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Pragmatism and the Act

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LAST month, the RCVS Council agreed that the College should seek a simple legislative amendment to update the profession’s disciplinary machinery (VR, November 28, 2009, vol 165, p 644). This represents a significant scaling back of proposals for updating the Veterinary Surgeons Act put forward by the College a few years ago, but is a pragmatic response to the situation as things stand.

Discussions on what might be required to update the legislation governing the veterinary profession have been going on for some time. However, they took off in earnest in 2003, when the RCVS and Defra both published consultation documents containing what seemed like relatively straightforward proposals for updating the Act, which in many respects were remarkably similar. Subsequently, at a meeting in March 2004, the RCVS Council decided that it was not sufficient just to ‘tinker’ with the existing legislation and that a more radical approach was needed. Over the next four years, the College devoted much energy to developing a more ambitious set of proposals for regulating veterinary activity. However, those plans were effectively derailed in March last year when, during an inquiry by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) into whether a new Veterinary Surgeons Act was needed, Defra suddenly announced that, contrary to what it had indicated previously, it did not plan to update the Act in the immediate future.

In its subsequent report of its inquiry, the EFRACom criticised Defra for leaving plans to update the legislation ‘in a mess’. However, having heard conflicting views from the RCVS, the BVA and others, it was also critical of the veterinary profession, urging it to ‘iron out its differences’ on what new legislation should aim to achieve. The decision by the RCVS Council last week can be seen as a logical consequence of the EFRACom’s report, which, while noting that a complete overhaul of the Veterinary Surgeons Act was unlikely until at least 2011, argued that the need to update the profession’s disciplinary procedures was more pressing. In particular, it believed that there should be a separation between the RCVS Council, which sets rules for the profession, and the Disciplinary Committee, which adjudicates complaints on the basis of those rules (VR, May 17, 2008, vol 162, p 634).

Following the EFRACom inquiry, the RCVS set up a Veterinary Legislation Group to consider the options and, in August this year, issued a consultation document setting out three main priorities: updating the profession’s disciplinary machinery; widening disciplinary jurisdiction and powers to allow for more flexibility; and changing the composition of RCVS Council. Responding to the RCVS consultation, the BVA welcomed the fact that the College had dropped the more controversial aspects of its previous proposals; while generally supporting the new proposals, it also noted that it had seen no evidence of any significant public demand for change (VR, October 24, 2009, vol 165, p 483).

In the event, at its meeting last month, the RCVS Council decided that the main priority should be to update the disciplinary machinery, and that it should seek powers giving it discretion to decide the composition of the Disciplinary Committee and Preliminary Investigation Committee, with the important proviso that the Disciplinary Committee should not include Council members. The College had been advised that this could potentially be achieved through a relatively simple amendment to the Veterinary Surgeons Act, while the suggested changes to disciplinary jurisdiction and powers would require main legislation and the passage of a Bill through Parliament. In view of this, and in the light of responses to its consultation exercise, it was felt that changes to the disciplinary jurisdiction and powers, along with changes to the composition of the RCVS Council, should be considered further.

Whether the amendment actually happens remains to be seen, but at least the College seems clear about what it wants to achieve in the short term. In the meantime, the veterinary profession would do well to continue to work towards a consensus on what might ultimately be required in the future. With a General Election looming and any new Government likely to have other priorities, the prospect of Parliament finding time for a new Veterinary Surgeons Act may for now seem fairly remote, but this doesn’t mean it won’t happen at some stage and the profession needs to be in position to present a strong case on what is needed when it does. Having seemed remarkably similar back in 2003, the views of Defra and the profession had diverged quite considerably by the time the EFRACom considered the issue last year, and, when Parliament does get round to considering a new Act, Defra, MPs and other interested groups will almost certainly have ideas of their own.

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