Thursday, 5 November 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Local Authority Services
As I am sure the Minister of State is aware, there have been difficulties with the local authority veterinary service in recent years. The county veterinary officers do much of the veterinary work in the counties around the country. Until now, they have been funded by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, through a service level agreement with each local authority. In the past three or four years, there has been a reduction in the funding and a pull-back from the FSAI. Although the central funding going to the FSAI has increased, it has tried to cut the funding given to the local authorities to provide this vital service.
There was a dispute which would have caused the county veterinary officers to withdraw the service to local authorities at the end of this month. That would be detrimental to many small businesses around the country but I understand a crisis was averted in the last ten days when an interim agreement was reached for 2021, which will ensure the service continues. After that, however, we will not know where we are. We have an opportunity over the next 12 months to ensure a proper service level agreement is put in place for three or five years, as would be the norm, to ensure the current level of service is maintained.
One of the key roles the local authority veterinary service carries out relates to small abattoirs and food production companies that use meat as one of their core elements. The local authority veterinary service has to carry out inspections of these premises and ensure all the regulations are adhered to. If the service were to withdrawn, it would throw all these businesses into crisis. I mentioned this a few weeks ago and the Ceann Comhairle remarked that the Christmas turkeys could be in danger if the service were withdrawn. That is exactly what the county vets do. The people who produce turkeys, including small producers of a couple of hundred turkeys, must have the local county vet come to inspect and ensure everything is done properly. It is a vital service. Its role expanded in recent years as small food start-up companies are often referred to the local veterinary service and these vets then go out and work with them. The local enterprise offices, LEOs, in many local authorities work closely with the local vet to develop small businesses in the food sector.
This is a vital service. It is a retrograde step that this dispute went so close to the line that the service was about to be withdrawn entirely coming up to Christmas. We have a stay on that for 12 months and there is an opportunity to ensure the service is bedded down properly and made sustainable into the future through a three-year or five-year contract that would guarantee the service. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for that and I thank my colleague, Deputy Kenny, for raising this issue of funding of the local authority veterinary service. I know how important these services are in our local areas and the work they do. The FSAI is the competent authority with overall responsibility for the enforcement of food safety legislation in Ireland. Enforcement is managed through service contracts between the FSAI and a number of official agencies, including the local authorities, as the Deputy said. Local authorities are responsible for food law enforcement at over 500 small food businesses, including small meat processing plants and more than 170 slaughterhouses. Activities undertaken by the local authority veterinary services, LAVS, on behalf of the FSAI under the service contracts are legally required under EU food law.
County veterinary officers also perform a range of other functions and services such as the enforcement of animal health and welfare legislation at slaughterhouses, on-farm emergency slaughter and verification of competence to slaughter by plant operatives. They also have statutory responsibility in relation to dog and horse controls, dog licensing and the regulation of dog-breeding establishments.
The FSAI and the County and City Management Association, CCMA, on behalf of the local authorities, have been engaging for some time regarding the funding and effective delivery of the FSAI service contract. Both parties have agreed to work together to introduce a new, more efficient model of service. The local authorities are seeking additional funding for 2021, which is expected to be reduced, with the introduction of the new service model. The annual funding provided by the Department of Health to the FSAI is inclusive of funding to the local authority service contracts and, while funded by the Department, the FSAI is independent in the exercise of its functions. Notwithstanding the need for a more efficient model of services, additional funding is being made available by my Department to the FSAI in respect of LAVS service contracts for 2021 to provide stability to the service and the businesses which would have been impacted by the cessation of the local authority service contracts, which was being proposed by the CCMA for the end of November 2020. The FSAI is working closely with all parties to ensure a system of food safety controls is in place in local authority supervised premises from 1 December 2020. In this regard, I have been advised that the FSAI has in recent days had positive engagement with the CCMA regarding the extension of the current service contracts.
I thank the Minister. I was aware of most of what was in his statement and the proposals to upgrade and modernise the system to ensure that efficiencies can be brought in all seem well and good but we want to make sure that does not mean a reduction in the funding the veterinary services receive. Those kinds of terms are often a cover for a reduction in funding and we would be concerned about that.
We are also conscious that we are facing Brexit and everyone knows that the amount of food that we import and export within the island, North and South, and across to Britain, will be impacted if we do not get the kind of Brexit deal that we want. It is looking increasingly as if that is going to run into more difficulty. This service would absolutely have to step into the breach if that were to happen and it is vital for us to have a sustainable future and pathway laid down to ensure that will happen.
The Minister mentioned issues around animal welfare and all of that. Vital services are provided by the local authority veterinary services on the ground. For many people when they have a problem in an area with stray animals or whatever, the veterinary service is the first port of call. They provide a vital service in that respect.
The Minister raised the issue of the sustainability of services and the fact that business would be impacted by their cessation. To allow the service to arrive at the level where it was only a couple of weeks away from being withdrawn was a mistake that has undermined a lot of trust among the service providers here. There needs to be a re-establishment of that over the next year while we have this interim arrangement in place. I invite the Minister to inform the Dáil that a long-term contract will be put in place to make this sustainable for the next five years because that is what needs to happen so that local authorities know they are on solid ground and will get the money they need to develop a service the way they need to and that it will be in place come what may, Brexit or otherwise.
I again thank the Deputy for raising the issue of funding for local authority veterinary services. As I said, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, and the County and City Management Association, CCMA, have been engaging for some time on the official food controls carried out by the local authority veterinary service under service contracts with the FSAI. It is accepted that the service model required review and the FSAI and CCMA, on behalf of the local authorities, have been in discussion over a new model to reform the service.
The FSAI has provided an increase in funding for 2020 and notwithstanding the work that is to be done to address the current service model's inefficiencies, it has offered further additional funding to the CCMA in respect of 2021, subject to a number of conditions.
On 28 October 2020, the CCMA agreed to the FSAI's offer of additional funding and associated conditions. The FSAI will now send contracts to the local authorities with a view to having them in place by 1 December. It is important to emphasise again that the current service model requires improvement and the FSAI needs to assure itself that the service and funding levels are appropriate and that the service provides value for money and fulfils EU obligations in an appropriate manner.
I welcome the fact that there has been positive engagement with the CCMA regarding the extension of the current service contracts and I am confident that the FSAI and the CCMA will work constructively together to ensure that a new service contract model is developed in 2021.
Deputy Martin Kenny has rightly outlined the wide range of services that are provided. I hope that when level 5 lockdown ends in the next few weeks, the Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Kenny and I can find a locally-sourced turkey and share it for a dinner shortly before Christmas, perhaps with some other accoutrements.