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Denouement on the Act

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IT doesn't happen very often, but every now and again committee meetings can provide surprisingly good theatre. This is exactly what happened in Parliament this week, during a House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (efracom) hearing on the need for a new Veterinary Surgeons Act. Discussions on a new Act have been going on for some time now, and, as in many good stage plays, the plot has taken a while to unfold. However, the story became a lot clearer during the select committee's hearing on Monday, with a denouement that would do a West End production proud.

It was provided by Lord Rooker, the minister responsible for food, farming and animal health and welfare, during the last oral evidence session of the day. Asked at the start of his session by the efracom's chairman, Mr Michael Jack mp, whether defra was still keen to update the Act, the minister replied, ‘No’. This came as something of a surprise to the committee, and quite a few other people besides, not least because defra had consulted on the need for a new Act as long ago as 2003 (see VR, October 4, 2003, vol 153, pp 409, 410-411) and because, in written evidence to the efracom last September, it had expressed the view that ‘the Veterinary Surgeons Act is in need of urgent updating to bring it in line with modern concepts of professional regulation’. It had also indicated that it planned to draft a White Paper on the subject early in 2008.

Asked to explain the reason for his department's sudden change of heart, the minister replied that it didn't have the resources that would be needed. He acknowledged that parts of the legislation might need upgrading, but emphasised that the opportunity to do this was not going to prevail during the Government's current Comprehensive Spending Review round. defra faced serious financial difficulties, but it was not just a matter of money. It had made several bids for parliamentary time to introduce a new Act, all of which had failed. The department had fewer staff than in 2007, and would have fewer still by the end of 2008, and there just weren't enough people to undertake this ‘massive job’. It would make a bid for resources to update the Act in the next spending review round. However, the minister made clear, ‘Before 2011, there is no prospect of defra starting any work on this.’

It transpired that the decision to shelve plans for new legislation had been made only last week, following a reordering of priorities in defra and the abandonment of various work streams. Although a new Veterinary Surgeons Act was no longer considered a priority, defra still planned some amendments to Schedule 3 of the Act, relating to equine dentistry and its desire to allow people other than vets to undertake tb testing. The minister did not rule out the possibility that some changes to the Act might be made within the next three years by means of a Private Member's Bill in Parliament. However, he indicated that these would have to be narrow in scope and would be unlikely to receive much in the way of material support from defra.

Earlier in the afternoon, the committee had heard evidence from the bva, represented by the Association's President, Mr Nick Blayney, and its president-elect, Mrs Nicky Paull. In answer to questions, they acknowledged that there were shortcomings in the current legislation, particularly with regard to disciplinary procedures and the level of lay representation on rcvs committees, but argued that these could be addressed within the existing Act. They questioned the need for practice standards to be made mandatory, suggesting that it should instead be the subject of professional guidance, and expressed concern about the practicalities of a requirement for professional revalidation, should this be introduced. They pointed out that the number of complaints against members of the profession was not high in relation to the number of animals seen; there was, they said, no evidence that the current Act was not working effectively and, on this basis, the Association was not pushing for change.

Those views are somewhat at odds with those of the rcvs which, both in evidence to the committee and previously, has been pressing for the Act to be revised (see, for example, VR, August 18, 2007, vol 161, p 213).

What happens next — and quite what the efracom will make of it all — remains to be seen. However, the select committee's inquiry has already fulfilled a useful purpose in forcing the Government to make its position clear. defra may have decided to put plans to update the Act on hold for the next three years, but that is unlikely to be the end of the matter and the prospect remains that a production that has tantalised elements of the profession for the past five years could well be revived in the not too distant future. When that happens, the profession needs to be ready, and perhaps in a position to present a more united view than is currently the case. It should also be prepared for the fact that, when defra finally gets round to updating the Act, it may want to make more sweeping changes than the profession itself has envisaged so far. In the meantime, there will be a need to keep an eye out for the proposed amendments to Schedule 3. As they say in theatreland, this one could run and run.

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