Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill (First sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Yvonne Fovargue, † James Gray
Baker, Duncan (North Norfolk) (Con)
Blackman, Kirsty (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
† Brown, Alan (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
† Browne, Anthony (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
† Cairns, Alun (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)
† Crosbie, Virginia (Ynys Môn) (Con)
† Doyle-Price, Jackie (Thurrock) (Con)
† Duffield, Rosie (Canterbury) (Lab)
† Fletcher, Mark (Bolsover) (Con)
† Hands, Greg (Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
† Jenkinson, Mark (Workington) (Con)
† Owen, Sarah (Luton North) (Lab)
† Pennycook, Matthew (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)
† Wallis, Dr Jamie (Bridgend) (Con)
† Whitehead, Dr Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
Whitley, Mick (Birkenhead) (Lab)
† Whittaker, Craig (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Sarah Ioannou, Rob Page, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Julia Pyke, Director of Financing, Sizewell C Company
David Powell, VP Nuclear Power Plant Sales/Head of UK Business Development, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy
Michael Waite, Director New Plant Market Development, Westinghouse Electric Company
Sue Ferns, Deputy General Secretary, Prospect Trade Union
Charlotte Childs, GMB National Officer, GMB Trade Union
Simon Coop, Acting National Officer for Energy and Utilities, Unite the Union
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 16 November 2021
[James Gray in the Chair]
Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill
Before we begin, I will start with a few parish notices. You all know the points about social distancing and the wearing of masks, which Mr Speaker has asked us to do when we can. We will consider the Bill point by point and the rules of behaviour in this Committee are really identical to the rules of behaviour in the main Chamber.
We first agree the programme motion in private. This is a rather strange piece of procedure, which allows the Chair to ask the witnesses to leave and then to ask them back in again. I overrule that. As a member of the Procedure Committee, I keep meaning to tell us to change that properly. We now come to the programme motion, about which we met yesterday to agree. I call the Minister to move the motion formally.
(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.25 am on Tuesday 16 November) meet—
(a) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 16 November;
(b) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 18 November;
(c) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 23 November;
(d) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 25 November;
(e) at 9.25 am on Tuesday 30 November;
(2) the Committee shall hear oral evidence in accordance with the following Table:
Date Time Witness Tuesday 16 November Until no later than 10.25 am Sizewell C Company; Westinghouse Electric Company; GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy Tuesday 16 November Until no later than 11.25 am Prospect; Unite The Union; GMB Tuesday 16 November Until no later than 2.30 pm Citizens Advice Tuesday 16 November Until no later than 3.30 pm Atkins Global; Doosan Babcock Ltd; Jacobs Engineering Group Inc.; Rolls-Royce Holdings plc Tuesday 16 November Until no later than 4.15 pm The Confederation of British Industry; The Nuclear Industry Association; Energy Industries Council Tuesday 16 November Until no later than 5.00 pm Mycle Schneider, Convening Lead Author, The World Nuclear Industry Status Report; Professor Stephen Thomas, Professor of Energy Policy, University of Greenwich; Greenpeace UK
Tuesday 16 November
Until no later than 10.25 am
Sizewell C Company; Westinghouse Electric Company; GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy
Tuesday 16 November
Until no later than 11.25 am
Prospect; Unite The Union; GMB
Tuesday 16 November
Until no later than 2.30 pm
Tuesday 16 November
Until no later than 3.30 pm
Atkins Global; Doosan Babcock Ltd; Jacobs Engineering Group Inc.; Rolls-Royce Holdings plc
Tuesday 16 November
Until no later than 4.15 pm
The Confederation of British Industry; The Nuclear Industry Association; Energy Industries Council
Tuesday 16 November
Until no later than 5.00 pm
Mycle Schneider, Convening Lead Author, The World Nuclear Industry Status Report; Professor Stephen Thomas, Professor of Energy Policy, University of Greenwich; Greenpeace UK
(3) proceedings on consideration of the Bill in Committee shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 42, the Schedule, Clauses 43 to 45, new Clauses, new Schedules, remaining proceedings on the Bill;
(4) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 11.25am on Tuesday 30 November.—(Greg Hands.)
That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication. —(Greg Hands.)
Copies of written evidence which the Committee receives will be circulated to Members by email and also made available in the Committee room on each day that we meet.
That, at this and any subsequent meeting at which oral evidence is to be heard, the Committee shall sit in private until the witnesses are admitted. —(Greg Hands.)
The Committee deliberated in private.
Examination of Witnesses
Julia Pyke, David Powell and Michael Waite gave evidence.
Welcome to our three witnesses. Before I call on them to give evidence, I remind all members of the Committee that the questions that we ask today and, indeed, the contributions that we make during the detailed discussion of the Bill from Thursday onwards must be strictly on what is written down in the Bill and may not be on anything else. They may not be about things that you wish were in the Bill but are not; they must be simply about those things that are in the Bill, and nothing beyond that. The other thing is that we must stick to the timings given in the programme motion, which the Committee has agreed. That means that when we get to 10.25 am, no matter who may be speaking, I will require you to stop speaking and the first witnesses to leave. That may seem harsh, but we stick firmly to the timings agreed in the programme motion. No discourtesy is meant to any of you.
Will any member of the Committee who has an interest to declare please do so?
Thank you. I will now call the first panel of witnesses, all of whom are appearing here in person, I am glad to say. We have Julia Pyke, director of financing at the Sizewell C company; David Powell, vice-president of nuclear power plant sales and head of UK business development at GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy; and Michael Waite, director of new plant market development at Westinghouse Electric Company. I thank all three of you very much for taking the time and trouble to be here. Could you briefly introduce yourselves?
Julia Pyke: Hello. I am Julia Pyke, the financing director for Sizewell C.
David Powell: Good morning. I am David Powell, vice-president for GE Hitachi’s nuclear power plant business in the UK.
Michael Waite: Good morning. I am Mike Waite, director of new plant market development for Westinghouse Electric Company.
Before I ask the Committee for relevant questions, are there things that the witnesses would particularly like to say about the Bill? Have you particular views about the Bill that you would like to get across, or are you content simply to answer questions that may be put to you?
Julia Pyke: I am very happy to answer questions.
Shall we stick with the Q and A?
Michael Waite: Absolutely.
David Powell: Yes.
In that case, let us start with Her Majesty’s official Opposition, represented by Alan Whitehead.
Julia Pyke: I think the emergence of the RAB model is very welcome. We obviously believe that the country very much needs nuclear, to support the growth of renewables and to produce electricity when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. It is very important that we deliver nuclear in a way that reduces the cost to consumers to the greatest extent it can, and we believe that the RAB model is a way of doing that and enabling private finance.
A point that is not always made about the introduction of private finance is that if we want a nuclear fleet, which, you will not be surprised to hear, I believe would be a good thing, then always relying on taxpayer funding for that fleet is not necessarily going to promote the growth of a fleet, whereas getting nuclear on to a financeable footing means that the country can size the fleet to need rather than to the availability of taxpayer funding from time to time.
David Powell: Just to make things clear, I represent GE Hitachi, which was helping with the technology supply for the project that Horizon and Hitachi was taking forward. Hitachi was one of the main participants in trying to push forward the project at Wylfa, and I think that one of the big issues was the project’s financing aspects. It takes considerable time and a lot of effort to build two large-scale reactors, and I think that the RAB model could have helped. Obviously that is history now, and we would have to go back and look at that, but I think it would have helped at least in being able to move forward with the project.
Michael Waite: As you say, Springfields has been fuelling the majority of the UK’s nuclear fleet for almost 75 years. It is the exclusive supplier to the advanced gas-cooled reactor fleet, which will all have retired by the end of this decade. Whether Sizewell C moving forwards under a RAB would mean a supply of fuel from Springfields has yet to be determined. From a Westinghouse perspective, we see RAB as part of the solution for enabling further nuclear projects after Sizewell C. Certainly, the 2035 zero-carbon targets for the electricity generation sector require there to be further projects., If we could start a project at Wylfa and deliver our AP1000 technology under RAB, that would absolutely take its fuel from Springfields for the life of the facility and secure the life of the plant.
Julia Pyke: The first thing I would say is that, of course, it is very important that the developer remains incentivised to minimise construction spend consistent with building safely and to time. The introduction of the RAB model will enable Sizewell to move ahead, so, primarily for consumers, not only will they need the electricity that Sizewell can produce but electricity bills will reduce when it comes on, because the alternatives to nuclear as the producer of electricity when the wind is not blowing and so on will cost more. Overall it will reduce consumer bills. It is, as you say, very important that we get the incentive regime right so that, although risk is shared with consumers, developers are always incentivised.
Julia Pyke: Because the cost overruns will be shared, so the developers will take a significant proportion of cost overruns.
David Powell: Yes. I think it needs to be fair. Clearly, what we are trying to do from a GE Hitachi perspective is really focused on driving down the cost of capital of our plants. The capital cost is a key part of that, of course, and clearly that part of the development that we are working on at the moment is to develop small modular reactors, with a key focus on reducing those costs by making the construction as simple as we can through modular build and using as much of the factory environment as we can. That obviously helps to reduce the costs of construction, as well as the risks of construction and the schedule of those. Like all technology developers, we have a reputation that we want to uphold, so our focus is trying to minimise the cost of that electricity for consumers by managing the projects very well.
Julia Pyke: One of the reasons that we are so keen to go ahead with Sizewell is that it is a copy of Hinkley, and it is in copies—fleet builds—that you get down construction risks. Hinkley has two units, and you can see how much easier it is to build unit 2. Common sense tells you it is because you are doing it again. We are very much hoping that Sizewell will be treated as units 3 and 4, and we believe—consistent with ideas about fleets of SMRs—that it is in repeat build where you get down costs. Nuclear in the UK has suffered from a considerable series of ones of a kind, followed by an extremely lengthy gap in construction. Nothing has been built since Sizewell B was turned on in 1995. It is by copying, the fleet effect, making sure that we learn all the lessons and using the same experienced team.
In terms of the proportion of risk sharing, it is not fixed yet, but around 50:50 is not an improbable outcome.
Michael Waite: I missed out on the last question so I am happy to answer this one. On the designation process, there is not a huge amount of detail in the Bill about what the requirements are for a company project to be designated. In the 2019 RAB consultation process, we entered some fairly detailed feedback which suggested that RAB, as well as being a very positive way forward for construction and operation financing of nuclear power, could also be very effectively utilised for the development phase of a nuclear power plant project. That development phase for a technology that was mature, preferably generic design assessment-licensed, could enable the de-risking of a project under the watchful eye of the regulator, where they are learning about the project, such that when it enters the construction phase, there is a significantly lower risk profile. From a Westinghouse perspective, I would say that that designation process could take place prior to the construction phase and benefit both the project company, of course, and also ultimately the ratepayer and Government through lowering the risk profile of the overall project.
I am sorry. Maybe I am just getting old, but I cannot hear what you are saying. Could you speak up a bit?
Sorry. I am also interested in the point about who should actually do the designation. Julia, you made the point earlier that you would have a system that responds to need, as it were. Could you see this becoming just an ordinary function of the regulator, or should it always be the Secretary of State who does it?
Julia Pyke: I think that is very much a question for the Government, and it will partly depend on which organisation has invested the time and money in doing due diligence on the readiness and maturity of the project.
David Powell: I agree with Julia: clearly, that is a decision for the Government. As Mike said before, it is quite important that we look at where the designation actually starts from as well, because there is a huge part of developing nuclear projects prior to getting to construction. With the Horizon project, we saw the amount of money that Hitachi had spent—over £2 billion—and it did not get to that final investment decision, so that is an important consideration as well.
Michael Waite: If I could address the same point, I absolutely think it should be the Secretary of State who has that final authority, predominantly because there are such a large number of moving parts of the project. It is not just about maturity: it is about value for money, and is that value for money just in terms of pence per kilowatt-hour, or is it UK content? There are a very large number of very broad aspects that can be assessed.
Michael Waite: None of us is in the investment community.
I know, but you have relations with the investors and you know what they are looking for.
Michael Waite: Indeed.
Julia Pyke: And it is my job to raise the money.
Michael Waite: Absolutely, the pension funds historically are great supporters of operating nuclear power plants, because those are some of the most consistent returns on investment possible. The construction phase and development phase are something different, so it is all about the risk profile for them. As I said, the more you can de-risk a project, the more it can become investable by those institutions.
Julia Pyke: A consumer prices index-linked investment stream is likely to be very attractive to people with CPI-linked liabilities, such as British pension funds. Increasingly, the financial investment community is very much interested in environmental, social and governance issues, and whether or not their investment is making a difference. I think that nuclear has a fantastic track record of making a positive difference: not only does it produce low-carbon electricity, but it is a great leveller-up. It has got a great track record of offering well-paid, highly skilled, unionised jobs. It also has a very good track record with the environment itself, and the land outside the power stations. Those three things coming together will make it an investment that can fit very well into the portfolio of companies that want to make a difference with their money.
I am sorry, Anthony, I can’t hear what you are saying; you are mumbling.
I do not know whether the microphone is working. I agree with the levelling-up point, although that is more a political thing rather than, presumably, one of the criteria that the investors would use.
David Powell: Just one operational point. Julia has spoken of the confidence that the Government will bring to the investment community, and we have seen that there are companies that want to invest in projects, but we would very much like that to be operational. Getting the investment early on is quite hard to do, so the confidence from the Government’s approach on the RAB model would help to provide that confidence to the investment community.
Ideally, the Bill is supposed to facilitate Sizewell C going ahead. Julia, you said that you view Sizewell C as units 3 and 4 of Hinkley Point C. Given that we are consistently told that the learning from the design of Hinkley Point C went on to Sizewell, why has the taxpayer committed £1.7 billion in the Budget to take Sizewell C to a final investment decision?
Julia Pyke: The £1.7 billion and its use is not published and not available to us. I think there is an assumption that it is for a Government investment in Sizewell C. Whether or not that money is for spending before you reach a final investment decision, or is a Government investment, is the type of investment decision for the Government and not for us.
Julia Pyke: There has been no express discussion about the use of the £1.7 billion in the Budget as pre-development funding for Sizewell C, no. The Government do discuss how it is that we may get from where we are now to a final investment decision, but there is no explicit linking of the £1.7 billion and that discussion.
Julia Pyke: We believe that the regulated asset base model—David and Michael will want to comment—is designed to come into place at financial close. The question of how nuclear projects get from where they are now—in the case of Sizewell the project is very mature, with a design and a team, and we have applied for consents; projects that are further behind obviously have a lot further to go and need a lot more money—is its own question. The regulated asset base model is designed to give the private investment community sufficient confidence in investing in nuclear that nuclear can go ahead and take its place in the electricity mix, which benefits consumers. The model is not necessarily designed to be a solution to the period from conception to financial close.
Julia Pyke: If you look at the roughly £200 billion of regulated assets in the UK across the national grid transmission lines, distribution lines, water companies and airports, the regulated asset base model will track the lifetime of the asset. In the case of a UK European pressurised reactor, the operational lifetime is around 60 years.
Julia Pyke: I think nuclear is unique among electricity-generating technologies in pricing in the cost of decommissioning and waste disposal up front. In the gas price, you do not see the cost of dealing with climate change. In the price for other forms of electricity generation, you do not see waste disposal priced in, but in the case of nuclear, the cost of decommissioning and waste management and disposal is priced in to the electricity price.
Julia Pyke: A regulated asset base model will tend to pay for the asset to be available. We expect the electricity to be sold at market price and for the regulated asset base model to either provide a top-up, in the way the CfD does, if the costs under the RAB are above the then electricity price, or to pay back in if we see spiking electricity prices, in the way we have done recently, during low wind speeds and the gas price spike. It is two-way.
Julia Pyke: You would expect the regulated asset base to work in the way the existing £200 billion of regulated assets work, which is essentially to pay for availability.
Julia Pyke: I believe that the Government have done its calculations very carefully and cautiously, so I believe they are very realistic. They are comparing the cost of money under a contract for difference with the cost of money under a regulated asset base model. It is important to remember that the cost of money is by far the dominant cost to consumers. We need nuclear, and we need to get the cost of nuclear down. The dominant cost of nuclear to consumers is the cost of money, so it is entirely plausible that the Government’s figures have been carefully calculated and are right.
Julia Pyke: We have, of course, looked at the savings. The most important saving to consumers is that, in building nuclear, consumer bills will go down. Models without nuclear are more expensive—I think the Secretary of State himself has said that in Parliament. That is a major reason to go ahead with nuclear, and it is a major reason to introduce the most cost-effective way of financing nuclear, which the Government has concluded is the RAB.
David Powell: If I can help with that question, from the perspective of GE Hitachi, we are focused on small modular reactors in the UK. While the cost of those is considerably less than the cost of the Hinkley plants, the output is of course a lot less, at 300 MW or so. If you are going to build a fleet of those, which is where we would like to go in the UK—using that repeatability model and a standard licence design, so that once it is designed and licensed it can go through being built repeatedly, which is very much a factory output-type of approach—you very quickly get to the capital cost of something similar to a Thames Tideway project, which was £4 billion. I know that the RAB model is focused around large-scale nuclear projects, but we would also like to see that applied to small reactors or at least be considered. As yet, we have not done any analysis—all our focus has been on looking at costs, and the models have been on the contract for difference approach—but we would like to look at how that RAB model would apply, from the Government’s perspective as well.
Julia Pyke: If you look at the Tideway savings, when Tideway was first conceived of, before it was decided to do a RAB, I believe it was estimated that consumers would have to pay around £80 a year on their bills, and the RAB reduced that to around £25.
You are hoping that RAB will facilitate the small modular reactors as well. Would that be a 60-year operational contract you would be looking for?
David Powell: That is a matter for discussion with the Government and BEIS, but our plant design life will be 60 years, in a similar way to the Hinkley and Sizewell reactors. So, yes, potentially. That really depends on what the developers and investors would like to see.
Julia Pyke: I do not know what plans the Government has to explain the arrangements, but I imagine it will be in line with the principles of transparency. There is a lot information available about Hinkley. Michael made the great point earlier that value for money is around many things; it is the electricity price including the price of decommissioning, but it is also around UK content and around jobs. We will have 70% UK content; we will give rise to around 70,000 jobs. We give work to over 3,000 British businesses. So value for money is a wider metric than just the cost. There is a lot of information available on our supply chain plans and UK content, and I think there will be a lot of information available around the calculation of the RAB price.
Julia Pyke: Jobs in construction, using the National Audit Office metric, are around 70,000. Permanent jobs to operate the plant would probably be around 900 in ordinary state, plus several thousand more when there are maintenance outages, which are approximately every 18 months.
Michael Waite: In the Bill, there is not currently a clear apportionment of risk between the constructor, the developer, the investors and the consumers. It is clear that if we are developing and constructing a project, there are two approaches to ensuring there are no overruns and minimising the chances of cost and schedule difficulties. You can either take a carrot or a stick approach. If the stick is applied to the developer and the constructor, there is necessarily a larger contingency applied from day one. If I remember correctly, in the Hinkley point original negotiations there was a £2 billion contingency for potential problems and cost overruns for a first-of-a-kind project in the UK. That sort of contingency allocation can be minimised by taking more of a carrot approach, where fees and profits can be at risk but a developer and constructor is not risking losing money on the job. There are many mechanisms in place that can incentivise on-time and on-budget operation without apportioning too much risk to the construction community.
David Powell: Clearly, based on the information that the Government have put out on the RAB model, it is designed to help lower the overall cost of nuclear by lowering the cost of capital and the cost of financing. From the information I have read and discussions before, there is potentially a significant saving on large-scale projects such as Sizewell. We would hope that from building a fleet of SMRs you would be able to gain the same benefits for consumers. As I said, we have focused on trying to reduce the capital cost of the plant through simplifying the design. Add that to the benefits of the RAB model, which can help to reduce the cost of that capital through the reduction in financing, as well as increasing the incentive to deliver on schedule, there is an ideal way to try to reduce the overall costs of nuclear for consumers. We need more nuclear in the UK in order to meet the decarbonisation targets by 2035.
Julia Pyke: Yes. I think it a brilliant question, and the answer is that in the contract for difference the construction cost overrun risk is priced in up front, so consumers pay regardless of whether you incur a construction cost overrun. That makes the capital expensive and, because it does not pay until the station turns on, you run up interest for the long construction period of nuclear. In the RAB model, the construction cost overrun risk is not priced in up front, which reduces the cost of capital. The consumer, in paying £92.50 for Hinkley, is prepaying for the risk of construction cost overrun; in the RAB model there is a possibility, which we will do everything we can to minimise, of a construction cost overrun.
An example of how the RAB model will give people more certainty to get on with repeat build is that they have put in 46% more steel at unit 2 than at unit 1 in the same timeframe. It is a combination of not pricing in the construction cost overrun risk up front, and introducing more predictability into nuclear new builds, so we stop having huge gaps between construction in which the workforce has to relearn every time you start again.
Julia Pyke: No, I do not believe that we can. We have to make nuclear financeable, like offshore wind, and look for that fleet-build, cost-minimisation approach. The offshore wind industry has done a great job through being able to predict the opportunities to build more wind farms. We want that same fleet approach, and we want predictability so that people can have careers, and the workforce can learn and keep getting down the costs.
Michael Waite: With AP1000, we can benefit from a global fleet effect. We have four operational reactors, which are breaking national and industry records. Two are approaching completion of construction, commissioning and fuel load in the US, and will bring a tremendous number of lessons learned and fleet benefits to the UK. Certainly, a potential AP1000 construction project at Wylfa and other sites can be enabled only by RAB being part of the financing solution.
David Powell: It is pretty much the same, but we are clearly developing our BWRX-300 to be a global SMR technology. We are already working with several countries, looking at the first deployment of that. We also see the UK very high in that priority list—again, bringing that fleet-build mentality and 60 years of designing these types of reactors. We are able to bring a lot of experience and know-how to that. Part of that is to try to reduce the costs of nuclear overall. We are very encouraged by seeing the RAB model, and hope that it can be applied to fleets of SMRs in the UK.
David Powell: I think it provides more opportunity for UK investors to come forward. We have spent a lot of time and money developing our reactor design, so we are quite well ahead now in developing projects, which is really the next stage. I think the Government funding that was announced will help the development of UK SMRs, and one of the big things that RAB does is help the development of projects. You need investors for those projects.
Julia Pyke: I think that having a stable CPI-linked project will make it possible for UK financial investors. That is a great thing; you can create a virtuous circle with the money of British pension funds investing in apprenticeships, skills and jobs for younger people in Britain, as well as in the production of electricity of course. I am confident that the RAB model will bring forward a lot more British investment and, exactly as you say, reduce our reliance on overseas investors.
Quickly. I am keen to move on swiftly because we have quite a lot to cover.
Michael Waite: We are currently very active in the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and so on. Those nations predominantly have either majority Government-owned utilities developing nuclear projects or Government financing for up to 100% of the project. They are reducing the cost of capital by fully leveraging Government financing, which is the cheapest financing. Those are absolutely all regulated approaches. No projects that we are doing currently rely just on market forces to develop nuclear; it is too much of a long-term project, with massive long-term benefits, to leave it up to the market.
Before you start, Mr Pennycook, I should say that we have five people asking questions and 12 or 13 minutes left, so can everyone be swift in their questions and answers?
Julia Pyke: CGN currently has a 20% shareholding in Sizewell C. No material supply chain contracts are in place or intended to be in place with the Chinese supply chain or CGN. Whether CGN chooses to invest at financial close, and the extent to which it chooses to invest, is a matter for CGN itself and the UK Government. As Virginia’s question elicited, the RAB model is designed to bring in a lot more British financing and reduce reliance on overseas investors.
Julia Pyke: That is absolutely a question for the Government.
Julia Pyke: I think that Sizewell C can raise money under the RAB model. How CGN intends to go forward with a financial investment in Sizewell C is a matter for CGN and the Government.
Julia Pyke: I think that the Bill is a great framework under which there is a lot of detail to be developed, and we would expect more detail to be developed in relation to designation and the conditions of eligibility. While I could hardly deny that the cost of nuclear builds has had some uncertainty in some cases, what is not uncertain is whether nuclear works and the technology works. I think there are no cases worldwide of nuclear projects that have been abandoned for technical reasons. The industry knows how to make nuclear power stations work. So I think that there is a degree of uncertainty about the exact cost, but the whole point of building a replica of Hinkley is to minimise that uncertainty, benefit from all the lessons learned and get nuclear on to a stable, repeat-build footing.
David Powell: We designed our SMR BWRX-300 on the basis of proven technology. So we know very much the cost base for that technology, and it is really in our interest and that of investors to ensure that we can deliver to time and to budget on that. With respect to the build, we would obviously want to try to minimise any impact and risk of cost and schedule overruns, because we see this as building a fleet of smaller reactors out of a more modular-type approach.
Michael Waite: I do not think it is implicit, actually. We have heard about fleet benefits. What I think RAB does do, though, is ensure accessibility to the UK market for non-foreign-sovereign-owned entities. Under a CfD approach, frankly only large foreign Government-owned entities can stand that up-front cost. Then you are potentially delivering electrons, but you are delivering a foreign Government’s objectives and strategies rather than benefiting from the UK Government’s objectives.
Julia Pyke: RAB is designed to attract low-cost capital, and the cost of capital will be set competitively. We anticipate a competition, which should drive down the cost of capital, between equity investors. We also anticipate that the cost of debt, which will actually be the majority cost of the project, will be set competitively. We do not have a hurdle rate, and deciding that hurdle rate will obviously be in part a matter for Government in terms of what will offer value for money. The Government’s impact assessment talks about example hurdle rates and we anticipate that the return will be somewhere in the region of the Thames Tideway tunnel rate, plus possibly some premium for it being nuclear, which is a novel asset class for private sector money in the UK.
Julia Pyke: We think the relevant rates to look at are the rates that are currently determined by Ofgem for investors in the £200 billion of existing UK regulated assets. That is the range that we anticipate will be relevant.
Julia Pyke: As the Government have put in their impact assessment, you can run this at percentages over inflation that equate to the existing market in investing in RAB. I do not want to suggest a particular number—that would not be appropriate, because we are going to set the cost of capital competitively—but you can see the ranges that the Government have used, which they have based on the evidence of what is invested today in RAB assets.
Julia Pyke: Do you mean whether I think the Government have been overly optimistic in assessing the likely cost of capital to be derived through competition? Is that your question?
Julia Pyke: I think we are talking about two things here. There is optimism bias in relation to the outturn capital costs. The Government have taken a cautious approach to applying optimism bias to the capital costs, given that we are replicating the Hinkley design, using the experienced team, and we can see the savings made in unit 2 compared with unit 1. In relation to the cost of capital, it is entirely sensible for the Government to have based their calculations on the existing market of investment in regulated asset base industries in the UK. I do not think there is an optimism bias issue around their evaluation of existing investment rates.
Julia Pyke: I would conclude no such thing. What investors choose to bid will be a function of how attractive the product is to the equity, what else is available in the market—it will be a whole range of considerations, but essentially it will be in the area of the existing investments in regulated assets in the UK, which are publicly available.
But you are not able to help us this morning.
Julia Pyke: I do not think anybody is questioning the assumption that, in moving to a RAB from a contract for difference model, the cost of capital will come down, so it will save money compared with a contract for difference model.
Unless any other of our colleagues have a one-minute question, we are at 10.24 am and that very neatly brings us to the end of our time. [Interruption.] I am afraid we only have one minute, Alan; one yes or no question, perhaps?
Thank you very much. I thank all three of our witnesses, who have had a gruelling session. It has been very useful; a lot of information has been gleaned from your evidence and we are most grateful to you for taking the time to come and speak to us. Thank you very much indeed. Would you mind vacating the hot seat? You will be replaced by only one person in the room. Incidentally, you are more than welcome to stay and listen to the subsequent session. I invite the next panel to join us.
Examination of witnesses
Sue Ferns, Charlotte Childs and Simon Coop gave evidence.
I welcome all three of our witnesses to this evidence session of the Bill Committee. Rather than me introducing you, it might be more sensible if you introduce yourselves in a moment. We have until 11.25 am for this session, and at 11.25, even if you are speaking, I will close the session at that moment, through no discourtesy but because the rules of the House state that we must stop at precisely 11.25. Starting with Mr Coop, as he is here, will you kindly all introduce yourselves? And if you have any introductory remarks about the Bill, that is always very helpful.
Simon Coop: My name is Simon Coop. I am acting national officer for energy and utilities at Unite the union.
Sue Ferns: My name is Sue Ferns and I am the senior deputy general secretary at the Prospect trade union.
Charlotte Childs: I am Charlotte Childs. I am national officer for the GMB trade union.
Thank you all very much for being here. We will start with Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition and Dr Whitehead.
Sue Ferns: Certainly. At the moment, Springfields nuclear fuels faces a bit of a crisis, primarily due to the earlier than expected rundown and closure of the AGR—advanced gas-cooled reactor—fleet, which has been its major component of fuel manufacture, not the only but the major one. The effect of that is that from January of next year it will be producing only 55 tonnes of AGR fuel, compared with a normal load of about 200 tonnes. That obviously has implications for the workforce and it means that that plant will be operating in deficit as from January of next year.
There have been protracted discussions over the course of the year. We have seen two rounds of redundancy notices issued to the skilled and specialist staff on the site, and there is a danger, in the face of continued uncertainty, that more of those specialist skills and expertise will be lost.
I should say that fuel manufacturing is the key function of Springfields nuclear fuels but there is also much wider expertise. It provides a range of other services to the nuclear industry and is seen as a key part of the UK’s nuclear expertise. We very much fear for the future and are in active discussions with the company and Government about that.
There is both a short-term and a longer-term challenge, and a longer-term opportunity. If more nuclear power stations are constructed in the UK, we can see a good fuel load for Springfields from about 10 years’ time onwards, but the problem is that unless we solve the short-term hiatus in fuel orders, those skills and expertise will be lost and will not be easily recovered, if at all. The opportunity is for Springfields, as it was recognised in the nuclear sector deal, to continue as a centre of nuclear excellence and expertise as our unique UK fuel manufacturing capability, able to provide fuel to reactors in the UK of all types, and potentially to plants in other parts of Europe as well.
Charlotte Childs: The conversations that we have had with EDF in terms of building a nuclear supply chain, and the skills required to build both of those projects, and further projects, mean that the decision on the RAB funding model, hopefully leading towards a final investment decision in the near future, creates a really great opportunity for the timelines of those projects to line up, and for the skilled workforce who are needed at Hinkley Point to just about finish what they are doing there in time to move over to Sizewell. It creates certainty for the nuclear supply chain and for those who have gone through a training programme with Hinkley.
We have negotiated some industry-leading processes to ensure that people from the local area can go from low to no qualifications into qualified trades and apprenticeships. It creates an ongoing opportunity for those people and job security that we do not generally see in the construction sector. Time is of the essence. To maximise the benefit for the nuclear supply chain and drive down costs, because it is already in place, it is imperative that those decisions are made sooner rather than later.
Simon Coop: I reiterate those points. With regard to Hinkley Point C, it is really a no-brainer to adapt those transferrable skills and move them into Sizewell C in order to ensure that costs do not spiral out of control. There is a clear model already in use that we can learn from to move into Sizewell C. The timing of that transfer is of the essence in ensuring that we do not lose the skills from one project and that we develop and move them forward into Sizewell C. Urgency is needed to move that project forward as soon as possible in order to maintain the skills from Hinkley Point at Sizewell C. Any kind of developments have to be in line with industry standards, and we also have to make sure that any misgivings or fore learnings that we establish from Hinkley Point C are clearly ironed out as we move forward to Sizewell C. The replica gives us the opportunity not just to learn from what we have done but at Sizewell C to improve and iron out any problems that we have had to maximise value for money for all vested parties.
Simon Coop: The UK workforce are absolutely flexible and they are highly skilled. In construction, the same key workers with the key skills have moved to projects. I do not see that being a major problem in future construction projects. As a result of talking to the company, there are already plans to transfer the operational skills at Hinkley Point B to Hinkley Point C. Those operational skills are currently transferring and people are keen to move on and use those skills at the Hinkley Point C project. There should be no difference in terms of transfer to future construction projects.
Charlotte Childs: We are a member of that organisation, so the letter you received and the policy that we have set is based on a wide-ranging discussion with our members. In response to your suggestion about investment in manufacturing, it is not a this or that situation, is it? Scotland in particular has benefited greatly from the current nuclear civil generation, and the zero carbon generated by Torness and Hunterston B have contributed to southern Scotland consistently hitting the 2030 target, working alongside other renewables like wind to provide green energy. Without heavy investment in new nuclear projects we will not reach our net zero targets, and Scotland has set itself an even more ambitious target of 2045 to reach net zero. That simply will not be possible without having a consistent and reliable baseload that is net zero in its production of energy.
Charlotte Childs: Those alternates do not exist yet and will not do so for a long time. The technology is not there in the short term to reach the targets that have been set in the near future. It is also about investing in UK skills and jobs, and the existing nuclear supply chain—Sue spoke of Springfields and the nuclear supply chain in place to deliver Hinkley Point C. As Simon and I have said, we need to ensure that the decisions are taken decisively and quickly to protect those supply chain jobs. The supply chain for wind, for example, which you have suggested in the past is a viable alternative to nuclear, is not within the UK. We have the skills and the capability, but we are currently importing turbine parts and steel from China to create the wind turbine fields that are currently being constructed. The £20 billion is a lot of money, but it will create an inordinate number of skills, prospects and social changes for the local area around Sizewell, as well as for the wider UK workforce and supply chain.
Sue Ferns: If you do not mind, I just want to add to what Charlotte has said. Our analysis shows that investment in nuclear is more jobs-rich than investment in other low-carbon technologies. We have done some work, based on Office for National Statistics data, that shows that each installed megawatt of nuclear capacity supports roughly 4.7 direct and indirect jobs, compared with 1.5 in offshore wind and 1.1 in solar. I would be happy to share that analysis with you if it is of interest.
Great. Unless there are any further questions from Members or our witnesses have anything particular to say that they have not said—I see no indication that that is the case—I thank our three witnesses very much indeed for their time before the Committee. Their evidence will be useful in our deliberations over the next couple of weeks, when we will consider the detail of the Bill. I call the Whip to move the motion to adjourn.
I beg to move—[Interruption.]
Charlotte Childs: Apologies, but while I have this audience I want to touch quickly on the industrial relations model that we have in place at Hinkley Point. The benefit that it is creating for the workforce there could be transferred to Sizewell C, and amendments could be made to the Bill to entrench that within the process. We have a joint project board set up at Hinkley Point B, and the unions have an influential voice within it. A committee was also set up on site to deliver results for our members in industrial relations and health and safety, and we are putting agreements in place for the terms and conditions of those building the plant, and agreements are under discussion for those who will be operating the plant once it is finished.
It would be prudent for those who make the decisions to make amendments that require the nuclear company, as it were, to recognise established sector trade unions, and to embed union access—or the requirement for union access—into the Bill, not just for the client and the tier 1 contractors, but for second and third-tier contractors, as we have on the HS2 project. The nuclear company should have regard to the security of its supply chain, and figures on UK content should be published.
The access that we have on Hinkley Point has created an environment where the GMB in particular is able to have really in-depth discussions with the client and tier 1 contractors on things such as equality and diversity and inclusion. We are currently working on projects to encourage women into the construction sector at Hinkley Point and to create an environment that will be welcoming and encouraging to women who want to come into the sector. Given the skills gap the construction sector currently faces and is heading towards, it is important that that work is done with both employer and trade unions to ensure that we get that right for the workforce. While I had the floor, I wanted to suggest that union access was put into the Bill.
Simon Coop: On the investment question, which I did not respond to at the time, it does seem significant, but in order to have balanced UK energy security moving forward, that investment has to be put in place. There is no doubt, as we look at the streams of nuclear energy, that a fleet of nuclear energy is needed, and this Bill should not be just in line with Sizewell C; it should be a Bill that moves forward a nuclear fleet. We are in a position where, by 2025 and 2030, there will be clear problems in nuclear generation, as six stations will be coming off stream at that point in time. For a clear, balanced energy policy, nuclear, along with renewables, solar and wind, has to be a part of that—not just as a back-up situation, as some people state, but as an integral part of the UK’s energy moving forward. That has to be key.
On collective bargaining and union agreements on sites, there is no doubt that unions build clear relations and the highest health and safety standards, which in turn will definitely mean that any project has more chance of succeeding within budget because of the clear integrity of the health and safety situations through joint agreements.
Thank you very much.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Craig Whittaker.)
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.
Subsidy Control Bill (Ninth sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Caroline Nokes, † Mr Virendra Sharma
† Baynes, Simon (Clwyd South) (Con)
† Benton, Scott (Blackpool South) (Con)
† Blackman, Kirsty (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
† Bowie, Andrew (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)
† Buchan, Felicity (Kensington) (Con)
Esterson, Bill (Sefton Central) (Lab)
† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)
Flynn, Stephen (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
† Hollinrake, Kevin (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
† Kinnock, Stephen (Aberavon) (Lab)
† Malhotra, Seema (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
† Millar, Robin (Aberconwy) (Con)
† Mortimer, Jill (Hartlepool) (Con)
† Scully, Paul (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
† Stafford, Alexander (Rother Valley) (Con)
† Tomlinson, Michael (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Whitley, Mick (Birkenhead) (Lab)
Kevin Maddison, Bradley Albrow, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 16 November 2021
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
Subsidy Control Bill
Before we begin, I have a few preliminary announcements. Members are expected to wear face coverings except when speaking, unless exempt, and to maintain distancing as far as possible. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Members should have a covid lateral flow test twice a week, which can be carried out either at the testing centre in Portcullis House or at home.
Members should send their speaking notes by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Officials in the Gallery should communicate electronically with Ministers. Please switch electronic devices to silent. Tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings.
Monitoring and reporting on subsidy control
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 61, in clause 65, page 37, line 12, leave out “fifth” and insert “third”.
This amendment would require the CMA to conduct its first review under the section in the third year after commencement.
Amendment 30, in clause 65, page 37, line 14, leave out “five years” and insert “one year”.
This amendment is linked to Amendment 29.
Amendment 62, in clause 65, page 37, line 14, leave out “five” and insert “three”.
This amendment would require the CMA to prepare a subsequent review every three years.
Thank you, Mr Sharma, for your dedication in chairing the Committee, no matter how much we talk. It is appreciated that you continue to show up.
Amendment 29 would work in conjunction with amendment 30 on Competition and Markets Authority monitoring. The measures on subsidy control are new, and we do not know how they are going to work. We do not know how well subsidy control is going to work. It is therefore really important that the CMA reports on a regular basis.
I have had various arguments with Treasury Ministers about tax measures. Treasury Ministers have generally made it clear to me that tax measures are reviewed on a regular basis. Unfortunately, it is impossible to find what “regular” means. It is impossible to pin it down. It is impossible to work out when tax measures are actually reviewed and to see, in any sensible way, any evidence of that. I have previously asked Ministers on Delegated Legislation Committees, for example, to commit to writing to the members of a Committee in the future, when the tax measure under discussion is reviewed, but the Government continue to fail to do so.
I am concerned that the Government’s ability to be transparent on subsidy control measures needs to be in the Bill. The amendment addresses the CMA monitoring report, rather than the Government report, but the CMA will deal with the monitoring and reporting of subsidy control. I hope that the Government will also be reviewing measures, in addition to the CMA’s monitoring and reporting, and will be checking to see how subsidy control is working and whether the Bill is working as intended. As we have previously said though, we have significant concerns about the lack of data that will be provided and the fact that we cannot effectively monitor all the subsidies that are given because of the lack of requirement for granting authorities to register all of those subsidies, or even subsidies over a sensible threshold—the threshold as set is too high.
Amendment 29 would ensure that the CMA’s first report occurs two years, rather than five years, after subsidy control begins. Given the newness of the regime—it is being created and implemented for the first time in autumn next year—we need to know how things are going and we need to know that more quickly than in two or even three Parliaments, depending on how quickly elections are called. Five years is about three parliamentary terms, if we go by recent times. Some people would even say that five years is a generation.
Five years is too long for the initial report. Following that, five years for the subsequent report is also too long. Amendment 30 suggests that the report should be pulled together annually, rather than every five years. That would greatly improve transparency. The Government have been clear that this is a permissive structure that will encourage people to act in the best interests of economic development and improving their areas. I do not think we can properly assess that if we get a report on this from the CMA only every five years rather than more regularly. The Opposition’s amendments to the clause would similarly reduce the length of time between reports; they have been slightly more flexible than I have, but I support the aim of their amendments—to reduce the term from five years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. I thank you for continuing to turn up to our ongoing and extensive deliberations. I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen North for her comments. She is right that we have tabled a coincidentally similar amendment to hers. I support all the arguments she made. She is right that the Opposition amendment suggested slightly greater flexibility than the SNP amendment, partly because of our thinking on how long it might take to actually get the information to be able to add more meaningful assessments and recommendations to the monitoring of and reporting on subsidy control.
The clause rightly requires the CMA to undertake a periodic review of the effectiveness of the Bill’s operation and its impact on competition and investment in the UK. The Secretary of State may also direct the CMA to prepare a report in respect of a specified period. I am not fully sure whether that allows for some flexibility if issues are identified; perhaps the Minister can respond to that point. However, the review is important because the new regime contains many significant differences from the EU state aid rules in the processes that we will follow. Those processes, which I think have the support of the House, require safeguards to be in place, because they are not in place in a system in which some of the review and scrutiny is done up front. We cannot embark on this without making sure that there are safeguards on the use of public funds, adequate scrutiny measures and a system for learning what works well and what may not. For example, there may be a learning curve for public authorities, businesses and the Government alike, so it is important that the regime is subject to this regular review. It is good practice and it is important for value for money, for accountability to the taxpayer and to assess the effectiveness of the regime and make any necessary changes.
It is important that the regime is subject to regular review. I think we are joined here in the view that five years is not regular enough, particularly given the very good example of having three elections in five years. Politics is not always certain, yet we want that certainty to be in place. We want the learning to be fast cycle; it is good practice to learn in a more fast-cycle way. Perhaps the Minister could clarify why this time period was selected. Five years would effectively provide for one report per Parliament, assuming that we have a five-year Parliament.
What is more, five years is a significant amount of time to have passed before the first review of the effectiveness of the operation of the regime. There could be significant inefficiencies that cause substantive negative effects within that timeframe, and Parliament would be none the wiser without that informed view and assessment from the CMA. Labour tabled amendments 61 and 62 to reduce the reporting period laid out in clause 65 to every three years, which would allow for enough data to come through and for a cycle of meaningful reports that could take into account recommendations for change and assess how effectively the intended outcomes had been delivered. As a minimum, that is a more appropriate timeframe for reviewing the new regime. I would be grateful to know whether deciding on five years followed discussions with the CMA. If those discussions did happen, what was the CMA’s feedback? Engaging with the CMA is important, and there may be the need for challenge if Parliament has a different view.
As well as giving Governments more opportunity to make changes to the regime, including legislative changes and process improvements, any problems with the regime would be resolved considerably earlier because, let’s face it, if we have five years to do something, it may be left until the last minute. We want to ensure that Parliament is also responsive to any changes and plays its part in ensuring that the regime, and any changes, can be reviewed effectively every three years.
I hope the Minister recognises why five years is too long a reporting period, takes on board the comments of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North and her party and those from Labour, and perhaps offers some feedback to the Committee on why five years was suggested. Does the Minister recognise our arguments, and would he be prepared to include a review in the later stages of the Bill?
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. As we have heard, clause 65 requires the CMA to produce a report on the overall effectiveness of the regime and its impact on competition and investment within the UK. The monitoring report is to be produced in relation to the first five years following the Bill’s commencement and for every subsequent five-year period. That interval was chosen specifically as an appropriate length of time over which to consider the wider impacts of the regime as a whole and to evaluate its overall effectiveness during a period in which a sizeable number of subsidies would be given, so that the medium-term effects could be properly considered and evaluated.
The period is consistent with the maximum length of a parliamentary term, as we have heard, ensuring that there is a regime-wide assessment of the regime at least every normal parliamentary term. Producing such a report is a significant undertaking, requiring a good amount of time to gather and analyse the evidence. Five years strikes the right balance between the time needed to observe how the new regime is working and the benefit of timely analysis and evaluation.
I thank the Minister for giving way, and I appreciate his comments. However, he has not explained whether periods of time other than five years were assessed, and has not yet explained—perhaps he will—whether the CMA was involved in the discussions. Given the work of the subsidy advice unit and all the other work going on, producing a report every three years will not be too onerous if it is part of business as usual. What consideration has been given to other time periods?
Perhaps the Minister can also clarify something. Does he see that if a report arrives in year four of a Parliament and some legislative changes are required and then we have an election, that would not be a sensible way of running a regime that requires some interplay between Parliament and the devolved Administrations? More frequent reporting at three years, which is not too onerous—it is as long as it takes to complete a common degree—would make a difference and allow for changes to be brought through.
To be fair, I had only just started making my remarks. However, whether it is butting up against elections or not, that could equally be the case in three years as well as five years. However, five years was chosen, as I said, basically to correspond roughly with the standard parliamentary term; it gives a good amount of time for good and meaningful data to be collected and analysed; and it is also consistent with the monitoring reports of other bodies, such as the Office for the Internal Market.
Clearly, we work with the CMA on this issue and other issues. The CMA will work on the subsidy control regime in the future; we work with it very closely. In the evidence session, Rachel Merelie talked about the fact that there may be merit in the CMA providing advice more frequently at the request of the Secretary of State, and that is exactly what is set out in the Bill, so that the frequency of reporting can be changed, which I will come on to shortly.
We have heard that the various amendments will reduce the key periods, down to either two years or three years, depending on the particular amendment. I will cover the amendments in turn.
First of all, amendment 29 would require the initial monitoring report to be produced within two years of the Bill gaining Royal Assent, as opposed to within five years. Well, I have talked about the fact that five years would normally be the appropriate timeframe, so that the wider evidence and the consequences can be properly considered. I agree that circumstances might arise that could make it beneficial for any monitoring report on the new control regime to be produced within a shorter timeframe. That is why clause 65(4) says:
“The Secretary of State may direct the CMA to prepare a report in relation to a specified period.”
And the Secretary of State will provide the means for an earlier report if it should be considered necessary. Therefore, I believe that amendment 29 is unnecessary.
Amendment 30 relates to the reporting frequency. Again, I understand the desire of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North for more frequent reporting. However, reducing the interval between the reports by the subsidy advice unit to one year is not necessary and could divert resource from other important activities.
Equating more frequent monitoring reports with improved scrutiny and transparency might seem attractive, but in reality it could well have an effect opposite to that intended by the hon. Member, resulting in more superficial reports, which would be less useful in assessing the overall effectiveness of the subsidy regime.
Clause 66 already requires the subsidy advice unit to provide annual reports to Parliament, in order to provide transparency in referral cases that it has handled throughout the year. The monitoring reports set out in clause 65 go beyond that, covering the functioning of the whole regime and not just the specific role of the subsidy advice unit. By necessity, those reports take longer to produce, so that there is sufficient quality data for the subsidy advice unit to consider.
It may seem tempting to wrap all this stuff in lots of scrutiny, but does my hon. Friend agree that red tape costs money? Wrapping the economy in red tape costs money. Ultimately, the cost of that has to be borne by the taxpayer. He is absolutely right to say that at any point in time the Secretary of State could ask the CMA to consider whether there is any evidence of problems with the provisions in the Bill. Better to have that arrangement than simply to ask for review after review, for which there will be a cost to the taxpayer.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as usual; we do not want reviews for the sake of reviews. It is good to have a focus, but it is also good to be able to look at the meaningful evidence rather than distract attention and resource from what may be important scrutiny by the subsidy advice unit itself in its day-to-day work. Such reviews would obviously put pressure on public authorities and the awarders as well.
It is important that we ensure that the unit has sufficient time to collate and analyse the evidence. Reducing the amount of time available to produce these monitoring reports would only result in less useful reports, as there would not be good enough quality data available for the unit to assess, nor sufficient time for it to collect and analyse the data that is available. And it would indeed divert resources away from the subsidy advice unit’s other functions, which could, for example, reduce the capacity to accept voluntary referral requests from public authorities.
Amendments 61 and 62, which are meant to be considered together, were tabled by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston. They are obviously very similar to amendments 29 and 30, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North.
Amendment 61 would require the subsidy advice unit’s initial monitoring report to be produced within three years of the Bill gaining Royal Assent, as opposed to within five years. I have already said that five years would normally be the appropriate timeframe. However, I agree that in some situations it would be beneficial for the monitoring report to be produced within a shorter timeframe. For that reason, we already have the powers set out in clause 65(4). As I have already said, clause 65(4) says that
“The Secretary of State may direct the CMA to prepare a report in relation to a specified period”,
should that be necessary. As such, I believe that amendment 61 is unnecessary.
Similarly, I do not believe that amendment 62 strikes the right balance, for the reasons I have set out, and it is not consistent with the CMA’s other reporting requirements. As I have noted, more frequent monitoring reports may not lead to improved scrutiny. Clause 66 already requires annual reports to Parliament on the cases that the subsidy advice unit has handled throughout the year, so we want to get the balance right in this area, making sure that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton has said, we are not dragging resource away but focusing the reviews on exactly when they are needed and making sure that the subjects they cover are very focused. I therefore request that the hon. Member for Aberdeen North withdraws her amendment.
I want to address a few things that have been mentioned. It is absolutely the case that clause 66 requires annual reporting, but that annual reporting is on a very limited number of things. It seems to me that only numbers need to be provided, and that that reporting does not include very much else. The requirement is, “How many post-award referrals have there been, and how has the CMA dealt with them?” rather than, “Have they been dealt with properly?” It is not as much of a deep dive as it could be.
The Minister could commit to a step in between those two approaches. Clause 65 gives the Secretary of State flexibility to direct a report to be made within a shorter period. The middle step would allow an annual report to address more than just the data while not going quite as far as the requirements under clause 65 for a review of the entire scheme’s efficacy and whether it is working as intended. It would be interesting to hear whether the Minister would consider that.
Turning to the various other things that have been said, the Brexit vote was only five and a half years ago—which is not much longer than the five-year period—and before that we had no idea that we would be creating our own subsidy control regime. We have moved so far, and so much has happened over that period of time, that I do not think a five-year period is short enough. I appreciate the Minister’s comments about the possibility of the Secretary of State directing a report for an earlier period, particularly initially, but clause 65(3)(a) could have said that the period should be three or two years. If that had been written in the Bill in the first place, we would have had fewer concerns like the ones we are raising today.
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton said that red tape costs money. He is right, but red tape also saves money, and the whole point of this Bill is that public money is going to be given to organisations. Public money is going to be spent, and we need to make sure that that money is spent effectively, but I do not think that the suggested review system is adequate enough to ensure that we spend that public money effectively. Yes, this review would cost money—I am not for a second trying to dodge that fact—but I think that the benefits outweigh the risks, in that this is such a new regime and it will be really important for us to carry out that review at a relatively early stage. I am not asking for it to be done in six months; I am suggesting two years for the initial review, and the Opposition are suggesting three years. Neither is as long as five years, which will give us the early comfort of knowing that the regime is acting in the way that we hope and expect it will do.
The hon. Lady’s amendment does not say “two years”, though, does it? It says:
“two years, and annually thereafter.”
That sounds like a huge amount of bureaucracy. She said that it would be a lighter-touch report, but I do not see anything in the amendment that says it is a lighter-touch report. It talks about the effectiveness of the provisions, so how would it not end up being a deep dive into the workings of the scheme?
I apologise—I did not make myself clear. When I talk about a lighter-touch report, I am talking not specifically about the amendments but about the fact that there should be a third approach in the Bill. If the Government are not going to move from five years—if the five-year reporting period for this deep dive report is going to remain—and we have the annual reports suggested in clause 66, which are too light touch and are just about the numbers, there is a case to be made for a middle step: a report that contains a little bit more than just the numbers, but not quite as much as that potentially costly review. That is not covered by the amendments; I am simply suggesting that the Minister consider it.
I think the middle way that the hon. Member is talking about is actually what clause 66 does. The clause notes the bare minimum of what that the annual report should include. There is plenty more that the CMA can and should include—we are giving it the bare minimum.
That is a hugely helpful clarification. If parliamentarians or anyone else do not believe that the data included in the annual report is transparent enough, the Minister is open to us writing to the Secretary of State to request that it include more information.
The Minister has been clear throughout the course of our deliberations that a number of the changes made by the Bill are about ensuring that things can be done at speed. The tax measures and other things that were put in place because of covid had to be done very quickly—nobody is disagreeing with that—but such an approach can result in unforeseen circumstances. As such, if something started and finished during the course of a five-year period, we would not know anything about its efficacy. We would not know whether it had made a difference in the way intended until significantly after it had ended.
The Secretary of State has the ability to require those additional things. If specific funding is going to be put in place for natural disasters, for example, or any other issue we have discussed, it would be helpful if the Minister would consider asking the CMA to do an additional report, asking: “Did this work as intended? Did the funding subsidy for natural disasters achieve its aims? Could it have been done through means other than subsidies? Was there a requirement for it to comply with everything in these provisions? Would it have been easier if they had not had to jump through certain hoops in order for the subsidy to be given more quickly?”
I think that this provision does not go far enough. The Minister’s clarification about clause 66 is really helpful, and I am sure that both the Opposition and my party will continue to suggest areas where transparency could and should be improved. We will take our opportunity as parliamentarians to lobby the Government, and if there are specific concerns or issues that we believe require a report, we will request that such a report be undertaken. I wish to press amendment 29 to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
I beg to move amendment 63, in clause 65, page 37, line 16, at end insert—
“(4A) In preparing any report under this section, the CMA must consult—
(a) the Secretary of State;
(b) the Scottish Ministers;
(c) the Welsh Ministers; and
(d) the Department of Economy in Northern Ireland.”
This amendment would require the CMA to consult with the Secretary of State and Devolved Administrations before preparing any report under this section.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 64, in clause 65, page 37, line 27, at end insert—
“(7A) The CMA must arrange for a copy of a report prepared under this section to be laid before the Scottish Parliament, Senedd Cymru and the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
This amendment would require the CMA to lay a copy of its reports before the devolved parliaments and assemblies.
We return to a familiar theme, which is the absence of any clear role for the devolved Administrations and the failure to recognise the need for a truly four-nation approach. Yet again, the clause fails to provide a role for the devolved Administrations in the CMA consultations and report.
The Government seem not to have quite grasped the fact that the new subsidy regime will affect not just England, but Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. All nations should contribute to the review of the effectiveness of the regime and its impact on competition and investment within the UK, as all four nations will be affected. In fact, given that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have to implement not just what is in the Bill, but the many future regulations to be made by the Secretary of State, it is equally important that all voices are heard. Already, the devolved Administrations will not be included in defining many regulations; will not be able to call in subsidies or make post-award referrals; will not have automatic standing to challenge subsidies before the Competition Appeal Tribunal; and may not even be represented on the body that oversees the new regime—unless the Government are enlightened by discussion in Committee and the main Chamber, and with what is happening with the Office for the Internal Market.
Will the Minister explain what role he sees the devolved Administrations playing in the new regime and in the monitoring and review? Daniel Greenberg, Parliamentary Counsel for Domestic Legislation, said in the evidence session that
“when you are dealing with international obligations of the UK, that has to be dealt with by central Government but, again, doesn’t that have to be done in consultation with the devolved Administrations? Of course it does. With co-ordination with the devolved Administrations? Of course it does. With mechanisms for encoding that co-ordination and consultation into the way the Bill operates? Of course.”––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 61, Q80.]
The Labour party agrees completely with that, which is why we have consistently sought to amend the Bill to increase the role and voice of the devolved Administrations.
There have been fewer occasions on which Labour has wanted to increase the voice of the Secretary of State under the legislation, but clause 65 is one place where we think that might be important. The amendment would therefore require the CMA to consult both the Secretary of State and the devolved Administrations before issuing a periodic review of the regime. In particular, the CMA would find the inclusion of their voices helpful as it deliberates the impact of the regime on competition and investment across the UK.
I thank the hon. Member for her support.
Speaking to amendment 64, once the CMA has prepared its report, clause 65(7) requires the CMA to arrange for a copy of it to be laid before Parliament. We welcome the opportunity that that will provide for the UK Parliament to scrutinise the reports. Given the impact of the regime on the devolved Administrations, however, why will the report not also be laid before the devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, thereby giving them the opportunity to undertake detailed scrutiny? There might be a technical reason for that, but certainly the feedback that we have received is that laying reports before the Administrations would enable more formal scrutiny of them. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that.
Amendment 64 would require the CMA to put a copy of its report before the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Senedd and the Northern Ireland Assembly, which would provide each of the legislatures with a clear ability to scrutinise the CMA report and therefore the effectiveness and impact of the regime.
As we have already discussed, clause 65 sets out the requirement for the unit to produce a report on the overall effectiveness of the subsidy control regime and its impact on competition and investment. Outside the broad content of the report, the Bill provides that the unit can draw upon powers set out in sections 41 to 43 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 to gather information from public authorities, businesses and other persons in the service of producing its monitoring report.
In addition to the information-gathering powers of the 2020 Act, the unit can draw on other existing provisions that the CMA has under the Enterprise Act 2002 to engage with a wide range of stakeholders, and even commission new research in order to meet its statutory duties. Outside of those specific provisions, it is intended that the subsidy advice unit will have discretion on how to approach its monitoring functions.
We have heard that amendment 63 would require the subsidy advice unit to specifically consult the Secretary of State, Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland in preparing a report. In preparing its monitoring report, the subsidy advice unit will want to seek information from public authorities across the UK, both in their capacity as subsidy granters and in relation to their various policy-making roles. That will be necessary in order to develop a balanced view of the function of the regime and its impact on competition and investment.
Highlighting the role of the Secretary of State and their contemporaries in the Bill gives rise to the question why other parties have been omitted. Why not also specify, for example, that the subsidy advice unit should consult regulators, businesses or their representative groups, or any number of other specific persons? The reason we have not specified individuals with whom the subsidy advice unit must engage is so as to afford it the maximum flexibility to undertake its monitoring function appropriately and as it thinks fit. The unit can also draw on the wealth of institutional knowledge that the CMA has, specifically related to the protection of competition. It is therefore unnecessary to direct the unit’s subsidy monitoring functions in the way intended by the amendment.
Amendment 64 also concerns the subsidy advice unit’s relationship with devolved Administrations in the fulfilment of its duties, and would require that its regime monitoring reports be laid before the relevant legislatures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, in addition to the UK Parliament. Hon. Members will undoubtedly point to the example of the Office for the Internal Market’s reports on the functioning of the UK internal market, which are laid before all four UK Parliaments.
Although the Office for the Internal Market also falls under the umbrella of the CMA, it is a uniquely constituted body reflecting the specific role and relationships that it has with the Administrations in all four UK countries. We have consciously not followed the governance model established by the Office for the Internal Market for the subsidy advice unit. Subsidy control is and will remain a reserved policy matter. The subsidy advice unit will be formed as part of the CMA, a non-ministerial department that serves the whole of the UK. It is therefore appropriate that the CMA and, by extension, the subsidy advice unit reports to the whole UK Parliament.
As an awarding body, I fully expect the CMA and subsidy advice unit to speak to all the devolved nations as well as public authorities. That does not specifically need to be in the Bill, for the reasons I have given about excluding others. Given that subsidy control is and will remain a reserved policy matter, it is right that the UK Parliament considers and scrutinises the report. I therefore request that the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for his comments. The devolved Administrations are distinct from other institutions because they are democratic institutions. For a regime that has to be accountable, it is important that the voice of those bodies and of Ministers, and others who may well have a view, are consulted. It is important to distinguish democratic institutions from others. The Minister is right that there will be a whole range of people who may want to contribute their views, and I am sure that the CMA will find a mechanism for seeking views.
I want to push amendment 63 to a vote because if this is something that should be done anyway, we want to ensure that it is done. Making sure at key stages that the voice of the devolved Administrations, and indeed of the Secretary of State, are formally heard will add significant insight to what will be in that report. We want that report to be the best it can be.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
I beg to move amendment 65, in clause 65, page 37, line 27, at end insert—
“(7A) Within 30 working days of a report being laid under subsection (7), the Secretary of State must make a statement to the House of Commons explaining what action will be taken to remedy any deficiencies in the effectiveness of the operation of the Act or impact of the operation of the Act on competition and investment within the United Kingdom identified by the CMA.”
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to make a statement to the House of Commons on the CMA’s findings and any remedial action required.
I will keep my comments brief. This amendment would require the Secretary of State to make a statement to the House of Commons on the CMA’s findings and any remedial action required. It does not take a genius to recognise that reviews alone are not enough; they need to be acted on. Yet there are no provisions in the Bill that we have seen that require the Secretary of State to act in response to the findings of the CMA’s reports, or even to consider whether action is necessary to remediate any deficiencies in the regime identified by the CMA. Does the Minister agree that this seems to be a significant gap?
If the report and reviews under clause 65 do not trigger at the very least an obligation for the Secretary of State to consider and have due regard to its findings, are we not missing quite an important step in the overall process of review and improvement of the regime? That is why we have tabled amendment 65, which states that within 30 days of the report being laid under clause 65, the Secretary of State must make a statement to the House explaining what their response is and what action may be taken to address any deficiencies highlighted in the report. That would ensure that any issues with the new regime were not only raised, but actively considered. As the regulation currently stands, problems identified by the CMA may continue undebated and unaddressed.
I have a couple of other comments and suggestions. The laying before Parliament is, as has been said, a limited way in which parliamentarians can interact with the report. It is great that it is being laid before Parliament, but a ministerial statement, whether written or oral, would help in not just raising the profile of the report published by the CMA, but making clear what the Government intend to do about any deficiencies that have been created. Alternatively, there could be a requirement in the legislation—I might think about this for Report—for the report to go before the Public Accounts Committee or the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, whichever would be more relevant, in order that it could scrutinise the report and ensure that it was taking evidence and creating a report with recommendations to the Government on what needs to be changed.
If the reporting period is to be only every five years, I assume that there will not be immediate—as soon as the report comes through—change happening and that it is likely that there will be a mulling-over period once the report comes in, so that, as the Minister said, the medium-term changes and so on can be assessed and any changes can be made to the legislation. In that case, a written statement or an oral statement being made, whereby we could ask any questions that we needed to, or a more in-depth report by one of the parliamentary Select Committees, would mean that Parliament had a stake, Parliament was invested, and Parliament was assisting in making the changes that the CMA required or in suggesting how to make the changes.
I am sure that the Minister would be the first to admit that the Government do not have every one of the answers. They may have a lot of the answers, in his view, but they do not have every one of the answers, and that is why consultation is hugely important with external organisations but also with those of us who are elected to scrutinise legislation, to scrutinise what the Government are doing, and to try to make the most appropriate changes so that things work, in the interest of spending public money appropriately but also in the interests of our constituents and the people of the UK.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen North is absolutely right to want to improve the system. That is exactly the incentive; we need to improve the system. A number of mechanisms are available already. The BEIS Committee and the Public Accounts Committee can indeed call the report in and consider it, and there are urgent questions and any number of other mechanisms. I understand and appreciate the suggestions. There are mechanisms there.
The main purpose of the function of reporting, as I have said, is to provide a measure of objective scrutiny for the regime. Parliamentarians can consider the report and feed into the process of monitoring and continuous improvement of the regime, as can Government themselves. That objective assessment, based on the information that has been gathered, will be a really valuable and transparent mechanism to demonstrate what is working and what may require improvement. It will of course fall to the Government to provide a suitable response to any issues identified by the report.
The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston would put in place an arbitrary and constraining time limit of 30 days within which the Secretary of State must assess the findings from the unit’s monitoring report and then provide details for addressing any potential issues. Without prejudicing what the content of any future monitoring report might be, it seems unlikely that this amendment would have the effect of promoting effective and well considered changes if they were required, because the amendment, by tying the Government’s hands in this way, would risk hurried and ineffective solutions to any issues identified by the SAU. The monitoring reports will represent the culmination of many months of work by the SAU, so it is right that the Government should respond appropriately. However, arbitrary, short deadlines are not likely to promote sensible changes, especially if there is a need for substantive change.
This amendment also offers little benefit in relation to improving the transparency of the regime. First, monitoring reports will already be published for all to see. Secondly, many of the tools provided by the Bill require further scrutiny by Parliament through the means of affirmative regulations, which require debate and, ultimately, the agreement of parliamentarians in both Houses before they can be enacted. Transparency is one of the cornerstones of the new subsidy regime, and continuous improvement is one of the essential principles of good governance. The amendment would do nothing to enhance either of those aims and may in fact prove detrimental to them by forcing an artificially rushed response to the SAU’s finding. I therefore request that the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for his comments. On the basis of some of the discussion, and the suggestion about what role Select Committees might play, issues with the report are perhaps something we can review and discuss offline with the Minister. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The clause requires the subsidy advice unit periodically to review and report on the effectiveness of the operation of the subsidy control regime and its impact on competition and investment. This report should be prepared every five years, or more frequently if requested by the Secretary of State. This review mechanism will ensure that the new subsidy control regime continues to operate effectively, based on experience of how it is working in practice and the impact it is having on competition and investment. The report will be published by the SAU and laid before Parliament.
I beg to move amendment 66, in clause 66, page 37, line 40, at end insert—
“(d) the proportion of subsidies and schemes in each of paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) in relation to which the CMA found that the public authority’s assessment under section 52(2)(d) or 56(2)(d) required improvement;
(e) the proportion of subsidies and schemes in each of paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) in relation to which the CMA identified a risk of negative effects on competition or investment within the United Kingdom;
(f) information on the geographical allocation of subsidies, including the total value of subsidies subject to mandatory and voluntary notification in the preceding 12 months that have been awarded to enterprises in each nation, region and local authority within the United Kingdom;
(g) the number of extensions to the reporting period made under section 53(6) at the request of the CMA and the average number of days of those extensions;
(h) the number of voluntary referrals made under section 56(1);and
(i) the number of those voluntary referrals in relation to which the CMA has given notice under section 57(2) that it has decided not to prepare a report.”.
This amendment would require the CMA to include the additional specified information in its annual report.
Clause 66 sets out the information that the CMA must include in its annual reports. It is connected in some regards to the debate that we have just had. Although we support the mandating of specific information to be included in the annual reports, the information required feels too high-level and not sufficiently detailed or useful. The clause envisages the CMA simply listing the subsidies and schemes in relation to which it has prepared reports. The Minister may explain what he expects in the annual report.
We believe that, first, the annual report should include information on the number of subsidies and schemes in relation to which the CMA found that public authority assessments required improvements. In doing so, the review would provide an assessment of how successfully public authorities are meeting their statutory obligations under the legislation.
Secondly, the report should include information on the subsidies and schemes that the CMA reviewed and found risked having a negative effect on competition and investment within the UK’s internal market. That would ensure that not only the House but the taxpayer and the devolved Administrations are made aware of what, where and how subsidies are putting pressure on the UK’s internal market, if that is happening.
Thirdly, the report should include information on the geographical spread of subsidies that the CMA considered in the last reporting period, as well as information on the value of subsidies that have been awarded to enterprises in each region, nation and local authority in the UK. We are used to statistics and information being available at a fairly granular level. This is important and significant, given that, despite our best attempts, the Bill currently provides no information or regulation on how subsidies and schemes will work to reduce economic inequality across the United Kingdom.
If the Government really believe in levelling up, they need to take action to match what they say. The new regime, and subsidies generally, can provide an important opportunity for channelling resources to deprived areas and reducing regional and intra-regional inequality. As the Bill currently stands, however, there are no regulations in place that actively allow for that. As Professor Fothergill, the national director of the Industrial Communities Alliance, explained:
“In certain places, if we really are serious about levelling up, we have to put more resources into that effort, and we have to use state aid as one of the tools for delivering new jobs.”––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 11, Q7.]
Does the Minister recognise that the contents of the Bill do not currently match up with the levelling-up rhetoric? Does he agree that subsidies can be used and could make a significant impact by supporting and aiding deprived areas? Including information on the geographical spread of subsidies could be quite an effective and efficient way of providing some insight about whether the resources under the regime are working to reduce inequality, which would surely be of help to the Government in achieving their stated goals.
We believe that the CMA’s annual report should include information that would allow the CMA’s resourcing, capacity and effectiveness to be evaluated. We have proposed that the annual report should set out
“the number of extensions to the reporting period”
for mandatory notifications that the CMA has made, the duration of those extensions,
“the number of voluntary referrals made”,
and how many of those the CMA has and has not prepared a report on. The CMA has a key role in ensuring that subsidies and schemes meet the principles and do not distort the market. If it is unable to carry out its responsibilities effectively, there will be a real risk that damaging subsidies continue without challenge or review.
I have just a couple of points to make. We have already raised a number of concerns about the limitations of the transparency that will be provided, particularly on the subsidies that will be on the database and our inability to get any meaningful information from it, because so many of the subsidies that will be made will be excluded from being on the website by merit of their being below the de minimis threshold. We continue to have concerns about that.
The amendment simply asks for transparency data and for the CMA to produce in its annual report data that it has already. These are data that the CMA will have within its local key performance indicators—stuff that it will be considering anyway. It will know the number of extensions and voluntary referrals that have been made. This is not an additional piece of work that the CMA will need to do. It is simply ensuring that such information is added to the annual report, rather than putting an additional burden on the CMA. It is stuff that the CMA will be measuring anyway—if it is not doing so, it is not a public organisation that is working sensibly. This is basic, bread-and-butter stuff, and it means that we would be able to scrutinise properly and have an idea of what is happening.
The points made by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston, particularly in relation to the resourcing of the CMA, are incredibly important. We want the CMA to be adequately resourced so that it can carry out its functions effectively, because the system does not work if the CMA is not adequately resourced. We will struggle to know whether the CMA has adequate resource if it is not producing data on the number of extensions that it has required. As I say, the amendment is eminently sensible, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to the speech made by the Opposition spokesperson.
The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 requires the CMA to prepare an annual report of its activities and performance during the year. Clause 66 requires the CMA to include details within its annual report of any subsidies and schemes that have been referred to the subsidy advice unit in the previous year, including both mandatory and voluntary referrals. The purpose of including that information is to provide transparency on the number and types of cases being referred to the SAU each year.
Amendment 66 adds to the information that the CMA would be required to append to its annual report in ways that we believe are overly prescriptive. It would limit the CMA’s flexibility to determine what information to include in its annual report and the most effective way to deliver that. Some of the information that the amendment mandates would not be accessible or consistently available. For example, the requirement that the CMA publish the proportion of cases where the SAU found that a public authority’s assessment required improvement, or where it identified a risk to competition and investment, misunderstands the role of the SAU.
The SAU will evaluate the public authority’s assessment of whether the subsidy or scheme complies with the Bill’s requirements. It will also evaluate whether there are any effects of the subsidy or scheme on competition or investment in the UK. The SAU may include advice about how the public authority’s statement might be improved or modified to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Bill, but the SAU is not a regulator. It will not make its own independent assessment of potential risks to competition and investment, or make definitive judgements on the extent of them.
Other requirements of the amendment are similarly unnecessary, including the requirement to publish the number of requests made by the SAU under clause 53(6) to extend the reporting period for a mandatory referral. Clause 53(7) already requires that such requests are published. In addition, the low number of mandatory referrals that we estimate in any given year will mean that calculating the average number of days for extension is unlikely to offer much additional insight into the subsidy control regime. It therefore need not be mandated for inclusion in the annual report.
The amendment would also require the CMA to publish geographical allocations of all subsidies subject to mandatory and voluntary referrals. That would be a burdensome task for the CMA, and would be difficult to comply with consistently. First, the amendment asks for information to which the CMA would not have ready access, since not all subsidies eligible for voluntary referral will be referred to the SAU. Secondly, if a public authority referred a scheme instead of an individual subsidy to the SAU, it would not be possible for the CMA to determine the expected geographic allocation of subsidies not yet awarded under that scheme. The same issue may apply to the beneficiary of a single subsidy that operates in more than one location.
The right approach is to provide the CMA with a degree of flexibility to determine what information about subsidies and schemes referred to the SAU is presented in its annual report. For the reasons that I have provided, I request that the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister and the hon. Member for Aberdeen North for their comments. I intended to press the amendment to a vote, but on the basis of some of the discussion I will not do so. However, I will challenge a couple of things the Minister said. We are all aware of where there could be burdens for the CMA or others in producing reports, but it is important to ensure that we have an X-ray view that provides insight into what is happening across the system as a whole. Where the CMA should have information that would be relevant, it may be useful to include it in the annual report.
The Minister talked about eligibility for voluntary referral, about which the CMA would not have information. We did not intend to include any wording around eligibility, and I do not think that we did. We talked about the number of voluntary referrals, and those for which the CMA decided not to prepare a report. It is important to ensure that our proposals are understood. I take on board what he said, I think in the debate on clause 65: that he would welcome suggestions from the Opposition, and perhaps from his own side, about what information would be useful. We all want to ensure that there is an effective and efficient regime. None of us wants to see unnecessary costs incurred, but we need transparency and the right information to inform the right decisions and the best response.
I will challenge the Minister slightly on this matter. The public and Parliament are the customers of that report. Reports are produced with the requirement to be accountable for what has been done in line with what might be expected, how efficiently and effectively it has been done, and to have metrics by which performance can be assessed and issues identified. We should not abdicate our responsibilities as good customers to say what we think is needed for Parliament to be able to review the effectiveness of the regime and the institutions involved in delivering it. I encourage the Minister to think about that and not just say he will leave it to the CMA to produce what it wants. We must also have in mind what needs to be produced to be able to make our decisions effectively.
I am a bit confused by the Minister’s comments on paragraph (d). He seemed to suggest that the CMA’s report may not talk about where local authorities’ assessments require improvement. That is slightly concerning because, if a local authority is making an assessment on a subsidy and the assessment requires improvement, who is going to tell it? Who is going to say the assessment requires improvement if the CMA does not have the ability to say, “Excuse me. You have done this a bit wrong. Could you do it better?”
It would be helpful if the Minister contacted us, by letter if possible, to say what he expects will be in the CMA’s reports. At the moment, I do not understand what will be in those reports, specifically in relation to the mandatory referrals. What will be in the CMA’s report on the mandatory referrals that come forward? What does the Minister expect will be in the report? It does not have to be prescriptive; it could be ideas of the kind of things that would be in there, because at the moment I do not understand what that report is going to be.
It would be helpful, in the light of our conversation, if we could start with the Minister’s expectation. He may well have reflected on the discussion we have had today. That may a good and efficient way for us to come back with suggestions of what else might occur, or perhaps there will be full, total agreement on what we want to see in the CMA’s annual report; we do not know. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
In accordance with the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, after the end of each financial year, the Competition and Markets Authority must prepare and send to the Secretary of State an annual report of its activities and performance during the year. The clause requires that the CMA include details within its annual report of any subsidies and schemes that have been referred to the subsidy advice unit in the previous year, including referrals made on both a mandatory and a voluntary basis. That will help to provide transparency on the number and types of subsidies and schemes that have been reported on by the subsidy advice unit.
Notwithstanding the comments we have made in the ongoing discussion, we support the clause stand part.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 66 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The clause gives the subsidy advice unit—the SAU—information-gathering powers to assist with its monitoring and reporting functions under clause 65. It does so by applying, with modifications, the information-gathering powers that the CMA has under sections 41 to 43 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020.
Those powers enable the SAU to require that persons produce specified documents and that businesses provide estimates, forecasts, returns and other information that may be specified. The SAU will be able to require that the information be provided for the purpose of assisting it to review and report on the operation of the Bill, and on its impact on competition and investment within the United Kingdom. The SAU will have the power to impose financial penalties, where a person fails to provide information as required, or intentionally obstructs or delays the SAU when it is exercising those powers.
The Secretary of State is given the power to make necessary modifications to the powers, so that they work when applied for those purposes. Such modifications cannot alter the maximum financial penalties that may be imposed by the SAU. It is important that the SAU can obtain credible and comprehensive information, so that it can monitor and report on the subsidy control regime effectively. The ability to impose financial penalties for non-compliance provides a powerful incentive for persons to provide that information to the SAU and is consistent with the CMA’s existing statutory functions.
The clause applies sections 41 to 43 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 for the purpose of assisting the CMA in carrying out its functions on subsidy control. The clause means that the CMA will be able to give an information notice or require the production of a document by an individual, business, or public authority. We recognise the importance of allowing the CMA to give an information notice, so that it can monitor the subsidy regime effectively. We therefore support the clause standing part of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 67 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Subsidy Advice Unit
I beg to move amendment 67, in clause 68, page 38, line 39, at end insert—
“(3A) The Chair of the CMA Board may appoint up to three non-executive members to the Subsidy Advice Unit established under subsection (1) in order to ensure that the Unit includes least one person with relevant experience in relation to each of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
This amendment would allow the CMA Chair to appoint up to three non-executive members to ensure that the Unit includes at least one person with experience in relation to each of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 68, in clause 68, page 38, line 41, at end insert—
“or persons appointed under subsection (3A).”
This amendment is linked to Amendment 67.
Amendment 69, in clause 68, page 38, line 41, at end insert—
“(4A) Before making an appointment to the Subsidy Advice Unit, the CMA must seek the consent of the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland.”
This amendment would require the CMA to seek the consent of the devolved administrations before making an appointment to the Subsidy Advice Unit.
The clause establishes regulations for the CMA to establish a board called the subsidy advice unit, which will carry out the CMA’s duties under the new regime. We support the creation of the subsidy advice unit and the duties it gains under the Bill. However, yet again, the Government have failed to create a role for the devolved Administrations. The Minister might wonder whether I sound like a broken record, but the reason is that the theme continues to be a cause of concern throughout the Bill.
The subsidy advice unit will play an extremely important role in the new regime, consistently assessing all subsidies and schemes referred to the CMA, by public bodies and by the Secretary of State. Its reports and advice will influence the challenging and carrying out of subsidies and schemes, and will provide important guidance for public authorities. The demands on its time and expertise will be considerable, as it sets up and carries out that very important function.
Rightly, the unit ought to have all the right input. A diversity of input means that some of the best decisions will be made. It is important to ensure that the right advice and input will be there in the unit, in particular that representing all four nations of the UK. Its work will be applicable not just to England, but to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, the clause does not appear to ensure that all nations will be represented fairly in the subsidy advice unit. Why is that?
Does the Minister not feel that it is important for the devolved nations to be represented on this significant body? Doing so would enhance the Government’s reaching out and their ongoing connection with the devolved Administrations, ensuring genuine four-nation input in its work. As Dr Pazos-Vidal, head of the Brussels office for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said, the Bill
“is too general and not reflective of the territorial constitution of the UK as it stands.”––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 8, Q4.]
The lack of specific representation for the devolved Administrations on the advice unit is a stark example of that.
Labour proposes two amendments to change that lack of representation. They would ensure that the Bill works as well as we want it to, and as well as we need it to for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as for England. Amendment 67 would allow the chair of the CMA board to appoint up to three non-executive members to the subsidy advice unit if the board felt that there was a gap. That would ensure that the CMA could include at least one person on the unit with specific, recent experience that was relevant to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Amendment 69 states that the CMA must seek the consent of the devolved Administrations before making an appointment to the subsidy advice unit.
The amendments would ensure that the guidance and reports issued by the CMA are not too England-focused, and take into account, in a more equal way, the views of all the UK regions. They seek to ensure that information and insights are considered in the round and together, and that the new regime is more effective across the whole of the UK.
It is not just Labour that recognises that representation is important. To choose just one comment that we heard in evidence, Thomas Pope, deputy chief economist at the Institute for Government, said:
“I certainly think that the CMA and/or the subsidy advice unit should have a membership and input reflecting its four-nation role in the UK”.––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 31, Q43.]
We think that that should be formalised as part of the structure, so that things are less likely to go wrong or be overlooked. If there is an intention to have such representation anyway, why not formalise it as part of the structure, and put it on the face of the Bill?
Clause 68 requires that the CMA establishes a new committee of the board, called the subsidy advice unit, for the purposes of undertaking the subsidy control functions set out elsewhere in the Bill. The unit would be a specific committee within the CMA dealing with subsidy control, exclusively comprising staff and members of the CMA. In the clause, “members of the CMA” refers to the chair and individuals who sit on the CMA board and the CMA panel of competition experts. “Staff” refers to the civil servants employed by the CMA.
Amendments 67 and 68 appear to misinterpret the relationship between the CMA and the subsidy advice unit. The CMA was chosen as the home of the subsidy advice unit because of the former’s experience of protecting UK competition and its credibility with both domestic and international stakeholders. Although the subsidy advice unit is being set up as a distinct unit, reflecting its unique role compared to the CMA’s other statutory functions, it would still be an internal unit of the CMA. Subsidy advice unit appointments are therefore internal CMA appointments.
Amendments 67 and 68 seek to allow the CMA chair to appoint non-executive members to the subsidy advice unit. However, the CMA can already recruit personnel to the unit with relevant experience in relation to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The CMA already can and does recruit staff and members from across the UK, and currently employs staff in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London.
Amendment 69 goes much further, by requiring that the CMA seek the consent of the devolved Administrations before making appointments to the subsidy advice unit. However, as we have already established, subsidy advice unit appointments are internal CMA appointments. The amendment represents an unprecedented and unwarranted intrusion into the CMA’s internal operations, putting at risk the very independence that makes it such a desirable home for the subsidy advice unit’s function. I therefore request that the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston withdraws amendment 67.
The Minister has said that having the voice of the devolved Administrations is unprecedented. Before I come back on whether we will press any of the amendments to a vote, can he clarify whether that is really unprecedented? He was involved in the Office for the Internal Market legislation in a way that I was not directly, so is there a difference in how the Office for the Internal Market is constituted in relation to the devolved Administrations?
It is a different set-up. The Bill places a requirement on the CMA to establish a new committee of its board, to be referred to as the unit, which would consist of members of the CMA and staff. It does not have the same constitutional impact, not least because the subsidy advice unit will deal with the subsidy regime, which is reserved. In the same way as Ministers do not get involved in the day-to-day workings of the subsidy advice unit or the CMA to ensure their independence, it remains for the CMA to determine which staff it appoints to the unit.
I thank the Minister for his comments. I do not think he fully answered the question, which is whether there is anything different about the representation of the devolved Administrations in relation to the Office for the Internal Market. Perhaps he can answer that specifically.
The Minister is right about allowing for independence, but it is independence to operate within a framework that I think is being set in the Bill. There is room for us to do this without challenging the independence of the CMA or the subsidy advice unit by simply laying out what Parliament would expect. Perhaps he can come back to me specifically on the point about the Office for the Internal Market and the voice of devolved Administrations in it.
The Office for the Internal Market is a distinct set-up—it is a new set-up—whereas this is a committee within the board of the CMA. As I say, they are two distinct bodies. The OIM is overseen by the CMA, but it sits as a distinct body. The SAU sits within the CMA’s overall tree.
The hon. Lady talks about the devolved position. The OIM sits as a distinct board specifically because of the constitutional impact of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. Because the SAU sits within the CMA’s board, it is very much an internal appointment. The OIM is not constituted in the same way. It is not for the CMA to make those internal appointments to the OIM directly.
I thank the Minister for that, but I do not feel that he has been completely clear. These are not God-given institutions; we are talking about decisions made by the same Government. The question becomes whether there is a reason, and whether it would be helpful and effective in the way that the regime is set up and operates, to have independent expert voices that are from and work with the four nations of the UK. I do not feel that there has been a clear response to that important issue.
The 2020 Act constitutes the Office for the Internal Market—we determined that—whereas the subsidy advice unit, being not a regulator but an organisation that offers advice, sits directly within the CMA. It is not setting up a discrete body; it is setting up a portion of the CMA. We have charged the CMA to set up the subsidy advice unit. Either the CMA is independent or it is not. The amendment charges us to get under the bonnet of the CMA’s internal appointments and direct it to make certain appointments, which risks undermining its independence.
Perhaps the Minister and I will have to agree to differ on this point, because seeking to have particular areas of expertise reflected in the membership of the subsidy advice unit is not challenging its independence; it is setting out the expectation of Parliament. It is within the Minister’s gift to say that, and it could be contained in the Bill if we chose to do so.
I think we will come back to the point that the CMA is likely to do what is required by Parliament and Ministers. It is important to remember that distinction: we are the ones who are making decisions on legislation, so we are accountable to the public and the taxpayer for making legislation that will stand the test of time and operate in the interests of the four nations of the UK, as is intended. That is not for the CMA to make decisions on; it will be looking to the Minister to advise and help make decisions on that. I put it to the Minister that making sure that the subsidy advice unit contains expert voices from across our devolved Administrations is an important part of how we make sure it is constituted to have the inputs we need. After that, as I am sure we all agree, there needs to be independence in how the CMA operates. There will be no determination by Parliament of which specific people should be on those boards—we need to separate those issues.
On the basis of what the Minister has said, I do not think the Bill currently goes far enough, so we will press amendment 67 to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The purpose of clause 68 is to require the Competition and Markets Authority to create the subsidy advice unit as a committee of its board, and to allow the SAU to carry out subsidy control functions under, or by virtue of, this Bill on behalf of the CMA. This type of governance has the advantage of not requiring large structural changes within the CMA, while providing appropriate administrative ring fencing to allow the subsidy advice unit to carry out the subsidy control functions, existing as a discrete unit with its own character and brand.
A couple of questions have been raised about this clause. I am not particularly happy with how it works: I think more could have been contained in it. The questions from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston have shown that there is a lack of clarity on what the subsidy advice unit means and how it will differ from the Office for the Internal Market, for example. The Minister will probably laugh, but it would be incredibly helpful if we were provided with an organogram that explains the work of the CMA, the SAU sub-committee, and the Office for the Internal Market, so that we can understand how it all goes together.
The Minister has been clear that the SAU sub-committee of the CMA board is a different thing from the internal market one. I do not entirely understand how it all fits together. I know that the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 explains some of it, but all those pieces of legislation, in various different places, being mashed together still does not give a picture of how it will all work. If the Minister could agree to look at that, it would be incredibly helpful.
I thank the Minister for his comments. Notwithstanding the debate we have had, the Labour party supports clause stand part, but some areas need to be reflected on, including how the Office for the Internal Market is working, and what we can learn for the CMA and this regime. Clarity ahead of Report would be very helpful to settle some of those questions.
I will happily supply an organogram. Effectively, the Office for the Internal Market sits as a specific panel, whereas the SAU is a committee of the CMA and will go down on the CMA board. Working that way was the CMA’s preferred approach because that gives it discretion on how to design the operational processes for fulfilling the SAU’s functions.
I appreciate that, but I was saying that the CMA preferred this way because it allows the CMA to draw on its board and staff members, as well as on existing members of the CMA panel, as it sees fit. That avoids creating any additional complexity in the governance arrangements—as we have seen with the Office for the Internal Market, we do not want that to keep expanding. That allows the CMA to draw on the expertise of CMA panel members with established backgrounds in state aid and subsidy control who were appointed in anticipation of the functions under the new regime.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 68 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
References to subsidy control groups
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The purpose of clause 69 is to enable the subsidy advice unit to make a reference to the CMA chair for the constitution of a CMA panel group under schedule 4 to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. The provision gives the CMA the ability to refer certain subsidy control functions to its expert independent panel members as it sees fit.
As the Minister has said, clause 69 enables the subsidy advice unit to make reference to the chair of the CMA for the constitution of a CMA panel group. We have no issues with the clause and will support clause stand part.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 69 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Review of subsidy decisions
I beg to move amendment 72, in clause 70, page 39, line 30, leave out subsection (2).
This amendment would allow an application to be made to review a subsidy decision related to a subsidy given under a scheme.
The amendment would enable interested parties to apply to the Competition Appeal Tribunal for a review of the decision to give a subsidy or make a subsidy scheme. An interested party is defined in subsection (7) as
“a person whose interests may be affected by the giving of the subsidy or the making of the…scheme”
or the Secretary of State. Subsection (2) states that:
“Where an application for a review of a subsidy decision relates to a subsidy given under a subsidy scheme, the application must be made for a review of the decision to make the subsidy scheme”,
meaning that an application cannot be made in respect of a decision to give a subsidy under a scheme. The Bill is explicit on that matter.
The evidence from the law firm DWF is quite scathing about that aspect of clause 70:
“We also believe preventing challenges to awards made under a scheme runs contrary to the logic of the system, which seems to be to allow those affected to test the lawfulness of awards at the point they are affected.”
I would be grateful if the Minister could respond on that. Is it right that although an interested party may have suffered as a result of the awarding of a subsidy, if it is made under a scheme, they have no basis to bring a challenge? If that is right, can it be right?
Labour’s amendment reflects both our concern and a suggestion to remediate that deficiency, which is to leave out subsection (2). The result would be that an application to review a subsidy decision could also be made for a decision to award a subsidy made under a scheme. That seems to be one way to address the issue. I would be grateful for the Minister’s response, first, on the issue and, secondly, whether he thinks there is a better way to address it in legislation.
Clause 70 sets out the terms under which an application for review of a subsidy decision may be made to the Competition Appeal Tribunal. The tribunal may review, on application by an interested party, a decision made by a public authority to give a subsidy or make a subsidy scheme.
As drafted, an interested party may not apply to the tribunal for a review of the decision to grant a subsidy under the terms of a scheme. An application may instead be made to review the making of the scheme itself. Before a scheme is made, the proposed terms must be assessed against the subsidy control principles; a scheme must not be made unless subsidies granted under it are consistent with those principles. Consequently, subsidies that comply with the terms of a scheme will comply with the principles and do not need a separate assessment.
Subsidy schemes have long been recognised as a convenient way to grant multiple subsidies—not least because of the administrative simplicity of making a single, scheme-wide assessment against the principles. It would significantly undercut the benefits of administrative efficiency of schemes if subsidies granted in line with the terms of a subsidy scheme were eligible for review by the tribunal.
I am not sure what harm the amendment is trying to remedy. Is it the risk that impermissible subsidies may be granted under a scheme? In such cases, either the scheme is non-compliant and can be challenged within the normal limitation periods, or the subsidy does not comply with the terms of the scheme it is granted under, in which case the non-compliant subsidy would be deemed a new individual subsidy, and could be challenged as such. I therefore request that the hon. Lady withdraw the amendment.
The Minister is not giving way. The hon. Lady is making a speech.
The scheme can essentially be challenged under the Competition Appeal Tribunal against the principles. If a subsidy granted under a scheme is consistent with those principles, it is part of the scheme, and it is the scheme that would need to be challenged. If a subsidy granted under a scheme is not consistent with the principles, it is therefore not consistent with the scheme, and it would sit outside that. It could therefore be challenged.
I must say that I find that a little confusing. I am not fully clear on how a challenge can be brought to a subsidy under a scheme to even determine—what the Minister said in relation to it. Perhaps I am missing the point here, but it currently seems to be very explicit: it ends up being about the scheme rather than an individual subsidy under the scheme. Nine out of 10 subsidies under a scheme may have no challenges against them, with only one being challenged.
The scheme itself must already be consistent with those principles, so if any particular subsidy is given within the scheme, and it is not consistent with the principles, then it clearly cannot sit within that scheme itself, because it is inconsistent with the scheme that it is purported to be part of. Therefore, that will then be set aside and will be approachable for the CAT.
Is it related or on something else?
The Opposition spokesperson was asking for some clarifications from the Minister.
If there is a subsidy that is given under a subsidy scheme, who decides that that subsidy was not eligible to be part of the subsidy scheme and is therefore applicable to challenge outside the scheme? I think that is part of the point that the Opposition spokesperson was getting at. There does not seem to be a mechanism for saying “That subsidy doesn’t fit within this scheme, and is therefore challengeable in its own right, rather than as part of the scheme”.
A subsidy is, by definition, one given under the scheme until somebody analyses that and decides that it is not applicable to be given under the scheme, but there does not seem to be a process for that subsidy to be categorised as something that should not have been given under the scheme. How does the challenge procedure work here?
I thank the Minister for his answer; I want to ensure that we correctly understand what he is trying to say. On the basis of what I think he is saying—that there may be a mechanism for challenging subsidies under a subsidy scheme—I will not press the amendment to a vote today, but I would like the Minister to explain, in writing, how he would see that scenario working, and where the power to bring a challenge sits.
I am still not clear where a determination—that a subsidy is to be treated as a subsidy, rather than a subsidy under a scheme—would come from. That does not feel clear, so let us get that clarified. If we could have that in writing, that would be extremely helpful. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment 70, in clause 70, page 40, line 9, leave out
“whose interests may be affected by”
“who has sufficient interest in”
This amendment would alter the definition of interested party to make it consistent with clause 31(3) of the Senior Courts Act 1981.
The purpose of clause 70 is to enable interested parties to challenge subsidies before the CAT. It defines an interested party as
“a person whose interests may be affected by the giving of the subsidy or the making of the subsidy scheme”
or “the Secretary of State”. We are concerned that the definition is too narrow and is deficient in two respects. The definition of interested parties—the test that establishes standing for the purposes of judicial review—applies a test at subsection (7)(a), which seems narrower than under the Senior Courts Act 1981. The test under subsection (7)(a) is
“a person whose interests may be affected”.
By contrast, the test under section 31(3) of the 1981 Act is a person who
“has a sufficient interest in”.
While it may not seem so different on one level, it could have important consequences.
George Peretz and others have suggested that the definition of interested parties under the Bill narrows the standard public law right and could be interpreted as limiting those who could bring a challenge to parties whose commercial or financial interests have been affected. What would that mean for the ability of those acting in the public interest and not in a private interest to challenge a subsidy?
Let us use an example: the Good Law Project has serious concerns about the awarding of a tax relief to a particular business and does not believe the subsidy is consistent with the subsidy control principles. It is not inconceivable that the business could be owned by a friend or relative of a Minister who is awarding the tax relief or being involved in some other way. In light of the current climate around sleaze, perhaps it would not be surprising at all. Can the Minister clarify what standing an independent challenger, such as the Good Law Project, would have under subsection (7)(a) to bring a challenge to such a tax relief, and if not why not?
Labour proposes amendment 70 to make the definition of interested party consistent with section 31(3) of the Senior Courts Act 1981. It should not only be those whose financial interests are or may be affected and the Secretary of State who can challenge subsidies.
As Professor Rickard, professor of political science at the London School of Economics, explained in October:
“Thinking about who has a particular interest in challenging those subsidies, there may be good reasons to expand the potential set of challengers to ensure that it includes not just competitors but maybe also employees, trade unions, taxpayers or interest groups. That would give us more eyes on the subsidies to ensure that they are complying with the principles, ensuring value for money and achieving the economic outcomes that they set out to achieve.”––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 23, Q25.]
Does the Minister recognise that the subsidy’s impact can extend beyond those who are more narrowly defined as interested parties? The amendment could bring the test for standing in line with judicial review. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify whether there was an intention to subtly deviate from the definition in the Senior Courts Act. We hope the Government recognise that it could be a way of improving how the Bill operates as well.
I will go into a bit more detail in a second, but an interested party is any person whose interests may be affected by the decision in question. We are setting out a new UK-specific subsidy regime with unique rules. In that context, we have set out an intentionally broad definition of what constitutes an interested party. That said, the Competition Appeal Tribunal can exercise its discretion. We want to ensure that in each case the right people are determined to be interested parties. By exercising that discretion, the Competition Appeal Tribunal can build up a jurisprudence that is specific to and optimally used for the subsidy control context. The Competition Appeal Tribunal is an expert body in competition matters and has the right knowledge to make appropriate decisions on these questions of standing.
As we have heard, the amendment would require the CAT to adopt the test in the Senior Courts Act 1981, which states that a person seeking review of the subsidy decision must have “sufficient interest”. I understand that the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston intends that the amendment would broaden the scope of who can bring a challenge, but given the breadth of the existing test in the Bill, I do not think that she could be confident that her amendment would have the desired effect. In any event, it would bring along a body of case law that may be unrelated to the new subsidy control regime and could prevent the CAT from exercising its full discretion in each case. As I have said, it is a new system, with standalone enforcement through the CAT. It is therefore appropriate that the tribunal can decide for itself who can seek reviews of subsidy decisions.
The clause does not exclude any party whose interests may genuinely be affected by a subsidy. As such, I cannot see the advantage in changing the test for who can challenge a subsidy, as proposed in the amendment. The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston talked specifically about someone without a financial interest. As I say, that is why the definition of “interested party” is broad. It covers any person whose interests may be affected by a subsidy, and it will be up to the CAT to determine. We are giving the expert body the appropriate discretion to get the answers right in each and every case, and I therefore ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.
This is an interesting and important discussion about who is included in the definition of “interested party”. I would like to reflect on the Minister’s comments and perhaps test them with expert advice and a detailed review of the definitions and explanatory notes for the Bill. On that basis, I will not press the amendment to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Michael Tomlinson.)
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.
Judicial Review and Courts Bill (Seventh sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Sir Mark Hendrick, † Andrew Rosindell
† Barker, Paula (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab)
† Cartlidge, James (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
Crawley, Angela (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP)
† Cunningham, Alex (Stockton North) (Lab)
† Daby, Janet (Lewisham East) (Lab)
† Fletcher, Nick (Don Valley) (Con)
† Hayes, Sir John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
† Higginbotham, Antony (Burnley) (Con)
† Hunt, Tom (Ipswich) (Con)
† Johnson, Dr Caroline (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)
† Longhi, Marco (Dudley North) (Con)
McLaughlin, Anne (Glasgow North East) (SNP)
† Mann, Scott (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Marson, Julie (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)
† Moore, Damien (Southport) (Con)
† Slaughter, Andy (Hammersmith) (Lab)
† Twist, Liz (Blaydon) (Lab)
Huw Yardley, Seb Newman, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 16 November 2021
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
Judicial Review and Courts Bill
Good morning. I remind Members of the advice offered with regard to social distancing and suchlike that we have heard many times before.
Written procedure for indicating plea and determining mode of trial: children
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Good morning, Mr Rosindell. The sun shines on the Committee. This is a sunshine clause, not necessarily a sunset clause, but it is an important one. The criminal age of responsibility in England and Wales is 10 years old, which means that children aged between 10 and 17 can be charged with a crime and prosecuted in court. The majority of children’s cases are dealt with in our youth courts, which are specifically designed to provide for the additional needs and vulnerabilities of children. In addition to specialist youth courts, there are bespoke procedures and processes that apply to criminal proceedings against children. That is why we are legislating for online plea and allocation for children under a separate clause, which recognises the distinct youth justice system that exists for them.
Clause 8 will help to avoid unnecessary hearings by giving children the option to provide an online indication of plea for offences that may require a subsequent trial allocation decision. Where the indication is not guilty, the clause will enable the court to deal with the allocation decision online. Like adults, children will need to have a legal representative to proceed with the new online procedure, which will be available only through the common platform. The purpose of the clause is to reduce the number of times that children, and their parents or guardians, have to travel to court. It will allow for case management of the pre-trial stage of cases to take place outside of a courtroom so that children have to attend court only for trial and sentencing hearings.
Courts will need to provide such defendants and, where appropriate, their parents or guardians with information explaining the written procedure, the choices available to them and the effects of those choices. Where a child provides an indication of a plea online, courts will have to ensure at the first court hearing that the child has understood their decision and confirms their written indication of plea before proceeding any further with the case. As with any case involving a child, when dealing with preliminary matters in writing or online, courts must continue to have regard to the current overarching statutory duties to prevent children from reoffending, and to have regard to their welfare.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. As the Minister said, the clause creates a new pre-trial allocation procedure similar to that of clause 6, whereby an individual would be able to indicate a plea in writing for all summary-only, indictable-only and triable either-way cases, but this time it is for children. Thus far on the criminal procedure changes in the Bill the Opposition have tried to work with the Government’s proposals to find a workable solution through amendments; however, that is not the case with clause 8, as we believe that it is wholly inappropriate for remote proceedings of this kind to be used in cases with child defendants. The law rightfully affords children additional protections and safeguards to reflect their inherently vulnerable nature, and propensity to plead guilty notwithstanding the evidence or potential defences, as shown, for example, in the evidence-based Justice Lab report on incentivised legal admissions in children.
The Minister outlined the theory of what will happen with this set of measures, but sadly the implementation of it could prove to be very different. The Bar Council opposes the provisions too, saying:
“We do not accept that a written procedure for indicating plea or determining mode of trial in the case of children will do anything other than impede access to justice for the most vulnerable cohort of defendants within the criminal justice system.
It has long been the position of the Criminal Bar Association and the Bar Council that the prosecution of children and young people requires wholesale overhaul to ensure that they only enter into the criminal justice system as a very last resort, if diversion and other interventions are unsuitable.
Representation of children and young people, and the courts that administer youth justice, need to be properly funded, regulated and restructured in order to be fit for purpose.”
The Bar Council goes on:
“At present, these courts are not fit for purpose, and all too often act as a gateway for vulnerable youths into more serious offending. It follows that moving to a written procedure will compound the situation, limiting the opportunities for lawyers working under a legal aid system to meet with vulnerable defendants and their families, signpost interventions by other appropriate agencies and identifying children and youths with additional needs. It will also impede the child and youth’s understanding of the seriousness of the process into which they have entered.”
I very much agree with the Bar Council’s assessment. There is much wrong with the youth justice system, and the provisions of this clause would exacerbate the existing issues rather than do anything to improve them. I would also like to seek further clarity on whether the provisions of this clause would allow online pleas for children, which would be seriously concerning. I emailed the Minister about it last week, and he responded with a note from officials. However, I wonder if he could provide some more specific guidance about it on the record.
Although it is not within the Bill itself, paragraph 181 of the explanatory notes states:
“Clause 8 inserts new section 24ZA of the MCA 1980 that enables a child or young person under 18 years who is charged with a triable either-way offence to be provided with the choice to indicate a plea in writing/online, without the need for a youth court hearing.”
We are opposed to the introduction of a written procedure for indicating plea or determining mode of trial in the case of children in any way, but have even stronger objections to an online procedure being introduced directly for them.
I share the concern of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which says:
“The Commission is concerned that children as young as ten could be engaging with the criminal justice system through an online process insufficiently adapted to their needs and with minimal engagement from a parent or guardian. Children are already more likely to struggle to understand and engage with legal processes. Youth Court hearings provide an important opportunity to respond to the specific and additional needs of children. This is particularly important in light of recent evidence indicating that children are more likely to enter a guilty plea when they are not guilty.”
While the Bill provides that a parent or guardian should be aware of proceedings where they take place online, the Opposition are not convinced that that is sufficient to mitigate against the risks posed to children. As the EHRC briefing notes:
“The law currently provides that, where a child under sixteen is charged with a criminal offence, a parent or guardian must attend all proceedings save where it would be unreasonable to require them to do so. For cases where a plea is entered by a child under sixteen in writing or any part of the proceedings is to be conducted on the papers, the Bill only requires the court to ascertain whether a parent or guardian is aware that proceedings are taking place and where necessary provide that information.”
That is in new section 34A(1B) and (1C) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.
My concern about children above 10 years old being able to make an online plea is that when children use a computer and everything is very much virtual, it is a different level of interaction and can seem like a game. I agree with my hon. Friend’s point that their understanding of the process or their experience of making an online plea will be of a less serious nature. I also support his view that children are more likely to say that they are guilty because they are used to apologising, or they want to get out of the situation quickly. This is not the appropriate way forward.
Yes, computers may be learning tools for children, but they are also their game world. Those of us who have families or grandchildren know that to be very much the case. It is so easy to press buttons and tick boxes, and I am really concerned, as is my hon. Friend, that young people may well think, “Let’s take the easy way out. Let’s just tick the box, and let’s get this over and done with. Then I can forget about it.” Unfortunately, they cannot forget about it, because they can end up with a criminal record, even if they are not guilty of the offence of which they have been accused. That is all the more reason why we need to review this clause in some considerable detail.
Of course, the issues applying to children under 16 do not apply to 17-year-old children. Furthermore, article 40(2)(b) of the convention on the rights of the child sets as a minimum standard the right that a child hearing be held in the presence of legal or other appropriate assistance and, unless not in the best interests of the child, his or her parents or legal guardian. In addition, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends
“that States parties explicitly legislate for the maximum possible involvement of parents or legal guardians in the proceedings”.
This clause does the direct opposite. We do not believe that it makes adequate provision to protect the rights of children in the justice system. It is not appropriate that the important safeguards that exist for children should be watered down in that way through the provisions in clause 8. As such, we will oppose the inclusion of the clause in the Bill.
I appreciate where the hon. Members for Stockton North and for Lewisham East are coming from, in the sense that of course we have to be careful in matters involving children. It is fair to point out, however, that these are not revolutionary changes of procedure. In my view, there will certainly be cases where, particularly for vulnerable people, the online environment is more suitable in many ways, because after all they will have legal representation.
I will explain clearly exactly what the clause does, what the safeguards are and where the discretion lies, to try to ameliorate some of the concerns. At the moment, there would be the plea before venue and allocation decision procedures for children of 10 to 17-years-old, which can be completed only at a court hearing. The Bill enables those procedures to be completed in writing online via the common platform without the need for a hearing, as is clear.
On the safeguards, defendants will need a legal representative to proceed with online plea and allocation. That is an important safeguard that will remain firmly in place due to the accessibility restrictions created by the common platform and the stipulations in secondary legislation under the criminal procedure rules. Courts will need to provide information explaining the written procedure, the choices available to defendants and the effects of those choices. If a defendant fails to engage with an invitation to proceed in writing or online, the court will default back to a traditional first hearing. Clause 13, which we will come to, applies with regards to requiring and enabling the court to ascertain whether the parent or guardian is aware, and if they are not, to provide them with the relevant information.
Finally, in terms of discretion, it is the defendant’s discretion to proceed with online indication of plea and allocation in writing or online, so they can still have a traditional hearing. It is also the court’s discretion to withhold or disapply online indication of plea and allocation in writing, if it thinks that is appropriate in the circumstances. There are significant safeguards in place.
It means that we will have greater consistency, but I accept what the hon. Member for Stockton North is saying, which is why we have been keen throughout the debate on these clauses to stress the important safeguards and discretions that exist. I hope that, on that basis, hon. Members can support the clause.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Powers to proceed if accused absent from allocation hearing
I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 9, page 22, line 34, at end insert—
“(1A) In section 17B (power to proceed with indication of plea hearing in absence of disorderly but represented accused)—
(a) for the heading substitute “Power to proceed if accused does not appear to give indication as to plea”;
(b) for subsection (1) substitute—
“(1A) This section has effect where—
(a) a hearing is held for the purposes of section 17A,
(b) the accused does not appear at the hearing,
(c) any of the conditions in subsections (1B) to (1E) is met, and
(d) the court is satisfied that it is not contrary to the interests of justice to proceed in the absence of the accused.
(1B) This condition is that a legal representative of the accused is present at the hearing and signifies the accused’s consent to the court’s proceeding in the accused’s absence.
(1C) This condition is that—
(a) a legal representative of the accused is present at the hearing, and
(b) the court does not consider that there is an acceptable reason for the accused’s failure to attend.
(1D) This condition is that—
(a) it is proved to the satisfaction of the court, on oath or in such manner as may be prescribed, that notice of the hearing was served on the accused within what appears to the court to be a reasonable time before its date, and
(b) the court does not consider that there is an acceptable reason for the accused’s failure to attend.
(1E) This condition is that—
(a) the accused has appeared on a previous occasion to answer the charge, and
(b) the court does not consider that there is an acceptable reason for the accused’s failure to attend.
(1F) This section also has effect where—
(a) a hearing is held for the purposes of section 17A,
(b) the accused appears at the hearing,
(c) the court considers that by reason of the accused’s disorderly conduct before the court it is not practicable for the hearing to be conducted in the accused’s presence, and
(d) the court is satisfied that it is not contrary to the interests of justice to proceed in the absence of the accused.”;
(c) in subsection (2), for the words before paragraph (a) substitute “If a legal representative of the accused is present at the hearing—”;
(d) after subsection (4) insert—
“(5) If no legal representative of the accused is present at the hearing—
(a) the court is to proceed in accordance with section 18(1), and
(b) the accused is to be taken for the purposes of section 20 to have indicated that the accused would (if the offence were to proceed to trial) plead not guilty.””
This amendment allows a magistrates’ court to proceed if an accused person does not appear at the “plea before venue” hearing in a wider range of circumstances (equivalent to those provided for in relation to allocation hearings by clause 9(3)).
With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 3, 4, 8 and 9.
I have tabled these amendments to correct some errors in the Bill, which would prevent this measure from having the desired impact. When it comes to triable either-way offences, the procedures for plea and allocation are invariably completed in immediate succession of each other in the same court hearing. The primary purpose of clause 9 is to enable the court to complete preliminary pre-trial proceedings in the absence of a defendant in a wider range of circumstances than the law currently allows. That will help to ensure the timely progression through the criminal justice system of cases that would have otherwise stalled indefinitely where a defendant deliberately disengaged.
As currently drafted, clause 9 does not afford the same extended set of circumstances to proceed in absence for the plea procedure as there will be for the subsequent allocation procedure. That will in effect act as a legislative roadblock that prevents the courts from being able to make use of the new powers that clause 9 provides. Therefore, these amendments will ensure that the court has the same powers to proceed in the absence of a defendant for both the plea and the allocation decision procedures. Where the court decides that it is in the interest of justice to proceed in a defendant’s absence, it will be assumed that the defendant has pleaded not guilty, and the court will allocate the case for a trial.
A further amendment rectifies a drafting error in clause 9 to ensure that it remains consistent with current law, whereby there is no requirement for the presence of a legal representative when a court decides to proceed with allocation, having removed a disorderly defendant from the courtroom.
These amendments will allow the clause to work as intended, maximising the benefits for the criminal justice system. Clause 9 will continue to ensure that the court cannot proceed in absence unless it is satisfied that it is in the interests of justice to do so.
I thank the Minister for his explanation of the need for a raft of amendments to his own Bill.
Clause 9 will introduce additional circumstances in which the magistrates court could continue with the proceedings in the defendant’s absence in triable either-way cases. This applies to adults, and there are similar provisions for children. I will speak on our general concerns in the debates on the Opposition amendments.
I again thank Justice for its assistance in highlighting potential concerns in this area. Currently, the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 provides that the process for triable either-way cases begins with a plea before venue, where an adult defendant is required to appear in a magistrates court to indicate whether they wish to plead guilty or not guilty. Thereafter, if the defendant pleads not guilty or refuses to state a plea, the case proceeds to the allocation hearing. That involves deciding whether the case should be tried in the magistrates court or the Crown court. The defendant is required to be present for both the plea before venue hearing and the allocation hearing. However, in both scenarios there are two circumstances where the court can proceed in the defendant’s absence: where the defendant has legal representation and the court considers that, by reason of the defendant’s disorderly behaviour, it is not practicable for the proceedings to be conducted in their presence—the legal representative will of course act on the defendant’s behalf—or where the defendant gives consent via their legal representative for proceedings to take place in their absence.
Clause 9 would introduce additional circumstances where the magistrates court could proceed with the allocation proceedings in a defendant’s absence in triable either-way cases. In its current form, the Bill does not introduce any changes to the way plea before venue hearings are conducted for triable either way cases. In addition to the two existing circumstances that I have mentioned, clause 9 would empower the magistrates court to now proceed and allocate the case without the defendant’s input in cases where the defendant does not engage in writing or does not appear at their hearing without an “acceptable reason”, provided that the court is satisfied that the defendant has been properly served. The allocation decision would be made on the basis of an assumed not guilty plea—the Minister said that—and the court would proceed to allocate the case to the magistrates court or Crown court. Defendants, however, will continue to have an opportunity to elect for a trial in the Crown court until the start of the summary trial.
Government amendment 2 will now allow a magistrates court to continue with the proceedings in cases where the defendant does not appear at the plea before venue hearing in a wider range of circumstances. The circumstances mirror those proposed for allocation hearings as set out in clause 9(3), including where a defendant does not appear at the hearing without an acceptable reason. The amendment proposes changes to section 17B of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980, which currently empowers magistrates courts to proceed with the plea before venue hearing
“in the absence of a disorderly but represented accused”—
one of the two exceptions to the general rule mentioned earlier.
However, the amendment does not include any requirement for a defendant’s legal representative to be present, which is currently provisioned in the Bill for the allocation hearing, although the Government propose removing it through amendment 3. A number of other circumstances in which the plea can go ahead in the defendant’s absence also do not require the defendant’s legal representative to be present.
Proposed new section 17B(5) of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980 would provide that, where a legal representative is not present at the plea before venue stage, the defendant is taken to have plead not guilty. As Justice explains,
“This would significantly weaken an existing safeguard, since the court would not benefit from any input from the defendant or their representative at the plea stage”,
which presents a rather big concern for the Opposition.
Government amendment 3 would allow a magistrates court to continue with the allocation hearing in the absence of a disorderly defendant, even if they are not legally represented, by removing from the Bill the need for the accused’s legal representative to be present, even in cases where
“the court considers that by reason of the accused’s disorderly conduct before the court it is not practicable for the hearing to be conducted in the accused’s presence”.
If the accused behaves in a disorderly manner, the court would be able to proceed with the allocation hearing in their absence, without their legal representative needing to be there.
I most certainly do. My hon. Friend knows that I will talk about children in the justice system forever, if I need to. It is absolutely critical that they are given every support. Not every parent is capable of offering the appropriate advice, so it is very important that legal representation is in plac