have a backup for everything belonging to that horse in this country. Can we not be given that commitment today?
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
As I said, one of the final pieces in that jigsaw is the census which, as I mentioned earlier, we are proposing to do or will do before the end of the year. That may be the final step on the journey. I cannot personally give a commitment but I would say there is no doubt about this, given the mood of this committee and the bit of soul-searching the industry will be doing. There is much support in the industry for moving to a better traceability system. We will be pushing an open door, to be honest. Many in the industry have been calling for this.
I cannot fathom this word "census", and I heard Mr. Sheahan say it earlier on. We are going down a road that means we are going to have DNA chipped and a card registered online. You then have your number and you can pop it into your iPad and can do a movement or whatever. That whole system is set up and the officials basically have that put together there. What then are we doing censuses for? Why do we not just say there is six months or eight months - a window of opportunity - in which we want everything registered and after that the animal is going to a knackery?
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
I do not think the problem is that horses are not registered. We talked earlier about what percentage of horses are not microchipped or whatever. That is certainly not the problem in the thoroughbred sector. There is no question they are not all registered, microchipped, passported and all the rest. What is missing is the movement system. It is the fact that when they move farm to farm or whatever, while there is an onus on the trainer, farmer or whoever to keep a record, an electronic record is not kept of it. That is where the system falls down. As I said, there are plans to try to address that though I cannot personally give the Deputy a commitment it is going to happen within six months. However, that is definitely the journey we are on. There is no question we are moving towards having a similar system for horses as we have for cattle. That is where everyone wants to get to. How quickly we will get there remains to be seen but there is quite a mood for that sort of thing at this stage, I would think.
Will Dr. Smyth give us a commitment the Department will drive this on within the next six to eight months?
My last question is to Mr. Sheahan on sport horses. I understand the Department is sorting this at the moment, but over recent years, if you had a horse and you brought it to the stallion, seemingly there was a body appointed for this book that you get and they were sending it out to the guy that owned the stallion. Why would that be? Why would it be allowed? It is the person who owns the foal who should get the book. I understand the Department is aware of this and is sorting it at the moment. Is that not an unusual situation?
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
From what I know of this, in the past it would not have been uncommon for the passport to be sent out to the stallion owner. I am only guessing that it was probably to do with there being a sense at one stage that whoever owned the book, that is, the passport, owned the horse or had some hold over the horse.
I can only guess that this practice was in place some years ago to get paid a covering fee or something like that. That does not happen now to the best of my knowledge. The legal system is that it is the keeper of the horse that has to get the passport. I am aware that we had one complaint earlier in the year of a case where it was alleged that the passport was not sent to the keeper. We looked at that and there was nothing in it. If the Deputy is aware of cases where the passport is not being sent to the keeper then that is something we can look at but to the best of my knowledge that does not happen. The passport issuing bodies are clear that they have to send them to the keepers of the horses.
Mr. Michael Sheahan:
I am not sure if a direction has been sent in the last six months but in the one case we were asked about and which we checked out, it was not the case. The only case I am aware of where the passport is sent to a person other than the keeper is where the owner of the horse has specifically written to the passport issuing body and given it permission to send it somewhere else. It happens in a limited number of cases if the passport issuing body get something in writing but other than that I am not aware of any cases of it happening. If there is a particular case the Deputy is aware of, we can look at it but the passport is supposed to go to the keeper.
In fairness, on the cattle side of it the veterinary practice is good and I must compliment the Department.
I want to ask Mr. Smyth about what I have said already about the traceability of these horses. Is he prepared to drive this on with the rest of his team to make sure this is delivered rapidly in the next six to eight months? My understanding, and everything I have researched and learned from talking to people, is that basically we have the model and everything in place and all we have to do is move it across the table and get the horses' side of it up and running for the traceability and for all the other advantages we have with the cattle.
We will have a private meeting in the morning to discuss the outcome of these three meetings and we will be making various recommendations. I am sure traceability in the horse industry will be one of the matters that comes up so we will discuss that in the morning. We have had our three meetings and we will have to sit down as a committee and see what recommendations we want to make and what observations we have had as a result of those three meetings.
I thank the officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for engaging with us. The "Panorama" programme influenced the meeting. It was not on the agenda but serious questions were raised in that programme last night. That is something the committee will be revisiting as quickly as possible. The witnesses said earlier in the day that we have two abattoirs in this country. There is a question over how many horses are euthanised there and various questions were asked but I keep going back to the fact that a microchip appeared in an abattoir in Swindon in a horse that had been euthanised six years beforehand. That really brings the authenticity of microchipping into question. The Department will investigate that.
In the "Panorama" programme last night it was stated that there were numerous cases of horses with two microchips appearing in that abattoir. Do we have any instances of horses appearing in an abattoir in Ireland with two microchips? Will there be correspondence between the abattoir in Swindon and the Department to get further information from that abattoir and from the officials there about what the incidence of horses appearing with two microchips is and how many of those have involved Irish horses? I will not go back to the witnesses for answers today but there are a lot of questions arising from last night's programme and it did not do the reputation of horse racing any good.
As I said previously, it is not all thoroughbreds that are going into that abattoir. I would like to get the figures on how many are thoroughbreds and there are a lot of other horses going in there as well. Horse welfare is universal and it is not just confined to thoroughbreds. Any horse being mistreated is completely and utterly unacceptable. As Senator Paul Daly said previously, one would be abhorred to be a horse owner and see the way horses were being treated in that abattoir. It raised questions. We will be returning to that programme and we will be coming back to the Department to get answers on how Ireland operates euthanasia. Unfortunately, when a horse has a serious injury or has certain ailments, euthanasia is the most humane way to treat that animal but it has to be done under veterinary control and in a supervised manner. Last night's programme left an awful lot of questions to be answered and it is something we will return to with the Department in the near future.