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13. The Veterinary Surgeons Act has been under review since it became law in 1966, and while it has served both public and the veterinary profession well in many ways, various reviews over the years have highlighted its inadequacies. It has been amended numerous times, and sometimes substantially – notably in 1991 when veterinary nurses were named and empowered by the reform of Schedule 3 of the Act.

14. In 2008,the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EfraCom) published a report on the Veterinary Surgeons Act and its possible replacement[2]. Much progress has been made since then on various issues raised in the report, including reform to modernise RCVS governance and to make its disciplinary processes independent of RCVS Council. There is now much more consensus across the profession on the ‘veterinary-led team model’, potentially enabling Defra’s ambition that “any successor to the VSA would need to encompass providers of wider veterinary services.” The EfraCom report, and Defra’s response to it, included agreement that the RCVS’s disciplinary measures should include a wider range of sanctions. The EfraCom report also stressed that further consensus should be sought across the profession for further reforms, and the LWP is keen that this new report and the consultation that follows be part of this process.

15. In more recent years, the 2013 First Rate Regulator report highlighted several trends in regulatory reform reflecting shifts in public expectations in professionals and the organisations charged with regulating them, noting that “Regulatory reform has been underpinned by a need to sustain or boost public confidence in the way professions are regulated”[3]. This can be seen in the shift towards risk-based approaches to regulation by a number of regulators, with “a stronger focus on consumer expectations and outcomes”. The importance of the agility and flexibility of regulation was also highlighted[4].

16. The report indicated numerous areas in which the RCVS was out-of-step with best practice, and that would require legislative reform to remedy. Some of these areas, including the separation of disciplinary committees from Council, and the reform of Council’s composition, were achieved via Legislative Reform Orders in 2013 and 2018 respectively.

17. In addition to the VSA, the RCVS is also underpinned by Royal Charter. A new Charter was granted as recently as 2015. This Charter established the objectives of the RCVS as a Royal College that regulates, and which therefore go beyond that of a narrow regulator: "to set, uphold and advance veterinary standards, and to promote, encourage and advance the study and practice of the art and science of veterinary surgery and medicine, in the interests of the health and welfare of animals and in the wider public interest". The new Charter also underpins the regulation of veterinary nurses, and contains provision for new allied professions to be regulated by the RCVS. However, it made no provisions for delegation to these allied professions, as this requires primary legislation.

18. In 2016, the RCVS submitted a petition to Defra containing over 10,000 signatures calling for statutory protection of the title ‘veterinary nurse’. While Defra was not prepared to legislate for this at that time, they suggested a review of Schedule 3 of the VSA to explore whether the VN role should be expanded. This led to the RCVS establishing a working party which undertook a survey of both the veterinary surgeon and veterinary nurse professions, which confirmed an appetite for VNs to be able to undertake more tasks than at present, ensuring increased utilisation of existing skills.

19. Between 2016 and 2018 the RCVS also undertook a review of the VSA’s ‘Exemption Orders’ which allow certain minor acts of veterinary surgery to be undertaken by non-veterinarians. The subsequent report[5] was published in January 2019, and recommended historic reforms to add the work of several paraprofessions to Schedule 3, while bringing those paraprofessions under the regulatory umbrella of the RCVS. It is as yet unclear whether it would be possible to achieve these recommendations via reform of the existing VSA, or whether new primary legislation would be needed. 

20. Following the UK’s 2016 referendum on European Union membership it was decided to broaden these reviews into a full analysis of the Veterinary Surgeons Act in order to help ensure that veterinary regulation could continue to be fit for purpose in a changing world. The Legislation Working Party drew on reform suggestions from staff and Officers of the RCVS, as well as suggestions made by the British Veterinary Association and British Veterinary Nursing Association, who were represented on the Working Party. The LWP’s main recommendations are presented below, grouped by theme. A full list of recommendations is presented in Annex A.

21. 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 in the healthcare sector, the LWP has taken the view that such exceptions need to be carefully justified. On the whole, the LWP has recommended a set of reforms that brings the RCVS more into line with current regulatory standards, and ensure that this is done in a way that allows regulation to be more responsive to future changes.

[2] Government response to the EfraCom 2008 report into the VSA 1966
[3] First Rate Regulator report 2013, P7
[4] First Rate Regulator report 2013, P10