It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. This is a short, sensible Bill to ensure that we are prepared, whatever the outcome of leaving the European Union. The Bill confers powers on the Secretary of State to make and to arrange for payments to be made in respect of the cost of healthcare provided outside the United Kingdom. It will allow for the funding of reciprocal healthcare arrangements for UK nationals living in the EU, the European Economic Area and Switzerland.
The Bill is part of the Government’s preparation for EU exit and will allow us to take the necessary steps to broadly continue reciprocal healthcare arrangements or to otherwise support UK residents to obtain healthcare when they move to or visit the EU. It is an important and necessary piece of legislation, so that the British public can look forward to the future with the confidence that they will get the healthcare they need when they need it.
Clause 1 introduces a new power for the Secretary of State to make payments and to arrange for those payments to be made to fund healthcare abroad. I will start by setting out for the Committee why it is necessary for the Government to seek that power.
Currently, there are limited domestic powers in relation to the funding of healthcare abroad. The existing reciprocal healthcare arrangements with the EU are based on EU law. Reciprocal arrangements with other third countries at this time do not involve making payments, as they are based on waiver agreements. In line with the Public Accounts Committee concordat, the clause provides statutory authorisation for the expenditure in relation to future funding of healthcare abroad. It enables the funding of any reciprocal healthcare arrangements that the UK may enter into with EU member states, non-EU states and international organisations, such as the EU, as well as unilateral funding of treatment abroad if needed. It is a vital power to ensure a smooth transition post EU exit.
As a number of colleagues set out on Second Reading, including the Chair of the Select Committee on Health and Social Care, it is essential that the Government take appropriate measures to support a reciprocal healthcare arrangement and agreement with the EU. The Bill and the clause are crucial to that endeavour. Our arrangements with the EU are by their nature reciprocal and require a mutual understanding, and continuation of the arrangements are therefore a matter for negotiations between ourselves and the EU. It is incumbent upon any responsible Government to take forward responsible measures, and the Bill will ensure that we can broadly continue reciprocal healthcare arrangements, where agreed, with the EU. It is the Government’s ambition to ensure that we have the powers and the legal basis to implement comprehensive reciprocal healthcare agreements with other countries around the world, where that would be cost-effective and support wider health and foreign policy objectives after the EU exit.
Clause 1 means that we are ready to respond to any scenario concerning future reciprocal healthcare arrangements with the EU on exit day. In a deal scenario, we would use the power to fund a future reciprocal healthcare arrangement with the EU following the implementation period. In the unlikely no deal scenario, our offer to all EU member states would be to maintain reciprocal healthcare arrangements on a bilateral basis for at least a transitional period. We would use the power to fund those arrangements.
On 2016-17 estimates, the United Kingdom spends about £630 million per year on the EU system of reciprocal healthcare. That is an accrued liability where payments are made to individual member states on a monthly basis in arrears. Once we leave the EU, the clause will allow the Government to continue to fund such a system of reciprocal healthcare, subject to any agreement with the EU and/or EU member states.
The payment system for funding reciprocal healthcare arrangements is set out in EU law. In the future, detailed provisions could be given effect domestically by the regulations under clause 2(1), which we will discuss later, and the payments could be made by exercising clause 1.
Of course, the spending of any public money is and should be closely monitored. The money spent under clause 1 would be no exception to that rule—the usual safeguards apply. As with all departmental expenditure, it would need to be authorised by the Treasury supply process and will be included in the Department’s annual estimates, as well as being included in the annual resource accounts that are audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The exact arrangements will be provided for under the future reciprocal arrangements, which are obviously a matter for negotiation. It is envisaged that the current arrangements will be used as a basis for future arrangements with the EU.
It may be helpful to the Committee to look briefly at how the current process of payments works. At the moment, if a UK national were to injure themselves on a holiday in France, they would present their European health insurance card, commonly known as EHIC, at the hospital and receive the necessary treatment. The hospital would then raise an invoice for the treatment with its liaison body. In the case of the United Kingdom, that liaison body is the NHS Business Services Authority. The French liaison body would then submit a claim for the cost of the treatment to the NHS Business Services Authority based on receipt of the invoice from the hospital.
Once the NHS Business Services Authority is satisfied that the claim is accurate and valid, the UK would then release the payment to France, alongside any other claims received for that month. Our intention is to provide for those administrative and operational facets through the regulation-making powers in clause 2(1), which I referred to a moment ago and which we will discuss later. Clause 1 will provide for the payment element.
As is clear to all Committee members, the UK Government’s ambition is to have a reciprocal healthcare agreement with the EU, which should include reciprocal healthcare for state pensioners, UK participation in the EHIC scheme, and co-operation on planned treatment. We expect that that will continue to involve our making payments—for example, on the hundreds of thousands of British citizens who require treatment each year during their holidays in Europe. It also reflects current arrangements, whereby we receive money from EU member states when healthcare has been provided in the United Kingdom—for example, when a tourist to the United Kingdom has presented their EHIC.
It is, of course, our ambition to secure a future deal with the EU on the matter. Should that not be possible, we would seek to agree a broad continuation of the current system with EU member states on a bilateral basis for at least a transitional period. The Bill also provides flexibility to fund healthcare even where there is no bilateral agreement, which we might explore using in exceptional circumstances to secure healthcare for certain groups of people.
At the outset of the Committee’s line-by-line scrutiny, I put on the record my thanks to all hon. Members who spoke on Second Reading and who were supportive of the Bill in principle, and I thank hon. Members for their attendance today. I am also grateful, as I am sure everybody is, to the witnesses who attended on Tuesday. I put on the record my thanks to them, not only for giving us their valuable insight but for supporting the Bill.
Hundreds of thousands of people rely on reciprocal arrangements to access healthcare every year. Ensuring that the Government have a clear legal basis on which to fund these arrangements in the future is an essential component of allowing us to meet our shared goals in this area. I therefore recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.