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RCVS responds to Information Commissioner re 'overspend report'

10 April 2012

We have responded to the Information Commissioner on the two challenges to our decision not to publish the full report of the Overspend Review Group (ORG).

Our decision not to publish in full was based on two sets of external legal advice that to do so would be unlawful under the Data Protection Act.

We have published the recommendations from the Report, which comprise more than half of the total Report.

Meanwhile, the ORG’s recommendations are being actioned, alongside those of the College's Governance Review Group, which were already underway.

Three key recommendations from the ORG were: the establishment of an Audit and Risk committee; the production of notes for Officers from the fortnightly informal meetings of the Management Team (essentially Heads of Department and the Registrar); and, the development of a protocol for the management of projects within the College.

All three of these issues have now been addressed, with Council approving terms of reference, membership and appointment for an Audit and Risk Committee at its meeting in March.

The remaining issues to be addressed are linked to the structure and function of College committees.

“We had always intended to publish the report in full,” says Dr Jerry Davies, RCVS President.

“But in the event, we found ourselves caught between the competing requirements of the Data Protection Act and of the Freedom of Information Act.

"We have responded to the Information Commissioner, and now await his decision.”

 

Questions and answers about the ORG and its report

Why was a review required?

The then-President Peter Jinman explained at RCVS Day on 1 July 2011 that the review was required in order to consider two overspends, relating to the development work in the Lower Ground Floor of Belgravia House, and the new database.

“That the work [on these two projects] was required was not in question, but that expenditure over the extended timescale of both projects rose above initial budgets is both to be regretted and subject to analysis as to cause,” said Peter (see Latest News 12/7/2011).

Who asked for the report to be written?

RCVS Officers asked for the Overspend Review Group (ORG) to convene and write the report. This was announced at RCVS Day on 1 July 2011 (see Latest News 12/7/2011).

The setting up of the enquiry was cleared and approved by Sir David Barnes, who chairs the RCVS Governance Review Group.

Who sat on the ORG?

The ORG was chaired by Professor Bill McKelvey – at that time a new member of the College’s Governance Review Group – and two of the College’s Privy Council-appointed Council members (Judith Webb and Richard Davis).

What were its terms of reference?

The remit of the ORG, as set out by RCVS Officers, was to look at all aspects that relate to the RCVS budgeting and expenditure processes and to propose lessons that should be learned (see Latest News 12/7/2011).

Was it intended that the report would be published?

It was intended that the report from the ORG would be scrutinised by the Governance Review Group, RCVS Officers, the Planning and Resources Committee and RCVS Council. From the outset, all involved expected that the ORG report would then be made publicly available.

Have Council members seen the entire report?

The Planning and Resources Committee, which deals with financial and resource issues, has seen a copy of the entire report, and the full Council has seen the report with one sentence redacted.

Who made the decision not to publish the full report?

Following submission of the ORG’s report, Officers were concerned, so sought legal advice to determine whether the report could be published in its entirety. Both the College’s external solicitors and, separately, independent legal counsel, advised that, as the report contained personal data of third-party subjects, to publish it in full would be unlawful under the Data Protection Act. The full report was therefore exempt from disclosure under section 40(2) and (3)(a)(i) of the Freedom of Information Act.

To ignore this advice and publish the report ran the risk of exposing the RCVS to legal challenge and significant legal costs.

Legal counsel advised that the report could not be redacted to an acceptable extent, as the personal data in question were referred to throughout a large proportion of it.

The ORG’s recommendations, which amounted to approximately half of the report’s contents, were published online (see Latest News 20/12/2011).

Was the College asked to review its own decision, as per the terms of its Publication Scheme?

The RCVS Publication Scheme provides for an internal review of such Freedom of Information Act decisions. However, exceptionally in this case, because the RCVS decision was based on legal advice from external counsel, there was no such internal review.

Who has challenged the decision not to publish the report?

The British Veterinary Association and an individual veterinary surgeon have challenged the RCVS decision not to disclose the full report, by writing to the Information Commissioner under the Freedom of Information Act.

How has the College responded to the Information Commissioner?

We are not able to disclose the content of our response because this deals with the data that we have been advised not to publish.

What happens next?

We await the decision of the Information Commissioner.

Can I read the recommendations of the report?

The recommendations are available to download.

Has the College explained what happened, and apologised?

President Dr Jerry Davies has said: "I would like to emphasise that I, as President of the RCVS, am sorry for what has happened, but I hope you will appreciate that steps are being taken, in particular the setting up of the Audit and Risk Committee, to strengthen governance within our College."

An explanation of the figures involved has been published in the Veterinary Record (Veterinary Record 2011;168:624 doi:10.1136/vr.d3629).

(See also Latest News 10/01/2012 and the presentation given to the Council of the British Veterinary Association on 7 December 2011.)

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