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Legislative Reform (Constitution of the Council of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons) Order 2018

Volume 790: debated on Tuesday 1 May 2018

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Order laid before the House on 1 March be approved.

Relevant document: 18th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee

My Lords, the veterinary profession plays a vital role in protecting animal health and welfare, maintaining food safety and public health and enabling trade in animals and animal products. I am pleased, therefore, to introduce this draft legislative reform order, which seeks to make changes to what the profession and others view as the outdated constitution of the council of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

The RCVS is the statutory regulatory body in the United Kingdom and is therefore responsible for the registration and regulation of the profession in this country. The changes proposed in this order are strongly supported by the college and by the range of stakeholders and interested parties who responded to consultation by both the RCVS and Defra. They will be widely welcomed. As a department, we have worked closely with the college to take these proposals forward and to get the drafting right. I pay tribute to the college in particular for its willingness to address issues raised during the process and to find solutions which, through this draft order, will strengthen its governance arrangements.

I am pleased to say that our Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has approved of the proposals described in the explanatory document laid before this House and agreed that the use of the affirmative resolution procedure is appropriate. The committee commended the department on,

“a well-presented and informative Explanatory Document, and on its inclusion of helpful Keeling Schedules”.

I am therefore very grateful to my officials for their work in producing these documents and for the constructive responses we received to the consultation, which helped shape the final proposals.

At present the college is required to have a governing council with 42 members. There are 24 elected members, all veterinary surgeons; two members appointed by each university with a current veterinary school—Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Nottingham; and four appointed by the Privy Council—currently, the UK Chief Veterinary Officer and three lay members. This is not in line with modern regulatory best practice, and issues surrounding the governance arrangements at the RCVS have been raised on a number of occasions in recent years. In May 2008, the report on the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 published by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of the other House included a recommendation for the restructuring of the council, especially concerning lay membership, suggesting that the proportion of lay members should be increased. A consultation exercise undertaken by the college in 2009 reached similar conclusions about the need for reform.

As a first step towards restructuring, a draft legislative reform order was brought before Parliament in 2013 to make changes to the governance of the two college committees that deal with disciplinary proceedings: namely, the disciplinary committee and the preliminary investigations committee. In parallel, in 2012, with the aim of becoming a first-rate regulator, the RCVS commissioned research to understand better how it is seen by others and where opportunities for change might lie. The RCVS was found by the report, published in April 2013, to be significantly out of step with the arrangements in place at other professional regulators and royal colleges. The report also identified that the council was seen as less efficient than it could be, mainly because of its size but also because of its membership structure, and could be modified to operate more efficiently and in the better interests of public and profession.

The research report included advice from the Professional Standards Authority on the efficiency and effectiveness of health professional regulators. This advised parity of membership between lay and professional members is,

“to ensure that purely professional concerns are not thought to dominate council’s work’.

It also suggested that smaller boards were associated with better effectiveness.

The RCVS embraced the need for change in order to achieve the stated aim of becoming a first-rate regulator and demonstrating a better fit with the five principles of better regulation, by being proportionate, consistent, accountable, transparent and targeted. As current council arrangements are laid down in an Act of Parliament—the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966—the RCVS again turned to the Government with a view to making a further legislative reform order. The college recognises that it must be accountable to the profession it regulates and the overall aim of the proposed reforms is therefore to modernise the structure and composition of its governing council.

On matters of detail, the Veterinary Surgeons Act does not currently include a statutory requirement for lay persons to be included on council. The current arrangement of appointing lay members to council via the Privy Council, or by the veterinary schools, is not sufficiently robust. It is proposed, therefore, that in future there should be statutory provision for independently appointed lay representation on council—six places in all. Secondly, now that the RCVS is the regulator of the veterinary nursing profession through the provisions of the supplemental charter of February 2015, it is appropriate that the law should provide for veterinary nurses to be represented. Two places on the council are proposed.

As noble Lords will appreciate, the size of the council is also inextricably linked to its composition. In order to provide places for lay and veterinary nurse members without further increasing an already unworkably large council, reductions in the representation of other member categories are therefore proposed. Over a period of three years, the number of veterinary surgeons elected to council would reduce from the current 24 to 13, though at all times they will have a majority. While it is considered essential that the council continues to benefit from the academic expertise of the UK universities with accredited veterinary degrees, a reduction in the number of places allocated to them is also proposed—from two per university to three members in total, appointed collectively. UK veterinary schools are content with the proposal for collective representation on council. Finally, the UK Government’s Chief Veterinary Officer will continue to be fully engaged with the council as now, but with observer status rather than as a Privy Council appointee.

Having a council of 42 members is an obstacle to its efficiency. The cost of each meeting—around £24,000 through reimbursement of expenses and loss of earnings —and the difficulty of ensuring that 42 members are available, restricts how often it can meet and therefore impacts on its ability to take timely decisions. As council cannot meet often enough to take time-pressured decisions, it has been necessary to delegate some of its work to an operational board. Decision-making is currently divided between council and the board, with a potential for lack of accountability in those decisions. At present, veterinary surgeons, veterinary nurses and the animal-owning public are at risk of being affected by delays and difficulties arising from decision-making under the current governance arrangements. If the council’s size were reduced overall, it could meet more frequently and reach and communicate decisions more effectively.

The proposed changes therefore reduce the size of the council and revise the balance of membership between vets and non-vets, including veterinary nurses and lay persons. They will bring the RCVS in line with many other modern-day regulatory bodies and allow for greater efficiency, transparency and accountability to both members and the general public. For all the reasons I have outlined today, I commend the use of the legislative reform order to make changes that will benefit the veterinary profession. I beg to move.

My Lords, I very much welcome the order before us today. I declare my interest as an honorary associate member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. For many years, we have had regular discussions with members of the royal college about the unwieldiness and the way in which they have had to work in recent years. The Minister referred to the importance of the health and welfare of animals of all sizes. It really does give me great pleasure to support this order today. I was particularly pleased to read the report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. It was a well presented and helpful report that had come forward following the various consultations that had taken place.

Any of us who are involved in public life would view a council of 42 with great fear. It was something that was fairly common in those days. I belong to the Worshipful Company of Farmers, and we would look at our constitution, which would be a very similar size in the old days, and we had to say, “In this day and age, is it relevant? Can it do the job it is supposed to do? Would it not do it better with a slightly smaller and more receptive constitution?”. Today we are looking at a very important section of the profession, and I am really glad that the profession has great support. We want to make sure that we have good governance and better regulation. That would then free up the council to meet more often and to be able to do what it wants to do in a more timely fashion.

I still believe that vets have a vital role to play, not just for the welfare of the animals that they look after, but for members of the general public, who rely totally on their expertise. In this way, the royal college and the members of it are an important link. I welcome the extension of council membership to lay members and veterinary nurses.

My Lords, we on these Benches support the proposal. In the unavoidable absence of my noble friend Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, I thank the Minister most profusely for the opportunity he provided her and others last week to talk through this proposal and give some further insight into it. It is a set of proposals that are important to alleviate some of the well documented weaknesses in the governance of the RCVS in the past, and it will make an important contribution to organising an important profession in our country.

I wish to make two brief points. First, we of course support the direct elections that will be undertaken for the RCVS in future, but this is a very diverse profession. The practice in a small rural area is very different from the profession in a large urban conurbation. It would be helpful to know if the Minister could offer this House some reassurance that the breadth of experience in the diversity of the profession will be respected in the direct elections to the RCVS council that will come forward.

Secondly, there is a need for new blood. This is a profession where the pace of change is fast. Our understanding in veterinary medicine is changing and developing quickly; technology is changing our understanding of animal welfare, and animal physiology is changing fast. However, these proposals argue for a term of office of four years, which can be extended three times; then, after a period of two years, a council member may stand again. That would not necessarily be helpful in bringing new blood into any particular governing body. It may be difficult to make such a point in a House like this, where there is no democratic accountability and no limit on the term of office, but it is important that we reflect personally on the issue of the length of service. I hope that members of the council will show some restraint, so that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, just mentioned, we can ensure that both members of the public and the animals the vets serve get the members that they need of a council that upholds the honour of what is a very important profession in this country.

First, I should declare my close association with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons as a former council member and former president, and I am still proud to be a registered member of the college, albeit non-practising.

Unlike the medical royal colleges, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has a regulatory as well as a professional responsibility, and that needs to be borne in mind when considering the size and composition of its council. We also all need to understand that it is not a representative body for the veterinary profession—that is the role of the British Veterinary Association. The RCVS’s duty is to protect animal health and welfare and the public interest by ensuring optimum standards in education, veterinary practice and professional conduct. Those key regulatory powers, as we have heard, are enshrined in the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, which, incidentally, by virtue of that fact, is one of the most important measures we have in safeguarding animal welfare.

Given that there has been little government desire since 1966 to produce primary legislation, the college has initiated—with stimulus from other reports, it has to be admitted—a number of progressive reforms over the intervening years: for example, the whole development of the veterinary nursing profession, with, now, a register, accredited education, CPD and a disciplinary procedure. The most significant recent change with respect to veterinary surgeons was the legislative reform order of 2013, which completely separated the professional conduct activities of the preliminary investigation committee and the disciplinary committee from the council of the royal college, so that now, nobody from the council sits on those committees. Through that LRO, those committees have statutory lay membership, in line with current regulatory practices. Your Lordships may be interested to know that, even more recently, an alternative resolution dispute system has been introduced, to which the public have recourse for complaints that do not involve professional misconduct.

Thus, the LRO before us is but the latest in a whole series of progressive reforms, and I am sure it will not be the last. It is concerned, as the Minister has explained, partly with improving the operational efficiency of the RCVS council, but importantly it also specifies the formal inclusion of lay persons on the council—something which, it must be admitted, has been happening for some years, but by informal arrangement. Also importantly, it provides for the statutory inclusion of veterinary nurses. Although the new council will be smaller, these changes will increase the relative representation of lay persons on it from about 14% at the minute to 25%. The changes will improve the working efficiency of the council and are in line with modern governance practice in terms of lay membership. But it is also important to say that they will provide for a council of sufficient size to populate the various technical committees, reflecting the unique role of the royal college as one that regulates.

These measures, as has been said, have the full support of the current council. I suggest that they are uncontroversial—although I am sure that the college will take good cognisance of the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter—and they are very much to the public good. They are welcome, and I fully support this LRO.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the background to the order with such clarity. I also found helpful the explanatory document which gives the background.

However, I was concerned to read that no impact assessment had been prepared, with the reason given that there was no significant impact on the private, voluntary or public sectors. I would hope that the Minister will acknowledge—as I think he did—that vets have a significant impact on public health: for example, in relation to food standards, the breeding and feeding of livestock, research facilities and drug companies. Therefore, the regulation of veterinary practice has a wider public interest. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.

Having said that, in line with all noble Lords who have spoken we support the proposals and regard them as a helpful step in modernising the functions of the RCVS. Its aspiration to be a first-rate regulator has to be welcomed. By any stretch, as noble Lords have said, a council of 42 people is unwieldy, and that results, as appears to be the case here, in split responsibilities between the council and operational board, which raises concerns about where the ultimate responsibility lies. We also welcome the steps to broaden expertise on the council by adding lay members and veterinary nurses to the representation.

Having said that, I have a few questions for the Minister. First, the current RCVS council is supported by a system of statutory committees, standing committees, sub-committees and working parties. It also has, as I just said, an operational board which oversees college management, governance and the management of resources. Can the Minister clarify how the proposed changes to the size of the council might impact on the delegation of duties to the operational board and those committees? How will that work with a council half the size of the original, and is he confident that the existing workload can be covered by a much smaller council?

Secondly, given the regulatory and animal welfare roles of the RCVS, this is an instance where size and composition could matter. Could the Minister therefore clarify what consideration has been given to the potential loss of expertise that will result from the proposed changes? What procedures are in place to ensure that appropriate skill sets and expertise are maintained? In particular, the LRO proposes a big reduction in the number of members appointed by veterinary schools. At a time when our scientific understanding of animal disease and public impact is moving at a fast rate, how will the council maintain and stay abreast of scientific developments that affect its public reputation and trust? The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, touched upon this issue but it goes wider, as it is about the fast-moving science and being up to date and aware of all that.

Finally, I have seen in the press that the posts for the lay members are already being advertised, with applications to be sent to the royal college. Does the Minister agree that it is important that these appointments are carried out with transparency and overseen by an independent body? Can he explain how it is intended that these appointments are made, and how we are to have trust that genuine lay member independence will be achieved if the royal college is to be involved in those appointments?

I very much look forward to the Minister’s response to those questions, but overall I echo the comments made by other noble Lords as we agree with the proposals.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken and for the warm welcome for these proposals, which have been the result of the department working in consultation with the royal college to make sure that we get this right and that it serves the purpose of achieving a balance.

I would like to take head-on what the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, referred to when they mentioned the reduction of the veterinary surgeon element of the council. There was a concern that there may be a loss of expertise and experience if that came about. In a sense, it is precisely one of the reasons for this order. We all wanted to ensure that there was this range. We recognise what the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said about the range of vets in practice, in corporate situations and in the state veterinary service, and the range of the duties of that profession. It is in effect why, in taking into account a number of representations, specifically on these points, the Government and the RCVS settled on a council that actually will be bigger than that recommended by the First Rate Regulator initiative. It is precisely a recognition that we wanted there to continue to be a range of expertise. We and the college thought that this would ensure that the necessary expertise was there.

There is always a balance to be achieved when we try to get things right, and there was also the existing concern about the council’s efficiency. My noble friend Lady Byford could not have chimed in more helpfully with the experience that she brings to these matters—the experience and knowledge of the unwieldiness of the current arrangement and the desire of the college to have good governance and better regulation, as well as recognising the vital role that the college plays. That is why we have the numbers to ensure precisely that there is this experience on the council.

A number of points were raised. It is right that we send a message to the college. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, spoke about new blood and the length of service dynamic. Yes, it is very important to the profession that innovative thinking and new knowledge are always available to the council, which is why the veterinary schools composition on the council is so essential. But it is also important that younger vets come on so that there is a diversity in the council.

I should have declared this before, but it is not really a declaratory interest. Two members of my family are members of this profession, so I get a considerable amount of background information, and one thing that is really important is how every practice relies on the professionalism of the veterinary nurses as well as the veterinary surgeons. In the blend of what this council will have, the experience of two members of the veterinary nursing profession coming on to the council will make a significant difference to the way in which the council can think about these things.

I am going to dance on a pin, as it were, with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, about the no impact assessment. The proposed changes address the efficiency and accountability of decision-making by the council, but do not affect the nature or outcome of the decisions themselves. They will therefore not have any impact on businesses or charities. That may be something that the noble Baroness and I reflected on when we met. But that is the precise reason why there was no impact assessment. The order does not affect the nature or outcome of the decisions themselves.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, asked a number of other questions. She mentioned university vet schools. She is absolutely right that it is vital that vet schools provide expertise in certain areas for the council. All the vet schools are content with the proposal for collective representation in place of individual allocations. The current arrangements would lead to a continued increase in the size of the council, as any new vet school would automatically be allocated two places on the council. There is a reflection that we probably should be training more vets in this country; I know that some universities are thinking of opening a veterinary school. This new arrangement also addresses the fact that potentially, if many more veterinary schools were to open, we would automatically add a further two to the council, which would be unhelpful to good governance and to the profession.

A number of points were made about existing workload by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. From all the discussions I have had, the council has an active desire for these changes. It is well aware that the changes should liberate it from the unnatural burden of not being able to have enough council meetings—for reasons of both affordability and efficiency—and enable a far more frequent flow of council meetings where business can be transacted. One of the unsatisfactory points that I highlighted in my opening remarks was on accountability with a board and a council. This measure will mean that the council has the potential to meet and transact business more often. The noble Baroness asked about existing workload; we want to ensure that the work we are embarking on will be actively helpful for the council’s requirement to undertake its duties in a modern way.

I am always conscious of senior members of a profession and Nobel Prize winners when I am at the Dispatch Box. It reminds me of my exchange on gene editing when the noble Lord, Lord Winston, got up and my heart sank. It is important to have a senior professional such as the noble Lord, Lord Trees, in your Lordships’ House. He identified the importance of protecting public interest and highlighted the 2013 issues on the separation of the two committees so that the disciplinary arrangements are separate from the work of the council. Again, that enables the council to concentrate on other matters.

The noble Lord also referred to progressive reform and the increase in lay persons. I generally take on board your Lordships’ contributions that this will be helpful to the profession. I am most grateful for your Lordships’ support, but the bulk of the work goes to the veterinary profession, the college and my officials, who have produced a piece of work that we can all be proud of.

I thank the Minister for a number of very helpful responses. However, he did not address the issue of the appointments of lay members, with the royal college seeming to be fully hands-on with that, and the need for more independent scrutiny of that process. I do not know whether he can answer that.

The important thing about lay members is that they are independent of the profession. I will write to the noble Baroness and other noble Lords who have participated so that I can give a little more detail on the mechanism for the appointment of lay members. Obviously, it must be done in a punctilious way, through all sorts of processes. This is a three-year transition and, subject to your Lordships’ consent, one of the reasons for the advertisements—I admit that it might be suggested that this is jumping the gun—is the strong desire in the profession to get on with this and begin the transition in July. If your Lordships and the other place did not consent, this would obviously be premature. There was a strong desire to start the process and not wait until 2019, but to get this transition to bring in immediately six lay members and then contract down over three years the number of veterinary surgeons and introduce the other membership I have outlined. That was precisely because this is work we need to get on with. I will write to the noble Baroness with the fullest detail.

Motion agreed.