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A new dawn for veterinary legislation
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  1. Josh Loeb

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At last week’s RCVS council meeting, council members considered a document with the unassuming title ‘Report of the RCVS Legislation Working Party (LWP)’.

Despite its title, the document was no plan for piecemeal change but a radical blueprint for wholesale restructuring of veterinary legislation.

It contained a masterplan for an interrelated raft of measures which, if enacted, would dramatically modernise the regulatory regime within which vets operate (see pp 580-581).

A new Act of Parliament would replace the existing Veterinary Surgeons Act.

In one of the plan’s most striking features, it is envisaged that new powers would be handed to the RCVS, including ‘powers of entry’, meaning the right to enter vet practices without consent. That move is being driven by a desire to increase the accountability of non-vets who own practices. The RCVS would, under the LWP’s vision, acquire a new role akin to that of the Care Quality Commission within human healthcare.

Last week was the first time that this particular proposal was revealed. However, other features of the masterplan were already public knowledge – for example, the intention to bring all paraprofessionals identified as being part of ‘the vet-led team’ under one regulatory umbrella, as well as proposals to expand the role of vet nurses and mooted changes to the disciplinary system.

Though the vision for a whole new Act of Parliament might seem to some to have come out of the blue, it is in fact the culmination of years of behind-the-scenes work. It is also the fruit of mounting frustrations about the restrictive nature of the existing Veterinary Surgeons Act, which was described by LWP chair Stephen May in the council meeting as being ‘really not fit for the 21st century’.

So, why consider such substantial changes now? Ask the LWP and it is liable to reply: If not now, when? A calculation has been made that it is only a matter of time before legislation governing the profession in its existing form has to be scrapped anyway, so why delay the inevitable?

Brexit played a role in focusing minds on the need for reform, with changes being sought by either the college, the government or both – for example around workforce issues – increasingly running up against the inflexibility of the existing Act.

The project is not without risks. Some say the very existence of the RCVS is at stake

For that reason, Defra is likely to be receptive to many of the LWP’s recommendations. However, the project is not without risks. Some say the very existence of the RCVS, or at least its dual status as both a regulator and royal college, is at stake. At last week’s meeting, one council member cautioned that a push for such radical change could backfire, generating a process that the RCVS could not control – one that could ultimately end in the breakup of the college into several separate organisations, all with different remits.

At its heart, the LWP’s report is comprehensive, detailed and logical, and the principles that underpin it are sensible. However, successful execution of all or any of it is ultimately what will count, and here reform will meet its greatest challenge. Proposals for yearly appraisal and revalidation, for example, will require a reconstituted structure, extra personnel and money – it’s something that is much easier to bring about in the public sector than in the private sector.

The report is likely to prompt debate, but that is a good thing and something May is keen to see. This journal will play its part in assisting with that debate.

If there is any criticism to be levelled, it is of the apparent failure of the college to build the case for change well in advance and convince members of the profession about the need for change at the current time. Without an appreciation of the underlying justifications, the risk is that the move could be mistaken for a simple power grab. That would be a shame.

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