90: Recognising professional qualifications post-brexit
In the UK there are over 200 professions regulated by a network of over 60 regulators. Each could be affected by the Professional Qualifications Bill (the Bill) which was introduced to the House of Lords in May.
Since its departure from the EU, the UK no longer benefits from The EU Mutual Recognition of Professional Qualifications Directive 2005 (the ‘MRPQ Directive’). That enables EU, EAA and Swiss nationals to have their qualifications recognised in the UK and vice versa; an essential part of enabling intra-EU business for Member States. We covered what this might mean for healthcare regulation, including the data-sharing implications, now the UK has left the EU, in our March blog.
However, it is not just the healthcare sector which will be covered by this Bill. It could apply to any profession where an individual is required by law to register with a regulator and is required to have certain qualifications and specialised training.
Since 31 December 2020, there has been an interim system of recognition in place in the UK largely based on the MRPQ Directive, but the government is now seeking to establish its own system. Under the Bill, sectors with a shortage of regulated professionals (such as healthcare and education) can employ those with non-UK qualifications, and the UK’s own regulated professionals can deliver services overseas. Post-Brexit, the UK government is seeking to establish a framework for the mutual recognition of professional qualifications which goes beyond the EU and the EAA, and which it hopes will allow businesses to ‘access new markets and reduce barriers to trade.’
Provisions of the Bill and debate in the House of Lords
The Bill expressly revokes the interim system deriving from the UK’s membership of the EU and will instead put in place obligations on regulators to establish a framework for the recognition of professional qualifications from around the world, granting them the power to make recognition agreements with international counterparts, and ensure regulators share information with counterparts overseas.
Those promoting the Bill say it will give UK regulators more autonomy in pursuing separate arrangements with individual countries – sectors with shortages can pursue reciprocal arrangements; those without shortages need not – with access into the UK market acting as the incentive for overseas regulators to agree to the terms suggested to them for the recognition of qualifications of UK professionals. However, it seems unlikely that there will be a direct correlation between the countries to which UK professionals seek access and those which have a ready supply of labour to meet sector shortages. More likely, it seems, certain sectors will agree mutual recognition in order to meet a domestic shortage, aware that relatively few UK professionals will travel the other way. Moreover, the sheer number of agreements needed – per regulator, per country – might mean that agreements could take time to implement and could hinder the progress of UK trade abroad.
Many of the substantive changes envisaged by this relatively short Bill will be made through delegated powers rather than the Bill itself, which could mean that changes to regulation of professions are not afforded parliamentary scrutiny of primary legislation, which has proved a sticking point for some peers in debating the Bill so far. Lord Grimstone, who introduced the Bill, himself acknowledged that it contains broad powers to make secondary legislation. There has also been frustration in the House of Lords about exactly which professions the Bill will apply to, as the original 160 identified has been revised upwards to 200. Some peers have expressed disquiet that more detail is needed to be able to scrutinise the effectiveness of the drafting.
The difficulty in enacting legislation which covers so many professions and regulators is apparent, particularly regarding medical and healthcare regulators which already have wide powers to recognise non-UK qualifications which the Bill risks complicating. There are others concerned that the requirements of the Bill will mean the effective watering-down of regulatory standards of those working in the UK.
The Bill is currently at Report Stage in the Lords and then will pass to the House of Commons for further amendments.
Following the introduction of the Professional Qualifications Bill into the House of Lords in May the government announced further funding in June to help regulators and professional bodies to deliver services overseas.
The announcement of the new funding programme indicates how important the government sees the professionals who make up the UK’s services industry to be in the success of future trade agreements with other countries. The pilot funding programme will support regulators and professional bodies negotiating recognition arrangements and may be spent on technical requirements or translators and will run initially for one financial year. This vast and varied regulatory landscape will need targeted help in order to create a workable system of mutual recognition of professional qualifications overseas.