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PROPOSALS to revise the Veterinary Surgeons Act have been the subject of endless discussion over the past few years, but the latest RCVS consultation document on the subject is brief and to the point. In five short pages, it sets out proposals for amending the Act, as well as giving some historical background and outlining the thinking behind them.*
For various reasons, the scope of the proposals is narrower than in a complex package of proposals adopted by RCVS Council in 2005, which has since been formally withdrawn. Its previous, more ambitious, plans for what might be achieved under a new Act were effectively derailed during last year's inquiry by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom), when Lord Rooker, the minister then responsible for animal health and welfare, suddenly announced that the Government did not intend to devote any resources to updating the Act for at least three years (VR, March 8, 2008, vol 162, p 289).
In its subsequent report of its inquiry, the EFRACom criticised Defra's decision to 'walk away' from work on a new Act, which, it said, had left plans to update the legislation 'in a mess'. It also criticised the veterinary profession which, it said, needed to 'iron out its differences' on what was required of new legislation (VR, May 17, 2008, vol 162, p 634).
Getting the Act amended satisfactorily will not be easy, and the College clearly sees a need to set priorities. Its consultation document focuses on three main aspects: the disciplinary 'machinery' for the veterinary profession; disciplinary jurisdiction and powers; and the composition of the RCVS Council. The proposals were considered by the Council at its meeting in June (VR, June 13, 2009, vol 164, pp 733, 737-738). As agreed at the meeting, the College is now seeking views more widely, and it has invited comments on the proposals by October 21, to help it decide how best to proceed.
Regarding the disciplinary machinery, it is suggested that the 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 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.
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 RCVS Council would be smaller than at present, with no more than 30 members. Between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the Council members would be non-veterinarians, and at least half of the veterinary members would be elected. It would include a veterinary nurse as an appointed member, and one member nominated jointly by the UK universities with recognised veterinary degrees. The power to appoint non-elected members other than the member appointed by the universities would rest with the Government of the day.
Changes along these lines are considered necessary to introduce more flexibility into the disciplinary process and remove any perception of bias, and to provide a regulatory framework that meets modern expectations.
Although it can suggest changes, the RCVS itself does not have the power to change the Veterinary Surgeons Act, nor is it the only body with an interest in the outcome. Various legal mechanisms are available for amending the legislation, but a decision on how and when to act is ultimately a matter for the Government. Proposals could be subject to modification whichever mechanism is used, so the end result is not certain. However, the College clearly believes that the legislation governing the veterinary profession needs updating and, in putting forward a streamlined set of proposals, is working on the principle that this is more likely to happen if the changes proposed are 'clear, simple, uncontentious and obviously desirable'. It would be difficult to argue with that. Nevertheless, some aspects of the proposals proved contentious when the subject was discussed at the last RCVS Council meeting. It will be interesting to see whether this is reflected in responses to the consultation.