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Regulating ‘the veterinary team’

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THE Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ proposals on what might be included in a new Veterinary Surgeons Act have come a long way since it first consulted members on the issue in February 2003. Its latest consultation document, which was sent out to members and listed veterinary nurses at the end of last month, shows just how much its ideas have changed.

The development of the proposals has been well documented in these pages: the most significant aspect was a decision by RCVS Council in March 2004 that a new Veterinary Surgeons Act should provide for ‘the regulation of the training and conduct of veterinary nurses and other occupations providing veterinary services’ as well as veterinary surgeons (VR,March 13, 2004, vol 154, p 313). The Council reaffirmed this position in March this year, committing the College to seeking a broader regulatory approach (VR,March 12, 2005, vol 156, p 329). The consultation document explains the reasoning behind its proposals on a new Act, and clearly describes the regulatory structure it has in mind.

The College’s aim is ‘to strengthen veterinary self-regulation so that [it] can be confident that [it is] protecting the welfare of animals and the interests of the public’. Public expectations, like the profession itself, have changed in the 40 years since the existing Act was introduced, as have ideas about the regulation of professions generally. The consultation document notes that, under the existing Act, it is difficult to bring professional conduct arrangements up to date in the light of human rights legislation, or to respond to current expectations. It also draws attention to criticisms of the regulatory mechanisms in other professions, most recently by the Shipman inquiry on regulation of the medical profession (VR, January 29, 2005, vol 156, p 153). There has been less pressure for change on the veterinary profession but, by ensuring that processes are more ‘open, transparent and acceptable’, the College hopes to pre-empt any difficulties. It is still not clear when the Government might choose to proceed with new legislation, but the College wants to be ready when it does.

The RCVS considers that anyone providing veterinary services should be competent and accountable for their actions. In seeking regulation of the whole ‘veterinary team’, it sees advantages in all of these groups being regulated side by side, and setting their own standards, with a common port of call for inquiries and complaints from members of the public.

Under the regulatory structure proposed, an RCVS Council would set standards for entry to the veterinary profession and make rules for ensuring continuing competence and good professional conduct among veterinary surgeons, in much the same way as at present. Sitting alongside this would be a veterinary nurses’ council,which would perform a similar role for veterinary nurses.Another council, or perhaps councils,would perform an equivalent role for other groups providing veterinary services.

Monitoring compliance with standards for all of the professional groups involved would be the responsibility of a separate board, which would also investigate complaints against individual practitioners. In cases where preliminary investigation of a complaint indicated that there was a case to answer, the board would refer the case for adjudication by an independent tribunal. It is proposed that the board and the tribunal, which the College suggests could be called the Conduct and Competence Committee,would have a wider range of powers to deal with complaints than is available under current legislation, both in investigating complaints and imposing sanctions.

The precise composition of the councils is a matter for debate, but the College envisages that they would be made up of elected and appointed members of the relevant profession along with lay members to represent the viewpoint of users and the public; there would also be cross-representation between the councils, to help communication between them. In the case of the RCVS Council, it suggests that this might include 12 elected and seven appointed veterinary surgeons, eight lay members and three members appointed by the other councils. The board would be made up of lay members and members of the relevant professions,with no one group predominating. To ensure effective coordination, it is suggested that a further, joint committee should be established, to debate strategy for standard setting and to make decisions on practice standards. All of these bodies would be supported by a common administrative structure,with shared staff and accommodation.

Other matters considered in the document include the definition of veterinary surgery and licences to practise. On practice standards, the College envisages that the new legislation would give power to establish a statutory counterpart to the current, voluntary scheme.

The College’s proposals are clearly ambitious, and need to be considered carefully, both in principle and in terms of the practical implications. The consultation document (also available at www.rcvs.org.uk) is essential reading for veterinary surgeons, and it is to be hoped that as many as possible respond to the request for comments by August 1. The BVA has developed its own set of principles on the role of the veterinary surgeon and what is required of regulation; these will be used in formulating its response to the College and also to the Government as and when it decides to move forward. Responsibility for drafting new legislation will lie with DEFRA and, once a Bill is introduced into Parliament, all bets as to the final outcome are off. The veterinary profession needs to have its own clear vision of the future so that it can present a strong case when the debate really begins in earnest.

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