Lord Trees debates involving the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy during the 2019-2024 Parliament

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, the Bill sets out considerable detail on the legalistic process of dealing with retained EU law, which noble, and noble and learned, Lords are rightly examining, and will continue to examine, in great detail. But the Bill says absolutely nothing about specific items of law.

I will focus on the areas within the remit of Defra and get down to some specifics. As we have heard, the department has by far the biggest burden of legislation to consider from the current dashboard of over 1,700 pieces of legislation, encompassing animal health and welfare and the environment, matters of great concern to the UK public and critical for trade. While the Bill aims to retain, amend or revoke retained EU law, according to that which is “right for the UK”—which is perfectly fair and reasonable—there is as yet little indication of which laws are going to be judged “right for the UK”.

In the light of the absence of specifics in the Bill, my points will be a series of questions; while the Minister may not be able to answer them today, I hope he will respond to them by letter. It is difficult, from the current dashboard, to determine how many pieces of legislation have been reviewed by Defra and may be accepted, for example, as unchanged. On Defra’s legislative burden, can the Minister tell us where it currently stands on assessing the 1,781 REULs? What additional resources has Defra been given to cover this vast workload? I also note that an extension of the sunset beyond 2023 is possible for England, but not for the devolved Administrations. Yet so many of the relevant laws are devolved competencies, so how will His Majesty’s Government assist the devolved nations in dealing with this in the very limited time available?

The UK has played an important role in developing the 44 retained animal welfare laws, and, given our pride in the high standards we have in the UK, can we assume that most, if not all, of these will be accepted into UK law unchanged? Who will decide whether to accept, amend or revoke the many hundreds of laws and regulations before they are presented to Parliament as SIs, at which point of course we will have very limited opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny? Transparency here is essential for the credibility of the process, so can the Minster tell us who will decide, how they will decide, and when they will decide?

A particular concern relates to the REACH regulations, which require animal testing for the safety of chemicals and so have animal welfare implications. Will there be mutual recognition of testing, either in the UK or the EU, so as to avoid the replication of animal testing?

On food safety, has the Food Standards Agency been given the resources to cope with the huge number of legislative adjustments that will be required concerning food safety and quality?

Finally, on trade, the requirement for export health certificates to our biggest single export market for animals and animal products has ballooned from about 20,000 a year to over 200,000 a year. Will legislative changes consequential to the Bill add to this regulatory burden or reduce it? If they will reduce it—how?

I have asked a few questions, but they are only a fraction of the thousands of questions that the Bill raises.

Horizon Europe

Lord Trees Excerpts
Wednesday 9th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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I am sorry that the Opposition seem to be supporting the EU position on this. The Northern Ireland protocol is a completely separate part of the agreement, and of course we stand willing to negotiate in good faith on that as well. The two are not linked. The EU has signed up to an agreement and should honour it; we will continue to press it to do so. The Northern Ireland protocol is also part of the same agreement.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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My Lords, does the Minister agree that the European Horizon programmes have been hugely important in catalysing research collaborations and networks, not only between British scientists and European ones but with scientists in low and middle-income countries? Moreover, does he agree that they have also been an invaluable funding bridge between the basic science funding that our research councils provide and the much more downstream R&D funding that industry provides? Her Majesty’s Government are committed to funding successful applications to Horizon while negotiations to join continue, but how long is that commitment for? Will it continue if our application to join ultimately fails?

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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I agree with the noble Lord that the Horizon project is very valuable. That is why we want to continue association with it and why the funding has been allocated. With regard to the funding guarantee, of course we will want to provide certainty as quickly as possible. We will have announcements to make in that regard in due course.

Professional Qualifications Bill [HL]

Lord Trees Excerpts
Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of a professional organisation. We have before us the international agreements clause, as we could call it. In their response to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, the Government said:

“Clause 3 is necessary to ensure that the provisions of international agreements can be implemented domestically and be given effect to by particular regulators.”

I am not sure about the use of “necessary” but that is how they have chosen to phrase it and, taken at face value, it is all well and good. It is established practice for trade agreements to cover a range of issues, including the recognition of professional qualifications—or rather, it would be acceptable if we could trust the Government. The problem, of course, is that we cannot trust this Government, particularly when they seek to assume such wide-ranging powers.

There are two levels of concern. First, and crucially, the driving principle should be the maintenance of the quality of professional standards and the service provided, not any wider considerations of economic benefit. For example, as stated by the General Medical Council:

“Patient safety is, and must remain, the principle consideration when considering whether to facilitate access to the medical register as part of an economic trade agreement.”

In other words, there must be no room for any trade-off of potential broader economic advantages at the price of weakening professional standards. One way of ensuring that the correct professional standards are maintained is the fullest, earliest possible involvement of the relevant UK regulators in the discussions that take place on the trade agreement; that is, before and during the trade discussions. The Minister has protested that it is no part of the Government’s trade policy to compromise our professional standards. It is possible that I have—again, in the Minister’s words—“a suspicious mind”, but the Government’s record suggests otherwise. This is a general issue where some reassurance would be appropriate, whoever is in government.

The second level of concern is that this is not a normal Government. The evidence we have so far is that this Government are desperate and will do almost anything to justify their decision to change our international trade arrangements to get Brexit done. More store is being placed on obtaining trading agreements for their own sake, however bad or vague they might be. The Government are desperate to present the public with so-called achievements of favourable trade agreements.

For example, we are led to believe that a trade deal with Australia will shortly be announced. It will be the first big post-Brexit trade deal that is not simply a rollover of arrangements that the UK enjoyed as an EU member. In practice, Australia is a relatively small export destination for UK goods and services, but that does not matter because it is all about the politics. There is also an ambitious Secretary of State.

How can our professional services depend on their interests being defended in any future trade deal under the terms of this legislation, any more than, for example, the hill farmers of Wales will be defended under the putative agreement with Australia? It is obvious that, whatever the terms, getting the deal is the only thing that matters to the Government.

In addressing this issue, the Government have to be honest that trade agreements are almost invariably about more than trade. It is innocent to believe otherwise. For example, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is much more about achieving the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt for foreign policy than an economic project. However, the UK has to accept all the CPTPP rules to become a member if it wants to achieve that strategy.

There are real concerns, which I hope the Minister will address, that professional standards risk being the sacrificial lamb, slaughtered on the altar of political ambition.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB) [V]
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My Lords, since this is my first contribution to this Committee stage, I thank the Minister for his personal letter to me after Second Reading addressing my concerns about the Bill. He is always courteous and meticulous in responding and I sincerely appreciate that.

However, I still have certain concerns. At Second Reading, I asked two main questions. One was whether the Bill would debar relevant regulators from requiring certain applicants—where no regulator recognition agreement has been set—to sit the UK regulators’ own examination or assessment procedures. I commend the Government and thank the Minister that the Government’s own amendments, brought in with regard to Clause 1, have made it clear that this is not the case.

However, the other question and my concern relating to Clause 3 remain. Why is there a need for a clause in the Bill connecting professional recognition to trade agreements? It leads to a genuine concern that Clause 3 will pressurise regulators into relaxing standards. That concern remains, so I will consider it in some detail

A major purpose of the Bill is to give regulators powers to reach mutual recognition agreements or other methods to enable overseas professionals to register and practise in the UK. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons—and I declare my interest as a fellow and former president—and the healthcare professions, particularly the General Medical Council, as my noble friend Lord Patel has mentioned, already have these powers, and one wonders how many of the 50 or so other regulators in the UK do not have them. A question I raised at Second Reading still stands: why not give such regulators the powers they currently lack and leave it at that? Why link regulatory recognition to international agreements?

If we look at the precise wording of Clause 3—and I have not added any words, just subtracted some—Clause 3(1) states:

“The appropriate national authority may by regulations make … provision … for … implementing any international recognition agreement to which the United Kingdom is a party.”

Clause 3(4) continues:

“An ‘international recognition agreement’ means so much of any international agreement … for … the recognition of overseas qualifications or overseas experience for … determining whether individuals are entitled to practise in the United Kingdom”.

I am not a lawyer, but this translates to me as meaning that the Government can implement an agreement to recognise whether individuals can practise in the UK. There is no mention in Clause 3 of involvement or consultation, let alone agreement, with the relevant regulatory authority in the UK. That is my amateur interpretation but the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—I hope I am not pre-empting her—put it more bluntly at Second Reading:

“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.”—[Official Report, 25/5/21; col. 931.]

However, as we have heard already from the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and others, that is not all. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, in its report on the Bill, had plenty to say about Clause 3. The committee’s concerns are different from mine but are none the less serious and pertinent. Its report notes that Clause 3 gives Ministers broad powers by regulations, including Henry VIII powers to amend primary legislation, without conditions. The report considers and rejects the justifications for this in the Explanatory Memorandum of the Bill and concludes that

“clause 3 represents an inappropriate delegation of power and should be removed from the Bill.”

It seems to me that Clause 3 adds nothing to the reasonable and positive elements of the Bill to enable regulators to have greater ability to recognise, by the means they so determine, overseas applicants for registration to practise in the UK or to ensure that the regulators have such processes and that they communicate them publicly to facilitate overseas applications.

There are serious concerns about the potential that Clause 3 gives the Government to determine or influence the process of professional recognition in the UK and serious concerns from the DPRR Committee about the powers this clause gives the Government to amend primary legislation. I argue that, collectively, these facts support the view that Clause 3 should not stand part of the Bill, which I support.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I want to put myself on the record as one of those who would have signed the noble Lord’s amendment, had there been space. I again draw attention to the way in which our systems, with the limit of four signatures, no longer allow a full representation of the range of views in your Lordships’ House. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, that should we get to a vote at a later stage, he has the support of the Green group in this matter of Clause 3.

This morning, in my continuing efforts to spread news about what happens in your Lordships’ House to the general public, I wrote what I believe is the first non-specialist press article on the Professional Qualifications Bill, in the Yorkshire Bylines. In it, I described the Bill collectively as a “massive power grab” by the Government, and I believe that Clause 3 is the key part of that power grab, as a number of noble Lords have already indicated.

Professional Qualifications Bill [HL]

Lord Trees Excerpts
2nd reading
Tuesday 25th May 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
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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?

Comprehensive Economic Partnership (EUC Report)

Lord Trees Excerpts
Thursday 26th November 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I am sure that all of us welcome this trade agreement—the first post-Brexit trade agreement—and may many successful agreements follow. However, it is being scrutinised under the so-called CRaG rules, and it illustrates the limitations of that system with respect to parliamentary scrutiny, as was emphasised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, in his opening remarks. There has been no input into negotiating mandate or oversight during negotiations, no proper involvement of devolved Administrations and no guarantee of a vote at the end of the debate. There has been very limited time for consideration by parliamentary committees.

For all those reasons, I welcome Her Majesty’s Government’s recent agreement to not only set up but extend the life of the Trade and Agriculture Commission for at least three years and to require the Secretary of State to lay a report before Parliament with regard to free trade agreements involving agricultural products, explaining their consistency with UK statutory protection in relation to human, animal and plant health, animal welfare and the environment.

Returning to this UK-Japan agreement, I shall focus on my particular interest in standards of food products, animal welfare and the environment. We were assured by the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, in a letter of 11 September that, with reference to the Japan agreement,

“we have maintained all existing protections for our high standards of … animal welfare”.

How will we ensure that imported food products have been produced to standards no lower than our own, and who will do that? I ask that in the knowledge that the World Animal Protection ratings for animal welfare in general are E for Japan compared to B for the United Kingdom; and for farm animal welfare legislation, G for Japan, lower than the UK’s rating of D. Japan has no specific legislation on animal transportation, the rearing of pigs, laying hens or chickens, and it still permits sow stalls and conventional battery cages for chickens—all in contrast to the range of legislation on these subjects applicable in the UK and to our UK farmers. Furthermore, it is not clear how many of the 14 farm animal welfare guidelines of the World Organisation for Animal Health—the OIE—Japan has put into law. Of global significance is the fact that there is no reference in the agreement to antimicrobial resistance or measures in Japan to reduce antibiotic use in farm animals. In fact, in general, there is little reference to animal welfare standards in the UK-Japan agreement.

The Department for International Trade’s impact assessment on animal welfare is very limited, but it does state that

“imports will continue to meet the UK’s food safety standards”.

I do not doubt that food safety standards will be met—we have the FSA and the FSS to ensure that—but food safety is not the same as welfare standards. The former relates to the safety of the edible products from animals, the latter to how those animals were kept. These are different issues which require different expertise and processes to audit.

It is welcome that provisions in the UK-Japan trade agreement commit both parties to co-operation on matters of animal welfare. In addition, the DIT has committed to scrutiny of animal welfare standards in free trade agreements through a range of measures, including, where appropriate, assessments of animal welfare impacts. But the Regulatory Policy Committee report which assessed the DIT’s impact assessment stated that it should have given more detail on the impact on animal welfare and identified animal welfare as an area to be improved in future impact assessments. How will the DIT do that? Does it have the relevant expertise? Will the DIT fully utilise the Trade and Agriculture Commission? Particularly with regard to breadth and depth of expertise, will it co-operate fully with Defra on this?

I would welcome a response from the Minister to those questions which will provide further assurances that, in future trade agreements, the UK’s standards will not be compromised.