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One small step for regulation

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IT HAS been a long time coming, but a Legislative Reform Order (LRO) updating the Veterinary Surgeons Act was finally approved by Parliament last month, marking the first tangible result in a debate on updating the Act that has been going on for at least a decade. It is nearly 10 years since Defra launched a public consultation on plans for a new Veterinary Surgeons Act (VR, October 4, 2003, vol 153, pp 410-412) and nearly five years since, in the middle of an inquiry into the subject by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom), Lord Rooker, then a Defra minister, effectively scuppered those plans by pointing out that the time and resources required would not be available (VR, March 8, 2008, vol 162, p 289). In a subsequent report of its inquiry, the EFRACom criticised Defra for leaving plans to update the Act ‘in a mess’. However, while acknowledging that a complete overhaul of the Act was unlikely, it suggested that the need to update the profession's disciplinary process was ‘pressing’ (VR, May 17, 2008, vol 162, pp 633, 634). Things might not have moved as quickly as the EFRACom envisaged at the time but the LRO agreed last month can be seen as a direct consequence of that recommendation and is intended to bring the veterinary profession's disciplinary machinery up to date.

The rationale for the changes was clearly set out by Defra when it consulted on the LRO in January last year (VR, January 21, 2012, vol 170, pp 62, 63). Essentially, the problem has been that the Veterinary Surgeons Act stipulates that the profession's Preliminary Investigation Committee and Disciplinary Committee have to be made up of members of the RCVS Council. Although this reflected regulatory practice when the Act was introduced in 1966, this is no longer the case: in effect, it means that the same body of people is responsible for setting standards for the profession and dealing with possible breaches of those standards, which is not in line with what is currently considered best regulatory practice. The LRO aims to put this right by stipulating that the two committees should be made up of people who are not members of the RCVS Council. It will also allow the RCVS to increase the pool of people able to investigate complaints and sit on disciplinary hearings, which should make it easier for the Royal College to manage its caseload.

The new legislation will come into effect on April 6 and, as a result, after a two-year transition period, members of RCVS Council will not be allowed to sit on either of the two committees. The Preliminary Investigation Committee will consist of no fewer than nine and no more than 15 members, while the Disciplinary Committee will consist of no fewer than 20 and no more than 40 members. For both committees, at least a third of those appointed must be veterinary surgeons, and at least a third must be lay people. The quorum for a meeting of the Preliminary Investigation Committee will be three, one of whom must be a lay person and one a veterinary surgeon, while a quorum for a meeting of the Disciplinary Committee will be five, two of whom must be lay people and two must be veterinary surgeons.

The LRO was widely supported during Defra's consultation exercise and positively approved by both Houses of Parliament. It represents a significant and long-awaited step in the development of veterinary legislation in the UK but it seems unlikely that debate on how veterinary activity should be regulated will stop there. This was reflected in the debate on the LRO in the Grand Committee in the House of Lords last month during which, while in no way detracting from the new legislation, a question was raised about whether Defra had any plans to introduce statutory regulation for veterinary nurses. It is also reflected in ongoing discussions about how best to regulate the activities of others working the veterinary field and, during the debate, reference was also made to a project reviewing how ‘minor acts of veterinary surgery’ should be controlled in the future. The Government's general approach is to take a ‘proportionate, risk-based approach’ to regulation and to find non-legislative solutions where possible, so it will be interesting to see how that particular project progresses. Add to all this continuing discussion within the profession about how the role of the RCVS and its Council should develop now that the LRO has been secured and it looks likely that debate around regulation will continue for some time yet.

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