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RCVS Council was busy last week: not only did it agree revised guidance on the provision of 24-hour emergency cover at its meeting on March 3 (see pp 333-334 of this issue); it also, at a special meeting the day before, decided on how the College should proceed in developing proposals for a new Veterinary Surgeons Act and, in particular, for regulating the activities not just of veterinary surgeons but of all those involved in providing veterinary services. A decision on 24-hour cover, after more than a year of debate, is significant and will affect practices directly; the effects of the decision on how to approach a new Veterinary Surgeons Act will not be felt immediately, but it could prove to be more lasting and of greater significance in the long term.
The current discussions on a new Act began in February 2003 when, reflecting changing expectations of the professions generally, the RCVS consulted its members on what they would like to see included (see VR, February 8, 2003, vol 152, pp 149, 150-151). The debate continued in September that year,when DEFRA produced a public consultation document which broadly reflected proposals that had been put forward by the College (see VR, October 4, 2003, vol 153, pp 409, 410-412).However, the debate really began in earnest in March 2004, when the RCVS Council decided that, rather than merely ‘tinkering’with the existing Act, a more radical approach was needed.At a special meeting, the Council decided that a new Act ‘should provide for the regulation of the training and conduct of veterinary nurses and a range of other occupations providing veterinary services’ as well as veterinary surgeons (see VR,March 13, 2004, vol 154, p 313). This raised the question of who should do the regulating and, over the past 12 months, an RCVS working party has been considering various options (see, for example, VR, July 31, 2004, vol 155, pp 133-134). Its proposals were considered at last week’s Council meeting,which reaffirmed that a new Act should provide scope for regulating the activities of all those providing veterinary services, and agreed that the College should move forward on the lines proposed.
The working party faced two main challenges in attempting to devise an appropriate regulatory framework. First, there was the question of whether veterinary nurses and other paraprofessionals (such as cattle foot trimmers, physiotherapists, bovine ultrasound scanner operators and equine dental technicians) would want to be regulated at all. Discussions with these groups indicated that they accepted the need for regulation, and might be prepared to accept regulation alongside veterinary surgeons, but would not accept being regulated by veterinary surgeons. Secondly, there was a need to ensure that the mechanism for setting standards for entry, continuing competence and conduct for all the groups involved was separated from the mechanism for enforcing those standards. Disciplinary processes in the professions have come under increasing scrutiny, as exemplified most recently by the comments by the Shipman inquiry on regulation in the medical profession (see VR, January 29, vol 156, p 153), and the system devised would need to reflect the changing requirements.
The model proposed by the working party would involve separate councils for veterinary surgeons, veterinary nurses and other complementary professionals, each of which would regulate education and establish standards for their respective members. Enforcement of those standards would be the responsibility of a separate board,which it is suggested could be called a ‘Veterinary Services Board’,which would enforce practice standards and investigate complaints against individual professionals and arrange for them to be adjudicated. Each council would include members elected by the profession it regulated, together with appointed professionals and appointed lay members. The board, meanwhile,would include lay members and members of the relevant professions, including some members nominated by the councils. Disciplinary cases would be heard by a Conduct and Competence Committee which would be appointed by a commission appointed by the board.None of the members of this committee could be serving members of the board or councils.
It is envisaged that the council for veterinary surgeons would be the RCVS, as created by Charter in 1844, while the legal framework for establishing councils for veterinary nurses and other complementary professionals would be created under the new Veterinary Surgeons Act.At this stage, it is not clear how many of those councils there might be, but the aim would be to create a framework that would allow complementary professions to ‘join up’ to the system in the future.
It was clear from the Council meeting that there is still much to do in developing the proposals and that important issues — such as the role of the board in relation to the councils — have still to be resolved.Nevertheless, the general principles were agreed, and the College has taken a significant step forward in defining its regulatory vision for the future. It now plans to refine the proposals and will be consulting with the profession soon.
Uncertainty remains about if and when the Government might choose to introduce a Bill for a new Veterinary Surgeons Act into Parliament, or indeed whether the College’s proposals will find favour.However, there is no doubt that the profession needs to be prepared when a Bill is introduced.With its decision last year to seek regulation of all those providing veterinary services, the RCVS Council set a new course for the profession: after last week’s meeting, it looks as if there could be no turning back.
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