Amendment 59

Professional Qualifications Bill [HL] - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 22nd June 2021.

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath:

Moved by Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

59: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—“Expiry(1) The appropriate national authority may not make regulations under this Act after a period of four years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.(2) Any regulations made under this Act expire on the day after that period.”

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

My Lords, I will carry on with the theme of the previous debate, which was very interesting in relation to statutory instruments and how far they afford us an opportunity to scrutinise provisions in the Bill.

I believe one solution to the challenges facing the Bill is to sunset the whole Bill. I am putting this forward as a proposition for discussion now between Committee and Report. It is not the only solution. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, also had an interesting amendment earlier which seeks to deal with the issue in a slightly different way, but nonetheless is worthy of consideration.

The Government’s defence, if you like, of parliamentary scrutiny is that the orders that come as a result of the use of the Act, when enacted, will come before Parliament in the form of statutory instruments, and most of them will be affirmative. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, asked what that means in practice. Since the Second World War, five statutory instruments have been defeated in your Lordships’ House. We also had the debate on tax credits in 2015 where we agreed two amendments to the Motion to approve the tax credit regulations. They sought essentially to delay consideration of the regulations until certain conditions were met. The Government were very cross about that, but the fact is that they decided not to proceed and one can say that the Lords defeated that statutory instrument, so six since the Second World War.

The Minister says, “Ah, but Parliament can debate them and scrutinise them in relation to an affirmative instrument”, and I accept that most will be affirmative, it means nothing. All we get is an hour’s debate, at most. We can put a regret Motion down, but what does that mean? Ministers take no account of regret Motions. It makes us feel better because we have a vote and defeat the Government, but it is meaningless.

This is the whole problem with the parliamentary appraisal of secondary legislation. It was not really considered when the Parliament Act was first introduced. We have an absolute veto, but because it is an absolute veto we feel very reluctant to use it. In effect we have no leverage whatsoever. As the noble Baroness said, apart from the imaginative use of the 2015 regulations, we cannot amend statutory instruments either. My suggestion is that the only way to deal with this, if the whole of the Bill needs to go forward, is a sunset clause.

Sunset clauses, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, reminded us on the second day in Committee, are not unknown to the Minister, who has just taken through the Trade Act, which has sunset provisions. The power there, I gather, is for five years, with an option for another five years through regulation. It simply ensures that if changes are made in that period, Parliament has the opportunity to scrutinise them again through debating further primary legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked for some form of comparable treatment in this Bill, and the Minister said that there is a difference, in that the trade agreements in the Trade Act are rollover agreements, many of which will be replaced in due course by other agreements. He argued that what we are talking about in this Bill are mutual recognition agreements rather than rollover agreements, and that there is a distinct difference. Up to a point, Minister, up to a point. It strikes me that there are some parallels. We currently have a status quo in relation to the existing regulation of professional qualifications. In time, we can expect more mutual recognition agreements to come forward and, as with the Trade Act, surely it is not unreasonable for Parliament to be able to scrutinise them properly and in primary legislation after a period of years.

Sunset clauses provide an expiry date for legislation and are used in circumstances where it is felt that Parliament should be given time to decide on its merits —again, after a fixed period. This is certainly one avenue we need to explore if the Bill is to be taken any further. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Patel Lord Patel Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Lords), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Lords)

My Lords, I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, which would insert a sunset clause into the Bill. Why do I say that? Because many of its clauses, as we have already discussed, take Henry VIII powers and the intent of those clauses is not quite clear. The sunset clause overview states that a such a clause provides an expiry date for legislation:

“Sunset clauses are included in legislation when it is felt that Parliament should have the chance to decide on its merits again after a fixed period.”

Sunset clauses let Parliament reassess the legislation at a later date, once it is clear how it has been used in practice and how suitable it is to the policy challenge at hand.

The introduction of a sunset clause is also a useful method of reaching political compromise. It is clear from our discussions that we do not quite agree with a lot of the clauses. Reaching political compromise in the case of a controversial or sensitive provision allows the Government to make the provision they need for the time being, while building in a statutory guarantee of review of and parliamentary control over the Bill. In that respect, it is also good for the Government: they get their Bill through but it includes a sunset clause to allow Parliament greater scrutiny.

I was interested to see the guidance on the use of sunset clauses. The Government published guidance, through BEIS, on the better regulation framework in March 2020. This was written for government departments and explains how the better regulation system should operate. Section 1.5 of the guidance provides the following information on the use of review and sunset clauses:

“At an early stage in policy development, government departments

“will need to consider whether either a statutory review clause is required or a sunset clause is appropriate … Sunset clauses are not a requirement, but a tool for policy makers to use where they are deemed appropriate and impose an automatic expiry of the measure on a specified date … and ensure scrutiny of the decision on whether or not to renew the regulation.”

On that basis, a sunset clause is the ideal way to deal with this Bill and the powers it takes through its different clauses, and I therefore support it.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 5:15 pm, 22nd June 2021

Once again, my Lords, I find myself following the wise words of the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Patel. In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referenced the Trade Act. Students of the Trade Act will have heard me make a speech about secondary legislation on at least two occasions and I am not going to repeat it, but—spoiler alert—it was very similar to the speech the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, gave. The key element both of us brought out was the complete lack of government jeopardy when it comes to secondary legislation. In other words: it is essentially a bet that cannot be lost. What they are betting with is the right governance of a very important thing.

After several trailers from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, we come to this amendment. He has trailed this several times and the sunset clause is one way of putting some insurance into this Bill. What we would really like is for the Bill to leave this House not needing a sunset clause; that has to be the objective. This is very much a second-order or third-order solution to something sub-optimal. In that respect, I am not enthusiastic; I am somewhat reluctantly drawn to supporting this clause because we have to put in some element of insurance if we cannot get this right. I hope that, by hook or by crook, we can get the Bill right and perhaps not need a sunset clause, but in the meantime, we should keep that option open.

Photo of Baroness Blake of Leeds Baroness Blake of Leeds Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Opposition Whip (Lords)

I thank my noble friend Lord Hunt and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for tabling Amendment 59. A four-year sunset clause is an interesting proposal, given the wider concerns that keep coming up throughout these debates: how quickly the Bill has been put together, the lack of thinking through of all the elements, and the concerns just raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fox.

Have the Government considered a mechanism for reviewing the Act’s effectiveness and, if so, what sort of review is the Minister proposing? I hope he will acknowledge the lack of confidence that has been expressed from all sides of this Chamber. I finish by asking the Minister to explain why the Bill’s provisions should last longer than four years, without a review mechanism.

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 Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for his amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for the views he expressed.

The amendment would impose a time limit of four years on appropriate national authorities making regulations under this Bill, once enacted, and regulations already made under the powers in the Bill would expire the day after that four-year period is completed. Of course, this is familiar to many as a sunset clause. However, sunset clauses are typically insurance policies against powers that, at some point in the future, may be no longer suitable to deliver the policy aims which required the legislation to be made.

The Trade Act, which we have heard referred to by a number of noble Lords, with its rollover of international agreements to be replaced in due course, is an example of legislation in which a sunset clause that can be renewed by Parliament is appropriate. However, this Bill and the delegated powers within it are drafted deliberately to endure, futureproof the legislation and provide flexibility to make necessary changes over time. I even like to think of the Bill as having a sunrise —not sunset—effect because it is intended to help our professionals enter new markets and deliver a global Britain, having ended the one-sided, EU-derived temporary arrangements. I therefore feel that a sunset provision is at odds with the purpose of the Bill.

Returning to debate a new professional qualifications Bill in four years’ time because this Bill no longer provides for that flexibility, would, I respectfully suggest, not be the best use of the expertise of this House. Of course, I have nothing against such clauses where they are appropriately used, but inclusion here would undermine the ability of the UK Government and devolved Administrations to respond swiftly to changing demands for services. It would potentially thwart the implementation of future regulator recognition agreements, which, as we know, may not in reality be implemented for some years after a free trade agreement is agreed.

There is also a risk that in providing for the expiry of regulations made under Clause 3 to implement international agreements, the UK may be left without provision upholding the commitments that we have made under those agreements, thereby placing us in breach of their terms. As I remarked to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, on day two in Committee, I believe that sunset clauses would not be appropriate in these circumstances. By sunsetting, we limit the opportunity for service trade and constrain regulators’ abilities to exploit opportunities with their international counterparts, for example through Clause 4.

The powers in the Bill are designed to support a flexible response as the regulatory landscape evolves over time. Curtailing the ability to do that through a time limit would put us into regulatory limbo rather than preparing us for the future. We know that the Bill will allow the UK to replace the interim system of recognition currently in operation. Stripping away regulation that the Bill creates to replace the EU system would only create a new gap.

Finally, if the intent behind this amendment is indeed to mitigate any potential misuse of powers, I reiterate that the powers detailed in the Bill are carefully tailored to its requirements; they are focused on a specific purpose. I believe that the reason why some noble Lords are arguing for a sunset clause is that they think it is a rotten Bill: “If we are not able to kill it off now, why not do so in four years’ time?” I prefer to share the ambition of the noble Lord, Lord Fox—I was pleased to hear him state it so clearly—that the Bill should leave our House in good shape, do what it is intended to do and be fit for purpose. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will agree that a sunset clause is not appropriate and will consider withdrawing his amendment.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister and to noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. The Minister is an eternal optimist and I liked his description of the Bill as a sunrise Bill. I say at once that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fox, that a sunset clause is not to be desired. The aim is to reach some consensus on the way forward. My reading is that the Minister is not going to get the Bill through at the moment, as it will be heavily amended on Report. This is a House of Lords starter Bill so the Parliament Act does not apply, and—

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

No, I do not think that it applies to Lords starters; it applies to Commons starters.

Rather than just repeating the reasons why the Government need the clauses as they are, I hope they will start to negotiate because that is the way to get through this. There are ways in which the Bill can be amended to modify the executive provisions, but the Government have to be prepared to move. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Patel, was very wise in repeating to the Minister the wise words of his own better regulation advice on where sunset clauses can be appropriate. My noble friend Lady Blake asked where there will be a review mechanism at all if there is no sunset point.

Ultimately, it seems that we have reached a crunch position where the House is unhappy and will vote to take chunks out of the Bill, one way or another, unless we can reach a satisfactory solution. Clearly, the Bill is a Lords starter for one reason: it is a Bill on which we should be able to come together because at heart we all want to see professional qualifications in this country maintaining independence, a very high standard and interchangeability with other countries, where that is appropriate. Although noble Lords may have some doubts about this Bill, I do not think there is any argument about the intent of where the Government seek to go. We now need to see movement from the Government. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 59 withdrawn.

Amendments 60 and 60A not moved.