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Chamber and committees

Economy and Fair Work Committee

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Economic Recovery, Professional Qualifications Bill


Professional Qualifications Bill

The Convener

Under agenda item 3 we will consider a legislative consent memorandum on the Professional Qualifications Bill. This United Kingdom Government bill was introduced in the House of Lords on 12 May and changes the law on devolved matters. I welcome Ivan McKee, Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise. He is joined by David Maclennan, who is a solicitor, and Richard Shearer, head of services, trade policy, both at the Scottish Government. I invite the minister to make a brief statement on the Scottish Government’s position and then we will move to questions

Ivan McKee (Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise)

Thank you very much, convener and good morning, committee. It is great to be here. I thank the committee for inviting me to discuss the important matter of legislative consent.

The principle of the recognition of professional qualifications is to allow suitably qualified people the chance to work in or trade with other countries. For Scotland, this means getting access to the doctors, vets, nurses and engineers that we need here, who have skills gained in other countries. It also enables our professionals to take up skills-enhancing opportunities abroad, or to export their services to other countries. To put this in context, I point out that doctors, nurses and vets who have qualified in other countries rely on mutual recognition of professional qualifications to be able to work here.

The latest data shows that international exports of professional scientific and technical activities were worth £3.4 billion in 2018, which is 20 per cent of total services and 10 per cent of total international exports. Within the EU, there is a formal system for the recognition of qualifications. That was lost when the UK left the EU. As a responsible Government, the Scottish Government has worked with the UK Government and the Scottish Parliament to amend legislation on mutual recognition of professional skills that was brought into UK law as a result of Brexit.

The bill covers a number of important issues for regulators now that the UK is no longer in the EU. It seeks to provide all professional regulators with the power to enter into agreements with counterparts abroad, as some do not have that power. There are also powers for the UK and devolved ministers to make regulations covering professions over which they can legislate. We know that a variety of UK-wide and devolved regulators have expressed concerns about the terms of the bill as it relates to professional standards; there is a risk that UK ministers might trade away existing high standards to secure free trade agreements. I understand that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has continued to engage with regulators across the UK and I hope that the department will seek to allay those fears about amendments to the bill.

The committee will know that the Scottish ministers felt that they could not recommend granting consent for the bill as it stands. The bill as drafted confers concurrent powers in devolved areas to both UK and Scottish ministers, but without a requirement to seek consent before exercising those powers. In addition, UK ministers could amend or disapply regulations that were legitimately made here and supported by this Parliament.

The issues around consent are relevant to a number of other UK Government bills, so I hope that the UK Government will take proper account of our legitimate concerns in this area. The Scottish ministers have asked UK ministers to amend the bill to include a requirement for consent before acting in devolved areas. If, as we were told, UK ministers do not intend to act without agreement, there is no problem that I can see in amending the bill. I am keen to work constructively with BEIS for as long as Scotland is part of the UK and where there are shared interests, and that includes this bill on mutual recognition of professional qualifications. Thank you.

The Convener

Thank you, minister. As this is the first time that we have had you present in person before the committee, we welcome your joining us here this morning.

You have outlined the reasons why the Government is not prepared to lodge a consent motion at the moment. If an amendment to the bill were to be accepted and the issue were resolved, would you be satisfied with the proposals in the bill? Would it resolve the issues that we have with recognising qualifications?

Ivan McKee

Yes, I think so. From our perspective, the main issue is the impingement on devolved responsibilities. Issues have been raised by regulators, who also have concerns, but the main issue for us is the devolved aspects. We recognise the asks from the regulators and we are supportive of many of them. We hope that the UK Government will also move forward on those asks, with appropriate amendments.

Maggie Chapman

Thank you, minister, for outlining the Government’s position. You mentioned engagement with regulators. Are you aware of any concerns that either the regulators or other stakeholders in Scotland have about the bill’s provisions?

Ivan McKee

They will speak for themselves, but I understand that their concerns are largely about the potential downgrading of standards in pursuit of international trade deals—clearly, that is something to be concerned about—and the UK Government being in a position to make changes that the regulators are not comfortable with.

What on-going consultation or discussions are there with the UK Government at ministerial or official level?

Ivan McKee

There is regular on-going engagement at official level. I have spoken with and written to Gerry Grimstone, the relevant UK Government minister about the issue. We are hopeful there will be movement. There is regular discussion about the issue, as there is on many other areas.

Are you quite positive about the potential for the bill to be amended?

Ivan McKee

I would like to think so, but it will come down to the UK Government reflecting on the situation. There have been issues of this kind, with other bills in which the UK Government has sought to impinge on devolved matters, that have not concluded in the way we would have liked. However, in this case, I am hopeful that the UK Government will recognise the importance of not impinging on devolved areas and will amend the bill accordingly.

You mentioned stakeholders. Are you keeping them informed of your discussions, or are you relying on them having their own discussions with the UK Government about potential amendments?

Ivan McKee

They will be having their own separate discussions, but our officials are also engaging regularly with the regulators to understand their concerns about the professional issues that I have mentioned and how the bill impinges on devolved matters.

The Convener

The minister has indicated where he would like the UK Government to make amendments. You might be aware that the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee argued that

“a statutory requirement to consult the affected regulator(s)”

on international treaties should be introduced. Is that something that the Scottish Government supports and will be asking the UK Government to look at?

Ivan McKee

Yes. Our ask is that the requirement to seek consent in devolved matters be included in the bill.

On the broader issue of international trade, there have been on-going discussions with the UK Government over a lengthy period. We published—two years ago, I think—our perspective on how Scotland, our Government, our Parliament and the other devolved Administrations should be involved in all aspects and at all stages of any potential international trade agreement. That is a long-standing position of ours, which applies equally to professional qualifications.

How does the Scottish Government envisage that the provisions of the bill would interplay with the relevant provisions in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020?

Ivan McKee

The 2020 act gives the UK Government the ability to impinge on devolved areas, which is something that we are deeply unhappy about. As we know, power devolved is power retained, so the UK Government can effectively do as it wishes in that regard. The internal market legislation allows the UK Government to do that, but that does not mean that that is a wise thing to do, or that it is in the interests of Scotland for it to do so.

Michelle Thomson

Following on from that point, have you had any indications of any possible or reasonable rationale as to why the UK Government would not accept the amendment, given your stated concerns about standards? Is there anything that you can share in that regard? If the UK Government is saying that there is no intention of lowering standards, why not simply accept the amendment? Can you clarify the situation?

Ivan McKee

Your analysis is correct. Our position is that the UK Government, if it has no desire to impinge on those areas, should make that clear by stating that in bill. It is difficult to see why it would not do so. As I said, we are continuing with our discussions, and we hope that it will change its position to reflect that logical position as you have outlined it.

Fiona Hyslop

The Scottish Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee has concerns about live issues to do with recruitment, and shortages of skills and labour, particularly in health and social care. Do you agree that this is not just a dry academic issue, but a very real issue that concerns the Scottish Government’s ability to recruit and retain highly skilled workers at the higher standards of the Scottish regulators?

Ivan McKee

Yes. That is an important point. On the surface, MRPQ does not sound like the most exciting of subjects, but in reality, as I have indicated, on so many levels, that represents an increasing proportion of our trade. MRPQ affects the ability of Scottish professionals to work internationally, which is hugely important for their aspirations and career development, for business, and for, as you rightly said, the movement of professionally trained individuals to support our health and social care sector and a range of other sectors to which that applies. It directly impinges on our ability to respond to situations that arise. For a devolved Government with the responsibility for doing so, it is important that the power remains within the devolved remit.

The Convener

Finally, the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee talked about clause 3 of the bill compelling devolved regulators to charge fees. The approach normally tends to be that you try to reduce barriers to people coming to work in and support our economy and public services. Do you have concerns? Have you had any discussions with devolved regulators about the proposal to charge fees? Also, does the clause include the level at which the fee would be set, or would we have flexibility in setting the fee?

Ivan McKee

I am not aware of the specifics of fee levels. I will defer to one of the officials, who might have more information about the detail and any conversations on the specifics of it they might have had with the devolved regulators. I do not know who is best to come in on that.

Richard Shearer, would you like to come in?

Richard Shearer (Scottish Government)

Yes. Thank you. Our understanding on the clause about fees is that it is not clear as to whether there will be an interaction with regulators in determining the charging of fees. Some regulators have noted that the bill might introduce costs that they do not currently have and they question how they would offset those costs.

The imposition of a fixed fee, or the removal of the ability to charge fees, is potentially concerning. We expect that, in the first instance, regulators should be able to make autonomous decisions about charging fees but that the fees should be reasonable and reflect the cost of the service that is being provided.

I will follow up on that. You are right, convener, that, all else being equal, we are keen to remove barriers to trade where they exist.

I thank the minister and the officials for attending this morning. I now bring this evidence session to a close.

11:43 Meeting continued in private until 12:14.