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Rebuilding trust within RCVS council

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A ‘general direction of travel’ towards ‘rebuilding trust and mitigating future risk’ has been approved by RCVS council amid the fallout from an investigation into alleged leaks.

At its meeting last week, members were asked to consider a paper authored by RCVS CEO Lizzie Lockett.

It set out proposals such as ‘tightening’ access to council lunches – possibly excluding journalists – alongside tougher security surrounding information and appraisals for council members.

Under the vision, members of RCVS council could be invited to vote on fewer items, since, according to the paper, voting ‘can be divisive’.

The suggestions follow confirmation from the college that it commissioned a retired senior police officer to investigate council members in a bid to pinpoint the source of alleged leaks of confidential information to third parties (VR, 19/26 September 2020, vol 187, p 208). The probe concluded without a culprit being identified.

An RCVS press release mentioned several such incidents. While Vet Record was mentioned as the recipient of one leak, no other third parties were named.

At the council meeting, held virtually on 8 October, several council members said they opposed the idea of banning journalists from council lunches, which take place during full council meetings.

Former RCVS presidents Neil Smith and Chris Tufnell both said council members should be allowed opportunities to meet and speak directly with people who write about them.

Tufnell said: ‘It’s incredibly useful sometimes to meet and chat to journalists and have face-to-face discussions, which we very rarely get the opportunity for – so when we get back together [for in-person council meetings], I do hope that will continue.’

Other members echoed Tufnell’s sentiments. Martin Peaty said he, too, valued the opportunity to meet with journalists during lunch, while Richard Stephenson said members should feel ‘honoured’ that outsiders took an interest in the RCVS.

After reading out an excerpt from a recent Vet Record editorial calling for greater transparency (VR,19/26 September 2020, vol 187, p 205), Stephenson said too much council business was shrouded in secrecy.

‘I’ll just gently point out that there’s an agenda item later on in this meeting which has been marked confidential, about one of our committees, and the only substantive item in that paper is that the committee has arranged to have another meeting in October,’ he said. ‘That does indicate, to me, that there’s a culture of marking things “confidential” when no reasonable person could consider them [as such].’

Journalists are not our enemy. OK?

On the issue of lunches, Stephenson said: ‘Journalists are not our enemy. OK?’

While no council members expressed explicit support for banning journalists from lunches, some said they had been unaware of their presence.

Tim Walker, an appointed lay member, said he was ‘ambivalent’ on the matter, but that it was wrong that some had known journalists attended while others had not.

On the question of voting, Walker said it was ‘ridiculous’ that there were so many votes at council meetings. He agreed with Stephenson that some items were being unnecessarily marked as confidential.

Judith Worthington, another appointed lay member, said there was a need for boundaries between council members and officers or members of the executive.

By way of example, she said that ‘when we have council papers released to us, or an issue arises, it occasionally releases a flurry of emails from council members...[and] I must say it concerns me that we sometimes find Lizzie [Lockett] having to respond to these at 10 pm, when she shouldn’t be doing that. As council members I think we have to respect the executive and the demands we make on them’.

The ‘general direction of travel’ outlined in the paper was approved – by 21 in favour to one against, with three abstentions.

Other suggestions outlined in the paper included improved information for nominees for RCVS and the veterinary nurses council, improved induction for new council members to give them a broader understanding of the veterinary landscape, refresher training for existing council members and efforts to encourage a ‘collegiate spirit’. Council members may also be invited to review their code of conduct, and processes around handling media inquiries may be ‘strengthened’.

The RCVS will now work up the proposals, with the comments and suggestions from council members incorporated ‘where appropriate’. The proposals are then expected to return to council.

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