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Ten-minute chat
  1. Alastair Porter

Abstract

Alastair Porter became secretary and Registrar of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in 1966. Here, he recalls the first of his 25 years in office.

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What was your background?

I had a law degree from Oxford and was called to the Bar by Grays Inn in 1952. After two years in practice in London, I was appointed a Resident Magistrate in Northern Rhodesia, remaining in that country until after it gained independence as Zambia in 1964. My final appointment, before returning to the UK, was as Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice.

What was the RCVS like in 1966?

As a building, it was exceedingly handsome, mingling with embassies and other professional bodies in Belgrave Square. It had an imposing staircase that led to its most beautiful room, which was known as the Wellcome Historical Library. This doubled as the Council chamber and a place for welcoming distinguished visitors.

The staff were small in numbers, seldom rising much above 20. This number included the librarian and her specialists. The electronic age had not yet arrived. The secretaries used manual typewriters and the correction and maintenance of the Annual Register was a full-time task carried out by hand by the Register Clerk. But then, the number of veterinary surgeons on the main list of the Register did not exceed 7500. The annual retention fee, which was the College's main source of income, was in the order of five guineas per year.

How did the governance of the profession work in practice?

The statutory preliminary investigation and disciplinary committees met as and when required, with the other standing committees, responsible for education, examinations, parliamentary affairs and finance and general purposes, meeting in the days preceding the meetings of the full Council, and reporting to it, with minutes ‘hot off the press’. Other committees, such as those relating to the affairs of the trust fund and the Animal Nursing Auxiliaries committee, were also fitted in. ‘Council week’ as it was known was a time of concentrated activity for the committee secretaries and their chairmen and everyone heaved a sigh of relief when Friday afternoon arrived. Between meetings of Council, the officers (of whom the Registrar was one) would meet regularly to carry on the business of the college.

What challenges awaited you?

Work was far advanced on the submission to Parliament of a Veterinary Surgeons Bill which, if enacted, would replace the Veterinary Surgeons Act of 1948. Hand-in-hand with this initiative there were negotiations for the updating and/or replacing of the College's Royal Charters, although it was common ground that decisions on charter matters must await the decisions of Parliament on the Bill.

In the event, the first submission of the Bill failed because of the calling of a General Election, and the whole process had to be begun again under the new administration, with the Bill restarting life in the House of Lords. The most contentious matter concerned the question of whether ‘fish’ should fall under the definition of an animal and be reserved to the care of veterinary surgeons. In the process, there was a complete failure to appreciate that the parliamentary draftsman, by changing the word ‘person’ in the 1948 Act, to ‘individual’ in the relevant clause of the Bill, had changed the entire legal authority of the Royal College vis-a-vis companies – something that to this day has never been resolved. In the end, the Bill came into law as the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, and for all the criticisms of today regarding its antiquity, the Act has served the profession none too badly over the years.

What was the status of the profession at the time?

I was impressed that, within a very short time of my taking post, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Sir John Winnifrith, telephoned to invite me to come round to the Ministry for an informal tea time meeting, saying that since we were going to be working together, it would make sense to get to know each other as soon as possible. Such a courteous approach was most encouraging. I also found that having Sir John Ritchie, former Chief Veterinary Officer and a past-president of the College, as a companion in discussions with the Privy Council in regard to the charter, was enormously helpful.

On the other hand, I had the distinct feeling that the ‘big’ professions such as the law and medicine did not regard the veterinary profession as of entirely equal status.

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What opportunities for new initiatives did you see?

No one of any sense entering a field entirely new to him should do much more in his first year than survey the scene, find out what is already being done well, what may be ripe for improvement and who seem to be the people of vision allied to experience. What had excited me from the time of my original interview was how much seed was being sown in areas of growth and potential by members of the profession who seemed able to think in terms of projects that might take decades to bring to full fruition.

Work began on Royal College postgraduate certificates in anaesthesia and radiology, which were the forerunners of the wide range of specialist qualifications that are available today. The handful of Animal Nursing Auxiliaries being trained at the time developed into the sizeable and well-regarded veterinary nursing profession. Observer status in the European Veterinary Liaison Committee ensured full membership when the UK was admitted to the EEC in 1973, with the appointment of UK officers to the soon renamed Federation of Veterinarians of Europe, and recognition by several other professions that the veterinary surgeons were ahead of the game in this new field.

To what extent were you able to meet practitioners and students?

The profession gave me ample opportunities to do so. I was generously invited to see practice with several partnerships and to speak with BVA territorial and specialist divisions. Something that I quickly came to treasure was the opportunity to make presentations on law and ethics to final-year students, followed by being present at their graduation ceremonies. After all, they were the future.

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