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Taking an interest

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MOST eyes have been on the General Election, but this week also saw the results of voting in another election, of interest to veterinary surgeons, if relatively few others. The results of the election of members to the Council of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (see p 591 of this issue) were announced on Tuesday. The good news is that the number of votes cast was higher than in recent years. At the time of writing, voting in the General Election had still to take place, but the pundits were predicting that ‘voter apathy’ would result in a lower than average turnout. If that turns out to be correct, voting in the Royal College election will have bucked a national trend.

The number voting in the RCVS election was still relatively low: a total of 3591 ballot papers were returned this year, of 19,972 sent out, meaning that only 18 per cent of those eligible to vote actually did so. However, the return was higher than last year, when 15 per cent of members voted, and the best for the past five years. It is to be hoped that the upward trend continues, and that it reflects a growing interest among members of the College in developments that affect them all. This is important at a time when the professions in general are being scrutinised ever more closely, and the veterinary profession faces many challenges.

The Royal College, and the profession as a whole, is currently grappling with a number of issues, and it would be difficult to identify which particular one might have prompted individual members to vote. The new Practice Standards Scheme is one RCVS initiative that has attracted attention in recent months; revised guidance on the requirement to make provision for 24-hour emergency cover is another. Other initiatives, such as proposals to develop a more structured framework for veterinary education and training, incorporating a postgraduate development phase and some form of professional revalidation, are clearly ongoing. Underlying these interrelated initiatives is a concern to ensure that the profession continues to meet the changing expectations of society, and is seen to be managing its affairs effectively. Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the debate over the past couple of years on the possibility of a new Veterinary Surgeons Act, and what it might contain. Discussions on a new Act may seem far removed from the realities of practice, but have far-reaching implications, not just for the veterinary profession itself, but for the way veterinary services are provided in the future.

So far, the Government has not found time to introduce a Bill in Parliament, but what happens after the General Election is anybody’s guess. The RCVS continues to develop proposals in preparation for new legislation, on the grounds that the profession needs to be ready when the Government decides to act. The prospect of a new Veterinary Surgeons Act is sufficient reason in itself for more members to take an interest in the activities of their governing body, and may well have been the issue that prompted some of them to vote.

Attitudes to regulation have changed in recent years, and the debate about a new Act is taking place in a climate in which the systems in place to ensure professional standards are increasingly being called into account. Commenting on regulation in the medical profession, the fifth report of the inquiry into the Shipman murders, for example, went so far as to put the very principle of self-regulation in doubt (see VR, January 29, 2005, vol 156, p 153). In developing its proposals for a new Act, the RCVS is very much aware of these developments, and of calls for greater transparency. Procedures must be clear and effective but, at the same time, must not be so expensive or cumbersome as to be unworkable. Furthermore, following a resolution of its Council in March 2004, reinforced at a further Council meeting earlier this year (see VR, March 12, 2005, vol 156, p 329), the RCVS has determined that a new Act ‘should provide for the regulation of the training and conduct of veterinary nurses and a range of other occupations providing veterinary services’ as well as veterinary surgeons.

The College is currently trying to reconcile these conflicting requirements. The model it is working on would involve separate councils for veterinary surgeons, veterinary nurses and other complementary professionals, each of which would regulate education and establish standards for their respective members. The council for veterinary surgeons would be the RCVS, as created by Charter in 1844, while a legal framework for establishing councils for veterinary nurses and other complementary professionals would be created under the new Act. Enforcement of those standards would be the responsibility of a separate ‘Veterinary Services Board’, which would investigate complaints against individual professionals and arrange for them to be adjudicated. Disciplinary cases would be heard by a Conduct and Competence Committee, which would be appointed by a commission appointed by the board.

The RCVS is currently refining its proposals, and will be consulting with the profession shortly. It remains to be seen whether they will ultimately find favour with the Government. However, given their potential significance, it is to be hoped that voter apathy does not prevail and as many veterinary surgeons as possible respond. The current Act defines the veterinary profession as it exists today, and the effects of any changes could be profound.

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