Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 28 September 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
General Scheme of the Veterinary Practice (Amendment) Bill 2021: Discussion
Today's meeting is in regard to the Private Members’ Bill, the veterinary practice (amendment) Bill 2021. It was agreed at a private select committee meeting on 21 September that the joint committee would conduct detailed scrutiny of the Bill. It was also agreed that the sponsor of the Bill is the Chairman of the joint committee, Deputy Jackie Cahill. As I am Vice Chairman, I will take the Chair for today's meeting. I welcome Deputy Cahill to the meeting and I would also like to acknowledge his witnesses: Mr. Gerry Neary, past president of Veterinary Ireland; and Mr. Finbarr Murphy, chief executive of Veterinary Ireland. Both are very welcome to the meeting. Deputy Cahill and the witnesses will be given ten minutes to make an opening statement before we go to questions and answers.
Before we begin, I have an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter in these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that where possible they should not criticise nor 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 Deputy Jackie Cahill to make his opening statement.
Thank you. I very much appreciate Senator Lombard taking the Chair and facilitating this opportunity to bring the veterinary practice (amendment) Bill 2021 before the joint committee. I also acknowledge all the help I got in getting to this stage, especially from the members of Veterinary Ireland, who I have met on a number of occasions in recent years.
The reason I brought forward this amendment to legislation is because of growing concern among the public and veterinarians about the impact of corporate ownership on veterinary practices going forward. Over the last number of years, corporations have started to buy veterinary practices in this country. Prior to 2016, the Veterinary Council’s view was that the ownership of a veterinary practice had to be by a vet. They then changed their interpretation of the legislation and allowed corporates to buy veterinary practices. After some objections were raised, they decided they would have a consultation process with stakeholders to re-examine the interpretation of the legislation. They also made appearances in front of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the last Dáil.
There was serious unease as to whether their interpretation was correct and also regarding the impact this would have on veterinary practices and customers. When they were in front of the committee in the last Dáil, Senator Lombard and Senator Paul Daly were members of the committee, as was the then Deputy, Willie Penrose. With Mr. Penrose’s legalistic mind, he was very strenuous in his questioning of the Veterinary Council. After a number of meetings with Veterinary Ireland, it was decided that an amendment to the legislation was needed.
In other jurisdictions where corporate ownership has become the norm, the level of service to urban and rural customers has decreased, while costs have increased. In Derry recently, the first practice in Northern Ireland went into corporate ownership and we have seen that the first casualty was the 24-hour service that was heretofore available to farmers.
Over a long number of years, vets have provided a renowned and exemplary service in rural Ireland. Urban dwellers have also had a very good service available at a reasonable cost. We have seen in other jurisdictions, particularly the UK, that corporate ownership has resulted in a lower level of service and a higher cost to the customer, with an impact on animal welfare. When it becomes uneconomical to bring out a vet on a late-night call, obviously, animal welfare considerations will come into play.
In recent days, and it is ironic that it coincides with this meeting of the committee, we have seen a number of articles regarding the difficulty in attracting vets into large animal practices. Corporate ownership will make this more difficult as young vets will not be able to see a realistic path of career progression, which is a major issue. Indeed, this is proving to be the deciding factor among many vets choosing not to enter private practice, which is having a significant impact on the availability of vets for large and small animal practices.
The purpose of this amendment to the legislation is to insist that the Veterinary Council implement, as they did heretofore, that only vets can own a veterinary practice. This is the only means through which the Veterinary Council can regulate the practice of veterinary medicine in the interests of public health and animal health and welfare. That is the most important point I can make to the committee today. If the Veterinary Council is to regulate, this amendment is the only thing that can allow that to happen. This is extremely important on public health grounds and for animal health and welfare. I am fully convinced this will be of significant benefit and attractiveness to veterinary practitioners and will ensure the delivery of a good service to their customers at a reasonable price. It will also ensure public health and animal health and welfare are kept under strict regulation by the Veterinary Council.
That is why I am bringing forward this amendment today. I know my colleagues in Veterinary Ireland want to make a number of minor amendments to the wording of the Bill. With the permission of the Vice Chairman, I will ask Mr. Murphy to go through those wording changes.
Mr. Finbarr Murphy:
I thank Deputy Cahill. There are a couple of very small technical amendments that we feel would strengthen the Bill as presented. The first is on page 4 of the Bill. It is an amendment to section 113 of the Veterinary Practice Act 2005 and relates to section 7(c) of the Bill.
Section 7(c) states: "in subsections (5), (7), and (8), “by the substitution of registered person for eligible veterinary practitioner”. This has been phrased the wrong way around. This should say “by substitution of eligible veterinary practitioner for registered person”, in each place that it occurs. This is just a drafting issue.
Section 9B (3) states: “If more than one person carries out the practice of veterinary medicine at a premises and a question arises as to who is the registered person”. We suggest that should read “who is the eligible veterinary practitioner”. It was omitted to change “registered person” to “eligible veterinary practitioner”.
Section 139, subsection (1) states:
A veterinary practice, operating from registered veterinary premises, shall be wholly owned by veterinary practitioners (registered under Part 4) who practice veterinary medicine from said premises, and certificates of suitability for those premises shall only be sought, obtained and retained in the name of an eligible veterinary practitioner (as defined in section 138) .
That might benefit from an additional line to make it clear that it is the responsibility of the Veterinary Council of Ireland to ensure that that situation happens. A line that could go in there would be along the lines of: “it is the responsibility of the Veterinary Council of Ireland to take all measures necessary to ensure that the conditions of this subsection are complied with”. This is so that we do not simply have an Act on the Statute Book, but so that the Veterinary Council of Ireland actively enforces it. To repeat: "it is the responsibility of Veterinary Council of Ireland to take all measures necessary to ensure that the conditions of this subsection are complied with".
We felt that the Bill could benefit from clarifying the last sentence under section 139(4). Subsection (4) states: "For the purposes of this section, exemptions from the requirements for total veterinary ownership and eligible veterinary practitioner status shall be granted to registered animal charities and veterinary teaching institutions." We thought this sentence would benefit from a definition of "registered animal charities and veterinary teaching institutions". We therefore suggest an amendment, after where it says, “shall be granted to”. Instead of “registered animal charities and veterinary teaching institutions”, we would suggest “shall be granted to one: an institution providing an approved programme of education to enable the person to be registered under Part 4, in other words, to be registered as a vet, or two: a charitable organisation that exclusively provides subsidised veterinary services to the public on a charitable basis”. In this subsection, "charitable organisation" has the meaning given to it by section 2 of the Charities Act 2009. This is to avoid a loophole whereby somebody's lay corporate bodies could claim to be charities or trusts, and that we define what we mean by “animal charity”.
These are the only amendments or suggestions we had, Chair.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I must say that it is much fairer that I am let in first, as the usual Chair usually keeps me until the end.
I thank Deputy Cahill in the first instance for bringing this legislation to the Dáil. I commend him on ensuring it has gotten this far. I said when we were dealing with it in Private Members' time in the Dáil that this is one of the few situations where we have an opportunity as legislators to address a problem before it becomes a big problem. That is welcome. I presume we will have an opportunity to hear from voices that might have concerns as well. While instinctively I think that the debate in the Dáil would indicate that there is cross-party support for this legislation, we want to ensure that the legislation is fit for purpose.
Part of the problem has been that when this type of corporate ownership model begins to take effect, it takes quite a number of years before it is seen to have a profound impact. In Britain, for example, in 1999 there was virtually 0% ownership by great corporates. By 2009, that increased to 10%. Then, in the subsequent decade, it increased to 50%. It can clearly be, therefore, a slow burner, but can end up having a profound impact. Do we have any sense yet as to what the trajectory would likely be? Where would the pressure be felt first and most acutely? Deputy Cahill has talked about the issue of 24-7 care. This was a particular concern in Donegal, where we see a glimpse of what this type of ownership model would mean.
My second question relates to where there are, or could be, what we might call "corporates". However, in some instances, vets might own multiple practices and they are currently in place. What would the impact of this legislation be on them? Is there an ability to provide a timeframe to resolve any anomalies that might be there?
I have a political question for Deputy Cahill. When we are dealing with the concept of other veterinary medicines, legislation and particularly issues with regard to licensed traders. We want to find a resolution to that particular issue, where licensed traders were not able to dispense their products. We saw an instance where this legislation was not passed. Does the Deputy have a sense of the compounded impact of all that, in terms of the services that are currently in place in rural communities, vis-à-visbeing what we could end up with?
First, I will talk about corporates, as regards the practices that have required in the country up to this stage. There have targeted small animal practices in large urban centres, as well as specialist practices that would be lucrative, whether it is in the equine sector, or whatever they have targeted. They have been targeting the intensive farming areas where there would be a large concentration of fairly large herds, especially in the dairy sector. That is where corporates have purchase practices in 26 counties at the moment. There has been a significant number of purchases in the last 12 to 18 months. This legislation is therefore pertinent. It is essential that we get it onto the Statute Book.
Deputy Carthy had a question about the number of vets in a practice in group ownership. I will let one of the witnesses answer that question. However, I think that is catered for and that it will not be an issue within this legislation. The Deputy mentioned the availability of animal medicines going forward. We will discuss the legislation on that in the committee next week. We may get to a scenario where there is restrictive availability of veterinary medicines. If corporates had the control of sales, we would see the profit margins and the cost to the end-user increase dramatically. The farmer’s relationship with his or her local vet gives farmers a bargaining tool in the cost of medicines. However, if he or she argues prices with a corporate, he or she will have no bargaining power whatsoever. Hopefully we will get a better solution to that. As I said, we will get a briefing that committee next week on that. Hopefully that scenario will not arise, but I fully accept the Deputy’s point. If veterinary medicines and distribution are solely under control of veterinary practices, corporate ownership would add greatly to the cost.
Mr. Murphy or Mr. Neary might have a comment on the group ownership.
Mr. Gerry Neary:
I was talking about this with Mr. Murphy in the car on the way over. There are probably ten registered practices that are on record as being bought. But there would be a significant lagging phase. We would be aware of many more practices that are sold but that have not been recorded as sold.
It is like the situation with the Property Registration Authority, PRA, and housing. I assure the committee that there has been a significant increase in the number of practices that have been bought, not in the past year or 18 months, but just since we last looked in on the Dáil during Second Stage of this Bill. I imagine that this legislation being pending is leading to a rush to buy practices. There is probably a feeling out there that this legislation has not been taken seriously, but as it goes through Stages, word is getting out that it might get through. There was a belief that it would go nowhere. The fact that people can see it solidifying into something that might become an Act has led to an acceleration to get in ahead of that cut-off point. People have moved. I am sure it is happening in west Cork. We are aware of another practice that has gone in County Galway, not the city of Galway. We are aware of other practices undergoing the very late stages of due diligence processes. We are a smaller market than England. Some 10% of practices in England is a large number. We have a population the same size as greater Manchester. Corporates took over 40% of Norwegian practices and 80% of clients in a short time.
Mr. Gerry Neary:
My understanding is that, from a legal point of view, one cannot retrospectively impose the stipulation that only vets can own a practice when the law was silent on the matter beforehand. We have never gone the route of making that point about practices that have already been bought. We have always been clearly of the view that those practices are operating outside the Veterinary Practice Act and in complete contravention of the animal remedies regulations.
Mr. Gerry Neary:
We have clear proof from the corporate's own legal people. We have a copy of its legal advice stating that it cannot legally practise in Ireland. At the London Vet Show, I spoke to the head of one of the major corporates. He assured me that his corporate would not move into Ireland until such time as the legislation was-----
Let me ask the question in a slightly different way. If, theoretically, a corporate was to purchase a veterinary practice under the current framework, which Mr. Neary claims would be in breach of the law as it stands, who would be responsible for enforcing the law? Would it be the Veterinary Council of Ireland?
I thank Deputy Cahill for introducing this Bill. It is no secret that I was a member of the previous committee, which held numerous hearings on this issue. As a party colleague of Deputy Cahill, I have been with him every step of the way in bringing this Bill to where it is today. It will be no surprise to anyone that, for obvious reasons, I will not start knocking it at this eleventh hour. That said, blind loyalty or friendship would not influence me in making what I believe was the right decision. What does influence me is the fact that I am a small farmer in a rural area that is sandwiched between three half-decent-sized urban areas in Tullamore, Mullingar and Athlone. I am right in the centre of that triangle and my vets are based in Tullamore. Since the low-hanging, but most high-yielding fruit for the corporates is the small animal business, they will probably be looking at towns. I have seen what has happened in Donegal, for example. Were that to happen in Tullamore, my cat and dog would have a service but my cow that needed a caesarean section at an ungodly hour would not. That is why I rode in with Deputy Cahill to get this Bill to its current stage. I compliment him on the amount of work he has done in bringing it this far.
They say that what is seldom is wonderful. It is not often that Deputy Carthy and I agree wholeheartedly on issues at this committee or elsewhere, but we do today. In terms of where the Deputy was coming from, I wish to ask Mr. Neary further questions because I do not know whether the answers got lost in the explanation. A certificate of suitability in respect of premises is granted by the Veterinary Council of Ireland. The Bill specifically states that a veterinary practitioner would have to get that certificate. Mr. Neary mentioned that transactions had already happened and that, unfortunately in my opinion, corporate veterinary practices were already up and running. How would they be fixed for their certificates of suitability under this legislation? This will not apply retrospectively. While we may question what services they are providing to meet our requirements, could they find themselves in limbo and their clientele be caught out if we changed the law now? I wish to tease this matter out more. I do not see it as a major issue, but it could create problems down the line. This is the stage of the game where we need to look into these matters.
My next question for Mr. Neary or Mr. Murphy does not relate directly to the Bill, but to its inception. Has there been any change in focus by the Veterinary Council of Ireland since we last met? I do not believe we met in this room, but next door. The Veterinary Council of Ireland did not seem to have an issue with this. Former Deputy Penrose, who is as shrewd a legal eagle as one would meet on any day's walk, had serious concerns about even the motivation for some of the decisions that the Veterinary Council of Ireland had been making. From Veterinary Ireland's dealings with the Veterinary Council of Ireland, has there been any change?
For the record, what the witnesses have explained to us I have also been told by others. Today, I met a group that concentrates on small animals. I can see where it was coming from, but I will solely represent my electorate. The food production side of agriculture is our largest indigenous industry. Every corporate is commercially driven, and that involves cherry-picking the low-hanging fruit, that is, the small animal. We hear stories about such corporates having side businesses in pet insurance and the commercial sale of drugs and so on. As Deputy Carthy mentioned, the veterinary medications issue is also before us. Deputy Cahill stated that departmental officials will be before us on that next week. A perfect storm is developing, though. If we allow all of our small veterinary practices to be taken over by large corporate outlets, their commercial business model will be the sale of veterinary medicines. That will wipe out not only all small rural vets and the services that farmers get, but also licensed merchants. This Bill has a major role to play in consolidating, strengthening and securing veterinary services, which are necessary for agricultural communities in rural Ireland. Small animal veterinary practices are equally needed, but one should not exist at the expense of the other.
In the interests of animal welfare they all can and will work collectively.
Will the witnesses comment on the article in The Irish Times, as mentioned by Deputy Cahill? While it may not be related to the Bill, is there anything that could be done, perhaps not in this Bill but in any other sphere, to change the situation or solve the problem that has been highlighted in the media around the lack of vets?
Mr. Gerry Neary:
With regard to the Veterinary Council of Ireland, has it improved or in any way mellowed? "No" would be the answer. We got original legal opinion that it acted outside its powers, that the Veterinary Practice Act was silent on ownership and that the council acted outside of its powers. I refer the Senator back to former Deputy Penrose when he questioned the council representatives. He pointed out to them that if there were any changes to be made in the ownership of practice or declarations, it was a function of the Oireachtas to so do. Since then the Veterinary Council of Ireland has held a series of reviews and put the four codes of conduct under review, which means they remain active. It does not mean the codes are cancelled until the review is held. They remain active. The council then had a review that revealed the public, veterinary surgeons, and every organisation it asked was against the move. Then the council went back and reinforced the exact position it took in December 2017, probably even more blatantly, stating that as long as acts of veterinary medicine were carried out by vets, then the rest was okay. The council has strengthened on this position, even though it has been pointed out that it has gone in the wrong direction and is acting outside of its powers.
On the certificate of suitability, COS, in the present scenario, where lay people own practices, be it corporate or private, a private person can get a practice certificate of suitability. In the current corporate structure that person is to govern the following: the medicines, the services, what is and is not done, what drugs he or she can and cannot use, how he or she uses the medicines and what temperatures they are stored at, the radiation protection for employees, disposal of remains, disposal of bottles and so on. A certificate of suitability holder in those practices is certifying he or she will run the practice and, under the certificate of suitability, is also certifying he or she will provide 24-hour service. He or she has no control over that practice and may not even be the practice manager. The clinical director and the certificate of suitability holder is not the practice manager. The practice manager in all of the practices we are aware of is a layperson. The certificate of suitability holder has no control over those matters.
Veterinary Ireland would always have advised its members that they are hanging themselves out to dry from a certification point of view if they become certificate of suitability holder. They are however, caught between a rock and a hard place because they are getting a large amount of money for the practice and are being maintained as clinical director for maybe one, four or five years, or whatever. They sign the certificate but they are signing what they cannot honour because they do not own the practice. This is why we were adamant in our contribution to the new Bill that the certificate of suitability holder must have some ownership of the practice. He or she cannot be an employee of somebody who directs him or her what to do. In that case, a layperson is dictating what the certificate of suitability holder does rather than the certificate of suitability holder doing it.
This is a long answer to the Deputy's question. We would always have contended that the certificate of suitability is signed by somebody who does not have any control of the practice and this is not a situation we should ever have got into. I do not know how it is going to be solved. I still believe the council is operating outside the law. Its level of involvement in the practice of veterinary medicine, in the offering of service, and in the distribution of drugs is one of the main areas in which we are hung up at the moment. There is one health system where vets and doctors restrict drugs. We have situation at the moment where laypeople can buy drugs, which is illegal. You cannot buy drugs. Only a pharmacist, a certificate of suitability holder or a wholesaler can receive drugs from a manufacturer. Only a vet can prescribe them and only he or she can fill the prescription from his or her stock of drugs, or a pharmacist can fill it. This is not what is happening. Whatever about the giving out of drugs, the layperson should not be able to buy drugs. In a situation where the drugs are bought in a COS holder's name and paid for by the company, the legal question is who owns those drugs. Is it the person who ordered them in his or her name or is it the person who paid for them? We would contend that the person who paid for them is the person who owns the drugs. To us, this whole scenario is illegal.
What are you to do, however, with the certificate of suitability holders who are there and the ownership issue? I do not believe the ownership structure that persists, where it is 100% owned by laypeople, should come in, but it is nothing to do with this legislation, which is the point I am making. The Veterinary Council of Ireland and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have sat on their hands and allowed this to happen. This could have been stopped after two practices. We tried to co-operate with them and we had no effort at co-operation back. The committee itself has seen how the council came in here said there was no need for the legislation to be changed.
The Veterinary Council of Ireland is not here to defend itself so we may take up that issue at another meeting. It is up to the members to decide what to do. Perhaps we could restrict ourselves in this discussion to the actual legislation and how that can be tied in. That might be appropriate.
I want to consider career progression and attracting vets into large animal practice. If the vet is coming out of college and making a career choice, he or she may look at a large animal practice. If such practices are run by large corporates, that vet will know he or she will be an employee there all of his or her life and will never have an opportunity to become a partner or an owner of that business. We all know our vets, and most of them when they came out of college started in a practice and maybe after a few years moved to another practice. Not always but in a large majority of cases they became a partner in that practice going forward and they could see career progression for themselves. I believe this could be a major stumbling block if corporates get a serious foothold in practices in the country. Young vets coming out of college may say to themselves, "I am coming in here as an employee, there is not the career progression I would like", and they would look at other opportunities to practise their degree. I believe career progression under the corporate ownership model will seriously put under pressure the availability of vets for large animal practices.
Following on from the deals that are already done, how will the Bill influence their operation going forward? If the Bill is accepted in the morning and if the President signs it, what is the solution to get the corporates legal again?
Mr. Gerry Neary:
We have precedent at the moment in France with a similar situation with a company, which would also be involved in the Irish scene, whereby the practice has been delisted on investigation. This is the important part. The French veterinary council investigated the structure. To find these things out, you must investigate. They investigated the situation and they found that the ownership structure and the share structure of the business was 50.1% for the veterinary practitioner and 49.9% for the company. In other words, it was a majority shareholding for the vets. On deeper examination, however, 99% of the revenue was going to the small shareholders. It is just a paper exercise to meet the requirements of the French law.
Where do the corporates go? We would still be of the opinion that they should not be operating in this country and our legislation does not allow them to operate in this country. Our animal remedies regulations certainly do not allow them to operate in the way that they are operating. The Veterinary Practice Act lists acts of veterinary medicine and it numbers in particular an act of veterinary medicine as the purchase, sale and supply of prescription drugs. If it is examined forensically, the current situation is totally in breach of that law.
I compliment the Chairman, Deputy Cahill, on bringing this legislation.
It is unfortunate it was not done a few years ago. I was not a member of the previous committee. I speak as somebody who is concerned from a peninsula in a very remote part where vets are already scarce. If they are allowed to go ahead with corporate companies running the show, I cannot see them basing themselves in places like Bantry, Castletownbere or Cahersiveen, but rather close to centres of big population, such as Cork city or nearby towns such as Bandon or Mallow. It might be possible to take a cat or a dog 50 or 60 miles to see a vet about an issue, but it is not possible to load up a cow that is calving out on the Mizen Peninsula, Castletownbere, the Sheep's Head Peninsula or wherever. That is not a practical option. Remote parts of Ireland suffer under the existing system.
If these big corporations are swallowing up all these veterinary practices, which Mr. Murphy says the regulations do not allow, why does the Veterinary Council of Ireland or the Department not take action? In many instances, if a farmer does something wrong with regard to cattle or his land, they are very quick to pounce and wave the big stick. There is a legal aspect to this. If these corporations have broken the regulations and are not compliant with the law as exists under the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, is there any mechanism that can be used to put the handbrake on them acting so quickly, particularly knowing that this legislation is going through? By the time it is signed into law by the President, another ten corporations might have swallowed up 60 or 70 veterinary practices. I ask for guidance on how we might be able to hold things up at the moment, at least until this amending legislation is brought into law.
Mr. Finbarr Murphy:
One of the big dangers here is that most practices in Ireland are mixed and do not just cater for small animals, as is the case in the UK with its large urban populations. The experience in the UK is that the lay corporates tend to regionalise the service, particularly the out-of-hours service. That will certainly not suit the dairy or beef industry in Ireland. In the dairy sector, the calving season is so concentrated in Ireland that having one practice doing out-of-hours service or an entire region will not work. I share the Senator's concern over rural and remote areas. This will have a major impact throughout the country because of the nature of veterinary practice in Ireland and the experience of the lay corporates in concentrating on the more profitable aspects and letting go the elements of the service that are not as profitable.
Vets are obliged to provide a 24-hour service, but that is under the code of professional conduct from the Veterinary Council of Ireland and not under the principal Veterinary Practice Act. If the corporates are involved, unfortunately the Veterinary Council of Ireland cannot regulate them. If the lay owner, the corporate, decides it will not provide an out-of-hours service, the council has no way to enforce the issue and ensure the 24-hour service is maintained.
Regarding manpower, it is difficult to attract vets into large animal mixed practice at present for many reasons. Small animal work is much more profitable with less requirement to be on call. The Department is recruiting vets to cover certification requirements as a result of Brexit, which is taking vets out of practice into Department roles. It is making it more difficult for existing practices to attract new vets. Those issues have come together.
Senator Paul Daly asked if we could do anything to help with the crisis in getting vets to enter large animal practice. Enacting this Bill is one of the most important steps to prevent the problem becoming much more serious and to prevent the lay corporates from providing the services.
I am sure we could do other things with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine such as looking at the on-call arrangements and getting better co-operation between practices, larger partnerships and having vets co-operating better together. In remote areas we could incentivise the out-of-hours service, as is done for other professions, including in general practice. That may be necessary in certain peninsulas and remote areas. One of the findings of a Veterinary Ireland survey was that in order to be able to retain vets, they need to be paid properly and have a reasonable work-life balance, which is partly achieved by having a better on-call rota. We need to work jointly with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to address those concerns.
If these regulations are wrong, is there any means of enforcement? Is the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine silent on this issue? If so, why is it not being more vocal in support of what Deputy Cahill is doing? Why was it not done five years ago or seven years ago?
Mr. Finbarr Murphy:
If we look at the experience internationally with these corporates, there is a creeping effect. They test the market by coming into a country and buying one or two practices to see if the relevant authorities challenge them for being in breach of the law. These lay corporates are taking a significant financial risk in going ahead and purchasing these practices. As Mr. Neary said, we believe they are in breach of the existing Veterinary Practice Act 2005 and the animal remedies legislation. They are taking a significant risk financially by continuing. At the end of the day, it is up to the Department and the Veterinary Council of Ireland to enforce the laws. It is not clear what will happen to the practices that have already been purchased, but we believe they are acting outside the existing laws. They would be aware that they are taking a risk on the basis of what has happened in other countries. If nobody stops them, the problem will be so big that we will just proceed. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Veterinary Council of Ireland have the powers to point out the laws to them.
Members and witnesses need to be cautious as to whether corporates may be breaking the law. We are not a court. We do not have that remit. We are here to discuss legislation that has been proposed by the Chairman, Deputy Cahill. I caution members and witnesses about their commentary on the corporates.
My point has been made in general. I do not even know what corporations are involved. The difficulty I see with that is they have plenty of finance backing them. They will buy the best lawyers and take on the Department as well. The sooner we get a handle on this, the better. The next thing is that the horse will have bolted and the door will be closed against us.
I congratulate Deputy Cahill on bringing the Bill before us. I have always firmly believed that if things are not broken there is no need to fix them. A comment was made about a shortage of vets. Do we have a shortage of vets in the country? As far as I was aware, we did not. There is also an issue with the supply of medicines. If there is, we may need to look at how things are being regulated and take the issue of the licensed merchants more seriously. Based on my discussions with people, I have gathered that we do not have an issue with getting vets to visit farmyards.
I am sure that the veterinary practices we have across the country, especially in County Tipperary, are as dedicated to their clients as they possibly could be.
I have a couple of questions for the representatives from Veterinary Ireland. I understand it is supporting the Bill, as we all are. Can our guests point out any aspects of the Veterinary Council of Ireland's changes in 2017 that could potentially benefit our farming and pet-owning communities that supporting this Bill might stop? Has Veterinary Ireland any information on the knock-on effects that this may have for existing practices? Deputy Cahill knows that in 2008, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission recommended that the Minister bring forward legislation amending the Veterinary Practice Act 2005 to allow for incorporated veterinary practices. Where do the Minister and Department officials stand on that issue, in light of all this?
The 2005 Act is the hub of why we have brought forward this amending legislation. For the ten years after 2005, the veterinary council interpreted the legislation in a certain way. In 2015 or 2016, it changed its interpretation to allow corporates to buy veterinary practices. Why that happened was the focus of committee meetings during the previous Dáil. The council had a consultation process on the matter. My understanding, as a layperson and not a legal person, is that the Department's view is that it is the role of the veterinary council to interpret and implement the legislation. The purpose of this amending legislation is to ensure that the veterinary council interprets the legislation in such a way as to mean that corporates cannot purchase practices. As I said, that was how it had been between 2005 to 2015 or 2016. There was a change in the interpretation at that time. The Oireachtas committee of the previous Dáil had three meetings that focused on that matter. There was strenuous questioning of the veterinary council. We have discussed the issue with various officials in the Department. The view of the Department is that it is the Veterinary Council of Ireland's role to interpret and implement the legislation as it sees fit. This amendment is to ensure that the legislation is implemented in such a manner as to ensure that veterinary practices stay in the ownership of veterinarians only.
The Deputy asked why should we try to fix something that is not broken. That is exactly the situation. We have an exemplary veterinary service in the Twenty-six Counties. As I said in my opening statement, we saw what happened in Derry when a corporate bought a practice. The level of service dropped straight away. We want to try to ensure that we maintain the level of service we have. We have a tremendous 24-hour service at a reasonable cost to both urban and rural consumers. We want to try to preserve that and that is the intention of this amending legislation.
I earlier made a point around attracting vets into large animal practices. It is becoming an issue in certain parts of the country because vets are becoming very scarce. If we can show the possibility for career progression in large animal practices, that will help to secure vets for those practices, going forward. I cannot answer for the Veterinary Council of Ireland as to why the interpretation changed, but it is a matter of fact that it did change around 2016.
Mr. Finbarr Murphy:
The Deputy asked if there is a shortage of vets. He is right. There have never been as many registered vets on the Veterinary Council of Ireland register. More than 3,100 vets are registered. However, we hear that large animal practices are finding it difficult to attract vets. As I mentioned earlier, vets tend to opt for the small animal side of the industry. We have an increasing workload in veterinary practice, with more pets and small animals as a result of Covid. As I mentioned, the Department is taking vets out of private practice into certification roles as a result of Brexit. All of those things are putting pressure on mixed large animal practices and their ability to attract new vets into the system.
I have been looking at the whole veterinary system. I thank Deputy Cahill and the team for bringing forward this Bill, of which we are fully supportive. I have concerns because I come from a peninsula in west Cork. We have got incredible service down the years that has perhaps spoiled us. Many of these veterinary surgeons have progressed in age, like us all, and I am worried. Have our guests looked at any model as part of this document to set up something like a SouthDoc system? We were badly spoiled because the veterinary surgeons have always given 100% down our way, to the point that it was often said the veterinary service was better than the doctor's service. It was nearly better if a person fell on the ground to ring the local vet because you might never get the doctor. The bottom line is that some of these surgeons are becoming elderly. I have been speaking to them and they are out day and night. One vet told me recently that he had a night off because he finished at 11.30 p.m. He was back working again the next morning. Is any kind of system being thought about, going forward, so that vets might have something like a doctor's system whereby one vet would be on duty in an area?
Unfortunately, when many younger vets are training, they are thinking about dogs and cats when there are an awful lot of cows that need calving and sick animals on farms that need treatment. The vets that we have had to date have served the community well but my worry is that if they are not minded, it will lead to burnout. Is there any system being considered that might change the situation?
Mr. Gerry Neary:
I will go back to a point that was made by the previous speaker, who asked how it will affect existing practices if corporates develop in a large way. The corporates are cherry-picking the really good practices in the dense area of small animal treatment. I assure the committee that they will be moving into the dense large animal areas next. By the time we get to them, they will have picked up a considerable amount of the lucrative practices and clients.
The other aspect of the matter is that these corporates are paying six to 14 times more for practices than was heretofore the cost when practices were traded among professionals themselves. What does that do to the future and to the young vets of the profession? As Deputy Cahill alluded to earlier, those young vets will work for the rest of their lives for €25,000 to €40,000 a year while their peers in factories and working in Supermacs are earning more money than them. That is only going to lead to an exodus from the profession. That is the reality. As Deputy Cahill also pointed out, there is absolutely no career progression whatsoever. There is no way out of that. Those young vets will never have enough money to access a mortgage for a house. There will not be a practice left for them to buy or, if there is, it will be uneconomical because all the economical ones will have been bought by corporates. That is the point I would make to the previous speaker's comments.
In response to Deputy Michael Collins, we have no wish to take veterinary services away from the veterinary model, of which I am very proud, towards the medical model, which is regional. I have travelled over and back to England on a regular basis and I have experienced the regionality of large animal practice in the United States. The vets there are covering areas of 80 to 100 miles and can only guarantee they will get to a case within three hours. If you pull a calf from a cow, rupture an artery and are left holding it with your fingers for three hours waiting for a vet, your cow will die. That is an animal welfare issue.
I operated all my life as a single-man practice. I had a list of six vets around me to whom I could pick up the phone if I was in the factory or was on a new job and could not get to another job. One of those vets would turn up instead. There is tremendous solidarity between vets because it is a difficult life. We do not want to see our veterinary service going from local to regional. I would be all for the amalgamation and organisation of night services on a local town basis, within a radius of, say, 20 km.
We would not want the out-of-hours service to be regionalised to the extent taking place in medicine, where someone has to be triaged by a nurse for two or three hours before he or she even hears that he or she will get a doctor. The previous speaker made a very valid point when he asked why we interfered with a service that was so good prior to December 2017. Why did we practically take apart something that was so good? We have a tremendous veterinary service in this country. You could not ask for a better service. We have always provided a service in an emergency within half an hour. I do not know why we are trying to undo all that. It is being done with no political interference to stop it happening. This is why we are pretty alarmed about what is happening.
Mr. Finbarr Murphy:
While this Bill does not directly address the issue of burnout and the onerous nature of on-call for vets in local areas, it is something Veterinary Ireland is looking at as part of our strategic plan. We are talking to the Department and other stakeholders to ensure the out-of-hours service is provided in a family-friendly manner that will attract and retain young and older vets.
I commend Deputy Cahill on this Private Members' Bill. It is not before time and shows the great benefit of having peer knowledge in the Dáil. It is great to see him bringing it this far. I thank the witnesses from Veterinary Ireland for coming before the committee and for their input into the debate today. I do not want to get into it too much but I am conscious that some of the evidence about the way the ownership model has changed is frightening. It presents significant challenges and concerns for us as the custodians of animal welfare and also probably as the custodians of quality in meat and food production. We need to safeguard that.
My query is more for the committee than for any of our speakers. I assume the Veterinary Council of Ireland and the Department will come back before us on this issue. I appreciate greatly the work that vets do. We have a fantastic service across the country. We must be mindful of the influx of corporate-type entities. To that end, this legislation is hugely timely. I am honoured it is coming from Fianna Fáil and will support it enthusiastically.
I presume the Minister and the Department will have the opportunity to put down amendments to this Bill if they want any change of emphasis but we have put a lot of preparatory work into it. Its purpose is to ensure that veterinary practices stay in the ownership of vets. It is fairly straightforward and very unambiguous. I have already discussed this with the Minister. While the Minister and the Department might seek changes in wording, I hope they will buy into the purpose of the Bill. If this Bill is passed, it will be very clear about the ownership of practices. It would be my view that the Veterinary Council of Ireland will have to implement that amended legislation to ensure vets are the only people permitted to own veterinary practices. We are doing this in the interests of public health and animal health and welfare. When this Bill comes back to the floor of the Dáil, if the Minister has any amendments, he will have the opportunity to introduce them then.
In terms of the timeframe envisioned by Deputy Cahill, as I mentioned earlier, it would be useful if we heard from other stakeholders who might have a different opinion from the ones being conveyed here. Is it Deputy Cahill's intention that we would have another meeting or will we invite written submissions from members of the public or some of the entities referred to earlier?
Deputy Cahill mentioned that the Minister can bring forward amendments. The Minister could also delay or frustrate this legislation if he wants to do so. The contribution of the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on Second Stage gave a sense that the Government is not entirely satisfied that there is a need for this legislation. Could Deputy Cahill give us a sense of what timeframe he would like to see? Is he satisfied that the Department will facilitate the passage of this legislation through the Dáil? If not, what we can do about that?
Could the Deputy elaborate what witnesses would be appropriate for this committee to call? Other entities have been mentioned today so could the Deputy give his view regarding which of them should be invited to appear before the committee?
It is up to the committee to decide what other witnesses it wishes to call. This is my Private Members' Bill that is receiving scrutiny here. If members feel we should invite other stakeholders to appear before us, that would be a decision for the committee.
The Minister was a member of this committee when this issue raised its head in the previous Dáil. He saw the issue at first hand so I would be hopeful that he will give this Bill his backing. I have already discussed it with him and am confident that he will support it. My understanding is that this Bill will go back to the Business Committee once this committee has finished its scrutiny of it. The Business Committee will decide when the Bill goes back to the floor of the Dáil. Obviously, that is outside my remit but I hope it will progress as quickly as possible. If it is to be implemented and to work, time is of the essence. From what I am hearing, there is general agreement at this committee that we need to do this to protect the exemplary service we have, and to protect public health and animal health and welfare, and that this Bill is an essential amendment to the 2005 Act. If it does not happen quickly, the horse will have bolted and corporates will have acquired practices they want. As has been said by others, they are not going to go out to a peninsula, be it in Kerry, Connemara or west Cork. They are not going to be in a rush to acquire practices there but what if the practices are in Bandon, in my own county or in large urban centres?
That is where they will go and those are the ones they will acquire.
Mention has been made of what happens the practices that have already been purchased. I am not a solicitor or legal person but I think the onus would be on the Veterinary Council of Ireland to sort that out. It changed its interpretation of the present legislation. The onus will go back on the veterinary council, which regulates the veterinary profession. If we clearly show ownership at present is not in accordance with legislation, the onus will come back on the veterinary council to sort the issue out. We had vigorous exchanges on this in the last committee in the last Dáil. If the amendment is reinforcing the heretofore interpretation of the legislation, the onus will be back on the veterinary council to rectify the situation. Whatever implications that has, it will be on the veterinary council to deal with them.
Does the Deputy see value in bringing the veterinary council to the committee during this Stage of the legislation to give its input and answer some broader questions a number of members have brought today?
When this committee fulfils our deliberations and in the event it passes the legislation with whatever amendments come before us, it goes on the Order Paper. The Deputy mentioned the Business Committee. I take it it needs to be taken in Government time. Can it be brought forward as a Private Members' Bill within the lottery? How does that work? As a first-time Deputy, I am not sure of the mechanics of it.
I will refer the questions on the timeframe and how it works to the secretariat, if that is all right with the Vice Chairman. I am not an expert but I have just given my understanding.
Regarding the Veterinary Council of Ireland, I have no objection to its representatives coming in but they were adamant two or three years ago that their interpretation of the legislation was correct and corporates were now allowed to buy up veterinary practices. I have no objection to their coming in and the committee having the opportunity to question them, if that is the committee's decision.
What I was going to say has been discussed in a roundabout way during deliberations between Deputies Carthy and Cahill. I signalled for the Vice Chairman's attention to come in to propose the committee would agree today to let the Bill go to the next Stage. I propose that as somebody who was in the previous committee which had VCI in and based on deliberations I had today about where VCI is. I have no objections if the committee agrees to bring that body in. It is not a Bill as such, but an amendment and we have had ample deliberations. The Bill's inception was in previous deliberations with the VCI. I have nothing against that body but it has been highlighted today and is evident and obvious that time is of the essence. I propose the committee agree to let the Bill proceed to the next Stage. There will be an opportunity, as has been said, for amendments on that Stage. If we are hanging around waiting for meetings, we are slowing the process down. I propose the committee let the Bill proceed to the next Stage with a view to people making amendments as it progresses through the Dáil.
It is in the hands of the members in many ways. I appreciate Senator Daly's proposal. On the other side, we have had a comprehensive debate. Deputy Carthy mentioned getting the other side of the argument so we do our work appropriately. It is open to the committee to come up with a ruling. Does Deputy Carthy want to respond?
I understand the sentiment. If we want to get this on the floor of the Dáil and resolved, it is important we can say hand on heart that the committee has addressed any potential deficiencies. This is Committee Stage, which is where the real meat of the debate should take place. At a minimum, we should ask for expressions of interest, either in writing or for those who want to come before the committee to discuss it further. There are a number of bodies, particularly the veterinary council, whose input we should seek.
It is not to say I think there are deficiencies in the Bill. I think they have been addressed with the proposals that have been brought before us. It is in order to ensure the committee is above scrutiny, can say with certainty we are bringing a good Bill to the House and commend it to all Members of the House. It is with the same intention as Senator Paul Daly outlined, but to ensure we cannot be critiqued later and that be used to go back to stage one.
The veterinary council was in here twice before and that spawned this amendment. I will go with the decision of the committee but the transcript of those meetings is there. It is clear they had their interpretation of the legislation as it stands. That interpretation changed from what they did heretofore. They have been here and, because of what was said at that meeting, this amendment has been brought forward. If we want further discussion when we are in private session, I have no problem. However, like Senator Paul Daly, I believe time is of the essence with this. Every week we wait, another practice will be bought by a corporate. Against that, I have no issue with Deputy Carthy's bona fides on this. We want to make sure people cannot accuse us of not listening to all sides of the argument. I accept that. It was because of the firm stance the veterinary council took with the committee that this amendment is before us.
It would be appropriate that we would write to the veterinary council. We do not necessarily need to bring it before the committee. We can ask it for its view on the legislation, incorporating the amendments brought today. That can be done over the space of a week so that in our private meeting next week we can sign off on the Bill. It is not a delaying tactic. It is to ensure we can say all our t's are crossed and i's dotted.