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The investigation into allegations of bullying and harassment at Edinburgh university’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies will take place under RCVS disciplinary procedures, not the council complaints process.
Vet Record understands the college has received more than one formal complaint in support of the allegations and the linked matter of David Argyle’s (dean of the vet school) behaviour and suitability to sit on council and be the next president of the college.
But in a statement the RCVS confirmed that the investigation followed ‘a concern’ and that it would be handled under its ‘normal concerns investigation process’. This, the college confirmed, was the same as its case management or preliminary investigation process, used to investigate matters that concern a registrant’s fitness to practise.
This means that anyone giving evidence to the investigation will be identifiable to the RCVS and to Argyle and the University of Edinburgh (UoE).
This process must be fair, just and thorough
The RCVS said it can only accept complaints or statements from people who will put their names to them. A spokesperson said: ‘In order to be able to properly investigate concerns raised with us, the person who has a concern raised against them has the right to be able to defend themselves and to gather their own evidence and statements accordingly. This process can only be fair, just and thorough if the individual knows who is making the complaint against them and the full details of it.’
However, there are concerns that people giving evidence should have the right to have their identities protected, since many fear consequences to their current employment or future careers.
Vet Record has spoken to many current and former employees at the vet school about their experiences of alleged bullying and harassment, and published seven anonymous testimonies (see VR, 17/24 October 2020, vol 187, pp 296–297). Following a subsequent request from RCVS registrar Eleanor Ferguson about whether any of those providing testimonials would ‘like to supply their information to us directly’, Vet Record put the request to each complainant separately.
Most replied saying they would not be able to give evidence if the process identified them.
One said: ‘I imagine that almost all complainants will either have already left the UoE having signed an NDA [non-disclosure agreement], or be still working at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. This means that this very kind invitation by the RCVS will not be taken up by any complainants, unless they have enough financial backing to risk being sued by the UoE for breach of their NDA, or they don’t care too much about their jobs….The RCVS can then wipe their hands of the matter and say that they did their best to investigate but no one stepped forward – what a joke!’
Another said: ‘I must admit I am a little confused: they want people to write in but give their name? What would be the upshot of that?
‘X and others have written to the RCVS registrar. How many more new people have written to you? I know that the new ones who have written to you probably won’t also write to the RCVS – they don’t trust them, which is the quandary in a nutshell.’
Asked whether the RCVS could find a way to obtain information from witnesses but also protect identities by, for example, commissioning external investigators (as it did for its recent probe of council members for leaking confidential information to third parties), Ferguson replied: ‘I’m afraid not, no. The tools at our disposal are our concerns process, and the policy for complaints about council members, both of which require people to step forward and be identified should they wish to proceed. We simply cannot take matters forward on the basis of anonymous allegations.
‘While I certainly understand their predicament, it might be worthwhile for people to consider how they would react to the college proceeding with complaints against them on an anonymous basis.
‘Quite simply, it is a question of natural justice. Everyone has a right to a fair hearing, and we have a duty to act fairly.’
A spokesperson added: ‘[An external investigation] is something that we have no statutory powers to do and would be considerably overstepping the mark in our role as a regulator and creating a precedent for investigating workplace disputes. There are right and proper channels for individuals to take if they have workplace grievances and, if it is a wider cultural or systemic issue, it is the responsibility of individual organisations and/or other bodies such as unions to examine and find solutions to such issues.’
The BVA said it was critical that the next steps in the handling of the complaints were ‘transparent, fair and independent, and that they provide an opportunity for all voices to be heard’.
Its president, James Russell, questioned whether the RCVS whistleblowing policy needed to be reviewed ‘to provide a legitimate route for people with concerns to raise them safely and anonymously, where those concerns relate to workplace behaviours’.
‘It is absolutely right that all vets and nurses are afforded due process when facing complaints, but this appears to be a gap in processes that we will raise directly with the college,’ he said.
On the subject of whistleblowing, the RCVS spokesperson said: ‘The term has a defined meaning within statute (The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998) and is generally made to an employer where various protections for that employee are available. Outside of employers there is a defined list of prescribed bodies to whom a protected disclosure can be made; the RCVS is not part of that list.’
In these sorts of cases, witnesses will be intimidated from giving evidence if required to do so publicly
Crossbench peer Lord Trees, chief veterinary adviser to this journal said: ‘I welcome the RCVS’ inquiry, but the sad situation we are in is unusual and I am concerned that the college’s normal processes are not fit for purpose to investigate allegations of this type. In these sorts of cases, witnesses will be intimidated from giving evidence if required to do so publicly when the allegations concern those who employ them or who have required them to sign non-disclosure agreements.’
More information about the RCVS’ general concerns investigation process can be found at www.rcvs.org.uk/concerns ●
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