College council considers slimming proposals - Veterinary Practice
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College council considers slimming proposals

Veterinary Practice reports on the latest deliberations of the RCVS council and other college activities.

FURTHER devolution for Scotland could scupper the Royal College’s plans to develop a more effective decision-making system through reforms to its council and committee structure, RCVS council members were told at a meeting on 6th November.

President Stuart Reid warned that it may become impossible to create the necessary changes through the relatively simple process of a Legislative Reform Order if the Scottish assembly becomes more powerful. Instead it would take a full Act of Parliament both north and south of the border – and that is unlikely to happen.

“We have a window of opportunity for change now and if we don’t take that chance it could be gone for two generations,” he warned.

The debate, which followed the autumn council meeting, reflected the council’s ongoing concern that its current membership of  42, meeting only three times a year, makes it too slow and unwieldy for a modern regulatory body.

Members were asked to agree a format for reducing the numbers of council members and for delegating decisions, following the reforms made to the disciplinary process as a result of the LRO which took effect in April 2013.

Changes were also necessary in the light of similar efforts to reform the governance of other self-regulating professions, most of which now have governing bodies composed of 7 to 14 members.

While the RCVS was seeking to reduce the overall size of the council, it would strive to retain elected veterinary surgeons as a majority while also ensuring that lay representation was increased.

The process of reform, however, is unlikely to be straightforward, given that there is opposition from some council members to those changes that have been made already as a first stage in the reform process. That involved the creation of an operational board consisting of RCVS officers and senior committee chairmen meeting four times a year, and changes to the council procedures to prevent time being spent on measures already agreed by the various committees.

Sussex practitioner Mark Elliott argued that making committee reports a matter of note, a change introduced in July 2013, made the Royal College less accountable to its members. “By not allowing full, free and proper debate in council, there is a risk that any decisions made in committee that are wrong could lead to a legal challenge from the wider membership and that members will become distanced from, and alienated by, the decisions of this council,” he said.

Past president Lord Sandy Trees also argued for caution in any reforms to the size and composition of the profession’s ruling body. He argued that it was impossible to separate issues of form and function: the Royal College council needed to assess what is likely to be its future role now that its members were no longer involved in disciplinary procedures.

Limit scope of LRO

Bradley Viner, junior vice-president, warned that it was necessary to limit the scope of any LRO intended to address the issue of the council’s membership.

He hoped that any proposal would retain the basic principles of the council as the lead body of a self-regulating profession with a majority of elected members.

More fundamental changes would be controversial and would reduce the prospects that the proposal would be accepted by Parliament.

Staffordshire practitioner Richard Stephenson shared Mr Elliott’s concern about committees taking over the role of council in directing the Royal College’s activities.

But he also recognised the need to reduce the size of council to a more manageable number. This was particularly urgent given the opening of the new veterinary school in Surrey, plans for others in Wales and Northern Ireland and the news reported earlier in the meeting that the University of Central Lancashire has commissioned a feasibility study into opening its own school. Each of those institutions might eventually need to be represented on the council.

More places at the table

Further places at the college’s horseshoe-shaped table would also be needed for veterinary nurses.

VN council member Kathy Kissick said that now the role of her colleagues has been recognised with the adoption of the profession’s new charter, they would seek formal representation on the council of their regulatory body.

Mr Stephenson felt that the best option for reducing the numbers on RCVS council, while still providing places for representatives of the schools and the VN profession, was to cut the overall numbers of both elected and appointed members by half.

He cautioned against overcomplicating the solution to the problem, which he suggested was a common failing among veterinary surgeons.

Professor James Wood, an appointed member for the Cambridge veterinary school, acknowledged that it was no longer sustainable for every university with a veterinary school to have two representatives on the council.

He suggested that the new veterinary schools council might be able to represent the interests of each individual school and offer expert advice on educational issues.

Past president Jacqui Molyneux warned against taking overly hasty steps to reduce the numbers of council members.

She noted that there were already problems in recruiting members to serve on RCVS committees and this situation would be exacerbated if the time commitment was significantly increased.

She argued against packing committees with appointed members from outside the council’s membership as this would certainly distance council from the decision-making process of those committees.

To lighten the mood, Lancashire practitioner David Catlow offered a different solution. “If we really want to reduce the overall size of council, we could elect more members of the stature of Mrs Molyneux, rather than those people like me,” he suggested.

The formidable but diminutive Durham practitioner said she would be making a formal complaint but her protests were brief and unconvincing.

Following the public debate on governance issues, the Council went into a private session to consider the options for future changes.

Summarising the results of those deliberations, President Stuart Reid said: “Council members had a very interesting discussion and there was a diverse range of views discussed by council members around the governance of the College.

“Some favoured a larger, consultative council meeting less frequently alongside an enlarged operational board that continued to meet monthly.

“On the other hand, some felt a smaller and more flexible council was more appropriate – with a proposal to halve the number of both appointed and elected members being debated.

“Others felt that council meetings were increasingly working well as a result of day-to-day decision making being devolved to the operational board and supported maintaining a similar council structure, although with further consideration of size and membership.

“It was evident there was a desire for further reform and the operational board will now be looking in more detail at several different options to present to council.”

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