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Developing a new code

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THE RCVS Guide to Professional Conduct not only provides the yardstick by which standards are judged within the profession; it also provides a measure by which the profession is judged by the public. The last time the guide was extensively revised was in 2000, although it has been continuously updated since. The RCVS is now undertaking another overhaul of the guide. It has just produced a draft new version and is inviting comments on this from vets and members of the public (see p 337 of this issue).

This is a substantial overhaul and the proposed changes are not just cosmetic. The most immediately obvious change is in the title, with the draft document being called a ‘Code of Professional Conduct’ rather than a ‘Guide to Professional Conduct’ as at present. This indicates that it is more a set of rules, rather than guidance that members are expected to follow. The code itself is much shorter and simpler than the existing guide, setting out basic principles rather than giving detailed guidance on each and every issue. Much of the additional advice available in the current guide, along with the annexes and separate guidance notes, will still be available when the new code is finalised, but will not form part of the code itself.

Another change concerns the declaration that every veterinary surgeon makes on admission to the RCVS. This has been condensed and reworded to underline the primary importance of animal welfare.

Public expectations and attitudes to professional regulation have changed since the turn of the millennium, and the changes to the style and content of the document are intended to reflect this. One development is that the public has become much more interested in how professions regulate themselves and what they consider to be good conduct, so the proposed new code is intended to help clarify matters for members of the public as well as for vets. It also aims to reflect best practice in other professions.

In drafting the new code, the RCVS took as its starting point a European Code of Conduct developed by the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE). This was adopted in 2008 and established a set of core principles to be applied throughout the EU. The aim of the European code is to facilitate free movement between EU member states and lead to increased trust and confidence in the services offered by vets from other member states, to help in the development of the single European market. While establishing basic principles, the FVE code does not prevent national professional organisations stipulating more detailed rules, provided that these are non-discriminatory, necessary and proportionate.

The proposed RCVS code begins by pointing out that the overarching duty of veterinary surgeons is to ensure the welfare of animals committed to their care and to fulfil their professional duties by maintaining: professional competence; honesty and integrity; independence and impartiality; client confidentiality and trust; and professional accountability. It then sets out a total of 49 responsibilities in six areas – with regard to animals, clients, the profession, the veterinary team or business, the Royal College and the public. One of the aims is that the code should be concise, and use consistent language to distinguish between what must be done and what is advised. This has resulted in the word ‘must’ being used in all but one of the 49 responsibilities listed. The draft code includes most of the responsibilities in the existing guide, albeit in a different way. Among the aims was that it should include a compulsory CPD requirement, the recently agreed RCVS Health Protocol and more on clinical competence, as well as giving more prominence to relevant medicines issues. Although much shorter than the existing guide, it certainly serves to emphasise the wide range of responsibilities that being a vet entails.

The RCVS has asked for comments by June 24; these will help inform a final draft that will then have to be approved by the RCVS Council. There is some irony in the fact that in 2011, as in 2000 when the existing guidance was also felt to have become too cumbersome, the overhaul is again intended to streamline the rules, make them easier to read and allow for guidance to be more readily updated. This does not indicate that the last exercise failed in its aims, but is more a reflection of how much things have moved on.

■ The draft code and details of the consultation are available at www.rcvs.org.uk/codeconsultation

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