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Getting closer on the Act

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PLANS to update the legislation governing the veterinary profession have gone through various permutations in recent years. However, there was a significant change of direction in March last year when, in the middle of an inquiry by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom), Defra suddenly revealed that, contrary to what it had indicated previously, it did not plan to update the legislation in the immediate future.

In its subsequent report, the EFRACom criticised Defra for leaving plans to update the legislation 'in a mess'. However, having heard conflicting views from the RCVS, the BVA and others on what new legislation should aim to achieve, it was also critical of the veterinary profession, urging it to 'iron out its differences' on the changes it felt were needed (VR, May 17, 2008, vol 162, p 634).

Since then, the RCVS has significantly revised its proposals on what it believes is required of new legislation, and has formally withdrawn its original proposals. In July this year, it issued a consultation document seeking views on more limited proposals focusing on three key areas: the disciplinary 'machinery' for the veterinary profession; disciplinary jurisdiction and powers; and the composition of the RCVS Council (VR, August 1, 2009, vol 165, p 123). Its revised proposals aim to introduce more flexibility into the disciplinary process and remove any perception of bias, and provide a regulatory framework that meets modern expectations. The consultation period came to an end this week, and the BVA has submitted comments after consultation with its divisions.

In its response, the BVA welcomes the fact that the Royal College has dropped the more controversial aspects of its earlier proposals and is now seeking comment on a simplified set of proposals, which it generally supports. However, while it accepts that a more flexible disciplinary system is desirable, it says it has seen no evidence of any significant public demand for change; it acknowledges that the current arrangements might be improved, but believes they still suffice to protect the public and the health and welfare of animals.

Regarding the disciplinary arrangements, the RCVS proposes that the Veterinary Surgeons Act should be amended to give the RCVS Council discretion to decide the composition of the Preliminary Investigation and Disciplinary Committees, with the important proviso that the Disciplinary Committee should not include RCVS Council members. The Council would make rules laying down how the two committees would be constituted, which would be subject to approval by the Government. Meanwhile, the disciplinary jurisdiction would be widened to encompass professional conduct, clinical performance, health and criminal convictions relevant to fitness to practise, and the Preliminary Investigation Committee would have the power to dispose of complaints by giving a caution or advice. Following proceedings, the Disciplinary Committee would have the power to give a warning about future conduct or to impose conditions on future practice, rather than being restricted to striking veterinary surgeons off or suspending their registration, as at present.

The BVA largely agrees with most of these proposals, although it believes thought should also be given to the idea that RCVS Council members should not be allowed to sit on the Preliminary Investigation Committee. It believes that the rules governing the Disciplinary Committee and the Preliminary Investigation Committee should be set out at this stage and that there should be adequate veterinary representation on both. It notes that 'fitness to practise' needs to be clearly defined, and that disposal of a complaint by the Preliminary Investigation Committee should remain confidential.

The BVA also agrees that the RCVS Council should be smaller than at present, with no more than 30 members. However, it proposes a different composition for the Council from that outlined in the RCVS consultation document, suggesting that at least 15 of the members should be elected veterinary surgeons. Proposals to change the make-up of the RCVS Council proved contentious when the Council last considered the matter in June (VR, June 13, 2009, vol 164, pp 733, 737-738) and it will be interesting to see whether they are any less so when it revisits the issue at its next meeting in November. Whatever is decided at that meeting, the BVA and the RCVS seem to have moved a long way in 'ironing out' some of their differences since the EFRACom reported in May last year. This is important. Much uncertainty remains about how and when the legislation governing the veterinary profession will be updated, but it will almost certainly happen at some stage. When it does, many others will have an interest in the outcome and the profession itself will need to be in a position to present a clear view of what is required.

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