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Professional Qualifications Bill [HL]

Volume 820: debated on Tuesday 5 April 2022

Commons Amendments

Motion on Amendments 1 to 3

Moved by

1: Clause 16, page 11, line 42, at end insert—

“(7) In Schedule 7B to the Government of Wales Act 2006 (general restrictions on legislative competence of Senedd Cymru) in paragraph 11(6)(b)

(exceptions to restrictions relating to Ministers of the Crown)—

(a) omit the “or” at the end of paragraph (vi), and

(b) after paragraph (vii) insert “; or

(viii) the Professional Qualifications Act 2022”.”

2:. After Clause 16, insert the following new Clause—

“Consultation with devolved authorities

(1) Before making regulations under this Act, the Secretary of State or the Lord Chancellor must consult—

(a) the Welsh Ministers, to the extent that the regulations contain provision which could also be made by the Welsh Ministers by virtue of section 16(2) (ignoring any requirement for the consent of a Minister of the Crown under section 16(5));

(b) the Scottish Ministers, to the extent that the regulations contain provision which could also be made by the Scottish Ministers by virtue of section 16(3);

(c) a Northern Ireland department, to the extent that the regulations contain provision which could also be made by a Northern Ireland department by virtue of section 16(4).

(2) The Northern Ireland department which is to be consulted in accordance with subsection (1)(c) is such Northern Ireland department as the Secretary of State or (as the case may be) the Lord Chancellor considers appropriate having regard to the provision which is to be contained in the regulations concerned.

(3) Before making regulations under this Act in relation to which the Secretary of State or the Lord Chancellor has consulted a devolved authority (or more than one devolved authority) in accordance with subsection (1), the Secretary of State or (as the case may be) the Lord Chancellor must publish a report on the consultation.

(4) But the Secretary of State or (as the case may be) the Lord Chancellor may not publish the report unless either—

(a) the devolved authority concerned (or, if more than one, each of them) has agreed to the description included in the report for the purposes of subsection (5)(a), or

(b) there is no such agreement but the period of 30 days, beginning with the day on which a draft of the report was first sent to the devolved authority concerned (or, if more than one, the last of them), has expired.

(5) The report on the consultation must include—

(a) a description of—

(i) the process undertaken in order to comply with subsection (1), and

(ii) any agreement, objection or other views expressed as part of that process by the devolved authority (or devolved authorities) concerned, and

(b) an explanation of whether and how such views have been taken into account in the regulations (including, in a case where the Secretary of State or (as the case may be) the Lord Chancellor proposes to make the regulations despite an objection, an explanation of the reasons for doing so).

(6) The duty to consult in subsection (1) does not apply in relation to any revision of the regulations which arises from the consultation; and, for the purposes of subsection (4)(b), the draft report need not be identical to the published report for the period of 30 days to begin.

(7) In this section “devolved authority” means the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers or a Northern Ireland department.”

3: Clause 21, page 15, line 11, leave out subsection (2)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 1 to 3. In doing so, I will briefly summarise the changes which have been made to the Bill since it was last before your Lordships’ House.

As noble Lords will recall, there has been a great deal of interest in the issues of concurrent powers and devolved competence in relation to this Bill. Before the Bill left this place, my noble friend Lord Grimstone, to whom I am sure the whole House wishes a speedy recovery, committed to continue to engage with his counterparts in the devolved Administrations to persuade them of the merits of the Government’s approach and, in so doing, to try to secure support for legislative consent. Since then, my honourable friend in the other place, the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets, and my noble friend Lord Grimstone, have worked hard to honour that commitment. However, following extensive discussions at both ministerial and official level, it has proved impossible to secure that agreement. It is therefore with great regret that the UK Government will be legislating without the consent of the devolved legislatures.

The Government’s preferred approach throughout has always been to secure legislative consent Motions. Although the UK Government are disappointed with this outcome, we are satisfied that all avenues to secure legislative consent have been exhausted. The UK Government have been consistently clear that a consent mechanism, as requested by the devolved Administrations, is not appropriate for this Bill, but the amendments tabled unconditionally in the other place look to provide reassurances and address DA concerns.

The UK Government cannot agree to the insertion of a duty to obtain consent, as this could give rise to a risk that the UK Government would not be able to implement provisions in international agreements on recognition of professional qualifications promptly and consistently. This could jeopardise the UK Government’s credibility in securing ambitious provisions to support UK services’ exports with global trade partners.

In October of last year, my noble friend Lord Grimstone made the offer to all three DAs of a legislative commitment to consult with the devolved Administrations before the UK Government make regulations under certain powers in this Bill. That offer was made in exchange for legislative consent but was rejected. Following further discussions, the Government offered two further concessions, in December 2021.

First, we offered an enhanced statutory consultation duty for all the devolved Administrations. This duty includes a requirement to publish a report in advance of any regulations being made by the UK Government which would be within devolved legislative competence. The report should set out the consultation process and whether and how the representations made by the devolved Administrations during the consultation have been taken into account.

Secondly, we offered an amendment to carve out the Bill from the requirements of Schedule 7B of the Government of Wales Act 2006. This amendment would allow for an Act of the Senedd to remove the ability of UK Ministers to make regulations under the Bill in an area of Welsh legislative competence, without the need to first obtain the consent of a Minister of the Crown. The Welsh Government would still be required to consult the UK Government on any removal of powers. This is in line with similar approaches taken by the Government in relation to the Environment Act 2021, the Fisheries Act 2020 and the Agriculture Act 2020. These concessions were also offered to the devolved Administrations in exchange for support for legislative consent Motions from their respective legislatures. However, that offer was also rejected.

Subsequently, my noble friend Lord Grimstone wrote to the devolved Administrations confirming the Government’s intention to table both the concessions unconditionally, despite not securing legislative consent. Although the UK Government have not been able to reach agreement with the devolved Administrations, it is our strong view that this Bill will operate best and in the interests of all the nations of the UK if we work together as collaboratively and transparently as possible. These amendments demonstrate that the UK Government have kept their promise and negotiated in good faith. Moreover, we have always been clear that any regulations the UK Government made in devolved legislative competence would be limited in scope and exceptional and would always be made in consultation with the appropriate devolved Administrations, and I am happy to reiterate that now. I therefore hope your Lordships will agree to both these amendments. I reassure your Lordships that the Government look forward to continuing to work closely with the devolved Administrations across the full range of regulated professions policy and implementation.

Amendment 3 is wholly procedural and removes the privilege amendment made in your Lordships’ House, as is the procedure in these cases. I therefore hope that your Lordships will also agree to this amendment. I beg to move.

My Lords, I join the noble Baroness in expressing good wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone. I wish him a speedy recovery. It is a matter of great regret that an agreement has not been possible with the devolved Administrations. I know from having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, previously how much effort he and his team have put into trying to obtain consent through frequent meetings in Scotland and many discussions. Of course, it turns on the essential difference between consultation and consent, as the noble Baroness explained. It is a shame, because there are aspects of this Bill which affect professional bodies in Scotland, which need to be properly regarded and protected against misadventures as a result of this legislation. I do not think that the devolved Administrations have been acting out of malice or anything like that; it is a matter of principle. That having been said, I would be grateful if the Minister would repeat the point she made that there will be continuing effort as this Bill is being put into effect and regulations are being drafted and so on to maintain contact with the devolved Administrations with all the good will possible, to try to make this legislation work as well as possible in the best interests of all the professional bodies concerned.

My Lords, I think all in this House would send good wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, and wish him a hasty return to the Front Bench opposite. The noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, did an excellent job in representing his interests and setting out the extent of the work that has gone on to reach across that devolution gap.

We should welcome the amendments, to some extent. The fact that they have been done unilaterally and without legislative consent is, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said, a matter of great regret. It is also not a surprise. If the Bill had been delivered in isolation, the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, and the Minister in the other place might have borne more fruit, but of course it has not been in a vacuum. It has been delivered in an environment where the devolved authorities have successively found their role being usurped in Westminster. I use as examples the then Trade Bill, the then internal market Bill and the Subsidy Control Bill; all are Bills where the Government in London have sought to take over responsibilities that the devolved authorities were clear in their own minds were theirs. As long as this approach goes on, every Bill, like this one, which seeks to get resolution with the devolved authorities will find that difficult if not impossible. The level of distrust has been cranked up exponentially by each successive Bill that we have dealt with in your Lordships’ House over the last 18 months.

I welcome these amendments, but that comes with a plea, because we have to find a way to reach across that gap with the devolved authorities. If we do not achieve that, and if Westminster continues to erode the devolved settlement as it is at the moment, the union is very much under threat—and I think that most if not all of us in this House do not want that to happen. We should urge Her Majesty’s Government to take this as an example and to go back and find better ways in which to re-develop relationships that are clearly breaking down each day with the devolved authorities.

My Lords, I shall add a word, while apologising that I was unable to take part in earlier stages on this Bill because of involvement in other legislation, as a number of colleagues know. But this amendment and this debate touch on a matter central to the relationship between the devolved Administrations and the Government in Westminster, and this matter is critical to the future of relationships between the nations and these islands.

Is it not in the Government’s own interest important to find a way in which there can be a meeting of minds in matters such as this? If there is not a meeting of minds on issue after issue, we are stoking up the fires that will lead to a break-up of the United Kingdom—not just a change to the United Kingdom as we know it now. Many of us who want radical change would be able to live with a United Kingdom that has a confederal relationship, and so on, and where there is a mutual understanding. But not acknowledging the role of the Government in Scotland and Wales—and, to the extent that Northern Ireland comes into this, in Northern Ireland—is inevitably driving the relationship in that direction. I cannot see what the Government could lose by coming to a conclusion that the consent of the Governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh would be needed for some of the provisions covered by this Bill. I should have thought that it was in the Government’s own interest; it seems common sense to me. Is it too late now to act on that basis?

My Lords, I sincerely hope that the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, is progressing well. He seems to have fallen to the unfortunate propensity of the BEIS team to suffer from Covid. From experience, I hope that he gets through it quickly and I pass on my best wishes. I am very sorry that he is not here for the concluding comments around the Bill. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, for her introductory comments, which were delivered with clarity on the matters that we are considering.

I think many of us who have been involved in this Bill throughout its passage will recognise that it has not been the finest moment for legislation coming through the House. It was the first Bill that I was involved with, so it was quite a steep learning curve for me—but it has been described as chaotic. Indeed, it is quite extraordinary that the Bill was introduced without knowing which professions were actually in scope in the first place. Many concerns have been expressed about the Bill in its stages across the House. We note the considerable number of amendments that have gone through and gone to the other place—as the result, probably, of poor drafting in the first place. Of course, we do not wish to open the debate again on all those and other issues, but it is right to emphasise that particular concern was expressed right at the start with regard to the lateness of consultation, especially with devolved authorities. As was predicted at the time, I believe that it is that which has led to the lengthy delays and, of course, to the devolved authorities formally rejecting the Minister’s reassurances in early January.

On Report, we took a decision not to divide the House based on the assurances made by the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, that he would continue to work on the Bill to secure support from the devolved authorities. We note the further work that has been undertaken, as outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, to seek legislative consent from the devolved authorities and to overcome the impasse that still exists. As has been expressed, this is indeed regrettable.

We note the amendments tabled today and the further assurance from the Minister of the Government’s intention to work collaboratively and transparently with all the devolved authorities. We understand that the amendments are designed to introduce the enhanced consultation duty and to formalise the Government’s standard good practice in consulting devolved authorities before making regulations, as discussed on many occasions in this House.

Along with many other Members of this House, I am a passionate believer in devolution. Real devolution requires trust, transparency, honouring commitments and, above all, respect. Sadly, there are too many instances, across many policy areas, where government is falling short. I hope we can have further assurance from the Minister that timely consultation will become the norm and that any concerns arising from discussions will be dealt with transparently and in good faith. We recognise that the amendments are a step forward. With these comments, and noting our continuing interest and concerns, we recognise that the amendments will lead to the Bill moving on to be accepted.

My Lords, I start by thanking your Lordships for the constructive approach that has been in evidence throughout the Bill’s passage. We have had robust discussion and debates, and the Bill is all the better for that. I take on the chin the comments of the noble Baroness opposite about how we may not have started in the best place with the Bill.

The UK Government have been grateful for the close engagement of colleagues in all the devolved Administrations at both ministerial and official level throughout this process. Even though we are disappointed that the devolved Administrations have not been able to support legislative consent, I know that my noble friend Lord Grimstone and Minister Scully have listened carefully to their concerns. To that end, we have heard and understood the particular concern of the Welsh Government around Schedule 7B to the Government of Wales Act 2006. In answer to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, I again confirm that we shall continue to work closely with all the DAs to make the Bill work for all areas of the UK.

This amendment and the consult-plus amendment underline the Government’s determination to work collaboratively and transparently with all devolved Administrations and devolved regulators under the provisions of the Bill and on wider regulated professions policy. Although it is regrettable that legislative consent Motions have not been passed for the Bill, the UK Government are fully committed to the Sewel convention and the associated practices for seeking consent, as set out in the devolution memorandum of understanding and devolution guidance notes. We will continue to seek legislative consent from the devolved legislatures when introducing Bills at Westminster which legislate within all areas of devolved competence.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, who was asking about the BEIS Bills, these situations are clearly exceptional. BEIS has explored all avenues to secure the consent of devolved Administrations, including offering packages of concessions on these Bills and committing, importantly, to further meaningful engagement with the DAs to ensure their input in the future of these new regimes.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, I do not agree that there is any question that we do not recognise the role of the DAs. We have held three ministerial round tables with devolved regulators and have had regular engagement at official level. It is completely incorrect to say that the DAs have not been given enough time or information to engage with the Bill. However, I acknowledge and hope that we may all find a better way of working together and re-establishing that important trust that should exist between the four nations and their respective Governments and assemblies.

To follow up on the points that the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and I made about the relationship between Westminster and Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, does the Minister agree with us that there is an issue and that relationships are breaking down? She said that she—and therefore I suppose the Government —hopes that things will improve. Perhaps she can give an undertaking to actually do things to improve the relationship rather than hope. Could she comment a little around that area?

Yes, I think I can agree that we can do things better, and that message will have been heard loud and clear in the departments with which I am involved. To be clear, the reason that we thought that the consent mechanism would not be appropriate for this Bill is that we thought that it would give rise to a risk that the UK Government would not be able to implement trade agreements promptly and consistently. The same happened with the trade and co-operation agreement in Europe; we could not get consent for professional qualifications to be added because the European Commission was not confident of individual countries’ ability to deliver on that commitment. The same could be true of the four nations within the UK. Entering into negotiations with a weak hand, we felt, was good enough a reason to legislate without consent from the four nations.

To sum up, it gives me great pleasure on behalf of my noble friend Lord Grimstone to thank all those who have ably worked to support the Bill’s progress. I commend the good work of noble Lords from all parts of the House, as well as those in the other place, who have brought their expertise and challenge to this Bill. I know that my noble friend would wish to pay tribute to his private office, his officials and, in particular, the Bill team for their work so, on his behalf, I thank Zack Campbell, Ben Kerindi, George Whelan, Jamie Wasley, Jen Pattison, James Banfield, Monique Sidhu, Hadeeka Taj, Jerome Healy, Nick French, Raegan Hiles, Tom Corker, Alpa Palmar, Hannah Marshall, Ben Clifford, Funmi Olasoju, Aneesa Ahmed and Tim Courtney. I also personally thank them for stepping into the breach to help me to prepare for today.

This Bill will go on the statute book to end unequal EU-based recognition arrangements, while giving regulators confidence in their own autonomy. It will help to deliver a global Britain and assist professionals to enter new markets through its information-sharing provisions. On that basis, I proudly commend the Bill to the House.

Motion on Amendments 1 to 3 agreed.