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ONE can't help feeling that, from the Government's point of view, commenting on the results of the inquiry by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (efraCom) into the need for a new Veterinary Surgeons Act was relatively straightforward — certainly less challenging than, say, replying to the select committee's other recent report, on badgers and cattle tb. After all, most of the recommendations in the efraCom's report on a new Veterinary Surgeons Act seemed to be directed more at the veterinary profession than the Government. However, the committee did take defra to task for unexpectedly announcing during the course of its inquiry that it would not be producing a White Paper on the subject within the next three years, rightly pointing out that this had left plans to update the Act ‘in a mess’ (see VR, May 17, 2008, vol 162, pp 633, 634). In its response to the efraCom's report, which was published last week, the Government expresses regret, but shows little sign of remorse, at this sudden volte-face, simply commenting, ‘defra regrets the delay that will be caused by its decision not to devote additional resource to enable a review of the Veterinary Surgeons Act to take place. However, the Department is faced with many pressing issues, our resources are finite and, increasingly, we have to make difficult decisions about our priorities. We believe the decision we have taken regarding the Veterinary Surgeons Act, though regrettable, is correct.’
Two things are clear from the Government's response. First, it sees no tearing hurry to update the Act. Secondly, it has no appetite for a piecemeal approach to new legislation; rather than tinkering with the existing Act, it would prefer the big bang approach of a totally new and broader Act, if and when it gets round to it. This appears to be true even with regard to disciplinary procedures, which the efraCom felt to be in particular need of modernisation and which the Government agrees are in need of updating. Here it remarks, ‘Whilst we recognise the importance that the Committee [efraCom] place on this issue, our preference would be to develop a new disciplinary process that is part of a new regulatory framework for veterinary services. We may ultimately need to decide between a less than perfect system built into the existing Act, or wait until resource is available to replace the existing Act and develop a more complete and robust disciplinary system.’
With regard to updating the disciplinary system, the Government believes that this will mean more than simply removing the disciplinary arrangements from the rcvs Council and placing them with another body. It says that the whole process needs to be reviewed and possibly linked to a new Council responsibility of monitoring and assessing veterinary surgeons' fitness to practise.
The Government agrees that the veterinary nursing profession has evolved to a stage where it warrants its own statutory framework of regulation, and says that the rcvs and the Veterinary Nurses Council should develop proposals for regulating veterinary nurses. More generally, however, it notes that the regulation of paraprofessionals is a ‘central issue’ when considering replacement of the Veterinary Surgeons Act. It says, ‘We would want to take into account the extent to which the current restrictions on veterinary practice inhibits the development of veterinary care services and ensure we put in place a risk-based but more flexible regulatory framework. A fundamental requirement for the regulation of paraprofessionals must be that they are suitably trained and that their competence is assured. However, the scale of regulation for paraprofessionals has to be proportionate to risks involved and the size of the sector concerned. The extent to which paraprofessionals should work under veterinary direction or supervision or whether they may work independently and perhaps in competition with veterinary surgeons would also need to be clarified.’
It is clear from this and other remarks in the response that the Government envisages that new legislation would regulate veterinary services and not just veterinary surgeons. A new regulatory framework which included veterinary service providers would impact on the role of the rcvs and, the Government points out, the relationship between the rcvs and possible new regulatory bodies would need to be established.
For the immediate future, the Government suggests that the veterinary profession should continue to develop its own ideas for future regulation and agrees with the efraCom that it needs to establish a greater internal consensus on the way forward. It says it would like to be engaged in this process while making clear that, for the time being at least, its own involvement will be limited. It agrees with the efraCom that the case made by the rcvs for mandatory cpd and practice standards has not been proven, and that any proposals for regulatory change need to be workable and proportionate.
In some respects, there is an air of procrastination about the response, but this does not mean that the profession should sit back and wait until the Government feels it has the time and resources to do something. The efraCom's inquiry has exposed the extent of the Government's ambitions for a new Act — and the profession needs to be ready with its own arguments regarding regulation when the Government finally decides to press ahead.
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