Dianne Hayter on an attempt to help the BEIS department gain a better understanding of the government’s legislative agenda
There is something rather odd about the Professional Qualifications Bill, which today enters its second day of Committee in the House of Lords. As a ‘Lords-starter’, the general assumption would be that this was going to be a non-controversial piece of government legislation. That, however, might be more because few people had seen or heard much about the content before our second reading debate in late May.
Indeed, on first reflections, it all looks and sounds especially useful – a bill about statutory regulators of around 150 protected professions (those proscribed in law, such as doctors, nurses, vets, and lawyers where only those authorised by the relevant regulator can practice). And legislation that would allow ministers to give the power to assess and admit overseas qualified people to those bodies currently lacking such a power.
So far, so good. But the bill doesn’t list the 60 or so statutory regulators which the government says are in scope; and, more seriously, fails to say which, if any, lack the proposed new powers. If, say, it’s only a dozen regulators, then why is such a bill needed – and why should it cover the other four dozen? When asked, the minister failed to come up with a list, suggesting the Department doesn’t know the answer to the question. It’s a strange situation when you’re wanting to mandate powers to regulators without knowing if any or how many need them.
The bill gives two reasons for granting the new powers. First, to make up for skill shortages in the UK. Second, to help implement any trade deal which includes a promise that overseas qualified professions should be able to seek recognition here. Two possibilities – and with it two problems.
On the skill shortage (which basically relates to the NHS, veterinary, and social work), all relevant regulators already have the power to assess and accept overseas applicants. Indeed, it is something they use regularly. But there is a broader concern that the government seems content on continuing to hire in professionals from other countries (some poorer and more in need of medical and other specialists) instead of training up our own skills base. It is a travesty that, after 11 years in office, the Conservatives appear content to preside over such a situation and to rely on imported talent.
The second justification – the trade deal requirement – is perhaps even more worrying. If a particular regulator is happy to have a process in place whereby non-UK professionals can gain admittance to its register, why should it be mandated by government to introduce such a pathway? These are supposedly independent bodies, and this feels like a cosh to help ministers seal a deal. Given that regulators only exist to protect patients, consumers, users, and the public interest, forcing them to consider qualified people from abroad could risk the UK’s current high standards and safeguards.
There is also a further, separate, concern, relating to powers in the bill that make regulations within areas of devolved competences. Yet again, we see draft legislation being shared with the devolved governments just a week or so before publication, and with proposed powers that encroach on their own. Labour will be pushing for an amendment that ensures ministers consult and seek consent from the devolved authorities; and if failing to obtain such content, they should proceed with a clear published reason for continuing in the face of objections.
The government has so far been unable to satisfy a few basic questions about this bill. It should come as no surprise to ministers, therefore, that we will continue – throughout Committee and beyond - to scrutinise and challenge them on the extensive powers they appear set to give themselves. After all, such scrutiny and challenge is what peers themselves are best qualified for.
Baroness Dianne Hayter is a Shadow BEIS Minister and Labour’s Deputy Leader in the House of Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords
Published 14th June 2021