Report (1st Day) (Continued)
Clause 10: Subsidy schemes and streamlined subsidy schemes
6: Clause 10, page 6, line 31, after “Crown” insert “of his or her own accord or by a Minister of the Crown upon a reasonable request to make such a scheme addressed to him or her by the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers or the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 6, I shall also speak to Amendments 58 and 64 and deal with three issues relating to devolution. I am grateful for the support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson—although obviously she is not here—on Amendment 6, and of the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lords, Lord Wigley and Lord Fox, on Amendment 64. I shall deal with those two amendments first.
I think it can truly be said that Amendment 6 is a very modest amendment because, unlike what was before the Committee, it does not seek to give the devolved Governments the power to make streamlined subsidy schemes, nor to submit them to their own Parliaments, but simply seeks to make it clear that if a reasonable request is made to the Secretary of State for a streamlined subsidy scheme by one of the devolved Governments then the Secretary of State would make such a scheme and lay it before Parliament in due course.
There are two reasons for that. First, it seems completely wrong in principle for the Secretary of State of his own accord to be able to make streamlined subsidy schemes within an area of devolved competence —I hope that is not in dispute. Secondly, there can really be no justification, if the nations of our kingdom are to be treated on the basis of equality, for the Secretary of State, having the power qua Secretary of State and Minister for England, to have the privilege of making these schemes for England that cannot be made in devolved areas of competence for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I therefore find it extraordinarily difficult to see what the objection is to this in principle, unless of course there is a commitment by the Government to provide for that in some other way.
On Amendment 64, it is a risk to claim that I am making a second move for a modest amendment, but again, when this is looked at, it will be seen to be modest. It would require the Secretary of State to seek consent from the devolved Governments in respect of some of the regulation-making powers, but not all of them, and in respect of guidance. I think we have debated long enough why guidance is so important.
This amendment is modest for a second reason: it would require the Secretary of State to consult and try to seek agreement over the period of a month. Thereafter the Secretary of State would be free, provided that, as no doubt a reasonable Secretary of State would always do, he had good reasons for not being able to obtain that consent. Again, there may be other ways of achieving that result, and I look forward with interest to hearing what the Minister has to say. It is very difficult to see what objection there could be to this measure.
Amendment 58 raises a very different point. I tabled it simply because it raises an issue of considerable constitutional importance, and one certainly treated by the devolved parliaments and Governments as such. There has been extensive debate in the devolved Governments about it and quite a lot of academic criticism. As is known, this schedule to the Bill sets out an elaborate procedure under which subsidies that have been made under the primary legislation and passed by the devolved legislatures can be challenged in the ordinary courts for breach of the subsidy control and other principles. The position of the Westminster Parliament, which may itself be able to pass legislation that breaches those principles, is of course different because of the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. There is no way this House could constrain a future House from passing a scheme in favour of England or doing something in respect of England which breached the subsidy control principles. It would simply be answerable for breach of its international obligations assumed under the treaty, but that has not always been a treaty with which the Government have accorded full and sufficient attention.
The devolved legislation originally contained principles—and all the amendments have contained principles—that, where the powers of the devolved legislatures are constrained, any issues as to whether they are in fact constrained in legislation passed are remitted to the Supreme Court. This legislation moves away from that fundamental principle, and it is important to realise the considerable concern caused by this move. It arises because, where a court decides to set aside the decision of the elected representatives of the people, considerable concern is always expressed. That concern should be dealt with by a special process, and submitting it to the ordinary courts is not right.
I am afraid that this amendment is a long and complex one and I will not attempt to go through it because it had to go through all those hoops. I have raised it because it seems quite impossible for us to pass this piece of legislation without noting what we are doing. Although I can see the hour—this is not the time for a debate on important constitutional principles—I very much hope that raising this issue now will give the Government pause to think about this and for this House to debate in future how we deal with the problem of ensuring that, when the people of Wales, of Scotland and of Northern Ireland for reasons of quite complicated constitutional doctrine have made a decision through their legislatures, that should be questioned only by a very senior court, through a process that is carefully thought through. We will need to return to that in due course.
Those are the reasons why I have put forward these three amendments, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I have put my name to Amendments 6 and 64 and I would like to say a word or two about them. I did not put my name to Amendment 58, partly because it came a bit later, although I discussed it with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and I understand its structure and support the reasons behind it.
I remember standing here and smiling at the Minister about a week ago because he had put forward an amendment to another Bill in which he was proposing, with our agreement, that the consent of the Scottish Ministers should be obtained before certain steps were taken. I am afraid I have forgotten the name of the Bill and the particular amendment but I think we all congratulated the Minister because he was, I think, following advice that came from the Constitution Committee, which suggested that it was appropriate that this kind of measure should in the Bill. I had the feeling that the tide had turned and that we might see more of that sort of thing.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, already made the point that Amendments 6 and 64 are really quite modest, and it is difficult to see any harm that is done to the structure of the Bill or indeed the way matters are worked out by putting into the Bill—through Amendment 6, for example—that a Minister of the Crown may be requested by the devolved Administrations to put forward a streamlined subsidy scheme. The Minister is not bound to give effect to that request, but it does mean that there is an avenue for the devolved Administrations to ask for a particular scheme to be proposed by him. It would be a reassurance to the devolved Administrations that their position has been properly recognised. After all, it is a partnership throughout the United Kingdom to make this scheme work. We do not want to fall into the trap of the then internal market Bill, which was notorious in seeming to ignore the devolved Administrations altogether.
These are modest amendments, as the noble and learned Lord said, which do not disturb the overall working of the Bill. If one is trying to recognise the position of the devolved Administrations, this kind of provision in the Bill would be very welcome, as it was in that Bill last week.
Amendment 58 enables me to ask the Minister about what paragraphs 6 and 7 in Schedule 3 are really doing. They refer to the “appropriate court”; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, asked whether it is properly designed. It talks about
“subsidy proceedings before the appropriate court”
in which the issue before the court is to be
“assessed by reference to the considerations and views of the promoter of the proposed devolved primary legislation”.
Who will bring these proceedings? It is an important question which I hope that the Minister might answer. What is meant by the assessment
“by reference to the considerations and views of the promoter of the proposed devolved primary legislation”?
Who will be the promoter? The wording of these provisions leaves a great deal to be discovered later. I would very much like to know what exactly is going on here, who will initiate the proceedings, and why the assessment is designed as it is in these paragraphs.
That brings me to the point that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, was making—that we are dealing here with a matter of great constitutional importance. Apart from the Scotland Act, no other provision directs a court on how to deal with proceedings brought against legislation passed by the devolved parliament. It must be remembered, as he was saying, that the devolved legislatures are democratically elected with the mandate of that democratic election behind them. One is not dealing here with delegated legislation. A much higher order of legislation is being considered, which deserves to be assessed with reference to the mandate that the parliament or assembly has from the electorate which gave it life. It is very important to appreciate the extent to which one is dealing here with matters of real importance to the Administrations and giving proper weight to the democratic mandate which they have.
The advantage of going to the Supreme Court is twofold. First, it avoids the possibility of appeals in the normal process, where the appropriate court takes its decisions and there are then appeals and the proceedings are delayed. The Supreme Court process is very simple and very quick. You go direct to the highest court under a reference which identifies the issue. The court then deals with it. The other point is the uniformity which the Supreme Court can bring through all the jurisdictions.
The amendment of my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas is long because he deals with each of the three jurisdictions; it emphasises that we are dealing with a UK enactment spreading its authority across all three jurisdictions of the United Kingdom and it makes sense that any issues about the appropriateness of legislation by the devolved legislatures should be decided by a single court so that there is uniformity throughout the system. That is what the amendment would achieve, and that is why it has a great deal of force behind it.
I have asked questions and am searching for a real understanding of what is going on in these provisions. I join my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas in inviting the Minister to consider the advantages of going to the Supreme Court instead of to the individual courts. There are the advantages of speed, certainty and uniformity throughout the jurisdictions because without those there is a risk of different decisions being taken in different jurisdictions, which is to nobody’s advantage.
My Lords, I am delighted to have added my name to Amendments 6 and 64 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. I did not add my name to the other amendment in this group because I did not have time to study its implications, but I am grateful to him for having put these amendments forward and to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for his comments.
I am a little worried because these are described as very modest amendments. Are they too modest for me to urge on the Government? No, they are not. The Government, who have been forthcoming on some amendments tonight, should be sending a message to Cardiff and Edinburgh, and to Belfast—to the extent that there is a Government there—that there are acceptable mechanisms for dealing with any disputes. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said, there is every argument for having a framework that is acceptable to Westminster and the devolved Administrations so they can at least respect the mechanism and when problems arise they can turn to it. I hope that the Government will be forthcoming on this tonight, and perhaps they will be. If they cannot accept these amendments, there may be other forms of words whereby this can be achieved.
This issue has arisen in so many pieces of legislation over the past two or three years where the relationship between devolved Governments and Westminster is concerned that a framework that is acceptable to both sides need to be established—all four sides, in fact. I hope that doing so will ensure that problems can be resolved before they have been created and that there is a transparent mechanism for everyone to do so, and for that reason I support these amendments.
I shall make a few remarks with regard to Amendments 6 and 64 in particular. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, is modest. He did not need to take us through the hoops of Amendment 58. His argument that the Government should be thinking again on this approach was very powerful. As the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, said, this is now the third Bill, I think, which will become an Act, where the devolved Parliaments have withdrawn consent at the outset and there have been rather tortuous discussions during the passage of the Bill to try to receive consent. Those Parliaments, properly constituted under our constitutional arrangements, feel that the Government are deliberately encroaching on their territory.
We debated this at length in Committee and I do not need to rehearse any of the arguments, but, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said, the Government seem to be open, when it suits them, to moving the dial towards consultation before further regulations are made. I think the noble and learned Lord was referring to Part 3 of the economic crime Act. In Section 14, the Government indicated that if there were going to be further provisions, the Secretary of State must consult the devolved Administrations on them. In this Bill, the Government have been reluctant to take a similar position of forcing Secretaries of State to consult where there are implications on devolved legislative areas.
In Committee, the Minister fell back repeatedly on saying that this Act is a reserved issue. That has been disputed by some, but even if we take it as read, the implication is that some of the schemes will impinge on devolved legislative competence. Therefore, the amendments in this group are very well made. Amendment 6, which has been supported by my noble friend Lady Randerson, regards offering some form of equivalence. While the Secretary of State indicates that this is a fully reserved issue, when there are schemes that are applicable to England only, there is no equivalent power for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That is what this amendment is seeking to correct.
I call this devolution equivalence. We are not disputing reserved or devolved competences; we are simply saying that when there are schemes that will be put forward for one nation under the legislative framework for that nation—England—there should be legislative equivalence for schemes operating within other nations. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, might say that that is modest; I say that it is reasonable. Surely one fundamental principle of our system of devolution could be that when it comes to the implementation of legislation, the reasonable test should apply.
With regard to Amendment 64, as I said, the Government seemed to move in the economic crime Act, but they seem very reluctant in this Bill. I simply do not know why, because both are comparable. Both indicate that there are reserved functions but devolved competences. Ultimately, if the Government believe, as the Minister will make the case, that this Bill will bring about great benefits, there should be equivalence between those authorities to utilise those benefits. Therefore, I hope the Government will consider these modest and reasonable amendments today and, if not, bring back at Third Reading some indications of moving.
We are very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, for tabling these amendments relating to the various devolution matters we have had outlined. We have been pleased to engage with the noble and learned Lord between Committee and Report and are glad that he and his supporters have facilitated this debate. The Minister knows we have several concerns around this Bill and its impact on devolution. The arguments have been rehearsed consistently throughout the Bill, and it is regrettable that the Government have not moved on a single one of the devolved Administrations’ requests.
We hope the Minister can clarify the situation around streamlined subsidy schemes. It has been asserted on a number of occasions that, while the Bill does not expressly permit this, devolved Ministers will be able to propose such schemes. Amendment 6 seems a very sensible proposition. If a devolved Minister makes a reasonable request of the UK Government, the Government should facilitate the creation of the relevant streamlined scheme. The simplest solution here is for the Government to accept the amendment, but, failing that, we hope the Minister can offer a very clear answer as to whether the UK Government will respond positively to sensible requests from the devolved authorities.
Amendment 64 is an interesting attempt at reformulating several Labour amendments tabled in Committee. We continue to believe that there should be a formal attempt to gain the consent of the devolved Administrations before exercising certain delegated powers or publishing guidance. Subsidy control may technically be a reserved matter, but, as we have said on numerous occasions, it directly impacts on several areas of devolved competence, not least regional development. When the economic crime Act was fast-tracked through this House, the Government worked hard to accommodate requests from colleagues from the devolved Administrations. We had hoped that would mark a new dawn for the Conservative Party’s approach to the Sewel convention, but this does not appear to be the case.
My Lords, I will not detain the House too long. Before Committee, I talked all those who were interested through the work we have done to engage with the devolved Administrations and the commitment we gave to take on board many of their suggestions. I know that some Members have had sight of the draft memorandum of understanding that we are trying to agree with the devolved Administrations. There is a commitment from the Government to engage with them. I accept that they have a principled objection to the fact that subsidy control is a reserved matter, so of course they are not willing to provide LCMs on that basis. Having said that, and accepting that reservation, we are still talking to each other, officials are still liaising and we will still attempt to reach agreement with them on the MoU. We have taken and will take into consideration many of the suggestions they have made.
Amendment 64 from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, would require the Secretary of State to seek the consent of the devolved Administrations before issuing guidance under Clause 79 or making regulations under Clauses 11, 33, 34 and 59. It would require the Secretary of State to wait for up to a month before issuing guidance or making regulations to obtain the consent of the DAs. Where the consent is not given, the Secretary of State will still be able to make the regulations or issue the guidance, but will have to publish a statement explaining the reasons for making the regulations or guidance without DA consent.
I realise that this is a contentious area but, as stated earlier, it is the settled will of Parliament that subsidy control is a reserved matter. In our view, it would not be appropriate for the UK Government to be required by legislation to undertake selective consultations with the DAs on guidance and regulations regarding reserved policy matters, which will affect all UK public authorities, before laying them in the UK Parliament.
Furthermore, as I stated in Committee, a formal consent mechanism would delay the issuing and updating of statutory guidance and regulations. It is important that the Government are able to update guidance quickly should circumstances change, for instance due to the development of new UK case law. Delaying changes would be unhelpful for public authorities and subsidy recipients alike. There is already a requirement in the Bill for the Secretary of State to consult such persons as they consider appropriate before issuing any further guidance—the DAs, of course, being appropriate in this case.
I hope noble Lords are reassured by these commitments. I have already set out that we will continue the extensive engagement we have had with the devolved Administrations in developing the policy for the new regime, including by sharing draft consultation documents on the definitions of subsidies and schemes of interest and of particular interest. It is right that the UK Government are not slowed down by the need to seek the formal consent of the devolved Administrations before issuing guidance.
Amendment 6 in the name of the noble and learned Lords, Lord Thomas and Lord Hope, the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, would in effect allow the devolved Administrations to create streamlined subsidy schemes under Clause 10 by making a request of a UK government Minister. To respond directly to the description of this as “modest” by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, I am concerned that it would significantly affect the Government’s discretion to set out a wider strategy for developing streamlined routes, given the impossibility of refusing “a reasonable request”.
Streamlined subsidy schemes have an important role to play in supporting public authorities to deliver well-designed subsidies that address market failures and UK strategic priorities, while minimising risks of excessive distortion to competition, investment and trade. They are not subject to mandatory or voluntary referral to the subsidy advice unit under the provisions of Chapter 1 of Part 4 of the Bill.
The Government intend that streamlined subsidy schemes will be a pragmatic means of establishing schemes for commonly awarded subsidies. Streamlined subsidy schemes will therefore function best when they apply across the entirety of the UK. The Government will design these streamlined subsidy schemes so that they are fit to be used by public authorities in all parts of our United Kingdom. In addition, the clause also sets out the procedural requirements when making a streamlined subsidy scheme, including the requirement that it be laid before Parliament. Per the debate on government amendments earlier today, streamlined subsidy schemes will also be subject to the negative procedure and may be prayed against by either House within 40 days of being laid.
Finally, it is important to stress that any public authority in the UK will be free under the terms of the Bill to create subsidy schemes for their own purposes. The DAs, as primary public authorities under Clause 10(2), will also be able to create subsidy schemes for their respective local authorities to use. Schemes have many of the same attributes as streamlined subsidy schemes, in that only the scheme, and not the individual subsidies awarded under it, need to be assessed against the principles. Schemes therefore offer an administratively light-touch means of awarding many subsidies that are also open to use by all public authorities, including the devolved Administrations.
As emphasised earlier, we will continue to work closely with the DAs in developing different streamlined routes. This will include inviting DA officials to sit on expert working groups for each route we are developing. The DAs will, of course, also be able to suggest areas that future streamlined routes might cover, and we will undertake to consider any proposal extremely carefully.
I apologise to the Minister and thank him for giving way. I am struggling a little with why the Government want to hoard the right to create streamlined subsidies to central government. I can assume only that it is because it gives the Government the ability to parachute schemes into Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—which might not be seen by those devolved Administrations as something they would have—and, because they are streamlined schemes, they cannot be challenged. Is that the reason the Government are not prepared to let devolved authorities have streamlined subsidy schemes for themselves?
No, I think the noble Lord is being unfair; the operation of these schemes is entirely optional. We will consult the devolved Administrations closely before making any such schemes. I only just said that we will seek to involve DA officials and others in expert working groups for each of the routes we are developing.
I am sorry to prolong this, but is the Minister now saying that, for a streamlined scheme that is presented by central government and could be taken up by, for example, organisations and companies in Scotland, the Scottish Government have the option of not allowing that to happen? That, I think, is what the Minister just said.
They could choose not to use the scheme if they wished, but it would be a UK-wide scheme. They would be consulted on the development and involved in the expert groups that put them together.
I will move on to Amendment 58, also tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. This amendment sets out a new route for subsidies given in devolved primary legislation to be considered by the courts, by allowing the relevant law officer to refer the question of whether a Bill is compatible with the principles in Chapter 1 of Part 2 to the Supreme Court. It also removes the requirement for the promoter of the legislation to consider the subsidy control principles and other requirements, and the ability of the courts to consider whether the provisions of Parts 1 and 2 of Chapter 2 have been properly applied, thereby removing the ability of an interested party to challenge the subsidy in the general courts on that basis.
I am of course very grateful for the interest taken by the noble and learned Lord in this clause and for his engagement on it with me and my officials. I believe that both he and I share an objective to ensure that these provisions reflect our constitutional and legal institutions, as well as our obligations under international law. Schedule 3, as it stands in the Bill, accomplishes those objectives.
It is important that the subsidy control requirements apply to subsidies in devolved primary legislation, and that these subsidies are not immune from challenge by interested parties. This is both for consistency with other subsidies and to ensure compliance with our international obligations, particularly under the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU. However, it is also important that the unique constitutional status of the devolved legislatures is respected. That is why we have tailored the provisions in Schedule 3 specifically, and there is no mandatory referral to the subsidy advice unit for these subsidies.
I must therefore reject the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord for two reasons. First, it would not meet our international obligations under the TCA, which requires us to make available a route to challenge in a court or tribunal for interested parties, on grounds of compliance with the substantive subsidy control requirements. This amendment would, effectively, remove that route.
In response to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, on the intention of paragraphs 6 and 7, it is those interested parties that may challenge, for example, another public authority or another business, as long as they meet the test set out in Clause 70. The promoter would normally be the government Minister, or the person making an amendment to the Bill, and this is defined in paragraph 2 of Schedule 3.
The second problem with the amendment is that it would have the effect of asking the Supreme Court to consider questions of fact. It is my understanding that the High Court or Court of Session is the appropriate forum to consider these questions in the first instance, followed by the relevant appeals court, and, as relevant, the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter for questions of law. Creating a route for the law officers to refer a question to the Supreme Court implies that any challenge to a subsidy in devolved primary legislation would be a constitutional question, as it is comparable to the route for referring devolution issues under the devolution settlements. While the Bill affects the exercise of responsibilities of all public authorities in the UK, I do not consider that this is a constitutional question.
I have a point of clarification, because this aspect draws two areas together. Given that agriculture and fisheries are part of this legislation, and because agriculture and fisheries are unquestionably devolved competences, there will be subsidy schemes—let us say for Scotland, an agriculture or fisheries subsidies scheme. The Minister has indicated that there can be a UK-wide streamlined scheme which will cover agriculture and fisheries, so for the first time in the devolution period, there would theoretically be two parallel support schemes for agriculture and fisheries. But there is no capacity for the devolved Administration to challenge the UK-wide scheme, because the Government are indicating that this is a reserved area, even though support for agriculture and fisheries is fully devolved. Furthermore, there is not even a direct route to ask the Supreme Court to consider the competences on the division of this. How does the Minister see the benefit of two parallel schemes: one streamlined and unchallengeable, and another a devolved one on agriculture and fisheries?
I understand the point that the noble Lord is making, but the idea that the UK Government are going to want to set up a streamlined scheme covering agriculture and fisheries in Scotland, in parallel to an existing subsidy scheme that the Scottish Government are already pursuing, is extremely unlikely. A streamlined route can indeed be challenged in the Competition Appeal Tribunal, and we would not introduce such a scheme without consulting closely with the devolved Administrations in the first place. I understand the constitutional question that the noble Lord is positing, but I think this is very unlikely. As the noble Lord well knows, all existing schemes are automatically out of scope of this Bill anyway, so the existing subsidy regimes that the Scottish and Welsh Governments have can continue as they are.
I do not think I said that there would be a streamlined scheme from the UK that would be uniquely for Scotland. I indicated that there would be a UK-wide streamlined scheme that would be for agriculture and fisheries within Scotland. As the Minister said, it would apply in England and in Northern Ireland as well. However, there would be, for the first time since devolution, two parallel subsidy schemes operating. While the Government can indicate that there would be consultation, there is no mechanism in this Bill for that dispute to be resolved, because the Secretary of State retains the decision-making power. That is why the support for these two schemes running in parallel is not equitable.
There is a difference in principle here. Subsidy control is a reserved matter. Under the memorandum of understanding, we have said that we will set up a mechanism that the Scottish Government can use to challenge schemes. Of course, any streamlined scheme would be approved by this Parliament anyway. In any practical political environment, there is no way that the UK Government will want to set up a parallel scheme to subsidise agriculture and fisheries, which are devolved competences, when the Scottish Government already have similar schemes in the same area.
As I have said, the devolved Administrations will of course continue, as they have always done, to make subsidies and subsidy schemes using the resources that they have. It is important to note that this Bill does not provide any resources for any schemes, and the court would need to look at the facts of the case on legality grounds in the light of the requirements of Schedule 3 to the Bill. This is, in my view, comparable to other circumstances in which devolved primary legislation is reviewed on legality grounds, such as the Human Rights Act or the United Kingdom Internal Market Act. Importantly, and in contrast to the review of the Competition Appeal Tribunal for other subsidies, the court could not consider common-law public law grounds alongside the requirements of the subsidy control grounds.
For all the reasons I have set out, I hope that the noble and Lord will not press his amendments.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate and for the various points that have been made; I hope it is not discourteous if I try to summarise them without individual attribution.
Fundamentally, this union is not going to hold together unless there is an acceptance of equality of treatment, and this Bill drives a coach and horses through that. One illustration suffices: if this Parliament, for England, makes a subsidy scheme that infringes the subsidy control principles, then those overseas cannot challenge it, but they can challenge what is done in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That is not equality. A second, more vivid example of equality is the ability to make streamlined subsidy schemes. Part of the difficulty we face is that all of this is for future legislation, but we are now trespassing into the constitution.
What has emerged from the questions that the Minister has tried to answer is this: where are we going in areas of devolved competence? He says that no Government would want to do it, but we are a country governed by the rule of law, and the law ought to be clear as to the constitutional responsibilities of the Government of the United Kingdom and of England and the constitutional responsibilities and powers of the devolved nations. This has not been thought through, as is evident from the Minister’s reply. I do not criticise him, because we do not have the detail of the streamlined subsidy schemes so that we could see how this would work.
Thirdly, we are trespassing into dangerous constitutional areas. I am sure that many lawyers will not accept that, if the Government tried to make a streamlined subsidy scheme that infringed on devolved competence, it would be challenged, because that would be made under subordinate legislation and would not have the equivalent status of an Act of this Parliament. It is a great misfortune that we have not thought all of this through.
That is finally illustrated by the curious Schedule 3. All law students were taught about a 19th century piece of legislation where an unfortunate town clerk who had an unhappy marriage put into the schedule to a waterworks or harbour Bill the words “and the town clerk’s marriage is hereby dissolved”, because divorce was not readily available in the UK. In a sense, very important constitutional issues have been shoved—I apologise for using that slightly familiar term—into Schedule 3 of a similar status. They have not been thought through, and this Parliament ought not to pass legislation of that kind. I hope that we will debate all these matters again. My noble and learned friend Lord Hope has underlined the importance of the constitutional issues, and we need to return to them before we make another mess in another Bill.
Having said all that, although I would like to talk for much longer about these important issues, I seek leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
7: Clause 10, page 6, line 36, at end insert—
“(6A) If, within the 40-day period, either House of Parliament resolves not to approve the scheme, or the scheme as modified, then, with effect from the end of the day on which the resolution is passed, the scheme, or the scheme as modified, is to be treated as not having been made.(6B) Nothing in subsection (6A)—(a) affects any subsidies given under the scheme before the end of the day on which the resolution is passed, or(b) prevents a further scheme being laid before Parliament.(6C) In this section, “the 40-day period” means—(a) if the scheme is laid before both Houses of Parliament on the same day, the period of 40 days beginning with that day, or(b) if the scheme is laid before the Houses of Parliament on different days, the period of 40 days beginning with the later of those days. (6D) In calculating the 40-day period, no account is to be taken of any period during which Parliament is dissolved or prorogued or during which both Houses of Parliament are adjourned for more than 4 days.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that the making of streamlined subsidy schemes is subject to the negative resolution procedure and provides for the legal consequences if such schemes are not approved.
My Lords, the amendments in the name of my noble friend address the findings of the 17th report of this Session by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The report’s recommendations on the powers that the Bill delegates to Ministers have been endorsed with vigour by your Lordships’ House. This is a clear indicator of the high regard in which the DPRRC’s expertise is held, and I am sure that that will continue under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord McLoughlin, to whom my noble friend wrote last week to set out how the Government were addressing the committee’s concerns with regard to the Bill.
As various noble Lords have noted throughout the passage of the Bill, the DPRRC’s report took issue with some of the ways in which it delegated specific powers to Ministers. I trust it will be reassuring to noble Lords that the amendments I shall now speak to respond to those concerns.
First, Amendment 7 amends Clause 10. Clause 10 provides, among other things, that Ministers may make streamlined subsidy schemes to facilitate the granting of subsidies in accordance with the subsidy control requirements. Streamlined subsidy schemes would be laid before both Houses of Parliament after they are made or amended. The DPRRC report recommended that the power to make streamlined subsidy schemes should be exercised by regulations, and that the negative procedure would be appropriate.
I am pleased to say that Amendment 7 does, I believe, meet the spirit of the committee’s proposal. The amendment provides for every new or modified streamlined subsidy scheme to be subject to the negative resolution procedure, meaning that either House of Parliament may resolve not to approve the scheme within 40 days of it being laid. I remain of the view that the nature of these schemes means that the power to make them should not be exercised by regulations. Specifically, they are designed to be easily comprehensible and used by smaller public authorities and include numerous economic criteria that would not be easily expressed in the form of regulations.
I turn to Amendments 10 to 13 to Clause 16, which concerns short-term export credit insurance as provided by UK Export Finance. The committee’s report recommended that the power to amend the list of marketable risk countries, which is included in Clause 16, should be exercised by regulations subject to a parliamentary procedure, instead of by ministerial direction. I trust the House will be reassured to hear that the Government fully accept the recommendation of the report and these amendments achieve this effect.
Amendments 15 to 17 relate to Clauses 25 to 27, which provide for definitions of “deposit taker”, “insurance company” and “insurer” respectively. The clauses include a power for the Treasury to change the definitions in these clauses via regulations. The committee took the view that the Government have not identified with sufficient precision the circumstances in which these powers would be necessary, and consequently recommended that the powers given to the Treasury to amend these definitions be removed from the Bill. The Government accept this recommendation of the DPRRC’s report. Amendments 15 to 17 will remove from the Bill these powers to make regulations in Clauses 25 to 27.
I turn to the committee’s recommendations on the much-debated Clause 47. Noble Lords will be pleased to hear that Amendments 45 and 46 respond to these concerns. The DPRRC raised several concerns on the drafting of Clause 47, in particular subsection (7). I will restate briefly the Government’s position on the necessity of this clause.
The flexibility to delay publication of a financial stability direction is important where that publication would prematurely disclose the existence of a subsidy. Immediately disclosing certain subsidies could potentially cause further damage to confidence in the recipient enterprise, cause a run on that recipient, and damage wider market confidence. While it may be possible to interpret Clause 47(6) as allowing for a delay in publication, that is not the intended purpose of the subsection, which is intended to provide for a duty of publication. The Government’s view is that it is much more appropriate to provide for an explicit process for delay in publication, with a limited and specific condition for such a delay. This is what the Government have done in subsection (7).
The absence of a parliamentary procedure is not to prevent non-approval of the direction by Parliament, but rather to ensure that the effectiveness of any intervention is not impaired by fear among stakeholders that support could be withdrawn. If there is concern that support could be withdrawn, there is a material risk that a recipient enterprise will reject the support offered or that the market will not be reassured by such support. That is why similar powers to act without parliamentary approval are provided for in the special resolution regime, reflecting the importance of legal certainty for the success of emergency interventions.
As the DPRRC report on this provision made clear, legal certainty was one of several factors considered in relation to a parliamentary procedure for this measure and was not the sole deciding factor for choosing the process in Clause 47. Other factors included protecting information flows and necessary secrecy in certain circumstances, and the speed of deployment.
Amendment 46 makes provision for a delay in publication of a financial stability direction in the event that the Treasury considers that doing so would undermine the purpose of issuing the direction. The amendment makes explicit the need to publish a direction and lay it before Parliament when doing so would no longer undermine the reason it was given. It constitutes a temporary delay in publication, not permanent secrecy, as was perceived by the committee, but which I assure noble Lords was never the Government’s intention. This amendment makes that explicit.
Clause 47(6) requires the Treasury to publish a direction in whatever manner the Treasury sees appropriate. In direct response to concerns regarding parliamentary accountability, Amendment 45 adds to this subsection the requirement for the Treasury to lay a direction in Parliament when publishing a direction. This ensures a direct route for parliamentary visibility of a direction in addition to the requirement in Clause 47(6) to publish a direction to the public. The Government fully agree with the committee: parliamentary scrutiny is vital to our democracy and this Government will not try to avoid it.
To further assuage the concerns of the House, I am happy to announce that my honourable friend in the other place, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, has written to the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury Committee; these letters commit to confidentially notify the chairs of the use of a financial stability direction to disapply requirements of the Bill where the publication of a direction is delayed.
Before I conclude with this suite of amendments, I must inform the House that there is one area where the Government have not amended the Bill in line with the committee’s recommendations. The committee stated in its report that it considers the powers in Clause 11 to be inappropriate, recommending instead that key terms relating to the definition of “subsidies and schemes of interest” and “subsidies and schemes of particular interest” are placed on the face of the Bill.
The Government do not agree that these definitions should be added to the Bill. It is important that the Government fully engage with external stakeholders as well as Parliament to ensure that this important element of the new regime is fit for purpose. The Government have already published, in January, a set of illustrative regulations, setting out a suggested approach for defining “subsidies and schemes of interest” and “subsidies and schemes of particular interest”.
In that vein, we can commit that the Government will undertake a public consultation before making the first set of regulations under Clause 11 that establish definitions for “subsidies and schemes of interest” and “subsidies and schemes of particular interest”. This consultation is expected to launch very shortly.
I trust that this demonstrates the willingness of the Government to design this important part of the subsidy control regime in an open and collaborative way, and in a manner that uses the expertise of the devolved Administrations and of legal and subsidy control practitioners at all levels of government within the UK. Following the consultation, the final regulations will be laid before Parliament for approval under the affirmative procedure before the regime comes into force.
Finally, Amendment 8 is a minor and technical amendment to Clause 11. It clarifies that regulations made under Clause 11 may make specific reference to the value of the subsidy or scheme or to the sector in which the recipient of the subsidy operates, as well as other appropriate criteria as necessary. I trust that this amendment makes it clear that the list in subsection (2) was always intended to be indicative as opposed to exhaustive. I beg to move.
My Lords, this group of amendments gives me an opportunity to express my appreciation to the Minister and his team for the work they have been doing under the legislative consent process. The Constitution Committee studied the working of this process for much of last year and in its report, Respect and Co-operation, expressed the concern that the process was not working properly—indeed, we heard quite a lot of evidence from the devolved Administrations that they were dissatisfied with the way it was working.
My impression has been that since late autumn of last year the working of the system has very much improved, and the remarks made by the Minister at the beginning of his reply on the last group of amendments tend to confirm that a great deal of work has been done behind the scenes to try to make the process work. I am therefore much encouraged by what he said, both in private conversations and in the Chamber.
I have one particular to request to make. When we come to Third Reading, I wonder whether the Minister would provide the House with a report to explain why, if it is the case, that consent Motions have not been passed by the devolved legislatures. It would be helpful to know what the sticking points were and why the Government were not prepared to give ground to the devolved legislatures to obtain their consent. It would inform the House. It would also enable us to understand how the process is working and to appreciate that the Government have been working as hard as they could to obtain consent and that there were genuine reasons for their inability to obtain it. I would be grateful if the Minister could do that when we come to Third Reading. I make that point now so that he can take it into account when the time comes.
Your Lordships will remember that I made a very long speech on the DPRRC’s reports and I would like to think that it was the power of reasoning within that long speech that led to these very welcome amendments from the Government. I suspect, however, that it is the reputation of the DPRRC and the rigour of its work that caused these changes to be made. For that, we should be grateful and pleased. It is a shame that the Government had to go through this process to do it, but it has happened.
We on these Benches also welcome the announcement made by the Minister on financial stability issues and bringing in the PAC and Treasury Select Committees confidentially on that. That is a common-sense approach, and it goes a long way to solving any issues.
On defining subsidies and schemes of interest and of particular interest, we are disappointed that the definitions are not brought into the Bill, but I hope that following the consultation process the Government will come back and, either formally or informally, inform the Front Benches and those others involved in the Bill of progress, so that when the regulation is made, we will in a sense have been brought into that process. This is a good set of amendments that we broadly welcome.
My Lords, we now come to the first mass grouping of a government concessions package. Like others, I express the thanks of these Benches to the noble Lord the Minister and the noble Baroness and the Bill team for the discussions and this good set of revisions to the Bill. There are 11 amendments in all, and as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, has said, many have been previously moved and supported by noble Lords from across the House, especially in Committee.
As we have heard, this group relates to the recommendations in the DPRRC report, which were plentiful and uncharacteristically forceful. Like everyone else, we are glad that common sense has prevailed, particularly in relation to the situation around Clause 47, whereby certain information could have been withheld from Parliament and, by extension, the public.
The concessions made by the noble Baroness in the name of the noble Lord the Minister are most welcome, but the bigger issue at play here is the frequency with which the Government have attempted to take broad powers for themselves, often without proper justification. We hope that that trend will change as we move towards a new parliamentary Session, and these concessions and these moves help to show that. Like the noble Lord, Lord Fox, we would have liked to see movement on Clause 11, on definition of schemes of interest and schemes of particular interest—but we will take these 11 amendments, with thanks.
My Lords, this has been a short but constructive debate, and I welcome noble Lords’ support for this suite of amendments.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, requested a report on the obstacles to the granting of LCMs by the devolved Governments, and I am happy to make that commitment: we will bring a report at Third Reading. We also wish to note the constructive engagement of the noble Lord, Lord Fox, who has successfully picked up the mantle on the issues highlighted in the DPRRC report. I am sure that his speech made some difference, alongside the good standing of the DPRRC and our respect for its work.
Amendment 7 agreed.
Clause 11: Subsidies and schemes of interest or particular interest
8: Clause 11, page 7, line 8, after “reference” insert “(among other things)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment clarifies that the list in subsection (2) of what may be covered in regulations is intended to be non-exhaustive.
Amendment 8 agreed.
Amendment 9 not moved.
Clause 16: Export performance
Amendments 10 to 13
10: Clause 16, page 9, line 22, leave out from “if” to end of line 23 and insert “regulations made by the Secretary of State provide for the marketable risk country to be so treated.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that the power to provide that a country is not to be treated as a marketable risk country is exercised by making regulations, rather than by giving a direction.
11: Clause 16, page 9, line 24, leave out “give a direction” and insert “make regulations”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment at page 9, line 22, in the Minister's name.
12: Clause 16, page 9, line 30, leave out from “must” to “if” in line 31 and insert “by further regulations under subsection (4) revoke regulations under that subsection in respect of a marketable risk country”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister's name at page 9, line 22 and places the Secretary of State under a duty to revoke the regulations made under subsection (4) if a subsection (5) condition is no longer met.
13: Clause 16, page 9, line 33, leave out subsection (7) and insert—
“(7) Regulations under subsection (4) are subject to the negative procedure.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister's name at page 9, line 22.
Amendments 10 to 13 agreed.
Clause 18: Relocation of activities
14: Clause 18, page 10, line 24, at end insert—
“(4) The prohibition in subsection (1) does not apply if the public authority giving the subsidy is satisfied that the conditions in subsections (5) to (7) are met.(5) The condition in this subsection is that the effect of the subsidy is to reduce the social or economic disadvantages of the area that would benefit from the giving of the subsidy.(6) The condition in this subsection is that the giving of the subsidy results in an overall reduction in the social or economic disadvantages within the United Kingdom generally.(7) The condition in this subsection is that the subsidy is designed to bring about a change in the size, scope or nature of the existing economic activities referred to in subsection (1)(a).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides an exemption to the prohibition on relocation of activities by allowing subsidies that meet conditions on reducing social or economic disadvantage.
Amendment 14 agreed.
Clause 25: Meaning of “deposit taker”
15: Clause 25, page 13, line 32, leave out subsections (4) to (6)
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the Treasury power to make regulations to alter the meaning of “deposit taker”.
Amendment 15 agreed.
Clause 26: Meaning of “insurance company”
16: Clause 26, page 14, line 14, leave out subsections (4) to (6)
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the Treasury power to make regulations to alter the meaning of “insurance company”.
Amendment 16 agreed.
Clause 27: Subsidies for insurers that provide export credit insurance
17: Clause 27, page 14, line 40, leave out subsections (3) to (5)
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the Treasury power to make regulations to alter the meaning of “insurer”.
Amendment 17 agreed.
Clause 32: Subsidy database
18: Clause 32, page 17, line 17, at end insert “, and
(c) the subsidy database is kept under review in such manner and at such intervals as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment adds a duty on the Secretary of State to keep the subsidy database under review.
My Lords, I rise to move the government amendments in my name, with more than a modicum of delight, on the transparency of the new subsidy control regime. I have listened carefully to the arguments made for lowering thresholds and shortening the upload deadlines and, of course, I recognise the strength of feeling in the House on this matter. As a result, and as we said we would, the Government have gone back to first principles and reviewed the evidence base, ensuring the correct balance between administrative burdens on the one hand and transparency on the other.
As I set out in my letter to your Lordships on 15 March, the Government have published an updated impact assessment on the Bill which, using newly available data, assesses exactly that balance and has informed our approach to these amendments.
I will summarise the effects of this group of amendments. First, we have introduced a single threshold of £100,000, which applies across the vast majority of subsidy types. This is a substantial reduction of 80% from the original threshold of £500,000. Secondly, we have dramatically shortened the upload deadlines, reducing this by half for non-tax subsidy awards, so that subsidies will be visible on the database far sooner. We have retained the deadline for individual subsidy awards given as tax measures at one year. This is because a tax declaration, which is necessary to calculate the subsidy award, can be amended for up to a year after the tax return is submitted. Reducing the deadline here would make the cost of uploading tax subsidy awards disproportionate to the value of transparency for them. Noble Lords have recognised in previous debates that tax subsidies are in a unique position. I hope the House also recognises that, where it has been possible to reduce upload deadlines, we have done so.
In addition, the Government have introduced powers to be able to further amend the thresholds and the upload deadlines. The Secretary of State can review the levels in due course and make further changes as suggested by the available evidence at the time. Such new evidence will come about through the subsidy advice unit’s experience of how the regime is operating and the reports that it makes. I commit that these levels will be reviewed following the publication of the first subsidy advice unit report on the operation of the regime. Importantly, these regulations are made by the affirmative procedure, so Parliament will have maximum opportunity to scrutinise any changes. I know that noble Lords will do so.
The third change is that we have introduced new obligations to require the upload of permitted modifications of a subsidy or scheme. Public authorities will now face the same obligations to upload even minor changes, with the same upload deadlines as for the original subsidy.
Fourthly, we have placed a duty on the Secretary of State to review the transparency database as he or she considers appropriate, thereby ensuring additional quality control. As I stated in Committee, the Government are now carrying out additional checks on the database and following up with public authorities where we find mistakes. This will of course continue. As public authorities become accustomed to the regime they will, naturally, become better at uploading accurate information first time.
Finally, we have introduced an amendment specifying that the Secretary of State may provide statutory guidance to public authorities on pre-action information requests; that is, the provision of information following a request about a subsidy decision to an interested party that is considering whether to ask the Competition Appeal Tribunal to review the subsidy.
It is expected that any such guidance will encourage public authorities to discuss potential disclosure requirements with the beneficiary before the subsidy is given. This will help concerns about the confidentiality or commercial sensitivity of information disclosed in response to a pre-action information request to be addressed without unduly delaying or preventing the provision of sufficient information to potential challengers.
The overall effect of Amendments 18, 19, 21 to 44, 59, 60 and 62 in my name, taken together, will mean that we have a highly transparent subsidy control regime—far more so than existed under the EU state aid rules. Interested parties will be able to see subsidies they can challenge as well as numerous subsidies which are not challengeable under subsidy control requirements but whose publication is nevertheless in the public interest.
The new impact assessment reflects that the cost of lowering the threshold across the different subsidy types to £100,000 would have an administrative cost of £1.6 million over 10 years. This is not negligible, but the administrative costs of lowering the threshold further would be even greater. For example, a threshold of £25,000 per award would lead to a cost of just under £8 million, and a threshold as low as £500 per award—as was suggested by previous amendments—would be almost double that figure at just over £14 million. This has informed the Government’s decision on where to draw the most appropriate balance.
On the effects of shortening the upload deadlines, the impact assessment highlighted how there are unlikely to be significant cost burdens in reducing the upload deadline for non-tax subsidies from six to three months. However, lowering it below three months would have associated costs, as public authorities need to prioritise the gathering, checking and uploading of necessary information over other tasks they have. These costs will vary between public authorities.
The impact assessment also indicates that there would be disproportionate costs in relation to the uploading of tax subsidies to a shorter timeframe because of their unique nature, so the upload limits for tax subsidies in the Bill remain at 12 months, as I outlined earlier.
Before I conclude, I will address Amendment 20 from the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, which seeks to require the cumulation of subsidy awards within a scheme for the purposes of transparency. I recognise that this amendment would not represent a major change and I hope I can take from that that he is supportive of the package of changes the Government have made on transparency. None the less, my view is that it is seeking to solve a problem that does not really exist, creating an unnecessary administrative burden for public authorities.
I would first like to be very clear that the transparency obligation thresholds apply to subsidies, not payments. If a single subsidy to one enterprise for one purpose has been divided into multiple instalments, it remains as one subsidy and would need to be uploaded to the database if its total value was over £100,000. Any public authority trying to avoid the transparency requirements in this way would already be in breach of its obligations regardless of this amendment. I will ensure that this is reflected in the guidance so that public authorities are absolutely clear on this point.
I can see three possibilities for an enterprise to receive multiple awards under £100,000 for the same scheme, and none of them would justify the amendment. The first is entirely legitimate and they are simply separate subsidies. Perhaps different branches of the same business receive high-street regeneration subsidies for different towns in the same local authority. It is worth noting that some schemes will be made by a different public authority from the one giving the subsidy. For example, streamlined subsidy schemes are made by the UK Government but will be used by other public authorities, so the same enterprise could receive a subsidy under one scheme but from two different public authorities. I cannot see that this is a particular problem. In any case, the scheme itself will be on the database and subject to challenge in the CAT as provided for in the Bill.
The second possibility is that the public authority is trying to circumvent the transparency requirements simply to avoid the burden of having to upload its entirely legitimate subsidies, and is giving two separate subsidies under the scheme when it might have otherwise just given one. We can probably rule that out. There is no incentive for a public authority to do that: uploading an award on the transparency database will be a far more straightforward task than trying to parcel out a single subsidy into two different subsidies of £99,000 or less.
The third possibility is that the public authority is trying to game the transparency requirements to evade scrutiny because it believes that the subsidy is not compliant with the terms of the scheme and would be challenged if it came to light. Again, I find it hard to imagine that this is a tactic that any public authority in the UK would be so blatant as to deploy, and it would not be in compliance with the Bill requirements in any event. Should the subsidy lead to significant harms, it is highly likely to become apparent through other means, whether that is the recipient’s accounts, a press release, or other transparency mechanisms such as the local government transparency guidelines. A series of £99,000 awards would perhaps start to look suspicious when they came to light, which they inevitably would.
Overall, the requirement to cumulate awards within schemes for the purposes of transparency is a disproportionate response to a problem that I do not believe will arise in practice. It would add an unnecessary administrative burden to legitimate subsidies in the first category, and I cannot see that it would make much difference to the hypothetical nefarious public authority in the third category, since its attempts to game the system would probably breach the subsidy control requirements.
Therefore, I hope the noble Lord will not move his Amendment 20 and will agree to support, along with the rest of your Lordships’ House, my extensive package of transparency amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the Minister has set out, this group includes a number of concessions around the transparency issue. Again, we should thank him for coming some of the way towards the arguments that surfaced in Committee.
We welcome the reduction in the reporting threshold from £500,000 to £100,000. We recognise that that is some way short of the level that many external organisations were calling for and indeed that we wanted, but we also understand that it is a big step for the Government and they have come a long way towards where we think it should be.
I put my name to Amendment 20, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, and I am looking forward to hearing his proposal. I am still not 100% convinced by what the Minister said, although he worked hard to explain to us why it would not be an issue. I think some of the points he made were right—sorry, acceptable; I am sure they were all right.
On the Minister’s first point about multiple payments to different branches, if they all have the same parent company, I start to get concerned about that issue. However, the biggest point was that if nefarious activity is going on and a £99,999.99 subsidy is being paid out by this mythological nefarious authority, the Minister said that that would no doubt surface. I am not sure how it would do so, given that there is no reporting requirement, unless that extra penny is forthcoming. Apart from sleuthing, submitting freedom of information requests and citizens’ activity, how does the Minister expect this information to surface—or indeed is he going to have an investigative unit at his side, ready to swoop on such nefarious organisations? I am interested to hear how this disclosure or uncovering process will work.
Other government amendments mean that the declaration of subsidies scheme is being improved in time terms, and that is also very welcome. The Minister was talking about a review process. I think he would be wise to maintain a rolling review in the department to be able to surface any issues and problems. This is a new process and a lot of different organisations will be trying to bed into it. The sooner that any misunderstandings or misapprehensions are understood, the sooner the department and the Government can do something about it.
In closing, I have a personal request. I probably should really understand this but I still do not: could the Minister clarify the rules regarding the declaration of subsidies awarded within subsidy schemes? I have heard different wordings at different times throughout the process, so perhaps the Minister could clarify once and for all how and if individual subsidies awarded under subsidy schemes will or will not be reported.
Overall, we are pleased with the amendments in this tranche. The Minister has moved on transparency, but we hope he will keep that situation under review with a view to more transparency in future rather than less.
My Lords, this group of concessions, as the Minister has outlined, is significant because of both the number of amendments and, more importantly, their text and practical effect. We are grateful to the Minister and the Bill team for their engagement on these issues over many weeks now; our discussions have been very useful, and although we have not achieved everything we wanted, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said, the new subsidy control scheme will be far more transparent than the Bill initially proposed. There are 31 amendments in this large group, 30 from the Government and one from me. I still think mine is a good amendment but I understand the Minister’s points, which we will come on to in a second.
The main issue is that we remain somewhat unconvinced of the Government’s argument in relation to the £100,0000 threshold. Given that many public authorities already have to publish details of spending at much lower levels—in many cases, it is £500 for local authorities—the £14 million cost quoted by the Minister to take the transparency threshold down from £100,000 to £500 would be well spent because that transparency would then sit across the whole of the subsidy controls and subsidies issued. However, an 80% reduction, coupled with the universal requirements across different subsidy types, is a clear step in the right direction.
To be fair, the noble Lord, Lord Fox, has already stolen a lot of my thunder in relation to Amendment 20. The points he made were absolutely spot on so I will not repeat them; I look forward to the Minister’s response. I tabled Amendment 20 in an attempt to deal with the potential for public authorities to award multiple payments that fall under the £100,000 disclosure threshold. As the Minister outlined in his opening remarks, there are a number of possible reasons why a subsidy may be given at that level. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, is right: it is the final one of those three points, about a nefarious reason why an individual in a local authority would encourage a local authority to give multiple awards under the reporting threshold. A fundamental question still sits there: how will we and, more importantly, businesses and organisations that are or could be affected by a subsidy, challenge it if we have no sight of it?
We would be delighted if the Minister accepted this amendment but he explained in his opening remarks why he will not. If the Government are not willing to accept it, can the Minister outline any other safeguards that could be brought in to check this possible kind of behaviour? He did not touch on safeguards in outlining the three points; his response was that the Government do not expect this to happen or do not believe that it could happen. I hope that the Minister can also confirm, because this is important, that the ministerial delegated powers to amend the transparency thresholds will not be used before—I would prefer that they were not used at all, but especially before—the CMA and other interested parties are able to see the new system in operation. We appreciate that any future increases are subject to a cap but it would make a mockery of the process and the concession package if any of the thresholds were increased before the new system was up and running and had been tested and checked by the CMA.
One area not subject to amendments today but which we see as incredibly important is the process around MFA subsidies. At present, beneficiaries in receipt of MFA subsidies must maintain paper records, which not only increases the bureaucracy involved but goes against the grain of the general transition to paperless record-keeping. We do not believe that moving this system to a digital process would require any amendments to primary legislation, so can the Minister commit today to looking at the available options for digitising the MFA process, either as part of the department’s existing subsidy database workstream or as a stand-alone project?
I will touch on one final point about the move on upload from six months to three months. Again, I fully support this. The sooner this information is uploaded on to the database, the better for all, but we still have concerns about the right to appeal against a subsidy that a business or an organisation could be affected by. That is limited to one month; the Minister and the department have not moved that to six weeks or two months. I have some concern that we could have gone a bit further. With the reduction from six months to three months, we could have increased the ability for someone—or an organisation—adversely affected by a subsidy awarded to a competitor to challenge this by giving them a little more time. I understand the Minister’s argument about wanting the subsidy to be in place, agreed and unchallengeable, before the business will spend it, because it then has certainty. None the less, we could have given a bit more time to those who could possibly be adversely affected by it to make a challenge. With that, I again thank the Minister for the 30 amendments—it is just a shame that he could not go one more and make it 31.
I thank the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord McNicol, for their relatively supportive comments. I can provide much of the reassurance for which both noble Lords are looking.
I can certainly reassure the noble Lord, Lord Fox, that the Government will continue to keep both the thresholds and the upload deadlines under review. We will carefully consider new evidence as it arises, most notably from the CMA’s regular reporting on the operation of the regime. As part of this package of transparency measures, the Government have taken the power to be able to amend these limits, as I said, via affirmative regulations. We will certainly want to see how the new regime beds in and operates in practice before we look at any changes. Of course, they are by affirmative resolutions, so I have no doubt that the noble Lord would take me to task if we did this too early.
I can also confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, that subsidies given under subsidy schemes of more than £100,000 must be uploaded on to the database within three months for non-taxed subsidies, and within 12 months for taxed subsidies.
I turn to the point of the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, about how these nefarious subsidies would be discovered. If this nefarious activity is going on, it is clearly already not in compliance with the Bill and can be challenged—so there is no need to add more rules with which the public authority is then not going to comply. We believe that these subsidies will become apparent because they will lead to distortion and harms on the market.
I turn now to the question of safeguards raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNicol. The key safeguards for the regime as a whole are the existence of the Competition Appeal Tribunal enforcement process, the CMA’s regular monitoring reports and the ongoing responsibilities of my department for the successful operation of the scheme. We will carefully see how the system operates in practice and, as I said, keep the levels under review.
I turn now to the noble Lord’s point about cumulation. Cumulation is essential for the minimum financial assistance to ensure compliance with our international obligations. The Bill sets out a straightforward way for public authorities and enterprises to clarify whether the cumulative threshold has been reached. However, this process is not necessary for in-scheme subsidies. The MFA process set out in Clause 37 can be done simply and easily as part of the normal communications between a public authority and a recipient before any subsidy is given—for example, through forms, emails and tick boxes. We are committed to making this regime as straightforward as possible to ensure that funding reaches beneficiaries as smoothly as possibly, while balancing the need for transparency. Preventing misused cumulation of awards within a scheme for transparency is disproportionate, but we will also keep the operation of that under review and will seek to make it as unburdensome as possible for the various public authorities.
With that, I commend my amendments and ask that they be supported by the House.
Amendment 18 agreed.
Clause 33: Duty to include information in the subsidy database
19: Clause 33, page 17, line 28, leave out “£500,000” and insert “£100,000”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment reduces the threshold for the exemption from the requirement to upload to the subsidy database from £500,000 to £100,000.
Amendment 19 agreed.
Amendment 20 not moved.
Amendments 21 to 30
21: Clause 33, page 17, line 31, after “given” insert “as a subsidy”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that the one year deadline for uploading to the subsidy database only applies to tax subsidies.
22: Clause 33, page 17, line 32, at end insert—
“(aa) if made as a subsidy scheme in the form of a tax measure, within three months of the confirmation of the decision to make the scheme, or”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides a 3 month deadline for uploading tax schemes to the subsidy database.
23: Clause 33, page 17, line 33, leave out “in any other form, within six” and insert “or made in any other form, within three”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment reduces the time limit for making an entry in the subsidy database from 6 months to 3 months in respect of a subsidy or scheme given in a form other than a tax measure.
24: Clause 33, page 17, line 41, leave out “, or a subsidy scheme made,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that the one year deadline for uploading modifications to the subsidy database only applies to tax subsidies.
25: Clause 33, page 17, line 41, at end insert—
“(aa) within three months of the date of the modification, in respect of a subsidy scheme made in the form of a tax measure, or”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides a 3 month deadline for uploading modifications to tax schemes to the subsidy database.
26: Clause 33, page 18, line 1, leave out “six” and insert “three”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment reduces the time limit from 6 months to 3 months for making an entry into the database with regard to modifications to a subsidy or scheme given in a form other than a tax measure.
27: Clause 33, page 18, line 3, leave out from “apply” to end of line 4 and insert “to the modification of a subsidy if—
(a) the subsidy is one to which subsection (2) applied, and(b) the amount of the subsidy as modified is no more than the applicable amount.(6A) For the purpose of subsection (6)(b) “the applicable amount” is—(a) the amount specified in subsection (2)(c), or(b) if regulations under subsection (8)(b) provide for a different amount in relation to the subsidy, that amount.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister's name at page 46, line 39 and defines the limits of the exemption from the database requirements in relation to modifications for subsidies given under a scheme.
28: Clause 33, page 18, line 11, leave out from “regulations” to end of line 13 and insert “—
(a) substitute a different amount for the amount specified in subsection (2)(c);(b) provide for a different amount to apply, instead of an amount specified in subsection (2)(c), in the case of particular descriptions of subsidy.(8A) An amount specified in regulations under subsection (8) may not exceed £500,000.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment amends the regulation-making power to ensure that the transparency thresholds can be amended but also that they are capped.
29: Clause 33, page 18, line 13, at end insert—
“(8B) The Secretary of State may by regulations—(a) amend subsections (3) and (5) so as to substitute a different period of time for the period of time specified;(b) provide for a different period of time to apply, instead of a period of time specified in subsection (3) and (5) in the case of particular descriptions of subsidy or subsidy scheme.(8C) A period of time specified in regulations under subsection (8B) may not exceed—(a) one year in respect of a subsidy given in the form of a tax measure;(b) one year in respect of a subsidy scheme made in the form of a tax measure;(c) six months in respect of a subsidy given or scheme made in any other form.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides a power to make regulations to amend the time limits in Clause 33 for making entries in the subsidy database, subject to a cap.
30: Clause 33, page 18, line 14, leave out “are subject to the negative procedure” and insert “or (8B) are subject to the affirmative procedure.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that regulations made under subsection (8) and under the power inserted by the amendment in the Minister's name at page 18, line 13, are subject to the affirmative procedure.
Amendments 21 to 30 agreed.
Clause 36: Minimal financial assistance
31: Clause 36, page 19, line 28, at end insert—
“(3A) In subsection (1), the reference to the subsidy control requirements does not include the requirements as to transparency in Chapter 3 of Part 2 except in relation to the giving of a subsidy as minimal financial assistance if the amount of the subsidy is no more than £100,000.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the exemption from the transparency requirements in relation to minimal financial assistance, in respect of each individual subsidy which exceeds £100,000.
Amendment 31 agreed.
Clause 38: Services of public economic interest assistance
32: Clause 38, page 21, line 8, at end insert—
“(3A) In subsection (1), the reference to the subsidy control requirements does not include the requirements as to transparency in Chapter 3 of Part 2 except in relation to the giving of a subsidy as SPEI assistance if the amount of the subsidy is no more than £100,000.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the exemption from the transparency requirements in relation to services of public economic interest assistance, in respect of each individual subsidy which exceeds £100,000.
Amendment 32 agreed.
Clause 41: Exemption for certain subsidies given to SPEI enterprises
Amendments 33 and 34
33: Clause 41, page 23, line 13, leave out from “requirements” to end of line 30 and insert “as to transparency in Chapter 3 of Part 2 do not apply to a subsidy given to a SPEI enterprise for the purpose of the provision of SPEI services, where the subsidy is no more than £100,000.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the exemptions from the transparency requirements for SPEI subsidies over £100,000.
34: Clause 41, page 23, line 31, leave out “(a)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister's name at page 23, line 13.
Amendments 33 and 34 agreed.
Clause 42: Chapter 2: supplementary and interpretative provision
Amendments 35 to 44
35: Clause 42, page 23, line 39, leave out “(a)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister's name at page 23, line 13.
36: Clause 42, page 23, line 40, leave out “of total assistance”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister's name at page 23, line 13.
37: Clause 42, page 23, line 40, leave out “for the time being”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister's name at page 23, line 43.
38: Clause 42, page 23, line 42, leave out “(a)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister's name at page 23, line 13.
39: Clause 42, page 23, line 43, at end insert—
“(c) amend section 36(3A) or 38(3A) so as to substitute a different amount for the amount specified;(d) provide for a different amount to apply, instead of an amount specified in section 36(3A) or 38(3A), in the case of particular descriptions of subsidy.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment allows the new transparency thresholds inserted by the amendments in the Minister's name at page 19, line 28 and at page 21, line 8, to be amended by regulations.
40: Clause 42, page 23, line 45, leave out “only”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister's name at page 23, line 46.
41: Clause 42, page 23, line 46, leave out “equivalent to” and insert “up to an equivalent of”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that Clause 42(2) operates to provide a cap on the amounts that may be specified by regulations under Clause 42(1).
42: Clause 42, page 24, line 6, leave out “(a)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister's name at page 23, line 13.
43: Clause 42, page 24, line 16, at end insert—
“(3A) An amount specified in regulations under subsection (1)(c) or (d) which amend section 36(3A) may not exceed the amount specified in section 36(1).(3B) An amount specified in regulations under subsection (1)(c) or (d) which amend section 38(3A) may not exceed the amount specified in section 38(1).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that where the new transparency thresholds inserted by the amendments in the Minister's name at page 19, line 28 and at page 21, line 8, are amended by regulations, they are subject to a cap.
44: Clause 42, page 24, line 17, leave out “(a) or (b)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that regulations made under the power inserted by the amendment in the Minister's name at page 23, line 43, are subject to the affirmative procedure.
Amendments 35 to 44 agreed.
Clause 47: Financial stability
Amendments 45 and 46
45: Clause 47, page 26, line 26, at end insert “, and
(b) be laid before Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that a financial stability direction is to be laid before Parliament.
46: Clause 47, page 26, line 27, leave out subsection (7) and insert—
“(7) If the Treasury considers that the steps required by subsection (6) would have the effect of undermining the purpose for which the direction is given, the Treasury may delay the carrying out of those steps until such time as it is satisfied that to do so would not have that effect.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that the exemption from the requirement to publish a financial stability direction and lay it before Parliament is temporary; the exemption may only be relied on for as long as the Treasury considers publication would undermine the purpose for which the direction is given.
Amendments 45 and 46 agreed.
Clause 55: Call-in direction
47: Clause 55, page 30, line 40, after “State” insert “or the CMA”
I rise on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, to move Amendment 47 and also speak to Amendments 48 to 50. I had never expected to be the noble Lord’s stunt double but I do not regret it at all. As on many issues, the noble Lord and I agree that the role of the CMA requires boosting so that, as he said at Second Reading, it can police the control of the regime. It is a shame that he is not here to speak on his own account as he would do so with much more vigour and verve than I, but we both see these amendments as analogous to the independence that was given to the OBR and the Bank of England. If the Government genuinely want to control subsidies, as the title of the Bill suggests, there should be greater independent enforcement instead of what is a pretty weak SAU.
I have a number of direct questions to channel from the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, before I speak on my own account. It is worth noting that on 7 February, the Minister said that
“the Bill does not, of course, replace our gold-standard mechanisms … for managing public money”.
The noble Lord would like to know: to what mechanisms was the Minister referring? I am looking forward to the answer to that question as much as is the noble Lord himself. As the Minister highlighted at the time, and as is the view of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, balancing the current budget while having national debt on a declining trend does not deal with the micro issues such as distortions of competition caused by subsidies. That is clearly true. I wonder on my own part why the Minister brought that up. The final point is that the Minister went on to say that
“public authorities … take their statutory obligations seriously … we expect the vast majority of public authorities to comply with these requirements”.—[Official Report, 7/2/22; col. GC 382.]
The interpretation of that is that public authorities, including the Government, are to police themselves. This is not an enforcement mechanism; it is incredibly weak.
For my own part, I would say that this is strong criticism from a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and hits at the heart of the Bill. To that end, I think that we deserve a serious and studied answer from the Minister, which I am sure we will get. This centres around the self-policing, public reporting mechanism that, essentially, has been adopted. What we have are amateur regulators and citizen detectives. It is clear that this is not the way to police something as important as a subsidy regime.
In addition to the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, I am delighted to support Amendment 55 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. Throughout this and previous debates, his dedication to the cause of trying to bring some structure to this legislation should be commended by us all. In many ways, this amendment sits somewhere between the positions of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, and the Government. As we would expect from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, it also addresses some serious devolution issues. I am really looking forward to hearing him set out how this amendment will solve some of the problems we have encountered throughout our debates.
A lot of those problems are based around the asymmetry that both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and my noble friend Lord Purvis raised on a previous set of amendments. There is an asymmetry here: the Secretary of State in London can call in the CMA, whereas the authorities in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast cannot do the same thing. This is at the core of the problem that people have. When we hear, in response to the request by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, what the stymie on getting legislative consent is, I suspect the problem—one of the central issues—will be a version of that. Addressing that would go a long way towards bridging the gap to getting legislative consent, which I hope is the Minister’s objective.
That said, I will speak no longer and look forward to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, explaining his Amendment 55 much better. I beg to move Amendment 47.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 55. I first thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and the noble Lords, Lord Wigley and Lord Fox, for their support. The amendment has two purposes, one of which has been outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, dealing with the position of the CMA. The second is to deal with the position of the devolved Governments and legislatures.
I ought to deal first with the position of the CMA. Although I co-signed amendments with the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, before Committee, the amendments he put down did not include two of them; I am not sure why. I have restored them all, because it seems to me that, on analysis, if the Bill is to be regarded as a serious attempt to uphold the rule of law and not as a piece of window dressing to satisfy our international obligations, we need to look more carefully at the position.
There are three methods of enforcement. The first is to have transparency and force disclosure. We know of the force that has; the effect of sunshine as a disinfectant is well recorded in history.
Secondly, there is the need for the CMA to investigate. It seems to me that without the CMA having powers of investigation, you do not have a properly independent system of enforcement compliant with the rule of law. It cannot be right to leave enforcement to those giving subsidies. You must have someone independent and objective in making the investigation. That is a requirement of the way in which all investigations are carried out; they have to be independent and impartial. I simply do not understand why the CMA cannot be allowed to conduct investigations that it thinks should be carried out, not merely those that the Secretary of State wants carried out or that are referred to it. Of course it will carry out the investigations referred to it by the Secretary of State independently, but it does not have the necessary power to do it where it thinks it is in the interests of enforcement.
For a similar reason it seems clear that, as was proposed in the amendments in Committee, the CMA ought to have powers of enforcement before a CAT—this is where it differs slightly from the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. Again, independent powers of enforcement are essential. The Secretary of State will have some powers, as will those who say they are injured as a result of what has happened. But that is essentially, to take an analogy with the ordinary enforcement system, a system of effectively private prosecution. My experience of private prosecutions has always been that, unless they are funded for extraneous and charitable purposes, such as is done by the RSPCA, or there is money in it by obtaining a conviction for those who are businessmen interested in getting a private prosecution, it is unlikely that there will be private enforcement. There is no doubt that this kind of enforcement action is extremely expensive. Therefore there is a real risk that there will not be much effective enforcement and that such effective enforcement as there is will be directed only at what I would call big money cases. Having a justice system that deals only with big money cases is recognised to be no just system at all.
The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, put it very pithily by creating Juvenal: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” It seems to me that that summarises it in four words. There must be someone independent, both to investigate and to bring a matter before the courts if necessary, who can ensure that the Secretary of State and others uphold the rule of law. That is all I wanted to say about the position of the CMA.
On the second purpose of the management, I can deal with that briefly. It is an important question even at this hour of night, because it raises the issue of equality between our nations. I spoke at length about this when proposing the amendments in respect of seeking the consent of the devolved authorities and giving them certain powers, but this is an egregious example of inequality. Whereas the Secretary of State qua Minister responsible for England and the giving of subsidies in England can refer matters dealt with by, say, the Welsh, Scottish or Northern Ireland Governments to the CAT, there is no equality the other way round. That seems a fundamental flaw in this part of the Bill. It could be remedied by an undertaking by the Secretary of State that, if he was asked by the devolved Governments to make a reference, he would do so, and I very much hope that the Minister will be able to give such an undertaking.
What is important about these issues of equality is that they matter in two respects: first, that there is equality, but also that there is seen to be equality, and the equality between the nations is fundamental to the union. Secondly, there is the purpose of the amendment relating to the devolved authorities—this differs from the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. It seeks to make clear that the devolved Governments will always be interested parties for the purposes of appearance before the CAT. Again, this could be clarified. It would be far better if this was done in legislation, but at least it could be taken some way by the Minister making this clear.
I am sorry to have spoken at such length at this hour of night but these are important points of principle. They go to the rule of law and the position of the CMA, but also go to the equality between our nations and the survival of our union.
My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment. We should pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, for his insight on the importance of enforcement to make the system work. His two points do not need repetition but the first, about the role of the CMA, begs a question. Why should the CMA not have the powers that are being referred to in this amendment? As far as the equality issues are concerned, the question is: why not? One point in the amendment that particularly appeals to me is the reference to interested parties. All the bodies mentioned there—the CMA and the three devolved Governments—are interested parties. It may be that, as the jurisprudence of the system works its way through the process, this will be established; but it is far better to have it made clear at the beginning, so that its position is plainly established, and the enforcement process can be put through in a proper manner. Paying tribute as I do to the noble and learned Lord, I entirely support his amendment.
My Lords, I support the second part of the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, on the point about equality. There is a poll out today which says that the majority of people in Scotland do not expect the union to survive for the next 10 years. I think and hope that they are wrong, but it is indicative of how serious this issue is and that it is really important that not only the law but the Government’s approach recognises the need to accommodate equality of treatment between the devolved Administrations and the UK Government. The noble and learned Lord’s amendment puts that quite clearly, and the Government should take it seriously.
My Lords, I too support Amendment 55. I travelled from Scotland this morning to support it, so I hope that despite the late hour, your Lordships will bear with me.
On the devolved Governments, this is yet another very modest amendment and provides the very minimum recognition that devolved Governments have responsibility for important areas of their economies and should have the right in relation to call-in and enforcement.
I thank the Minister for his letter of 15 March with the update on the Bill’s progress. I do not think that anyone was surprised to read that, despite what he terms the Government’s best efforts, they have not been able to secure the legislative consent Motions. However, I was very sorry to read that the Government have decided to proceed without them. The Minister wanted to emphasise the Government’s determination to continue working collaboratively and transparently with the devolved Administrations, but both the Scottish and Welsh Governments do not believe that there has been a strong attempt to work collaboratively. Instead, they feel that they have been told rather than consulted.
The explanation given in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, in her closing comments on the set of amendments dealing with devolution, made it clear that the Government believe that they have every right to override the concerns of devolved Governments on the grounds of the UK Parliament’s status as
“the supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom”,
believing that it is merely
“a reflection of constitutional reality.”
She also stated that she simply did not believe that
“it is appropriate to require the Secretary of State to seek consent even when the Secretary of State may ultimately proceed without that consent on a reserved matter.”—[Official Report, 31/1/22; cols. GC 115-117.]
This issue is at the heart of the problem that this amendment tries, in some small way, to deal with. As has been mentioned, the Secretary of State is acting for what the Minister describes as the “supreme legislative body” but at the same time is representing the interests of England.
Speakers in Committee described this as lacking justice and being unfair. The Minister did not answer on this issue in Committee, nor was it referred to in his letter. We hope that we will find out in due course whether the review of intergovernmental relations will make a real difference. While the UK Government show so little understanding of and lack of esteem for the devolved Governments, it is hard to imagine that there will be a significant change. I hope the Minister can give some reassurance that the Government will reconsider allowing the role for devolved Governments outlined in Amendment 55 as, if they do not recognise the legitimate concerns of the devolved Governments, I fear it will contribute to the break-up of Britain, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, warned.
My Lords, I will detain the House for only a moment as it must take for read my feelings on the devolved questions which we have threshed around so much. I want to put on record how much I and, I hope, the House appreciate the contribution of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, not only to this debate and earlier debates but for his work in Committee. That he is willing at this stage of his distinguished career to put hours of work into an amendment such as this demands that the Government take notice. He has raised serious points in a professional manner. If the Government cannot respond positively to them now, there is still a chance for amendments to come forward at Third Reading to take on board the points that he has made so eloquently.
My Lords, as we move to the final group it seems that Covid has claimed yet another victim in the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, who is unable to move his amendment. It is a shame that we get to this important group so late in the evening. If we had been here earlier, I am sure that the will of the House on Amendment 55 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, would have been tested. At this late hour, I guess that is not going to happen. It is a shame because this group of amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and me are important in how the subsidy control scheme and processes will work. I am sure that those amendments would have brought more sense to the Bill, as did the amendments on transparency. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, for speaking to Amendments 47 and 50 on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, and to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, for speaking so ably to his Amendment 55.
I have tabled two amendments in this group. They both bring us back to earlier debates on the functioning of the challenge process. We continue to be concerned by the prohibition on challenges to individual subsidies made under a scheme. The threshold for successfully challenging a scheme is likely to be substantially higher than that attached to the challenge of an individual subsidy, and the Government’s refusal to move on this area suggests a determination to close the door, or at least to push it back a bit, on the ability legitimately to challenge any subsidies. I apologise for bringing up these issues on the previous group. I was getting a bit ahead of myself there.
We also do not understand why the Government have refused to move on the CAT application deadline. As I said earlier, many organisations will lack the capacity to constantly check the subsidy database to monitor the subsidies received by their competitors. This is a particular challenge for SMEs, which are unlikely to have in-house expertise on these matters but are arguably most susceptible to the impact of any economic distortions caused by a subsidy award.
The Government continue to insist that a six- or eight-week application window to bring a challenge under CAT would be an unacceptable length. From our Benches, we fundamentally disagree. An extended period would give those businesses and organisations possibly affected adversely by a subsidy more time to understand and analyse what was happening. However, with the disclosure deadline for non-tax incentives having been halved from six months to three, doubling the time for submitting a challenge to the CAT would not take us further than what was in the original wording of the Bill.
Having promised businesses, particularly SMEs, time and again that Brexit would mean the slashing of red tape, the Government continue to subject businesses to unacceptable burdens. The new subsidy control system may cut red tape in some respects, but it also imposes unacceptably high barriers in cases where a party feels wronged. We know from discussions between Committee and Report that the Government believe that affected enterprises would have alternative means of legal redress and I look forward to the Minister outlining them in his response to this group of amendments.
However, the fact remains that the entire enforcement side of this new regime does not seem up to scratch. We await the CMA’s initial report and I very much hope I will be proven wrong, but the Government will need to be prepared to revisit some of these matters if it transpires that their chosen approach is failing to ensure fairness, transparency and access to justice.
To finish on this, and to use the words that have come through on this debate, I have a modicum of comfort and delight that we are now completing the Report stage of this Bill.
I thank all those who have contributed to the debate. It has been a good discussion, both tonight and in the previous discussions we have had on the regime as a whole and the subsidy advice unit. I particularly enjoyed the contribution from the spokesman for my noble friend Lord Lamont. This is a trend that should perhaps continue on other subjects on which my noble friend feels strongly.
If the noble Lord is going to write my speeches, he might as well write them for my noble friend Lord Lamont, as well. The answer to the question of my noble friend Lord Lamont, through his spokesman, is the Green Book and Managing Public Money guidelines; I suspect as an ex-Chancellor he knows that very well indeed—probably better than we do.
Government Amendments 52 and 53 to Clause 65 have been tabled to address your Lordships’ concerns regarding the frequency of the CMA’s monitoring reports under Clause 65. Instead of mandating a report within five years of the implementation of the regime, the amendments require an initial report after only three years, subsequently followed up by a further report after another three years. Subsequent reporting will then revert to a five-year cycle.
I hope noble Lords will agree that the publication of these two initial reports will be sufficient to keep Parliament and the public informed of how the new subsidy control regime is functioning, and to assist in setting best practice going forward. As a result of these changes, I have also tabled two consequential amendments to clarify how these new initial reports will interact with other provisions in the Bill. These are Amendments 54 and 63.
While the changes we are proposing will extend the life of the regulation-making powers under Part 4 from six to seven years, we believe this is a sensible extension allowing important observations on the regime from the subsidy advice unit, or indeed others, to be considered by the Government in the early years of the regime. I hope that noble Lords’ concerns have been addressed by these amendments and that they can find their way to supporting them as part of the Bill.
Turning to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Lamont, I will not—noble Lords will be pleased to know—repeat at length points that I made in Grand Committee on the rationale behind the approach to enforcement laid out in the Bill, but the subsidy advice unit plays a fundamental role in the regime. By publishing reports on the subsidies and schemes that are most likely to be distortive to competition, investment and trade, it provides in-depth transparency and scrutiny that will support interested parties, including the Secretary of State, in bringing challenges in the Competition Appeal Tribunal.
It is important to underline that the vast majority of these reports will concern subsidies and schemes that meet the criteria set out in our definitions for subsidies and schemes of particular interest, which must be referred to the SAU, and subsidies and schemes of interest, which a public authority may choose to refer. These criteria will ensure that proper scrutiny is given to subsidies that are high value, that are in sensitive sectors, or that have certain characteristics that are more likely to lead to disproportionate distortion.
The advantages of setting out these criteria in advance are multiple. First, it allows the Government to consult widely on them, and to accumulate and publish their evidence base. A further advantage of providing these criteria in regulations is to minimise the need to carry out extensive and time-critical monitoring of prospective subsidies, and to analyse their level of risk on a case-by-case basis. The Government have no intention that this will be done on a routine basis by either my department or the SAU. Setting the criteria in advance is more predictable for public authorities and recipients and reduces the incentive for them to fly under the radar to avoid an unwanted pre-award referral. Finally, a fundamental advantage of providing these criteria in regulations is to make it absolutely clear that mandatory referral applies to UK Government subsidies as much as those given by other public authorities.
The Secretary of State’s powers to direct a subsidy to the SAU represent merely a safety net for the very rare event that a prospective subsidy does not meet the specified criteria for mandatory referral, but nonetheless appears concerning, or could benefit from the scrutiny of an SAU report. It is right to have this fallback, not least in view of our international obligations. But the call-in powers are not fundamental to the operation of the regime. The success of our subsidy of interest and of particular interest regulations will be measured by the infrequency with which this power is used.
Specifically on my noble friend’s amendments, as I have explained above, this role for the Secretary of State is of relatively minor importance in the context of the new regime. But this minor role is one that requires the political responsibilities of a Minister, not a regulator. A Minister of the Crown, acting in their capacity as a Minister for the whole of the UK and with responsibility for ensuring that the UK meets its international obligations, can exercise discretion in a way that a statutory body cannot. The CMA could not take on this function without compromising not only the agile character of the new regime but the primacy of the subsidy of interest and of particular interest regulations.
Unlike the Secretary of State, the SAU is a statutory body which can exercise only the functions given to it under legislation. Consequently, it cannot exercise discretion in the same way that the Secretary of State can. To carry out these functions, the SAU would be required to scale up considerably to conduct the level of oversight and monitoring needed to fulfil the duty that this amendment would place on it. Therefore, I hope that my noble friend will be able to withdraw his amendment—through his spokesman.
Amendment 55, tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, would extend the powers in Clauses 55 and 60 to the devolved Administrations and the Competition and Markets Authority. It would have the effect of extending the power to direct public authorities to request a CMA report and to refer a subsidy or subsidy scheme that has been made to the CMA. It would also mean that the DAs and the CMA would be able to automatically apply to the Competition Appeal Tribunal to review a subsidy decision. For the DAs, extending these powers ignores the different roles the DAs and Secretary of State will play within the regime, and indeed the differing roles they play within the constitutional framework of the UK.
I have said this before, but I will repeat that it is the settled will of Parliament that subsidy control is a reserved matter. The UK Government have overall responsibility for the proper functioning of the subsidy control regime across the whole UK. It is also the UK Government who have the responsibility for our compliance with our international obligations in this area, including the TCA.
Furthermore, it is only the Secretary of State who will have, front of mind, issues such as the caseload and resource available to the SAU. Of course, it is important that the considerations of the DAs are taken into account regarding the call-in of subsidies. Noble Lords should be assured that the Secretary of State would take such requests seriously and consider them appropriately on their merits. I can provide the reassurance to both the noble and learned Lords, Lord Thomas and Lord Hope, that work has already begun with the DAs on formalising this process through the continued work on the memorandum of understanding with the DAs to set out in writing that, where such requests are received, they will be considered with due care, attention, and respect by the Secretary of State.
As regards the ability of the DAs to challenge subsidies in the CAT, the noble Lord should be reassured that there is no disadvantage to the DAs. As I have said, this is a reserved policy area, so the Secretary of State has a unique set of responsibilities in this regime—to ensure its good operation for the benefit of every part of the UK. Therefore, the Secretary of State has default standing to ask the CAT to review a subsidy so that he or she can protect those two interests. The DAs do not share the same responsibilities and it follows that it is neither necessary nor appropriate that they should have the same standing.
Crucially, though, that does not mean that the DAs cannot ask the CAT to review a subsidy decision. Anyone whose interests may be affected by the giving of a subsidy can do so, including one given by the Secretary of State in England to address—I hope—the noble and learned Lord’s concerns. As I have previously said, that includes the DAs where the interests of people in the areas from which they exercise their responsibilities may be affected by a subsidy. I am not sure what reason there is for the DAs to have standing where those interests may not be affected by a subsidy. For all the reasons I have stated, I hope that the noble Lord can withdraw his amendment.
I will address the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, to extend the initial limitation period for challenging a subsidy in the CAT from one month to two. The limitation period is set as it is to strike a balance between the need to give an opportunity to challenge subsidies and creating prolonged uncertainty for public authorities and beneficiaries that will act as a brake on legitimate subsidies. However, as I have just outlined, the CMA will be undertaking a review of the regime and publishing a report—now after three years—which will be presented to Parliament. As set out in Clause 65, this report will include a review of the effectiveness of the operation of the Act, as part of which the CMA will be able to consider the effects of the limitation period on the successful operation of the regime.
I turn to Amendment 56 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, on the question of whether subsidies given under the scheme should be subject to challenge in the CAT. We debated that extensively in Committee, and the House will be pleased to know that, given the lateness of the hour, I will not repeat the arguments I made then. But this does not mean there is absolute protection for a subsidy purportedly given under the scheme. An interested party can argue that a subsidy does not in fact meet the terms of the scheme and can challenge it as a stand-alone subsidy. I therefore hope that the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment. I would like to move my amendments and hope others will not press theirs.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answers, although many of them are disappointing. On Amendment 56, it would be helpful if the Minister could write on how that challenge would work. I am looking particularly at where a scheme has been approved and a number of businesses granted subsidy under that scheme. What happens if I want to challenge not the scheme but the validity of that particular business getting that particular subsidy? It is not clear to me, under the rules, how that works, so could the Minister write a letter to me and the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, clarifying that?
On Amendment 55, repeating the mantra that it is a reserved issue is almost exactly the opposite of what we were calling for: having some sensitivity in the nature of the Bill. It is a reserved issue but it trespasses into areas that are devolved and, as my noble friend Lord Purvis illustrated, agriculture is one such area—there are others. The absence of sensitivity is the disappointing thing.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, my noble friend Lord Bruce and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, all made valid points about reaching across that barrier, but there seemed to be no such reaching from the Minister. I hope he will have time to reflect on this and can come back at Third Reading with something a little more conciliatory than “This is a reserved issue” because that is really not good enough.
The criterion on which I was allowed to act as the spokesperson of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, was that under no circumstances should I press Amendment 47 so, as a man of honour, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 47 withdrawn.
Amendments 48 and 49 not moved.
Clause 58: Call-in direction following voluntary referral
Amendment 50 not moved.
Clause 65: Monitoring and reporting on subsidy control
Amendment 51 not moved.
Amendments 52 to 54
52: Clause 65, page 37, line 17, leave out “fifth” and insert “third”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment changes the reporting requirement so that the CMA must prepare its first report three years after commencement instead of five years after commencement.
53: Clause 65, page 37, line 18, after “falls” insert—
“(aa) the following period of three years”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that the CMA must prepare its second report three years after its first report, instead of five years after its first report.
54: Clause 65, page 37, line 21, at end insert—
“(4A) The Secretary of State may exercise the power in subsection (4) only after the CMA has prepared its reports in relation to the first two relevant periods mentioned in subsection (3).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that the Secretary of State can only direct the CMA to report on specified periods after the first two reports in respect of the first two relevant periods under subsection (3) have been prepared.
Amendments 52 to 54 agreed.
Amendment 55 not moved.
Clause 70: Review of subsidy decisions
Amendment 56 not moved.
Clause 71: Time limits for applications under section 70
Amendment 57 not moved.
Schedule 3: Subsidies provided by primary legislation
Amendment 58 not moved.
59: Schedule 3, page 58, line 4, leave out “(1)(a) and (b)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment at page 46, line 39 in the Minister's name, and provides that for the purposes of paragraph 8 of Schedule 3, the Clause 33 references to subsidies and schemes are taken to refer to those provided by primary legislation.
Amendment 59 agreed.
Clause 79: Guidance
60: Clause 79, page 45, line 30, at end insert—
“(ea) section 76 (duty to provide pre-action information);”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment adds the duty to provide pre-action information to the list of matters in Clause 79 on which the Secretary of State may issue guidance.
Amendment 60 agreed.
Amendment 61 not moved.
Clause 81: Modifications to subsidies and schemes
62: Clause 81, page 46, line 39, leave out from “apply” to end of line 40 and insert “—
(a) for the purposes of section 33(1) and (3) (see instead section 33(5)), or(b) if the modification is only a permitted modification (but section 33(5) applies to a permitted modification as it applies to other modifications).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the exemption from the duty to enter modifications in the subsidy database, in relation to permitted modifications.
Amendment 62 agreed.
Clause 87: Regulations
63: Clause 87, page 49, line 20, leave out “first” and insert “second”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that the sunsetting provision for the Part 4 regulation-making powers will be triggered by the second report that the CMA makes under section 65, rather than the first report.
Amendment 63 agreed.
Amendment 64 not moved.
House adjourned at 10.59 pm.