Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Amendment Bill [B25-12]: Deputy Minister and Departmental briefing

Committee: Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Chairperson: Mr M Johnson (ANC)

Date of Meeting: 31 Jul 2012

Summary

The Portfolio Committee was briefed by the Deputy Minister and Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries on the Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Amendment Bill. Representatives from the South African Veterinary Council (SAVC) were also present in the meeting. One amendment was aimed at introducing compulsory community service for all newly qualified veterinary graduates. The Department was told it had to carefully plan the implementation of the community service programme so that it would encourage student veterinarians to remain in the country. Members urged, and the Deputy Minister undertook to investigate, offering additional allowances to serve as incentive for graduates to work in rural areas. It was noted that qualified students with outstanding tuition fees were to be able to register with the SAVC, in order to earn money to repay their study loans or student fees. Another amendment aimed at extending the mandate of investigating officers of the SAVC, to give it powers to inspect veterinary facilities. Veterinary professionals were to be given the right to appeal any decision taken by the SAVC. A proposed new section 20A(3) would give the Minister the power to exempt any person from performing community service. It was explained that this provision was mainly aimed at attracting skills from abroad, and that exemption would mostly be reserved for foreigners seeking to practice in South Africa. Skills attraction would also be promoted as foreigners would be able to practice as veterinarians without having to surrender their foreign citizenship. Members were curious to know what was being done to attract veterinary graduates to the state veterinary service, as most qualified students tended to go into private practice. They asked about the bursary schemes to accommodate more students in the field of veterinary studies, the current figures of graduates, where training was being offered, and salary structures. Members noted the need for aquaculture specialists to support the planned growth in this area, and asked about the types of work that various practitioners in the veterinary field would undertake. They questioned whether the Bill needed to be brought before Traditional Leaders. It was noted that public hearings on the Bill would be held from 14 to 15 August.


Minutes

Opening announcements
The Chairperson advised that the Committee’s workshop had been rescheduled for the weekend of 14 to 16 September. Public hearings on the Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Amendment Bill would take place on 14 and 15 August. The committee had been invited to attend a workshop presented by the Department of Rural Development and Land Affairs from 10 to 12 August.

He noted an apology from the Acting Director-General of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Mr Peter Thabethe, and numerous members of the committee


Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Amendment Bill: B 25-2012
Dr Pieter Mulder, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, thanked the committee for the opportunity to present the proposed amendments to the Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Act (the Act) of 1982, by way of the Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Amendment Bill (the Bill) and introduced officials from the Department.

Dr Botlhe Modisane, Deputy Director General, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, noted that the South African Veterinary Council (SAVC) oversaw the practices of veterinary and para-veterinary professions, which included animal health technicians and veterinary nurses. The Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Act of 1982, provided for the establishment, powers and functions of the SAVC. The Department’s amendments by way of the Bill would address compulsory community service for newly qualified graduates; the registration of a person who had completed the studies for the relevant qualification, although that had not yet been conferred, the establishment of an appeal committee, the continued registration of foreign veterinarians who attained either citizenship or permanent residency, and the appointment of inspection officers.

He said that in 2006 the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) had performed a study of all veterinary and para-veterinary professions, and held consultations with National Treasury and the Department of Health. In 2009 DAFF had consulted with the State Law Advisors on the Draft Bill and Draft Regulations. The Bill was approved by Cabinet in 2010.

The Bill proposed that the words “from time to time” should be deleted from section 12 of the Act, so that the SAVC would be authorised to establish an ad hoc or standing committee at any time when the need arose. The word “chairman” should be replaced with “chairperson”, to be more sensitive to issues of gender. The Act should also make provision for an appeal procedure so that the decision of an inquiry body could be reviewed by an ad hoc committee appointed by the SAVC, thereby alleviating the Council’s workload.

Dr Modisane said that of the 2 400 trained veterinarians in South Africa, only 215 were working for the State, and very few of them were operating in rural areas. The introduction of compulsory community service aimed to address the lack of state veterinary workers, particularly in rural areas. That compulsory service would also address the after-graduation migration of newly qualified veterinarians.

The Department proposed to amend section 24 of the Act, so that students who were unable to repay outstanding student fees would nonetheless be able to register with the SAVC as veterinary professionals, and thereby earn an income to repay their loans, providing that the academic institution confirmed academic compliance. The Bill also stated that if a person registered three or more years after receiving the academic qualifications, s/he would be required to write and pass the Council’s examination.

The amendment of section 25 of the Act aimed to align this legislation with the Immigration Act, No. 13 of 2002. This would promote access for foreign veterinarians to the South African veterinary industry, as foreigners would be allowed to register with the SAVC and practise in the country by obtaining permanent residency, without having to surrender their foreign citizenship.

The amendment of section 23 of the Act would change the definition of ”veterinary services” to include the diagnosing, treating or preventing of any pathological, as well as physiological, condition in an animal.  

A new section 28A would allow a standing committee to authorize the Registrar to suspend or terminate a person’s registration with the SAVC, after the correct appeal procedure was followed. A new section 29A would authorise officers of the SAVC to inspect or investigate any registered veterinary facilities in order to ensure that all minimum standards of the Council were met. The amendment of section 41 of the Act would allow for penalties to be levied against any person who refused to give the investigating officer access to the facility.  

The amendments to the Act would improve the functioning of the SAVC, as it intended to work in cooperation with various authorities, including the South African Police Services, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Medicines Regulatory Authority, the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Health Professions Council of South Africa and the South African Pharmacy Council. In its current form, the Act did not give the SAVC any control over the unnecessary postponement of hearings or inquiries into the professional conduct of registered veterinarians. The amendment of section 33 would give the Council disciplinary powers to impose a cost order on registered persons, to serve as a deterrent against delays and to improve the turn-around time on investigations.
 
Dr Modisane said that the state law advisors were of the view that it was not necessary to take the Bill through to the National House of Traditional Leaders, since it did not contain provisions pertaining to customary law, customs or traditional communities. DAFF and the SAVC were willing to participate in the public hearings on the Bill, as well to provide the Chairperson and members of the committee with any additional information. DAFF had engaged in expensive consultations with the Department of Health and numerous universities to discuss the challenges of implementing compulsory community service. 

Dr Mulder said that, after lengthy negotiations between DAFF and the SAVC, both bodies had reached consensus on all the proposed amendments as outlined by Dr Modisane.

Dr Rebone Moerane, Chairperson, SAVC, confirmed that the SAVC also agreed with the proposed amendments, and said that he looked forward to finalising this process.


Discussion
The Chairperson expressed concern over the timing of the implementation of the proposed regulations, as well as the state law advisors’ advice that it was not necessary to consult the National House of Traditional Leaders.

Dr Mulder responded that it was already too late for the amendments to be implemented in 2013. Formal implementation would thus only commence in 2014, though some students had indicated that they were willing to do voluntary community service in 2013. DAFF would study and learn from the Department of Health’s community service programme that was put in place for medical doctors. He confirmed that this Bill was tagged as a section 75 Bill, did not impact on provincial structures, and therefore it was unnecessary to consult with the National Council of Provinces. 

Ms A Steyn (DA) asked why graduate veterinarian students struggled to find jobs. She asked how DAFF could ensure that, having served one year of compulsory community service, the graduate had better access to jobs. There was clearly some mismatch since there was a shortage of veterinary skills in South Africa, yet vets were still struggling to find jobs.

Dr Mulder said that after the Department had advertised veterinary positions it noted an increase in the number of queries and responses from applicants. He said there was no way the Department could stop veterinary professionals eventually from leaving the country. However, he was hopeful that the community service would encourage veterinary and para-veterinary workers to commit to working locally and thereafter to settle down in South Africa.   

Dr Modisane said that students generally preferred private practice. Students, mistakenly, thought that working for the state was boring, since they were not aware of the exciting challenges of state veterinary services. He mentioned that the South African Police Services was staffed with only three veterinarians. The community service program had the potential to reverse this lack of capacity.

Ms Steyn noted that the amendment of section 12 stated that an appeal should be lodged in the prescribed manner and time frame, and asked what these would be and how they would be brought to the attention of the public.

Dr Mulder said he was unsure of the technical detail of the appeal process.

Ms Kanteni Nagrah, Head: Legal Services, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said that the appeal process would be prescribed in the Act, and regulations would make provision for the process of appeal.

Ms Steyn was concerned with the revised section 20A(3), which stated that the Minister may exempt a person from performing community service. She asked under what circumstances such a waiver would be permitted, and if students were to be given the opportunity to appeal the Minister’s decision. She wondered what the reaction of students was to this provision.

Dr Mulder responded that as soon as the regulations were finalised, the Minister’s power to waiver would become clear. That waiver would follow “common sense” principles, and the decision of where students were placed would be taken with the aim of accommodating the specific needs of students.

Dr Tembile Songabe, Director: Veterinary Public Health, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, added that the Minister’s power to grant exemption from community service was not necessarily aimed only at South African university graduates. DAFF had included this provision to take account of foreign veterinary practitioners who register with the SAVC. DAFF wanted to encourage foreigners to practice in South Africa, and the exemption would make South Africa’s veterinary industry more attractive to foreigners. The area in which graduates were to placed would be determined by the Minister. DAFF planned to follow the same placement procedure that the Department of Health followed when deploying medical doctors for community service. Graduates would be allowed to list three to five choices, and these would be considered by the Minister although, no student would be guaranteed a place in his or her preferred area. 

Ms Steyn wanted to know what the Department was doing to ensure that people were able to enroll for veterinary studies at university. She asked if there were bursaries available to students who could not afford tuition fees.

Ms Steyn asked whether there currently was any officer in charge of inspecting or investigating veterinary facilities.

Dr Mulder said that in terms of the current Act, the powers of investigating officers were insufficient and therefore the amendment to the Act was of crucial importance.

Dr Moerane said that currently, the SAVC depended on the Registrar, as well as the South African Police Services, to investigate complaints. He said that two years ago, individuals within particular provinces had been assigned the job of evaluating veterinary facilities, but they lacked the power to investigate facilities properly without resistance from veterinary practitioners. Therefore the SAVC needed a strong legal mandate that would allow its officers to perform their investigative duties unhindered.

Ms Steyn asked what was meant by the “physiological condition” of an animal. She wondered if para-veterinarians be trained to treat animals, and asked what other work fell under para-veterinary workers.

Dr Mulder said he was unsure of the meaning of the word, but its inclusion in the Amendment Bill was necessary because of interpretation issues if veterinary and para-veterinary practices were in question.

Dr Modisane said that even though veterinarians and para-veterinarians had separate duties, the intention of the Amendment Bill was not to create a turf war. It was acceptable for an experienced para-veterinarian, such as a cattle farmer, to diagnose an animal that was, for instance pregnant, provided that the diagnosis was not made to falsely increase the value of the animal.
 
Dr Moerane said that under the current Act, the SAVC had the power to evaluate and authorise the skills of any person who was neither a veterinarian nor a para-veterinarian. This mandate was necessary because sometimes there were no veterinarians or para-veterinarians present to diagnose a physiological condition of an animal. The SAVC had consulted various institutions in order to set certain standards that a person would have to meet before s/he would be authorised to perform duties such as physiological diagnoses. 

Ms Steyn asked whether students would have access to assistance, care or mentorship during their year of community service.  

Dr Mulder said this was a very valid point. He said it would be difficult to include all of these provisions in the Act, and added that, if necessary, students would possibly be able to get assistance from senior officials in nearby medical hospitals.

Ms N Phaliso (ANC) asked whether the veterinary professionals would earn a salary during their year of compulsory community service. If not, she questioned what motivation there would be to prevent them from pursuing other career options. She noted that newly qualified veterinarians did not generally want to work in rural areas and wondered if there would be an incentive programme in place, such as allowances or other forms of reward, for those willing to be deployed in rural areas.

Dr Modisane responded that graduate students would receive salaries for their performance of community service, but students who worked in rural areas would not receive additional allowances. Irrespective of where they were placed, all students would receive financially viable remuneration packages, though these would not include extra allowances for cars or cell phones.

Dr Mulder said that prior to 1994, the state had made provision for “Homeland allowances”, which were justifiable because living conditions in rural areas were poorer than in other parts of the country. He said that he would ensure that state veterinarians who worked in rural areas would be able to receive any additional allowances.

Ms N Twala (ANC) mentioned the Department’s plan to develop South Africa’s aquaculture industry in order to ensure food security and job creation. She asked whether there were enough fish veterinarians in the country to help manage the planned growth in this industry, and, if not, how the Department planned to address this challenge.

Mr L Gaehler (UDM) said it was important that the Department consult with the National House of Traditional Leaders on the Amendment Bill, as many of the proposed amendments would impact on rural agriculture.

Dr Mulder agreed that Traditional Leaders should be consulted on the Amendment Bill. He said it would be difficult for DAFF to go out and consult with them in their local councils or villages. He suggested that Traditional Leaders be invited to take part in the upcoming public hearings. 

Mr Monwabisi Nguqu, Senior State Law Advisor, Office of the Chief State Law Advisor, commented further on the tagging of this Bill. It was concerned with regulating veterinary and para-veterinary professions, and thus had nothing to do with customary law or the customs of traditional communities. He said that the
Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Act of 1982 was a matter of national competence, and the National Council of Provinces was thus excluded from discussions on amending the regulations of veterinary professions.

Mr Gaehler repeated an earlier question whether there were bursaries available to students who were unable to afford the cost of veterinary studies.

Dr Modisane said DAFF did award bursaries, to a limited extent. Students were provided with financial assistance based on criteria such as the monthly income of parents. Furthermore, the Department provided subsidies to minimise tuition fees of students who did not qualify for bursaries.

Mr Gaehler said it may prove necessary to consider offering veterinary studies not only at universities, but also at agriculture colleges and Further Education and Training colleges.

Dr Moerane said that the University of Pretoria was the only academic institution that was certified by the SAVC to offer Veterinary Studies. The qualification for para-veterinary professionals was recognised only at North-West University and UNISA. The qualification of veterinary technologies, which referred to persons working in laboratories, was recognised only at the Tshwane University of Technology. There was no institution in South Africa that offered a qualification in Laboratory Animal Technologies, which referred to people in charge of animals used for research. People practicing in this profession had been trained overseas. Any academic institution was welcome to offer training in veterinary skills, but the standards of the curriculum and facilities needed to be in line with the SAVC’s requirements.  

Mr Gaehler asked if the Department had any plans to retain veterinary skills in South Africa.

Dr Mulder said that veterinary skills in South Africa could be retained by using the community service programme, to remind newly qualified veterinarians of local job opportunities. Furthermore, skills could be retained by improving the salaries in state veterinary services.

Mr Gaehler enquired if the Department had ever performed a skills audit to calculate how many veterinarians were needed within a projected time frame.

Dr Mulder was not sure whether a complete skills audit had been conducted, but DAFF was definitely aware of the vacancy rate and no doubt knew how many more skilled veterinary professionals were needed.

Dr Modisane said that no formal skills audit had yet been conducted. However, the result of numerous evaluations showed a lack of fish veterinarian, bee veterinarians and public health veterinary practitioners. He said that an official independent evaluation of the state of South Africa’s Veterinary Services was scheduled for 21October.

Mr Gaehler suggested that a proper skills audit should be focused on a five year projection and should involve various other departmental ministers, including the Minister of Higher Education.  

Dr Songabe reiterated that implementation of the proposed amendments would not start in 2013. Effective implementation required financial commitment for physical infrastructure and operational equipment, as well as a legislative framework. As soon as the Bill was passed, DAFF would attend to matters concerning its implementation, including consulting with students and other stakeholders on operational issues. 

Dr Boitshoko Ntshabele, Director: Food Safety & Quality Assurance, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said that in the past veterinary services were generally provided by the state. This resulted in opportunities being created in rural areas. However, at the moment only older veterinarians remained in rural areas, and if young graduates working in the state veterinary services were placed in these areas, they would, over time, recognise the opportunities for opening a private practice, as economic development progressed in those areas.

Dr Ntshabele also acknowledged that there was a shortage of skilled aquaculture practitioners, but said that negotiations were under way with Rhodes University to introduce undergraduate students to courses in aquaculture.

Dr Mulder said it cost the state R260 000 per annum to train a veterinarian, which was more expensive than the training required for a medical doctor. In light of this, he stressed that it was “selfish” for newly qualified veterinarians to leave the country and practice overseas. 

Dr Songabe said that the implementation of compulsory community service required effective planning and management. He said students would generally view the community service as an extra year of training, and could therefore require assistance and guidance. Part-time professors and supervisors would be appointed for those students who requested mentorship during their year of community service. Support structures would be in place in the state veterinary sector. In the private veterinary sector, each practice would usually have a senior veterinarian to guide or assist interns.

Dr Modisane said that during meetings and consultations, many private veterinary practitioners seemed eager to become involved in the supervision of newly qualified veterinarians during their community service.

Dr Moerane said that if students failed to complete their year of community service, choosing to leave the country and practice as veterinarians overseas, the SAVC would refuse to issue them a letter of consent, and would also not register that person, which would result in him or her not being able to practise overseas. Veterinary students, from their first year of study, were being encouraged to give back to their community by joining the state veterinary service.

Dr Ntshabele said the issue of rural allowances was very problematic. Young graduates could not be seen as earning the same as experienced veterinarians. Skilled veterinarians were a scarce resource, and in order to retain those skills, remuneration had to be equal to experience. At the same time, he recognised the need to encourage and support newly qualified veterinary graduates, and therefore the state should be mindful of the issue of rural allowances.

Ms Steyn asked for clarity on the total number of veterinary and para-veterinary students who graduated each year. She wondered why students were reluctant to work for the state veterinary service, and asked if DAFF offered any programmes like day outings or job shadowing, to introduce students to this career. She asked abut the difference in expected earnings between state and private veterinarians.

Dr Anne de Vos, Vice President, SAVC, said that the University of Pretoria had had extensive consultations with the Ministry of Education on a skills audit. It was difficult to catch up the backlog of qualified veterinarians because it would be undesirable to run into over-production. 

Dr Moerane added that the annual averages for graduates were as follows: 80-125 qualified veterinarians; 110 Animal Health Technicians; 38-42 veterinary nurses; 20 veterinary technologies; and 1 foreign Laboratory Animal Technologist (who had qualified abroad).

Dr Mulder said the reason why newly qualified veterinarians emigrated was not necessarily because of lack of local job opportunities, but higher salaries abroad. However, governments overseas were making it harder for foreigners to enter their job markets.  

Dr Modisane said that the DAFF had been working with the SAVC and certain universities to create awareness amongst students of the state veterinary services. One programme involved an experienced state veterinary practitioner visiting students in the classroom and sharing with them his first hand experience of working for the state veterinary service. Students were also made aware of the legal frameworks surrounding veterinary practices.

Dr Ntshabele added the state veterinary service was still considered less attractive than the private veterinary services. Professionals in the public sector did not regularly get the chance to use their skills in intense operations, and most state veterinarians were more involved in law enforcement, disease control measures and converting veterinary knowledge into policy. All state veterinarians, irrespective of their titles or positions, earned more or less the same salary, and this created a problem since those with more experience felt that they were not appreciated and would leave the industry or move to the private veterinary sector

Dr Moerane noted that he lectured on a course, Professional Life, for which students were enrolled in throughout the entire duration of their studies. The course aimed to train and expose students to the state veterinary services, and taught them to look beyond treatment and to become passionate about community veterinary service. He added that the salary of any veterinarian depended on the economic circumstances. An assistant veterinarian in a private practice may find that s/he earned less than a leading state veterinarian.

Dr Mulder added that DAFF had been discussing the restructuring of state veterinary salaries, and this was still in progress.  

The Chairperson said that advertisements for public submissions on the Amendment Bill had been placed in the Sunday Times, Beeld, Mail & Guardian and City Press. Submissions would be heard on 14 and 15 August, and deliberations on the Bill, as well as its anticipated adoption, were scheduled for 21 August. He urged members to familiarise themselves with the content of the Bill before this time. He looked forward to future engagements with the Department and the SAVC.

The meeting was adjourned.