Strategy to ensure continued access to medical care in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 29th November 2018.

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(1) Before this Act receives Royal Assent, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a strategy containing a defined process that will ensure that—

(a) British citizens living in Northern Ireland can continue to access medical treatment under a healthcare agreement in the Republic of Ireland; and

(b) citizens of the Republic of Ireland can continue to access medical treatment under a health agreement in Northern Ireland

if a withdrawal agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union has not been ratified by exit day.

(2) In this section, “exit day” has the meaning given in Section 20 (1) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.” —

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I recall that the first Westminster Hall debate that I secured was under your chairmanship. Indeed, you were also in the Chair the first time I was the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman in a Bill Committee. In these turbulent times, you are a consistent and familiar face—certainly to me and, hopefully, to many other hon. Members.

Reciprocal healthcare is of most importance for those countries where it is accessed most—none more so than on the island of Ireland. When the British Medical Association gave evidence on Tuesday, it was clear about the success story that has been achieved, particularly in the border area, particularly with a dispersed population of around 2 million. It said:

“Given the population demands on the whole island of Ireland, both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, there have been some fantastic examples of where clinicians have either co-located services in a particular trust or facility where there is not the demand from the local population to warrant it, or travelled across the border to work on different sites.”––[Official Report, Healthcare (International Arrangements) Public Bill Committee, 27 November 2018; c. 4, Q10.]

Fiona Loud from Kidney Care UK raised the example of patients who currently cross the border daily for their care and treatments. She also mentioned organ donation and organ sharing, and the need to ensure that the existing and very successful arrangements that we have are preserved.

It is easy to talk about scaremongering when we raise the spectre of patients being turned away at the border, and I am sure that we will all do our utmost to ensure that such circumstances do not arise, but we are talking about really important issues here. The healthcare arrangements on the island date back to before the UK and the Republic of Ireland joined the EU, but they are now underpinned by EU law, so we cannot simply revert back to the old arrangements, should a full EU-wide deal not be reached.

I was concerned about the lack of consideration given to the issue in the supporting documents and in the contribution from the previous Minister, Stephen Barclay, on Second Reading. If we do not get this issue right, the Bill will be a failure. The amendment would ensure that the provisions do not reach the statute book until clarity on this hugely important issue is provided. I appreciate that article 13 of the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement indicates a desire to continue north/south co-operation in a range of areas, including healthcare, but that does not help us if Parliament does not support the withdrawal agreement. That is why the amendment asks for a strategy to be provided as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The new clause deals with the crucial question of healthcare on the island of Ireland. It focuses on reciprocal access to healthcare between Northern Ireland and Ireland, if there is no UK and EU deal, and would require the Secretary of State to set out plans for an agreement to protect medical access for British and Irish citizens moving between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

We agree that it is absolutely our intention to do two things. First, there should be a deal for reciprocal arrangements between the UK and the EU, and secondly, it is absolutely essential, in the unlikely scenario of no deal, that essential access continues. The UK and Ireland are committed to protecting reciprocal healthcare rights, so that UK and Irish nationals can continue to access healthcare when they live in, work in or visit the other country. We also want to maintain the co-operation between the UK and Ireland on a range of medical issues, including planned treatment, public healthcare and workforce. It is absolutely the intention of the Government that people should be able to live their lives as they do now, and that our healthcare systems support one another.

If there is no deal—in that unlikely scenario—the UK and Ireland will want to set out how we both agree to protect reciprocal healthcare arrangements, but it is also true, and the hon. Gentleman will know, that the UK Government are firmly committed to maintaining the common travel area and to protecting the rights currently enjoyed by UK and Irish nationals when in each other’s states. The hon. Gentleman’s issue about the border is mitigated by the fact that the UK Government are committed to maintaining the common travel arrangements, which allow full protection and maintenance of the status quo for all journeys for individuals between the UK and Ireland. It is currently estimated that there are something like 110 million crossings.

As I said earlier, as with other member states, we would expect to have a healthcare agreement between the two countries in the unlikely situation that there were no deal—an agreement that could be implemented into legislation that would provide the reassurances that the hon. Gentleman seeks. The NHS charging regulations can already exempt individuals that are covered by reciprocal healthcare arrangements. We can also use the powers in the Bill to maintain aspects of our current co-operation, such as reimbursement for healthcare costs and the sharing of data to support entitlements. I therefore say to the hon. Gentleman that I do not think the new clause is necessary, given the clear commitment by both sides. I hope he recognises that commitment and does not feel that he needs to press the new clause to a vote.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour) 2:15 pm, 29th November 2018

I am minded not to press the new clause to a vote if the Minister assures us that he will endeavour to keep us updated on the contingency plans, if it looks like we are approaching a cliff-edge scenario. That is really what we are trying to achieve.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

Let me make the hon. Gentleman the same offer that I made to the hon. Member for Burnley. In that unlikely scenario, I guarantee that I will make my officials available to give a briefing to the hon. Gentleman and any member of the Committee who wishes to understand what our proposals are.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 3