Strategy for settling disputes concerning healthcare agreements

Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 29 November 2018.

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(1) The Secretary of State must, within one month of this Act receiving Royal Assent, lay before Parliament a strategy containing a defined process for settling disputes concerning healthcare agreements between the government of the United Kingdom and either the government of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom or an international organisation.

(2) The strategy under section 1 above must include information on—

(a) the body, bodies or jurisdiction that will be responsible for settling disputes;

(b) the process which will be followed by that body, bodies or jurisdiction when settling a dispute, including details of any further appeal mechanisms; and

(c) anything else the Secretary of State thinks is relevant to such a strategy.—

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

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

On Second Reading, I spoke about the importance of dispute resolution, and asked the then Minister for Health, Stephen Barclay, to set out how he envisaged it operating in both a deal and a no deal scenario. Despite some prompting from me and my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury, the Minister was not able to set out how dispute resolutions will be handled under the terms of any new agreement or even if the European Court of Justice will continue to represent a red line for the Government. The latter point is particularly interesting, given the new role of the right hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire. It appears that he did not provide detail on that point because, at that stage, the Government were simply not in a position to confirm what was in the draft withdrawal agreement.

The Prime Minister categorically ruled out any jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice very early in the process, but I have yet to hear any serious suggestion about how disputes can be resolved, if we manage to reach a full reciprocal healthcare agreement with the EU27 beyond the transition period, without some reference back to the ECJ. The same concerns would apply if bilateral agreements were necessary in a no deal scenario.

Given the importance that the Prime Minister and members of her Cabinet have placed on the ECJ following our exit from the European Union, it is curious to say the least that we do not have a clear statement of intent from the Government while we debate this Bill. If their position continues to be that we will not have truly left the European Union if we are not in control of our own laws, as the Prime Minister put it in January 2017, it is vital that we have clarity about the arrangement that will be used in place of the ECJ. If a new arrangement is established, what will the cost be? Who will the judges be? Where will it be based? Will it be an open process?

If, on the other hand, we look to the ECJ for dispute resolution after all, even if only in the limited area of reciprocal healthcare, would that not represent a significant political U-turn? This issue is fundamental to the Government’s approach to Brexit. For example, they decided that we could not continue to host the European Medicines Agency, causing it to go to Amsterdam at the cost of 900 jobs in this country, and potentially hundreds of millions of pounds of investment. The Health Secretary’s sole justification for that was that the Government were not prepared to accept the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction. Our purpose in tabling this new clause is to get clarity from the Minister about whether the European Court of Justice remains a red line for the Government.

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

The new clause would place a duty on the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a detailed strategy defining the process for settling disputes concerning healthcare agreements after we leave the European Union. No one in the room would dispute the spirit behind the new clause. As I have stated throughout our examination of the Bill, it is right that there should be transparency regarding the UK’s future relationship with the EU and other countries after exit. It is right that that transparency should apply to the arrangement of future healthcare agreements, and the processes that underpin them, such as dispute resolution, but, although I agree with the spirit of the new clause, I am not entirely sure that it would achieve its intended aim. I will give a number of reasons why.

The new clause would confer a duty on the Secretary of State to lay a strategy on the process for dispute resolution before Parliament. Both in a deal and a no deal scenario, such a strategy would be unlikely to provide information on the process for settling disputes concerning healthcare agreements that is not already available in the public domain. That is not due to a lack of endeavour; it is an issue of timing and consideration of what is already publicly available. In the expected scenario that the UK agrees a deal with the EU, the proposed process for settling disputes has already been confirmed in the White Paper on the future relationship, the draft withdrawal Bill that governs the implementation period and, most recently, the political declaration on the future relationship between the UK and EU. The processes have already been confirmed. They are outlined in those documents and would apply not only to disputes, but clearly therefore to disputes in any reciprocal healthcare agreement.

The hon. Gentleman asks what the dispute mechanism is. I am sure that the Committee will be pleased that I am not going to quote extensively from the withdrawal agreement, but it is worth putting on the record that the mechanism for resolving disputes will be through consultation at the Joint Committee, with the aim of reaching a mutually agreeable resolution. If the parties are not able to resolve the dispute in the Joint Committee, either party can request the establishment of an independent arbitration panel to resolve it. The panel will be made up of five members, with one person being the chairperson. The UK and the EU will nominate two members to sit on the panel and then mutually agree the fifth member, who will be the chairperson. The panel members will act independently and do not represent the party that nominated them. It is binding that the panel members be independent and impartial and they must possess specialised knowledge or experience of EU law and international law.

The hon. Gentleman challenges me on the role of the ECJ. He is right that the ECJ has a role here, but its role is very clear and very limited. The role of the ECJ after the implementation period will be restricted to ensuring the correct interpretation of EU law. There is no suggestion that the ECJ will determine the dispute, or that we would ever agree to the ECJ determining the dispute.

That is the likely scenario and the processes that are already formally set out via the documents that I described earlier. In the unlikely scenario that the UK leaves the European Union without a deal, the United Kingdom will arrange reciprocal healthcare agreements, and in those agreements, there will have to be bilateral dispute resolution. That would clearly have to be determined on a case-by-case basis as part of the negotiations to put those bilateral healthcare agreements in place, and, therefore, there is unlikely to be a single dispute resolution process, which is what the new clause suggests, so while I accept the spirit of it, the wording would restrict the ability for future reciprocal healthcare arrangements.

More importantly, the requirement for such a strategy to be laid before the House one month after the Bill receives Royal Assent does not align with the aim of the Bill to provide future reciprocal healthcare agreements with countries both inside and outside the EU. Clearly, those agreements are likely to be negotiated over a period of time and, as I have just mentioned, the dispute resolution mechanisms within them are likely to be different and may vary. It would therefore be arbitrary and unhelpful to produce a general strategy immediately after Royal Assent.

I understand the intention behind the new clause, but it would place an unnecessary burden and duty on the Secretary of State. In a deal scenario, the procedures are already there. In the unlikely no deal scenario, it would be likely to frustrate the ability to put in place future reciprocal healthcare agreements.

I hope that, having heard that, the hon. Gentleman will accept that, although we understand the spirit of his new clause, its wording would be likely to frustrate the purpose of the Bill. I therefore ask him not to press it to a vote.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for setting that out in more detail than we were able to elicit on Second Reading. Given that the withdrawal agreement had not been published at the time, I understand why the then Minister was not able to do that. The present Minister has been very helpful in setting out the process for leaving with a deal. He is right that, if we leave without a deal, we are in uncharted territory. I do not think I heard any confirmation that there are red lines, in terms of the European Court of Justice, in that scenario. That is really what the new clause was meant to establish. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 4