Looking back on two terms on council - Veterinary Practice
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Looking back on two terms on council

Richard Stephenson reflects on his eight years as an elected member of the Royal College council, covering some of the high and not-so-high points.

THERE IS A WELL-KNOWN ANCIENT CHINESE CURSE, “May you live in interesting times”, which I think only goes to show just how wrong the ancient Chinese could be. It is great to live in interesting times, and haven’t the last eight years on RCVS Council been “interesting”?

In many respects it only seems like yesterday when with some trepidation I travelled to London to observe my first RCVS council meeting. Newly-elected members are always invited to attend the June council immediately before they officially take their seats at RCVS day in early July.

At that time a meeting of the council was extremely formal, with members wearing academic gowns, standing to speak and following strict standing orders. In fact, it took some courage to speak at all!

That did not stop the June 2008 meeting being one of the most acrimonious ever. Indeed, it was the most vicious and unpleasant meeting I have ever witnessed.

There had been a massive row in the education committee concerning an allegation that certain members had failed to declare commercial interests in being providers of modules for the new CertAVP and this spilled over in spectacular style into the council chamber.

The recently departed president, Bradley Viner, was later to describe the proceedings in his Vet Times column as being worthy of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – and he was not far wrong. So I returned home thinking, “What have I let myself in for? Can they really be that bad?”

Fortunately, that meeting was very much a low point for the RCVS and although we have certainly lived through many “interesting times” since, it is with great regret that I have retired from the council.

The meetings are generally conducted with a surprising degree of good humour and just occasionally decisions are made! During my eight years, as well as being a council member, I have served sequentially on both the major statutory committees – disciplinary and preliminary investigation – probably the last person to be able to do so due to recent legislative changes.

Caseload is good CPD

On the statutory committees I have dealt with more than a thousand individual cases at every level within the system from initial complaint all the way up to full disciplinary hearings – this has been some of the best “CPD” one could ever hope to have and there have been many changes in my own practice as a consequence!

The case load is amazingly varied; ranging from issues such as sexual misconduct with animals and sadomasochistic murder to the untimely death of a pet mouse.

Every complaint is taken seriously and investigated when appropriate. Overall, I have developed a great respect for the staff of the professional conduct department who are constantly assailed by both aggrieved members of the public demanding “justice” and members of the profession infuriated by being investigated at all.

Whilst I have no doubt that occasionally wrong decisions are made, it is never through lack of effort to achieve excellence and fairness.

Council members are often asked, “What have you achieved?” Being a councillor requires the ability to work within teams, doing one’s best to influence them in what you believe to be the correct direction. Thus, it is wrong to claim changes as an individual “achievement”. However, here are some of the areas I’ve helped along the way:

One was an independent review of the disciplinary process resulting in the production and publication of a thorough, open and transparent disciplinary manual, improved training for DC members and strengthening of the team of legal assessors. The training DC members receive now is of an extremely high quality and committee members take the role very seriously.

I was a member of the working party that steered a Legislative Reform Order through Parliament to create an independent membership of both the DC and PIC. The membership of both those committees is now selected by an independent panel following an open application process.

Team effort

I was part of the team that drafted and promoted the new Royal Charter which, amongst other things, effectively gave official recognition to a new profession – that of veterinary nursing.

Recently, I have been one of the “group of three” council members who have worked with DEFRA to lay before Parliament a draft Legislative Reform Order to radically change the structure of the council itself – giving VNs and lay people representation whilst preserving democratic accountability with a majority of elected members. The result should be a leaner but more efficient council.

Perhaps one of the most significant changes with which I have been closely involved is the introduction of the College’s “Health Protocol” – the brainchild of former registrar, Gordon Hockey – a mechanism by which members with serious health (physical or mental), drug or alcohol-related problems can be assisted on the route to recovery whilst remaining if at all possible (and safe) in practice.

There is no doubt that this protocol has already literally saved lives. Such has been the success of the scheme that the PIC now has a special sub-committee specialising in monitoring health cases.

I am particularly proud that all the issues I set out in my original election manifesto have been brought to a successful completion – reform of the disciplinary process, an independent disciplinary committee, maintenance of an elected majority of veterinary surgeons on RCVS council – all of which I was told at the time were impossible as only a “new” Veterinary Surgeon’s Act could achieve change.

I have always opposed unnecessary increases in the retention fee whilst the College has such large reserves and it is pleasing that in the eight years I have sat on the council there have only been two small increments.

Over the last eight years there have been many changes at Belgravia House. I had never anticipated outstaying not one but two registrars and it was a particularly sad occasion when Gordon Hockey, who had been a loyal and hardworking servant of the profession, decided the time was right to move on.

There were many issues with which I found myself on the other side of the argument to Gordon but he was always prepared to listen and was impeccably courteous and fair. He took an almost proprietorial interest in the affairs of the veterinary profession and will be greatly missed.

The new CEO, Nick Stace, appointed after the so-called “overspend” crisis and the subsequent McKelvey report, brought with him a whirlwind of change. Much of the physical clutter was removed from the building and management practices modernised.

Regrettably, some long-serving members of staff found their positions redundant as a consequence. The RCVS has officially become “a great place to work” and was ahead of the game by ensuring all suppliers paid their staff the living wage long before it became government policy.

Nick’s concept of developing a “first rate regulator” has proved inspirational to the RCVS team. There were obvious dangers in claiming to be “first rate” – every time a problem emerges the slogan can be thrown back at you. However, the RCVS is now broadening the approach in attempt to become a “first rate” Royal College as well.

So what do I see as the big issues of the next decade for the College? I would say maintaining the standards of the UK registrable degrees in the face of more veterinary colleges seeking recognition, implementing a compulsory practice standards scheme and ensuring proper provision for 24/7 emergency care is maintained will be the main ones.

During my eight years on the council I have become increasingly concerned about the general direction of travel taken by our profession as we transition from holding a 24/7 vocation to having a 9am-6.30pm job.

As a PIC member I was frequently shocked at cases where practices, having performed major surgery on animals, proved unable or unwilling to provide aftercare for them, necessitating the transfer (often on the back seat of the owner’s car with i/v catheter in place) to an OOH provider.

All too often referral to a practice that can provide full 24/7 post-operative care for the operation is neither discussed nor offered prior to surgery.

I cannot help but wonder if the financial benefit of performing the operation is being allowed to outweigh the welfare needs of the animal.

Perhaps I’m simply out of date in believing that if you cannot provide the aftercare you shouldn’t do the surgery?

Practice standards is another area where the RCVS needs to take firmer action to reassure the public and coincidentally ensure a level playing field between practices. As long ago as 1955 the council declared: “It is scarcely reasonable to expect members of the public to wait in dingy uncomfortable, ill lighted and unheated premises.”

It is sad that in 2016 we still have practices that could fall into that category (or worse). Surely it is now time to ensure that every practice is independently inspected and is at least a “core” member of the Practice Standards Scheme.

So, has it all been worthwhile? I can answer that question with an emphatic YES. Whilst it has been extremely hard work involving many long hours well into the night on occasions, it has been an immense privilege and honour to serve on the council of my profession and work with the RCVS staff.

Many veterinary surgeons would be surprised at the dedication of the Belgravia House team. It is not unusual to receive replies to e-mails over weekends or in the small hours of the morning. The standard of debate in council is always high and in recent years the papers presented have been well researched and evidence-based.

When mistakes have been made, the council has listened and changed – for example, the decision to stop listing post-nominals in the register was rapidly reversed following representations from members. The RCVS has a statutory role which means it can never be the most popular of organisations; however, I do feel it is worthy of the profession’s respect.

So I wish the council well and hope that they continue “to live in interesting times”, but perhaps not quite as interesting as some of those I have served through!

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