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Busy day at Belgravia House

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THE Council of the RCVS got through a lot of business at its meeting at Belgravia House in London last week. Of the decisions made – and there were quite a few – approval of a draft of a proposed new Royal Charter for the College will probably prove to be the most significant in the longer term: the proposed new charter sets out the objects and activities of the RCVS and, if endorsed at the annual general meeting next month and then approved by the Privy Council, will shape its development for some years to come (VR, December 14, 2013, vol 173, pp 571-572). In the short term, however, two other decisions are likely to be of more immediate interest to practising veterinary surgeons. First, the Council agreed to revise RCVS guidance on 24-hour emergency cover and the related subject of home visits. Secondly, it decided to overturn an earlier Council decision to stop listing additional qualifications against members' names in the RCVS Register, and to look again at what should be included. Both of these topics have generated much debate, and a fair amount of heat, in recent months, and both have resulted in online petitions to the College (see VR, February 8, 2014, vol 174, p 132; May 3, 2014, vol 174, p 436).

If approved by the Privy Council, the proposed Royal Charter will be the first new charter for nearly 40 years. Among other things, it aims to clarify the RCVS's role as the single body responsible for the regulation of veterinary surgeons and nurses, and to put activities such as the regulation of veterinary nurses, recognition of specialists and regulation of veterinary practices and other suppliers of veterinary services on a firmer footing. It also reinforces the idea that the College's regulatory functions under the Veterinary Surgeons Act and activities carried out under its charter are inextricably linked – that it is, in effect, one organisation, not two. This latter aspect was further underlined by the adoption at the Council meeting of a new format for the College's accounts which, while aiming to clarify how money is allocated, recognises that the statutory and charter activities are intertwined.

The decision to revise the guidance on 24-hour emergency cover and home visits follows a detailed review prompted by a number of factors, not least among which was the profession's response to the outcome of a disciplinary case involving Munhuwepasi Chikosi, who was struck off the RCVS Register last year for failing promptly to attend an injured dog while working as a locum in an out-of-hours clinic (VR, July 6, 2013, vol 173, p 6). On the basis of the review, which was undertaken by the College's Standards Committee and involved an extensive evidence-gathering exercise, the Council agreed that the obligation to provide for 24-hour emergency first aid and pain relief for animals should be retained; however, in light of frustrations and concerns expressed during the evidence-gathering exercise around issues such as personal safety, home visits, outsourcing and contingency planning, the College intends to revise its guidance in a number of areas. In particular, it intends to place greater emphasis on owners' legal responsibilities for their animals, as well as an obligation on veterinary surgeons to provide more information to clients about the out-of-hours emergency service provided. It also intends to provide guidance to ‘assist and empower’ vets to decline to attend an animal away from the practice when this is unnecessary or unsafe. In changing the advice, it will not be going so far as to say that a vet can refuse to attend an animal away from the practice in any circumstances; however, it intends to clarify that owners can request, but not demand, house visits, and make clear that disciplinary action will only be considered if there is wilful disregard for animal welfare. The College is now drafting the revised guidance and plans to publish it as soon as possible.

In reversing the decision to stop listing additional qualifications in the RCVS Register, the Council agreed that a compromise solution should be found, although it is not clear at this stage what that compromise will be. The original decision formed part of a broad package of proposals on specialisation adopted by the Council in 2012. This will introduce of a new ‘middle tier’ of ‘advanced practitioners’ who are accredited to postgraduate certificate level and, ultimately, is intended to clarify the system of veterinary specialisation and make it more understandable to the profession and the public. Under the original proposals, the official listing would show only the registerable degree, followed by MRCVS or FRCVS, and also indicate whether the individual was an advanced practitioner or recognised specialist. Given the plethora of qualifications available, some of which might be more relevant than others, the challenge for the College now will be in finding a compromise that gives appropriate recognition to relevant qualifications while also achieving the level of clarity intended; it also needs to be practicable.

Whatever solution is adopted, it is, like the decisions on 24-hour emergency cover and home visits, unlikely to satisfy everyone, although the consideration given to these issues does seem to indicate that the RCVS is doing its best to take the views of its members into account. At the same time, as was pointed out on more than one occasion during the Council meeting, it is not just the views of members that count in its decision making: the College's primary concern is to protect animals and the public. It was also suggested during the meeting that thought needs to be given to how to communicate the College's position on these and other issues more effectively to the profession and the public, to prevent misunderstandings and ensure that the issues are properly understood. This is important in any organisation and is likely to become more important for the College as it consolidates its role through its new charter. Other matters discussed at the Council meeting last week included changes to the Practice Standards Scheme and plans for a trial of an alternative disputes resolution service, so there could be much to communicate in the months ahead.

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