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Stepping in on the Act

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A DECISION by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (efracom) to undertake an inquiry into the need to replace the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 has again focused attention on this issue. It is getting on for five years now since the rcvs first consulted the profession on proposals for a new Act, with a view to being ready for new legislation should the Government feel it necessary, and almost four years since defra issued a consultation document arguing that the existing Act should be updated. Since then, the College's proposals for new legislation have changed considerably, in the light of both comments received and decisions by its Council. It has also become much more active in seeking new legislation to regulate the profession. This was most recently apparent at the College's agm in July, when its outgoing President, Professor Sheila Crispin, argued strongly that, while the existing Act had served its purpose well, a number of developments, both inside and outside the profession, meant that change was necessary. defra, meanwhile, having issued its consultation document in September 2003, has since been relatively quiet on the issue.

The select committee intends to investigate whether the provisions of the 1966 Act are ‘out of step’ with developments in the veterinary and related professions and, in particular, has invited evidence on a number of the changes proposed by the rcvs (see VR, July 14, 2007, vol 161, p 39).

The College's proposals 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, as well as appointed and elected veterinary surgeons; the other would be an autonomous successor to the current Veterinary Nurses Council. Compliance with those 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. This board would 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 possession of minimum standards for entry into the profession, and licensing indicating compliance 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 give veterinary surgeons power to delegate appropriate elements of veterinary surgery for animals under their care to people holding qualifications recognised by the rcvs.

In her speech to the College's agm last month, Professor Crispin argued that changes along these lines were needed to take account of the Human Rights Act; race and disability discrimination laws; the results of the Shipman inquiry; changes to the regulation of the medical profession and non-medical health care professions; the Freedom of Information Act; and various eu directives. She also drew attention to changes within the profession and changing public expectations, as well as to ‘internal drivers’ relating to the overall regulatory framework, including professional conduct, practice standards and postgraduate learning and training. The key objective of a new Act would be ‘to strengthen veterinary and veterinary nurse regulation, so that we can remain confident that we are protecting the welfare of animals and supporting our veterinary surgeons and nurses in a way that enables the public to be confident of their professional integrity, skills and knowledge’.

At this stage, it is still not clear how keen the Government is on new legislation, and how this fits in with its other priorities. It is also not clear how the College's proposals might sit with the Government's better regulation agenda; in some instances this seems to imply a ‘lighter touch’, whereas in others it seems to mean being more heavy-handed. Further uncertainty surrounds the question of how the Government might choose to introduce new legislation — whether by means of a new Act, which is particularly demanding of parliamentary time, or by other, perhaps more flexible, means.

Both the bva and the rcvs will be submitting evidence to the efracom's inquiry, for which evidence has been invited by September 25, and it seems reasonable to assume that other organisations will want to do so too. As reported at the last bva Council meeting (see VR, July 14, 2007, vol 161, p 43), the bva continues to be involved in discussions with the College while developing its own position on the proposals through its Veterinary Surgeons Act Working Party. The efracom's inquiry may not necessarily lead to new legislation (that, ultimately, will depend on the Government itself). However, it could help to precipitate it and will at least push the Government into making its position clear.

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