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Home / News and Insights / Blogs / Public Law / 96: ‘Unmet vet debt begets pet fret’: has the UK’s regulation of qualifications post-Brexit exacerbated the shortage of vets?

Are you finding it hard to get a vet appointment for your pandemic puppy? Brexit may have played a part.

Many veterinary surgeons and nurses working in the UK gained their professional qualifications in an EU country. There is currently a severe shortage of vets, and registrations of vets coming from the EU by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) are at an eight-year low, with significant drops in 2020 and 2021 seeing shortages exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Government is seeking to address the issue of professional qualifications across the board following Brexit in its Professional Qualifications Bill (the Bill), filling the gap left by the UK no longer being part of the EU’s system of mutual recognition of qualifications. The Bill would also repeal the interim system based on the EU model which has been in place since December 2020.

Progress of Professional Qualifications Bill

We last looked at this Bill in July, not long after it had been introduced into the House of Lords. There was initial unease about the Bill, even uncertainty as to which professions it would apply to, or whether it would affect the autonomy of regulators, especially those that already had their own systems of recognition in place, as is the case with many healthcare regulators.

The Bill has since been fleshed out, mostly by amendments in the Lords. Notably, it is now clearer who the Bill applies to: the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has published a list of the 205 professions and 81 regulators covered by the Bill under the sub-headings; ‘Education’, ‘Healthcare’, ‘Legal’, ‘Professional and Business Services’, ‘Social Care’, ‘Transport’ and ‘Other’. Changes to the Bill in the Lords also include new clauses added to protect the autonomy of regulators, and to require that regulators are consulted before new regulations are made in areas of their existing powers. But the Bill itself would also modify existing professional regulations. For example, the Bill amends the Architects Act 1997, creating a new recognition system for architects.

The Bill contains certain measures clearly designed to assist the movement of professionals, such as provisions to establish a new Assistance Centre for individuals who seek to practice in the UK or abroad.

The regulation of some professions is devolved. The Bill would provide for the cooperation of regulators across the four nations of the UK by creating a new system for information sharing.

The Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent after one final reading in the House of Commons.

Spotlight on veterinary surgeons and nurses

The RCVS is another example of a regulatory body that already has its own system of qualifications in place.

Under the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 (the Act) the RCVS is responsible for registering veterinary surgeons allowed to practice in the UK, both those with UK and those with non-UK qualifications. Before the UK left the EU, under the Mutual Recognition of Professional Qualifications Directive, EEA and Swiss nationals with a veterinary degree were automatically able to register with the RCVS. Now the UK has left the EU, EEA and Swiss qualified persons who wish to register to practise in the UK are still able to do so; however, they have to follow the same process as those who have qualified elsewhere. It has been highlighted that 13% of non-UK EU vets on the Register were from institutions not accredited and would therefore have to sit the Statutory Membership Examination to practice in the UK. Separately, the RCVS reached a bilateral Mutual Qualification Recognition Agreement with the Veterinary Council of Ireland in December 2020.

Although the loss of mutual recognition following Brexit can’t be pinpointed as the sole factor causing fewer EU-qualified vets to come to the UK, the uncertainty over the past few years has not helped. The worsening shortage of vets has been met with a rapid increase in pet ownership during the pandemic, staff shortages due to Covid and supply chain problems (affecting the availability of animal medicines and vaccines). The shortage of vets at abattoirs has had a detrimental effect on the meat industry in recent months.

In response to this sector crisis, the RCVS has lowered the English language levels required both for vets working in abattoirs at the start of 2021 and for other vets towards the end of last year. This is an example of regulator autonomy in filling a skills shortage. However, in response to the healthcare sector making a similar change, concerns were raised during the Lords’ debate on the Bill that this amounted to standards being ‘watered down’. Prominent figures in the veterinary sector, including the CEO of Eville & Jones, a leading provider of veterinary services in the food industry, has warned that the RCVS needs to do more to avoid the continuing perfect storm blowing well into 2022.

The government’s ambition for the Bill, to help it ‘strengthen the UK’s ability to negotiate and deliver ambitious [trade] deals’, where they relate to professional qualifications, and help UK professionals enter new markets abroad, increasingly seems to be wishful thinking. And, as we recognised in our previous blog, it seems mutual recognition agreements are being made in order to meet domestic shortages, but are offering little in the way of new opportunity to work abroad to UK-qualified vets.

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