Dáil Éireann - Volume 605 - 28 June, 2005

Veterinary Practice Bill 2004 [ Seanad ] : Report Stage.

  An Ceann Comhairle:Amendment No. 2 is an alternative to amendment No. 1 and amendments Nos. 3 to 5, inclusive, and 15 are related. Amendments Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, and 15 can be taken together.

  Mr. Naughten:On a point of order, can we get a list of the grouping of amendments as it would be helpful when debating the amendments? It is normal procedure that this list is circulated.

  An Ceann Comhairle:Does the Deputy also wish to take a copy of the list for the information of his colleague?

  Mr. Naughten:I thank the Chair.

  Dr. Upton:I move amendment No. 1:

In page 16, line 6, to delete “who is not eligible to be so registered, but”.

The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that an adequate number of vets will be appointed. Having regard to the number of sub-committees that may exist, it is important to ensure adequate veterinary representation is available to each of them. We discussed this issue at some length on Committee Stage. It is important that account is taken of this amendment to ensure the number of vets required is available to fulfil their role adequately on such various committees.

  Mr. Naughten:I wish to speak to the three amendments in my name and that of Deputy Crawford. Amendment No. 2 questions the reason a veterinarian cannot represent animal welfare groups. I accept the point made by the Minister on Committee Stage that she wants to maintain a balance on the Veterinary Council. She wants to make sure that there are not too many vets on the council. However, I do not understand why the chairperson of the ISPCA — to use the example I gave in this regard on Committee Stage — who traditionally was the person normally appointed to represent animal welfare groups, should be disbarred from representing that organisation on the Veterinary Council sim[511] ply because that person holds a veterinary qualification. That is not satisfactory. I do not believe that there will be too many vets. The legislation should not be prescriptive in that way. I will not go into this amendment in further detail because we articulated this point well on Committee Stage.

We also discussed amendments Nos. 4 and 15 on Committee Stage and the Minister gave a commitment that she would examine the position in this regard. I raise these amendments because for some unknown reason the legislation has been worded as if there is only one institution in the State that provides veterinary qualifications, but that is not the case. The National University of Ireland provides the majority of qualifications here, but HETAC also provides qualifications, and account is not taken of that in the legislation. Members of the Athlone Institute of Technology are extremely annoyed it was not consulted under any guise on this legislation. A significant amount of the legislation directly relates to the institute and it was never consulted. No recognition, whatsoever, has been given to the Athlone institute in the legislation, yet one other institution is implicitly written in, namely, UCD or the National University of Ireland. As I said on Committee Stage, either the NUI should be taken out of the equation or HETAC should be included, for the sake of balance. The legislation has a provision whereby as a default mechanism the NUI nominates members to the Veterinary Council of Ireland. Even at this late stage will the Minister of State consider inserting an amendment, in consultation at least with HETAC, so that at least it has a consultative role as regards this? These are the only two awarding bodies in the country and I cannot see the logic of precluding one of them.

The Minister, Deputy Coughlan, in her response on Committee Stage, said nothing precludes her, as the Minister, from specifying any particular institute of technology, and that is correct. Yet, why does she have to include one body and ignore the other? There are only two relevant institutions in the State and I cannot understand why one of them has to be precluded from the legislation. I ask the Minister of State to seriously consider that argument. HETAC is an awarding body and there is absolutely no mention of it. The representatives on the ground in Athlone Institute of Technology are very aggrieved that they were not consulted as regards this legislation. They feel they deserved to have an input, just like everyone else. What really annoyed them is that implicit in the legislation is one institution while the other is ignored.

  Mr. Browne:I apologise for the absence of the Minister, who is on a trade mission in China.

  Mr. Naughten:I believe it is Russia.

[512]   Dr. Upton:It is Russia.

  Mr. Browne:I am sorry, Russia.

  Mr. Naughten:It is good we are keeping an eye on her, anyway.

  Mr. Browne:Deputies will no doubt be aware that there was considerable discussion about the composition of the council during the passage of the Bill through the Seanad and on Committee Stage in this House. The Minister, Deputy Coughlan, already agreed to adjust the composition of the council to ensure that sufficient veterinary expertise was available, particularly to serve on sub-committees. In order to achieve this, she agreed to an increase of two in the elected veterinary practitioner membership. As regards the amendments being put forward again by Deputies Naughten, Crawford and Upton, the issues concerned were given considerable airing on Committee Stage in this House. As the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, indicated previously, the underlying concerns are already catered for in the Bill as currently formulated.

As regards the welfare constituency which is the subject of two amendments, already there is a critical mass of veterinarians on the council, all of who will, by virtue of their profession, be very mindful of welfare. However, there is also an issue of overall balance involved and I cannot agree to further increase the representation of vets on the council.

As regards consultation with HETAC, the Minister indicated on Committee Stage that this would be examined further. Following this examination we do not believe any change is necessary since the matter of nominating rights beyond the NUI is already catered for in section 16(2) of the Bill. Deputy Naughten instanced a course being run for veterinary nurses in Athlone Institute of Technology, which I understand is in its first year. It would be premature at this stage to include a specific reference to HETAC in the Bill before the course has been accepted by the veterinary council in its role under section 13 as an approver of courses for the purpose of registration. However, if and when this approval is granted, it is likely the Minister will, at that stage, designate HETAC as a nominating body, using her powers under section 16(2) of the Bill.

Deputies Naughten and Crawford, by means of amendment No. 15, also proposed that it be stipulated in section 16(2) that a member of HETAC must be appointed to the council’s education committee. Again, I feel this is premature. However, if in due course a nominee of HETAC is appointed to the council, section 16(2) already provides that the person must be on the education committee. As regards Deputy Upton’s proposal to specify that the dean of the veterinary faculty must be on the council, as the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, has already indicated on Committee Stage, we do not believe it would be appropriate in primary legislation to prescribe [513] whom a nominating body must nominate. This must be left to the nominating body itself.

As regards the nominee of the Minister for Education and Science, the Government remains of the view that it would not be appropriate to remove this person. Matters relating to training and education, including continuing professional development, are among the most important functions being assigned to the council. In so far as the education sphere is concerned a nominee of the Minister and nominees from the education providers are essential and appropriate. We therefore do not accept the amendments for the reasons I have outlined.

  Dr. Upton:As regards amendment No. 5, a very important point was being made in relation to the dean of the faculty of veterinary medicine at UCD. As I have pointed out, it is the only school of veterinary medicine on the island. By tradition the dean holds a very specific role of responsibility within the faculty. It would be appropriate that as the representative of that body of professional veterinarians, and the educators, particularly, the dean of the faculty should be given a position on the council. Traditionally, this role has been held by the faculty of veterinary medicine.

I also take account of what Deputy Naughten said regarding HETAC. While I am promoting the dean of the faculty of veterinary medicine, UCD — I regard this as very important — I accept the role of HETAC, the other awarding body for the veterinary profession, namely veterinary nurses. Some account should be taken, in particular, of that role as well. I accept this is its first year and that awards have not yet been conferred. Nevertheless, HETAC clearly will be the awarding body and it is very important it is recognised in that role and has parity, at least, with the faculty of veterinary medicine for which I am arguing.

  Mr. Naughten:I come back to the issue of HETAC and the significant concerns among veterinary nurses. I do not know the ins and outs of their qualifications or their training. However, staff at the Athlone Institute of Technology are adamant that the core structure that has been approved under HETAC is to a considerably higher standard than what is taking place in the National University of Ireland. I do not know whether that is the case. It would take someone more expert than I am to decide whether that is the position. Perhaps Deputy Upton is in a better position to adjudicate on that. However, be that as it may they feel their qualification could be watered down. The rules governing that and the registration could be watered down because the function of the veterinary council is to set the rules as regards the practice of veterinary nursing. That is one of the council’s first functions and roles. HETAC has put the structures in place and indicated specifically what hurdles have to be crossed by students attending Athlone Institute [514] of Technology to get their qualification. All of a sudden the sands are shifting under that structure.

Those particular students signed up for that course on the basis of meeting specific targets when they would emerge with a specified qualification. There is genuine concern in this regard. There is also concern at Athlone institute level that if the NUI is the only representative as regards the education element of the veterinary council, and that the university in conjunction with the council will set the rules for the future as regards the registration, functions and roles of veterinary nurses, then it will not have a role in that.

Finally, on the Minister of State’s comment that the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, is likely to include HETAC under section 16(2), will he be somewhat more specific and indicate whether she will do it?

  Mr. Browne:On Deputy Upton’s point about the dean of the faculty, it is generally expected that he or she will be appointed. The Minister’s point is that the House should not tell the nominating body who it must appoint, although it is generally expected that the dean will be appointed.

  Mr. Naughten:I am sure one or two individuals from Wexford will also be appointed.

  Mr. Browne:I hope so. While it is good that a new and, I am sure, worthwhile course is being offered at the Athlone Institute of Technology, the Minister is not in a position to approve it. The Veterinary Council of Ireland is the only organisation which can approve a course. However, the Minister has indicated that if and when approval is granted, it is likely that she will designate HETAC as a nominating body using her powers under section 16(2). She stated same on Committee Stage. I anticipate that as soon as the Veterinary Council of Ireland, the only body with power to approve a course, approves the course in Athlone, the Minister will be in a position to consider HETAC as a nominating body.

  Mr. Naughten:With regard to——

  An Ceann Comhairle:Deputy Upton is the only Deputy with a right to speak to the amendment a third time.

  Mr. Naughten:Is that because she moved it?

  An Ceann Comhairle:Yes.

  Mr. Naughten:Do I not have an opportunity to speak to my amendments in the group?

  An Ceann Comhairle:No, the Deputy has an opportunity to speak twice, one long contribution and one contribution of two minutes.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[515] Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.

  Mr. Naughten:I move amendment No. 4:

In page 16, line 16, after “Ireland” to insert “in consultation with H.E.T.A.C.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Amendment No. 5 not moved.

  An Ceann Comhairle:Amendment No. 6 in the names of Deputies Naughten and Crawford arises out of committee proceedings. Amendment No. 7 is related and the amendments may be discussed together by agreement.

  Mr. Naughten:I move amendment No. 6:

In page 37, line 12, after “disease” to insert the following: “which poses a significant threat to animal or human health”.

This brings us back to the issue of the definition of the term “a significant threat to animal or human health”. There is considerable concern that the current wording could give the Minister a blank cheque in terms of the diseases she would designate. Vets are also concerned that the Minister could include in the designation routine procedures carried out as part of an animal health programme.

According to the Minister, the sole purpose of the provision is to deal with significant diseases, for example, class A diseases, but the powers given to the Minister far exceed this specific element. In the Seanad and in committee, she consistently stated that the sole purpose of the provision in both the relevant sections is specifically to deal with serious emergencies arising from class A type diseases or a shortage of veterinarians which requires us to bring in vets from abroad. She consistently cited the example of foot and mouth disease as the reason for introducing the provision. No one, inside or outside the Chamber, would have a difficulty with the provision, provided that this is its sole purpose. The difficulty, however, is that as the legislation stands, any disease can come under this category. The purpose of the amendment is to provide clarity in this regard.

The Minister argued on Committee Stage that she did not want to be restricted if an urgent and significant threat to animal or human health emerged and, therefore, the class A definition might not be appropriate. I accept her argument, which is the reason I tabled these amendments specifically to deal with the types of diseases that would pose a significant threat to animal or human health. They provide a sufficiently broad definition to facilitate the Minister in terms of any potential necessity to apply the provisions, as set out, while also protecting the integrity of the veterinary medicine profession. Given the considerable concern regarding the broad definition in the section, I ask the Minister of State to reconsider and accept the amendment.

[516]   Dr. Upton:I agree with the thrust of Deputy Naughten’s argument. The issue of limited registration has been widely debated and the Minister offered some useful recommendations and advice on the matter. Nevertheless, the veterinary profession is concerned as to what exactly might be implied by the provision for limited registration. For this reason, it is important to specify that the provision would be activated only where a disease poses “a significant threat to human or animal health”. Failure to do so would open the door to interpretation and thereby create an environment in which limited registration could be made available in circumstances that were never intended. The inclusion of the specific wording, “a significant threat to animal or human health”, would remove ambiguity from the provision.

  Mr. Browne:With regard to amendments Nos. 6 and 7, the subject of limited registration has been debated extensively during earlier Stages of passage of the Bill. Although the Minister has explained in depth the rationale for the section, it may be useful to briefly cover it again since there appears to be an underlying concern that the provision could be used as a back door to register unqualified persons in a manner which would undermine the veterinary profession. That is not in any way the intention behind the provision.

The 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, though limited geographically, nonetheless showed the extreme pressure a larger outbreak would place on the veterinary service, both State and private. It must be taken into account that a disease episode could be EU-wide or even hemisphere-wide, meaning that we could not call on practitioners from elsewhere in Europe. In these circumstances, it is no more than prudent to make statutory provision for an exceptional recognition mechanism, which would allow persons with requisite skills, for example, trainee vets from a third country, to be taken in expeditiously to carry out specified tasks determined by the Veterinary Council of Ireland.

Provision is also made under the section to recognise persons who, while eminently qualified in a particular field which would render desirable their presence in, for example, a veterinary college for teaching purposes, would nonetheless not hold a conventional veterinary degree.

The section also contains important safeguards. The Veterinary Council of Ireland must satisfy itself that it is appropriate to activate the provision. The education committee has been designated under section 63 a function to advise the council on the skills and knowledge required. The grounds for limited registration are specified in section 45(2), and section 45(4) provides a basis for attaching conditions, including time, geographic limits and operating under supervision, to a limited registration.

With regard to the specific amendments under consideration and bearing in mind what I have said, it would not be appropriate to limit the pro[517] vision to significant diseases. In any event, the formula contained in section 45(1) gives the council, rather than the Minister, an adequate framework within which to decide when it is appropriate to activate this provision.

  Mr. Naughten:I thank the Minister of State for his response. While I accept his point that the provision contains checks and balances and the Veterinary Council of Ireland ultimately calls the shots in terms of activating the provision, I am at a loss to understand why the amendment is not deemed appropriate. During every Stage in both Houses, Members were told ad nauseam that the provision would apply in the event of an outbreak of a disease such as foot and mouth disease, which poses a significant threat to animal or human health. Any such outbreak may not necessarily involve a class A disease, the definition of which may change at some future date thus requiring amendment. This amendment is well balanced and makes provision for what the Minister wants. I cannot understand why she is not prepared to consider it when it copperfastens everything she said on all Stages.

The Minister made the point about a veterinary teacher. There could be a need for microbiologists if there is another major outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The fair and balanced proposal in the amendment addresses the provision the Minister requires while providing the protection for concerns that have been articulated.

  Dr. Upton:With emerging diseases such as avian flu and familiar diseases like foot and mouth disease, the intention of the Bill is to categorise class A diseases. To include the words “a significant threat to animal or human health”, however, would take any contingency into account. It would clarify the situation while protecting veterinary practitioners in the area of limited registration. There are economic and human and animal health connotations so it is important we specify what we are talking about.

  Mr. Browne:Since the debate in the Seanad, when this issue arose, and on Committee Stage, the Minister has considered the suggestions made by Opposition Deputies. She believes it would be inappropriate to limit the provision of class A disease since a class B or uncategorised disease could pose as great a threat. In terms of the significant threat format, this is more of a policy statement than a legal provision.

There are questions as to who will decide when a significant threat exists and the criteria that will be used to decide it. The Minister feels the existing draft, which reserves the power to activate limited registration to the council, implies the council must assess the situation in light of the conditions prevailing and reach a decision as to whether the other possibility of getting veterinary expertise into the country at short notice is not adequate. The Minister has given considerable thought to the amendments put forward but she [518] still feels the situation is the best way forward and that the VCI would go through the exhaustive conditions before any decision is made.

  Mr. Naughten:The argument does not hold up. The Minister of State made the point about class A and class B diseases. I accepted that and changed the amendment between Committee and Report Stages to redefine the issue. The amendment provides checks and balances and I do not see any difficulty with our wording. It gives rise to concern that it is not acceptable.

Amendment put and declared lost.

  Mr. Naughten:I move amendment No. 7:

In page 37, between lines 14 and 15, to insert the following:

“(12) For the avoidance of doubt, a person who is registered under this section shall not carry out on an animal a treatment or procedure or administer an animal remedy, save in the course of a disease outbreak poses a significant threat to animal or human health.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

  Mr. Naughten:I move amendment No. 8:

In page 41, line 25, after “Minister” to insert “with the approval of Dáil Éireann”.

This amendment comes back to the issue of definitions. There are such wide provisions in this legislation that the Minister could regulate everything bar the kitchen sink if she wished. In the definition of veterinary practice, there are such broad provisions that every Member of the Oireachtas could be defined as a practitioner of veterinary medicine if the majority of the House wanted without any debate. That is the main difficulty I have with it.

The Minister and the profession would be protected if there was a provision requiring the positive approval of the Dáil and referral to a committee. Many Ministers are sympathetic to this sort of provision but for some reason the Minister for Agriculture and Food is not prepared to consider it in this legislation.

Section 53 provides for the Minister to introduce regulations on live animal certification or products of animal origin. The Minister, when Deputy Crawford raised the issue on Committee Stage, said it was not the case but section 53(1) covers what veterinary practitioners can certify. The veterinary profession has a certain degree of influence in the Department of Agriculture of Food and we must ensure checks and balances are in place.

We have teased out the transportation of animals with the Minister on a number of occasions so there is a sensible and practical approach taken that is not stacked in favour of one profession getting its cut of the cake before everyone else. [519] That is why I am concerned about the practice of veterinary medicine. The amendment would mean the Minister would have to bring regulations before the House, thus ensuring any proposals to extend the provisions for veterinary medicine would be debated. Otherwise, it is possible that a Minister could be caught in a bind with the veterinary profession when the issue of certification by vets who want a slice of the cake before allowing these procedures to go through arises.

  Mr. Crawford:I support this amendment. I sat in this House when we agreed regulations with the then Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, and former Deputy Dukes was our spokesperson. Categorical assurances were given that the issues would be brought back to the Chamber within 12 months. Recently, on a debate on the special powers Act, I noted that, on an annual basis, the Oireachtas has an opportunity to discuss its measures. If there are problems with the legislation, we have the right to change it. The regulations in this legislation could have major implications for the future of farming. We must protect the good name of our agricultural produce. However, we cannot protect it at all costs and there is justification for this amendment. These measures must be brought back to the House if and when necessary and not just on a Minister’s whim. I urge the Minister of State to realise it is not in the interest of the Minister for Agriculture and Food to have all matters tied down to regulations. The House has a role to play in determining this.

  Dr. Upton:There are two important elements to this amendment. Precedents already exist in other legislation allowing for this type of amendment to be put in place. It is not as if an unusual provision is being sought. The second element concerns the power given to the Minister. It is true that when dealing with any modification, particularly with regulations, the Minister has the exclusive power to bring in that regulation. This is neither good for the Minister nor the House. Regarding regulations introduced in the past, it is important the opportunity exists to have a full debate on them. It would serve to protect the Minister because of the potential far-reaching consequences of any regulation that may be introduced.

  Mr. Browne:On Committee Stage during which the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, pointed out there is separate legislation in place governing certification by veterinary practitioners, this issue was discussed at some length. This legislation is the European Community (Certification of Animals and Animal Products) Regulation 1999, SI 380/99. Accordingly, the conferring of functions in the certification is not appropriate for this legislation. The purpose of the reference to certification in [520] this Bill is simply to bring it within the legal definition of the practise of veterinary medicines when it is designated to vets. However, the designation of such functions will not be provided for under this legislation and, therefore, the need for the amendment does not arise.

The Minister for Agriculture and Food has no problem with a debate in the House a year after the Bill is enacted. However, it would have to be agreed by the Whips at the time. This is the standard practice in the House.

  Mr. Crawford:It certainly would not work out then.

  Mr. Browne:I am not sure if Deputy Crawford will be the Minister for Agriculture and Food in the foreseeable future.

  Mr. Naughten:He is well on his way.

The Minister of State referred to other secondary legislation. It defies logic that the protection regarding secondary legislation provided for in section 53 is other secondary legislation that can be rubber-stamped through the House. The Minister of State referred to the European Communities (Certification of Animals and Animal Products) Regulation 1999, SI 380/99. In effect, secondary legislation will protect other secondary legislation. That is a pointless argument. It is obvious he has not listened to our argument that checks and balances need to be put in place for the Minister, as much as anyone else.

While he argues that this is the wrong legislation on which to discuss this issue, the amendment states in black and white what vets can certify and it provides that the Minister, through secondary legislation, will make that provision regarding the certification. I do not want a situation in the future where a partnership member, the veterinary practitioners, has an ace card up its sleeve to put pressure on the Minister to act in a particular way. This could also have large ramifications regarding costs that could be introduced under emergency measures. The Minister could argue that due to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, we have no other choice but to introduce these emergency measures.

We know the difficulties some provisions introduced under the definition of emergency measures cause on a day-to-day basis and that they subsequently cause hardship for many. However, these have not been reviewed as there is no provision to debate them on the floor of the House, as Deputy Crawford pointed out. The Minister of State must examine this issue again if he thinks that, just because there is other secondary legislation that goes through on a nod and a wink, we should drop this amendment.

  Mr. Browne:I will bring Deputy Naughten’s viewpoints to the Minister.

  Mr. Naughten:After the Bill is passed.

[521]   Mr. Browne:It will be returned to the Seanad this week. All Ministers are accountable to the House through, for example, parliamentary questions, Private Members’ time and Standing Order 31. There are many ways in which a Minister is accountable to the House. I will point out Deputy Naughten’s concerns to the Minister for Agriculture and Food. She has given consideration to the issues raised on Committee Stage. However, she believes this is the wrong legislation for this amendment.

  Mr. Naughten:The Minister for Agriculture and Food has seriously considered amendments Deputies Crawford, Upton and I have tabled. That is why she has tabled so many amendments on Report Stage, all of which are of a technical nature. That reply does not wash.

This is secondary legislation. The Oireachtas is criticised in the courts and the tribunals of inquiry because it does not scrutinise legislation properly. Whatever criticism we can take on primary legislation, we all accept that secondary legislation basically provides the Minister of the day with a blank cheque to do whatever he or she wishes. We all know that under procedures, it is difficult to tease out issues in secondary legislation. If the Minister signs a regulation next Friday, it will not be discussed in the House until October, with no checks and balances provided. Large measures can be implemented at a particular time. I ask the Minister of State to consider accepting this amendment, particularly in returning to the Seanad on this amendment. It is important that proper checks and balances are in place to protect a Minister and officials as much as everyone else.

  Mr. Crawford:We do not have a later opportunity to discuss legislation passed in this House. I attempted on umpteen occasions to raise matters concerning regulations on foot and mouth disease in the House. When they were introduced, all sides of the House dealt with these regulations in a co-operative manner. However, this co-operation was not appreciated or given fair play afterwards by the Government.

10 o’clock

  Mr. Browne:I will point out the Deputies’ concerns to the Minister for Agriculture and Food. Deputy Naughten stated that the Minister for Agriculture and Food was not listening, but I note that since the Bill was first introduced to the Seanad and its subsequent passage through the Dáil, approximately 104 amendments were taken on board. Some were tabled by the Minister and others by the Opposition.

  Mr. Naughten:I accept that.

  Mr. Browne:Hence, the Minister listened and, in particular, she took into account a number of amendments tabled by Deputies Upton and Naughten. As I stated, major changes have been [522] effected, with 104 amendments since the Bill was first introduced in the Seanad.

Debate adjourned.