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Focusing on the Act

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AS IT grapples with foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue, defra probably has other things on its mind than a new Veterinary Surgeons Act. However, the issue could be back on its agenda later this year, as efracom, the parliamentary select committee that keeps an eye on defra's activities, proceeds with an inquiry into whether a new Act is needed. In July, the efracom announced that it would be looking into whether the provisions of the existing Act, which dates back to 1966, were ‘out of step’ with developments in the veterinary and related professions, and whether the Act should be replaced. In particular, it invited evidence on a number of changes that had been proposed by the rcvs, which has been pressing for new legislation for some time. The bva has responded to the efracom's request for comments, after consulting its divisions (see pp 499-500 of this issue). While indicating general support for the rcvs proposals, its submission also draws attention to areas where opinions diverge.

The College's 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, but with a greater proportion of lay representatives; the other would be an autonomous successor to the current Veterinary Nurses Council. Compliance with the standards would be monitored by a separate board, which would receive and investigate complaints, and have the 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 perform the role of the current Disciplinary Committee but would have a wider range of powers.

Veterinary surgeons would need to be registered and also have a licence to practise, with registration indicating that they possess the minimum standards required for entry into the profession, and licensing indicating that they comply with requirements for continuing competence and conduct. On practice standards, the College proposes that legislation should include powers to introduce a mandatory scheme for the licensing and regulation of veterinary practices. Regarding paraprofessionals, it proposes that the legislation should allow veterinary surgeons to delegate appropriate elements of veterinary surgery for animals under their care to people holding qualifications recognised by the rcvs.

In its submission to the efracom, the bva agrees that the disciplinary process needs to include a wider range of sanctions to allow for more flexibility, and that there should be greater lay involvement on rcvs committees to improve transparency. It also supports the idea that veterinary nurses should be regulated alongside veterinary surgeons as an integral part of the veterinary team. However, it has ‘serious reservations’ about a proposal that the Competence and Conduct Committee should have the power to make an interim order suspending a veterinary surgeon pending proceedings, arguing that this could have serious consequences for the veterinary surgeon and others working in the practice on the basis of what could prove to be an unfounded allegation.

The bva supports proposals that the rcvs and the Veterinary Nurses Council should be given powers to make cpd mandatory. However, with regard to revalidation, it is not convinced that a meaningful revalidation process could be implemented. It also says it could not support a proposal that limited the flexibility for veterinary surgeons to work in different specialities.

Like the rcvs, the bva believes that veterinary services should be regulated through a practice standards scheme as well as on an individual basis. However, it does not believe that the practice standards scheme should be mandatory. It would instead favour a form of self-regulation, backed up by disciplinary powers. This, it argues, would be more in line with the Government's policies on deregulation, and ensure best value for the animal-owning public.

In its submission, the bva also draws attention to the risk to animal welfare and public health posed by unregulated groups and individuals who carry out veterinary procedures in contravention to the current Act, and calls for better enforcement of the legislation as it stands. It supports the rcvs proposal that veterinary surgeons should be able to delegate specified procedures to people holding qualifications recognised by the rcvs in the case of animals under their care, provided that there are clear guidelines for doing this.

The efracom has indicated that it will be taking oral evidence on proposals for a new Veterinary Surgeons Act later this year. Its inquiry will not necessarily lead to new legislation (that, ultimately, is for the Government to decide) but, nearly four years after defra indicated that it was looking to update the Act, it could help precipitate new legislation and should at least push the Government into making its position clear. It could also have the effect of widening the debate on what might be required of new legislation, which, so far, has largely been confined within the profession itself. It is still not clear whether the Government will find parliamentary time to update the Act or, if it does, what legislative mechanism it might use. However, if it does decide to proceed, others, too, will want to contribute to the debate, and the profession may have to work hard to ensure a satisfactory outcome.

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