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Awaiting a new order

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A LEGISLATIVE Reform Order (LRO) was laid before Parliament earlier this week. The document itself was not widely available as this issue of Veterinary Record went to press, so it is difficult to be sure of the exact wording. However, it is called the Draft Legislative Reform (Constitution of Veterinary Surgeons Preliminary Investigation and Disciplinary Committees) Order 2013 and, if both Houses of Parliament give their approval, it will pass into law in 40 days time, bringing about the first change in the structure for regulating veterinary activity in Britain in almost 50 years.

The order is specifically intended to bring the veterinary profession's disciplinary machinery into line with modern regulatory practice and represents the first tangible result in a debate on updating the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 that has going on for well over a decade. The thinking behind it is widely supported and was clearly set out in a consultation document from Defra in January this year. As the consultation document explained, ‘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 This system is now considered to be inflexible, insufficiently impartial and out of date when compared to the “best practice” seen in other comparable professions.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.’ Defra's consultation document also noted that the current legislation restricts the size of the two committees, making it difficult for them to manage their caseload, ‘a situation which is unsustainable for the future’.

The RCVS has been pressing for changes to its disciplinary structure and, indeed, wider reform of the Veterinary Surgeons Act, for some time. It has also worked hard to update the disciplinary procedures as far as possible within the constraints of the existing Act. The difficulty has been that the 1966 Act specifically states that the Preliminary Investigation Committee and the Disciplinary Committee 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 LRO aims to put right.

The debate about how best to update the Veterinary Surgeons Act has a long and convoluted history (see, for example, VR, January 21, 2012, vol 170, p 62) and, in this respect, the LRO can be seen as representing the culmination of many years of effort. However, it is unlikely that the debate will now stop. Discussions are already under way about how the activities of other providers of veterinary services, such as veterinary nurses and technicians, should be regulated, to allow best use of ‘the veterinary team’. In the meantime, as was clear from an RCVS Council meeting last week, the RCVS faces the more immediate challenge of how best to implement the requirements of the LRO in practical terms and to adapt to the changes it will bring about.

This was the first RCVS Council meeting since the appointment of its first chief executive, which, after a difficult year for the College, provided an opportunity for a new start. The Council heard a presentation from the independent chairman of its recently established audit and risk committee, as well as discussing new ways of working. However, although it is still early days, it was clear from the meeting that there are still important decisions to be made about how exactly to make the transition to the new preliminary investigation and disciplinary committees, and in defining the relationship between the RCVS Council and a proposed new executive ‘board’.

At the RCVS annual meeting in July this year, the outgoing president of the College made an impassioned plea for the RCVS to stop navel gazing and focus on the wider professional issues (VR, September 8, 2012, vol 171, pp 236-237). It may, perhaps, be inevitable, but it was clear from some of the discussions at last week's Council meeting that the navel gazing could continue for some time yet.

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