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A DECISION taken by the RCVS Council last week is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it shows that, contrary to popular belief, turkeys can and sometimes do vote for Christmas. In a vote at their meeting on March 3, Council members voted for changes to the size and composition of the Council which, if all goes according to plan, could mean that, over the next few years, the size of the Council could be reduced by more than a third, from 42 members to 25. Significantly, they also voted to increase the proportion of lay members on the Council, and to give veterinary nurses a formal place on the Council for the first time.

The changes will depend on a Legislative Reform Order (LRO) being introduced and agreed by Parliament, but the fact that the RCVS Council has agreed them, after years of debate, is significant in itself.

Debate about the size and composition of the RCVS Council has been going on for many years, and certainly precedes the LRO introduced in 2013, which changed the disciplinary machinery of the College (VR, February 2, 2013, vol 172, pp 112, 114). The issues were set out in a consultation document published by Defra last autumn, following discussions with the RCVS (VR, November 7, 2015, vol 177, pp 452, 453). As things stand, both the size and composition of the Council are prescribed by the Veterinary Surgeons Act, which, coincidentally, is 50 years old this year. This stipulates that the Council should be made up of 24 veterinary members elected by the profession, two members from each of the UK's recognised veterinary schools (one of whom must be a veterinarian) and four people appointed by the Privy Council. As the consultation document pointed out, this is bigger than the councils of most other regulatory bodies, and bigger than the councils of eight to 12 members that the Professional Standards Authority (previously the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence) suggests are more effective. Having more lay members on the Council could, the consultation document argued, help boost public confidence in the way the veterinary profession is regulated. Also, it pointed out, it would be appropriate to include veterinary nurses on the Council given that, as a result of the new Royal Charter granted to the RCVS in 2015, the College is now recognised as the regulator of veterinary nurses (VR, February 28, 2015, vol 176, pp 210, 213).

Arguments about the size and composition of the RCVS Council may seem far removed from the day-to-day realities of veterinary practice but, given that this is the governing council of the profession's regulatory body, they do matter, and the issue has certainly been the subject of some impassioned debate among Council members in the past. If a governing council is too big, it can be unwieldy and inefficient; if it is too small, it may not have enough expertise within its membership. Who should be represented on the council, and how should they be appointed or elected? Given the extent to which such issues have been picked over in the past, the debate at last week's Council meeting seemed relatively low key, which probably reflects the changes in the regulatory arrangements at the RCVS following the LRO in 2013, changing attitudes to professional regulation in general and the energy that has been put into the discussions before. However, in the event, the Council decided that in the future the Council should be made up of: 13 elected veterinary surgeons; six appointed lay people; three members appointed on behalf of the UK veterinary schools; two veterinary nurses; and one associate. The College believes that a reduction on this scale ‘will address issues surrounding the efficiency and accountability of decision-making, while providing a Council of sufficient size to provide the diversity and capacity needed to populate committees’. It says that it is in keeping with feedback from the consultation exercise and that it reflects ‘the unique position of the RCVS as a Royal College that regulates’.

One result of the change will be a big reduction in the number of members appointed by veterinary schools, from 14 to three. These will be appointed by a body recognised by the RCVS as representing the veterinary schools collectively. Although, in general, the Council decided not to specify the membership of its committees at this stage, one thing it did decide was that at least one third and at most one half of the membership of the College's Education Committee and Primary Qualification Sub-Committee should be co-opted members with expertise in education, such as heads of veterinary schools or their nominees.

The Council also agreed transitional arrangements which, if the necessary LRO is granted by Parliament in 2017, could result in the new structure being in place by 2020. It remains to be seen whether this timescale proves realistic, but the important thing at this stage is that a decision to change the size and composition of the Council has been made. It is perhaps a little early to describe this as a historic decision but, with the current structure having been stipulated by the Veterinary Surgeons Act for half a century, it is certainly a significant one and, once implemented, could affect the way that veterinary activity is regulated for decades to come.

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