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Defining roles

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THE RCVS Council made some pretty significant decisions at its meeting in London earlier this month. Among the matters discussed (see pp 493-496 of this issue), a decision on how to proceed with plans to create a new category of ‘advanced practitioners’ will be of most immediate interest to practising vets. However, the adoption of a new strategic plan and, in particular, a decision by the Council to seek a new Royal Charter for the College could ultimately prove to be more significant in terms of how the profession develops in the future.

The decision to create a new category of advanced practitioners takes forward proposals for a new structure of veterinary specialisation that was agreed by the Council in June last year and, as such, will have implications for all veterinary graduates, whether employers or employees (VR, June 16, 2012, vol 170, p 606; July 14, 2012, vol 171, pp 39-41). Among other things, the new structure aims to include a new, recognised ‘middle tier’ of veterinary expertise, and it is this that advanced practitioner status will represent. At its meeting this month, the Council agreed in principle on the criteria that applicants will have to fulfil to be accredited as advanced practitioners; the details have still to be finalised, but the College hopes to launch the new scheme in the second half of next year.

The strategic plan discussed at the Council meeting has since been finalised and published on the RCVS website.1 Among other things, it includes a new ‘vision’ for the RCVS, which is ‘To enhance society through improved animal health and welfare’, as well as defining its purpose: ‘To set, uphold and advance veterinary standards’. Taken together, these two statements are pithier and more flexible than its old mission statement (‘The role of the RCVS is to safeguard the health and welfare of animals committed to veterinary care through the regulation of the educational, ethical and clinical standards of veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, thereby protecting the interests of those dependent on animals, and assuring public health. It also acts as an impartial source of informed opinion on relevant veterinary matters’) and perhaps give a clear indication of the way the College wants to develop in the future.

The plan itself lists some 35 actions. These include commitments to reduce the time taken for complaints to be concluded, to improve advice lines for the public and the profession, and to cost and design a trial for a new consumer dispute resolution service. There are commitments to establish statutory or charter regulation and protection of title for veterinary nurses, as well as to articulate clearly that the RCVS is the regulatory body for both vets and veterinary nurses. There is also an undertaking to establish statutory powers to conduct language testing of vets from the EU for whom English is not their first language. Throughout, the plan makes much of strengthening the College's service element and providing a good service to its ‘customers’ – not just members of the public, but vets and veterinary nurses as well.

The decision to revise the College's Royal Charter is an interesting and potentially far-reaching development, and in some respects seems to have come out of the blue. For a decade and more, the RCVS has been trying to find ways of getting the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act revised to bring it up to date but, with the notable exception of a Legislative Reform Order updating its disciplinary structure, which was agreed by Parliament earlier this year (VR, February 2, 2013, vol 172, p 112), its wider ambitions for updating the Act have been thwarted. Now it seems to be looking to its charter as a means of fulfilling some of these ambitions instead. Among other things, its draft revised charter2 sets out the objects and activities of the College in a way which is intended to put activities such as the regulation of veterinary nurses, recognition of RCVS Specialists and regulation of practice standards on a firmer footing. Apparently, as things stand, veterinary nurses are not even mentioned in the existing charter; one of the aims will be to rectify this, and to recognise the College's role in regulating veterinary nursing. As far as the objects of the College are concerned, it is suggested that these should be ‘to set, uphold and advance veterinary standards, and to promote, encourage and advance the study and practice of the art and science of veterinary surgery and medicine for the public benefit’.

Following the decision by its Council, the RCVS intends to consult on its proposals for a new Royal Charter later this year. Like the Veterinary Surgeons Act, the current charter is nearly 50 years old and, judging from some of the omissions discussed at the Council meeting, is well in need of updating. It also makes sense to clarify the role and remit of the College, which has not always been clear to people in the past. However, attempts to define the roles and powers of professional bodies can prove controversial, and the proposals could be the subject of some lively debate in the months ahead.

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