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Size and composition matter

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IF you're prepared to think in terms of decades rather than hours, waiting for changes in the way the veterinary profession is regulated is a bit like waiting for buses: you hang around for ages expecting one to arrive, then several come along at once. This certainly seems to have been the case in relation to efforts by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) to update the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act. In 2013, after a decade or more of largely fruitless discussion of plans to open and revise the Act, progress was finally made by means of a Legislative Reform Order (LRO) which changed the disciplinary machinery of the RCVS, which, under the Act, is responsible for regulating the profession's activities. Then, in February this year, the RCVS was granted a new Royal Charter, clarifying its role in relation to setting, upholding and advancing veterinary standards (VR, February 28, 2015, vol 176, p 210). Now, in a further development, which to an extent might be seen as a logical consequence of the changes made in 2013, Defra has begun a public consultation on another LRO aimed at updating the Veterinary Surgeons Act, this one specifically aimed at changing the size and composition of the RCVS Council (see pp 453-454 of this issue). Given that the Council is the governing body of the RCVS, any changes to the way it is constituted could affect the way the College operates for many years to come.

Setting out the case for change in a consultation document published last week following discussions with the College, Defra notes that, as things stand, the constitution of the Council is prescribed by the Veterinary Surgeons Act, which stipulates that it should be made up of 24 veterinary members elected by the profession, two members from each of the UK's recognised veterinary schools (one of whom must be a veterinarian) and four people appointed by the Privy Council. This, it points, out, results in a council that is larger than that of most other regulatory bodies (although interestingly not all), and certainly larger than the councils of eight to 12 members that the Professional Standards Authority (previously the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence) has suggested are associated with greater effectiveness. It also notes that, although the RCVS Council includes some lay members, there is no statutory requirement for lay people to be included, and that such a requirement could help boost public confidence in the way the profession is regulated. Similarly, there is no requirement to have veterinary nurses as Council members, but their inclusion would be appropriate given that, as a result of the Royal Charter granted earlier this year, the RCVS is now recognised as the regulator of veterinary nurses.

Perhaps wisely, the consultation document does not specify exactly the size and shape the Council might take if it is reconstituted; all too easily, this kind of exercise can turn into a bidding game, in which interested parties come up with specific numbers that reflect their particular interests. Instead, it seeks views on various principles that have been discussed by the current RCVS Council and that the Council has agreed should be applied. These are that:

▪ The size of the Council should be significantly reduced (by at least 25 per cent) ‘in order to respond more quickly and increase efficiency, and to ensure a greater sense of collective responsibility and ownership of decisions’;

▪ As a self-regulating profession, elected veterinary surgeons should continue to form the majority of the Council;

▪ Veterinary nurses should be included on the Council;

▪ Formal lay representation on the Council should be increased.

Regarding veterinary school representation, the document notes that it is essential to make sure that the Council continues to benefit from the expertise of universities with accredited veterinary degrees, but suggests that this could be achieved by collective representation rather than each veterinary school being represented individually. It also discusses various ways in which different types of Council member might be elected or appointed to the Council, and for how long, and seeks views on which might be most appropriate.

Such considerations might seem far removed from the day-to-day reality of veterinary practice but, given the regulatory and other roles of the RCVS, this is an instance where size and composition matter. It may be, as the consultation document suggests, that the current size of the Council makes it unwieldy and inefficient. It may also be that it is bigger than it needs to be, particularly as, following the changes made to the disciplinary machinery in 2013, the College's disciplinary committees are no longer made up of members of the Council. At the same time, reducing the size of the Council could mean that the wide range of experience and expertise that exists across the profession could be less readily available to the Council from within its immediate membership, which would mean that alternative means of accessing that expertise would have to be found. The consultation document suggests that the size of the Council should be reduced by ‘a minimum of 25 per cent’, which presumably implies it could be reduced further. However, it does not go so far as to suggest that it should be pared down to the eight to 12 members suggested by the Professional Standards Authority, arguing that it needs to be bigger than this because of the dual role of the RCVS as a Royal College and a regulator. A similar argument is used to justify the suggestion that elected veterinary surgeons should make up the majority of Council members.

Drawing attention to the difficulty in legislative terms of making any changes to the Veterinary Surgeons Act, the consultation document also suggests including a provision in the proposed LRO that would make it easier to amend the Act in the future. Although this is intended to allow for more flexibility, it would be nice to know at this stage what kind of changes the RCVS or the Government might have in mind.

This is a public consultation exercise, so anyone can respond. It seems likely that it will not just be veterinary surgeons who will be interested in the outcome, which makes it all the more important that as many vets and veterinary nurses get involved. Following the consultation, Defra and the RCVS plan to work together to propose a new model of governance for the College, with a view to starting reforms at the end of next year or early in 2017. The consultation document is available at https://consult.defra.gov.uk/veterinary-services/rcvs_council_reform. Comments have been invited by December 24.

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