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Back to the drawing board?

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IT IS only a few weeks since the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (efracom) published the results of its inquiry into whether the Veterinary Surgeons Act should be replaced. Many of its recommendations seemed to be directed more towards the veterinary profession than the Government, although the committee certainly had a point when it remarked in its report that defra's decision to ‘walk away’ from work on a White Paper to update the Act — spectacularly announced by Lord Rooker during the course of the inquiry — had left plans to revise the legislation ‘in a mess’. Under parliamentary rules, the Government has another two months before it has to respond to the efracom's recommendations, and it will be interesting to see what it says when it does. In the meantime, the rcvs has started picking up the pieces of its proposals for updating the legislation: at its meeting last week, the rcvs Council decided to establish a new Veterinary Surgeons Act working party, to look afresh at the issues and find a new way forward (see p 768 of this issue).

Quite what that way forward will be is far from certain. defra has made clear that the resources for work on a White Paper on a new Act will not be available until at least 2011, and it remains possible that they may not be available even then. In its report, the efracom criticised defra for having raised expectations that a new Act would be introduced in the near future, only to change its mind, and recommended that, in future, its working relationship with the rcvs should be improved. However, it also criticised the rcvs for not having sorted out the detail of its proposals for reforming the Act and drew attention to a lack of consensus within the profession — including differences of opinion with the bva — on what was required. It urged the veterinary profession to ‘iron out’ its differences and decide what it wants in terms of regulatory reform and suggested that the next three years provided an opportunity to do this. At the same time, however, it saw a ‘pressing need’ to update the disciplinary process, and urged the profession ‘to coalesce’ around some specific proposals to achieve this before 2011. It suggested that change might be possible without wholesale revision of the existing Act; for example, through a Private Members Bill. It also suggested that a working party should be set up between defra, the rcvs and the bva to produce a Bill by the end of the year, for introduction into Parliament in 2009 (see VR, May 17, 2008, vol 162, pp 633, 634).

Commenting on some of the original proposals put forward by the rcvs, the efracom was not convinced by the case for a mandatory practice standards scheme and suggested that, for the present, the College should instead focus its energies on promoting the voluntary scheme. Similarly, it said that the College still had a long way to go to convince the profession of the need for mandatory cpd and professional revalidation. It supported some form of mandatory requirement in principle, but said that the College, together with other bodies in the profession, needed to consider the impact on smaller practices and prepare an analysis of the likely costs. It supported the idea that the veterinary nursing profession should have its own statutory framework for regulation and said that these proposals should be developed further. It pointed out, however, that there was no clear view across the animal care professions about how other paraprofessionals should be regulated, and suggested that more work should be done on a proposal from defra for a risk-based approach to a new ‘veterinary services’ legislative framework.

The remit, composition and name of the new Veterinary Surgeons Act working party to be established by the rcvs have still to be specified. However, at its meeting last week, the rcvs Council agreed that it should go back to first principles to consider what changes are needed to the veterinary regulatory framework and how these might best be achieved, identifying and prioritising changes that can only be achieved through legislation and those that might be implemented on a voluntary basis. Its deliberations should not be confined to the Veterinary Surgeons Act, but should also consider revision of the College's Royal Charter. Having completed this task, the working party could begin to discuss with defra and others possible legislative vehicles that might be used to make changes in both the short and long term.

Neither defra nor the rcvs is obliged to follow the efracom's recommendations. Nevertheless, this is an influential committee and its report gave a clear steer on the direction it thinks the profession should take. Some of its recommendations, such as those concerning practice standards and mandatory cpd and professional revalidation, will require the College to rethink some of its original proposals on future regulation, and this could potentially cause problems for the College, as many of those proposals were interlinked. There is also the difficulty of finding a legislative mechanism for change. For these reasons, one can see why, in establishing a new working party, the College has decided to go back to first principles and look at the issue from scratch. However, it is more than five years since the rcvs initiated discussions on updating the Act. In terms of achieving an appropriate and workable outcome, there may be dangers in broadening the discussion at a stage when the efracom has called for more focus.

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