Motion to Approve
My Lords, this statutory instrument has been brought forward in the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly which, as noble Lords will be aware, is suspended. We have just debated a complementary instrument which deals with the recognition of other EEA and Swiss health and care qualifications in the UK in a no-deal scenario. My department has worked closely with Northern Ireland Civil Service officials in the development of these regulations and they are the result of positive and collaborative work between the respective departments. Noble Lords will now be familiar with the recognition arrangement for all other EEA and Swiss qualified health and care professionals across the UK, which this instrument seeks to replicate. I will therefore describe only briefly what these regulations do.
This instrument deals with the recognition of EEA and Swiss pharmacist qualifications in Northern Ireland. It has three main effects. First, like the previous set of regulations, it puts in place arrangements for the recognition of EEA and Swiss pharmacist qualifications that are currently automatically recognised. Secondly, it ensures that applications for recognition that are ongoing on exit day can be completed under the current legal arrangements. Finally, it removes a number of provisions which it is not possible or appropriate to maintain in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The instrument puts in place new arrangements for the recognition of pharmacist qualifications that are currently automatically recognised by the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland. Such qualifications will become “relevant European qualifications”. As such, they will continue to be recognised without additional testing other than checks of language skills and whether there are concerns about their fitness to be registered.
The regulations give the PSNI a new power to stop the automatic recognition of a qualification by seeking designation of that qualification. This is not currently possible under the directive and is an important additional measure that will enhance public protection. Such a designation will be subject to the agreement of the Department of Health for Northern Ireland.
The Government have been asked whether they will set out guidance on the criteria to be applied by the PSNI when seeking the designation of a qualification. We do not intend to do so. The PSNI will be able to seek designation of any qualification that is currently automatically accepted about which they have concerns. It will be the PSNI’s responsibility to gather the evidence in support of designation. The most likely basis for designation will be that a qualification does not meet the standard of the equivalent Northern Ireland pharmacist qualification and therefore presents public safety concerns. The PSNI sets the standards for Northern Ireland pharmacist qualifications and is therefore best placed to identify if there is a case for designating a qualification as not being comparable to these standards. The arrangements for the continued recognition of automatic qualifications will be reviewed by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care no later than two years after these regulations come into force.
Qualifications that are not covered by the automatic system are considered by the General Pharmaceutical Council, which regulates pharmacists in Great Britain. These pharmacists can practise in Northern Ireland under a memorandum of understanding between the GPhC and the PSNI. This arrangement will continue, and changes to the GPhC’s procedures in a no-deal exit have been dealt with in the previous order.
These regulations enable applications which have been made before exit day to be concluded under current arrangements as far as practically possible. The instrument also allows individuals practising under temporary and occasional status or under the European professional card to continue to do so until such registration expires. Concerns have been expressed that the removal of temporary and occasional registration will have a detrimental impact on the number of EEA and Swiss trained pharmacists practising in Northern Ireland. I do not accept this. The PSNI does not have any pharmacists registered to practise on a temporary and occasional basis and has never received an application for temporary and occasional registration in Northern Ireland.
The instrument removes obligations and administrative arrangements that no longer apply to the PSNI, operate effectively or are appropriate to maintain when the UK leaves the EU. These include the requirement to share information through the European Commission’s IMI, to which regulators will no longer have access; arrangements that allow pharmacists to practise in Northern Ireland using an EPC; and the requirement on the PSNI to set professional education and training standards that comply with standards set in the directive. This will provide the PSNI with greater flexibility to set education and training standards that meet the needs of the pharmacy profession in Northern Ireland.
These regulations put in place a system for the recognition of EEA and Swiss pharmacist qualifications in Northern Ireland if the UK exits the EU without a deal. They also ensure that applications in progress on exit day will be concluded under current arrangements as far as possible. The regulations ensure a consistent approach to the recognition of professional health and care qualifications across the UK.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations. These ones are kind of like a double whammy: there are no-deal issues to deal with and no Assembly in Northern Ireland to deal with them.
These regulations are not as complex as the other ones. However, briefings we have received about this in the last week suggest there is some confusion among pharmacists in Northern Ireland about what might happen. The Company Chemists’ Association suggests that the impact of Brexit,
“could lead to a major nationwide shortage of pharmacists available for work”.
There has reportedly been a huge drop in the number of pharmacists registering with the General Pharmaceutical Council since the Brexit vote, with registrations of pharmacists from the EEA falling by 80%—that is generally, not just in Northern Ireland. The Chief Medical Officer for England stated that our pharmacists will be on the front line if there are any shortages. It makes being a pharmacist in the next month or so a pretty daunting prospect.
Concerns are rife, despite the Government stating that they wish to keep free movement of the protected professions and recognising pharmacists’ qualifications. Can the Minister clear up the confusion between pharmacists? Some seem to be saying it will be okay; others say they will fare very badly in the event of no deal. Can assurance be given to pharmacists that their qualifications will be recognised after we exit the European Union? Can the Minister outline the impact she thinks Brexit will have on our pharmaceutical industry and our chemists? In the UK, we depend on our pharmacists as the front line, the people we go to quite often so that we do not have to bother our GP. There seems to be a lot of concern out there that our pharmacists will find themselves in some difficulty.
My Lords, I want to pick up a point made by both the Minister and my noble friend Lady Thornton at the start of her remarks—the lack of an Assembly and how things are dealt with in Northern Ireland. The Minister may not be able to respond to this, but I will put it on the record to see whether someone in government could respond. Is she aware of reports in the press that civil servants in Northern Ireland are increasingly worried about having to take policy decisions? The people then think they should be accountable for the policy decisions, so criticisms are made of civil servants who are making policy decisions. This is certainly not what anybody wanted, but it is inevitable now and has been going on for some time.
This is one of many examples. If there is no way in which the Northern Ireland political parties can be consulted, the way they are behaving is causing an increasingly treacherous situation. I say this to put it on the record and ask for someone in government to respond as to whether they agree that Northern Ireland’s civil servants are in an impossible position in terms of them making policy. Secondly, I ask whether consideration has been given to how far the Civil Service in Northern Ireland circulates this material to political parties and seeks any feedback. Is that also out, in the present situation of no Assembly?
That was quick. I thank noble Lords for their contributions. The points made by the noble Lord, Lord Lea, are indeed important and concerning. I will arrange for the specific points he has raised to be answered in writing. On the issues regarding this SI, I would like to reassure him that since August 2017 my department has engaged closely with the PSNI and colleagues in Northern Ireland in developing this instrument. These have been technical discussions relating to the proposed amendments to legislation and how they could impact the provision of healthcare services. The department has regularly communicated with stakeholders and colleagues in the devolved Administrations to ensure that their comments on the draft legislation were central to the development of the regulations. There were regular discussions between my officials and each health and care regulatory body to ensure that this reflected operational performance in country. I hope that reassures the noble Lord.
I move on to the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. We do not have figures for pharmacist registration in Northern Ireland, so I will have to write to her on that. On the general point regarding the numbers of pharmacists and the role they play in Northern Ireland, she is absolutely right. The Government recognise the important contribution to Northern Ireland made by regulated pharmacists, including those from the EEA and Switzerland. That is exactly why we are bringing forward this instrument today, to maintain a simple procedure for recognising EEA and Swiss pharmacy qualifications to help ensure that EEA and Swiss trained pharmacists can be registered to practice in Northern Ireland after exit day should there be no deal, even though we do not want that to happen. It puts in place after exit day a system of recognition similar to the current system, which is why we think it is workable. It allows applications made before exit day to be concluded under current arrangements as far as possible, and allows individuals practising under temporary and occasional status or under the European professional card to continue to do so until such registration expires. For that reason, we think this should have no impact on the numbers of pharmacists operating in Northern Ireland.
I think I have answered the questions raised, and I hope that has reassured noble Lords. On that basis, I commend the regulations to the House.