Planning for new legislation - Veterinary Practice
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Planning for new legislation

JOHN BONNER talks to the Registrar of the Royal College

YELLOW Bellies is the traditional (and entirely non-derogatory) name given to those born in Lincolnshire, the native county of RCVS Registrar Jane Hern. There are many different theories about the origin of the term but her favoured explanation is that it refers to the gold in the money belts worn by the local farmers.

Her own father may have played a small role in maintaining that particular interpretation, as a seed merchant supplying the raw material on which the great wealth of the Lincolnshire grain barons has been built. But law rather than commerce was Ms Hern’s calling, an ideal alternative career for anyone from a county where the residents have long held a reputation for enjoying the cut and thrust of an argument.

During her career so far, Ms Hern has been involved in both the drafting and interpreting of the law, as a solicitor in the Lord Chancellor’s Office and as a senior official of her own professional association, the Law Society. When she left the Civil Service in 1987, one of her first tasks at the society was to respond to working papers on proposed new legislation which she had drafted herself.

So this experience of shaping new legislation was a considerable advantage when she applied for the post of Registrar at the RCVS in 1997, as plans for a new Veterinary Surgeons Act were already being discussed. Unfortunately, the Government department that would be responsible for drafting the new Act kept the College waiting until early this year before announcing its plans to kick the idea into the long grass until at least 2011.

Having spent a significant part of the past decade considering what might be contained in such legislation, Ms Hern could be excused for feeling a little irritation at the delay. But if so, she is able to conceal it and adopts a philosophical tone.

“There are a lot of different demands on Parliamentary time and we have to recognise that we are way down in the pecking order. A new Veterinary Surgeons Act is not even top of DEFRA’s list of bids and it has to compete with all the other government departments. It is always going to be a struggle for us until ministers decide that we should be a priority.”

And what would be likely to change their minds? “With all the other professions, change has come as a knee-jerk reaction to something dreadful like the Shipman case with the medical profession. With my own profession, the changes were introduced after criticism from consumers and consumer bodies, particularly about delays in the handling of complaints.”

So as a result, the Government commissioned the Clementi review in 2004. This concluded that for both the solicitors and barristers bodies, Law Society and Bar Council, the representative functions should be separated from their regulatory role. Interestingly, this suggests introducing the same arrangements that have always existed in the veterinary sphere in the UK, with the separate roles of the RCVS and BVA.

Ms Hern says it is unlikely that the election of a new administration will change the priority given to a new Act and so the College has to decide what it should do until such a time that DEFRA decides “to pick up the cudgels” on behalf of the veterinary profession.

With the president and other key officers, she is drawing up a position paper for discussion at the June Council meeting setting out various options. These include both maintaining a watching brief to ensure that the profession knows what it wants to achieve, if and when the Government decides to go ahead, and to explore other possibilities. It may be necessary, she says, to adopt more of a piecemeal approach to achieving the changes that may be needed in the regulatory framework for the profession.

Amendments to primary legislation are normally made only through more primary legislation and require large amounts of parliamentary time. But it may be possible to replace small, uncontroversial provisions through a Private Member’s Bill or through a process known as regulatory reform order. This allows changes to be made through the reasonably simple process of a statutory instrument but again this would only allow small focused changes, say to the structure of the disciplinary committees, but not to the status and regulation of VNs.

Changes to the rules on the membership of the Preliminary Investigation and Disciplinary Committees, currently restricted to serving members of RCVS Council, would be a priority for any new legislation. The College’s disciplinary processes are constrained by provisions that are over 40 years old and attract a great deal of criticism from both within and outside the profession.

The Council has done what it can to answer those critics in a review completed earlier this year. This will produce a much more transparent process with key documents available for public scrutiny. But it will take a couple of years before the system is properly bedded in and then further assessments will find if more changes are needed, she says.

Relations between the RCVS and BVA are now much more cordial than they were for much of the 1990s. But she believes that the two main veterinary bodies should keep themselves at a discrete distance over many issues, and particularly in the runup to any new Act.

Different views

“People tell us we should be singing from the same hymn sheet but why should a body representing the regulated be supportive of everything the regulator wants to do? I don’t think the BVA would be doing its job properly if it didn’t hold different views to the RCVS over a good many issues.”

Another legislative issue which has featured strongly on the Royal College radar over the past year or two has been the new rules on the storage and licensing of medicines. Here the RCVS has been able to develop a close and successful relationship with the VMD. Under the new rules due to come into force by April 2009, the VMD has agreed that premises that have been inspected as part of the RCVS Practice Standards Scheme will not require further inspection by its own staff.

In the meantime, the RCVS will have to gather more data on exactly how many premises are used for veterinary practice in the UK, how many premises are not covered by the standards scheme and which, if any, are never used for the storage and dispensing of medicines. Then the RCVS and the Government agency will be discussing the arrangements for inspecting those practices that choose to remain outside the Royal College scheme, Ms Hern explains.

As with the Practice Standards Scheme, another area in which the Royal College will be adopting an increasingly active role will be in administering the new requirement for mandatory CPD by its members. At the moment, the College adopts a gentle approach on this issue, stating only that non-observance of continuous training could be used in evidence in any future disciplinary case.

However, “I suspect that we will eventually have to carry a bigger stick. If you look at the way all the other professions are going, it is all in the direction of a renewable licence to practise. The old idea that you qualify, get on the register and stay there for as long as you pay your fees and keep your nose clean – that is no longer acceptable.

“Solicitors have been required to obtain an annual certificate to practise for as long as I can remember. You are asked to present your CPD documents and your insurance certificates in the same way as a motorist is required to present an MoT document and an insurance certificate to obtain a new tax disc.

“Annual re-registration, however, is quite time-consuming and costly and that may not be the model we choose to follow. We may decide to have three- or five-year terms but, whatever happens, it will come. Already the Guide to Professional Conduct says that members should not practise outside their areas of competence and so this is putting a framework around that.”

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