My Lords, I start my remarks by recognising the wealth of professional experience that is in your Lordships’ House and will no doubt be on full display in today’s debate. Our regulated professions are a national asset, and the professionalism of our services sector is part of the UK’s offering to the world. Good regulation and the expertise of regulators underpin that professionalism.
The purpose of the Bill is to revoke the EU-derived system for the recognition of overseas professional qualifications in the UK following the post-Brexit transition period. The Bill replaces this system with a new framework, global in outlook and tailored to the needs of the UK. The Bill will allow action to be taken in the public interest if it is judged that a shortage of professionals has arisen in a profession. It also makes sure that regulators have the tools they need to strike agreements with their international counterparts on the recognition of professional qualifications, creating more opportunities for UK citizens to work globally. These agreements will be a key facilitator of services trade, creating opportunities for UK-based professionals to work and provide services abroad. I can reassure the House that the Bill does not restrict the independence of the UK’s regulators. It fully respects regulators’ autonomy to determine who can practise in the UK.
I begin by describing the constituency of the Bill. Across the UK, over 160 professions are regulated by law by a network of over 50 regulators. The Bill will apply to all professions regulated by law. This means areas where there are restrictions in legislation on pursuing the activities of a profession, such as for doctors. It also includes restrictions on using a professional title, such as for architects. These restrictions usually require individuals to gain a qualification, carry out specialised training or demonstrate their professional experience.
Typically, an individual is required by law to register with a regulator to practise that profession. Many of these regulators are established in legislation, operating independently of the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. The Bill also encompasses bodies established by royal charter, but only if they have functions under legislation in relation to a profession regulated by law. However, the Bill does not apply to professions regulated on a voluntary basis. For example, it does not apply to chartered professional titles that are voluntarily regulated, such as chartered accountants, although it includes auditors and chartered engineers.
Some professions are regulated on a UK-wide basis, and the regulation of others is entirely devolved. The Bill will apply to the entirety of the UK, while of course respecting the devolution settlements by allowing the devolved Administrations to make regulations within their devolved competence.
As I hope your Lordships can appreciate from my description, the regulation of professions comprises a complex regulatory landscape. It has resulted from the differing needs of professions and from legislation being introduced over a long period. That is why the Bill establishes a framework. It sets out a permissive approach, under which regulations could be made to provide tailored solutions for specific professions if and when required. It needs this flexibility because we cannot anticipate future professional shortages or the terms of future international agreements.
I emphasise that we want this new framework for recognition of professional qualifications to complement regulators’ existing practices. For this reason, the Government have engaged closely with a wide range of regulators. I can assure the House that I take their views very seriously. Indeed, following further consultation with the GMC and other healthcare regulators since introduction, the Government intend to table an amendment to Clause 1 in good time before Committee. This is to address concerns raised by regulators such as the GMC to ensure that the flexibility and autonomy of healthcare regulators and others is preserved in the event that these powers are used.
I turn now to the main elements of the Bill. Its core purpose is to update the regulatory framework for recognising professional qualifications and experience gained overseas. Through Clauses 5 and 6 we would revoke the EU-derived system, which places obligations on our regulators to offer preferential treatment to European Economic Area and Swiss-qualified professionals compared to those with qualifications from other parts of the world.
This system was always intended to be temporary, and it has not been reciprocated by the EU. We need to replace it with a new framework in line with our status outside the single market and our global Britain ambitions. We want our regulators to recognise professionals from around the world, considering the skills and knowledge they offer, not just where they came from. The Bill will ensure that regulators can be given the legal ability to recognise overseas qualifications wherever they were granted, if they deem it appropriate to do so.
Through Clause 1, UK Government Ministers and the devolved Administrations can require regulators to have a process to recognise professional qualifications from all around the world where the individual meets UK standards. This would be implemented through secondary legislation.
Clause 2 limits the use of this power to professions where demand is not being met and the resultant shortage could be addressed by opening up this new process for professionals with qualifications from overseas. This condition provides reassurance that UK Government Ministers and devolved Administrations can act only when there is a clear public interest in so doing. For the professions where this power is used, regulators will have flexibility in the way they assess individuals with professional qualifications and experience gained overseas without, I stress, compromising their rigorous standards. Where Clause 1 is not exercised, regulators will of course be free to continue recognising qualifications from overseas in line with their existing powers.
Noble Lords will be aware of the value of services exports in our economy. Indeed, the EU Services Sub-Committee issued a report on the future UK-EU relationship on trade in services in March this year. The report acknowledged the role of the mutual recognition of professional qualifications in services trade for many sectors. With that in mind, the Bill also includes two measures that support us as we seize opportunities for professionals in overseas markets and encourage talented professionals to work in the UK.
Clause 3 will enable UK Ministers and devolved Administrations to implement the recognition of professional qualifications elements of international agreements. In Clause 4, we propose a power to make regulations that would empower regulators to enter into recognition agreements with their overseas counter- parts. We would use this power only where regulators do not already have the ability to do so. That includes mutual recognition agreements agreed in accordance with trade agreements that the Government are striking around the world. It can also include individual agreements with overseas counterparts pursued at regulators’ discretion.
To be frank, we acknowledge that these powers are broad, but I reassure your Lordships that in our international negotiations on the recognition of professional qualifications, we have always sought to preserve the UK’s autonomy to set its own professional standards and determine who is fit to practise here. It is for this reason that the recognition of professional qualifications chapters of trade agreements often encourage the parties’ autonomous regulators to negotiate mutual regulation agreements without dictating how they should do this.
The Bill also contains several measures to provide support to professionals and regulators. These build on the good practices of many regulators. Clause 7 will maintain the legislative underpinning for an assistance centre, which provides advice to professionals interested in working in the UK or overseas. Clause 8 will require regulators to publish details about entry and practice requirements for their professions. Many regulators already do this, but we want this to be comprehensive to make information about careers more accessible.
Clause 9 will give a legislative underpinning to sharing information between regulators operating in different parts of the UK. Such information is often shared on a voluntary basis, and this can help inform regulatory action—for example, if there is evidence of malpractice. Clause 10 proposes that UK regulators be required to provide certain information to overseas regulators about UK professionals at the request of the individual. This would enable those overseas regulators to decide on UK professionals’ entitlement to practise.
Finally, in Clause 11, the Bill will introduce a new system for recognising all architects who qualified overseas. This profession is addressed specifically in the Bill because this is an area where we need primary legislation to move away from bespoke EU-derived obligations as soon as possible. This will expedite new international entrants to the Architects Register in the UK while requiring them to demonstrate an understanding of the specific UK landscape. Our proposals will make sure that UK demands can be met by architects from all around the world and improve the Architects Registration Board’s administrative processes.
To conclude, this Bill removes outdated legislation from the UK’s days in the EU. It replaces it with a new framework that upholds the great strength of the UK’s professionalism while protecting regulators’ autonomy. It makes sure that regulators can put in place the arrangements we need to recognise professionals from all over the world. It empowers regulators to secure arrangements that promote our world-leading services exports. I am sure that it will form the basis of a great partnership between government, regulators and professionals. I commend it to the House, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear introduction and positive engagement so far. This has certainly helped ease me into my first speech at Second Reading, and I hope that this constructive approach can continue, not simply for my benefit but to ensure that we end up with an improved Bill. Although I may still not know my way around the House or fully appreciate its quirks and traditions, what is clear to me is the benefits that will flow from recognising professional qualifications for public services and the wider economy.
Enabling regulators to recognise qualifications drives up standards of practice, gives confidence to UK employees and consumers and improves contracts for workers. It also allows people to move to the UK to fill gaps in our labour market and enrich our communities. As a former board member of NHS Leeds, I know how much the NHS, for example, depends on those workers. Last year, those who were non-British included 169,000 NHS staff in England—about 14% of all staff—122,000 staff on the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s register and 247,000 staff in social care. We are hugely grateful to those key workers, especially for their efforts during the pandemic. This support would not have been possible without the recognition of professional qualifications. The Bill also facilitates the recognition of UK qualifications in other countries so that British citizens can seek to work abroad.
I remind the Minister of the Government’s central promise in their Explanatory Notes that
“nothing in the Bill prevents, qualifies or otherwise impacts the ability of those with existing recognised qualifications from continuing their areas of practice in the UK”.
We will be holding him to that throughout the Bill’s passage. We cannot clap for carers today, then strip them of qualifications tomorrow. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath will outline some of the concerns raised by the GMC and others on drafting that covers asking regulators to assess qualifications to be “substantially the same” as UK qualifications. I acknowledge the Minister’s intention to bring forward amendments in this area.
This legislation is needed to replace EU law so that we can ensure that we have the skills to keep our economy going. This new framework replaces the interim system which was set up for EEA and Swiss professions. We recognise that this is the next step in our departure from the EU. Although we will be seeking quite a few clarifications and assurances, Labour’s approach to the Bill will be broadly threefold.
First, regulators must remain independent and autonomous—nothing in the Bill must undermine their standing. Their independence is essential to maintain UK standards—for example in health, public safety and consumer protection. Their expertise allows the right calls to be made when approving qualifications and recognising when more training is required, and their decisions must be accepted and respected. We cannot get into a position where the Government pressure bodies to accept professional qualifications to, for example, clinch a trade deal with Australia.
This independence could also be threatened if regulators are not properly supported. The impact assessment states that most costs will fall to regulators, and the Government estimate the cost to regulators of transition and the new framework to be about £2 million per year, as well as additional costs for new transparency requirements. Therefore, will the Minister answer the following initial questions? Can he confirm that regulations created under the Bill, especially Clauses 1 and 3, can never force regulators to accept specific qualifications? Could FTAs put regulators under undue pressure to do so? Do regulators need additional funding and resources, or will they pass on all costs to professionals and businesses?
Secondly, on delegated powers, we need more meat on the bones of this skeletal Bill. The Government’s own report on delegated powers states that
“the substantive changes to the law envisaged by this Bill will be made through delegated powers rather than the Bill itself.”
That approach fits in with the wider pattern of this Government whereby Ministers often run scared of scrutiny. We understand that national authorities need flexibility to bring forward regulations as and when agreements are struck and shortages identified. Therefore, we accept that it is impossible to provide full clarity now but we are in the dark at the moment. The Government have identified priority professions in their impact assessment; for example, healthcare professionals, social workers, vets and teachers. Therefore, we are calling on the Government to publish draft statutory instruments on priority professions before Report in the Lords. Can the Minister commit to that?
Thirdly, on skill shortages, while attracting talent to the UK is essential for public services and the wider economy, the recognition of overseas qualifications is not a silver bullet for ending our current skills shortage. We believe that the skills agenda must be at the heart of our economic strategy. The agenda is essential to supporting new and emerging businesses, and is vital for the post-Covid recovery and tackling the climate emergency head on. However, after, sadly, a decade of Conservative neglect in many different sectors and professions, we are seeing shortages, including of 84,000 NHS workers in England, 112,000 social workers and 3,000 teachers. The Government’s Queen’s Speech briefing document also states that shortages account for 36% of all construction vacancies and 48% of all manufacturing and skilled trades vacancies.
We believe in a high-skill, high-wage economy, which is why we are often dismayed at the Government’s approach; for example, their lifetime skills guarantee is not guaranteed for everyone because people cannot use it if they are already qualified to level 3, unless they are getting a qualification that the Government have decided is valuable or if they need maintenance support while they are learning. We need to do much better than that. Therefore, we will be arguing that when a skills shortage has been determined under Clause 2 the determination should be published, along with details of how the appropriate national authority is investing in skills domestically. Can the Minister explain how that determination will be compiled; for example, will it be determined by the Government or the regulators? What sources and modelling will be used?
My noble friend Lady Hayter will be touching on other areas on which we will seek clarification, including on how the Bill relates to the EU-UK TCA, whether it allows for bilateral regulatory agreements with EU member states, where the assistance centre will be based and how it will be funded.
For now, I end by stressing how we want to promote opportunity, trade and standards through the recognition of professional qualifications. We must do it in a way that maintains regulatory independence, ensures parliamentary scrutiny and does not replace skills investment at home. In those key areas, we remain to be convinced.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, to her position on the Labour Front Bench and look forward to working with her in her new role. She has already demonstrated a grasp of this issue and I am sure that her role in offering scrutiny to the Bill will enhance our proceedings. I warn her that whenever the Government say that a trade Bill or a Bill associated with trade is merely a technical measure, framework or tidying-up, we are here for quite a long time. However, she will add to that. The Minister, as ever, is open and in advance of this legislation he has been receptive to those who have wished to engage with him. I know that that will carry on. His record until now has demonstrated that.
I wish to apologise to noble Lords. The European Affairs Select Committee on which I serve is currently taking evidence on UK citizens’ rights in Europe and European citizens’ rights here, and I will have to leave the debate for a short period in order to question some of our witnesses. However, that is linked to some of the considerations in the Bill. I mean no discourtesy to the House.
My noble friends will raise many issues that have been outlined by the Minister. I will focus on some of trade elements, some of the underlying reasons why the Bill is necessary, some aspects of devolution and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, indicated, concerns regarding the wide-ranging nature of some of the regulatory powers, including the Henry VIII powers included in the Bill.
The Minister’s signature is on the front page of the impact assessment on the Bill. It states that the best estimate of the Bill’s costs are an additional £18.2 million but possibly a staggering £42.82 million. I have to say to the Government that their slashing of ODA to the world’s poorest while being happy to find up to £43 million for new bureaucracy shows that their priorities are all wrong. The Minister’s introduction goes on to state that the net long-term negative social value of the Bill is £11 million. I am pleased that the Government have at last recognised that the cost of the lack of an agreement in the TCA on mutual recognition of professional qualifications is going to cost us a great deal—a net negative value of £11 million, just with the Bill alone.
I turn first to the trade impacts. Paragraph 92 of the impact assessment contains curious language. It states:
“Professional qualification recognition requirements can act as a non-tariff barrier to services trade. If UK professionals’ qualifications are recognised in European countries this could be an enabler in bidding for, winning and providing traded services by regulated professionals.”
That is a good thing. However, bizarrely, the Government think that erecting new service trade barriers is a good thing. The paragraph continues:
“By ending unilateral recognition for certain professions, UK regulators may be in a better position to negotiate mutually beneficial and reciprocal recognition arrangements with our EU counterparts.”
Using the EU regulated professions database cited by the Government in their papers associated with the Bill and the impact assessment, in 2019-20, the UK had 6,093 citizens’ qualifications recognised automatically by EU member states for work. We recognised 9,436. If one takes out the seasonal recognition of workers from Spain, the figures are broadly similar. Now we have to get agreements separately on a new application process for each country, with no real negotiating strength. I am not sure about the basis of the assumption that that is good for services trade.
This is for each country and each profession. The maths can be quite straightforward using the figures in the impact assessment but, if the current trend for the recognition of qualifications carries on, next year we will require more agreements by our regulators of other European regulators than we will for the people we actually regulate for the certification of qualifications. That is why the cost—of up to £42 million—is ridiculous, given the fact that this will require more agreements than the people whose qualifications it is meant to recognise.
Paragraph 84 of the impact assessment states that Home Office modelling on the new skilled worker visa system could result in a 70% reduction in EEA long-term worker inflows—70% less is not exactly a negotiating incentive for Europe. It is not just a poor negotiating hand; we have chopped it off entirely. The number of people whose qualifications have been recognised has already fallen by nearly 50% since 2018, so we are in a situation of serious concern for professional labour shortages, which I will turn to in a moment.
I had to read this next paragraph twice, as I could not quite believe it. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is in her place, because I am sure that she will be interested to learn of this too. It states that:
“A reduction in the recruitment of EEA and Swiss-qualified professionals could reduce competition in the market for services, to the benefit of UK-qualified professionals in the UK. EEA firms may be less able to provide services involving regulated professions to UK customers, which may benefit UK businesses.”
I think I read in the press at the weekend that this is a free-trade Government: that is quite extraordinary—I must have been mistaken. The reason we have this Bill, as the Minister said, is to make it easier for foreign workers to be recognised because we have shortages. But the impact assessment says that the very fact that we have shortages is a good thing for UK businesses. Which is it, Minister?
What of the shortages and demand—the central element of Clauses 1 and 2? We were told that there would not be shortages in qualified workers because of Brexit, but the Government have deliberately refused to carry out an impact assessment of the TCA, so we must use this one instead. If it is not all about deemed shortages, what is it about?
This morning, I reviewed the Government’s list of shortages in skilled professions. The list, which is on GOV.UK, was updated on 6 April, and it is worrying, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, said. It is no surprise that it includes all musicians, all artists and all choreographers, proving the point that my noble friends on these Benches have been raising about this sector as a result of the TCA. The list also includes “Veterinarians —all jobs”, “Mechanical engineers—all jobs”, “Electrical engineers—all jobs” and all jobs in health and social care. I have quoted from one list but there is a separate list for health and education. Similarly worryingly, all business analyst and web designer jobs are included. This list is depressing for our economy. In one of the areas where we had relied heavily on highly skilled EEA workers, a
“70% reduction in EEA long-term worker inflows”
will have an additional impact on such services. Will this Bill help? Its bureaucracy and costs simply will not.
One reason the Bill will not help is the lack of interaction with this Government’s immigration and skilled workers policy. Look at the starting salaries of these so-called high-skilled workers, I wonder whether they meet the threshold of the immigration laws. Even if these workers coming from abroad—from outside the EEA, of course—have their professional qualifications fast-tracked or with less fees attached as a result of this Bill, their starting salaries do not match even the lowest threshold of the skilled worker points system, which has been set at £25,600. The Minister talked about looking at opening up opportunities. If you are in an FTA with a newly qualified midwife on a fast-track, low-fee application, recognised through the regulations in this Bill, the salary starts at £24,907. It does not meet the immigration points system threshold anyway. A registered teacher in England and Wales starts at £18,169; a Scottish social work graduate can expect an average starting salary of £23,000. Even with the shortage list and the points system, there is no proper interaction with what the regulations in this legislation will outline.
That is one issue with it, but noble Lords must read paragraph 86 of the impact assessment, which says that
“62 of the 88 professions likely to be included in the new framework are associated with occupations on the Shortage Occupation List.”
This new sledgehammer of a Bill seems to crack only two-thirds of the nuts. What about the remaining 26 professions?
The Minister said that this legislation is empowering. Well, paragraph 68 states that 90 regulators that regulate 140 professions are not included in the new frame- work, but can offer preferential access anyway. Do the Government feel that they will be allowed to do that? The Minister said that this is an enabling Bill. Will he insist on the independence of the regulators for those remaining 50 professions?
There are two final areas: interaction with the common travel area with Ireland, and devolution and trade agreements. The December 2020 guidance on the common travel area with Ireland makes specific reference to the route to work for service providers from Switzerland. In essence, to paraphrase, service providers from Switzerland can allow, for the purposes of that agreement, a Swiss national effectively to be considered a UK national for work in Ireland. This is intended to carry on until 2025. Is it the Government’s intention that it will do so? Will it allow for the other 50 of the 140 professions that I mentioned?
Is it the Government’s intention in future agreements to replicate our agreement with Switzerland to bypass the common travel area, effectively creating a route to work in the European Union via the common travel area? The last thing we need is yet another area of concern involving a professional barrier or border in the Irish Sea. I hope that the Minister can offer reassurance on that point.
What about future trade agreements? We were told repeatedly during the passage of the then Trade Bill that, for new trade agreements, if there were gaps in legislation, primary legislation would fill them. The Minister’s predecessor said that on a number of occasions. It now seems not to be true. The Government want to use the regulation-making powers in this Bill to implement key elements of FTAs. For example, if mutual recognition has been part of the EU-India trade discussions that are now under way, this should be done through primary legislation, not regulation now.
It is interesting that the justification for the use of delegated powers in this area is in paragraph 30 of the delegated powers memorandum, which states:
“The power is necessary to ensure commitments made by the UK under international agreements can be met. Since the power will be available in relation to international agreements concluded in the future, and the terms of those agreements are not known, it is not possible to deliver the necessary changes on the face of the Bill.”
Well, that is blindingly obvious—it is why we have legislation when we require it, and why we do not give the Government full-scale powers now to implement any agreement under any circumstances in future. That is an explanation of the use of delegated powers, not a justification for it.
On devolution, there is concern about the use of concurrent powers. In effect, the Government are saying, “If the devolved countries do not use the powers, we will”. I hope that the Minister can give us the up-to-date position on consultation, the request for legislative consent memorandums and implementation.
Finally, after stating categorically that this Bill protects the autonomy and independence of regulators, the Minister helpfully indicated half way through his speech that the Government will bring forward an amendment to do exactly that. Why is an amendment to protect the autonomy and flexibility of health regulators necessary before we have even started Committee stage? However, it is welcome, and I hope that the Government’s approach to the sensible amendments that will no doubt be brought forward by my noble friends on these Benches will be equally as receptive as their approach to the health professions. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, indicated, we will do our work to strengthen this Bill and improve it.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I sit on the board of OSCR, the Scottish charity regulator. Although it is not concerned with regulating professions, it is still a regulator, and I am aware therefore of the unintended consequences that legislation can have in some areas, and that there are moments when more than one regulator can potentially be involved in service delivery. Also, as chief executive of Cerebral Palsy Scotland, I am involved with the employment of regulated allied health professionals, who are highly specialist in their field and, while not employed by the NHS, are still key. As chair of the Scottish Government’s National Advisory Committee for Neurological Conditions, I have looked at the specific workforce needs for the provision of neurological health and care services in Scotland.
It is vital that we ensure a robust scheme for recognising competent professional qualifications for those from across the world in this country, and vice versa for UK professional qualifications to be reciprocated. I therefore wholeheartedly support the general provisions of the Bill. The regulated professions are indeed a diverse group and the regulatory landscape is far from uniform. Therefore, I welcome the Government’s approach in establishing a framework under which profession-specific provisions can be made. Regulators must be able to set the standards and make autonomous and independent decisions. The Bill is needed and is important, and I look forward to supporting its passage through Parliament.
However, instead of looking at these matters in the context of trade and trade deals, I am looking at the Bill through the lens of health and social care, and as such I am not convinced that the regulation framework will achieve the stated desired results of improving service provision. To ensure public confidence that professionals are appropriately regulated, recognition of professional qualifications from overseas should be based on the equivalence of the standard and content of an overseas qualification rather than solely on reciprocity.
I have three general observations to make at this stage. First, qualification and registration alone are not sufficient. Qualification, whether from within or outside the UK, does not necessarily make an individual proficient to carry out their profession, and the regulatory process must be robust enough to ensure competency as a very minimal standard. What makes an individual truly competent is rigorous supervision from senior and experienced fellow professionals, access to ongoing professional development, and the opportunity for postgraduate and specialist training. We need these to be requirements so that the workforce has the skills to be swift and to adapt to the changing needs of service users. Regulators must make due consideration for experience, supervision and CPD, and see that benchmarks are set and met.
Secondly, we need specialist skills, not just generic skills. There is indeed a skills shortage throughout the health and social care workforce, but we must ensure that we are attracting the right professionals with the right specialist skills. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, said, just registering more people will not necessarily resolve vacancy issues. More and more is being expected of individuals who have the bare minimum of skillsets. We see this with health visitors in the expanding early years workload, and in schools, where classroom assistants and teachers are expected to support children with very complex disabilities, with a monitoring visit by a qualified paediatric therapist perhaps only once a term. The identification of “priority professions” in the Bill therefore must recognise that not all registered professionals are the same. In my own charity we employ Bobath-trained therapists—that means that, while being physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists, they have very specific qualifications to support people with cerebral palsy. Improvements in service provision will depend on being able to distinguish between those with the experience and specialisms that we require to develop sustainable services, and the rest.
Thirdly, we cannot rely on professionals from overseas to improve services. Evidence from the regulated allied health professional bodies that I have consulted suggests that professionals who come from overseas perhaps do not stay long, and therefore service provision is not necessarily benefiting. It is perhaps for another time to discuss how we can support and invest in the domestic workforce pipeline, but how can we then support regulation and regulators within this framework to support the retention of qualified professionals?
Notwithstanding these points, there are many aspects to be welcomed in the Bill: the commitment to sharing information across all parts of the UK with, I hope, the public, rather than just professions or employers; recognition that the Bill is not limited to specific professions, but concerns devolved and transferred matters; the establishing of an assistance centre; and the requirement for published information for entering and remaining within a profession. I trust that these requirements may take some heed of my earlier reservations and I look forward to supporting the further progress of the Bill.
My Lords, the UK services industry accounts for 80% of our economy, and the UK is the second largest services exporter in the world. It is quite remarkable how well respected our services industry is, and our UK professional qualifications are, frankly, the most well regarded in the world in many cases, whether for our lawyers, our accountants or our doctors.
The Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May, making provisions relating to the recognition of professional qualifications in the UK. It obviously follows a lot of consultation by the Government which ran through the autumn of last year and which created a number of regulation-making powers designed to implement a new framework for the recognition of overseas professional qualifications in the UK. That would replace the EU law in the area, including the interim provisions that have been in place since the end of the transition period, making provision for international agreements on the recognition of professional qualifications, for any powers to authorise regulators to enter into regulatory recognition agreements with regulators overseas, and the sharing of information between regulators. The Minister also mentioned amending the Architects Act 1997.
Over 160 professions are regulated by legislation in the UK, and there are more than 50 regulators. The Government have explained that they seek reciprocal agreements on the recognition of professional qualifications as part of their trade agenda. I congratulate the Government, and Liz Truss and the Department for International Trade, on the fantastic job that they have done in rolling over more than 60 bilateral EU trade agreements, and on the work that they are doing on the new trade agreements. The Australian one is imminent. The enhanced trade partnership with India will lead to an FTA, I hope. The American trade agreement is in the offing, I hope, and joining the CTPPP will be a fantastic £110 billion of trade.
On top of that, we are now making the 60-plus agreements that have been rolled over from the EU into super-duper bespoke deals between the UK and the other countries, starting with Mexico and Canada. This is great news. Professional qualifications will be a key part of all these trade agreements. The Bill is equipping regulators to pursue agreements with their counterparts in other countries where they want to do so, and the Government say that they
“want to facilitate the continued strong reputation of UK professional qualifications, which will support export opportunities, including education exports and the recruitment of international students.”
The Government have stated that the feedback from the consultation and other stakeholders indicated that the regulatory landscape that had developed for professions was complex. That is something we have to accept. The UK’s current framework for recognising professional qualifications gained overseas is derived largely from EU law. The interim system has provided certainty for UK businesses and helped to maintain workforce supply for professions, including nursing and teaching. The Government have said that many of the professions within the scope of the regulation-making powers in Clause 1 have pre-existing legislative frameworks governing the way they are regulated. While the ability to allow for an overseas qualification to be treated as though it was a specified UK qualification is set out in the Bill, along with the conditions, it is necessary for this to be implemented in a manner that is tailored to each profession by the appropriate national authority.
We then have the regulator recognition agreements—RRAs—between the UK regulators and international counterparts on the recognition of professional qualifications. The recognition of professional qualifications and the regulation of professions is of huge significance to the UK’s world-leading services providers, which rely on this provision to sell their services abroad. Following the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the loss of automatic recognition adds levels of complexity and administrative challenges for companies. Businesses are looking for clarity on the recognition of qualifications and what it means in practice for UK-based firms’ continued provision of services in the EU.
As president of the CBI, I can say that businesses welcome the pathway provided in the TCA to establish recognition agreements and are ready to engage with government and regulators. Across the UK, companies are clear that the recognition of professional qualifications and the regulation of professions is an essential aspect of how they operate their businesses.
I look back to the 10 business priorities for UK-EU trade after Brexit that the CBI laid out when it identified
“10 immediate practical actions both sides can take to stabilise relations and strengthen cooperation”.
One of them was to secure the recognition of professional qualifications. The automatic mutual recognition of professional qualifications has now ended between the EU and the UK but, according to the CBI,
“the TCA creates a pathway for future agreements being struck between the UK and individual EU member states via the Partnership Council—although the exact process is still to be confirmed.”
Perhaps the Minister could shine some light on this. The CBI continues:
“The loss of automatic recognition adds significant levels of complexity and administrative challenges, particularly in the professional services sector. Newly qualified individuals in regulated sectors will not be … allowed to work or to deliver services in the EU without this recognition, leaving UK professionals and businesses losing business to EU competitors”
and other competitors. It continues:
“The CBI welcomes the steps that have already taken place by the UK government in supporting regulator to regulator recognition across the UK and Ireland, with 10 agreements already made in various sectors. But the pathway for more agreements, as set out in the TCA, should be established as quickly as possible to support the trade in services on both sides.”
Does the Minister agree with this, and that
“The EU should work constructively with the UK to facilitate this dialogue through the relevant governance mechanisms”?
I am proud to be a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. I would go so far as to say that it is the most highly recognised and finest accountancy qualification in the world. I say that with pride, and I am sorry that I am boasting. The ICAEW welcomes the passage of the Bill and a new UK framework for recognition of professional qualifications from around the world. It says that the Bill confirms that the UK does not give preference to any one nationality or country. It is a global recognition system, no matter where you work and qualify. This is positive, as it will make processes of recognition simpler for regulators to administer and demonstrates the UK’s global outlook—totally in tune with global Britain.
This is a rare opportunity to propose much-needed amendments to sections of the Companies Act 2006, such as Section 1221, which deals with the Secretary of State’s powers to recognise foreign qualifications for eligibility to become a UK statutory auditor. Select changes to the Act would enable the UK to enter more freely into audit recognition agreements with other countries. The Bill establishes transparency by setting rules and criteria for all professionals and for all potential applicants wishing to practise a profession in the UK.
Clause 16 of the Bill says that a regulated profession
“means a profession that is regulated by law in the United Kingdom or a part of it”.
Does the definition of a regulator in the Bill includes chartered bodies, or is it the profession’s statutory regulator? In the case of the accountancy profession that is the FRC/ARGA. I assume that it is the FRC/ARGA for audit, but for accountancy the ICAEW is considered the regulator. The Bill does not define clearly which regulator will be responsible. Perhaps the Minister would like to explain.
Clause 4 dictates the contents of a regulator recognition agreement. The ICAEW has agreements with accountancy bodies around the world. Will it, as a professional body, continue to retain autonomy over the formation and content of recognition agreements with other countries, or will this become the responsibility of the FRC/ARGA, or of the department for business? Will it gain new powers to intervene in ICAEW decisions? Will the Minister respond to that?
Finally, Clause 3 requires regulators of professions in all parts of the UK to publish information on the entry and practice requirements of their profession. We welcome these transparency measures, but any additional measures and obligations should be proportionate. The Bill could lead to a major work and cost burden for professional bodies if, in the interests of transparency, they were obliged to implement customer service standards for applicants that go beyond what is currently required, such as website redesign, process times for applications, fee caps, and so on. Do the Government agree?
The Solicitors Regulation Authority supports the overall aims of this Bill, including encouraging a diversity of talent and skills into the UK, and maximising opportunities for trade in professional services by providing an easily navigable regulatory framework. It is pleased that the Government’s approach is underpinned by the need for public confidence that professionals are appropriately qualified. Regulators must be able to set the standards and to make autonomous and independent decisions. Do the Government agree?
There is already an established system for recognising overseas legal professional qualifications that is targeted and proportionate, with mechanisms in place for candidates to qualify with appropriate exemptions based on an assessment of equivalence. The Solicitors Regulation Authority was very clear in responding to last year’s call for evidence. It said that recognition of professional qualifications in the legal profession should be based on the equivalence of the standard and content of an overseas qualification, assessed on a case-by-case basis, rather than solely on reciprocity. This approach would ensure that all providers of legal services in England and Wales have the knowledge and skills to practise safely and competently, and that any restrictions are targeted and proportionate. It is pleased that the Bill supports this approach and that it is underpinned by the need for public confidence that professionals are appropriately qualified. The SRA says it is essential that regulators can set the standards and make autonomous and independent decisions. This is key for it as an organisation exercising statutory regulatory functions in the public interest. Do the Government agree?
The UK is hugely fortunate to have the finest professional services in the world. They are a jewel in our crown, and I hope that the Bill does everything to strengthen their reputation, of which we are very proud.
My Lords, I thank the Minister. I declare an interest as a member of the GMC board, although I will be speaking in a personal capacity on the Bill. I welcome my noble friend Lady Blake to the Front Bench and congratulate her on an excellent opening speech.
There are three points that I want to make about the Bill. First, I want to ask the Minister about its core purpose. We have been told that the Bill
“creates a new framework for the recognition of professional qualifications and experience gained overseas and takes steps to reform regulators’ practice. It will revoke and replace the interim system for professional qualifications that derives from the UK’s membership of the EU.”
We have also been told that the Bill
“is part of the Government’s plans to exercise the UK’s new regulatory flexibility”.
What is less clear is how is it to be done. We are in the dark, as my noble friend Lady Blake said.
The Minister also said that we need to remove outdated legislation. Is it the Government’s intention to streamline the approval process for professional qualifications? How does this fit with immigration law and the remit of the Home Office? The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, made some very interesting points about this and the perversity of Her Majesty’s Government’s position in relation to skill shortages.
The Bill aims to ensure the safety of service provision, provide consumer confidence and help maintain professional standards, but if they are to be maintained in the post-EU world is there a trade-off between these different objectives? In the closing remarks of his introduction to the Bill, the Minister referred to the determination of the Government to allow the autonomy of regulators to continue. That is very welcome, but how does that stand beside the Government’s wish to reform regulators’ practice? Will the Minister clear up that point?
My second point concerns the use of secondary legislation in the Bill. This is a very small Bill of 14 pages and 19 clauses, and it is littered with regulation-making powers. The core of the Bill is contained in Clauses 1 3, 4, 5 and 6, which relate to the “Power to provide for individuals to be treated as having UK qualifications”, the “Implementation of international recognition agreements”, the “Authorisation to enter into regulator recognition agreements” and the “Revocation of general EU system of recognition of overseas qualifications”. All these clauses are subject to a series of regulation-making powers. Then there is Clause 13, which is a Henry VIII clause par excellence. It essentially gives Ministers power to modify through regulations any piece of primary legislation. This has not been justified by the Government. All we have been told is that it is necessary because
“Changes would need to be integrated into the existing legislative scheme for given profession because a single approach covering all affected professions would not be ‘practicable’.”
That is not good enough.
I refer the Minister to the recent report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which during the course of the past year has become increasingly concerned about the growing tendency of the Government to introduce skeleton Bills in which broad delegated powers are sought in lieu of policy detail. As a result, in September, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee wrote to Michael Gove and Mr Rees-Mogg raising their concerns. The committees said that, even taking into account the exceptional circumstances of withdrawal from the EU and the pandemic,
“the bills which have been introduced into Parliament in response to them have been extraordinary in terms of the extent to which they have permitted a shift of power from the legislature to the executive. … It is a constitutionally fundamental issue, not only in terms of the relationship between Parliament and the executive but also more widely in terms of the relationship of trust between government and the public at large. Without substantive provision on the face of the Bill, Parliament is being asked to pass legislation without knowing how the powers conferred may be exercised by ministers and so without knowing what impact the legislation may have on members of the public affected by it.”
Mr Rees-Mogg acknowledged that, “as these are exceptional times”, such Bills,
“do not necessarily provide a model example of how Parliament would like to see legislation brought forward”
“Bills with substantial powers, though sometimes essential, should not be a tool to cover imperfect policy development.”
The implication of the use of skeleton legislation is that the instruments made under it may contain substantial policy changes which would be more appropriately subject to the greater scrutiny afforded to primary legislation.
Reflecting the conclusions of its correspondence with Mr Rees-Mogg, the scrutiny committee urged the Government
“ ‘to bring forward bills that contain clear policy intention instead of broad delegated powers’ and to ensure that ‘Departments do not use the exceptional powers given to them by Parliament as an expedient in the context of the pandemic as a cloak for effecting longer term, post-pandemic changes which would more properly be included in primary legislation.’ ”
Quite. It will be interesting to see what the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has to say about the Bill when it reports shortly. In advance of its forthcoming report, I suggest to the Minister that either the Government flesh out the policy details in the Bill or the case for a sunset clause becomes very clear. I support my noble friend Lady Blake’s argument for draft statutory instruments to be published before Report.
I now turn to my third point, which is of specific concern to the GMC and other health regulators. Clause 1 gives power to the appropriate national authority—in this case, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care—to draft regulations and introduce a process that would require the GMC and other regulators to assess whether someone has a particular overseas qualification that is “substantially the same” as a UK qualification. In the case of the GMC, a person so deemed would then be eligible to practise as a doctor in the UK. This is because the GMC does not require those with UK qualifications to do anything further to demonstrate that they have the necessary knowledge and skills for registration. This could give automatic entitlement to practise to international medical graduates on the same basis as UK graduates.
Currently, the GMC has a very rigorous process for assessing whether international medical graduates are safe and fit to practise in the UK. Under this Bill, that rigorous assessment could be completely lost. It would be very difficult for an agency such as the GMC, given that it has more than 10,000 international medical graduates applying for registration each year, and it would be impossible to assess the number of qualifications from countries as diverse as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, UAE et cetera and their many medical schools. This could also affect postgraduate qualifications and the potential for those qualifications to be captured by the Bill and subsequent regulations. There is concern that the Bill as drafted could force health professional regulators to accept professionals into UK practice in a way that compromises patient safety and could have an impact on workforce supply by requiring them formally to assess thousands of qualifications in detail in order to allow professionals to practise in the UK.
The Minister said the Bill does not restrict the autonomy of regulators, although, as I have already pointed out, in the documentation accompanying the Bill the Government say it
“takes steps to reform regulators’ practices”.
We need to know what exactly the Government mean when they say that the autonomy of regulators will not be impacted. Today, the Minister said he would table an amendment before Committee to deal with this. That is welcome and I look forward to seeing that amendment, but I hope that the Minister will be able to answer on some of the more substantive issues in relation to the Bill.
My Lords, I too thank the Minister and the Bill team for their briefings. I recognise that this Bill is needed in the light of our leaving the EU and the arrangements made for professional bodies within that, but parts of the Bill are still a bit of a mystery. After listening to previous speakers, I am glad I am not the only one who feels that. Doubtless the scales will fall from our eyes as we progress.
I am chary of the assistance centre and wonder how welcome it will be and how relevant the additional duties, so I look forward to more briefings from the professional bodies affected by the Bill. It was most helpful to have the list of those within the Bill’s remit, and I note that those with royal charters are outside that remit. Royal charters are powerful barriers against interference, including from Governments, but I ask how useful this Bill is if so many prestigious professional bodies are not within its remit. I have a feeling that the august institution of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, is outside the Bill’s remit, and it may be easier to be enthusiastic about a Bill if you are not directly affected by it.
I remind the House of my interests as a vice-president of City & Guilds, an organisation for which I worked for some 20 years. Nearly all that time was spent running the senior awards department, set up in 1990 to look after the top level of vocational awards. Now renamed the Professional Recognition Awards, they are recognised by Ofqual and attract funding.
Part of my remit was to persuade universities and professional bodies that those who had reached our high work-based standards also had the knowledge and skills for entry to university programmes or professional membership. The Minister’s list named 160 professional bodies. I had a very small team, so this was something of a herculean task, even without the universities, which in those days were loath to consider anything not profoundly academic. Vocational degrees had not really been invented and, although many professional bodies insisted on an academic degree for membership, by and large universities did not reciprocate by recognising professional expertise for their programmes.
I naively thought that if I could convince the Engineering Council, all the engineering institutes would immediately fall into line; I was very rapidly disabused. The civils, mechanicals, electricals and all the many other engineering bodies each fiercely upheld their autonomy. Of course, many of them were royal charter bodies, which would make them outside the powers of this Bill.
My brush with professional bodies, royal charters and limited entry qualifications was as nothing compared with an EU project called LangCred, to which I was rapidly appointed chairman. The aim was to compile a directory of all work-based qualifications across the countries of the EU, so that qualifications obtained in one country could be readily matched to similar-level qualifications in another. Again, the team was pitifully small: two people from most contributing countries and one delegate from smaller ones. Our remit was to cover from level 1 upwards. From memory, I think our highest level was 9. Across all work disciplines, we certainly covered the most senior professional and managerial roles. If I tell noble Lords that even after two generous tranches of EU money, we failed to produce this comprehensive directory, I do not think they will be surprised. This work was later taken up as mainstream EU work, with rather more resources, and was rather more of a success than our minimal team could achieve.
As chairman of LangCred I had the distinction of being the very first person to wind up a European economic interest group, which was not exactly the highlight of my career but an interesting experience none the less. When the Bill talks cheerily about overseas qualifications, I am taken back to those happy European days. I joined LangCred a year into the programme and, at the first meeting I attended, the two German delegates arrived, declared that they would continue to attend as observers but let us all know that Germany would never recognise qualifications not awarded by Germany. European harmony was alive and well even when we were members of the EU, and I can imagine only that it will not have improved since Brexit.
It rapidly became obvious that however professionally proficient someone was, without a comparable language proficiency their expertise would be less than welcome or useful. For an engineer, financier or caterer to work in Portugal or Poland, knowledge of the professional language, let alone the social language, would be essential. As the Minister said, they could not work and provide skills overseas if they could not communicate.
Unless I have missed it, nowhere in any of the literature we have been sent is there a reference to languages, not even to the need for good English to practise in the UK. Putting on my linguist’s hat, it is highly regrettable that the study of modern foreign languages at schools and colleges has been allowed to diminish in the way it has. Now that we have left the EU, the other European countries no longer have to pander to our insistence on English as the universal language, so it is more important than ever that we can converse in the languages of our former colleagues. Perhaps this Bill could be another peg on which to hang the vital importance of modern foreign languages. Can the Minister say what thought has been given to language proficiency in discussing the overseas parts of this Bill, or indeed the importance of good English for those from overseas who wish to work in the UK?
I look forward to the continued scrutiny of the Bill. I can hope only that our professionals will be able to continue their high standards and be joined by those from other countries with equally high standards, just so long as we can all agree on what those standards are and can understand the languages we speak. I can feel some amendments coming on in Committee, but meanwhile I hope this Bill will become increasingly clear as discussions progress.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to be able to speak at Second Reading. I declare my interests as listed on the register.
We are dealing with more than 160 professions regulated by legislation and surely cannot accept a one-size-fits-all approach to these professions. The General Medical Council, mentioned previously by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was founded in 1858 and produced its first registration of doctors in 1859. We established processes for registering doctors 160 years ago, so the process for assessment and registration of doctors is now well established. For such organisations, unlike in other sectors, there are existing powers within legislation to do the majority of what this Bill seeks. To the medical profession and its regulators, given the long-standing history of overseas recognition and registration, this Bill seems unnecessary and risks cutting across these established processes. One might ask: if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
The consultation on the Bill found evidence that, while the regulatory landscape can operate smoothly,
“there is considerable diversity of approaches and expectations, which can be difficult to navigate.”
The desire for enabling approaches to the recognition of professional qualifications that meet the needs of all parts of the UK should not be used as a means to achieve uniformity in the regulation of professional bodies. Medicine requires strict regulations and standards, because patients’ lives may be at risk without them. Any dilution in standards, in a mistaken attempt to achieve uniformity, may have unintended consequences.
For this reason, the GMC—as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, noted—and other medical bodies have concerns about Clause 1(4), which could force health profession regulators to accept professionals into the UK to practise, in a way that compromises patient safety. It also has implications for the workforce we need, as it would require medical regulators to assess thousands of applications to allow medical professionals to practise in the UK. This seems unnecessary, given the well-established methods we currently have through the Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board, which the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, mentioned in her speech.
PLAB, as we know it, is taken in two parts. Part 1 is a multiple-choice examination with 180 single best answers, and it lasts for three hours. Part 2 consists of an objective structured clinical examination, OSCE. While part 1 may be taken in overseas centres, part 2 is undertaken in the UK and consists of 18 clinical stations, each lasting eight minutes, with two minutes of reading time added. This is a rigorous assessment and is set at the level of competence of a foundation year 2 doctor, so why is there a need for an assistance centre? Do the Government not trust the GMC to undertake this task, given its long track record, which I have detailed? Why is there a need for another layer of bureaucracy between the regulator and the applicant?
I am also concerned by the use of “substantially the same” in Clause 1(2)(b). Clause 1(1) gives international professionals an entitlement to practise on the basis of their overseas qualifications or experience that are “substantially the same” as or equivalent to UK qualifications or experience. In the interest of patient safety, the GMC quite rightly believes it has the obligation to assure itself that professionals seeking registration have the knowledge, skills, and experience to practise safely in the UK. So I ask: is “substantially” 95%, 85% or 75% of the same knowledge and skills in order to be “substantially the same standard”? How is this standard to be tested? What guarantees can be given that this equates to the standards required to practise in the UK at the present time?
For example, in my discipline of surgery, patients are potentially at risk every time they undergo a surgical operation. As president of the Confidential Reporting System in Surgery, CORESS, I see reports of near-misses in surgery in the UK by professionals trained in the UK. This may be more apparent in locum doctors who may be unfamiliar with equipment or hospital practices and occasionally may misinterpret the labelling on packages. Language matters, and merely accepting qualifications is no guarantee that the practitioner has the language skills to work in the UK.
What assurances can the Minister give that these professional standards will be maintained? We do not accept an ill-defined criterion of “substantially the same”. The GMC believes, and I agree, that the wording of Clause 1(2) could result in secondary legislation that would prevent the GMC from interpreting qualifications or experience in a way that enables it to assess knowledge and skills through robust written and clinical tests like the PLAB I described earlier.
Although this may not be the intention of the Bill, it is important to spell this out clearly and make explicit provision in the Bill that regulators may put processes in place to determine appropriate knowledge and skills over and above the qualification as a necessary step towards registration. Without these assurances, the implications for patient safety are great. Coupled with the inevitable workforce shortages after leaving the EU, this could lead to a lowering of standards to fulfil the workforce needs.
My questions for the Minister are these: first, can the Government insert an explicit provision in Clause (1)(2) of the Bill that regulators are able to determine appropriate knowledge, skills and experience in any way they see fit? Secondly, regarding the use of “substantially the same” as UK qualifications or experiences, can the Government insert a provision into Clause (1)(2) of the Bill to clarify that the nature of an assessment of an international qualification is to be determined by each regulator and does not supersede the assessment of knowledge, skills and experience?
This Bill covers over 160 professions. It is important that the healthcare professions are protected from any unintended consequences. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that healthcare professional regulators with well-established routes to their registers will not have these compromised by the provisions of this Bill? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s replies.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, and my remarks will chime closely with his. I speak as a veterinary surgeon and my remarks will apply to the regulation of and qualifications for veterinary medicine and practice, which is regulated by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. I declare my interest as a fellow and former president of that college. I emphasise that I am speaking in a personal context. I would sum up the response of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to this Bill as “concerned curiosity”. As one official at the college said to me, the Bill appears to be “a solution in search of a problem”.
The RCVS currently has full powers to enter into mutual recognition agreements, which it has done with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. For countries with acceptable and comparable accreditation systems, it can accept graduates from vet schools which have satisfied those accreditation processes, such as certain vet schools in the USA and some EU countries. Finally, it has a process for all other graduates from any school in any country in the world, who must take and pass the royal college’s own exams.
Collectively, this ensures a level of competence in the individuals allowed to register as MRCVS and hence practise in the UK. Above all, it gives the public an assurance of professional competence and it ensures that our animals can be treated only by those who have satisfied the RCVS standards, which apply, of course, to those who graduate from the accredited UK vet schools. All of this means that this Bill adds nothing to the powers and capabilities that already exist for the veterinary profession. I realise that all regulators do not have the same powers, but, if not, why not just give all regulators such powers and leave it at that?
An underlying concern is the ability conferred on government by this Bill in Clause 3 to
“implement international agreements … that the UK strikes … so far as they relate to the recognition of professional qualifications.”
I confess I am not quite sure what that really means. But it is not unreasonable to fear that government pressure, as a result of commitments they make in a desire to achieve FTAs, will pressure regulators to relax standards.
In agreeing FTAs, the Minister is aware of concerns about relaxing standards regarding, for example, animal welfare on the importation of products of animal origin, or about relaxing environmental standards relating to the production of all manner of products. It is not unreasonable to ask if this is the thin end of the wedge to relax the standards of competence that we currently expect from professional personnel. This pressure will undoubtedly be exacerbated in professions where we have skill shortages, as are specifically included in this Bill. The vet profession is one such profession.
If we need more vets or more of any other profession, we should ask why we cannot produce more to our standards rather than trying to make up the numbers by imports—the standards of which it is, practically and realistically, impossible to assess without a great cost. How can a body like the RCVS, which charges a very modest retention fee to current members of £364 per year, possibly accredit or ensure appropriate in-country accreditation of, for instance, the 24 vets schools in Brazil, the 52 in India or the 20 in Mexico?
The reason we have a shortage of vets is not a lack of student applications but is, to a large extent, due to a shortfall in the recovery of the full cost of veterinary education. The income to vet schools comprises the maximum allowable student fee plus the government grant to universities for band A clinical subjects, which include medicine, dentistry and veterinary science, and is £10,990 per year for 2021-22. For clinical veterinary education, virtually all the clinical training—the hospitals, clinics and associated equipment and many of the clinical teaching staff—has to be provided from this total income. This is in marked contrast to clinical medical training, where there is a very substantial subsidy through the NHS budget.
The reality is that the real cost of the education of vet students, which has been estimated at around £27,000 per year per student, substantially exceeds the band A allocation plus the maximum student fee. The difference is about £7,000 per student per year. With a relatively modest uplift in band A grants for vet students, for what is in a national context a moderate number of students—currently about 1,000 graduates per year, this problem could be addressed. The schools could expand the intake of UK entrants to vet schools who would contribute as graduates to the UK market.
In conclusion, to return to my major concern in this Bill—namely that, as a result of trade negotiations involving international recognition agreements, regulators will be pressurised into relaxing professional standards—why is Clause 3 necessary? Will the Bill in effect debar a regulator, such as the RCBS, from requiring certain applicants where no regulator recognition agreement has been agreed, to sit that UK regulator’s own examination or assessment procedures?
My Lords, the Minister explained that the Bill applies only to professions regulated by law. At his helpful briefing meeting last week, he undertook to let me have a list of the bodies covered by the Bill as I found it a bit difficult to work out what was covered and what was not. I am most grateful that this list arrived over the weekend—at 5.30 pm on Sunday afternoon, to be precise, which demonstrates real commitment by the Bill team.
I have a particular interest in whether the Bill applies to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, of which I am a non-practising member. It is a body governed by royal charter and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, might like to know that it is not on the Minister’s list. Many chartered accountants act as auditors and the ICAEW is a recognised professional body and a recognised supervisory body for those members who wish to practise as auditors. The Financial Reporting Council, which is on the Minister’s list, oversees the regulation of auditors rather than carrying it out itself. I believe a similar approach applies to insolvency practitioners. Hence the Bill is rather complicated in its scope, certainly for chartered accountants and, I imagine, for other professions as well.
To turn the Bill itself, there is one very good thing in it, one rather dodgy thing and some other things which I am on the whole puzzled about. The best things about the Bill are Clauses 5 and 6. As my noble friend explained, these clauses allow us to remove some more EU-retained law from our statute book and thereby remove the obligation to recognise EEA and Swiss professional qualifications. I support any legislation which allows us to frame our laws in a way which suits the UK. Even though I support Clauses 5 and 6, however, I am not convinced that the Henry VIII powers are accompanied by sufficient parliamentary oversight. The EU’s distinction between primary and secondary legislation is not necessarily a good guide to determining how our Parliament should be involved. This concern applies throughout the Bill and not just to Clauses 5 and 6. I believe we are still waiting for the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, and I shall reserve final judgment until I see it.
The dodgy bit of the Bill is Clause 3, which allows the Government to override existing approaches and procedures for the recognition of non-UK qualifications if they have been covered in a trade treaty. This is explicitly presented in the Government’s policy paper as strengthening the UK’s ability to negotiate international trade treaties. It is some time since I was president of the ICAEW, but the recognition of overseas qualifications was a thorny issue then and I expect it still is. In addition, the landscape has changed and become more complicated since my day, with the arrival of the FRC to oversee the regulation of auditors.
Many countries have chartered accountancy qualifications which simply do not match the UK’s. Sometimes that is due to the technical coverage of the qualifications, at other times to the areas of practical experience and ethical training, and sometimes to all three. The Bill must not try to ignore that fact. Let us suppose that our enthusiastic and energetic Secretary of State for International Trade negotiated a trade treaty with one of those countries for which recognition had not been granted already in the UK. That might be in relation to chartered accountancy in general or for audit purposes. Clause 3 might allow the Government to tell the ICAEW or the FRC to recognise those qualifications, even if they would not be prepared to do so themselves because of the factors I mentioned. Clause 3 does not seem limited to telling the regulator of a regulated profession what to do; it seems capable of applying to both the ICAEW, which is not on the list, and the FRC, which is. This would drive a coach and horses through the ability of professions to guard the standards and quality of their qualifications, and I do not think that this concern will be confined to chartered accountants or auditors; I expect other professions will have similar issues.
My noble friend may say that we can rely on the CRaG processes to stop the Government doing stupid things in trade agreements, but he will know that CRaG is basically a rubber-stamping process, with only the blunderbuss of a weapon of the other place refusing to approve a whole agreement. Alternatively, either House might use the nuclear weapon of refusing to agree any regulations made under Clause 3. In the context of a major trade treaty, these are wholly unsatisfactory safeguards and unlikely to protect UK professions. That is why we need to look again at the power in Clause 3.
I shall briefly cover three puzzling areas. First, I am far from convinced that the new assistance centre set up by Clause 7, which is a reincarnation of an EU requirement, is necessary or that the costs are justified. The costs are borne by the taxpayer and we need to see a stronger case made for it than has appeared in the documents so far. Secondly, Clause 8 requires the regulator of regulated professions to publish a load of information. Not all professions are covered by the Bill, so it could create an unbalanced universe, with some but not all professions needing to comply. It also seems quite onerous on those bodies, such as the FRC, which oversee regulation but do not themselves do the detailed regulation. Why should the FRC gather and publish all the information already available at the ICAEW? That will serve only to increase costs. I have yet to see any explanation for the need for this clause. Are there any real concerns that regulated professions hide information about how to access membership? Who, if anyone, is policing this and what are the penalties for non-compliance? More profoundly, is this a solution in search of a problem, to which the noble Lord, Lord Trees, referred in the context of the veterinary profession?
Lastly, Clause 9 covers the exchange of information by regulators and seems a helpful provision underpinning the UK’s internal market in services, but I ask the Minister to reflect on whether its scope—largely excluding the chartered professions—makes it fit for purpose. In my specific example of the FRC and the ICAEW, it would seem largely ineffective, since the FRC will not hold data relating to individuals. A similar criticism appears to apply to Clause 10 as well.
I would like to be enthusiastic about the Bill, but I fear that it is creating a new division between professions covered by the Bill and those which are not. I also dislike its focus on a big government solution to a series of relatively minor problems in a few professions, which is all that the call for evidence actually revealed. On that basis, it is not a very Conservative Bill, and encouraging the Benches opposite to view it in that light may be the best help that I can give my noble friend in getting the Bill through.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chancellor of Cardiff University. Like other universities, Cardiff trains and educates a large number of the professionals to whom this Bill applies. I also have an interest in the subject in general, having spent decades of my professional life working within further education and trying to understand international qualifications and advise students on that basis.
I recognise the need for this Bill in the new post-Brexit situation in which we find ourselves, but I join in the general thumbs-down that speakers so far have given it, because I have some serious concerns and specific questions about how the system will operate and the basis of government policy. It is a deceptively slim Bill—which means, of course, that it is simply a shell and an avalanche of regulations will follow in due course. The circumstances differ considerably from one profession to another and, indeed, across the four nations of the UK, so it is essential that, when these regulations come to us, they are subject to the full and automatic scrutiny of this House specifically to allow practitioners in each of the professions to have their concerns heard in this place.
The Government’s policy is deceptively simple too: to allow and encourage regulators to assess qualifications available in other countries, to establish equivalence, to recognise those qualifications and, hence, to address shortages. In practice, those shortages have got decidedly worse in many professions because EU citizens have gone home in considerable numbers. There is concern that the Government’s starting point in this process is to dismantle the existing legislation based on the EU system of equivalence.
In most matters, across the board, the UK has subsumed EU law into UK law, with a view to gradual divergence as and when we feel we need it. For professional qualifications, however, this is not to be. The Government are instead taking the clean slate approach, apparently because of the apparent preference given to EU citizens and EEA nationals if we keep the current basis. We are putting ourselves at a huge disadvantage in this regard. There will be a gap, because the process is very lengthy, as the EU discovered when it set out on it. There will be a huge gap when we are trying to fill vacancies in Britain; and, of course, we want our professionals and companies to be able to go and work in the maximum possible number of countries in the world. So, why we are pulling out the rug from under the current system, I am not clear.
Because the Bill is a shell, it gives no glimpse into the huge complexity of this issue. Many noble Lords sitting here will be too young to be aware of the years of tortuous negotiation that lay behind the EU system. My noble friend Lady Garden gave us a glimpse into it. The single market, we thought, would open up the gates and people would be able to go freely from one country to another. It took years to sort it out. As I said, I was a lecturer in further education at the time. I taught a subject called European business and foolishly set my students a case study to follow—the development of the single market in relation to qualifications. It went way beyond the available timescale—and, indeed, their concentration spans.
Many noble Lords will also be unaware of the lack of confidence in foreign qualifications that existed before the EU system was established. Such lack of confidence upsets public trust in professions. Why is it all so complex? You start with the building blocks. For example, you might have a BSc in biology, but one BSc in biology is very different from another, and the whole approach to qualifications is different in some other countries. In the UK we emphasise underpinning skills and knowledge, whereas in Germany, for example, it is all task-centred. That makes equivalence difficult to evaluate.
The Bill applies to 60 regulators and 150 professions, but not all regulators are equal. They are not all equally well resourced or experienced in what they have to do. I am concerned about the ability of some of them to withstand government pressure to establish equivalence in order to follow on from a trade deal. In the EU, the organisation that delights in the name of CEDEFOP—the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training—brings together policy-makers, employers, trade unions, training institutions, trainers and learners. This Bill does not do that; it takes an ad hoc, piecemeal approach. Admittedly, BEIS is working on a common framework, but there is also a role here for the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, and complex issues may emerge from that.
So, what is driving all this? The Government want to address shortages but there is also specific mention of government direction to regulators as a result of trade deals; I share other noble Lords’ concerns about this. I also have real concerns that trade deals could force the recognition of equivalence from the top down where, in reality, that equivalence does not exist. There are real dangers in reciprocity. I am concerned that recognition is to be driven specifically by shortages. What about individuals applying to work in the UK who need their qualifications to be recognised? Perhaps a university wishes to employ an eminent medical practitioner from a country where the qualifications have not yet been recognised. How will individuals be dealt with?
I am also very concerned about the total lack of reference to higher education institutions. They are the suppliers of so much of the training and are, therefore, essential partners, producing teachers, doctors, architects, social workers and so on. Where is the co-ordination to make sure that regulators’ decisions are made on a firm ground of knowledge about the background of qualifications that people have in their field? What requirements will there be to co-ordinate, and how will this ad hoc approach ensure that that co-ordination takes place? Have higher education institutions even been consulted on this? I share concerns about the lack of reference to English language. Excellent professional skills do not necessarily mean excellent English skills. Universities require a certain level of English. That is essential for trust. How will that be dealt with?
I emphasise that this is a dynamic process. Qualifications change over time, and they do so very rapidly in the modern world. What is equivalent this year may not be next year. We have a topdown approach, driven by shortages and government trade deals. How will they recognise changes in the actual qualifications?
The devolved Administrations have a great deal of power in this field and in the large majority of professions. In many cases, they have their own regulators, with distinctly different requirements. Clearly, they have to be part of this and not subject to last-minute requests for legislative consent Motions—that will not work. Given that this is driven by UK Government trade deals, how will they be brought into a true partnership on this issue and not just consulted as an afterthought?
Finally, a shortage in one country is not necessarily a shortage in another. This will require the Government to look across borders and recognise the needs of different countries. At the same time, if you come to the UK as an immigrant, your profession may not be recognised.
The Bill will challenge us and certainly the Government, and it will establish issues and problems for the future. I recognise the need for it, but the Government have probably underestimated the problems and challenges that they face.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, who expertly outlined the complexity contained within this apparently simple Bill.
It is also a pleasure to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds, who is not currently in her place, to her new role. I share the concerns that she expressed about the situation of EEA and Swiss citizens who are already here and practising their professions: they are established and their skills and experience are proven, and we need to ensure that they are able to continue without stress, worry or fear. Some of the experiences that we are already seeing with the settled status scheme, at borders in particular, is a great cause for concern.
I share the concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, and many others about the risk of professional bodies coming under pressure to tie trade deals together with recognition. I particularly note the dangers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said, of that whole approach to, and model of, reciprocity.
While sharing many of the concerns that noble Lords have expressed about the Bill, I welcome the fact that it gives us a chance to really think about professional skills and how this whole area of issues relates to immigration, education and our skills agenda. We can learn and think about three things in this debate. First, this is a chance to assess where we are with Brexit. Secondly, this is a chance to debate that intersection between immigration policy, professional recognition and overseas development assistance, which I will come back to. Thirdly, we need to think about the nature of professions in a fast-changing world. There was a reference to one of our professional bodies dating back to the 1850s, and we have organisations that have been set up over many decades. Are our current structures and arrangements fit for the 21st century?
On the first point about the state of Brexit, the Bill is further reminder that it is not done; it has barely even started, in terms of dealing with the fallout. It is interesting that, as we debate, there is the woe of the laborious swapping of the EU-based CE markings for the post-Brexit British-based UKCA markings, involving the retesting of thousands of construction products, many of which the professionals that we are talking about will have to use. We have recently seen the Government acknowledge that they need to extend the period for that because of the complexity, which illustrates our current situation. That complexity has been well highlighted in this debate.
The Government outline how the Bill is intended to replace the EU approach with one that is focused on enabling professional bodies to make bilateral agreements with bodies from other countries. I was going to expand on this point, but the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, very successfully outlined the sheer complexity and volume of what we are talking about, so I will not go over that ground again.
We need to know what the Government mean when they talk about opening up global Britain to new trade opportunities in services. That is very much related to how we treat people wanting to come here, which is where immigration rights become particularly relevant. If we create barriers to people coming and providing services here—I am looking at immigration rather than qualifications—then those same barriers will be put up to our service providers when they go to other places. The concept of reciprocity can be very much employed against us if we are draconian in our approach.
We have rightly had a lot of discussion in your Lordships’ House, which I very much support, about the problems that musicians are experiencing in relation to operating within the EU. We should not forget that lots of these problems have been masked by the pandemic, and, as the pandemic becomes less of an issue, we hope, and travel opens up, a lot of these issues will become very much more evident.
I will pick up a few specific points and then come to a general discussion. I think I heard the Minister correctly when he talked about Clause 8 as a potential way of opening up professions and promoting skills development. This caused me to go back and have another look at Clause 8, because I had not really thought of it in those terms. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on this point: putting a formal, technical publication on a website will not address our issues around the need for access to professional development, particularly for young people but for all people in the UK.
This is the first chance that I have had to mention an issue that ties with some that the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, raised about professionals needing to work in the UK to confirm their qualifications, reach a certain level, and demonstrate that level. Visa changes in 2010 trapped students coming across for 415 STEM courses and 222 vocational, education and training courses. This meant that for immigration purposes, they were no longer classified as students but instead as workers. The case study that I know most about in this case concerns becoming a RIBA-qualified architect in the UK; students have to work in an approved practice for two years after they have completed their studies and then do a final exam. I have worked with students who were hit extraordinarily hard by that and who simply could not secure the immigration status and therefore a qualification they had paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for, in some cases. I will be asking the Minister whether the Government have really looked at that and how it will relate to the nature of the Bill. It is a complex area.
Another specific point is the relationship with the devolved Administrations. A government document states:
“We will not normally make regulations under these powers in devolved areas without the agreement of the relevant devolved authority.”
Some noble Lords will remember the wrestle that we had with the internal market Bill over the need to protect the independent regulation of teachers on these islands, in relation to the attempt to enforce automatic recognition. In Committee, the Government resisted any claim that there was an issue with that—and then, on Report, they acknowledged that there was a problem and brought in an amendment.
Given what happened with the internal market Bill, I have a direct question that I hope the Minister will be able to answer now: under what abnormal conditions would the Government be likely to impose on the devolved Administrations rules that they opposed?
Very briefly, I share the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and others about the extensive nature of the Henry VIII powers here. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, referred to the avalanche of regulations likely to result from this, and I had a picture flash in my head, as I expect many noble Lords did, of that Grand Committee Room in which so many of us have spent so many hours, either physically or virtually, over the last year or so. However, we must also acknowledge how thinly populated, whether physically or virtually, that Grand Committee very often is. We are looking at issues of great complexity and specialist knowledge. There was reference in Oral Questions to the number of Members of your Lordships’ House, but it seems we still do not have enough to fill the Grand Committee Room.
I come now to a couple of broader issues, which tie back to what we have now—the transitional arrangements, particularly those for teaching and nursing, and preferential treatment for Swiss and EEA citizens. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, referred to the way in which, over decades, relationships were established across the European Union when we were a member, through knowledge of courses and training systems in different countries. People coming from those countries are now a known quantity. I am particularly concerned about the pressure likely to be put on the professional bodies to deal with a global circumstance—to deal with that level of global complexity. I am particularly concerned, again, about the pressure that might be put on some professions. I am thinking here of the veterinary profession, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Trees. I know and hear reports about the difficulty in filling positions relating to meat inspection that require veterinary qualifications. These are very skilled and important jobs, crucial to public health. Are we going to see pressure to let people in with skills that we perhaps cannot quantify and do not know about, just because of the need to fill those?
I come now to the philosophical approach, which is where I perhaps most differ from most other noble Lords who have spoken. A lot of the discussion is about Britain’s competitive advantage—how we are better at this than anyone else and how we can sell this to the world. The thesis I would put to your Lordships’ House is that we have a complex, difficult world, with a climate emergency and huge public health dangers, in which what we need are a great many more professionals—trained people in every country on this planet, able to help the human race deal with the challenges we face. So I really want to challenge this approach of competitiveness—of competing with others. I ask the Government again, though perhaps not now, really to consider how we might use these changes being brought in to help professional bodies in other nations, particularly, perhaps, in the global south, to develop their own skills and be able to operate effectively in their own environments. That is in all our interests.
I come back to Covid—no one is safe until everybody is safe. We need good-quality professionals in every country in the world, and we have a gross shortage at the moment. That is perhaps of relevance to our position as chair of COP 26. In the earlier debate, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, talked about the importance of green finance, a fast-developing professional area in which we are likely to see new qualifications and new demands put on existing qualifications. How will the Bill contribute to and assist with all that?
What we need, really, is not an overarching policy that seeks to encourage a brain drain from other nations. We have to acknowledge that young people, and older people, often want to travel, to experience the world and learn from different countries and systems, so that they become better, more skilled professionals from that experience. I come back to immigration policy and taking approaches that do not just say, “We’ll try to nab the best from around the world and get them here, working for us”, but says, “We can take professionals of all different levels of experience and skill, perhaps giving them some experience here, and our professionals can go to other countries and gain experience”. That is a better way forward.
I come to my final two points. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said that she had seen a list of what is covered. Will the Minister share that list with all the participants in this debate? It would be useful to all of us. My particular interest is the position of chartered environmentalist, which I do not believe will be covered but is a formal qualification organised by the Society for the Environment. We come back here to my issue about needing new skills, new professions and new ways of looking at the world, particularly looking at world systems thinking. I would like to see many more chartered accountants who are also chartered environmentalists. We need to see that kind of cross-fertilisation of ideas, and that requires movement. I was having a discussion about this and we were looking back, not just to our time in the EU but further back. Some of the most magnificent structures in the UK—some of our magnificent old churches and cathedrals—were of course often built by teams of masons who came from around Europe. If we think about environmental issues, the quality of our building, Passivhaus and better standards, those things need exchange of skills and knowledge.
Finally, I am very much looking forward to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, who will be speaking in a few slots’ time. He will raise this with far more detail and expertise than I can offer. We have heard a lot of talk about how good UK regulation is but, particularly in the financial sector, we have some very serious questions to ask when we look at the issue of financial scandal after financial scandal, which has been the reality of life in the City of London. Members of your Lordships’ House who took part in debates on the Financial Services Act will very much reflect on that. Is this Bill an opportunity to really think about how we can deal with professional qualifications, thinking about not just competence but also ethics and fitness to practise?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. I declare my interests as a registered nurse and the work outlined in the register that refers to my use of that qualification.
As the Minister explained, the Bill will create a new framework for the recognition of professional qualifications gained overseas and steps to reform regulatory practice in the UK. I acknowledge that the current system for professional regulation, derived from membership of the EU, requires revision and I support the concept that it is necessary to create a new framework that will apply globally, while also recognising many of the challenges that other noble Lords have outlined in relation to successfully achieving the outcome the Bill outlines. Government would be provided with a set of powers that enable agreements with regulators to recognise professional qualifications and to maintain an assessment centre, with which regulatory bodies must co-operate to provide advice and guidance to the public on standards for any profession. UK regulators would also be required to provide overseas regulators with reciprocal information regarding UK-qualified registrants, and to provide information on entry, exit and practice requirements for the professions they regulate, particularly, as other noble Lords have referred to, academic qualifications. Where devolved Administrations within the UK have separate regulators, reciprocal information will need to be supplied between the four countries.
There are 160 professions and more than 50 regulatory bodies that would be covered by the Bill. I intend to use nursing as an optic to illustrate the need to amend the Bill to ensure that public safety and fair terms of employment are maintained when the Bill is enacted.
The Bill is part of the Government’s plans to ensure that lack of information is not a barrier to entering and practising professions, of which nursing and midwifery are examples. However, just knowing what is expected and conducting a digital application against the published criteria for registration is not enough. To maintain public safety and deliver individualised, compassionate care, it is necessary to demonstrate practical competence in nursing skills and a full comprehension of the English language, including technical terms and mathematical concepts; for example, to estimate and safely deliver oral and injectable medication.
At the very minimum, the Bill needs to make explicit provision that regulators may put in place processes to measure competence to determine knowledge and skills over and above the stated qualification as an additional step to gain UK registration. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that such an approach will be required reciprocally by most countries. It certainly will be in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will support any such amendments so that the Bill safeguards patient protection and that only professionals who are safe and fit to practise are able to join UK health professional registers, including those for nursing and midwifery?
Finally, we know that there are many professions in the UK in which we have acute and long-term skills shortages, particularly in nursing. Clause 2(1) and (2) make provision for an “appropriate national authority” to speed up recognition of overseas qualification recognition where skills shortages occur—or at least this is my understanding; perhaps the Minister can clarify the situation. The Bill contains nine delegated powers and is being presented to the House prior to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of this House making a full assessment of its effects. Can the Minister confirm that time will be made for all relevant committees of this House to review the Bill before enactment to ensure that public safety is protected?
Globally, there is a severe shortage of nurses, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The UK needs to educate and retain UK-qualified nurses through excellent training at degree level and good terms of employment. To deliver health and social care the UK must not return to an overreliance on recruiting overseas nurses but welcome those who wish to come and register in the UK and enable our own nurses to have reciprocal opportunities to work in other countries. I remain very uncomfortable that we are recruiting nurses from India with the state of the pandemic there at the moment.
The recruitment of nurses and other health professionals from lower- and middle-income countries, where terms of employment are often poor, must not result in artificially low terms of employment for UK health professionals. Can the Minister assure the House that this is not a hidden intention within the Bill and that ongoing monitoring of terms of employment will be conducted by the Government to ensure that the Bill does not have that unintended consequence?
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock. I declare my interests as set out in the register. I thank my noble friend Lord Grimstone for setting out the principles of the Bill so clearly. At its most simple and straightforward, its purpose is clear: to provide for recognition of qualifications from around the world, which will help to ensure that the United Kingdom has the qualifications and the staff that it needs.
Previously, of course, reciprocal recognition of professional qualifications was based on the European Union (Recognition of Professional Qualifications) Regulations 2015. As others have said, outside the EU a new system is clearly required, and I support that. We adopted an interim system providing recognition for professionals from the EU, Swiss and EFTA states but this was not reciprocated, and we need a broader base to provide for recognition of individuals from other countries. I certainly support that, provided there is no dilution of professional standards.
I wish to highlight several areas at this stage; in concluding the debate my noble friend may be able to comment on some of them, to which other noble Lords have also referred.
The first refers to the regulation-making powers and delegated powers—the Henry VIII clauses; term them what you will. Obviously, the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee is awaited; reference was made to this by my noble friend Lady Noakes. I understand the Government’s approach but obviously there is a very real concern about extensive delegated powers. Can my noble friend comment on when we can expect the report so that we can use this in debating the Bill as it goes through Committee and beyond? Clearly, the sooner, the better.
A second area, relating to Clause 3, has also been referred to by many noble Lords in the debate. The possibility of the overriding of provisions in the context of international trade is bound to cause concern. Of course, trade is important but it should not trump professional standards. There is also, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, mentioned, a devolved dimension here. How will we ensure that the devolved Administrations are brought in here with regard to trade matters as well as professional standards? Once again, can my noble friend comment on this and give some indication of the Government’s approach?
More generally, on the issue of the devolved authorities, I can well understand, and indeed approve of, the accommodation of the different nations of the United Kingdom, where there of course is separate consideration of professional standards and qualifications. This will therefore mean separate provisions for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as indeed the Bill made makes clear. Can my noble friend update the House on the position on the legislative consent Motions? I think the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, made reference to that. It is anticipated that there will be legislative consent Motions from the devolved Administrations. I assume that there will be no difficulty with these, but perhaps my noble friend could give us a taster as to what progress has been made in this area. Can he also update us on the position on common frameworks to co-ordinate work on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications with the devolved Administrations? Clearly, that is an important area.
Finally, I refer to the assistance centre created under Clause 7, providing assistance and advice to individuals who seek to practise a regulated provision in the United Kingdom. It seems that the Government regard this as central. Can my noble friend give us some indication of exactly how this will operate: what the costs and benefits are, and so on? Reading about it, I do not quite see how it fits into the scheme of providing that necessary advice and assistance. This has been referred to by other noble Lords in the debate.
As I say, I recognise the importance of the Bill and can quite see the need for it in the present situation. I have concerns—apparently, like other noble Lords—about some areas of the Bill. I look forward to the Bill proceeding and being subject to the detailed scrutiny that will no doubt follow in Committee and beyond.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure and honour to join this debate, and I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for raising the issues that she has.
We are all conditioned to place trust in professionals; after all, no one would willingly let an unqualified surgeon operate on them. However, there is a darker side to professional qualifications and trade in professional services, whether at home or abroad, and the mono- chromatic approach of the Bill pays little attention to that.
Professionally qualified bankers have crashed banks and the economy and are implicated in HBOS, RBS and other frauds. Professionally qualified accountants and lawyers are often the masterminds behind money laundering scams and ingenious tax avoidance schemes that plunder the public purse and condemn millions to go without decent healthcare, housing, education, pensions and social infrastructure. Professionally qualified insolvency practitioners unnecessarily prolong insolvencies to collect mega fees. Too many auditing firms, often licensed by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, are complicit in accounting scandals and tax avoidance. On a number of occasions, the courts have concluded that the tax avoidance schemes marketed by accounting firms are unlawful. Despite that, not a single accounting firm whose scheme has been judged to be unlawful has actually been disciplined by the ICAEW, and that is wrong. So my question is this: through this Bill, what will we actually be exporting and importing through mutual recognition of professional qualifications and work experiences?
The faith in professional qualification and regulation is double-edged; it also blocks the emergence of new professions. The Bill does not establish any universal norms or benchmarks for professional education—for example, the principle that professional qualifications must prioritise public welfare and not promote anti-social practices.
Consider the case of accounting and wealth creation. We all know wealth creation requires co-operation among a variety of stakeholders. Shareholders provide finance and get a return in the form of dividends. Employees provide brains and brawn and get a return in the form of wages and salaries. Society provides education, healthcare, security and a legal system, and gets a return in the form of taxes. However, in professional accounting education, payment of wages and taxes is considered a cost, while payment to finance capital in the form of dividend is considered a reward. The self-serving logic is that efficiency depends on cutting costs, so armies of auditing firms and accountants working in those firms are available to squeeze labour, cut wages and design tax-dodging schemes. No professional is ever hired to advise on how to reduce return-to-finance capital.
Alternatives to conventional accounting logics are available but never find their way on to the professional accounting education syllabus adopted by the ICAEW and other bodies. They continue to inculcate individuals into class warfare. This Bill does not check the worst of professional qualifications by establishing principles of good professional education.
I would welcome some clarity from the Minister about Clause 10, which is headed
“Duty of regulator to provide information to overseas regulator”,
and its link with broader regulatory issues which inevitably arise from reliance placed on professionals. Consider the case of Barings Bank, which collapsed in February 1995. Its audits were conducted by Coopers & Lybrand and Deloitte in the UK and in Singapore. The accounting qualifications of some of the Singapore staff were recognised in the UK and enabled them to become members of the UK bodies. However, this did not give the then banking regulator, the Bank of England, access to that staff and the audit firm’s working papers in Singapore. Paragraphs 15 and 153 of the Bank of England’s 1995 report titled Report of the Board of Banking Supervision Inquiry into the Circumstances of the Collapse of Barings said:
“We have not been permitted access to C&L Singapore’s work papers relating to the 1994 audit of BFS [Baring Futures (Singapore) Pte Limited] or had the opportunity to interview their personnel. C&L Singapore has declined our request for access, stating that its obligation to respect its client confidentiality prevents it assisting us … We have not been permitted either access to the working papers of D&T or the opportunity to interview any of their personnel who performed the audit. We do not know what records and explanations were provided by BFS personnel to them”.
I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about the interaction between mutual recognition of qualifications and regulatory co-operation. Would a foreign national enjoying membership of a UK professional body but not resident in the UK be required to co-operate with the Financial Conduct Authority or equivalent? Under reciprocal arrangements, UK citizens would be required to co-operate with foreign regulators.
The Bill applies to 160 professions that are regulated by legislation and a network of more than 50 regulators. This multiplicity of regulators results in duplication, waste and obfuscation. For example, we have four professional accountancy bodies, known as the recognised supervisory bodies, or RSBs, dealing with external auditing. They are overseen by the Financial Reporting Council, soon to become the audit, reporting and governance authority or ARGA. However, there are five recognised qualifying bodies, the qualifications of which are recognised for auditing purposes. In addition, there are four recognised professional bodies, RPBs, dealing with around 1,300 insolvency practitioners. The Bill does not streamline the regulatory maze and says nothing about the autonomy or powers of various regulators. If a qualification is recognised by just one recognised supervisory body or recognised professional body, would others be forced to do the same? Is there a pecking order of the professional bodies? I strongly urge the Government to streamline the regulatory arrangements and eliminate the powers of all the accountancy bodies and transfer them to the FRC or its replacement, ARGA.
The 160 professions covered by the Bill need to be seen in a broader light. The reason is that each profession erects barriers to entry, which erodes competition and the quest for higher quality. For example, UK law requires that only an entity under the control of individuals licensed to carry out an audit can conduct audits, so 51% of the partners of a firm or 51% of shareholders of a company conducting the audit must hold a licence to audit. This is unlike any other market. For example, there is no requirement that a pharmaceutical business must be under the control of qualified pharmacists. The recognition of professional qualifications and the monopolies built around them prevent others, such as technology companies, from entering the audit market to facilitate much-needed change. So the recognition of professional qualifications has consequences, leading to monopolies, lack of competition and inevitable failures. The Government’s impact assessment shows no awareness of such impacts or how the social closure around predetermined qualifications facilitates failure and prevents the emergence of new professions.
The protection of the audit market also has implications for which qualifications get mutual recognition. Many IT qualifications will not be recognised, even though they are useful for audit purposes.
Mutual recognition of qualifications is part of a brain drain which encourages doctors, nurses, engineers and others to migrate from developing and emerging economies to the UK. Despite making a huge investment in social infrastructure and individuals, the home countries will not be in a position to receive the benefits of that investment. This is a huge transfer in not only skills but wealth from poorer nations to the UK. Will the Government compensate poorer countries for the loss of their wealth and human resources, and on what scale? If the UK continues to entice people from poorer countries, what incentives will it have to develop its own education and related infrastructure?
Can the Minister explain the link between mutual recognition and the Government’s immigration policy? Will anyone holding a recognised qualification get priority in securing a work permit and possible settlement in the UK, even if they earn less than £25,600 a year? Also, the Bill does not put any time limit on mutual recognition of qualifications. How will that be addressed? Will it be a once-and-for-all decision?
Finally, the Bill permits specified regulators to recognise foreign qualifications. Thus, the regulators have a clear statutory and public role. Despite this, the Bill does not place all regulators and relevant professional bodies within the framework of freedom of information legislation; these are public bodies and should be within its scope so that ordinary people can ask questions and hold the bodies to account.
My Lords, in a debate on professional qualifications, I need to declare that I am yet another fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, although long retired from general practice. I compliment the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, on their very interesting comments. I hope that, during the passage of the Bill, we can develop those comments, as I think there is room for co-operation on amendments. The noble Baroness said that this is not a Conservative Bill; I think there will be a number of noble Lords who would like to deny parentage of it as presently drafted.
First, I maintain that the professional and business sector provides high-value and good-value jobs. The UK is a major exporter in this sector, as sadly we are no longer the industrial giant of past years. I well remember being delighted, as a partner in a professional firm of chartered accountants, on the fairly rare occasions when a new client actually manufactured anything—most were pushing pieces of paper around from one place to another.
What are the priorities on the recognition of professional qualifications? It must be a flexible approach. I see this as giving UK professional bodies autonomy and flexibility over who they admit as members and on what terms. An authoritarian Government are not needed.
The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, was less than complimentary about the accountancy profession. I did not really recognise his description of what is happening; every profession has things about which some of its members say, “I wish some members of my profession did not do that—or they should not.” The noble Lord spoke about audit; there are a lot of conversations within the accountancy profession about audits and who should do them, and about the fact that large company audits are the province of a very small group of firms. I know that professional bodies are very interested in this, although it is outside the scope of this legislation.
The role of the UK Government is actively to promote professional mobility and recognition by striking recognition agreements with other Governments, particularly our major trading partners and—after the unnecessary Brexit—EU member states. UK professional bodies, without interference from the Government, should be free to recognise incoming professionals where they—not the Government—deem the level, scope and content of their qualification to be equivalent. But they should not be obliged to provide a bridging aptitude test where they do not reach that equivalent.
The experience of my professional body is that there will be times when the UK Government’s involvement will be necessary for agreements between UK and non-UK professional bodies, as happens. Reluctantly, I note that government involvement might be needed, as a recognition agreement may need approval by that profession’s regulator. For accountancy, as has been mentioned, this is the Financial Reporting Council, which controls access to UK audit rights.
As we move beyond Second Reading, we need to consider conflicting forces in any approach to recognition agreements. We will want to be seen as open for business with the EU, despite Brexit, and open to the rest of the world, thus replacing what has been lost by exiting the single market.
However, there will be professional concern to recognise only those who have met all legal requirements. Audit, as has been mentioned, is a relevant case. I am informed that many overseas professional institutes want deals that include UK audit rights, but to date only two non-EU qualifications have ever been accepted by the Financial Reporting Council, both of which are no longer available to new students.
Of course, there are multiple professional bodies. I understand that, for instance, the Engineering Council—mentioned by other noble Lords—has been involved, with other professional regulators, in round-table talks with BEIS. Clearly, the issues will vary by profession: chartered accountants are not dentists, and dentists are not accountants. The requirements will be different, and very often known by the professional bodies and not so much by government departments. I get the impression that some UK professional bodies have been more involved with the Government than others, but with a basic requirement that the Bill covers both inbound and outbound professional qualifications.
The Bill has powers to amend primary legislation with secondary legislation; on Clauses 5 and 6, the Library briefing states that it expects a “large number”—that is an understatement—of amendments to a wide range of Acts. It has been argued that it seems “prudent” to take a power rather than to capture all the amendments in the Bill. Others might well say that it smacks of a half-baked pudding. It suggests we will get a number of SIs which will need careful parliamentary scrutiny. Indeed, the memorandum available this morning from BEIS has an overview of the Bill in sections: the first is to “revoke”, the second to “introduce”, the next to “enable”, the next to “maintain”, the next to “create”—then there is another “create”, another “create” and another “facilitate”. That is only the tip of the iceberg of the statutory instruments that will be needed in the course of this Bill. We have an albatross here, which the Government do not seem to be dealing with.
On grandfathering, the briefing also reports that the Government have said that revocation of the 2015 regulations will not affect the status of qualifications already recognised and that applications could be completed. Can the Minister say whether there could be a discrepancy in qualifications after a certain date if that procedure takes place?
My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. I thank my noble friend the Minister for the way he introduced this Second Reading. He laid out very clearly that this Government will be forward-thinking after coming out of Europe and that we will make sure that, instead of excluding professionals from countries we are currently limited to, we will welcome them. We will work closely with them through our regulators to ensure that we do not dumb down but collectively make our own country stronger through professional services and work closely with regulators, mutually, across those countries with which we will have trade agreements. That is right and proper, and it is important that, rather than constantly looking backwards, we look forward as a country with confidence.
I had a different set of notes; I changed them after listening to noble Lords because I was getting rather down in the mouth thinking that, rather than us all being optimistic about how we can make our country really strong and great, working with developing nations that are racing ahead, we should look at immigration, migration and all the challenges that we have collectively faced with the pandemic. We should see the opportunities to share best practice and make regulators—not in other countries but our own regulators—stronger and much more independent. They need to be able to look both at where there are jobs currently and at the jobs that do not actually exist. We should look at how we are going to future-proof ourselves.
I am glad that the Bill is here. When I first took the papers home, I thought it was a very small document. I agree with noble Lords that there will be a lot of scrutiny. That is what this House is really good at: scrutinising and making sure that we get the best outcomes, not just for our country but for the partners that we will deal with. I hope that, by being critical friends but also constructive contributors, across this House we will be able to use the collective expertise and experience that this House affords us to come out with something that is not only a game-changer for the professional bodies but a gold standard for those regulators with which we will no doubt be making these bespoke arrangements.
Sometimes I get rather depressed when I look at competency in English and the ability to communicate. Of course those are important issues, but we have failed ourselves by failing to address competency in language in our country for decades. It is only right and proper that we address that issue now and make sure that, as people come to this country, the competencies of speaking, reading and writing in English are there. This also applies when we engage with our partners across the waters. I do not know who mentioned India but, if I may say so, Indian workers tend to have absolutely accurate, precise English. They are taught it grammatically and they come to this country with a very high level of competency. Unfortunately, we have also allowed lower-skilled workers to arrive on our shores and huddle in communities where they do not bother to engage in learning English. That is something that we as a country should address instead of blaming migrants who come to this country.
I also hope that my noble friend the Minister will see to it that, as we come out and look at the work that the Secretary of State for International Trade is doing—I must congratulate her on her progress—we look at ourselves as a country that embraces the new world, where developing, emerging economies will play a large part in the generation of global wealth, and not look at ourselves as rule-makers without being rule-takers. I hope that these short comments have set out my position: I hope that I will be constructive to the Minister, but I will also take time to scrutinise every single line that the Bill presents.
My Lords, I declare my interest in the register as a fellow of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries.
I thank my noble friend Lady Blake of Leeds for her introductory speech, which set out many of the points of real concern. I agree with what she said about the Bill. I wish to raise three points of concern, then a more general issue.
First, we are told that the Bill will replace existing EU law in this area. It will create a number of regulation-making powers designed to implement what is described as a new framework—that is, a new framework for the recognition of overseas professional qualifications in the UK and the authorisation of regulators in the UK to enter into recognition agreements with regulators overseas. I see that as the crux of the Bill.
However, we do not yet know how these powers will be exercised. We are provided with some general principles. Thus the Government emphasise in today’s speeches and the supporting documentation that they wish to adopt a permissive approach. They also refer to having a flexible approach. They declare their objective to complement existing provisions. There is also reference to the need to recognise their “global Britain” ambitions. Those principles are all well and good, but they are also vague and aspirational. We have no real guidance on what they mean in practice, and we have no real assurance that the wide-ranging powers in the Bill will be exercised only in accordance with these aspirations. The Bill itself provides no guarantees. Other speakers have dealt with this at length; I certainly share their concerns. We need greater clarity, presumably in Committee, on what the Government mean when they say that the Bill establishes “a new framework”. What is new, other than removing the links with the European Union?
One thing that might help to clarify what is in the Government’s mind in what they admit is a complex regulatory landscape is where they tell us that
“there are over 160 professions … regulated by legislation across more than 50 regulators”.
When we had a conversation with the Minister, I asked for a list. I very much hope that we get it by Committee. Seeing the breadth of what is involved would be useful for all of us. Also, some precise examples would be really useful. Where will these powers be exercised and how do the Government anticipate them being exercised?
Secondly, there is the issue of trade agreements, touched on by a number of speakers. Whether the Government like it or not, there is a widespread lack of trust. Given their approach and the way in which trade agreements have become trophies that they are all too desperate to declare, there is an inevitable fear that powers for professional recognition will be exercised for the wrong reasons.
My third concern, which goes into more detail, is what is meant in Clause 16(3) by a profession that is
“regulated by law … by reason of legislation”.
I fear that this definition is far too wide and unclear. I can claim detailed expertise only in my own narrow area, but I am aware of many references to actuaries in legislation that might be caught by such a definition. In some cases, for example, an actuary is anyone recognised as such by the Secretary of State. Clearly such a case is a regulation by law by reason of legislation, but it would be unreasonable to include those with what the Government have in mind. I am sure we will pursue those three points of concern in Committee.
Finally, I make no apology for mentioning some thoughts for the Government that have been expressed by my own profession and which I share. There is a concern that, historically, Governments have not always fully appreciated the value of professional bodies to the economy and social fabric of the UK, as well as the role that they play in the international trade in services that is so crucial to the UK’s economic future.
The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries is an exemplar of a professional body that is an exporter in its own right for its international membership. Many actuaries across the world, not just in the UK, regard membership of the UK’s professional body for actuaries as important in its own right, even when they do not practise in the UK and have no intention of doing so—it is often, increasingly, alongside a local qualification. This benefits everyone. The individuals concerned and the profession as a whole benefit from the training and examining that is provided to those from abroad who achieve UK qualification and registration. There is also considerable mutual benefit from the accreditation of foreign universities, training organisations, the publications that are produced and the specialised projects, including professional regulatory standards.
We want the Government to recognise that not just actuaries but other professional bodies have this important role through their global membership and we hope that, in introducing this legislation, that has been taken into account so that it does not interfere with this important role. Will the Minister commit the Government to championing the UK professional standards offered by UK-based professionals, particularly as global standard setters?
My Lords, it is a pleasure for a lawyer to follow a speech by an actuary. My concern is about the way the Bill will affect the legal profession in Scotland. I must declare an interest as I am a non-practising member of the Faculty of Advocates. At a previous stage of my career, when I was Lord President of the Court of Session, I had some responsibility for the regulation of the solicitors’ profession in Scotland and before that, when I was Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, for the regulation of members of the Scottish Bar.
The new framework which this Bill seeks to create is needed and, in principle, it is to be welcomed. The current interim system for the recognition of professional qualifications and experience from overseas derives from the UK’s membership of the EU, so what we need now is a new framework that will meet the demands for professional services within the UK in the future, which is what Clauses 5 and 6 are about. Qualifications and experience gained outside the UK need to be recognised here where there is a demand that cannot otherwise be met without unreasonable delays and charges. We must be able to implement new international agreements about the recognition of professional qualifications that will enable us to do that. The broad aim of providing regulators with a consistent set of powers that will maintain standards is to be welcomed too.
However, regulation of professions is a complex business. As many noble Lords have said, the Explanatory Notes tell us that there are more than 160 professions in the UK and that they are regulated by a network of more than 50 regulators, and there is a range of other professions that are regulated voluntarily. This is a huge canvas. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, was not overstating matters when he referred to icebergs and albatrosses. The centralised systems which this Bill seeks to create will work only if the diversity that exists across the UK is fully respected. I use the plural word “systems” because, while the regulation of architects, auditors and most health professionals, but not social work and social care, is a reserved matter under the devolution systems, the regulation of many others is devolved. The need to recognise diversity does not end there. The variety of regulatory systems across the professions within the devolved Administrations needs to be fully recognised and respected too.
I suggest that consultation with the professions will be essential before the regulation-making powers are exercised. The Bill is remarkably silent about this. There is no mention of consultation anywhere in the Bill, or in the Explanatory Notes either, so far as I can see. I hope that the Minister can explain why that is so. If consultation is expected, why does the Bill not say that consultation is required?
As regulation of the legal professions in Scotland is wholly devolved, the appropriate authority in their case will be Scottish Ministers. It will be for them to decide whether the test which Clause 2(2) sets out is met—that is, to enable demand for legal services to be met without unreasonable delay or charges. That does not seem to be the situation at present. It is difficult to know how readily that test will be met in future in the case of legal services, so we must assume that that matter will arise sooner or later. Annexe A to the Explanatory Notes tells us that a legislative consent Motion will be sought from the Scottish Parliament. I suspect that that is in the future because there has been an election and the Scottish Parliament has only recently resumed its work. So far so good, but we need to be sure how the system that is being created will work for the legal professions in Scotland before that stage is reached.
The Law Society of Scotland already has in place a system of regulations made under the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 for the recognition of international candidates seeking to requalify in Scotland to practise as solicitors. It is likely that they will need some amendment if they are to give full effect to the provisions in Clause 1. The process for amending regulations made under that Act is lengthy, and it requires the concurrence of the Lord President. As I understand the definition in Clause 16, he is a regulator for the purposes of the Bill. One would want to be sure that he would at least be consulted before the power in Clause 3 to implement is exercised, in view of the overriding responsibility that he has over that branch of the legal profession and the highly sensitive nature of this clause, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has drawn our attention. Then there is the question of who would be the specified regulator for the purposes of Clause 1. I hope that it would be the Law Society of Scotland itself, which handles the day-to-day detail, not the Lord President, as the other regulator. The provisions in Clauses 8(4) and (5) seem to support this approach. Does the Minister agree with that?
The Faculty of Advocates, to which all practising members of the Scottish Bar must belong, has a different system. Regulation of the faculty is provided for by Section 120 of the Legal Services (Scotland) Act 2010. It states that the Court of Session is responsible for prescribing the criteria for admission to the faculty but that its responsibilities are exercisable on its behalf by the Lord President or the faculty. Here, too, one would want to be sure that this rather complex system is fully respected by the Scottish Minsters before the power in Clause 3 is exercised. Consultation with the Lord President and the faculty must surely be a prerequisite, as they seem to be regulators within the meaning of Clause 16. Here, too, is the question of which of them will be the specified regulator for the purpose of Clause 1. I do not expect the Minister to provide a conclusive answer to that question, although any comment he might feel able to offer would be very welcome, but the Scottish Minsters will certainly have to answer it, and they would be wise to consult before the power is exercised.
I have one or two other short points. I welcome the provisions about the exchange of information in Clause 9, which will be of particular interest to the legal professions in the various jurisdictions in the UK, and the provisions in Clause 10. As for Clause 7, on the assistance centre, it would be helpful if the advice and assistance that is to be provided could be extended to providing information about visa and work permit requirements as well as entry requirements for the profession. Also, as this is to be a UK body, should the devolved Administrations not be consulted on the arrangements that are being made before it is set up? We must assume that at least some referrals for its help and guidance may come from the devolved nations.
Clauses 7(5), 9(4) and 10(7) state that the duty these clauses impose can be taken into account in determining whether any disclosure would breach the Data Protection Act 2018. This, as worded, does not seem to be much of a protection. Would it not be better to say that the existence of that duty is a defence?
Overall, this is a necessary Bill, but I suggest that more thought needs to be given to how it will work in practice.
My Lords, I declare my interests in sport, as set out in the register. I thank my noble friend the Minister and his officials for their respective briefings. The Bill, in particular Clause 7(1)(b)(i), is important to the sporting community and the future contribution that British ski instructors and mountaineers will make internationally, not least in the alpine ski resorts of France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland, to name just some of the key historic markets in which the UK has played a prominent role in the development of the ski industry and the present high-level qualifications of the ski instructor community.
At the heart of this is the importance of ensuring that our qualifications are aligned worldwide, and that acceptance of our professional qualification recognition can be applied in all markets. It is an essential step towards labour mobility and permit-free seasonal work. In the United Kingdom, the British Association of Snowsport Instructors—BASI—continues to take the lead through its recent work. In its alignment with the International Ski Instructors Association—ISIA—the world body for the protection and promotion of the interests of professional ski instructors, BASI’s qualifications are globally recognised. BASI, with ISIA, has been an active contributor to the agreement and development of international quality standards across national associations, rather than working rights—although some countries such as Japan choose to link ISIA-aligned qualifications with protecting working rights.
The current position is bleak for our ski instructors. Qualification recognition is complex. In some countries, the profession of snowsports instruction is regulated by law—but not in others. In the EU, there are regions within countries where this also varies, bringing yet greater complexity. Austria, France and Italy, for example, are currently not members of ISIA. Because ISIA has no legal powers to enforce its quality standards and because the trade and co-operation agreement between the UK and the EU allows member states to pursue their discretion as to whether they recognise third countries’ qualifications, it is essential and urgent that the Government ensure that there is ongoing recognition of BASI qualifications which, prior to the lost Covid season, historically led British ski instructors to play an important supportive role in, for example, the French Ecole du Ski.
The British ski industry has funded the growth and success of many ski resorts across the Alps, yet there are those who would ignore this contribution and fail to link it to allow qualified British ski instructors the opportunity to join their French counterparts who seek employment in the sector. Ski tourism from the UK involves 1.76 million holidaymakers, producing a total spend of £2.9 billion in ski holidays alone over the course of a full season. However, instead of embracing this spend, the reality is different. There are more closed shops in the mountain resorts of France, where numerous parochial mayors are only too ready to take the British spend and then exercise their authority and ban or do their utmost to discourage the French ski school under their influence and power from hiring outstanding British ski instructors, many of whom have provided significant added value to the profession and are there to satisfy the choice of British ski holidaymakers—especially those families with young children in the mountains who are more comfortable with their children being taught by a fluent English speaker. At the same time, the British Mountain Guides association is butting up against those delivering services in EU countries to be established as workers in those nations.
Remedying that market distortion will require strong commitment from the Government to stand full square behind our ski instructors and assist BASI with bilateral and multilateral negotiations to deliver continued opportunities. It is perhaps unrealistic to think that professional bodies such as BASI, the BMC or BMG are sufficiently resourced to manage negotiating with their counterparts in all 27 EU states, let alone to address any protectionist working-rights policies that might exist at either a federal or regional level. Whether skiing from Zermatt in Switzerland to Cervinia in Italy, or from Ischgl in Austria across to Samnaun in Switzerland, or traversing the 400-mile Portes du Soleil ski domain, which spans 13 resorts in France and Switzerland, British ski instructors now face a plethora of employment hurdles and obstructionist tactics to deter them.
Today, in the Swiss canton of Valais, which includes the resorts of Crans-Montana, Saas Fee, Verbier and Zermatt, a letter has been sent to the directors of ski schools setting out ways in which hurdles must now be put in the way of hiring British ski instructors by linking the recent decision with the UK’s departure from the EU and placing a raft of bureaucratic protectionist hurdles in the way of highly qualified British ski instructors who seek ongoing employment. There is now, for example, a requirement that federal government acts as an appellate body and local ski schools sign off the ski instructors they employ as qualified “teachers” without defining the Swiss qualifications required for such teachers as opposed to “ski instructors”. Much urgently remains to be done on that. Negotiations are essential to address the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, which in this case are regulated by law in the alpine countries and, of course, add to the work permit issues and growing barriers of entry in the world of ski protectionism, which equally need to be addressed.
We conceded the widespread advantages of EU membership during the exit negotiations. If one is a British citizen, regardless of what association one is a member of, one is not permitted to enter the common training test, formerly known as Eurotest. A BASI member with an EU passport is also not permitted to enter the CTT.
Sadly, the news for snowboarding is even worse. In 2006, BASI negotiated a bilateral agreement with France—the Satolas protocol—over the recognition of snowboard instructor qualifications. As a French snowboarder, if one wants to teach snowboarding, one must complete the Diplôme d’Etat de Ski moniteur national de skialpin qualification with ENSA, meaning that one needs to be both a top-level alpine skier as well as a top-level snowboarder in order to be able to teach snowboarding. The UK has been told by the French that they will no longer recognise the BASI snowboard level 4 ISTD qualification.
My noble friend the Minister might be tempted to take this opportunity to intervene, if that were permitted in this House at the moment, and say that this Bill is only framework legislation and that ski instructors are not regulated by law, unlike many of their international counterparts, and that this is a narrow Bill confined to the 160 professions that are regulated by law in this country. However, as my noble friend will know, Clause 7 does not restrict support to regulated professions but covers the work of the UK Centre for Professional Qualifications, the existing assistance centre, which is open to all British professionals, including ski instructors. It is here in Clause 7 where the Government could provide a public-facing service for advice and assistance to professionals on the application of their professional qualifications overseas.
After all, the BEIS-regulated professions team leads on the international-facing elements of the recognition of professional qualifications policy, which includes our ongoing work on the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, working with the DIT on the RPQ elements of FTA negotiations and the Government’s work to support regulators—and, I assume, UK unregulated but internationally regulated professional bodies such as BASI—to agree recognition arrangements with their overseas counterparts. That supports UK-qualified professionals seeking to practise overseas and UK professionals intending to work in other countries. The contracted-out UK CPQ can provide guidance, officials have informed me, on how professionals can gain recognition of their qualifications by overseas regulators and professional bodies. That is an excellent initiative and the envy of many countries, and I welcome it being included in the Bill as a legally binding requirement.
I therefore ask my noble friend to confirm that the Government will first assist with bilateral negotiations for international recognition of BASI standards through the UK CPQ, while simultaneously working on a master agreement. The UK CPQ can help CTT-qualified British ski instructors work abroad and navigate the systems with other countries through mapping qualifications and providing support on the ground. Within the department, the assistance centre and the recognition arrangement team will, I hope, help BASI with its overseas counterparts on both bilateral and multilateral deals to protect British ski instructors. That should see bilateral progress made at the same time as preparing for an application for an EU 27-wide mutual recognition agreement, deliverable with Foreign Office backing, to cover British mountain guides and snowsport instructors. I hope that it can be negotiated and one day annexed to the free trade agreement.
I hope the scope for taking forward these negotiations can be agreed with BASI and with government support. We may need to seek to strengthen the Bill to ensure that the future of British instructors is not to be a bleak one and that a legally binding commitment on the Government to report back to Parliament on work under Clause 7 is considered in Committee, covering negotiations of mutual agreements and replacement of the scheme under which the highest-level British qualifications—BASI level 4 for snowsports instructors—is recognised throughout the EU and beyond. Such mutual recognition should include access to the CTT, enabling ski instructors and mountaineers to apply for jobs in alpine countries, with pre-agreed high-standard professional qualifications as well as advice and help to navigate restrictions on the freedom to work, the need for work permits and movement within Europe. I fully agree with the strong representations of my noble friend Lady Fraser. This falls within Clause 7 and is not excluded as a consequence of ski instructors and mountain guides not being regulated by law in this country. In general, save for the extensive Henry VIII powers in the Bill, I fully support the measure.
My Lords, I wish to speak mainly about how the Bill will affect recognition of qualifications of healthcare professionals and in particular medical doctors from overseas. I am a medical professional. Previously I have been involved with assessment of overseas qualified doctors and been a member of the General Medical Council, and I was chair of a regulator responsible for assessing the qualifications and experience of specialist doctors, a role now in the remit of the General Medical Council. However, I am currently not involved in the work of any healthcare regulator.
The Bill places obligations on regulators to establish a framework for recognition of professional qualifications from around the world and to share this information with similar bodies overseas, being transparent about entry and practice of regulated professions. The General Medical Council, the regulator of doctors in the United Kingdom, already has the powers, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said, to do the majority of things that the Bill describes. It also has a long history of a well-established system of recognition of medical professionals’ qualifications and experience prior to granting entry to the register. In this context, this Bill is not only unnecessary but will lead to more confusion and unintended consequences unless amended.
Clause 1(1), granting international professions entitlement to practise based on either qualifications or experience, will undermine patient safety. Clause 1(2) runs the risk of replicating the EU directive on mutual recognition of professional qualification—the so-called MRPQ directive—the shortcomings of which were highlighted in the past as the directive related more to recognition of medical qualifications and less to competences, including language skills, a skill not applicable to some professions. I hope that the Minister can clarify, particularly in relation to medical professionals, the policy intent behind the proposals in the Bill, and give an assurance that he understands the potential issues that could affect the current and future registration process of healthcare regulators.
I acknowledge that this is framework legislation covering more than 160 professions, but, as drafted, it runs the risk of unintended consequences that would impact negatively on patient safety and on workforce shortages in medicine. The current well-established processes of recognition of qualifications are on demonstration of knowledge, skills and experience in a variety of well-tested processes, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro. They go a long way to making sure that doctors from overseas have the necessary qualifications and experience, as well as language competences, before gaining entry to the medical register. The wording referring to “overseas qualifications” and “overseas experience” in Clause 1(2) would prevent regulators using their current system of assessment, and that cannot be right. I understand that that might not be the policy intent—the Explanatory Notes imply that—but in this area the Bill needs amending.
Unusually—in fact, uniquely—in his opening remarks the Minister indicated that he recognised the unique and well-developed processes of the General Medical Council for recognising qualifications of overseas doctors and intended to amend the Bill. I welcome those remarks. I would like to think that his change of mind was because he had sight of my speech, but I doubt that; it was probably more to do with briefing to his department from the General Medical Council. I am grateful to him for indicating that the Government will amend Clause 1(2), and I look forward to that—but I am sure that if the Government do not, I and others will be keen to do so in the spirit of improving the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend and congratulate him on so ably introducing the Bill. At the outset, I raise two points and will press him on his opening remarks. One is in relation to offering preferential treatment, which we understand is now historic, to EEA countries and Switzerland, which he said was not reciprocated by the EU and was always intended to be temporary. However, we were told that that was a matter for negotiation at various points of the legislation.
There are many quotes I could give. I asked a Written Question of the Department for Exiting the European Union, and my noble friend Lord Callanan replied on 16 March 2018 to the effect that:
“The Government is firmly committed to the agreement in December and we are working with the Commission to agree how they should be translated into legal form in the Withdrawal Agreement. We are committed to turning the Joint Report into legal text as soon as possible and it remains our shared aim to reach agreement on the entire Withdrawal Agreement by October.”
More recently, in the debate on legislation for the withdrawal agreement, again in response to a question from me, my noble friend Lord Callanan replied:
“With regard to lawyers … the existing professional qualifications were recognised as part of the withdrawal agreement for existing citizens. The future recognition of qualifications, after the end of the implementation period, is a matter for negotiation. It is in the White Paper. It is something that we want to agree and we think it mutually desirable, but it has not yet been agreed.”—[Official Report, 24/7/18; col. 1673.]
I agree that it was desirable, and it is my fervent wish that we can go on and negotiate this, albeit not with the EU collectively but with individual member states.
I take this opportunity to refer to my interests on the register. In particular, I am a graduate in Scots law, where there is a proud tradition whereby we marry aspects of Roman law, private international law and UK constitutional law. I was one of the cohort of the first ever Scottish undergraduates who undertook a six-month compulsory course on European Community law, as it then was. I am a non-practising member of the Faculty of Advocates and endorse entirely the comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. I pay tribute to all his contributions, not least to those in his earlier life as dean of the Faculty of Advocates.
I speak very much from the focal point that I had as beneficiary of the free movement of lawyers and the right to establish legal services for those from this country in other European Union countries while we were members of the European Union. I accept that we are now in a different situation, but I would like to think that those up and coming advocates will benefit from similar experiences to those that I had. I press my noble friend again on the reciprocity of recognition of qualifications and the mobility for professions and the right to practise—my noble friend said “globally” but I would say perhaps a little closer to home.
The remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, struck a chord. We are very poor in this country at speaking other languages. I am fortunate to be able to speak a number of other languages and, indeed, studied in Denmark and did some translations for the European Commission in that language. I regret that our knowledge of European languages and foreign languages generally in this country has gone down since we left the European Union.
I take this opportunity to celebrate the distinct nature of legal services across the United Kingdom and to echo the view expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that it is essential that these are recognised and respected—as they are in the Bill through the devolution aspect as regards the mutual recognition of qualifications. So too is the fact that the regulation of the legal profession, among others, is devolved.
I have a specific question for my noble friend. Can he explain how the regulations—as a framework Bill, the regulations are multiple; other noble Lords have referred to that aspect—are to be adopted under the Bill and how the distinct nature, certainly of Scots law, will be reflected in this? The helpful briefing note prepared by the House of Lords Library for today’s debate refers to the ongoing work in the common frameworks and the fact that the MRPQ and services frameworks are a matter for discussion and negotiation under the common frameworks. It would be very helpful if my noble friend could give us an update. If he is able to do so, can he also address the issue that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, raised—that consultation should be with the professions as well as the regulators and the devolved assemblies?
The very helpful briefing from the Law Society of Scotland highlighted a number of clauses, in particular Clause 3 on implementation of international recognition agreements, Clause 5 on the revocation of the general EU system of recognition of overseas qualifications, and Clause 7 on the assistance centre. It is believed that the devolved Administrations should be consulted on the arrangements for the creation of the assistance centre. It would be helpful if my noble friend could set out precisely what form the consultation will take, and at what stage. The noble Baroness, Lady Blake, asked for publication of the regulations in advance; that would be very helpful indeed.
I welcome the fact that the Bill’s focus is to facilitate cross-border recognition and regulation and to ensure an integrated system of the transfer of professions, so far as the Immigration Rules will permit. Given the wide regulation-making powers under the Bill, I ask the Government to give a commitment to consult on any draft regulations, as I have addressed. I add a personal plea for an assurance that the arrangements will be reciprocal, as regards not just the mutual recognition of professional qualifications but the right to establish legal services in other countries on a similar basis.
Preparing for today, I also received a helpful briefing from the Law Society of England and Wales. On the mutual recognition of qualifications, it has asked for it to be made obviously clear that foreign lawyers can provide legal advice on home-state law and international law, as well as English and Welsh law, with the exception of the six reserved activities. The Law Society goes on to say that it believes the UK should seek to obtain equivalent rights for England and Wales solicitors operating in foreign markets—I would argue for Scots lawyers too—and that it is vital that legal and other professional services are at the forefront of the forthcoming trade negotiations, for the reason that other noble Lords have given—the economic importance of the sector. It also asks that the specificities of market access for the legal sector are recognised. MRPQ does not necessarily have the same importance for lawyers as for other regulated professions, in the sense that the difficulty for trade and legal services generally lies in behind-the-border barriers.
In his opening remarks, my noble friend referred specifically to Clause 11 and the work of architects overseas. I am slightly concerned that he is underestimating the difficulty in relation to architects, of whom I understand there is a shortage. It took 21 years for 12 EU countries to agree the mutual recognition of architects’ qualifications. I hope it will not take that long for my noble friend to be able to negotiate those agreements.
To conclude, I ask my noble friend specifically that, as the Bill proceeds through Parliament, it will recognise the distinct nature of legal services in the United Kingdom, that consultation with professions as well the devolved Administrations will be secured, and that reciprocal arrangements on the recognition of qualifications will be sought within individual countries and in the shortest timeframe possible.
I look forward to examining and scrutinising the Bill as it proceeds through its legislative stages in this House.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. This is an important Bill. Having lost the EU framework, we clearly need robust processes for the recognition of professional qualifications and experience gained overseas. In particular, it will be important to ensure that we are able to maintain standards across our professions.
The issue I want to flag up today relates to the wholesale delegation of powers in this Bill, to which many noble Lords have already referred. I am prompted to speak having read the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s counsel’s opinion and the government memorandum on the Bill. I emphasise, however, as a member of the committee, that we have not yet discussed the Bill—we are actually discussing it tomorrow. I am therefore speaking in a personal capacity rather than in any way representing the views of the DPRRC. I know that if we want to propose amendments in Committee, it is etiquette in this House to flag up one’s concerns at Second Reading, hence my short—I emphasise short—contribution today.
I realise that to write into the Bill precise detail relating to 160 professions and more than 50 regulators would indeed present problems, as several noble Lords have said. The issue is whether there is sufficient detail to enable Parliament to scrutinise the proposals and ensure that standards are adequately safeguarded in future.
As the Government’s memorandum says, “with some exceptions, the substantive changes to the law envisaged by this Bill will be made through delegated powers rather than the Bill itself”. That is not some peripheral detail, it refers to the substantive changes. Those delegated powers are Henry VIII powers. They enable Ministers to change laws through regulations—which, as we know, do not provide for the level of parliamentary scrutiny applied to Bills. There are two important conditions set out in Clause 1, which, I emphasise, limit the delegated powers to an important degree. These are indeed welcome—the question is whether they are sufficient.
One of the conditions is that the relevant regulator for any profession must be satisfied that the overseas qualifications or experience demonstrate “substantially the same” standard as is demonstrated by the relevant UK qualification or experiences. How does the regulator do that? What is meant by “substantially the same”? That is crucial. We do not want a drop in standards. Would it be wise to include in the Bill a provision that holders of overseas qualifications will be required to undertake appropriate assessments to demonstrate parity of their qualifications and the UK equivalent? It would then be left to regulations to modify that requirement where appropriate. That feels to me to be the way round, with a general principle that regulations might modify and Parliament could have a debate about it, at any rate. It may also be appropriate to include in the Bill a provision that candidates will generally be required to undertake an assessment of their character and suitability for the profession in question.
Another point we may want to pick up in Committee, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Watkins of Tavistock, is the lack of any reference in the Bill to the quality of English of a holder of an overseas qualification. In some professions, that is fundamental. For example, I worked in mental health for many years—try speaking to a psychotherapist, or a therapist of any kind, who is struggling with their English. Other issues will be proof of identity and, perhaps, a clear criminal record.
As the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries points out, it will be important that barriers to entry to this country are consistent and not too onerous. We can benefit also from the requirements of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. No doubt its assessment processes will inform debates in Committee and on Report.
The House will want to take note of the Constitution Committee’s comments in its report on the Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Act, that it is
“a long-standing convention of the constitution … that outside the exceptional case of making provision for EU law, international legal agreements that make changes to UK law are given domestic force by an Act of Parliament”.
In this context, are the early clauses of this Bill an inappropriate delegation of power?
I do not want to say more at this stage because it would be inappropriate ahead of the DPRRC discussion on the Bill tomorrow, but I hope I have said sufficient in case I want to pursue any of these issues as the Bill progresses through the House.
The next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, has scratched, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Moylan.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak after the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who makes important points about delegated legislation. No doubt we will return to them.
I declare my interest as an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. I assure noble Lords that this does not qualify me in any way to practise architecture—quite the reverse—but I mention it because Clause 11 of the Bill is devoted to the architectural profession. Although RIBA is not a professional regulator—noble Lords will note from the text of the Bill that this role is reserved by statute to the Architects Registration Board—none the less the clause may affect its members. In that respect, it is a matter of regret that the consultation that the Government have been undertaking on changes to the Architects Act has not been published in time for consideration in this debate. I understand that it is expected imminently. It is a pity that it is not available today, but I hope my noble friend the Minister can give some assurance that this response will be available before Committee. It is necessary, and would at least be extremely helpful in addressing Clause 11 if we could understand the context of policy in which the Government see this whole question, going forward.
I broadly welcome the Bill. In many ways I share the enthusiasm of my noble friend Lady Noakes for the scrapping of EU legislation but, like many other noble Lords, I am somewhat confused by the Bill. In some ways, this is not helped by the order in which its clauses are written. There is a degree of randomness about them. The start of the Bill is really Clause 4; that is the heart of the whole thing, and it is a permissive clause which allows the professional bodies in the scope of the Bill to enter into agreements with corresponding organisations in other countries. There cannot really be an objection to that. The only question, as hinted at by certain noble Lords, is why in a free society such permission from the Government is necessary. None the less, it cannot be objected to.
However, having addressed Clause 4, we must turn back to Clause 1, which makes a very important point. In effect, it says that there may be cases where the public interest requires the Government to intervene to ensure that those professional regulators are undertaking, or at least creating, a route by which those mutual recognitions can be put in place. The assumption is that there is a recalcitrance or a failure on the part of the professional organisations to carry out what they are permitted to do by Clause 4, and I do not object to that as such. Of course, in many cases, there may be reasons of public interest why the Government might want to act to make something happen, but it is not a very strong clause. Out of respect for the professional bodies or professional regulators, all that the clause does is require them to put in place a route whereby such applications can be processed. There is nothing in the clause mandating them to approve anybody or to ensure that something is coming through the envisaged pipeline. Therefore, it is rather weak as a measure for addressing what would have been an identified public interest.
A public interest is a very broad thing. One can imagine a public interest that covers a whole range of matters in which the Government could quite properly want to take an interest to ensure that action by the professional bodies would occur. But then we turn to Clause 2, which does something else. It says that there is only one public interest that the Government will contemplate that will allow and authorise them to take steps under Clause 1, which is a lack of supply, if noble Lords see what I mean, to meet something called demand in the domestic workforce. We are now going to say that, having taken this reasonable power—not a very strong power, but a reasonable one—to act in the public interest, the Government will limit themselves to using it only where there is a demonstrated demand.
This is the part of the Bill that causes me the most concern. Here I am repeating to some extent things that other noble Lords have said or hinted at. The first is that it seems to limit the sense of public interest unnecessarily tightly. I have made that point. The second is, as some noble Lords have indicated, that it will lead to endless debate about footling questions that are in many cases bound to end up the subject of judicial review: what is the right number of tax accountants for Wales? What is the appropriate number of lawyers or advocates in Scotland? There is no right answer to these questions, but this is the substance of a debate that the Government are inviting upon themselves every time they seek to exercise the powers. I say the Government—here, of course, I mean the national authorities, because it will not necessarily be this Government who exercise the power. Every time the national authority seeks to exercise this power, it will walk straight into this quagmire. I simply do not see any reason for it.
The third thing is that it links the Bill to immigration. A great deal of the debate we have had this afternoon has been not really about the recognition of professional qualifications but about the right to work in the United Kingdom. The Bill, although it stretches into the world of immigration, has no immigration effects. Simply having this qualification, even if there is a demand for it, does not necessarily give you the right to work here; no work permit flows from this. One is treading into the world of immigration policy without actually having an effect on it. That complicates the Bill very unnecessarily.
As background to my remarks—this will not necessarily be welcome to the many professionally qualified people who have spoken in the debate; I hasten to add, in case there was any doubt, that I have no professional qualifications at all, so I am not among them in any sense—although I do not share the caustic view of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, of the professional bodies in his own sphere of activity, I come with a certain sort of scepticism and suspicion that professions often seek to limit entry into their profession with a view to generating a scarcity premium. Criticise me if you like, but I have to say that many regulators end up being captured by the professions they seek to regulate.
My worry about connecting this to immigration is that it puts the debate in the wrong place and gives to the regulators the notion that they are there as an arm of the immigration system, whereas we want them to carry out as objectively as possible the accreditation of foreign qualifications to the standard that the Bill requires—although that standard might change in the course of further stages. That process ought to have no consequence or connection to immigration at all. All that made me think that the Bill might be better without Clause 2 at all.
All that can be tested later and I hope I have laid out what I see to be the main issues. I must end by saying how grateful I am to my noble friend the Minister for the time he gave me to discuss these issues and explain them to me. While I feel that I understand the Bill better as a consequence, it may be that he has yet more to teach me, that I may not understand it well, and that he may win me over to his point of view entirely. We have opportunities to pursue that over the coming weeks and I look forward to them.
My Lords, other noble Lords have spoken of concerns over the Bill, recognising the need for it while expressing a wide range of concerns. I will focus my remarks principally on the risks to medical registration and declare that I am registered with the General Medical Council.
For some years now, the GMC has been keen to speed up its processes and be more flexible, particularly in how it assesses the competence of international doctors when registering them. The current Department of Health and Social Care consultation, Regulating Healthcare Professionals, Protecting the Public, has wide-ranging proposals to reform professional regulation and include the regulation of physician associates and anaesthesia associates. However, the proposals in the Bill risk undermining the principles behind those reforms, so can the Minister explain how the two departments are working together? He may wish to write to me to clarify whether the proposals in the DHSC plans can be implemented via secondary legislation using Section 60 of the Health Act 1999 to modify professional regulation in the Medical Act 1983 via an Order in Council.
In the Bill, regulators will be obliged to establish a framework to recognise professional qualifications from around the world, with international agreements to ensure greater transparency of information. Yet the GMC and other health professional regulators already have powers and many years’ experience in overseas recognition and registration, making the Bill unnecessary for the health professional regulators—as the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, and my noble friend Lord Patel have explained.
I am relieved to hear that the Government will bring forward amendments to Clause 1. Without amendment, Clause 1(4) would inadvertently compromise patient safety and decrease workforce supply. Time spent formally assessing thousands of qualifications in great detail will not meet the policy objective of maintaining existing levels of public and consumer protection. Take the example of a trauma surgeon with 25 years’ experience in the field. The surgeon’s original medical school curriculum, surgical exams and grades provide no indication of current competence and skills. It is an up-to-date skills assessment that is crucial to safe practice, and in which the GMC has a wealth of experience.
Without the Government’s heralded amendment, Clause 1(2) would prevent the GMC from interpreting “qualifications or experience” in a way that enables using written and clinical tests of knowledge and skills to continue. Its well-established processes currently register over 10,000 doctors annually. The Bill needs amending to explicitly support assessment of appropriate knowledge and skills over and above the original qualification.
The safe registration of healthcare professionals is more complex than simplistically focusing on baseline qualifications. Every international medical graduate must have an acceptable overseas qualification and demonstrate that they have the knowledge, skills and experience to practise in the UK, usually through a test of competence with evidence of relevant clinical experience. This is far more meaningful than trying to see whether each international qualification is “substantially the same” as UK qualifications.
I hope that the Minister, in responding, will explain the policy intent behind these proposals that cover over 160 professions, and how the Bill will be amended to avoid unintended compromise of current processes that work well and will allow flexibility in the future. I know he referred to it in his opening remarks, but we are seeking more clarity.
Finally, I declare that I am president of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and ask the Minister to confirm that the competencies assessment will continue to apply to allow reciprocity because, for example, respiratory physiotherapy is a core skill in the UK but not taught in some other countries. Currently, the society supports physiotherapists going through the Health and Care Professions Council registration processes. Overall, can the Minister confirm that where processes are well refined they will not be compromised, as the current proposals in the Bill will increase regulators’ workload without evidence of improvement? Can he also confirm that healthcare professional regulators will not have to establish a new stage in their application procedures for international professionals to individually assess each qualification presented by an applicant, but that they can instead undertake this assessment through their existing procedures, such as tests of competence?
My Lords, being almost the last speaker in this debate, I will not read out the speech I had prepared. I largely agree with what many noble Lords have said, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Patel, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Verma, Lady Meacher and Lady Finlay. Will the Minister confirm that all professionals, particularly doctors, must have the skills to speak perfect English, and that patients who do not understand English must have access to the services of a skilled translator?
My Lords, when the Second World War ended and the Australian troops came home, they were eligible to attend universities and many of them became dentists. I myself became a dentist, but I was straight from school. Then the surplus of dental graduates in Australia was so high that there was no work except for digging the Snowy River scheme or the roads, and after a short time they discovered there was this need for dentists in the UK and huge numbers came here at that time, as I did myself. I welcome the Bill in helping to recognise professional qualifications gained abroad where they meet UK standards.
I came from Australia in 1956, having recently qualified as a dentist from Sydney University and having heard of the shortage of dentists here. My qualification and training for the National Health Service was really to be able to say that I was able to practise dentistry and make my life here in England. The rest, as they say, is history. All I had to redo of my training on arrival in England was to register: the standards of teaching were accepted. I doubt I would have stayed too many years more if more study had been required without any earnings, not to mention the costs one would have to incur. Today we still often need more skilled people than we can train here, and people move to the UK and bring their skills with them, which we can put to good use. Similarly, it is useful in this global economy for our professional skills to be recognised abroad, for exactly the same reasons.
When looking through the draft Bill, I found myself wondering about the merits of the proposed assistance centre. I fear this looks like something with the potential to be a costly and resource-intensive body, when it merely needs to be something that directs people to the relevant regulators of the professions. In this day and age, it could in fact be a website run by a government department at a low cost. I hope to hear more from the Minister as to what is envisaged for the assistance centre. In particular, I seek assurance, that it will not become the regulator to the regulators.
My Lords, given the United Kingdom’s position on the G7, we should in fact be a net skills exporter rather than an importer. It is to be regretted that this is not within the scope of the Bill and not the discussion that we are having, because that is at the heart of the reason that many of these clauses are in place. I have less regret that I will not be talking about accountants or auditors.
There is more than a smack in this Bill of, “I’m from the Government and I’m here to help you.” As pointed out by the last speaker and by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, the very existence of the assistance centre rings alarm bells to some extent. We have to examine how—if indeed the Government are to help—the Bill will cause things to be better. It is very difficult to tell. I am not in the Minister’s address book. Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, I did not receive the important letter that revealed all about this Bill. There are so many unknowns, not least because its ultimate operation is masked in the cloak of invisibility as given by the upcoming secondary legislation that we have yet to see. This is a skeleton Bill. I welcome the comments of others on this subject, particularly those of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. I hope that the spirit of his words will be turned into actions by Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition as we get further through the Bill.
No one denies—and the Government seem to have to assert—that there is an advantage of diversity contributed by professionals brought in from overseas, but I would refute the idea implicit in the Bill that EU and EEA membership inhibited our international recruitment aims. As was so eloquently acknowledged by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, you have only to look at the non-European professionals and the roles they play in the National Health Service to see that it was perfectly possible within the past regime to bring many international non-European professionals into this country.
However, it is not clear what effects the Bill will have on the future recruitment of healthcare professionals. Indeed, the Government themselves have acknowledged that the healthcare sector may need a transition period to phase this in. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain: first, why is that necessary? Secondly, is the mysterious and rapid change already coming to the Bill aimed at helping that? And, thirdly, if it is affecting the healthcare sector, why will it not affect other core sectors to come?
My noble friend Lord Purvis brought up the common travel area, particularly the Swiss agreement around that. More generally, the Government have stated:
“The revocation of the 2015 Regulations does not affect commitments under the CTA”
—the common travel area. However, I observe that the Government also said that the Northern Ireland protocol would not help to create a border down the Irish Sea, so we have to be careful about what we take from this.
In the Explanatory Notes to the Bill, the Government say:
“both the UK and Irish governments have agreed to ensure there are adequate routes to recognition for qualified professionals across the UK and Ireland.”
What is the nature of these routes, when might we see them emerge on a road map and how will this be taken forward? There are real questions about professionals who get recognised in countries that are not recognised in the EU; how will they be able to practise in Ireland? Could the Minister give a detailed response to that particular question, perhaps by letter?
The Government have said that the interim system has to go because it was perceived as offering preferential treatment to professionals with Swiss and EEA qualifications. As such, to handle this perception, the Bill rounds down access, rather than rounding it up: it knocks back market access and throws away the potential services of many highly skilled EEA people before it has established a positive route from other countries. I suggest that this is not in the best interests of United Kingdom citizens.
From my noble friends Lady Randerson and Lady Garden, we heard how hard it is to implement reciprocal arrangements—it is enormously difficult. We only have to look at the numbers of different professions and countries, and multiply them, to see that there are thousands of potential negotiations. I am very keen to hear how the Government see the current flow of professionals. Will the list that my noble friend Lord Purvis talked about get longer—will more professions be added to it?
We then talk about trade the other way. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, sandwiched, between his enthusiasm and his advocating for the accountancy profession, a really stark warning for the Government. He warned clearly that the service sector in this country cannot operate if it does not establish recognition of the professional qualifications of the people who deliver the profit in it.
When the Minister very kindly met with me and colleagues, I asked about that mutual recognition process: why, I asked, would a particular organisation in a particular country let in more professionals to compete? This follows the suspicions that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has on the subject of some professionals blocking out others. The Minister’s view was that, by removing this reciprocal arrangement, we will encourage the Europeans to negotiate. First, I was interested in, and appreciated, the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, because we were told that we were already having those discussions, but it seems that we were not. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that issue: have we actually discussed with our former European colleagues how we could have mutual recognition? If not, why not—because the Minister in charge said that we were?
Looking forward, the Government are of course not leaving things to chance on the supply side. We have heard that they are taking on powers to create a demand-led approach to the issue of a shortage of professionals in this country. I am interested in the words “demand-led”, and I wonder why they were used. I am suspicious that it is to try to allay the fears of people who associate this with immigration—I note the conversation earlier—and that this is designed to ameliorate the fears of people who feel that this will lead to mass migration. This a folly and not needed. We need to talk properly about what skills we need in this country.
The Government are deciding to take on themselves the ability to assess demand for professionals. We have heard from other speakers that that is a very fraught route. There are known knowns: we know that if the Government are to allow hundreds of thousands of houses to be built in the British shires, we will need more quantity surveyors. But there are unknowns—for example, the fintech industry. The fintech industry was built by people who were here before there was a fintech industry. If there had been a quota for fintech people, there would have been no fintech. There is an innovation-stifling nature within the centre of the Bill. For a Government who have abandoned industrial strategy to start to look at demand management of skills is really quite ironic.
I call on the Minister to address what, in reality, the Government can do about demand. It is not clear what the reaction of the Government would be if the regulators failed to deliver sufficient professionals of the nature that the Government had decided that demand required. I had a response from the Minister that said that if they did not do this, they would be breaking the law. But did not do what? Meet a quota or put the right words on a website? We need much more clarity around what the Government can really do about changing the flow of professionals. My sense is that this is overreaching and will underdeliver, and that it might be better to limit the ambition early. It is interesting that a Government, particularly fronted by a Minister who has so obviously thrived in an open and international market, should look at how skills are delivered in this micromanagement-centred and government-centred way. I would be interested in his personal view on this.
Many Ministers have mentioned the cavalcade— I think my noble friend Lady Randerson used “avalanche”—of secondary legislation. The contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, was very helpful, and we look forward to the committee’s full report. The Government will have to think again, and we will obviously play our part in helping that thought to emerge.
My noble friends Lord Purvis, Lady Randerson and Lord Palmer of Childs Hill have all raised other important points. If the Minister is hearing some of these arguments multiple times, it is because the same issues were thrown up on the then Trade Bill and internal market Bill. They are an inevitable consequence of the route we have been forced down by the trade deal we have with the EU. I have said on many occasions that free trade is facilitated by the ability of people to ply their services globally. I have proposed amendments that would cause that to happen. To be fair, the Minister and the Bill use the language of free trade—dare I say, liberally—but in reality, when this Bill gets assent, it will establish a system that offers less free trade, less mobility and more associated paperwork. If the Government are here to help, perhaps the Minister can explain, in detail, how this really helps British business and citizens live their lives in this country.
First, I also welcome my noble friend Lady Blake to our Front Bench, where she has immediately made an impact and demonstrated the impact she will continue to make. Ministers, beware.
As the Minister foretold, the debate has heard experience from across the architectural, medical, veterinary, accounting and even the sports, dental and legal worlds, raising various issues, but interestingly, one first raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes: why do we need this Bill? She said it in the meeting we had before this all began, and that made us start thinking. The noble Lord, Lord Trees, mused that the Bill was
“a solution in search of a problem”,
adding nothing to the powers that already exist—in his profession, to recognise vets from other countries that the college wants to recognise. The noble Lords, Lord Ribeiro and Lord Patel, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, the GMC, the BMA and the Professional Standards Authority all question whether the Bill is needed in their sector, given that health regulators have a long history of overseeing regulation, and they are worried that the Bill might jeopardise that system and risk patient safety.
As we have heard, the Bill does not define which regulators will be covered, although the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has been sent the list. We are delighted but, like the noble Lord, Lord Fox, we have not seen it; I am sure that it is on its way to us. The Minister said that the Bill is about only regulators set up in legislation and not those set up by a royal charter. The ICAEW would therefore not be covered, although it sounds as if the FRC and the new ARGA would be. Can he confirm that? Also, will it cover the Law Society, the SRA, the Faculty of Advocates and some others? We need to know what this Bill covers.
I should be clear, because I have some questions about it, that there are many pluses in the Bill, enabling statutory regulators, where they so desire, to enter mutual recognition agreements. As noted by the SRA, this could maximise opportunities for trade in professional services, while the Law Society said that it could assist in regulator-to-regulator reciprocal agreements by going rather beyond what a precedent-based FTA could do.
As has been said many times, legal services are central to our exports and investment. They enable their clients to make the most of opportunities across the globe. As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, the Law Society hopes that legal services will be at the forefront of forthcoming trade negotiations so that we can ensure that our lawyers operating overseas can carry out a range of functions, including as arbitrators, and partner locally based lawyers. A similar point was made by my noble friend Lord Davies of Brixton in relation to actuaries. There is potential there to help some of our crucial export services. However, there are questions. I think that they cover four areas: skill shortages; trade deals; standards and the independence of regulators; and parliamentary scrutiny.
On skills shortages, while attracting overseas talent has been vital to our public sector, it would be wrong to continue to depend on importing qualified staff where we should be building up our own skill base to correct any shortage. We do not want to see this Bill used as a substitute for the Government investing in professional training. If we lack vets or nurses, we should train up our own—with the adequate resources to do so—rather than steal from other countries, as the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, mentioned.
There is also a question of how the Government will decide whether there is a shortage. What involvement will there be with the professions and service providers? The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, touched on that point and mentioned the need for consultation on both this and broader issues. Will the Government undertake to publish the data, modelling and forecasts that they use when deciding whether they think there is a specific skills shortage? Will that definition be for a whole profession or just a particular specialism, as was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser? Furthermore, do we risk amending our regulation system for a short-term skills shortage, because we will be using legislation rather than individual cases to make up for any shortfall?
The Bill gives powers to Ministers to compel regulators of specified professions to offer unilateral recognition routes for all countries, subject to meeting the requisite standards. I will return to that power shortly.
Turning to trade deals, Clause 3 is a major concern, as we have heard. It requires a supposedly independent regulator to set up a process for authorising people from other jurisdictions to practise here—not because the regulator thinks it is the right thing to do, nor because we need more professions to fill a skills gap, which is dealt with in a different part of the Bill, but as a consequence of an international trade deal. As the SRA says, we must retain public confidence that professionals are appropriately qualified, with regulators able to set standards and make autonomous, independent decisions. As we have heard from a number of speakers, recognition will need to cover knowledge, skills and experience—not simply qualifications.
The Law Society has raised the specific question that the Bill could allow foreign Bars to challenge the independence of UK solicitors and barristers by possibly allowing the Government to make decisions on equivalence—the grounds for challenge from foreign Bars, because it would be regulated by the Government rather than independently. We trust that dialogue with the SRA and the BSB will produce an amendment to safeguard against this.
In addition to whether regulators should be obliged to enter into agreements with countries designated by the Government is the question of whether, for example, as with the GMC, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons could be forced to recognise vets from India or Mexico—I think those were the examples given. Each country has dozens of vet schools, every one of which would have to be assured if this is not being done by requalification in this country, as it could not give blanket coverage to a whole country’s independent vet or medical schools.
Surely we must agree that no regulator should be forced, because of pressure for a trade deal—we see those pressures in what is happening to farmers in trying to get a deal with Australia—to extend its recognition beyond what it wants, with a consequent risk of reduction in standards. IPReg, for example, is very happy to recognise qualifications from countries of its choice but would not want to be forced to enter into reciprocal agreements with any particular country decided on by the Government. Which future trade agreements that the Government are already looking at are expected to contain MRPQ clauses with specific routes for professions or an obligation on regulators to instigate a route to recognition? If the Minister cannot answer today—which I would understand—I hope he can write to all Members participating so that we know what they are likely to be looking at.
Might it be better to leave any new mutual recognition agreements just to separate, stand-alone, bilateral, regulator-to-regulator recognition agreements, perhaps in parallel to, but not as a requirement of, an FTA with a third country? Forcing regulators to be covered by an international agreement carries significant risks, not least to standards and consumer protection—the very purpose for which statutory regulation takes place.
We note that there is a recognition arrangements team in the department to help regulators pursue agreements with overseas counterparts. That sounds helpful, but can the Minister assure us that that team does not amount to pressure on a regulator to keep the DIT happy?
While the Government have the admirable objective of maintaining existing levels of public and consumer protection and professional standards, how does this sit alongside their objective of using this to support the international trade agenda? Those two may be in conflict rather than in harmony. To reassure us, will the Minister undertake—we might even seek to have this written into the Bill—to ensure that the Department for International Trade will consult with relevant regulators, at the very least before it finalises a trade deal, but hopefully at the point it sets its objectives for one?
This brings us to standards and to the independence of regulators. We will seek certainty that nothing in the Bill undermines high standards of health, public safety or consumer protection and that language can continue to be tested. It is vital that regulators remain independent, as the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, and others stressed, and that the Government do not force them to accept professional qualifications. Indeed, we might even look to see whether the Bill could strengthen the independence of regulators. It will not be a surprise to some people in the House to learn that I would like to add a requirement that user or consumer representatives should be added to the councils of the various regulators. I will give it a try.
As we have heard, the medical world has specific concerns. The BMA stresses that patient safety must be prioritised over mobility, and certainly over the Government’s desire for trade deals. It worries that the Government’s emphasis on paper qualifications overlooks ensuring that doctors have the right skills and relative and up-to-date experience before they work here.
As my noble friend Lord Hunt said, the Bill allows the Secretary of State to require the GMC to assess whether someone with a particular overseas qualification is “substantially the same” as a UK qualification, and thus able to practise here. As we have heard today, that means that international medical graduates would have an automatic right to practise on the same basis as home graduates, without any further checks that they are safe to practise. This is clearly unacceptable, but we very much welcome what the Minister said in opening and his undertaking that the Government will bring forward an amendment to Clause 1. We trust that it will cover all the points of worry. We hope that it will be agreed and, if you like, signed off by the GMC before it comes to us.
I turn to parliamentary scrutiny. Along with my noble friend Lord Hunt, the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, we are concerned that substantial changes to the law will be made through delegated powers rather than in the Bill. I rather thought we had gone way beyond this in how we make law. We put up with a lot of it when we were coming out of the EU because of the rush; I do not think there is any excuse for this now. At the very least, we ask the Minister to commit to publishing draft or pre-draft statutory instruments covering the priority professions before Report. This will be as important for the devolved authorities and devolved regulators as for all the other related regulators and Parliament itself.
With regard to the devolved authorities, because work is already ongoing on this, can the Minister confirm that Clause 9 does not undermine the framework work going on? Can he respond to the Law Society of Scotland’s call for more forthright commitment to respecting the distinct nature of legal services, perhaps linking what is in the Bill with the policy statement?
It is clear that parts of the Bill are necessary and welcome, and we endorse the objective of maintaining consumer, public and patient safety. We want to see our legal and accountancy professions trade for Britain, and we want our UK professionals to be able to work abroad, but this does not mean we will sweep the Bill straight through Committee. There are changes we will want to see made and improvements to be considered. We look forward to working with the Minister on this over the coming weeks, and in the meantime would be grateful for a letter responding to any of the points raised that he does not have time to cover now.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate for their excellent contributions. In particular, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, to the Front Bench. She spoke both eloquently and convincingly, and I look forward to working closely with her as this Bill progresses through its parliamentary stages.
We have heard a great deal today about the professionalism of our regulated professionals and the expertise of our regulators that exist in this country. I strongly agree with and endorse all these points.
The extensive experience on display in this House will be invaluable in helping us put in place arrangements that meet the needs of professions. I was pleased to hear support for the broad objectives of the Bill from a number of noble Lords, including my noble friends Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie and Lady Verma, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. I also very much welcomed the support in principle of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter.
Noble Lords have raised many detailed points and questions. Almost without exception, these points have been erudite and excellent. I will deal with some of them now, but many will be best dealt with in Committee. I will write to noble Lords who have raised specific points of fact and other matters in the debate.
Before I turn to the points made by noble Lords, to give some context to my responses I will briefly return to the Bill’s objective. Let us remember that the purpose of the Bill is to revoke the EU-derived system for the recognition of overseas professional qualifications in the UK. The Bill will replace this system with a new framework that is global in outlook and tailored to our needs. The Bill will allow action to be taken in the public interest if it is judged that a shortage of professionals has arisen in a profession, but that action in no way restricts regulators’ ability to take decisions about individual applicants; it merely requires them to set up a route through which people can seek entry to a profession.
As the Government pursue their global Britain ambitions, we know that recognition of professional qualifications is a key facilitator of services trade, so the Bill will make sure that regulators can have the tools they need to strike recognition agreements with their international counterparts. It will allow the Government to implement those parts of trade deals concerned with professional qualifications. We have heard today that some regulators have these tools now, but some do not. Of course, if regulators have these tools they will not need to make use of the powers under the Bill. The Bill allows us to take action where necessary, while fully respecting the excellence of our professions and the autonomy of regulators to determine who can practise in the UK. Nothing that the Government do will in any way seek to undermine this.
As I have said, this has been a broad debate and I will strive to respond to as many points as I can. As always, my door is open and I am happy to follow up any individual points of particular concern in meetings.
I will begin with the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake. I welcome her acknowledgement of the benefit that the recognition of professional qualifications can provide, including to public services. I of course share her gratitude, as I am sure the whole House does, for NHS key workers, many of whom gained their skills and qualifications overseas.
I was very pleased to hear the noble Baroness and many noble Peers, including my noble friend Lady Noakes, raise the important issue of regulator independence. This is a point where I believe we share some common ground. I must underline again the point that this new framework will fully respect regulators’ autonomy as to who practises in the UK. Why is that? It is quite simply because the regulators are the experts in their respective fields and they ensure that high professional standards are maintained. Regulators must continue to have the ability to act in the public interest, including in the best interests of their professions and the consumers of professional services.
This respect for regulator autonomy has been upheld in our approach to trade deals; I have some experience of this from my role in the Department for International Trade. None of the trade deals or recognition agreements that we have made so far or which we are negotiating will force our regulators to compromise their world- leading standards or to accept professionals who do not meet them. It would be the height of foolishness for the Government to seek to do that. In many cases these agreements merely establish application routes. And of course, in setting our negotiating parameters, we consult widely, including with the regulators themselves.
I remind noble Lords that the provisions of treaties implemented under the Bill would of course have already undergone parliamentary scrutiny, either through our committees or on the Floor of the House, as outlined in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. I hope that all noble Lords will recognise the commitments that I have made from this Dispatch Box in the past about the importance of transparency and proper scrutiny of free trade agreements.
Where regulations made under Clause 3 amend primary legislation or retained direct principal EU law, they will be subject to the affirmative procedure. That will give us another opportunity to debate these important matters and will ensure that there is parliamentary scrutiny every time significant legislative change is made.
The noble Baroness’s second question was about delegated powers—an area which the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, also spoke to. We have carefully considered the powers in the Bill and we believe that they are necessary and justified, given the complex regulatory landscape. We look forward to receiving the report from the DPRRC, and we will of course respond to any recommendations that it makes in a timely manner.
As many speakers have acknowledged, the subject matter of the Bill interacts with many different legislative frameworks specific to different professions and regulators. If the Government or the devolved Administrations were to add or remove duties on a particular regulator or give it further powers in pursuit of the Bill’s objectives, the changes would need to be woven into the existing legislation for that profession. I hope that noble Lords recognise that it would be unfeasible to specify detailed amendments to a potentially very large number of pieces of legislation on the face of the Bill.
Critically, we cannot anticipate what amendments might be required. We do not know now exactly what professional shortages may arise in future, nor do we know exactly the terms of future trade agreements. This Bill must be a framework with powers if it is to work. Although we do not plan to bring forward draft statutory instruments ahead of Report, I can reassure noble Lords that we will engage with interested parties in the event that we need to use the powers, and we would welcome the scrutiny that those parties will give. Indeed, as I said, Clause 15 provides that substantive regulations under the Bill that modify primary legislation will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.
The third question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, related to our commitment to the skills agenda. A number of speakers, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Garden of Frognal, and my noble friend Lady Noakes, acknowledged the need to support access to good-quality jobs in professions and to career progression. Of course, I support that. Although the lifetime skills guarantee is beyond the scope of the Bill, in January this year the Government published a White Paper that sets out how we will reform further education so it supports people to get the skills that our economy needs throughout their lives, wherever they live. I will of course be happy to write to noble Lords about the Government’s plans if that would be of assistance.
I opened this speech by highlighting the breadth of regulated professions in the UK. Some Peers have raised issues about specific professions, including chartered accountants, physiotherapists, ski instructors and vets. Although I cannot respond on each of these in turn, I can confirm that the letter that I sent to my noble friend Lady Noakes, which has been of extreme interest to a number of Peers, was copied to the House Library and is on public record there, and that it lists the professions and regulators to which the Bill applies.
It is important that I return to the impact of the Bill on medical regulators. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and Lord Patel, and my noble friend Lord Ribeiro raised concerns about the Bill’s impact on the work of the General Medical Council. I reassure your Lordships’ House that this is absolutely not our intent. As I said when I opened this debate, that is why the Government plan to table an amendment to Clause 1 in Committee. My officials have been in regular contact with the GMC in relation to this. I fully recognise the importance of ensuring that these regulators can operate in a way that upholds patient safety.
I turn now to other issues that noble Lords have raised on the Bill’s provisions and how they will work. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, for his interrogation of the impact assessment, having read it so carefully. The Bill primarily enables other legislation to be made. It does not by itself introduce significant financial implications through most of its provisions. For the majority of the Bill’s provisions, costs arise only if and when enacted by regulations. Where there could be more immediate costs, such as from the transparency measures, they are modest as they are already provided for by many regulators.
Noble Lords have shown considerable interest in how the framework for the recognition of professional qualifications and experience gained overseas would operate. In particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock, asked about the assessment process that regulators will use. Under the Bill, it is for the regulator to assess and determine whether qualifications and experience gained overseas are recognised. I am happy to repeat that no regulator will be forced to recognise a qualification. The Bill simply allows an appropriate national authority, in the case of shortages, to require a regulator to have a route in place to determine whether to recognise. Of course, any other specified condition that the regulator sets as part of its normal regulatory processes would also need to be met before access to a profession may be granted by the regulator. The Bill does not provide a short cut or a short circuit to becoming a professional in the UK. The technical amendment that the Government will make in relation to the matters raised by the GMC will make this clear, and I hope it will reassure noble Lords once they have had a chance to see it and consider it.
My noble friend Lord Moylan raised concerns that the imposition of a condition could give rise to trade barriers. Generally, we consider that it is for regulators, acting within their own autonomy, to enter into recognition agreements with overseas regulators. However, as I have said, in cases where the Government or a devolved Administration determine that there is a shortage of professionals in a regulated profession, that could be addressed by requiring the regulator to have this route in place for recognising overseas qualified professionals. They can do so. In defining what is a shortage in a profession, a range of factors would need to be carefully considered by the Government and the devolved Administrations. Of course, they would consult relevant parties before introducing this requirement.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, raised the issue of consulting prior to introducing regulations under Clause 1 and elsewhere in the Bill. I absolutely anticipate that determining whether professions meet this condition would require extensive close working with a range of interested parties before introducing regulations. This will ensure that professions are rightly identified and that the introduction of regulation would assist in the alleviation of any shortages. The regulations made would complement regulators’ existing practices.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, asked about the functions of the assistance centre. The assistance centre is an existing, public-facing inquiry service that provides advice and assistance to UK and overseas professionals on their professional qualifications. There is nothing mysterious about it: it does not tell regulators what to do; it just provides advice on demand for individuals seeking information about professions. It supports professionals with overseas qualifications intending to work in the UK, and UK- qualified professionals seeking to practise overseas. The objective of the service provided by the assistance centre is, and always has been, to complement and support regulators, and of course not to replace them. I am sure that this assistance centre works in conjunction with the devolved Administrations, but I will specifically seek to confirm that after this debate.
Many noble Lords spoke about the importance of respecting the devolution settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. My officials have had extensive discussions with the devolved Administrations, and I have met a number of my counterparts. The devolved Administrations rightly want to ensure that they can continue to regulate in areas of devolved competence and that their regulators maintain their autonomy. As I have said many times, the Government are committed to this. The Bill will apply to the entirety of the UK and it allows the devolved Administrations to make regulations within their devolved competences. The Bill contains concurrent powers, because some professions are regulated on a UK-wide or GB-wide basis despite being within devolved competences. I am sure we can discuss this further in Committee. These powers—all the powers in the Bill—are compatible with the devolution settlements.
Many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Purvis of Tweed and Lord Bilimoria, highlighted the importance of the mutual recognition of professional qualifications to international trade. Agreements on qualification recognition make it easier for professionals to practise between countries, supporting service exports and imports. Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Moynihan, talked about the difficulties being experienced by some UK professionals seeking to deliver services in the EU after the end of the transition period.
I remind noble Lords that the UK proposed ambitious arrangements on professional qualification recognition during negotiations of the UK trade and co-operation agreement but, regrettably, the EU did not choose to engage with them. We took the horse to water but it refused to drink. Instead, UK regulators will now have to form profession-specific recognition agreements with their counterparts in EU member states, either bilaterally or across the whole bloc. I completely appreciate that this will take time and effort, but this is why the Government stand ready to help. We have already created a team in the business department to provide expert advice to regulators and help them pursue their recognition agreements, as will our posts overseas. The team has already published technical guidance to help regulators do this.
It is right that, having left the EU, we have to think bigger. To deliver our global Britain ambitions, this Government are pursuing a number of ambitious trade agreements with countries around the world, including the US, Australia and New Zealand. This Bill will help us make ambitious offers on the recognition of professional qualifications, should we choose to do so. Moreover, it allows us to empower regulators to go after their own recognition agreements if they do not have the powers already. In pursuing these agreements, as I have said before, we respect regulators’ autonomy.
In coming to an end, let me turn finally to the questions from the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Moylan, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle and Lady Verma, about how the Bill relates to the UK’s immigration system. I can assure noble Lords that the Bill is quite separate in law. It is specific to the recognition of professional qualifications and experience gained overseas. The recognition of a professional qualification does not mean that an individual meets the UK immigration requirements; it confers no rights to work. If an individual needs to secure a visa to practise a profession in the UK, that condition will still need to be met through the immigration system.
In conclusion, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate today. We have heard many valuable contributions, which, as I said at the beginning, is a testament to the experience in this House and the importance of professions to much of society. I look forward to the further stages of this Bill and to maintaining the excellence of our professions in all four parts of the UK, as they do business around the world. That is why we need this Bill.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.