Peers inflict Government defeat over post-Brexit global healthcare agreements

The Government has suffered a defeat at the hands of peers seeking to restrict the power of ministers to make international healthcare agreements post-Brexit.

The House of Lords backed by 262 votes to 226, majority 36, a move to limit the ability of the executive to ensure only existing reciprocal arrangements with Europe after withdrawal.

Critics had raised concerns over the “breathtaking scope” of the Healthcare (International) Arrangements Bill during its report stage in the upper chamber.

The Government had wanted to give ministers the ability to strengthen and forge new deals worldwide for the benefit of UK citizens.

But opponents argued while this “may be a legitimate aspiration”, it should be the subject of separate legislation and the accompanying scrutiny that involved.

Labour frontbencher Baroness Thornton said: “Trying to shoehorn an important issue like this into a Bill which urgently needs to address EU matters and to do it by giving the Secretary of State huge powers is not the way to proceed.”

She added: “We suggest that this aspiration for global healthcare arrangements needs to be left till post-Brexit.”

Former Lord Chief Justice and independent crossbencher Lord Judge said while the Bill had been significantly improved, “it is still not good enough” and the powers given to ministers “simply goes too far”.

He said: “We mustn’t do things like this, we mustn’t legislate in this way.

We must have time to think, reflect, ponder and see what limitations and constraints would be put on the power of ministers.”

Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Jolly said: “The expansion and scope of this Bill just looks opportunist and completely inappropriate at them moment.”

But Tory peer Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen said: “We live in a global world with more and more people taking international travel, so obviously there is a huge demand for healthcare systems between countries, giving the traveller piece of mind that the foreign country they are in can respond to healthcare needs.”

However, former civil service chief Lord Wilson of said: “The sweeping nature of the powers proposed in this Bill are in many ways offensive to proper conduct of legislation.

“I accept that they are needed in the situation we are in relation to Europe and Switzerland, but to go wider than that I think is wrong.”

Defending the Bill, Tory former health minister Lord O’Shaughnessy warned of the “human consequences” of restricting the legislation.

He highlighted the “desirability” of having reciprocal healthcare arrangements with other countries.

Curbing the Bill “would mean we miss out on a golden opportunity to achieve a shared goal”, he argued.

Lord O’Shaughnessy said: “We will lose the opportunity to deepen relationships with key partners like New Zealand and Australia.

“We will miss out on the opportunity to give people with long-term medical conditions the chance to travel outside the EEA (European Economic Area).”

He added: “If not now to extend the scope of our powers to strike these arrangements on a global basis then when? We cannot assume another opportunity will come this way soon and what will the human consequences of that be?”

Health Minister Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford pointed to the cross-party support for the current EU reciprocal arrangements.

“It therefore in my view does not seem logical to preclude the possibility of seeking new arrangements… outside the EU.

“Given that where the Government has good policy in one place, it seems logical we would want to extend it to others.

“Reciprocal healthcare agreements promote tourism, they facilitate economic exchange and growth by enabling people to study, travel and work abroad without worrying about the ability to access healthcare or the cost of doing so.”

Lady Blackwood highlighted safeguards built into the Bill and concessions made to limit the powers within the Bill as well as providing for increased scrutiny and transparency.

She added: “I firmly believe that in pursuing future reciprocal healthcare policy with close partners outside of the EEA and Switzerland, the Government is providing hope and opportunity to people.

“We have introduced significant restrictions on what this Bill can do globally.”

Later, the Government suffered a second defeat when peers backed a move to limit ministerial powers to make regulations by 254 votes to 216, majority 38.

For the Liberal Democrats, Lord Marks of Henley on Thames warned that “outrageously broad” powers for the Secretary of State were contained in the Bill and accused ministers of showing “disrespect” for the proper restriction of them.

Lady Thornton said the winning amendment would ensure regulations could only be brought forward for the purposes specified in the Bill, rather than bestowing “infinite powers” on the Secretary of State to make regulations in relation to “pretty much anything and everything”.

Lord Judge said it was “astonishing” and “alarming” that without the amendment there was no limit to the regulation making powers of ministers.

But Lady Blackwood, opposing the change, said it was appropriate for the Government to be able to respond to protect continuity of care for those already in receipt of reciprocal healthcare as well as to explore whether to extend this to others.

She warned the amendment would restrict the implementation of reciprocal healthcare arrangements to current processes, which was “clearly inappropriate”.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Victoria Jones / PA Wire.