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Why hide compassion?
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  1. Josh Loeb

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The RCVS is a regulator. Its duty is to protect public interest and safeguard animal health and welfare.

However, in recent years the college has also taken an interest in the wellbeing of vets and vet nurses – understandably, given concern about mental ill health.

It has consistently emphasised its desire not merely to regulate but to do so with compassion.

Hence the college’s introduction of innovations like the health protocol, whereby ‘out of court’ interventions can be used in certain cases where health problems, such as mental health issues, might affect individuals’ fitness to practise.

The health protocol allows for the management of some vets and vet nurses via a ‘supportive framework’ to oversee remedial steps. As such, it is an acknowledgment of the need to balance the college’s duty to the public with its duty to vet professionals.

Its introduction was a sensible, proportionate step, as well as a compassionate one. Now, 10 years on, new proposals are on the table that could lead to even more cases being dealt with without recourse to full disciplinary hearings.

As Vet Record reported last week (VR, 22 February 2020, vol 186, p 199), some cases that the college deals with, for example concerning social media blunders – the minor cases, or so-called ‘charter cases’ – could in future be dealt with ‘out of court’.

These are cases where the likely sanction is predicted as being no higher than a warning. In the same way as some driving offences are dealt with by way of parking tickets, might some cases that cross the threshold for a disciplinary hearing be disposed of in future without summoning lawyers?

If the charter case proposal is adopted (not a foregone conclusion – RCVS council is at the discussion stage) then it should be seen in the same light as the existing health protocol. In other words, as a welcome part of efforts to avoid putting vets or vet nurses through the stressful, formal, courtroom-like rigmarole of a full disciplinary hearing in cases where that might not, strictly speaking, be necessary.

If the same ends can be achieved via different, better means, why not at least consider those means? That seems to be the perfectly reasonable question the college is asking itself.

Added to which, the charter case proposal could save money. An analysis by Vet Record, published this week, suggests the average cost of a disciplinary hearing has been rising (see p 231). So, too, has the number of charter cases. At the same time, health protocol cases have been shown to be far cheaper than minor disciplinary hearings – roughly £5000, as opposed to £70,000.

Clearly, money matters can be sensitive, but all the information used in our analysis this week is in the public domain.

The only mystery is why the charter case proposal wasn’t made similarly public. Instead, it was discussed only in a closed session of an RCVS council meeting last month, complete with papers marked ‘confidential’.

We have been given scant explanation for this, save for the rationale of RCVS president Niall Connell that ‘blue sky thinking needs to be able to happen in a safe space’.

The insistence on ‘safe spaces’ could be interpreted as paternalistic. Isn’t it just another way of saying that RCVS council members cannot be relied upon not to say silly things when discussing important issues that matter to the profession? By that logic, Veterinary Nurses council members can be better relied upon – they hold far fewer private sessions of their council.

There is a public interest in knowing what the regulator is up to

There is a public interest in members of the veterinary profession knowing what their regulator is up to. It is ironic and strange that on this occasion the college has tried to keep private an aspect of its efforts to be compassionate – efforts that show it in a good light.

Many members of the profession have welcomed the charter case proposal. So why the need for secrecy?

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