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THE consultation document issued by Defra this week on a Legislative Reform Order (LRO) to amend the Veterinary Surgeons Act is welcome and, in legislative terms, represents the first tangible result of a debate on updating the Veterinary Surgeons Act that has been going on for at least a decade.
The proposal relates specifically to the profession's disciplinary machinery, and the consultation document states the case for updating this fairly bluntly. As it explains, ‘The RCVS governs the veterinary profession through its Council and system of committees. This includes the two statutory committees that deal with disciplinary proceedings – the Preliminary Investigation Committee (PIC) and Disciplinary Committee (DC). RCVS Council both sets the standards for the profession and, through these statutory committees, deals with any possible breaches of those standards, thus there is an overlap of functions. This system is now considered to be inflexible, insufficiently impartial and out of date when compared to the “best practice” seen in other comparable professions. The proposed amendment to the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 will separate this overlap of functions thus reflecting better the role of RCVS in balancing public and professional interests.’ It also notes that the current legislation restricts the size of the committees, making it difficult for them to manage the caseload, ‘a situation which is unsustainable for the future.’
The current situation does not reflect any unwillingness on the part of the RCVS to bring its disciplinary procedures up to date; indeed, it has been pressing for changes to its disciplinary structure and wider reform of the Veterinary Surgeons Act for some time. It has also worked hard to update the procedures as far as possible within the constraints of the existing Act. The difficulty has been that the 1966 Act specifically states that the PIC and the DC should be made up of members of the RCVS Council. This makes it impossible to avoid an overlap of functions in terms of setting standards and dealing with breaches of standards, and it is this situation that the proposed LRO aims to rectify.
The proposal for updating the disciplinary machinery, which is supported by the BVA, was developed by the RCVS in 2009, when, after discussions that had extended over several years, it became clear that a complete overhaul of the Veterinary Surgeons Act was unlikely. Between 2004 and 2008, the RCVS devoted much energy to developing an ambitious set of proposals on how veterinary activity might be regulated in the future. However, those plans were effectively derailed in March 2008 when, during an inquiry by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) into whether a new Veterinary Surgeons Act was needed, Defra announced that, contrary to what it had indicated previously, it did not plan to update the Act in the immediate future (VR, March 8, 2008, vol 162, p 289).
In its subsequent report of its inquiry, 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 might be required of a new Act, it was also critical of the veterinary profession, urging it to ‘iron out its differences’ on what new legislation should aim to achieve. While noting that a complete overhaul of the Veterinary Surgeons Act in the near future was unlikely, the EFRACom argued that the need to update the profession's disciplinary machinery was more pressing. The RCVS subsequently withdrew its complex package of proposals for overhauling the Act, and the current proposal to change the disciplinary machinery by means of an LRO would seem to be a pragmatic and logical response to the EFRACom's recommendations (VR, December 5, 2009, vol 165, p 669).
If, as is to be hoped, the current proposal is supported, the question arises as to whether the debate will stop there. The answer to that question is probably not. While it agrees that aspects of the 1966 Act need updating, the BVA believes that in general terms it is working well and that such changes as are necessary can be achieved by amending the Act rather than replacing it. However, as Defra points out in its consultation document, discussions on wider reform continue and, in a separate exercise, the RCVS has been invited by the Government to prepare proposals recommending changes to the Act to include provisions for other providers of veterinary services such as veterinary nurses and technicians – a process, it adds, which is likely to take several years to complete. Debate on how best to achieve this is likely to continue for some time yet but it would seem important that the veterinary profession agrees a common position, bearing in mind the comments of the EFRACom in 2008 and the fact that it is not just the veterinary profession that will be interested in the outcome.