European Qualifications (Health and Social Care Professions) (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:30 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 1:30 pm, 7th March 2019

I thank your Lordships for what I think we can call a robust debate. I will start by discussing the designation criteria, which were at the core of the questions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton, Lady Jolly and Lady Hayman, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and are central to this SI. It is important to set out the differences between the current system and what future recognition might look like under the SI. Obviously, we understand that this would happen only in a no-deal scenario, which the Government very much wish to avoid.

To clarify, the current system is based on automatic recognition of EEA and Swiss qualifications, as listed in Annexe 5, with eligibility based primarily on an applicant’s nationality rather than where the qualification was gained. In future recognition, eligibility would be based solely on whether the individual holds a relevant EEA or Swiss qualification. UK regulators would therefore be able to apply for designation of an individual EEA/Swiss qualification as well. That is where the concept of flexibility comes from, which so upset my noble friend Lord Deben. Some aspects of the directive would no longer apply to the UK, so some of the ways in which the directive applied previously—such as on hours, which have previously been used to determine qualification—might no longer be appropriate in determining whether a qualification has been met.

This flexibility in setting standards should be welcomed. Indeed, we noted that Charlie Massey, the chief executive of the GMC, has previously raised concerns about the training of some individuals we had to accept under this automatic recognition process. For example, he raised concerns about family doctors in Italy before the Health and Social Care Select Committee. The General Dental Council has also raised concerns about the quality of some Romanian and Spanish dental qualifications. Under the new proposals, we would be able to raise such concerns through the designation process. They would go to the Privy Council because that is already the normal process through which UK regulators designate qualifications in the UK system. The process proposed under this SI is the standard UK process for establishing professional qualifications.

Moving on to how this would work, the instrument enhances the UK regulators’ powers to protect the public by designating as no longer acceptable EEA and Swiss professional qualifications that they are currently obliged to accept automatically. As I said, the grounds for designating a qualification will be determined by the UK regulator, which is best placed to make such decisions. The UK regulator will be able to seek designation of any individual professional qualification about which it has concerns. The most likely basis for such a designation will be that a qualification does not meet the standard of UK qualifications. We do not expect the approaches to designation to vary significantly between regulators as they have a shared objective of protecting, promoting and maintaining the health and safety of the public—and long experience of doing so. Therefore, the reasons for seeking designation and evidence supplied in support of designation are expected to be largely consistent. As I said, Privy Council consent must be given for a qualification to be designated. This standard system has been used previously.

The Government have been asked whether they will set out guidance on the criteria to be applied by regulators when seeking designation of a qualification. We do not intend to do so because we believe that the most likely basis for designation will be a qualification not meeting the standard of equivalent UK professional qualifications. We think that UK regulators, not the Government, are the authority on standards for healthcare professionals practising in the UK. They set the standards for UK health and care professional qualifications and are therefore best placed to understand if there is a case for designating a qualification. As I said, the Privy Council has a well-established role in overseeing the UK’s health and care professional regulators. For some regulators, including the GCC and GOsC, it approves UK qualifications and the appointment of council members. Its new role in approving applications for the designation of EEA qualifications is simply an extension of its existing role.

Costs and the impact assessment were referred to by a number of noble Lords but particularly exercised my noble friend Lord Deben. I am afraid that we have gone into the costs in some detail, despite the concerns he raised. He will know that UK regulators operate on a full-cost-recovery basis and set registration fees that meet the cost of processing applications. The cost to regulators of moving to the new system is considered negligible because it mirrors the current system, as far as possible, for at least two years—we intend to review that, once the regulations come into force. Should the regulator incur additional cost, it will be able to recoup it through fees. We estimate the total cost to regulators on the automatic system—including the NMC, the GMC, the GPhC and the GDC—to be £250,000 per year and an additional £60,000 for recruitment costs in the first year of these regulations coming into force. This could raise registration fees by an average of 27 pence per registrant per year for the regulators to recoup additional administration costs. We have costed the impact and believe the assessment to be reliable. That is why we have the GMC’s support; it believes that the impact assessment is reasonable and that it can cope with the impact.

I want to address concerns raised about temporary workers. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, wanted to re-raise this even though I tried to address it in my opening speech, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, acknowledged. As we said, we do not think that the removal of this group of registrations will cause concern as only 160 professionals are registered on a temporary and occasional basis. Professionals practising on such a basis, even in that small group, will not lose their registration on exit day; they will be able to practise until their registration expires, up to 18 months later. At that point, it will be open to them to seek full registration in the same way as any other holder of an EEA or Swiss qualification. It is important to note that the number of joiners from the EEA has remained steady at around 2,050 a year since 2016. In 2017-18, doctors joining the register from non-EEA and UK routes made up 32.4% of the total, while EEA applicants made up 16.2%. We are confident that the impact on that point will be manageable but we will keep a close eye on it and ensure that it is kept in check.

Moving on to the question about the IMI, raised by my noble friend Lord Deben and the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, it is absolutely right that if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, we will no longer have access to EU systems, including the IMI system which gives us access to the exchange of information about healthcare professionals. The regulators are aware of this and they are preparing for it. It is important that this instrument will mean that they will not be required to put in place new procedures for the recognition of EEA qualifications and that any costs involved with the loss of the IMI system are unavoidable in the case of no deal. Such costs depend on a number of factors. While we would like to see continued access to the IMI system, it is worth bearing in mind that the registration of international health professionals takes place with non-EEA registrants without access to IMI. We have managed to ensure that that happens safely, effectively and efficiently. However, we will do our utmost to ensure that we consider other means to replace IMI that comply with the GDPR, such as standard contractual clauses. I hope that reassures noble Lords on that point.

Perhaps I may go on to answer the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, on Spanish nurses and nurses from the Republic of Ireland. There is an issue on this point and I recognise the concerns that have been raised. There will be no change as a result of these regulations in the way Irish and Spanish qualifications are accepted, but at this point the Spanish regulator has said that it will not recognise the UK practice of Spanish nurses. This is a matter for the Spanish body, but we are continuing to discuss as a matter of urgency how EU regulators will recognise UK practice and qualifications, so that it does not matter which we are taking up.

As regards Ireland, the regulations ensure the continued recognition of Irish professional qualifications in Northern Ireland for at least two years after exit day and will allow professionals practising under temporary and occasional registration status to continue to do so until that registration expires. We are making sure that health and care practice across the island of Ireland is maintained smoothly and continuously. This has been a priority for the Government.

With those comments, I hope I have addressed the main concerns raised by noble Lords and given reassurance on those points. On that basis, I beg to move.