The RCVS Disciplinary Committee has recently [9 July 2021] directed that a Suffolk-based vet be removed from the Register of Veterinary Surgeons for undertaking a chain of dishonest statements and actions, including fabricating a letter from a fictitious Home Office Inspector, in order to have her research project published in an international publication.
The hearing for Dr Sue Dyson FRCVS took place between 12 to 13 November 2020 and then 28 June to 9 July 2021 and considered allegations involving her actions and conduct towards the end of 2018 in relation to a research paper that she had co-authored. [Full details of the charge can be found in the Committee’s full decision on the case].
At the outset of the hearing, Dr Dyson admitted that she had written and sent the letter and that its contents were misleading and risked undermining a Government system designed to promote animal welfare and research ethics, but denied that her actions in doing so had been dishonest, claiming she had amnesia. Dr Dyson also denied that she had made dishonest and misleading remarks to colleagues in meetings and correspondence leading up to the letter being sent.
The Disciplinary Committee heard that in 2018, Dr Dyson was employed as Head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust (AHT). Having previously been given the go-ahead by the AHT’s Clinical Research Ethics Committee for her research project ‘Influence of rider: horse body weight ratios on equine welfare and performance – a pilot study’, Dr Dyson completed the project in autumn 2018 and proposed to publish the results in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research.
After peer-reviewing the project paper at the request of Journal Editor Karen Overall, Dr Matthew Parker, a Senior Lecturer in Behavioural Pharmacology at the University of Portsmouth, was concerned by the lack of a Home Office licence and asked for details of the licence or an explanation of why the project didn’t need one, and for the paper to be re-submitted.
In reply, Dr Dyson then emailed Ms Overall stating: “We have a former Home Office Inspector on our AHT Ethical Committee and two current licence holders (Named Veterinary Surgeons) who are fully conversant with the current legislation… I also sought informal advice from a current Inspector. All were fully aware of the protocols to be employed and gave me assurance that in their opinion Home Office approval would not be required”. Ms Overall then asked Dr Dyson to obtain a letter from the Home Office to support this position.
On 24 December 2018, Dr Dyson sent Ms Overall a letter purportedly from a Home Office Inspector called Dr Butler who, she explained, had advised her during the planning phase of the project. In the letter, the fictitious Dr Butler confirmed that their advice was sought for the project and that in their opinion, a Home Office Licence was not required.
Ms Overall then sent the ’Dr Butler letter‘ to Dr Parker for further review, who decided to contact Dr Martin Whiting, Head of Operations at the Home Office Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU) to ask if he knew of Dr Butler.
Dr Whiting subsequently confirmed that the Home Office had no record of employing a Dr Butler as an Inspector and that they were in the process of making further inquiries into the matter.
“In assessing [the evidence of] Dr Dyson the Committee took into account the difficulty faced by any respondent appearing before their regulator and also the various interruptions occasioned by issues which had to be dealt with during her evidence. Whilst [Dr Dyson is] undoubtedly highly qualified and highly respected, the Committee nevertheless considered her evidence lacked credibility and was not reliable,” Jane Downes, DC Chair
After Dr Whiting’s response was forward to Dr Dyson, she replied to him stating that she thought the studies’ procedures did not meet the criteria for the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA), but that this was questioned by peer reviewers. She said that her decision to send Dr Butler’s letter was one that she would ‘eternally regret’ and that she was ‘an inherently honest person’. She explained that she was under a huge amount of pressure in her personal and professional life and that she was ‘fully aware that [she] acted completely inappropriately and she requested the incident be overlooked’.
On 1 March 2019, Dr Dyson sent a letter to William Reynolds, Head of the Home Office ASRU, in which she expressed remorse for writing the ‘Dr Butler letter’. Mr Reynolds subsequently raised a concern with the RCVS about Dr Dyson’s alleged behaviour.
Dr Jane Downes, who chaired the Disciplinary Committee, and spoke on its behalf, said: “The Committee heard from Dr Dyson that she had no recollection of several events detailed in the charge, including writing the letter from Dr Butler and sending the email to Ms Overall which contained Dr Butler’s letter. She accepted that the letter was dishonest and that it should not have been sent. However, she also claimed that, as she could not remember writing the letter, she did not act dishonestly.
The Committee heard testimonials from several witnesses who held Dr Dyson in high regard, including colleagues from the AHT, who attested to her integrity. However, there were many dubious claims made by Dr Dyson throughout the hearing, including that the Home Office Inspector that she referenced as ‘my friendly inspector’ was someone who could have given informed consent to a project as Dr Dyson confirmed that she had met the individual briefly, around two and a half years ago at a drinks reception.
In reaching its decisions, the Committee considered Dr Dyson’s previously impeccable character, the written and verbal testimonies from witnesses. They also considered that during the hearing, Dr Dyson explained that at the time she fabricated the letter, she was under a lot of work and personal pressures, including managing a workload amidst colleagues’ resigning or going on maternity leave and it being the anniversary of her dog having to be humanely destroyed However, it did not accept Dr Dyson’s claims that she had amnesia at this time, and considered that she had not owned up to her wrongdoing until it was discovered. Although Dr Dyson maintained her actions were not pre-meditated, the Committee considered that, in the case of the forged letter, a certain amount of planning and careful thought was involved. The Committee believed that Dr Dyson knew what she was doing at the time, but acknowledged she may subsequently have blanked out what she did.
The Committee found all but one of the allegations provedand confirmed that it “was satisfied that the writing and sending of that letter was the culmination of a course of dishonest conduct.”
Committee Chair Dr Downes said: “In assessing [the evidence of] Dr Dyson the Committee took into account the difficulty faced by any respondent appearing before their regulator and also the various interruptions occasioned by issues which had to be dealt with during her evidence. Whilst [Dr Dyson is] undoubtedly highly qualified and highly respected, the Committee nevertheless considered her evidence lacked credibility and was not reliable.”
The Committee found that Dr Dyson’s conduct had breached parts of the RCVS Code of Professional Conduct for Veterinary Surgeons and amounted to serious professional misconduct.
“the Committee was of the view that the need to uphold proper standards of conduct within the veterinary profession, together with the public interest in maintaining confidence in the profession of veterinary surgeons, meant that a period of suspension would not be sufficient and that the only appropriate and proportionate sanction in all the circumstances of this case was that of removal from the Register,” Jane Downes.
Dr Downes continued: “The Committee determined that it was important that a clear message be sent that this sort of behaviour is wholly inappropriate and [was] not to be tolerated. It brings discredit upon Dr Dyson and discredit upon the profession. For whatever reason, Dr Dyson chose not to respond to Ms Overall’s email on 30 November 2018 in an honest and straightforward way. Instead, she lied about the makeup of the AHT Ethical Committee in order to cloak her response with authority. She also lied about having received advice from a current Inspector for the same reason.
“In the Committee’s view, she made a conscious decision to provide a dishonest response. She no doubt believed that would be the end of the matter. When that did not work, she lied further in the email to her co-author, Andrew Hemmings, claiming to have a letter from her friendly Inspector. When that too did not work, she impersonated a Home Office Inspector in creating the ‘Dr Butler letter’. She then added a false declaration to the manuscript, which she subsequently submitted to the Journal along with an email containing yet further lies.
“That was all done in a blatant and wilful attempt to deceive Ms Overall… into believing the contents of the correspondence to be true, that confirmation a Home Office Licence was not required had been obtained and all was therefore well with the submitted manuscript.
“There was no rush, or urgency to have the paper published and the actions were not done in a moment of panic. No doubt she had not planned the entire course of events in advance, but instead reacted to each new obstacle that came her way, but her overall course of dishonest conduct spanned over three weeks.
“The Committee was well aware of the impact and ramifications for Dr Dyson of any decision to remove her from the Register but had to weigh her interests with those of the public. In doing so it took account of the context and circumstances of the case, all matters of personal mitigation, as detailed above, Dr Dyson’s undoubted distinguished international career and reputation and the need to act proportionally.
“However, for all the reasons given above, the Committee was of the view that the need to uphold proper standards of conduct within the veterinary profession, together with the public interest in maintaining confidence in the profession of veterinary surgeons, meant that a period of suspension would not be sufficient and that the only appropriate and proportionate sanction in all the circumstances of this case was that of removal from the Register.”
Please note: this news story is a summary of the hearing in order to aid with understanding the case and the Committee’s decision but does not form part of the decision itself. The Committee’s full published findings are the only authoritative documentation.
Please note: a correction has been made in paragraph 10 of this news article to make it clear that the respondent (Dr Sue Dyson) said in an email that she did not think the procedure met the threshold for consideration under the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act.