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RCVS urged to adopt ‘complete openness’

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By Josh Loeb

Eleven former members of RCVS council have taken the unusual step of writing to the college to urge it to be transparent over new proposals surrounding disciplinary hearings.

Two former RCVS presidents – Jacqui Molyneux and Barry Johnson – were among the signatories to the open letter, addressed to current RCVS president Niall Connell.

Their call follows last month’s interventions from two serving members of RCVS council – including past president Stephen May – who also raised the issue of transparency.

May, along with Martin Peaty, who was elected to RCVS council in 2017, queried the way in which some council reports and discussions had been classified as ‘confidential’ (VR, 1 February 2020, vol 186, p 104).

Last week Connell confirmed that one of the items discussed in private at last month’s council meeting concerned potential changes to disciplinary procedures that are currently under active consideration by the college.

These include a possible lowering of the standard of proof to bring the RCVS in line with other regulators, as reported previously in Vet Record (VR, 18 January 2020, vol 186, p 43).

In disciplinary hearings for vets and registered veterinary nurses (RVNs), the standard of proof used is the same as is used in criminal trials – namely, ‘so as to be sure’. Changing this to the lesser ‘civil’ standard (‘on the balance of probabilities’) has proven controversial because it could lead to more cases against vets and RVNs progressing further through the RCVS disciplinary regime. However, the college said this was a ‘premature conclusion’.

I would reiterate that council’s consideration of all these proposals is at a very early stage

In a letter published in this journal last week, Connell wrote: ‘I would reiterate that council’s consideration of all these proposals is at a very early stage. Its only decision in January was to ask for more information and data so that it can scrutinise them in more detail.

‘Should council subsequently decide to further pursue the proposal to change the standard of proof, this would then be put out to public consultation later in the year, thereby allowing all veterinary professionals, as well as members of the public and other stakeholders, the opportunity to share their views with us’ (VR, 1 February 2020, vol 186, p 126).

A discussion paper about disciplinary procedures, considered by council at its meeting of 23 January, has not been made public. Also considered in a closed session at the same meeting were elements of a report from the RCVS education committee. It is understood this included issues relating to a system for assessing some European vet schools.

One council source told Vet Record: ‘Stephen May and Martin Peaty are not the only serving council members to have highlighted issues around transparency.’

In their open letter this week, the 11 former council members suggested that a culture of confidentiality may be doing the college a disservice by giving rise to unwarranted fears about alterations to its disciplinary processes. Greater openness, they suggested, could help dispel suspicion.

‘At the current time any action that might adversely affect the mental health and wellbeing of the profession, let alone such a severe one, is to be approached with great caution. However, complete openness and transparency would help allay the fears of hard-working veterinary surgeons,’ the signatories write.

The 11 former council members are also concerned that some complaints made against vets are taking too long to resolve. An edited version of their letter, together with a further response from the RCVS, appears on p 159 of this issue.

In the RCVS response, Connell suggests that unsubstantiated rumours spreading on social media risk ‘prejudicing’ council’s discussions and stresses that some preliminary discussions by the council need ‘to be able to happen in a safe space.’ He also indicates in the letter that council will be discussing the matter in an open session later this year.

The RCVS faced similar accusations over a lack of transparency last year after a decision about telemedicine and remote prescribing was made behind closed doors (VR, 22 June 2019, vol 184, p 752). At the time the RCVS said that advice it had received from lawyers was legally privileged and so could not be made public.

Also last year, the RCVS executive team drew up a proposal – which was subsequently abandoned – to introduce anonymous electronic voting by council members, which would have meant no-one would have been able to see how individual members of council were voting (VR,26 January 2019, vol 184, p 111). ●

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