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Regulation revisited

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COMPARED with previous ideas for a new Veterinary Surgeons Act, proposals on how to set about updating regulation of the veterinary profession made in a paper by the RCVS Veterinary Legislation Group, which were discussed by RCVS Council last week, seemed fairly innocuous, so it is surprising that they provoked such a tense debate. In the event, the paper was approved by the Council, but only after a motion of amendment was defeated on the casting vote of the President. That the paper should prove so contentious was all the more surprising given that the Council was not being asked to commit itself to any changes at this stage; following the debate, the Royal College will now consult more widely on the proposals, which may yet be modified depending on the outcome of discussions.

The group had been asked to advise on how the Royal College might pursue changes in veterinary legislation in the absence of any immediate plans for a new Act on the part of Defra, as revealed by Lord Rooker, the minister then responsible for animal health and welfare, during an inquiry by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom), in March last year. During the inquiry, Lord Rooker suddenly and unexpectedly announced that Defra would not be devoting any resources to work on updating the Act for at least three years. As the EFRACom remarked in its subsequent report of the inquiry, Defra's decision to ‘walk away’ from work on a white paper left plans to update the legislation ‘in a mess’. However, its report was also critical of the veterinary profession, which, it said, needed to ‘iron out its differences' on what was required of new legislation (see VR, May 17, 2008, vol 162, p 634).

The Veterinary Legislation Group's paper seeks to find a way out of the ‘mess’ identified by the EFRACom by setting priorities for new legislation and discussing ways in which change might be achieved, taking account of relevant developments in the regulation of the human health professions. The proposed solution is for a streamlined and, in many respects, much simpler set of measures for updating the Veterinary Surgeons Act than was previously advocated by the Royal College. An important result of last week's Council meeting is that the complex package of proposals endorsed by the Council in 2005, including proposals for a licence to practise and mandatory regulation of practice standards, will now be formally withdrawn. For the time being, the College also proposes dropping plans to press for statutory regulation of veterinary nurses; it remains committed to this, but does not see it as an immediate priority as some of the aims will be met through the operation of the non-statutory VN Register.

The group sees the most urgent priorities as being to achieve a new disciplinary machinery for veterinary surgeons, with a wider disciplinary jurisdiction and more flexible powers, and a new composition for the RCVS Council. It recommends that the Council should be smaller than at present, with no more than 30 members, and that the Disciplinary Committee should not include members of the Council. Between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the Council members would be non-veterinarians, and at least half of the veterinary members would be elected. It would include a veterinary nurse as an appointed member, and one member nominated jointly by the veterinary schools; the power to appoint other non-elected members would rest with the Government of the day.

The wider disciplinary jurisdiction would encompass professional conduct, clinical performance, health and criminal convictions relevant to fitness to practise, and the Preliminary Investigation Committee would have the power to dispose of complaints by giving a caution or advice. It is further suggested that, following disciplinary proceedings, the Disciplinary Committee should also have the power to give a warning about future conduct or to impose conditions on future practice, rather than being restricted to striking veterinary surgeons off or suspending their registration as at present.

While the RCVS can suggest ways in which legislation governing veterinary activity may need to be updated, it is ultimately up to the Government to act. Whether the Government is inclined or, in its current state of catharsis, in a position to take any recommendations forward remains to be seen, but the profession still needs to clarify its own position. Also raised at the RCVS Council meeting was the disturbing possibility that Defra's responsibilities regarding the Veterinary Surgeons Act might be transferred to the new body for animal health currently being proposed by the Government in its consultation on responsibility and cost sharing. This would move the concerns of the veterinary profession further away from the centre of government and could complicate matters even more.

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