Amendment 4

Professional Qualifications Bill [HL] - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 9th June 2021.

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Baroness Garden of Frognal:

Moved by Baroness Garden of Frognal

4: Clause 1, page 1, line 12, leave out “substantially”

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I wondered if I had drawn the short straw for this set of amendments. It always feels slightly lonely when yours is the only name on an amendment, but I assure noble Lords that I have the support of all my Lib Dem colleagues. I beg to move Amendment 4 and speak to Amendments 5, 7, 8 and 33—there may be more to come later; I hope that this is not a spoiler alert—to remove “substantially” from the relevant clauses. It appears so often that it is obviously a favourite word of the Bill drafters, but it expresses a qualification, uncertainty and lack of conviction which we wish to challenge, and it surely threatens to undermine the authority of the regulators. If I were having an operation, or water were flooding through my roof, I am not sure that I would be reassured to know that the surgeon or the plumber had substantially the same knowledge and skills as those required by a UK surgeon or plumber, or substantially corresponded to the practice of a profession. Surely in legislation we need to be more assured. If we are genuinely looking at a level playing field between UK and overseas professionals, let us have the courage of our convictions and assure our citizens that they are in safe hands because the regulators have done their professional job and checked that qualifications and experience match across the countries, not just substantially but in their entirety.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, I support these amendments. As my noble friend has excellently explained, we are probing the use of “substantially” and highlighting what we see as its inadequacy. The Minister’s own amendments start to tackle this problem. Both the British Dental Association and the British Medical Association have concerns that the proposals focus too heavily on simple qualifications and do not adequately recognise the importance of skills and experience, as well as the vital requirement to be of good character and to put patient safety first. This is fundamental in healthcare and being of good character is of course important in teaching-related professions.

The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, earlier outlined the concerns of the Health and Care Professions Council. The Minister may argue that the BMA, the BDA and so on are not regulators, but they represent their profession. They have a stake in the respect in which that profession is held, and they pay substantial annual fees for the recognition of their qualifications. The impact assessment makes it clear that the proposals in the Bill will be likely to increase those fees.

In some measure, the amendment encapsulates the fundamental problem with the Bill. It tries to impose a simplistic solution on an endlessly complex and dynamic situation. The Government have grossly underestimated how long it will take to replace the current structure with an adequate and comprehensive alternative. The interim recognition of qualifications is swept away on enactment of the Bill, on the grounds that it gives preference to EEA and Swiss nationals before a replacement is necessarily ready. What will it be replaced with? Another set of recognition for qualifications from countries which will then be given preference as a result of international trade arrangements.

The impact assessment goes into pages of tortuous argument about the considerable costs and lengthy processes by which the current structure will be replaced by individual regulators, including the potential reinstatement, either for individual EU countries or for the block of 27 countries as a whole. I confess that I felt an element of farce creep in when I read that. Given that background, I can be forgiven for thinking that there will be interruptions in the market and therefore a temptation to cut corners, and thus “substantially” is not an adequate insurance. A medical qualification obtained abroad may be substantially the same as the one in the UK, but if the small variation was that students were not given the same understanding of the meaning of the Hippocratic oath, that would be a fundamental problem, hence the importance of incorporating both skills and experience, and, for healthcare professions generally, of recognising patient protection as an overarching guideline.

I would have greater faith in all this if there were any reference to universities. I declare an interest as chancellor of Cardiff University. There is no reference in the Bill to universities, other higher education institutions or other training providers. They are not even listed in the impact assessment as stakeholders, so presumably they have not been consulted. In practice, the quality of all these qualifications depends on the education and training that these organisations provide, and regulators are to a large extent simply relying on the outcome of their work. Two students coming out of two different universities with degrees in biology may have studied a different range of knowledge or may have studied it to a different level of detail, so regulators have to work closely with HEIs to ensure that both scope and depth of knowledge are maintained in whatever field they need, so they need a mention in the Bill.

It is possible to imagine that, as a result of a trade deal, a UK regulator may seek an agreement with a regulator in another country where not all educational institutions or qualifications are fully accredited by that regulator. Therefore, it is essential that recognition of qualifications is only ever agreed with the regulator in each country, and the Bill must specify this too. I will take a different example: the teaching regulators. Teachers qualified and registered to teach in England are not recognised as qualified to teach in Wales. One could argue that the learning and knowledge involved is substantially the same, but the requirements on skills and experience are somewhat higher and different in Wales.

This is all so much more complex than “substantially”, and the Bill needs a significant amendment to reflect this.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) 3:15 pm, 9th June 2021

My Lords, the requirement to speak Welsh in Wales is rather important.

I have some sympathy with the Minister. Later, we will get to our proposed new schedule—it is on pages 18 and 19 of the Marshalled List—to specify the regulators, again referring to the letter sent to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. The range of regulators covered by the Bill—and if they are covered they should be in the Bill—includes farriers, who may never have gone to university and for whom none of this might apply.

One has to be careful. Part of the problem is that we are trying to write a Bill for an enormous range of professionals. It does not include the Church—the right reverend Prelate will be very pleased—and their qualifications are probably recognised across different jurisdictions, but it includes all sorts of others, such as driving instructors. I used to call their body the DVLC, but I think it is now called the DVSA. It may well be that, in order to be able to instruct people, a driving instructor has to have five years post their own driving licence in one country but six in another. There may well be bits that are substantially the same, but I understand why we would want to include them. We are not just talking about the health service. I see the problems with that, but as a patient I would want the qualifications to be the same if not higher if we are recognising someone here.

Part of the problem is that, in writing what looks like a simple piece of law to cover the Security Industry Authority, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Highways Agency—presumably the people who check that the roads are safe; I do not know what they do but they are in here—we have ended up with a Bill that tries to ensure that both doctors and farriers, for whatever reason the latter are regulated, are of high quality. I have some sympathy, but nevertheless I see a substantial problem in allowing too much flexibility, which would not be in the interests of patients in particular and maybe of other clients in sensitive areas. I look forward, as they say, to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Lord Grimstone of Boscobel The Minister of State, Department for International Trade, The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, for tabling Amendments 4, 5, 7, 8 and 33, which probe the use of the word “substantially” in Clauses 1 and 4, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for her comments. The point is that, in the end, it is the individual who must be fit to practise, and the assessments that we make must relate to the individual. It is here where the important matter of regulator autonomy comes in, and why it is that the only people who can safely work out what is the appropriate route for a particular profession and the right mix between the individual, the skills and the qualifications seems quite properly to be the regulator. That is the key safeguard that we want to achieve under the Bill.

I turn to the amendments. As we know, Clause 1 is the “Power to provide for individuals to be treated as having UK qualifications”. If amended as the Government suggest, under Clause 1 an individual would be treated as having UK qualifications if the regulator determined that the individual had substantially the same knowledge and skills to substantially the same standard as are demonstrated by the specified UK qualification or experience. The noble Baroness asked some interesting questions about this approach and whether it undermines the freedom of UK regulators. I reassure noble Lords that the issue has been very carefully considered.

If we removed the word “substantially” from Clause 1, that would change the requirement such that individuals would need the same knowledge and skills to the same standard as demonstrated by the specified UK qualification or experience. That suggests an assumption that it is often the case that skills and knowledge gained in one country for a profession exactly match those gained in another country for that profession. It also suggests an assumption that it is often the case that a profession in one country covers exactly the same set of activities as the equivalent profession in another country. Of course, these assumptions are not necessarily valid. So while it might make it easier for UK regulators to decline applications, removing “substantially” would remove regulators’ flexibility in considering how skills and knowledge developed overseas translate into the UK profession.

In the event that regulations were made under Clause 1 as drafted, regulators would have the discretion—and I believe that is where the discretion should sit—to make appropriate judgments about whether overseas skills and experiences meet their expectations to an acceptable degree. That drives us back to the consideration of whether the individual is fit to practise in substantially the same way as a UK individual would. This does not water down expectations and is not a compromise on quality, because if a regulator felt that the quality had not been maintained then they would not want to approve that person. The individual’s knowledge and skills must be substantially the same.

Lastly, including “substantially” does not restrict the freedom of regulators to make determinations of equivalence in ways that they deem fit. We come back to a point that we discuss regularly in this debate: the importance of regulators’ autonomy in deciding exactly the right approach to take.

On the question of English language proficiency, at Second Reading the noble Baroness raised the need in certain professions for demonstrable English language proficiency in order for an individual to deliver professional services to the standards required in the UK, and for regulators to be able to consider this. The Bill allows regulators to take into account language requirements as part of an assessment of knowledge and skills. Alternatively, under Amendments 2 and 10, regulations could provide that passing a language test was an additional condition in itself.

Amendment 33 examines the definition of “corresponding profession” in relation to authorisation that can be given by the appropriate national authority to enable regulators to enter into regulator recognition agreements. The amendment would change the permitted scope of regulator recognition agreements from those with overseas professions whose activities are

“the same as or substantially correspond to” the UK profession to those with overseas professions that are “the same as or correspond to” the UK profession. As I have explained, there are differences between professions in different countries, and differences between how they are regulated between jurisdictions. Even under the EU’s prescriptive mutual recognition of professional qualifications directive, there were differences in the qualification requirements between different EU member states. The clause as drafted reflects the reality that professions do not exactly align across different countries’ regulatory systems and standards. Some countries do not make the same distinctions as us in how they define professions—for example, England and Wales distinguish between barristers and solicitors, but that is not the case in many other countries.

The amendment would narrow the circumstances in which a recognition agreement could be made, potentially preventing recognition agreements from being made at all if professions did not directly align with one another. The Government believe this would limit the autonomy of regulators to make decisions about how similar professions are in different countries. Regulators should be free to determine for themselves where it is appropriate to enter into regulator recognition agreements with their counterparts overseas.

Many noble Lords have spoken passionately about the need to ensure that regulators can make decisions that are appropriate to their professions. I hope I have explained why the word “substantially” is an important qualifier that allows for more regulatory autonomy in these clauses, and indeed in the other clauses where it is used, and that, on that basis, the noble Baroness is able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I call the noble Lord, Lord Fox, who has asked to speak after the Minister.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:30 pm, 9th June 2021

I thank the Minister, who has used words to set out why the Government want to put “substantially” in there but in no sense explained it. Again, the Minister stated the importance of regulatory autonomy for the regulators, which of course is why I proposed Amendment 1—to put it at the very beginning of the Bill, rather than in words such as “substantially”, which mean several things to different people, in the body of the legislation. I have one specific question. Can the Minister tell us what the legal judgment is on including “substantially” and opening up regulators to legal challenge? In other words, if the law says “substantially”, who determines that, and is there legal recourse for an individual who has been turned down by a regulator to use that word to make a legal case? If the Minister does not have that legal writing to hand, perhaps he could furnish it before the next day in Committee.

Photo of Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Lord Grimstone of Boscobel The Minister of State, Department for International Trade, The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fox, for that point. Much as noble Lords know, I love giving my opinion on everything, but I hope it might be safer if I write to him about that legal point afterwards.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I thank everybody who has spoken on this debate, which turned out to be rather more interesting than I was expecting. I can see the two uses of “substantially” and

“the same knowledge and skills”.

Perhaps “the same range of knowledge and skills” would be right, but I cannot understand why “substantially the same standard” is right, because surely we should be looking for “the same standard” throughout. I might amend some of the amendments on this point but I am not assuaged, I am afraid, by the Minister. He also did not really address the important points made by my noble friend Lady Randerson about why higher education institutions and others were not involved.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, mentioned the farriers. I believe the farriers are regulated by a livery company, are they not? I declare my interest with City & Guilds; they are likely to have City & Guilds qualifications rather than degrees in farriering. I could be wrong on that but, from memory, that is what happens. But she is quite right that the range of these professions is extremely wide. Many of them are almost crafts and trades, rather than professions, but perhaps everything is a profession these days.

On that basis, this has been a very important debate and we may need to return to it at the next tranche. And we have another load of the word “substantially” in the next half of the Bill to have fun with. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

Amendment 5 not moved.