Amendment 58

Professional Qualifications Bill [HL] - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 22 June 2021.

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Baroness Randerson:

Moved by Baroness Randerson

58: Clause 15, page 11, leave out lines 10 to 13Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would mean all regulations made under the Act are subject to the affirmative procedure.

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

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 58 in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. This is about as modest an amendment as one could possibly imagine. It simply requires that all regulations that flow from the Bill are made by the affirmative procedure. The Government have acknowledged that most of the substantive changes to the law envisaged by the Bill are to be made by delegated powers.

The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has drawn our attention to what it sees as significant problems with the Bill in respect of the constitutional principles involved. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, drew our attention to this issue earlier in our debates this afternoon. For instance, the DPRRC draws attention to the Henry VIII power in Clause 1, which gives the Government power to amend primary legislation to make provision about a wide range of issues, including details of the approach to assessing applications from overseas applicants, guidance to regulators on how to assess them, fees to be paid and appeals.

The Government’s excuse is that these changes are to be demand-led, but the DPRRC does not regard that as a justification for Henry VIII powers. Paragraph 20 of its report points out that when those powers will be executed by affirmative procedure, that in itself will provide minimal scrutiny. Paragraph 23 points out that

“Ministers will have no duty to consult before making regulations.”

Clause 3 of the Bill gives Ministers powers to make regulations in connection with the implementation of international recognition agreements—another Henry VIII power and, this time, not subject to any conditions. We can already see the reality of this principle with the very broad agreement made between the UK and Australia in the recent trade deal, which specifies mutual recognition of professional qualifications in some detail.

The Constitution Committee makes the point that there is a long-standing constitutional convention that international agreements that change UK law require an Act of Parliament, so the DPRRC considers that Clause 3 should be removed from the Bill. Clause 4 also contains a Henry VIII power on authorising a regulator to recognise an overseas regulator. I go through this because I am pointing out that, in the face of this barrage of criticism from those in this House whose job is to safeguard the constitutional integrity of the UK, it is a very small request in this amendment that the blizzard of regulations that we can expect to flow from this Bill should be made by the affirmative procedure.

Photo of Lord Moynihan Lord Moynihan Conservative

My Lords, I declare my interest, having in prior years been a long-standing member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that its report on the Bill and the use of secondary legislation makes telling and worrying reading. Before I cover that, I place on record my thanks to my noble friend Lord Grimstone for his response to my speech earlier and the constructive way in which he handled that. Also, it is important for the Committee to place on record that he has sought to catch the mood of the House rather than to counter it by speaking “note rote”. That is a notable parliamentary and diplomatic skill, and he has done it more capably than many Ministers that I have heard in nearly 40 years in both Houses. However, as he knows, that does not negate the challenges that the Government face with this Bill on its passage through the House.

Most of the substantive changes to this Bill are envisaged to be undertaken by the Executive. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has said, there is a creeping growth of secondary legislation. Some of it is understood in the context of the huge number of statutory instruments following Brexit, but both Houses need to review and reverse that process, otherwise we will be in a situation where the balance of power between the Executive and the legislature is out of kilter. Parliament must be consulted. My noble friend Lord Grimstone said that many of the Bill’s aspects would be under rigorous scrutiny with interested parties; it is even more important that they are under rigorous scrutiny with Parliament.

The noble Lords, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and Lord Patel, when talking about Henry VIII powers, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, on the lack of detailed parliamentary scrutiny, made eloquent contributions to what is relevant not only to the very light-touch but important amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Sanderson but to the wider use of secondary legislation, because there is a significant difference between negative and affirmative resolution. With negative, there is no requirement to approve the SIs for them to become law, and with the affirmative, there is a far higher degree of scrutiny sought, with the three forms of high and appropriate scrutiny that are well known to every Member of the House. That is why, wherever possible, Parliament should insist that as much as possible is on the face of the Bill, and why resorting to secondary legislation should be kept to an absolute minimum. It is with those comments in mind and made that I believe, not only in the context of Amendment 58 but throughout the Bill, that we need to return on Report to make sure that there is appropriate parliamentary scrutiny throughout.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, I support Amendment 60 in my noble friend’s name, and I will speak to Amendments 65,66 and 67 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Fox. This is a very short debate which in many respects reinforces points made in other groups, but it can be divided into two areas: first, the necessity of avoiding, where at all possible, using secondary legislation to amend primary legislation, as the previous group have indicated; and, secondly, to have an argument about pausing not just the Bill but the implementation of an Act before the Government have their policy ducks in a row.

The second point relates to Amendments 65, 66, and 67. Part of the Government’s intent with this legislation is to have an alternative framework to the one that we have left by virtue of membership of the European Union single market. It is inevitable that we will need some form of arrangement with the European countries that are our biggest service sector trading partners. It may not be depressing to everybody but it is depressing to me that the Government’s assumption on this Bill is using the Home Office modelling that there will be a 70% reduction in the number of applications from EEA citizens seeking mutual recognition of their qualification to provide a service within the UK. On the second day of Committee I indicated the statistics that need not be repeated about how this is to the disbenefit of the United Kingdom—but the Government are on this journey. Part of the route for this will be to offset the shortages in labour and the increases in demand for services that the Government themselves are forecasting are inevitable.

However, we do not know yet how the Government will calculate demand, only that they have said that they will take a number of factors into consideration. We do not yet know, as we have demonstrated today in Committee, how many of the regulators will be asked to reduce fees, shorten timeframes, or change their application processes for those outwith Europe. The Government have indicated that they will not publish any draft regulations, and we have yet to see clarity on what those regulations might look like. Also, when it comes to non-European countries, the Government have not indicated how they intend to use this Bill vis-à-vis international trading agreements. As my noble friend Lady Randerson and the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, indicated, there are now inevitabilities that we will be asked to implement new mutual recognition provisions within trading agreements. Australia has been referred to.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, who is not responding to this debate, knows that I respect him greatly. I hope that he also knows that it is fairly futile to ask me not to ask questions of him about letters that he writes to me, and that it is not premature to ask questions about documents that are sent to me by his office. I will scrutinise them. Agreements in principle are very significant documents; they are inked international agreements and I will continue to scrutinise them.

As my noble friend Lady Randerson rightly indicated, there are professional qualifications chapters within the Australia trade agreement, and they are worth scrutiny—but proper scrutiny. Scrutiny and accountability do not come simply with a piece of secondary legislation. Yes, we may pray against and annul it—although that is exceptionally rare in this House, as we all know. In fact, I think it is the position of the Official Opposition that they will never seek to do that. Therefore, that is not necessarily a useful tool, and if they are not accompanied by full consultation and do not go through stages where they can be amended, this is a very much lower standard than what was promised by the Secretary of State, Dr Fox, when he told the House of Commons that the Government would

“bring forward a bespoke piece of primary legislation when required for each new future trade agreement that requires changes to legislation and where there are no existing powers.”—[Official Report, Commons, 16/7/18; col. 42.]

That is different from saying, “If the Government need to”. Dr Fox was categorical; now we have equivocation.

That leads on to my second point: what are our future trading policies going to be when it comes to professional qualifications and trade agreements? The Government’s impact assessment gives the impression that it is to our advantage that we have to negotiate separately with the 27 countries for mutual recognition agreements. At the same time the Government have agreed a multicountry agreement with Norway and others, and now they want to have within CPTPP an 11-country-wide agreement. So what is the Government’s approach? Do they support multilateral mutual qualification frameworks or do they want bilateral country-to-country agreements?

The Government have not published either a skills framework or a skills strategy that would be the basis on which we looked at demand. The amendments would give the Government an opportunity within a year, if the Bill goes through, to publish such statements, policy and strategy. At that point we would be able to implement the legislation with a much clearer idea of what the regulations would include, and of course who they would impact.

Photo of Baroness Blake of Leeds Baroness Blake of Leeds Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Opposition Whip (Lords) 4:45, 22 June 2021

This has been an interesting debate, especially for those of us who are only just beginning to get to grips with the whole process of affirmative and negative procedures. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for her explanation and the clarity with which she gave her understanding of why she has put forward the amendment. Clearly the Minister needs to explain why a distinction has been drawn and why the Government believe it is necessary.

As we have heard, Clause 15 states:

“Regulations under this Act are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure where they contain provision amending, repealing or revoking primary legislation or retained direct principal EU legislation”— otherwise, regulations are negative. Amendment 58, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Randerson and Lady Bennett, seeks to ensure that all regulations made under the Act will be subject to the affirmative procedure. As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, stated, the Delegated Powers Committee has raised similar concerns, stating, for example, that the power in Clause 10(4), which is subject only to the negative procedure, was “inappropriate”.

There seems to be a recurring theme throughout the discussions and debates that we are having as we go through these procedures: namely, that we must ensure that Parliament is not sidelined and that appropriate parliamentary scrutiny can take place. How many negative SIs does the Minister expect to come before Parliament in the first year after Royal Assent?

On Amendments 65, 66 and 67, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Fox, for putting forward the idea of one-year delay to revoking retained EU legislation, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for his detailed explanation of why that could be an attractive route to follow. I would like the Minister to explain whether this was ever considered. Indeed, would it give the regulators time to raise funds to cover any additional costs, or—to return to the theme of unease around so many areas of the Bill—is the Minister only worried about how a one-year delay could affect the UK’s pursuit of trade agreements?

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, for their proposed amendments. As we have heard in this debate, the amendments concern parliamentary procedure for regulations made under the Bill and, separately, the timings for the revocation of relevant retained EU law. I note the concerns raised by almost all noble Lords who have participated in this debate about the use of delegated powers.

The Government have carefully considered the powers in the Bill and consider that they are necessary and justified. It would be unfeasible to specify in the Bill detailed amendments to a large number of pieces of primary and secondary legislation. In respect of certain policies, there is a need for flexibility to make changes over time. For example, the Bill takes a power to implement international agreements so far as they relate to the recognition of professional qualifications, the content and timing of which will depend on the outcome of trade negotiations.

On trade negotiations, I reiterate that the UK’s offer to potential trade partners on the recognition of professional qualifications depends on many factors, including the size of the potential market for the export of professional services. On the concerns addressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, I reiterate my noble friend’s comments about the status of the Australian trade deal. I understand the noble Baroness’s concerns, but I feel that we should probably wait for the final text to be issued.

I will start with Amendment 58, which I note the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, supports. The amendment would have the effect that all regulations made under the Bill would be subject to the affirmative procedure. Clause 15 sets out the parliamentary procedure for how regulations under the Bill should be made. The clause already provides that any regulation amending, repealing or revoking primary legislation or retained direct principal EU legislation is subject to the affirmative procedure. It is right that Parliament has the appropriate scrutiny of such regulations.

The clause goes on to set out that the negative procedure should be used for other, more technical regulations. Further, as an additional safeguard, the Bill provides that regulations subject to the negative procedure may be made also subject to the affirmative procedure where required. For example, regulations made under Clause 10(4), in relation to the duty placed on UK regulators under that clause to provide requested information to their overseas counterparts, would be made under the negative procedure. Those regulations may make provision in connection with that duty—for example, in relation to the timeframe in which the duty is to be complied with. The negative procedure is clearly more fitting in these instances and will provide an appropriate scrutiny for such measures.

I turn to Amendments 65, 66 and 67, which propose a minimum of 12 months before revoking relevant retained EU law. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, for tabling these amendments, and I note that the noble Lord, Lord Fox, supports them. We have already discussed at length the core professionals whose qualifications and experience have been gained overseas, reflecting our status outside the EU single market and our global outlook. Clauses 5 and 6 play a key role in doing that. The details of those clauses were addressed on day 2 of Committee, so I will not repeat them now, but I will repeat what my noble friend the Minister said about the timing of commencement regulations for these clauses and his assurance to noble Lords that the Government have no intention of rushing this.

The Government will consider carefully when to implement commencement regulations to revoke the EU-derived system under Clause 5(1). In order to support a coherent legislative framework while making sure that decisions are taken at the right time for the professions affected, there will need to be appropriate prior engagement with the devolved Administrations, regulators and other interested parties. Likewise, Clause 6 provides for the revocation of other retained EU law by the appropriate national authority, and I would expect there to be appropriate engagement from all such authorities with regulators. As a result, I am confident that the Bill will come into force in an orderly manner with no surprises for regulators, and that it will not bring with it such wholesale changes for which the regulators would need a year to prepare if regulations were to be made before that period had elapsed. I hope that has allayed some of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that we were passing legislation before we had our policy ducks in a row.

I hope my explanations on these points have provided appropriate reassurance and I ask that the amendment be withdrawn. Lastly, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, but perhaps I could write to her with specific answers to her questions.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 5:00, 22 June 2021

I thank all noble Lords who spoke in this short debate. To sum up the situation on the affirmative versus the negative procedure, the reality is that negative instruments slip through this House almost unnoticed. The occasional one might catch the eye of an eagle-eyed Peer who might raise it and turn it into an affirmative procedure, but the vast majority slip through. The procedure is intended for routine things such as renewals year on year, not the kind of procedure envisaged in this legislation. At least we get the opportunity to debate affirmative instruments, although that is done on an “accept it or reject it” basis. We cannot amend them, and it is therefore a pretty blunt instrument. Noble Lords know that the number of affirmative instruments rejected by this House is extremely small.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, for his acceptance that he has to provide greater clarity in response to our criticisms. The noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, also indicated that she will write in response to the specific questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Blake. My noble friend Lord Purvis pointed out a lack of clarity about how and why this legislation will operate.

I noted the Minister’s comments about the Australian trade deal. The announcement sets out in detail the issues that will be covered, but not exactly how they will be covered. I read it with great interest. The two Prime Ministers stood there in person and announced it proudly. Is the Minister now saying that this is just a rough sketch of what might be and that we should not rely on this as the brave new future announced to us only a week or so ago?

I conclude by saying that the Bill has come to us far too soon. That view is probably shared by many noble Lords across the Committee. There has been a lack of consultation with the devolved Administrations and the regulators and a lack of research. It shows. The Bill was conceived with absolutely no understanding of the complexity of this process. Going back to Second Reading, my noble friend Lady Garden and I warned that the process of agreeing the mutual recognition of qualifications will take years. We have been arguing about how we set up a system to do that. It has nothing to do with the process of making the agreement on mutual recognition. We are in the calm before the storm on this.

We have a situation where there is uncertainty about who the regulators actually are and there is no recognition of how long it takes to agree the qualifications. This is a truly terrible Bill. I do not say that because I disagree with the principle behind the need for mutual recognition of qualifications. We need to have it, but we have a Bill that has not decided what it is about, how it will do it and why it will have to do it. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said that it is bordering on the absurd, so I urge Ministers to go back to their department to have a long and honest conversation and then either withdraw the Bill and put it out of its misery or at the very least have a delay before Report to give them the opportunity to recharge their batteries and consider what they really want from the Bill. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 58 withdrawn.

Clause 15 agreed.