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NO-ONE seems to know quite when it will happen but a new Veterinary Surgeons Act still seems likely at some stage. In preparation, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons continues to refine its ideas on what it would like to see in new legislation. It is more than two years now since the Government issued a consultation letter indicating that it intended to update the existing Act, and more than three years since the RCVS first consulted its members on what might be included. Subsequently, the College’s ideas changed significantly, to the extent that it proposed that new legislation should provide for the regulation of the training and conduct not just of veterinary surgeons, but of veterinary nurses and other occupations providing veterinary services. Its proposals were set out in a second consultation document distributed in June last year (see VR, July 9, 2005, vol 157, p 33) and have since been modified in the light of comments. Meanwhile, in the absence of new legislation, it continues to move forward with its plans for the future regulation of the profession making use of the legislation as it stands (see VR, November 12, 2005, vol 157, p 601).
The College’s current proposals for a new Act would extend the regulation of veterinary surgeons, and make veterinary nurses and veterinary practices subject to statutory regulation. There would be separate bodies setting standards for veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses: one would be a smaller version of the current RCVS Council, containing a greater proportion of lay representatives, as well as appointed and elected veterinary surgeons; the other would be an autonomous successor to the current Veterinary Nurses Council. Each council would determine who was entitled to be registered, set fees, keep a register, and issue guidance and make rules for the maintenance of continuing competence and for professional conduct. Compliance with these standards would be monitored by a separate board, which would receive and investigate complaints against individual veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, and enforce mandatory practice standards.
Veterinary surgeons would need to be registered and also have a licence to practise, with registration indicating possession of minimum standards for entry into the profession, and licensing indicating compliance with requirements for continuing competence and conduct.
The College proposes that the legislation should provide for the regulation of others providing veterinary services by giving veterinary surgeons power to delegate appropriate elements of veterinary surgery, for animals under their care, to people holding qualifications recognised by the RCVS. On practice standards, it is proposed that a new Act should include powers to introduce a mandatory scheme for the licensing and regulation of veterinary practices. This, the College believes, is necessary to meet public expectations, and to deal with situations where a complaint against a practice may concern matters that are outside the control of an individual veterinary surgeon.
Regarding disciplinary procedures, the College proposes that, in the case of complaints, there should be powers to require people other than the respondent to disclose information relevant to a preliminary investigation and to draw an adverse inference from a respondent’s failure to answer reasonable requests for information. The proposed board would have power to dispose of complaints by giving a warning or advice. Complaints not disposed of by the board would be adjudicated by an independent Competence and Conduct Committee. This would have a wider range of powers than the current RCVS Disciplinary Committee, including powers to impose conditions on practice by the respondent. In exceptionally serious cases, and subject to safeguards, the committee would have powers to make an interim order suspending a respondent or imposing conditions pending disciplinary proceedings; it is also suggested that, following proceedings, the committee should have powers to suspend a respondent or impose conditions with immediate effect pending an appeal.
The BVA continues to have an input into the discussions at the College through its participation in the RCVS working group on the new Act. In addition, it has set up its own working group to consider the matter and advise both the College and government. Although not actively seeking new legislation, the Association is broadly supportive of the approach being taken by the College to modernise the Act and, in the interests of animal welfare, strongly supports the fundamental principle that new legislation must continue to ensure that acts of veterinary surgery are restricted to licensed veterinary surgeons. While supporting the concept of maintaining professional competence, it is concerned that any form of professional revalidation should not be overly bureaucratic or costly to deliver. It has concerns about the proposal that might allow a veterinary surgeon to be suspended before a disciplinary hearing and believes that it would be more appropriate in such cases to conduct proceedings as a matter of urgency or, better still, to identify factors that might lead to poor conduct as early as possible and take appropriate action to prevent such situations arising. It also has concerns about the proposals relating to the disclosure of information during preliminary investigations.
Discussions on a new Act may seem somewhat removed from the realities of practice but the current Act defines the veterinary profession as it exists in the UK and the effects of any changes will be felt by all. This makes it all the more important that the profession has a clear vision of what it hopes to achieve when the Government decides to proceed.