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2 February 2012
DEFRA has recently launched a public consultation on proposals to allow the College to reconstitute its disciplinary committees independently of the RCVS Council. Why is this separation of responsibility of such importance to the College?
As a profession, we have quite elderly legislation: the Veterinary Surgeons Act, which dates back to 1966.
At the College, we are in a slightly peculiar situation in that the members of RCVS Council, are responsible for setting the rules for professional behaviour via the Advisory Committee; investigating complaints and acting as our police force via the Preliminary Investigation Committee; and hearing cases and acting as a Court of Law via the Disciplinary Committee. This is not in keeping with modern regulatory best practice.
The public attitude as to how justice should be delivered evolves over time and the College works very hard at separating those activities to the best of its abilities.
For example, the College ensures that there is not a commonality of people who sit on those various committees and we even physically keep those people apart when they are doing their work.
Only a few weeks ago, an appeal went to the Privy Council regarding one of our disciplinary cases, and not only am I pleased to say that the decision of the Disciplinary Committee was upheld, which is obviously important, but that the judges sitting on the appeal actually looked at the level and degree of fairness of our procedures.
Whilst they accepted that they were not ideal, for the reasons that I have described, they actually took the time to specifically mention the procedures that we have developed, to ensure those three parts of the process are as separated as possible. We were given a very clean bill of health for it.
However, the issue of separating the College's powers remains highly important, and the Legislative Reform Order (LRO) that is currently out for consultation would significantly tidy up the separation of our three parts of the disciplinary process.
So I think that the headline answer to that question is that fairness is going to be improved. It will be improved, and it will be seen to have improved. That will be excellent for the complainant and the respondent - of course, both sides need to be satisfied.
Any final changes will be made by a Legislative Reform Order to amend the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966. What would a reconstituted committee look like?
As I have explained there are two statutory committees: the Preliminary Investigation Committee, that is our police force as it were, and our Disciplinary Committee, essentially our court.
At the moment, the Preliminary Investigation Committee comprises six veterinary surgeons, three of whom are officers of the College. That is written into the existing Act and is not ideal. We have to ensure, however, that none of the six members of that committee also sit on the Advisory Committee that makes the rules, or are on the Disciplinary Committee that hears cases.
It's not ideal for officers to sit on the PI committee as the officers are inevitably at the centre of the policy making process and setting the overall direction of the College
We have been able to add, over the last decade or so, 'lay observers' to the Preliminary Investigation Committee. These lay people are immensely helpful and the committee obviously takes great note of what they say even though they have no right to vote on decisions.
So although, as in that instance, we have been able to improve what the 1966 Act has given us, the situation is still less than ideal.
Under the new proposals, between 9 and 15 people would be appointed to sit on, or to create a pool of people to sit on, the preliminary investigation panel.
They would be appointed outside Council so that they would be independent of us. At least 30 per cent would have to be lay people, and at least 30 per cent would be vets. There would never be an all-vets situation, that wouldn't be right; equally, it is never going to be an all-lay situation. The rules will dictate no less than 30 per cent of either membership.
When we look at the Disciplinary Committee, the Veterinary Surgeons Act states that we must have 12 people on the committee.
There are 42 members of Council and the nature of the disciplinary committee hearings is that they are unpredictable; you do not know how long they are going to take, you obviously have notice of when they are going to occur, but there is not an ordered pattern to them.
Asking people to attend the committee hearings is similar to calling a jury to a court case; it is very disruptive to your work life, because you do not know how long you are going to be there, and sometimes you might be called to attend turn and the case is adjourned.
When this falls to just 12 individuals who we have to draw from Council, most of whom have got day jobs, it is a huge challenge. There are some members of Council who just couldn't put themselves forward to sit on the disciplinary committee.
Originally there were no lay people on the disciplinary committee; it was comprised entirely of veterinary surgeons. One of the other things that we have been able to do is to introduce some lay members of council. In the Act each of the veterinary schools is allowed to supply two appointed members to the Royal College Council, and historically that was usually the head of the vet school and his or her deputy.
The majority of the vet schools have, however, over the past years, although only by mutual agreement, not by any statute, made one of their appointees a lay person.
Now that lay person may be someone who is just loosely associated with that vet school, they may be a client of the vet school hospital, they may be another member of that university who works in a different faculty, for example.
That has been an enormous benefit and because there are now seven veterinary schools it provides us potentially with six or seven lay people. Generally said it is an unwritten expectation that if you are one of those six or seven lay people who has come through a veterinary school appointment position, you will be expected to sit on the Disciplinary Committee.
That gives us the opportunity to, as near as possible, have a 50-50 veterinary/lay person split on the Disciplinary Committee and where possible a lay Chairman.
What the LRO is going to do is ensure that at least 30 per cent of committee members are lay people and at least 30 per cent of them are vets. So there is always going to be a balance of lay and veterinary professional members.
It's also going to increase the pool of members from which a committee for a particular hearing can be drawn: the LRO is looking to increase the number of potential committee members from 12 to 20+.
We expect both those changes, as determined by the LRO, to make a difference to the disciplinary process and ensure that people who are separate to RCVS Council are appointed specifically for this work and that the increased numbers mean they able to manage the increasing number of sitting days required.
I wonder if you could tell me more about the lay people you were referring to and the diversity of backgrounds they would have?
These lay people are chosen by the heads of the seven veterinary schools, and we don't control their choices in any way, the lay representatives, however, are typically academics from elsewhere in the university, or professionals who are associated with the school or some may have been clients of the university vet school hospital.
I can give you some examples of existing ones. The Glasgow layperson is a professor of European law, approaching retirement at the University, so she is a faculty person within the University but has nothing to do with the veterinary school. She doesn't own any animals, and doesn't have any particular direct connection with the veterinary profession, and her legal background is not in any way essential for doing this, but she will have expertise that is relevant.
Her predecessor in Glasgow was a client of the Glasgow vet school’s equine hospital, and she was very much a consumer member. She owned horses; she used vets in Scotland and brought a valid, balanced view of a member of the public who uses the services of vets.
So those are two quite different people that the same university has provided for us to sit as lay people on the disciplinary committee.
I can give you one further example from the University of Edinburgh. Their lay person is a trained pharmacist, so this brings other comparative professional expertise to the table. Her relationship to the vet school was that she was a dog owner who had had to take her animal to the school’s hospital, and was so impressed with the work that they did that she became a significant fundraiser for them. So she has a real enthusiasm for the profession based on a consumer perspective.
These are just a few examples, and I would hope with all those different types of backgrounds we make, and continue to make, the process as fair as possible.
You have stated that these proposals will allow the College to deliver better, fairer and more effective regulation. Fairness is a real theme of the interview so far. Why do you feel this?
First, we need to modernise the system and ensure that it is as effective as possible and compares well with other forums of justice.
The LRO, however, will bring us up to date, which I think is important. The disciplinary processes will be, and will be seen to be, fairer.
Inevitably, any complainant who looks at a self-regulating profession may make the assumption that the profession is looking after their own.
I'd have to say on that point that it is absolutely my experience from being on the Preliminary Investigation Committee that vets are often tougher on their fellow vets than are the lay observers. You can, of course, understand, however, that there will be the suspicion that self-regulation may lead to bias. In practice, it would be mine and other people's experiences that you are almost trying to be over-protective about your own profession’s good-standing. So I think independence is the second key issue.
The third element is speed.
The changes outlined in the LRO will hopefully speed that process up and, thus, reduce the length of time that the respondent is under pressure.
The other side is equally important, of course. You do find that complainants say it is a long time before there is a Disciplinary hearing.
They are obviously kept up to date, but the longer we take to come to a conclusion, the more frustrated the complainant gets and the more disillusioned they become with our profession and our regulatory systems.
Have you been impressed by the attention DEFRA has given to this issue?
We work with Defra on a large number of issues and, of course, there will be differences of view, but we do work extremely well together.
We are completely sympathetic to the position they find themselves in, with the current economic situation. The government has to try its best within the limitations of its resources.
The good news is that the minister has given the LRO his backing; this has given an added impetus to Defra to act.
I think the individuals involved in working on the LRO, both at the College and at Defra, have done an extremely good job.
I would thank the Minister, because without him giving his support, the LRO may never have come to fruition.
It is important to note, of course, that these are still only proposals: it has come a long way to get here, but we still need the profession to get behind this and the public to read this consultation and see how this can improve both sides of the system, whether it is for public complainants or veterinary surgeons – and , ultimately, of course for animal health and welfare.
I am hopeful that the profession will be behind us, but we do urge both veterinary surgeons and the general public at large to read the consultation and let Defra know their views.