Lord Grimstone of Boscobel (Con)
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.