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DISCUSSIONS on a new Veterinary Surgeons Act have been rumbling on for more than five years now and as might be expected of such a long-running saga, there have been numerous developments along the way. However, things took a surprising turn in March this year, when the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (efracom) was taking evidence on whether a new Act was needed. Giving evidence, Lord Rooker, the minister responsible for animal health and welfare, told the committee that defra had no immediate plans to update the Act, because it had other priorities and couldn't afford to (VR, March 8, 2008, vol 162, p 289). This came as a surprise to the committee, and many other people besides, because defra had previously indicated that it planned to produce a white paper on the subject early in 2008 and, as recently as September last year, had told the committee that ‘the Veterinary Surgeons Act is in urgent need of updating to bring it in line with modern concepts of professional regulation’.
In the report of its inquiry, which was published this week, the efracom says, rightly, that defra's decision to walk away from work on a white paper has left proposals to revise the Act ‘in a mess’. However, it also finds that the rcvs has not done enough to provide a clear picture of its proposals for a new statutory framework for the regulation of the veterinary profession, and draws attention to a lack of consensus in a number of key areas.
defra has indicated that no funding will be available for work on a white paper until at least 2011, and the efracom suggests that the veterinary profession should use the next three years as an opportunity to decide what it wants of a new Act, and to iron out its internal differences, if it is to influence the shape of future legislation. Meanwhile, it draws attention to a general consensus on a need to update disciplinary procedures. It sees a ‘pressing need’ to do this and urges the profession ‘to coalesce’ around some specific proposals. It believes that change might be possible without wholesale revision of the existing Act, for example through a Private Member's Bill. It suggests that a working party should be set up between defra, the rcvs and the bva to produce a Bill by the end of this year, for introduction into Parliament in 2009.
Discussing regulation of the veterinary profession in general terms, the efracom notes that ‘Not only do veterinary surgeons provide a service to millions of pet owners in the uk, but they also play a valuable role in maintaining the wellbeing of the country's livestock industry and the protection of public and animal health by acting as sentinels against animal disease outbreaks. It is vitally important that the profession meets modern-day standards of quality of service, and has the transparent and accountable disciplinary procedures demanded by the public.’ At the same time, it points out that ‘Any new Act should not overload the profession with unnecessary legislation, but it must safeguard the health and welfare of animals and also protect them, and their owners, from those who offer potentially dangerous treatments without sufficient knowledge or training.’ It will be on achieving the right balance — between under- and over-regulation and ensuring that animals and their owners are protected — that any future legislation will be judged.
Highlighting areas where the rcvs needs to firm up its proposals for a new Act, the committee says that more detail is needed on a new Council structure. It reports general agreement that the veterinary nursing profession has evolved to a stage where it warrants its own statutory framework for regulation and says that these proposals should be developed further. It notes, however, that there is no clear view across the animal care professions on how other paraprofessionals should be regulated. It supports the view that some form of regulation is needed to protect animals and their owners against ‘the depredations of the wholly unqualified practitioners of potentially harmful treatments’, and says that more work needs to be done on a proposal from defra for a risk-based approach to a new ‘veterinary services’ legislative framework.
The committee is not convinced by the rcvs's case for a mandatory practice standards scheme and suggests that, for the present, the College should instead focus its energies on promoting the voluntary scheme. Similarly, it says the College still has a long way to go to convince the profession of the need for mandatory cpd and revalidation. It supports some form of mandatory requirement in principle, but says that the College, together with other bodies in the profession, needs to consider the impact on smaller practices and prepare an analysis of the likely costs.
Under parliamentary rules, the Government has 60 days to respond to the efracom's report. At this stage it is not clear whether it will agree with the recommendations, many of which seem to be directed at the veterinary profession itself. However, the efracom's inquiry has already served a useful purpose in forcing the Government to make its immediate position clear. In the meantime, the efracom has given a clear steer to the veterinary profession on the need to agree on what it wants from new legislation. This will be important not just in practical terms, but also because, when new legislation is finally developed, others might have different ideas on what it should contain.