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A step change in veterinary regulation?

Stephen May - RCVS Council member and Chair of the Legislation Working Party

Professor Stephen MaySince early 2017 I have had the pleasure and privilege of chairing the Legislation Working Party (LWP), a group with an ambitious mission to review the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 (VSA).

It goes without saying that the veterinary landscape looks rather different today from the 1960s, and whilst we have successfully implemented a number of reforms to the VSA in the intervening decades, RCVS Council increasingly felt that the time was right to examine the legislation in the round and to make reform proposals to ensure that the RCVS can be a modern, efficient and compassionate regulator of the veterinary profession, fully able to assure the public of veterinary standards in this rapidly changing world.

Recommendations from the RCVS Legislation Working Party

The LWP has now published its report, which I presented to RCVS Council for its consideration yesterday (4 June 2020).

It is a huge report which is difficult to summarise in a short blog, but it starts by setting out five principles around which any new reform might be based. Central to this is the focus on the ‘vet-led team’, and on maintaining our high standards of animal welfare by introducing practice regulation.

The report also contains a series of recommendations which would introduce a compassionate ‘fitness to practise’ model, focusing on 'current impairment', to replace the outdated, backward-looking focus on past misconduct. The fitness to practise model is forward-looking, centring on the question of whether there is any risk to the public, or animal health and welfare.

Moving the focus away from ‘serious professional misconduct’ would also allow the RCVS to consider matters where a practitioner’s fitness to practise was impaired for other reasons (such as those currently addressed by the existing RCVS Health and Performance Protocols), which in turn would better protect animals and the public.

On the whole, the LWP has recommended a set of reforms that brings the RCVS more into line with current regulatory standards, ensures that this is done in a way that allows regulation to be more responsive to future changes, and remains relevant to the distinctive nature of the veterinary profession.

In this way, we hope to modernise what is in many ways an old-fashioned piece of legislation that academics and others inside and outside the profession have argued is no longer fit for purpose.

At all times, the LWP has sought to examine what other regulators do, both at home and abroad. This is not because others always have it right and the RCVS does not. Each recommendation has been made on its own merits. However, there is a reason why 'best practice' is regarded as such.

While there may be a case for the regulation of the veterinary profession to differ from other professions, even those in the healthcare sector, the LWP considers that such exceptions need to be carefully justified.

Looking back, one of the more significant pieces of earlier reform to the VSA was the 1991 amendment to Schedule 3 of the Act, which allowed veterinary nurses to be named as members of the ‘vet-led team’ and to undertake minor acts of veterinary surgery. Then, in 2015, the new supplemental Royal Charter recognised veterinary nursing as a profession in its own right.

While our 2016 petition to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), which had the support of over 10,000 individuals calling for protection of the VN title, was not accepted, Defra encouraged the College to review Schedule 3 to explore whether and how the VN role could be expanded.

This review then fed into the work of the LWP, along with the large amount of work done between 2017 and 2019 on reviewing the Exemption Orders to the VSA and the regulation of paraprofessions.

These were two mammoth tasks in themselves, and resulted in some really robust, and in some cases, historic, recommendations. I am reassured that statutory protection of the VN title remains a standing recommendation in the LWP report.

The report also builds on earlier recent historic recommendations to add the work of other paraprofessionals to Schedule 3, while bringing those paraprofessionals under the regulatory umbrella of the RCVS.

It has been a long process to reach this point, taking the last three years, over the course of 12 meetings, to explore over 50 proposals for reform. These range from the relatively minor to the really significant, of which the fitness to practise and vet-led team proposals are among the most important.

I was delighted to Chair this Working Party, which has a broad membership drawn from across RCVS Council, Officers and staff, and included veterinary surgeons, veterinary nurses and lay members, as well as representation from both the British Veterinary Association and British Veterinary Nursing Association.

I am very proud of this report, which you can read in full. It represents the LWP’s recommendations for a set of reforms that would bring the RCVS more into line with current best practice in regulatory standards, whilst enabling that regulation to be more responsive to future changes.

Most importantly, I firmly believe that this new regulatory framework will provide greater assurances to the public of the high quality and safety of veterinary services, as well as providing individual veterinary surgeons with the empowerment and support they deserve.

I am very grateful to my colleagues on the LWP, and to the staff at the RCVS, for all the hard work which has gone into both the Working Party and this report.

I am also very grateful to my colleagues on Council for the detailed attention they paid to this report at their meeting yesterday, for their informed and considered discussion, and for their subsequent decision to proceed to a full public consultation on the LWP’s proposals.

Read more about Council’s decision

Download the full LWP Report

Watch Stephen’s presentation to Council (4 June 2020)

Published on 5 June 2020

Tags: Councils & Committees