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Ways and means

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IT IS more than four years since the rcvs first consulted the profession on proposals for a new Veterinary Surgeons Act, and more than three years since defra issued a consultation document arguing that the 1966 Act should be updated. Since then, the College's proposals have changed considerably in the light of comments received and decisions by its Council. It has also changed its approach to the issue, from one of being ready for the possibility of new legislation, to actively seeking change.

Until now, the assumption has been that change would be achieved by introducing a Bill into Parliament which, after due debate and amendment, would lead to a completely new Act. Increasingly, however, it looks as if that is not going to happen — at least, not in the near future. The Government has other priorities, and parliamentary time is limited. From a debate during a meeting of the rcvs Council last week (see pp 353-354 of this issue), it appears that the rcvs and defra are instead investigating other means of modernising the way in which the veterinary profession is regulated, using ‘Orders in Council’ to update the existing Act. Similar procedures have been used to update legislation affecting regulation in the field of human health, under Section 60 of the Health Act 1999. Such an approach might not achieve all of the changes the College is looking for, but, if it proves feasible, could still result in many of its aims being met. As far as the professions in general are concerned, the buzzword in government these days is ‘better regulation’; the proposed mechanism could potentially allow for this, albeit by different means.

The College's proposals for the future regulation of the profession were agreed by its Council in November 2005 and the College has been in discussion with defra since then. They would extend the regulation of veterinary surgeons, and make veterinary nurses and veterinary practices subject to statutory regulation. There would be separate bodies setting standards for veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses: one would be a smaller version of the current rcvs Council, but with a greater proportion of lay representatives, as well as appointed and elected veterinary surgeons; the other would be an autonomous successor to the current Veterinary Nurses Council. Compliance with those standards would be monitored by a separate board, which would receive and investigate complaints against individual veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, and enforce mandatory practice standards. This board would have the power to dispose of complaints by giving a warning or advice. Complaints not disposed of by the board would be adjudicated by an independent Competence and Conduct Committee, which would perform the role of the current Disciplinary Committee, but would have a wider range of powers.

Veterinary surgeons would need to be registered and also have a licence to practise, with registration indicating possession of minimum standards for entry into the profession, and licensing indicating compliance with requirements for continuing competence and conduct. On practice standards, it was proposed that legislation should include powers to introduce a mandatory scheme for the licensing and regulation of veterinary practices. Regarding paraprofessionals, it was proposed that the legislation should give veterinary surgeons power to delegate appropriate elements of veterinary surgery for animals under their care to people holding qualifications recognised by the rcvs.

At this stage, it is still not clear how or to what extent the proposals might be taken forward, but, in the meantime, it is worth noting that there are distinct parallels between the College's proposals for the regulation of veterinary surgeons and the Department of Health's proposals for the regulation of doctors, as set out in the White Paper ‘Trust, assurance and safety — the regulation of health professionals in the 21st century’, which was published by the Government last month. There are clear similarities, for example, in proposals for increased lay representation in the regulatory process, plans to separate procedures for setting standards from procedures for ensuring compliance with those standards, and proposals for a licence to practise. Such similarities are hardly coincidental, and largely reflect current thinking on what ‘better regulation’ of the professions involves. That said, the proposals are not identical; there are obvious differences between the veterinary and human health care professions, not least in terms of their size, aims and resources, and regulation must reflect this. The trick, in both fields, is to provide the necessary assurances to the public and achieve genuine improvements while not introducing a system that is so cumbersome and expensive as to be unworkable. This must be a consideration for the Government as it seeks to impose a new regulatory system on the medical profession. As far as the veterinary profession is concerned, it is not clear at this stage what will come of the discussions between the rcvs and defra, but, if they do result in new legislation, it is important that the right balance is achieved.

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