It is great to be back in the Seanad. I could nearly have honorary membership at this stage as I am in here a lot at the moment. I thank Members for considering this Bill and giving it a Second Reading. This is a short, technical Bill with only five sections. It provides for the amendment of certain provisions of the Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005, which relate to the recognition of non-Irish professional qualifications.
Before explaining the Bill in more detail, I will provide the House with some background to the Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005, which this Bill seeks to amend, and a brief update on its implementation to date. The Act currently provides for the statutory regulation of 17 designated health and social care professions. Regulation under the Act is primarily by way of the statutory protection of professional titles by confining their use solely to persons granted registration. The structure of the system of statutory regulation comprises registration boards, a committee structure to deal with disciplinary matters and a Health and Social Care Professionals Council, HSCPC, with overall responsibility for the regulatory system. These bodies are collectively known as CORU and are responsible for protecting the public by regulating health and social care professionals in Ireland. CORU is also charged with the promotion of high standards of professional conduct and professional education, training and competence among the registrants. The Act provides for a transitional period of two years during which existing practitioners may register on the basis of specified qualifications. Following this period, only registrants of a registration board, who are subject to the Act's regulatory regime, or those who applied during the transitional period and whose applications are still being determined or are under appeal are entitled to use the relevant protected title or titles.
From a public protection viewpoint, a crucial milestone in the regulation of the Act's designated professions was the introduction of the Act's fitness to practise regime in recent years. This involved the commencement of Part 6 of the Act to allow for complaints about the conduct or competence of registrants to be investigated. Where complaints are substantiated, disciplinary sanctions up to and including cancellation of registration may be imposed. The regime is similar to that applicable to medical practitioners, nurses and midwives.
To date, 11 registration boards have been established in respect of 13 professions. Eight registers are open and their respective professional titles are now fully protected under law following the close of the two-year transition period attaching to each register. The registration boards for the professions of medical scientist, podiatrist, psychologist and social care worker, while established, have not yet opened their registers but are working hard to do so.
I would also like to take the opportunity to update the House on the regulation of counsellors and psychotherapists. As Deputies may recall, these professions were not designated for regulation under the 2005 Act. Following consultations with the HSCPC and a detailed public consultation on the question of regulating counsellors and psychotherapists, I decided last year to proceed with the designation of two distinct professions under the Act, that of counsellor and psychotherapist - each with its own register under one registration board. I signed the regulations in April this year designating the new professions and establishing the Counsellors and Psychotherapist Registration Board following the approval of the regulations by both Houses. This was followed with the advertising over the summer period by the Public Appointments Service, PAS, of a campaign to recruit 13 members for appointment to the registration board. Following the conclusion of that process in September 2018, I intend to make the board appointments in the coming weeks. Once appointed, the registration board will give consideration to a number of outstanding issues and will advise the council and the Department accordingly. These include titles to be protected and the minimum qualifications to be required of existing practitioners applying for registration in the transition period and for future graduates. As the House will appreciate, and given that a number of other jurisdictions have tried and failed to regulate these professions, this is a challenging work programme that will take CORU time to achieve but I thank it for taking this work on. It is important that we get this area right. Counsellors and psychotherapists come across people who are often at the most vulnerable moments in their lives and it is important that when someone goes to see a counsellor or psychotherapist, they know who they are going to see and their qualifications. This is a big body of work but one that is worth doing and getting right.
I am aware of other professions seeking designation under the Act. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that we have gone from a system where people might not have wished to be regulated or fear regulation to one where nearly everybody comes forward and asks for their profession to be regulated. Of course, there needs to be proportionality in this regard but professions such as creative arts therapists, play therapists, athletic rehabilitation therapists, chiropractors, audiologists and various scientific professions, to name but a few, have been making a case for regulation for some time. The immediate priority, however, is to bring to conclusion the regulatory process for the 17 professions designated. We must finish that body of work.
When all the registration boards have been established and their work programmes well under way, the Department will turn its attention to the question of how best to treat the unregulated professions. A risk assessment, in terms of public protection, of the principal health and social care professions seeking designation will be undertaken in 2019 as a first step. I very much welcome this. It will inform decisions to be taken concerning options for their possible future regulation. Department officials will work with CORU in progressing this project taking into account the ongoing and extremely demanding work programme being undertaken by the agency.
In addition, I am also obliged to take into consideration the recently adopted EU directive on a proportionality test before the adoption of new regulation of professions. This directive establishes rules for member states to conduct proportionality assessments before the introduction of new, or the amendment of existing, professional regulations to ensure the proper functioning of the internal market while guaranteeing transparency and a high level of consumer protection.
Its intention is to harmonise the ways in which proportionality tests are carried out before member states introduce new regulations on professions and the criteria to be applied in accordance with European Court of Justice rulings. It does not, however, affect the member states' competence to decide whether and how to regulate a profession within the limits of non-discrimination and proportionality. This directive must be transposed by July 2020, following which member states which wish to adopt new regulatory procedures will be required to justify to the European Commission that such procedures are necessary and appropriate. The Commission may take action if it deems such regulations to be insufficiently justified and, therefore, disproportionate, for example regarding their effect on free movement.
I propose to provide some background to the amendments contained within this Bill. The Bill will amend the Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005 to provide that all non-Irish professional qualifications which have been recognised by the Minister and by bodies acting on behalf of the State prior to the introduction of statutory registration for a health and social care profession will continue to be recognised for the purposes of registration under this Act. This will allow holders of such qualifications to be statutorily registered and to practise their profession. As Senators are aware, the Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005 provides for the introduction of a system of statutory regulation for 17 health and social care professionals. When statutory regulation is introduced for a profession, a practitioner cannot practise in his or her professional capacity without being registered with the relevant registration board established under the Act, one of the requirements for which is that the applicant must hold an approved qualification.
Section 38 provides that persons hold such a qualification if they hold an Irish qualification which has been approved by the relevant registration board, if they hold a European Economic Area, EEA, qualification which has been recognised under Directive 2005/36/EC on the recognition of professional qualifications, if they have been practising the profession for not less than five years and hold certain Irish historical qualifications, or if they hold a professional qualification which the registration board decides attests to a standard of proficiency which corresponds to the approved relevant Irish qualification.
Section 38 as it stands, however, does not encompass non-EEA persons or persons with a non-EEA qualification who have previously had their qualifications recognised in Ireland on an administrative basis using processes that mirror those of Directive 2005/36/EC or its predecessors. A serious difficulty, therefore, has arisen for these persons when they apply for registration. While their qualifications may have been recognised in the past, the legislation as currently framed does not allow for their registration. This gap in the legislation must be resolved to allow such persons register and practise their professions. The Bill before us addresses this gap by providing in section 38 that the qualification of an applicant who has evidence that such qualification has been recognised by the Minister or by a body acting on behalf of the State prior to the introduction of statutory registration for the relevant profession will be considered to be an approved qualification under the Act. This means that there will be no requirement for reassessment of the qualification.
The Bill has five sections. Section 1 provides that the "Principal Act" referred to throughout is the Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005, while section 2 amends the definition of "qualification" in that Act. Section 3 of the Bill amends the registration provisions of the Act to address the gap that currently exists in the legislation by providing that a member of a relevant designated profession who holds a relevant professional qualification which has been recognised by a relevant person is considered to hold an "approved qualification". Section 4 provides for the insertion of a Schedule to the Bill which sets out the list of relevant designated professions and corresponding relevant persons. Finally, section 5 provides for the Short Title of the Bill.
In conclusion, this matter is a priority as without these amendments each registration board at CORU is required to undertake a detailed assessment of the professional qualifications of certain health and social care professionals whose qualifications have previously been recognised by the State. Such persons must submit an application to CORU and await a decision which can take a number of months as their formal training and post-qualification experience must be compared on a case-by-case basis against the current Irish reference standard. This puts a consequential administrative burden on applicants and CORU. As we know, CORU has enough to be doing and we would like it to focus on the areas we need it to focus on, rather than placing an additional and unnecessary burden on it or the applicants in this regard. For these reasons I am keen that this Bill proceeds through the various Stages of this House and the Dáil as quickly as possible in order that we can pass it into law and address what is a technical but important matter. I commend the Bill to the House.