Clause 4 - Authorisation to enter into regulator recognition agreements

Professional Qualifications Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 18th January 2022.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin 9:45 am, 18th January 2022

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 1.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

Encouraged by the closeness of the vote, we will have another go with new clause 1. The amendment provides additional reassurances to the devolved Administrations that the Bill does not affect the establishment or operation of common framework agreements, which are devolved matters. This amendment would—[Interruption.] Sorry, I am speaking to the wrong provisions. I am amazed that nobody noticed. [Laughter.]

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Oh, I assure you that I did.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

Given your vast experience, Mr Pritchard, and given my experience of debating with you over a number of years, I know that you were about to intervene to stop me. We will speak to new clause 1, but we will not test the will of the Committee on the matter; we will come back to it on amendment 3.

The new clause would place an obligation on the Secretary of State to provide guidance to regulators concerning mutual recognition under the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement. The Bill provides a framework to allow mutual recognition of professional qualifications between regulators and professional bodies in the UK and the equivalent organisations overseas. The provisions in clauses 3 and 4 will allow for the implementation of regulator-to-regulator mutual recognition agreements, and of the recognition arrangements in new international trade agreements.

Importantly, the Law Society advises that the Bill will enable the mutual recognition agreement provisions in the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement to be implemented, but it raises concerns about the arrangements. The Law Society says that the provisions for mutual recognition agreements in the TCA are largely based on the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement. No mutual recognition agreements have been signed between the EU and Canada in the three years since CETA came into force. The concern is that the lack of mutual recognition agreements using similar provisions may indicate that the arrangements in the TCA are not sufficient for setting up such new agreements as are needed to encourage professionals to make up the shortages of nurses, vets or other professionals.

The Law Society and the Labour party want assurances that additional support, co-ordination and guidance will be available if needed by regulators and professional bodies on how to make the most of the provisions in the trade and co-operation agreement, not least in case they are to form the benchmark for future free trade agreements. More than assurances, the new clause would oblige the Secretary of State to provide guidance to regulators on how to make the most of the provisions in the trade and co-operation agreement.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I will not detain the Committee for long, but I will speak briefly in support of the new clause in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central, who made some excellent comments.

I declare a slight interest as having a professional qualification myself—that of a chartered engineer. That qualification is not part of the list of qualifications that will be subject to the legislation, but professional qualifications are an important part of many sectors, such as engineering, in our economy and our public realm. They are a significant factor in the protection of service users. Think of the many professions that have such an impact on service users, from the legal profession to chartered engineering, medical professions and nursing. It is important that those professions are well regulated, and the Bill is important to all our constituents. Newcastle, for example, has many professionals who benefit from the recognition of their qualifications.

We want the UK to be the best place in the world to live and work. That means being able to attract those with professional qualifications. We must recognise the importance of the autonomy of the regulators, provided for by Labour amendments during the passage of the Bill, and the importance of appropriate guidance, for which the new clause seeks to provide, for professional qualification regulators, particularly when it comes to the impact of trade deals. Many of us in this House—I bow to my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central with his extensive experience, however—might find the intricacies of the many trade agreements somewhat difficult to master, so it is critical that the regulators of professional qualifications have the support and guidance that the new clause seeks.

I note, for example, that in the EU-UK trade agreement we have not achieved any reciprocity of professional qualification recognition, so we are in a worse position than we were before leaving the European Union. For many with professional qualifications in this country—lawyers, engineers—being able to work abroad is an important part of their training. I myself worked in France, the US and Nigeria for some time, bringing skills back to this country. Not having reciprocal agreements in many areas leaves us worse off with regard to, say, the European Union, where there is a system of automatic recognition of professional qualifications for seven sector professionals—nurses, midwives, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, architects and vets—and a general system that enables workers to have their professional qualifications recognised.

Given the challenges of negotiating a mutual recognition agreement, surely the Minister understands that many of the professional qualification regulators could benefit from the advice and guidance of his Department and, more broadly, of the Government, with all their experience. Therefore, in providing for an obligation on the Secretary of State to provide guidance to regulators concerning mutual recognition—specifically under the European Union-UK trade and co-operation agreement—and in supporting regulators, the new clause would protect all our constituents by ensuring the quality and professionalism of the services that they very much enjoy now and hope to continue to do so.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I thank hon. Members for the new clause, which seeks to place the obligation on the Secretary of State to provide additional support, co-ordination and guidance to regulators on mutual recognition agreements under the trade and co-operation agreement. Noting the importance of regulatory recognition agreements in supporting professionals who are qualified in one jurisdiction to work in another, I will also explain the benefits of the clause standing part of the Bill.

On the new clause, the hon. Member for Sefton Central was right to acknowledge that, since the end of the transition period, the process by which UK-qualified professionals seek recognition in the EU has changed. Professionals are now subject to the relevant rules in EU member states.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central talked about the negotiations and about mutual recognition and reciprocal arrangements. The UK proposed ambitious arrangements on professional qualification recognition during the negotiation of the TCA, but regrettably the EU did not engage with them at that point. Instead, we agreed provisions based on existing EU precedent. The TCA provides a mechanism for the UK and EU to discuss the potential for mutual recognition of professional qualifications, where that is in both parties’ interests to do so.

Regulator recognition agreements can make it easier for professionals to navigate that landscape, as we heard, and agreements can be reached independently between regulators or under the TCA. Article 158 of the TCA provides a framework for the UK and the EU to agree arrangements to facilitate recognition of professional qualifications. Using that process, regulators and professional bodies may develop joint recommendations for professional recognition arrangements to be adopted. Annex 24 to the TCA contains guidelines to help them to do so. My officials are holding discussions with their counterparts in the European Commission to clarify the detailed process for making the best use of this framework.

I turn to the support available for regulators. Last year, BEIS established a dedicated recognition arrangements team to provide the support, guidance and co-ordination to regulators of professional bodies that the hon. Members have asked for. There is considerable experience there. That team supports them to pursue recognition arrangements through the framework of the TCA and other trade deals, and on an independent, regulator-to-regulator basis.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

I am grateful to the Minister for describing the dedicated support team that the Department has set up. Will he give us some examples of the advice it has been able to give already? How many inquiries has it had from regulators or professional bodies?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with that detail. I have not been directly involved in that advice. None the less, we are here to talk about the amendment. The debate for today is whether we put that experience and advice on the face the Bill or have the existing structure, whereby that team is already offering that advice, is available and is stepping up with its experience to do so. That team regularly engages with regulators of professional bodies. It has published technical guidance on gov.uk. It is obviously going to be hard to quantify how many people have read and used that information, but information on how to seek recognition arrangements inside and outside the TCA is there.

The Department has also provided limited, targeted financial support to regulators seeking to agree recognition arrangements for a pilot recognition arrangements grant programme. I hope the hon. Member is therefore assured that the Government share the priority highlighted by his amendment and have already instituted support for regulated and professional bodies to make the most of the provisions in the TCA.

Clause 4 is part of our support for regulators as they pursue recognition agreements, ensuring that all regulators can take full advantage of international opportunities and enter recognition agreements at their discretion. Some regulators believe that they can already do so with their overseas counterparts and seize those opportunities. For example, the Financial Reporting Council has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Irish Auditing and Accounting Supervisory Authority. If they can already enter recognition agreements, no further action is needed, but many regulators are currently considering recognition arrangements for the first time, and not all regulators have clear powers to enter them. Clause 4 can help. The Government are committed to supporting regulator recognition to fit legal agreements with the EU and beyond, and have taken action with that aim.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

I am grateful to the Minister for his answers, which I will come back to. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central for what she said about the importance of different professions, including her own, as part of the UK’s economic success, exporting around the world, gaining experience and returning it to this country. It is clearly in all our interests that we have good trade in services and facilitate that by supporting our professional services to trade internationally. She gave some excellent examples from across the professions of exactly why that matters and why it is a concern that we are relying on a clause that has not seen after three years any mutual recognition agreements signed up to in the corresponding EU-Canada agreement. That is the reason for the amendment and why we are raising this concern.

I am given a degree of assurance by the Minister that the dedicated support team is in place. I just gently say to him that, as the Minister, he really should have anticipated my question and probably pre-empted it by giving us some examples. I hope he is not going to blame his officials, because he should have asked for that information before, so that he could give us examples of the team in operation and told us how many inquiries there had been.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for his kind comments earlier. Is he concerned, as I am, that the Minister considers the lack of any negotiated reciprocal agreement under the Canada deal as some sign of success, and that that is why he is so complacent when it comes to providing proactive advice to our professional regulatory authorities for the EU trade deal?

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy) 10:00 am, 18th January 2022

A large degree of complacency and a lack of preparation characterise the whole way that the legislation has been brought forward, as Lord Grimstone and a number of Conservative peers acknowledged in the Lords. I think my hon. Friend is certainly on to something. The key thing is how we can ensure that mutual recognition agreements can be entered into by professional bodies and regulators in this country in a timely fashion that supports the kind of activity that she mentioned and maximises the benefit to our professional services that want to work abroad, as well as to employers who need access to staff in this country.

I will take the Minister at his word that a dedicated support team is up and running. In that spirit, we will not press the amendment to a vote.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I remind the Committee that, as I set out in the preamble, the Question that is about to be put relates to clause 4, not to new clause 1. The debate on both has just taken place, but the decision on new clause 1, on which the shadow Minister has indicated his thinking, will come later.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.