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Independent thoughts

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WHAT will be the effect on the veterinary profession if Scotland votes for independence on September 18? Will, for example, vets in Scotland continue to be regulated by the RCVS, or might there be a new Scottish Veterinary Surgeons Act?

Discussion of this question during a debate at the BSAVA congress earlier this month indicated that it wouldn't be for the RCVS to decide. It would be for the Scottish Government to come forward with proposals for how the professions should be regulated, and it had apparently indicated that it would seek to maintain the current regulatory bodies. However, it was pointed out, not all European countries have an equivalent statutory body for regulating veterinary activity – in some, regulation occurs more directly through a government department – and other options might be available. Explaining the RCVS's position on the issue, its treasurer, Bradley Viner, said the College had ‘no desire to divest itself of its Scottish membership’.

Similarly, what would be the implications for the BVA, which currently represents the UK profession? The BVA already has specific branches in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to foster the interests of the profession in the devolved administrations and to help contribute to its policies. Its branch system has evolved to take account of devolution, but a fully independent Scotland would represent a significant evolutionary shift. Would Scotland's vets continue to contribute directly to the activities of the BVA or might they, too, go independent?

At government level, animal health and welfare policies have been devolved for a number of years now, with budgets having been conceded more recently. Increasingly, this has led to different policies being pursued in the devolved administrations, on issues ranging from the control of bovine TB to encouraging responsible pet ownership and stopping tail docking in dogs, and from the steps taken to control bluetongue following the sudden appearance of the disease in 2007 to approaches to controlling endemic diseases such as bovine viral diarrhoea. Devolution can bring advantages in that policies can be tailored to local ambitions and circumstances, provided that the necessary resources are available. At the same time, it also creates challenges in that diseases do not respect national frontiers and efforts need to be coordinated. It can also make life more complicated for those whose work straddles borders, who may find themselves having to work to two sets of rules at once. Will such problems be alleviated if Scotland opts for full independence, or will they be made worse?

Veterinary surveillance is another area where activities have to be coordinated. Scotland, which has long had a separate surveillance structure from the rest of Great Britain, undertook its own review of surveillance in 2011, while the outcome of a surveillance review covering England and Wales is already being implemented. It will be interesting to see how the two systems eventually marry up, irrespective of the outcome of the vote on independence. Meanwhile, plans for a separate Food Standards Agency for Scotland are well advanced, with a Bill for a new body having recently been put before the Scottish Parliament. This, it must be said, probably has less to do with devolution than with the mess the UK Government made during its review of its arm's length bodies back in 2010.

Scotland could be said to have contributed disproportionately to UK veterinary education and research, boasting two pre-eminent veterinary schools, at Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as a network of world-class research institutes whose origins are grounded in agriculture. How well will these organisations fare, and how well will they be funded, in the event of independence? The answer to that, like so much else in this debate, depends on who you believe, with uncertainty remaining about, for example, whether under EU rules (assuming, that is, EU rules will still apply) Scottish universities would be able to continue to charge full fees to students from elsewhere in the UK, and whether the UK's research councils would be in a position to keep funding research in Scotland to the extent that they do at present. However, even assuming that levels of funding for research might be maintained overall, would it make sense to divide it between countries and risk duplication of effort and facilities when funds are in short supply in the first place?

Given all the other and, in many cases, much weightier issues involved in the debate about Scottish independence, the impact on veterinary activity is unlikely to sway things one way or the other. However, it is worth thinking about and discussing the issues now, if only to plan ahead and not be totally unprepared if it happens.

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