Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Amendment 21

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Report (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 5:09 pm on 21st January 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Baroness Jolly:

Moved by Baroness Jolly

21: Clause 41, page 40, line 5, at end insert—“( ) Subsection (2) does not apply to the Healthcare (European Economic Area and Switzerland Arrangements) Act 2019, nor to any regulations made under that Act.”

Photo of Baroness Jolly Baroness Jolly Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, I will be brief. Clause 41 allows Ministers to make regulations that could alter any primary legislation that has been passed prior to the Bill. Such regulations will be made by the negative procedure, effectively giving Ministers carte blanche to do what they will to legislation that is already in statute. Many of us in the health community in your Lordships’ House were recently involved with the Healthcare (European Economic Area and Switzerland Arrangements) Act 2019, which, noble Lords will remember, started life as the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill. A number of significant changes were made to that Bill by this House and then approved by the Commons. However, this clause could allow Ministers to revert the Bill to the original, thereby thwarting the will of Parliament, or they could at any time change any component of it, or any other Bill, with the minimum amount of scrutiny. When you think about it, its scope is really quite breathtaking.

In Committee, my noble friend Lady Brinton asked the Minister about a letter that she had left with the Government Whips’ Office and which the Minister had not seen and so was unable to answer in as much detail as usual. Since then the Minister has sent noble Lords a letter outlining the situation, for which we were all very grateful. As well as responding to the amendment, I am sure that other noble Lords will want to press the Minister on the detail of the letter, so that the Government’s intentions are on the record about any proposed changes to legislation relating to healthcare and the EU. I do not intend to press this amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Party Chair, Liberal Democrats, Acting Leader, Liberal Democrats

My Lords, the European Union Committee report on Brexit, referring to the revised withdrawal agreement and political agreement, notes the lack of any mention of reciprocal health arrangements and says, in a section on mobility on pages 56 and 57, in paragraphs 252 to 257, that clarity was needed on how this would work. This is one of the reasons that I questioned the Minister in Committee. I am sorry, on both our parts, that the message with that question did not get through, and I thank her for the letter that she sent over the weekend. This is important because the European Union Committee says:

“There is no reference in this section of the Declaration to reciprocal healthcare, including the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), as a means of facilitating mobility.”

It was that “means of facilitating mobility” that was absolutely critical for the Healthcare (European Economic Area and Switzerland Arrangements) Act 2019. With your Lordships’ permission I will shorten that to “healthcare arrangements Act” rather than repeating the whole thing every time. Can the Minister explain why there was no mention of this reciprocal healthcare, and say explicitly to the House that these arrangements will stand?

Parts of the Minister’s letter were very helpful on specific points relating to those EU citizens living and working in the UK at the moment and UK citizens living and working in the EU. But that is not as broad as the provisions of the healthcare arrangements Act. That is why the committee raised its concerns, specifically using the phrase “means of facilitating mobility”.

The Minister’s letter made a rather odd assertion: that healthcare arrangements are protected by Clause 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, which covers social security systems. Nowhere in Clause 13 is there any reference to healthcare, nor is there any such reference in the healthcare arrangements Act. More worryingly, if she is right and I am wrong, the decision to change arrangements under Clause 13 is at complete odds with the decision arrangements in the healthcare arrangements Act. Clause 13 reinserts the Henry VIII powers that were in the original healthcare arrangements Bill, and both your Lordships’ House and then the Government decided that this was inappropriate. That is why that Bill was changed. It became an Act in April.

Sections 6 and 7 of the healthcare arrangements Act set out clear routes for changes via statutory instruments and reports to Parliament. That Act is transparent and accountable, unlike Clause 13, where responsibility for such decisions is given to the Minister of the Crown and/or a devolved authority. Can the Minister confirm that any arrangements relating to healthcare would fall under Sections 6 and 7 of the healthcare arrangements Act given that they do not relate to social security? This amendment tries to make sure that we have that protection for reciprocal healthcare. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy) 5:15 pm, 21st January 2020

My Lords, I had not expected to speak to this amendment, and I will be exceedingly brief. I do not want to take attention away from the healthcare issues that have been raised by my colleagues.

In this House we all know that when legislation is passed it is later used as a precedent. We have here a clause that effectively permits the Government by negative statutory instrument to change a huge raft of primary legislation passed by both Houses of this Parliament. If I had described that to a neutral person without mentioning that it was a move by the UK Government I think they would have assumed that it was being moved by Putin, Erdoğan or someone else who sees a democratic structure as a mechanism that they can reshape to assert government control over the general democratic process.

I am extremely concerned by this precedent and its extraordinary scope. It fits in with a pattern of a government approach to this Parliament that is diminishing the other House even more than this House. I think we can see in this, in the attitude towards negotiations, in the Government’s position on devolved assemblies, which we just heard, and in their attitude towards future trade negotiations that they are in a sense patterning themselves after local government, where an executive cabinet can make all the rules, the assembly can scrutinise—scrutiny only: that is its role, and I refer to the other House as well—and raise issues, but the executive can simply ignore it. I think this is an exceedingly dangerous road. This legislation and this cause advance that process, and everyone in this House, regardless of the party to which they are affiliated and which they support, needs to take on board that pattern which is being developed and which Clause 41 underpins. It requires a very serious rethink before we lose what we have had and it is too late to regret it.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Labour

My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment for a reason which keeps coming up in our debates: they are all about trust and whether we can trust the Government to behave in a reasonable way. A lot of the amendments that have been put down have been about trying to ensure that—if I may put it as crudely as this—the Government behave well in carrying out these negotiations. We have seen a kind of emotional blindness, if I may put it that way, in the discussions we have had on immigration systems and physical documents that people who have a right to live here can use. This seems to be another piece of work in which we have to table an amendment to try to ensure that the Government behave properly and well in these negotiations.

It is quite extraordinary. Having agreed these reciprocal healthcare arrangements with the EU countries and Switzerland so recently, I cannot understand why we should not just be able to use this amendment to ensure that there are no rapid changes. The Government almost seem to forget the huge number of people who in their daily living move for holidays between the other 27 EU countries and Switzerland, as though that does not matter. This is an important part of people’s lives. They book their holidays assuming the system will not change. Particularly after this recent piece of legislation, no one has told them there is a risk that something may change.

The Government are bringing on themselves a mood in which people will be suspicious of what they are up to. They will raise a lot of anxieties totally unnecessarily. In my experience of government, if you allow rumours to be fostered they spread around quite quickly. What we are trying to do with this amendment is to remove the temptation. The Government would be wise to listen, unless the Minister can give a level of assurance that will remove any suspicion that somehow, because of the way they behave, the Government are up to something.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Jolly and Lady Brinton, for introducing this. As they said, we are basically picking up where we left off in Committee. I was not satisfied with the answer the Minister gave about reciprocal healthcare. As noble Lords have now said, nobody really understands why, when we already have legislation that we considered and passed last March, that does not form part of the negotiation that will take place. I read the letter that the Minister sent to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and it is very confusing.

I will take a more cynical view of this. A year ago, when we had in front of us the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill, it had in it five or six Henry VIII powers. It gave the Secretary of State the power to make a deal about healthcare with anybody in the world they might choose, without any recourse to this Parliament or any accountability. This House wisely changed that into the Bill we passed, now the Act, which does what the Government had said they would do. They said they would not add to the policy arrangements in any area. They would take up the European Union policy and translate it into a way that worked post Brexit. That Bill we had before us a year ago did not do that; it extended the powers incredibly.

I fear that we are seeing a repeat of what the Government tried to do a year ago, so I really need to know from the Minister what powers the Government may take—not what will happen between now and December, but what will happen in a year. What will it look like? Will there be any reciprocal healthcare arrangements? Will there be 27 agreements, which is what the Minister was talking to us about a year ago when we were discussing international healthcare and looking at crashing out of the European Union? What has happened to those 27 agreements? Where have they gone?

As my previous noble friend Lord Warner said—he is still my friend—it is only a matter of time until people become very anxious about this, because not only are people working all the way across Europe, but they are going on holiday all the way across Europe. At the moment, the Department of Health and Social Care’s website is really opaque. It does not give us any clarity at all about what might happen.

Photo of Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to speak to the really important issue of reciprocal healthcare, which touches on a lot of UK and EU citizens’ lives. This House has rightly tested this issue robustly and it is right that we consider it today.

The withdrawal agreement Bill guarantees that reciprocal healthcare arrangements, including for pensioners, workers, students, tourists and other temporary EEA or Swiss visitors, will not be affected during the implementation period. During this time, there will be no change to reciprocal healthcare schemes, such as S1 and EHIC, nor to the S2 route which enables planned treatment. Importantly, I can provide assurance that the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill also guarantees lifelong, reciprocal healthcare entitlements for people so long as they remain within the scope of the citizens’ rights agreements. This includes UK nationals who will have moved to the EU before 31 December 2020, as well as EU citizens who will have become resident in the UK before this time. I hope that that explanation is clearer than my letter.

Last year, as has been mentioned, this House spent a considerable amount of time holding informed and important debates scrutinising the provisions of the then Healthcare (European Economic Area and Switzerland Arrangements) Bill. With the permission of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, I will call it HESA. We agreed that this was a key piece of legislation, providing the UK with options to implement any future reciprocal healthcare arrangements, subject to negotiation with the EEA states or with Switzerland after the UK leaves the EU. I understand the desire to know the outcome of these negotiations but, as they are obviously in the future, I am not able to give exact details, other than to say we want to ensure the best possible outcomes.

Following that scrutiny and the assent of Parliament…

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

I thank my noble friend for giving way. A number of us on these Benches are deeply uncomfortable with what we are being told, as she well knows. We are willing to give the Government the benefit of the doubt and we hope that this trust will be repaid. We are talking about people’s health and lives: there really is nothing much more important. Will my noble friend take this back to the department, or can she assure us that there will be full information available to all citizens so that they know about this risk at the end of 2020 and can make the appropriate decisions? None of us knows what is going to happen after the end of this year.

Photo of Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My noble friend Lady Altmann makes a very important point. We have tried to ensure that the information is available and communicated. I am happy to review the clarity of this information and to do everything we can to improve it. My noble friend is absolutely right. We need for anxiety to be at the lowest level and for people to be prepared as possible. I can assure the House that we are doing everything we can to work in the best interests of UK citizens. We understand that there are many in European countries, as well as in the UK, who are looking at this issue with great concern.

I want to get back to the process of scrutinising HESA. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, this established a legal basis for the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to fund and give effect to future reciprocal healthcare schemes through its provisions for data sharing and making regulations. It is important to cast our minds back to that debate. This is an implementation Bill; it does not concern the status of the arrangements. In addition, the Government are committed to the effective implementation of the citizens’ rights agreement and the healthcare protections that it provides.

Questions have arisen as a result of my letter, including those raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, last week. I have been asked why there is no mention of reciprocal healthcare in the Bill. This is because individuals within the scope of the withdrawal agreement are entitled to reciprocal healthcare cover from their competent country for as long as they remain so. The rights of EU citizens, EEA, EFTA and Swiss nationals and their family members who reside in the UK before the implementation period, are brought into UK law through Clauses 5 and 6 of the Bill.

I was also asked about Clause 30. This is limited to implementing parts of the agreement on social security co-ordination and to including reciprocal healthcare and EHIC, so it cannot operate in the way in which the noble Baroness was concerned that it might.

Finally, I was asked whether the consequential powers could be used to revert HESA to the original form—with global scope—that it came to this House in. It cannot. The consequential power does not allow for substantive changes to legislation. It will allow the Government to make only smaller, technical amendments for good housekeeping to ensure that legislation is consistent and functions well. It could not be used in the underhand manner that I think the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, thinks we intend. This would be much too substantial a use of the power; it would not be considered an appropriate use of it.

I assure the House that the Government have carefully considered the legislation that has been put before this House. We have taken all possible steps to ensure that we have the necessary powers for reciprocal healthcare, but also that they link in with the withdrawal agreement and the withdrawal agreement Bill to ensure that we have the robust protections they provide for the rights of UK nationals and EU citizens living in the EU and the UK respectively. We have no intention to repeal HESA as a consequence of the withdrawal agreement Bill. Critically, the Act allows the UK to implement the agreements, responding to a range of outcomes in the negotiations with the EU on any future reciprocal healthcare agreements, which we know are likely to come forward.

I know that the noble Baroness tabled the amendment with some of these concerns in mind. I hope that I have answered the questions that have come forward, but this is a routine power to make regulations that are appropriate in consequence of the Bill. I hope that I have answered the way the consequential amendment would be used to respond to the complexity of provisions and the legislative landscape, which we would need to respond to. On that basis, I hope she feels sufficiently reassured to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Jolly Baroness Jolly Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 5:30 pm, 21st January 2020

My Lords, we have had an interesting debate that has not, for the most part, been about Clause 41 or the legislation itself, but about health. I guess that that was always what would happen. I am quite happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 21 withdrawn.

Schedule 2: Independent Monitoring Authority for the Citizens’ Rights Agreements

Amendments 22 to 28 not moved.

Schedule 4: Regulations under this Act