Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, Amendment 30 is a probing amendment on the abiding theme in our debates on this Bill, namely regulator autonomy.

Clause 4(1) says that regulations can be made

“for the purpose of, or in connection with, authorising a regulator … to enter into regulator recognition agreements.”

That seems pretty straightforward. Authorising a regulator to enter into a recognition agreement should not involve any element of compulsion, but I have learned to be wary of wide regulation-making powers.

My Amendment 30 seeks to make it clear that Clause 4 cannot be used to compel regulators to enter into recognition agreements. With this probing amendment, I am asking one simple question: are there any circumstances in which the power in Clause 4 could be used to force a regulator to enter into any recognition agreements?

Since tabling my amendment, I have seen the Government’s response of 3 June to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, where they state that the power cannot

“be used to provide regulators with the ability to enter into regulator recognition agreements where they lack sufficient abilities”.

If my noble friend the Minister confirms today from the Dispatch Box that nothing in Clause 4 could compel a regulator to do anything it does not want to do, we will be able to dispense with my amendment fairly straightforwardly.

Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
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My Lords, I am very pleased to speak in support of this amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. This issue is the crux of the independence of regulators. The situation is that not all regulators are equal: they do not all have the same legal powers; they do not all have the same clout; they do not all have the same capacity. For example, in the years between 2007 and 2016, the Nursing and Midwifery Council issued 46,257 decisions on international regulation, whereas the General Chiropractic Council issued 29. We are obviously not talking about a group of organisations that are equal in terms of their ability to withstand not just the letter of the law, but the thrust of government policy. Pressure from the Government can be a very powerful thing for an organisation. We also have to take into account the fact that some of the countries with which these international trade agreements will be signed will have regulators that are only now properly developing. Not only are all our regulators not equal, but in other countries, not all regulators are equal.

I draw the Minister’s attention to a set of statements in the impact assessment. He has often emphasised the independence of regulators, so can he therefore explain the contrast between two of its paragraphs? Paragraph 111 of the impact assessment says:

“The Bill contains a power to enable regulators to negotiate and agree Recognition Arrangements (RAs) with their overseas counterparts. The Bill does not require the negotiation of RAs”.

In paragraph 118, however, it says:

“The Bill contains a power to make regulations to implement the recognition of professional qualifications (RPQ) components of international agreements. These regulations could include the ability to bind regulators to implement the RPQ chapters of IAs as appropriate.”

Paragraph 111 says that they cannot be bound, whereas Paragraph 118 says, just as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, suggested, that regulations might trespass on the independence of regulators. I simply ask the Minister for clarification.

In his letter to me this weekend which, in the spirit of proceedings here, I read just after midnight, the Minister said that MRAs

“would not place obligations on regulators and instead encourage them to develop MRAs.”

Which is it? Are regulators to be truly and, in a wholesale way, independent and not subject to pressure, either direct or indirect, or are they to have their wings clipped potentially by regulations?

This amendment clarifies beyond doubt what I believe, from the Minister’s previous statements, is his favoured interpretation: that regulators would always be independent.

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Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, I am glad to have heard the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, introduce her amendment. We both tabled our amendments in light of the British Dental Association’s comments, but we ended up drafting them rather differently. I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, was drafting hers so that it would have to be approved by the UK regulator, rather than by the overseas regulator. I think that we are on the same page, and that my drafting is probably slightly more accurate, but let us not go there. It so confused those in the Public Bill Office that they tried to claim that there was a conflict between our amendments, and that we had to invoke something in the Standing Orders. I said that no, they were not in conflict, and could exist side by side perfectly well, but I now see that they are trying to address exactly the same issue.

The noble Baroness is right that a number of countries have a multitude of individual qualifications, some of which are good for the purposes of the regulated profession, and some which are not. There is a good example in this country: lots of bodies recognise accountants, but not all of them can be recognised as registered auditors; and there will be lots of examples beyond that. It is that point which we are trying to ensure is properly identified when dealing with Clause 4 and the position of the overseas regulation in relation to particular qualifications, and I hope that my noble friend the Minister will look on one or both of these amendments favourably.

Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
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My Lords, Amendment 32A, in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Garden, would require the appropriate national authority to consult with higher education institutions and other training providers before making regulations under this clause. I declare an interest as chancellor of Cardiff University.

I asked a Written Question, answered by the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, in which I asked Her Majesty’s Government

“why higher education institutions and other providers of training for professional qualifications are not listed as stakeholders affected in the impact assessment for the Professional Qualifications Bill; whether higher education institutions or others …were consulted on the proposals in that Bill, and … what plans they have to consult such providers in the future.”

The Answer stated:

“The proposals in the Bill do not affect the UK qualifications or experience required to practise a profession. The Government ran a Call for Evidence on the recognition of professional qualifications … between August 2020 and October 2020, which was open to anyone with an interest in professional qualifications”,

and that there were, among others,

“26 responses from educators who provide training and higher education institutions.”

The Answer continued:

“Officials have met representatives from Universities UK to discuss proposals in the Professional Qualifications Bill and will continue to pursue an active programme of stakeholder engagement.”

So, having told me in the Answer that this Bill has no impact on HEIs and other trainers, the Government went on to say that the HEIs and trainers identified themselves in the public consultation as being concerned by, or interested in, this Bill. Following that, the Government have been in discussion with Universities UK at least. Will the Minister clarify whether the Government have also spoken to other training providers, not just the representatives of universities?

I have had correspondence from Universities UK, which says that, although its contact with the Government has been fairly constructive so far, it would be helpful to require the Government to consult with higher education providers as they strike regulator recognition agreements, given the importance of these agreements to certain sections of higher education. The potential impact on onshore recruitment of EU students on relevant courses should be monitored. Clearly, that is of importance because if you are doing away with the EU-established system, there will be an impact on the number of EU students coming to this country, potentially some of them afresh as they will want to get their qualifications here, but also on the top-up courses that our HEIs provide. It also says that it would be helpful to have frequent consultation and analysis-sharing between the Government and higher education providers to help ensure that the Bill benefits the range of bilateral agreements that could increase recruitment to higher education, rather than have a detrimental effect.

It is not the case that this Bill does not affect HEIs. It affects the number of foreign students applying to the UK on top-up courses, and, crucially, what the HEIs and other training providers teach. Depending on what they teach, it affects who they employ and how many of them they employ, so this has a deep impact on them. I urge the Minister to consider this very reasonable amendment. The Government have recognised the legitimate role of higher education—I hope they have consulted other trainers as well—so what reason could they have for rejecting such a sensible and modest amendment?

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, Amendment 55A is in my name. There are many excellent provisions in the Bill requiring regulators to share information. They are required to share information with regulators at home and abroad, and with people who wish to be qualified to practise in this country. However, there is nothing in the Bill which requires the sharing of information with people who are already practising the profession in this country. Indeed, there is nothing in the amendment spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, which touches on my point, although it would expand the requirement for information sharing.

It might be thought otiose to have such a requirement where a regulator is also a membership body, as it could be assumed that naturally it would communicate with its members, but a regulator is not always a membership body. I remind noble Lords that I said at Second Reading that I was an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and I am grateful to RIBA for discussions about this topic. RIBA is a membership organisation representing its profession, but it does not regulate the architectural profession. As noble Lords will know from other parts of the Bill, that is a function reserved by statute to the Architects Registration Board. Experience is that stand-alone statutory regulators do what is required of them by statute, and very little else. That is why a nudge is needed, and this amendment would achieve that.

This clause would allow professional practitioners to know what agreements regulators were pursuing, what mutual recognition agreements were in the pipeline, what progress had been made and the timeline for the agreement. It would also provide a clear path for professional practitioners to have their views on how agreements should be prioritised made known to the regulator. Remarkably, without this amendment, there is no statutory obligation on a regulator to have any communication with regulated professionals at all.

Why does it matter? To take the example of architects, British architects are known to lead the world. They work on major projects throughout the world, and they often work with our world-beating civil engineers on transport, infrastructure and other major projects. They earn a great deal of export earnings for us as a country, too. When they are doing this, they need to be able to send architects to work in other parts of the world. On occasion, they also need to be able to employ in this country architects who are from countries where a pipeline of work might be developing and have specialist knowledge of regulations—be they on planning or whatever—that apply in the country where the project is being delivered. They are very commercial architects—they have to be, because they operate in a harsh commercial world—so they look ahead. They see a pipeline of activity in a particular country that might be coming forward with new projects—airports, infrastructure, or whatever it might be. They want to be able to have some influence on their regulator about how mutual recognition agreements might be prioritised to facilitate capturing that work.

I have used architects as an example, but there are other professions that might find themselves in a similar situation, which would want to have that two-way flow with their regulator and which, not being a membership organisation, would need, in my view, the help of statute to ensure that that communication took place. This is so modest and commonsensical a suggestion that I hope my noble friend will be able to rise and simply say that he accepts it.

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Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss more broadly the contents of Clauses 5 and 6. Clause 5 relates to the revocation of the general EU system of recognition of overseas qualifications. It revokes the European Union (Recognition of Professional Qualifications) Regulations 2015 and provides regulation-making powers to the appropriate national authority—in this case the Secretary of State, the Lord Chancellor and the devolved Administrations—to modify any legislation that it considers necessary as a consequence of this provision. The fact that this is a broad regulation-making power underlines the need that I identified earlier to consult before the power is exercised, so I again press my noble friend on that point. Clause 6 looks at the revocation of other retained EU recognition law and provides the appropriate national authority with a regulation-making power to modify other legislation for professions that are outside the scope of these regulations but still part of the broader EU-derived recognition framework.

My first question to my noble friend relates to Clause 5(1), which represents basically a cliff-edge revocation of the whole of the EU MRPQ regime in UK domestic law. If we adopt such a one-size-fits-all measure, and given the constraint placed by Clause 2 on the gap-filling power in that clause, would it not be sensible for the Bill to include a power to save, in an appropriate case, the effect of specified elements of the EU-derived MRPQ rules in relation to a particular profession or professions?

This has been put forward by the Bar Council of England, which states:

“We doubt whether Clause 5(2), even read with Clause 13(1)(c)”—

which we will discuss separately—

“provides a power to save the effect of any part of the remaining EU-derived MRPQ regime.”

My concern is that there may be parts of that regime which, for an interim period or even longer, some of the regulators or professions would wish to keep. I understand that that would not be possible. Is that something my noble friend might review for the purposes of the debate today?

I understand that Clause 5(1)

“would come into force on a day specified by the secretary of state in regulations.”

A memorandum to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee says:

“BEIS has said that it intends that commencement regulations would “include savings and transitional provisions relating both to qualifications that have already been recognised and to applications that are already in progress but not yet complete”.

Can my noble friend confirm how that will play in the different jurisdictions, particularly regarding the legal profession, which is dealt with separately in Scotland, England and Wales?

The Library briefing also states:

“Clause 6 would come into force on the day the bill was passed. In the context of clause 6, the Government has said not all pieces of relevant legislation will be revoked at the same time. Some arrangements may be kept for a longer period depending upon the needs of a given sector.”

My concern is that this may lead to some confusion and a lack of understanding of the legal status of the provisions. I refer again to BEIS and its memorandum to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee on 12 May 2021. Paragraph 50 says:

“In particular, it is expected that the healthcare sector will need a longer period of time to transition to the new system to avoid recruitment and retention issues in those sectors”,

which we have just briefly debated. It continues:

“BEIS is of the view that it is appropriate to allow for Departments and devolved authorities to revoke these measures at an appropriate time, without fixing a particular date in the bill.”

Is my understanding correct that we could be faced with different situations in the different devolved nations? Are the Government mindful of what the implications might be?

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to discuss these concerns about Clause 5. Will my noble friend consider that there may be parts of the EU system we want to keep? I accept we have taken the decision to leave it, but, for an interim period, that may be the case. The Explanatory Memorandum states:

“Following the end of the transition period, this system had been retained in the interim to provide certainty to businesses and public services by offering preferential qualification recognition to holders of EEA and Swiss qualifications. The new recognition framework, as set out in Clause 1, will be implemented alongside revoking the 2015 Regulations.”

To sum up, there could be different regimes working at the same time under Clauses 5 and 6. How does my noble friend intend that his department will manage that to the best possible effect?

Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
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My Lords, I welcome these amendments. I will start with the points the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, was dwelling on at the end—the impact assessment gives the impression that, when this Bill becomes law, it terminates the transitional arrangements which continue to recognise EU qualifications. Indeed, most of the Bill indicates that. Clause 6 undoubtedly muddies the water somewhat. There is a need for clarification from the Minister because there is scope for a great deal of confusion.

From previous comments made by the Minister, I gather that the UK wanted to agree mutual recognition of qualifications as part of the trade agreement with the EU but the EU was not prepared to accept that. I pointed out on the first day in Committee that this is not an agreement between equals; for example, there are 22,000 EU-qualified medics working in this country but only 2,000 UK-trained medics across the countries of the EEA plus Switzerland. In short, we depend a lot more on them than they do on us. The pattern is repeated across a large number of professions. It is not uniform, but it is repeated widely.

Therefore, the Government’s decision to throw their toys out of the pram and say, “If you won’t recognise ours, we won’t recognise yours”, is, I regret to say, simply self-defeating. It also displays a seriously worrying lack of awareness of how long it takes for a regulator to go through the approvals process for each new country’s qualifications. The impact assessment refers to contacts with regulators but, as I said in a previous debate, these are very minimal, and regulators were notably sparing in their responses to government consultation. We do not have a thorough picture of how this will impact on regulators, but I can assure noble Lords that years, not months, is the norm for recognising qualifications—for going through the whole process. As a result of this Bill, there will be a gap when the old qualifications are no longer recognised and the new ones are not yet accepted. Already, we have shortages in a number of professions; we have had shortages for many years, but the Brexit situation has made them much worse. The rhetoric that went along with Brexit has made so many foreign professionals feel unwelcome, and that lack of feeling welcome has had an impact way beyond the EU immigrants; it has impacted on people across the world.

I suppose I should be reassured that the impact assessment states that, although the Bill sweeps away current EEA recognition, the regulators are able to sign recognition agreements with individual countries. However, there is an element of farce here, because dealing with that costs money and is bureaucratic and complex. It is a pity the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is not in her place, because she would be nodding fiercely with me on that one. But it will cost money, and that cost will fall on people working in each of the professions concerned. Also, the Minister himself told us in a letter that the old agreements were unpopular, although I have not found anyone echoing that within the sector. But the Government felt that they were unpopular and wanted to replace them.

The sensible thing would be for the Government simply to continue to accept the status quo—the EEA system—at least for a much longer interim period and perhaps review it after five years. I hope we can persuade the Minister that the pragmatic thing to do is to accept this amendment, or maybe even to commit to looking at it again and adding that the whole thing will be reviewed in five years’ time. It will take that long to re-erect a sensible, comprehensive system to replace what the Bill is sweeping away.

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Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
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My Lords, my noble friend Lady Garden has wisely pointed out the poor grammar in the Bill. I hope that note will be taken of that. The really significant question here is what the assistance centre is for. It is built on—and the Minister went out of his way last time to point this out—the modest size and the modest number of inquiries that the current assistance centre has dealt with. It is a creation of the UK Government as a result of a non-legal requirement from the EU—a suggestion from the EU. It is not a legislative requirement by the EU. The UK Government decided to make the requirement in law, but the EU situation does not make it a requirement.

We therefore have this organisation that has clearly, in the past, had a small, modest but useful function, but the world has moved on. If you search for anything online these days, there is a wealth of information. Even if you have a limited level of experience in a particular field, you rapidly discover what information is reliable and what is not. What is proposed here is a much bigger organisation—a much more grandiose and legally established organisation with scope for further growth. The Minister told me not to be suspicious, but I remain suspicious. In my view, the UK Government see this organisation as an opportunity for them to take a centralising, co-ordinating role which will nudge the devolved Administrations out of the way in fields where the vast majority of activity is devolved, such as health, teaching and social work. The day-to-day activity in the health service, the teaching profession and social work is done and controlled by the devolved Administrations, even if there are not always separate regulators.

We have raised previously the concurrency of powers of the devolved Administrations and the UK Government. This is an attempt by the UK Government to bring what they see as order and an element of control to the situation. If the assistance centre had a purpose, modern search facilities online have now made it redundant. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that it is better to put it to sleep—put it out of its misery.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Portrait Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab)
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My Lords, while I absolutely agree with my noble friend Lord Foulkes that any advice would be better if it was comprehensive and included all the things that everyone would want to know if they were applying either to move here or to go away, the more fundamental question, which I and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, asked, is whether we need Clause 7 at all. As she and others have said, it is not clear why it is necessary to establish a statutory advice centre simply to handle information and provide advice and assistance. It will not make any decisions. It will not have the authority to chide regulators for not doing something; it does not have any authority over them. The statutory requirement is actually on regulators to provide advice to the centre—there is no statutory requirement on the centre to fine them if they do not do it or anything else like that—although, as has been said, there are already other ways of getting that information. In addition, only the UK Government, not the other Governments in the Bill, interestingly enough, are able to enforce this requirement. I do not know whether that is an oversight but, given that there is more than one national authority in the Bill, it would be interesting to know why the requirement on regulators is laid down only by the UK Government.

This is all very strange. It is a very clunky and convoluted way of simply asking statutory regulators to tell a Minister such information as is needed to provide advice to potential applicants on how they go about getting their qualifications recognised here. They have been doing that for years. We heard earlier about a number of regulators, particularly in the health service, veterinary science and other areas, that have been doing this for years without any statutory requirement to provide the advice, so it is unclear why the new law is needed. As has already been said, we know that the assistance centre is already in operation. But I think none of us knows why we need a specific underpinning now, and what it is that could not be done by a couple of civil servants within BEIS.

The Minister said last Wednesday that “new legislative cover” is required, but he did not spell out what it was required to do—why this could not be done on a voluntary basis. We have lots of other advice centres which do not have to have statutory underpinning, so why is legislation needed? He said, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, just quoted, that the centre

“is basically a focal point—a signposting mechanism that tells people where to go to get more information about professions”

and that

“it employs either two or three people.”

It must be tiny; I was going to say that it received 1,600 queries in a year, but it has now received 1,601—I think our little website here gets far more hits than that. As the Minister had the honesty to confess:

“These queries can be as simple as saying, ‘What is the address of the place I have to write to, to find out how I become a nurse in Great Britain?’”—[Official Report, 9/6/21; col. 1501.]

If you google “nurse vacancies”, you might just find it. The idea that we are employing anybody and paying them money to tell people about the address they need to write to to find out how to become a nurse in Great Britain makes me worried, and why on earth does it have to be a statutory body if it is just signposting?

The impact assessment says that

“the Secretary of State can (through contractual arrangements) require the national assistance centre to support professionals”—

it is unclear what “support” means—

“in getting their UK qualifications recognised overseas by providing reasonable information to their overseas counterparts.”

Again, surely the regulator can do that. If a doctor wants to apply to be a doctor in New Zealand, for example, surely their regulator can supply that information. If it is to be done by the advice centre and by contract, it is really hard to think why, again, it needs two bodies or persons to be statutory if they are simply setting up contracts to be able to exchange information—because it is not a decision-making body.

It is unclear what the relationship will be between the centre and overseas regulators. If it is by contracts, how much will they be bound by data protection to ensure that the overseas regulators will look after people’s data according to normal laws? That is easier in a regulator-to-regulator agreement—we have talked about these elsewhere, so why not here?

I am completely mystified as to why Clause 7 is in the Bill. Perhaps we can just take it out, and then we can all go home.