Veterinary & Para-Veterinary Professions Amendment Bill [B25-2012]: Public hearings

Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development

13 August 2012
Chairperson: Mr M Johnson (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee noted that three written submissions were received on the Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Amendment Bill, but only the South African Veterinary Association (SAVA) and Council (SAVC) made oral submissions, although the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) contributed its responses to questions. The SAVA fully supported the proposals to introduce compulsory community service for newly qualified veterinary graduates, and professionals in private practice pledged their support to students by offering expertise, mentoring abilities and facilities. SAVA would encourage public-private partnerships in order to ensure the effective implementation of community service. It also emphasised the importance of the amendments to boost the appointment and powers of inspection officers. However, in response to questions on the timing, SAVA said that it was important not to rush the issue, and to have proper plans in place. Members took up this issue and asked when exactly it was intended that the programme start, and suggested that SAVA and DAFF must together draw up plans, and include current students in the planning process. They further insisted that whatever agreements were reached should be embodied in written Memorandums of Understanding. They asked for more detail on how the proposed community service would be implemented, the cost implications, and whether there were likely to be other implications that may not have been foreseen when the legislation was first drafted. DAFF assured the Committee that it would organise forums to deal with operational matters of the community service programme, and the range of consultation and agreements on public private partnerships, as well as an example of one partnership that was already successfully operating, was outlined. Members asked what the intake and output of the universities was, asked how many veterinarians were likely to be needed, and noted that a national forum would deal with general, over-arching veterinary issues, but multiple provincial and regional forums would address area-specific concerns, whilst it was important also to offer support to those under community service.

Members briefly discussed a written submission from Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching (OSCAP) that called for the suspension of licenses of veterinarians implicated in rhino poaching. SAVA and the State Law Advisors explained that the proposal to amend the appointment and power of inspection officers would give further powers to the inspection officers to assist with prosecution of veterinarians who, for instance, prescribed anaesthetic drugs for professional poachers, and to remove their licences. The Committee would vote on the Bill on 21 August.

Meeting report

Veterinary & Para-Veterinary Professions Amendment Bill public hearing
The Chairperson said that the public hearings and call for submissions on the Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Amendment Bill (the Bill) had been advertised in two daily and two weekly newspapers, including English and Afrikaans publications. Only three parties had submitted submissions, and only the South African Veterinary Association (SAVA) was represented at the meeting. For this reason, the hearing scheduled for the following day had been cancelled.

SAVA submission
Dr Riaan du Preez, President, SAVA, said his submission was very short and had two areas of emphasis. Firstly, he noted that the proposal to introduce compulsory community service for newly qualified veterinary graduates was fully supported by SAVA. SAVA members, and professionals from the private veterinary fraternity, were prepared to assist students by offering them their expertise, mentoring abilities and facilities. SAVA would encourage public-private partnerships in order to ensure the effective implementation of community service. Secondly, SAVA wished to emphasise the importance of the amendments around the appointment and powers of inspection officers.

DIscussion
Ms M Phaliso (ANC) asked whether SAVA was concerned of any issues that the Committee needed to know about.

Ms A Steyn (DA) said it was important that discussions took place between the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and SAVA. Whilst she was not sure who should be responsible for facilitating this, she did feel that DAFF and SAVA should draw up a plan, and it was also important that students were included in the planning process. She asked what process would follow the passing of the Bill, and asked if DAFF had considered any specific time frames for the implementation of the amendments.

The Chairperson acknowledged the validity of Ms Steyn’s concern about the timing of implementation. He asked DAFF to comment on the public-private partnerships, as anticipated by SAVA.

Dr du Preez responded that there was too little time to implement the community service programme by 2013, and sounded a note of caution that the plans should be properly thought out and not implemented with undue haste. DAFF had, since 2007, been in consultation with a specialist group, the Large Animal Health and Production Group, to discuss the possibility of public-private partnerships. He mentioned that private veterinary practitioners in the Northern Cape had already formed partnerships with the North West Department of Agriculture. He said that the existing partnership would be used as a model to plan for future partnerships in other areas of the country. He said the South African Veterinary Council (SAVC) was in a better position to comment on the time frame and process of implementing the proposed amendments.

Dr Botlhe Modisane, Chief Director: Animal Production and Health, DAFF, said it was intended that newly qualified graduates would perform community service, in areas with proper facilities, to ensure that future veterinary conduct was professional and in accordance with the Act. He said it was important that students were not placed in risky areas where their lives would be in danger. DAFF would make provision for rental allowances so that students could find themselves safe and reliable accommodation. He said that, during their year of compulsory community service, students should be gainfully employed and thus given the opportunity to continuously develop themselves and further their knowledge of veterinary practices. In instances where students were placed in remote areas, such as Bray in the North West, it was important that students did not feel isolated, so it was important to have proper communication structures in place and DAFF should ensure that students in remote areas had access to telephones, technology, mentors and other expertise.

Mr Barry Beukes, Legal Advisor, DAFF, said that currently, if the SAVC received a compliant about a particular veterinarian, it may be that it did not have enough evidence or information to properly deal with the complaint. The insertion of a new section 31A in the principal Act would extend the mandate of investigating officers to achieve the objectives of the Act, and establish the facts required to carry out an effective investigation.

Dr Rebone Moerane, President, SAVC, said that since the start of consultations, there had been agreement amongst various stakeholders on establishing a forum to deal with the planning and logistical issues of the community service programme. He amplified on the remarks about investigation of complaints, saying that the SAVC currently called for an affidavit from the complainant and veterinarian. SAVC relied on its relationships with the National Prosecuting Authority, the South African Police Service, and the Registrar of Medicines for assistance with investigations. DAFF and SAVC had engaged with all bodies that formed part of the Inspectorate during regular workshops.

Ms Steyn reiterated that it was important that students were able to participate in the forum.

Ms Steyn asked how the costs for inspection work would be funded.

Mr S Abram (ANC) noted that to date, the processes for this Bill appeared to have gone very smoothly and hoped that no unintended consequences would come to light after the Bill was passed. He asked whether there was formal agreement amongst all stakeholders on the structure or framework of the forum. He said that SAVA’s proposal of public-private partnerships was a very noble concept, but he warned that the state might not be willing to make use of private veterinary expertise. He asked whether there was a written Memorandum of Understanding that outlined how the availability of private expertise would be structured. He urged DAFF and the SAVC to make absolutely sure that they were satisfied with each and every provision of the Bill, pointing out that the omission of one word could give a clause a completely different connotation. Finally, he warned that verbal agreements between DAFF and the veterinary fraternity were insufficient, and said any arrangements should be reduced to writing.

Dr du Preez responded that all drafts of the Bill had been circulated among all SAVA members, at least six times, and SAVA members were satisfied with the content of the Bill. He agreed with Mr Abram that all agreements between DAFF, the SAVC and SAVA should be written into Memorandums of Understanding.

Dr du Preez noted that there were about 1 000 private veterinarians in South Africa, of whom 200 were located in rural areas. The majority of these 200 were between the ages of 50 and 56, and this meant that if nothing was done, within the next 15 years there would be a shortage of private veterinarians in these areas. The private veterinary fraternity thus had an interest in encouraging public-private partnerships as this would allow veterinarians in the state service to be mentored and guided in their early working years, to equip them later to take over the private practices in rural areas.

Dr Modisane responded that DAFF had considered any possible unintended consequences, in particular the possibility that students might attempt to evade compulsory community service by deciding to practise abroad. SAVC would refuse to issue a letter of consent for students who left the country before completing their community service. DAFF had learnt much from discussions with the Department of Health, who had previously implemented a compulsory community service programme for all newly qualified medical students. He expressed his appreciation for the support of the private sector and other departments. He said that even though many students, through lack of understanding, regarded the work of the state veterinary services as boring, they might wish to remain in the state service, in which case budgetary constraints might arise. This was the one possible consequence to consider.

Ms Steyn said that students should be told, from the outset, that their participation in community service would not be regarded as a long-term position, and that after one year they would be free to apply for a job anywhere else. She said it would be a challenge to find people who were willing to be deployed in remote, rural areas, especially if they had children and there were few schools available.

Dr Tembile Songabe, Director: Veterinary Public Health, DAFF, responded to the query as to what the DAFF envisaged should happen next. A feasibility study into the implementation of a compulsory community service programme had been conducted in 2007. The study had involved all possible stakeholders, who had agreed unanimously that the implementation of the programme would require certain infrastructure, finances, organisational management, and support systems. The feasibility study report suggested the appointment of an operational committee, consisting of all relevant government role players, to deal with day-to-day issues. The report also found that there was a need to establish a general forum that would allow all stakeholders to make input into the planning of the compulsory community service programme. Finally, the report highlighted that effective implementation would require a network of administrators at grass-roots level to monitor and evaluate the impact of the service.

Dr Songabe added that once the Bill was passed and signed into law, DAFF would need a minimum of 90 days for a second, formal round of consultations with students, to discuss draft regulations. The next step would be to decide where students should be deployed and what the accommodation arrangements should be. DAFF would have to send officials to inspect the areas, and sufficient time must be allowed not only for this process, but to allow students to settle their other personal commitments and external bursary requirements.

Ms N Twala (ANC) asked whether the compulsory community service forum would be structured according to a particular standard. 

The Chairperson noted that the Bill mentioned citizenship or permanent residency, in the case of foreign veterinarians, and asked if DAFF had consulted with the Department of Home Affairs on this matter.

Ms Shikshah Dowlath-Singh, Director: Legal Affairs, SAVC, said the Bill was aligned with the Immigration Act, to allow foreign veterinary practitioners to work in South Africa without having to forfeit their foreign citizenship.

Ms Steyn asked exactly when it was anticipated that community service begin, and asked for clarity whether the group of students graduating at the end of 2013 would be required to do this community service.

Mr B Bhanga (COPE) said that students in 2014 would find themselves in difficulties if DAFF had not settled all the outstanding areas around planning and budgeting. He felt that a clear and well-structured plan must be in place before the legislation was passed. He asked how many veterinarians were needed in South Africa per year. He also asked how the output from the various veterinary institutions reflected the demographics of the country.  

Dr Moerane said it was unfortunate that representatives from the universities were not present to expand on that, but he understood that the universities’ intake of students was based on specific selection criteria that complied with Constitutional requirements, and that SAVC was satisfied with those, which could be accessed from the various university websites. He said it was intended that the scheme be implemented from 2014 although unforeseen issues could delay this. Regulations had already been drafted, but could only be finalised after receiving all stakeholders’ comments. DAFF had received R100 million in funding from National Treasury to pay for primary animal healthcare and to help boost newly qualified veterinarians in rural areas. As far as the SAVC was concerned, it was self-funding and relied on the fees charged to its members, and these had recently been increased to provide for the extra funding that would be needed for the new inspectorate.

Dr Boitshoko Ntshabele, Director: Food Safety & Quality Assurance, DAFF, said that it was almost inevitable that bureaucratic government processes could complicate the implementation of the community service programme. He agreed that public-private partnerships were very important, and he urged the SAVC and SAVA to encourage cooperation between private veterinary practitioners and DAFF.

Ms Twala asked for clarity on the nature of the compulsory community service forum, questioning if there would be a national body that functioned in a standardised way, or whether each community would have its own forum that dealt with area-specific issues.

Dr Songabe said that it was intended that the compulsory community service forum should function according to a national standard, to make it fair for all veterinary students across the country. This national forum would deal with general, over-arching issues that pertained to the veterinary service as a whole. In addition to the national forum, however, it would be necessary to form provincial and regional “sub-forums”, because of the varying nature of priorities across provinces and regions. 

The Chairperson reminded Members of their responsibility to read carefully through the Bill to make sure that all phrasing was in order. He said that even though nobody was present to speak to the two remaining submissions, the Committee should still address the issues raised.

Mr Abram said he shared the concerns expressed in the submission from Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching (OSCAP). OSCAP had proposed that the Bill should include a provision that a veterinarian’s license may be revoked should s/he abuse his or her access to drugs in order to assist with rhino poaching. He asked if current legislation made sufficient provision for veterinarians who were charged with rhino-related crimes.

Dr du Preez responded that to date five veterinarians had been implicated in rhino-related criminal activity. He said SAVA supported the formation of an inspectorate with a broader mandate so that prosecutors could be provided with more detailed evidence. 

Mr Abram said this did not answer his question. He wanted to know whether current legislation provided for the suspension of a veterinarian’s license if s/he was found guilty of a rhino-related crime. 

Dr Moerane expanded that at the moment SAVC was not mandated to interfere with the investigations of prosecutors. However, the amendments proposed by way of this Bill would allow the SAVC to become involved in instances where veterinarians were charged with criminal activity. Those veterinarians who assisted in this activity usually prescribed anesthetics to professional poachers, which was deemed unlawful under the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act.

Mr Monwabisi Nguqu, Senior State Law Adviser, Office of the Chief State Law Advisor, added that section 31(4) of the Act provided that any proof of improper conduct on the part of a veterinarian would be handed over to the SAVC, and if this was amended, the inspectorate of the SAVC would then be mandated to revoke a veterinarian’s licence if it deemed this necessary.

The Chairperson said that officials from DAFF were now aware of what the Committee expected, when legislation was placed before it. The Committee would be voting on the Bill on 21 August, and Members should check the content of the Bill against the provisions of the Act. He thanked SAVA and SAVC for their input, and expressed appreciation for the other written submissions.

The Chairperson reminded Members that the Committee would meet with the Minister on 28 August to further debate the public hearings of June 2011, on the transformation of the fishing sector.

The meeting was adjourned.

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