Is it time to shake up the Veterinary Surgeons Act?

More than 50 years on, is the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act still fit for purpose?

05 January 2018, at 10:17am

Re-opening the Veterinary Surgeons Act might have serious unintended consequences for both practitioners and animal welfare. It could force many practices to withdraw from much of their pro bono work because it would no longer be economically sustainable, BVA members were told at their annual meeting in London on 17th November.

Iain Richards of the Lakesvet Consultancy in Cumbria, and a former SPVS president, argued that the Royal College might be better advised to adopt the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to the primary legislation affecting the UK profession. He said that he was not persuaded by any of the arguments put forward by those seeking to replace the 1966 Act. He feared that this process would involve veterinary surgeons giving up some of the tasks covered by the Act’s monopoly powers to paraprofessionals and that this would further undermine the economic viability of practice, particularly those in low population density areas like the Lake District.

“We should leave things as they are – as soon as you open up this work to fringe groups, you provide them validity and that will not help animal welfare. If that reduces the profitability of practices any further, then it will mean that we will have to give up free treatment of wildlife casualties and we won’t be able to offer out-of-hours emergency care without payment in advance as we do now,” he said, going on to emphasise that his concerns were not about veterinary nurses and those paraprofessional groups that already work closely with the profession. There was no need for new rules to cover those such as farriers and equine dental technicians as they were already covered by existing legislation. But he warned that there is a lot of ‘fringe nonsense’ out there with people claiming to provide services for animals when they have no logic or evidence base to support their claims. “I don’t care about accusations of being elitist – I don’t see many people out there that I would want to be part of our club,” he said.

Views from the RCVS and BVNA

Professor Stephen May, RCVS president and chairman of its legislation working party, insisted that changes in the Act were inevitable. The Royal College has progressed as far as it can through using its charter powers and secondary measures such as legislative reform orders to update the legal framework under which the profession currently operates. There were some changes that needed to happen, such as rules to create protection for the title ‘veterinary nurse’ that would require primary legislation. At the same time, it would be appropriate to establish rules that would allow new groups to come under the veterinary umbrella and to operate with appropriate veterinary supervision.

Samantha Morgan, senior vice-president of the BVNA, said a protected title was the next logical step in the evolution of the nursing profession and would be a vital safeguard for animal welfare and the interests of animal owners. She also felt it would help to ease the frustrations that many RVNs feel about the lack of opportunity for career development and better financial rewards in their profession. “We are not asking for a dramatic increase in the range of surgical procedures that we are allowed to perform – we don’t want to be minivets; we are just wanting scope for career progress while retaining our nursing focus,” she said.

Professor May added: “I am very proud of the Veterinary Surgeons Act and the way that it protects animal welfare and the public. But if that act didn’t exist and we went to government now saying we would like to establish a self- regulating profession which decides what tasks it carries out, then I don’t think they would listen. But the Act does exist and we have that monopoly on providing treatment for animals and that is because we have the public’s support. However, the world is changing, and this creates challenges for us. We need to be thinking about how we can reassure the public that we are a responsible profession by ensuring that we conduct CPD and through the quality of the service we offer. These are the things that are expected of the various other health professions and we should be considering our own arrangements.”