A Longford-Westmeath TD has expressed his dismay at a decision taken last year by the Veterinary Council of Ireland (VCI) to change its interpretation of the Veterinary Act.

Labour’s Willie Penrose was speaking at a sitting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine yesterday, Tuesday, May 21, which was hearing from delegates from the VCI.

These delegates were explaining the process by which, in December 2017, the council decided to change its code of conduct, apparently because there was no legal basis for it to regulate the ownership of veterinary practices.

However, around a month later, the council decided to review this decision pending a consultation process. Nonetheless, it is currently permissible for a corporate entity to acquire a veterinary practice.

“I’m absolutely stoned flummoxed about this,” said Penrose.

“You made a decision one day, and a few weeks later, after eating the Christmas dinner, you decided it was unsafe. Something triggered something in somebody to say stall the horse, but the horse was already let out of the stable and was galloping away,” he argued.

He continued: “If you had second thoughts, why was anybody allowed to go ahead and purchase a practice. That doesn’t make sense.”

The delegates for the VCI – president Peadar Ó’Scanaill and registrar Niamh Muldoon – both argued that the legal remit for the council relates specifically to the practice of veterinary medicine, and not the ownership of veterinary practices.

“Some of the stuff you’re saying is utterly unbelievable,” Penrose told the delegates, arguing that the process for making the decision featured no input or consultation – something he said represents a “significant departure”.

“The decision was taken unilaterally, without any input from anyone else, specifically the Oireachtas here, whose job it is to deal with legislative amendments,” he argued.

“You don’t have untrammeled powers to do what you like and disregard the legislative framework, and introduce, in one fell swoop, a system of deregulation,” continued the veteran TD.

VCI president Ó’Scanaill acknowledged that taking the decision in advance of a consultation process was an error, and that it would have been preferable to do this prior to the decision.

Penrose and his Oireachtas colleagues also expressed a number of other concerns relating to how the situation currently stands.

The two most prominent of these were the issues of the discipline and business choices of corporately-owned veterinary practices.

Committee members raised fears that, if the function of the VCI is to regulate the practice of veterinary medicine and to discipline vets who go against established guidelines, this will not serve as a proper disciplinary measure if the (corporately-owned) veterinary establishment cannot be reprimanded itself.

On business choices, members were worried that a corporate practice would focus on the “more profitable” areas of small animals and equine care (pets and horses), and would neglect the area of “larger animals” (which would include most farm animals).