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Subsidy Control (Information-Gathering Powers) (Modification) Regulations 2022

Volume 827: debated on Monday 20 February 2023

Motion to Regret

Moved by

That this House regrets that the Subsidy Control (Information-Gathering Powers) (Modification) Regulations 2022 (SI 2022/1152) remove important requirements to consult the devolved governments in relation to subsidy control policy and undermine a United Kingdom wide approach to the regulation of subsidies.

Relevant document: 19th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I put down this regret Motion because the purpose of this SI runs directly contrary to the points of principle that we on these Benches argued for during the passage of the Subsidy Control Bill. We argued for more consultation with devolved Administrations; instead, this SI reduces it.

In explanation, this instrument removes an obligation for the CMA to consult with the devolved Administrations when preparing or revising the policy statement in relation to information-gathering powers, which are used by the Competition and Markets Authority’s Subsidy Advice Unit under the terms of the Subsidy Control Act 2022. It also removes the requirement for the Secretary of State to consult the devolved Administrations when making regulations about penalties in relation to these powers.

The Act established a new subsidy control regime to replace the EU’s well-established state aid. The Government’s aim was to enable local authorities and devolved Administrations to deliver subsidies more tailored to local needs. The CMA, via its SAU, has a monitoring role, and there are penalties for not complying with its information-gathering powers.

The Act touches on a sensitive area of overlap between reserved and devolved powers: subsidy regulation is reserved but economic development is devolved, and, clearly, subsidies are an important economic development policy tool. When the subsidy control powers operated under the EU umbrella, DAs worked to a pretty clear and non-party-political framework of rules. On paper, the Government’s aims in making the new framework more sensitive to local needs should make economic development easier for devolved Administrations and local authorities. However, these regulations undermine the whole principle of sensitivity to local needs by removing the obligation to consult.

There are additional aggravating features to this situation. First is the lack of any previous notification that this was the Government’s intention. I can find no specific announcement during the passage of the Bill that this was how the Government intended to use their power. The Welsh Government inform me that they were first informed on 21 July, when shown a draft of these regulations. At official-level meetings prior to this date, there had apparently been none of the usual courtesies of giving advance information on the Government’s direction of travel, which would have enabled Welsh Government officials to have some input into the drafting.

Secondly, there is the opaque way in which this legislation is drafted. Although these regulations flow from the Subsidy Control Act, they implement an implied amendment to the internal market Act. Noble Lords will recollect that that Act was controversial from a devolution perspective: the DAs did not grant legislative consent, and attempts were made to amend the Bill to take greater account of the economic development responsibilities of devolved Administrations. These regulations mean that the internal market Act remains drafted as is from the textual standpoint but with an implied textual amendment which will have the effect of removing the requirement to consult with devolved Administrations. It will give the Secretary of State more discretion on penalties and give the CMA more discretion on policy relating to subsidy control. The CMA Subsidy Advice Unit already has no obligation to give due regard to DA opinions, and this is another blow to the possibility of positive relationships between devolved Administrations and the UK Government. This is a pity, as I am told that relationships between the SAU and officials in devolved bodies have been very positive, so there is no good reason to change the balance of powers. As well as removing the obligation to consult, this also removes any possibility of challenge if devolved opinions are ignored. I suspect that this is the Government’s intention here: governing always seems easier if you shut yourself away and do not listen.

These regulations will bring the duties placed upon the SAU out of line with the duties placed on the CMA’s Office for the Internal Market, suggesting that a similar retrenchment of devolved powers may be likely for the latter. Do the Government have such plans?

Further aggravating features were brought to our attention by the diligent work of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. It expressed concern that the Government’s explanation or defence of the removal of this obligation to consult is that the CMA and the Secretary of State will still have to consult the devolved Administrations if their interests are “sufficiently affected”. The SLSC stated that, in the absence of any definition of this term, it is worried about how it will be interpreted. I hope the Minister can be very explicit on how the new rules will be interpreted.

The SLSC also drew our attention to a serious error in the Explanatory Memorandum, which said that the DAs had not objected, when in fact they had done so unequivocally. The EM has now been corrected, but this is a serious error—much worse than the usual omissions. If the views of the DAs on the regulations governing consultations are misrepresented, it is hard for us to have confidence in the good faith of the consultations that flow from them.

In summary, these regulations will impact adversely on economic development opportunities in the devolved nations and hinder the ability of the DAs to shape the subsidy regime of the future. They reinforce the view that this centralising Government are determined to take every opportunity, however small, to undermine devolution. I realise that the Government want to hold all the reins of power, not least because, in this case, carefully placed subsidies are an easy way to bolster support in chosen parts of the country. The same principle underpinned the Government’s decision to centralise the shared prosperity fund and to cut the Welsh and Scottish Governments out of decision-making. The outcome of the first round of that funding makes my point for me.

I urge the Minister to think long term. Every time the Government chip away at devolution, they persuade a few more voters living in the devolved nations to give up on devolution and move to support independence. The Government should instead be bolstering good relations with the devolved Administrations, and that means respecting their powers and opinions. The Government are in danger of making enemies out of friends. The Welsh Government are not the Scottish Government; they are not predisposed to object to everything. I am sure the Minister will seek to reassure me that consultation with the devolved Administrations will in fact continue, but unfortunately the evidence is already there that it is pretty sketchy and corners are cut on existing obligations. I thank the Minister for his prior interest in my concerns on this, and I assure him that I will listen carefully to his response.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for her clear and explicit exposition of the concern here. I have read the Welsh Government’s report, and significant concerns are raised in it. As we have heard, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which we have to take very seriously indeed, expresses concerns.

Misrepresentation has to be taken extremely seriously. My experience is of working at a regional level, having responsibility for money coming in through the form of subsidies and navigating the area of state aid. That is significant and important in building relationships and establishing trust and transparency in an area where there are competing interests. Every subsidy will be scrutinised, and there will be questions about why one area has got one as opposed to other areas.

Throughout the debates that we have had in this place on subsidy control, one of the areas that has come up repeatedly is timeliness of information-sharing and consultation, in particular with the devolved authorities. Any suggestion that these regulations have the effect of removing the obligation of the Government and the CMA to consult the devolved Administrations needs to be treated with respect and concern. I think there is a view that this is indeed a retrograde step, taking us back to an area that we hoped we had moved on from, in the sense of Whitehall knowing best.

The question for the Minister is why, at this time when there is stress on relationships between our nations, this is an appropriate step to take. We have seen the log-jam with the Northern Ireland protocol, we have uncertainty in our relations with the Scottish Administration, and, as we have heard tonight, there is a shadow over relations with the Welsh Minister which needs to be taken very seriously. Can the Minister tell us why, at this time, the Treasury sees this as an area where it will have discretion and will not take due account of how the relationships will be assessed? Surely the Treasury needs to have more information and intelligence from the devolved Administrations and the nations to make it work.

As has been highlighted in the reports we have seen, the question is really around the discretion of the CMA and the lack of definition of the rules that it will follow. For example, who determines who is “sufficiently affected”? We are all looking for the Minister to explain how this will work in practice and how the Government aim to avoid any conflict between His Majesty’s Government and the nations which have previously been consulted.

This goes to the heart of questions around the devolution settlements. We need to know what implications this has for other parts of those arrangements. We are concerned that this could be a forerunner of other measures that could be brought in to reverse the trend of devolution that has been established over the past 25 years.

We do not support this measure—I hope my comments have made that clear. We are particularly concerned that it represents the thin end of the wedge, and we have enormous concern about the damage that this could have on future relations between London, Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh. This measure, although it relates specifically to consultation, demonstrates why the approach to devolution generally needs to be considered in the round. Everything we do in this place must lead to growing trust in this area.

My Lords, I wish briefly to raise a couple of issues. First, the report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee refers to the responses from the Scottish and Welsh Governments. I am keen to understand what type of engagement there was with the Northern Ireland departments. We recognise, of course, that there is no Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly, but the Select Committee on the protocol, of which I am a member, has received many regulations and explanatory memorandums. This indicates that, while there is the absence of devolved government, officials are engaging on a departmental level and seeking responses and input on behalf of Northern Ireland. I would be interested to know what consultation took place with departments in Northern Ireland. If there was such consultation, what was the response?

The second issue I would like clarified is how the statutory instrument interacts with Article 10 of the Northern Ireland protocol. Article 10 puts Northern Ireland outside the UK subsidy control regime and means that we are subject to EU state aid rules. The territorial application of this instrument appears to extend to Northern Ireland. I would like clarity for those in Northern Ireland, who are always seeking to understand the interaction between our own domestic UK legislation and the laws that now govern us from the European Union. We are unique in that respect, so I would like some clarity on the interaction between this instrument and the fact that we are under EU state aid rules.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, who, alongside the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and my noble friend Lady Randerson, have the scars of the Subsidy Control Bill on our backs. We all worked on its passage, and my noble friend Lady Randerson also worked on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, to which she referred.

The wheels of ministerial responsibility have turned, and we have a different Minister answering some of the questions which, as my noble friend pointed out, were previously raised. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, for raising Northern Ireland, because the ambiguity of the Northern Ireland regime was something we discussed many times with the Minister’s predecessor. That issue was never properly resolved from the Dispatch Box; perhaps a new Minister can provide some more clarity.

It is difficult to look at this, having been through the passage of the Subsidy Control Act, and feel that the Government were operating in good faith during that process. This is exactly what we said would happen, and it was essentially denied from the Dispatch Box, so here we are. I would dispute a little with the noble Baroness, Lady Blake: I do not think this is the thin end of the wedge. We have seen the thin end, and we are moving up the wedge as far as the Government’s attitude towards the devolved Administrations and devolved power is concerned. This is just another example, and it clearly shows that the Conservative model for taking back power is to remove power from the devolved Administrations, as well as assuming power from Brussels.

My noble friend pointed out that this comes at that difficult nexus between devolved and reserved powers. That is what the common frameworks process was established to deal with. Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House why the common frameworks process was not considered the right way to resolve this issue, which, as my noble friend rightly said, sits on the border between devolved and reserved issues? That is exactly the reason why the common frameworks were put in place.

My noble friend illustrated the non-political system that was practised between the EU and the devolved Administrations. There were strict legalistic rules which set up how the money was distributed. But now, all the evidence suggests that His Majesty’s Government are departing from what I would call a legalistic framework and working to political grace and favour. Political allocation of subsidies is clearly what is happening. We only have to look at what has happened to date. Under the cover of bidding processes, money is being allocated where it suits this Government best for their electoral prospects. This is a big departure from the legalistic approach the European Union established. We could set that aside and say that this is clumsy, which it is. We could perhaps understand if the Government rushed into this in haste without proper consultation with the devolved Administrations. I would like to think that was true. It would be easier to illustrate that if the Minister could tell us whether the CMA requested these powers, why it requested them and when.

It is clear that this has again upset the relationship with the Welsh Government and, I am sure, with the other devolved Administrations, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Dodds. Why are the Government being so clumsy on this? What, in the long run, are they seeking by cutting themselves off from the information supply? The noble Baroness, Lady Blake, said that the Government are cutting themselves off from valuable information which should be available. I can only take the gloomy view of this. This instrument makes the process of what I will call “subsidy gerrymandering” easier. For that reason, we find it unacceptable.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for tabling this Motion and the noble Lords, Lord Dodds and Lord Fox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, for their incredibly valuable contributions. I am also well aware of the nature of this debate and how it relates to devolution and the important sense of respect between the UK Government, the devolved Administrations and public authorities. I stress my own personal sensitivity to this matter. I note the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, about the timeliness of the responses sought by devolved Administrations; I will ensure that I relay that to my colleagues. I also want to stress the importance we place on interlocution with the Welsh Government.

This is a technical debate. The specific matter of the subsidy advice unit, which I am going to cover this evening, involves a number of technical aspects. I am extremely comfortable with having further conversations with any noble Lords about any of the specifics we are discussing, as I did over the weekend with the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.

The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, mentioned consultations relating to article 10 and the subsidy advice unit, and I am happy to provide the noble Lord with a fuller answer on that. It would not cover subsidies that would come under the EU state aid rules because clearly, the subsidy advice unit is for UK-based subsidies. There are some services it will be relevant for, which I am happy to talk about in further detail later.

I also reassure the noble Baroness and other contributors to this very important debate that in this instance there is no lack of respect. There has been no abdication by central government of responsibilities and duties to devolved nations. We are not shutting ourselves away, as may have been suggested. This is not a forerunner of a roll-back of devolution. It is not a power grab, as has been mentioned. I would not suggest that, relating to this specific issue, this is even the tip of the thinnest end of the wedge; I do not think the wedge comes into it. Hopefully, I will now explain why.

The measures contained in this and various other pieces of legislation relating to it actually give devolved nations more flexibility—as has been said by the noble Baroness—to design their subsidies so that they can rightly ensure that all such support is directed to local priorities, better serving their citizens and enabling, frankly, a far better series of targeted outcomes. This is, if noble Lords will allow me a reference, what we talk about when we use the phrase “Brexit dividend”.

I turn to the Subsidy Advice Unit. The SAU is exactly that; it is a body which sits in the Competition and Markets Authority to help public authorities—devolved nations—ensure that their subsidy programmes do not contravene our international obligations. It is well-staffed and resourced and answers directly to Parliament—this has been raised in past debates that many noble Lords have attended and which my predecessor so ably responded to. It is advisory and is not a panel of arbitration, nor does it pass sentence on subsidy programmes—that is very important. I am not suggesting that anyone may have confused different bodies, but I want to emphasise that point. I will go on to explain this a bit further. It monitors the health of the overall subsidy regime and necessarily requires information-gathering powers in service to this aim; the importance of information was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake. Through the twin advisory and monitoring roles undertaken by the SAU, the new regime ensures a high degree of transparency accordingly, which I think many of us will welcome.

It is a very useful mechanism to help assist and advise all parties to ensure that they and we follow the laws and agreements already established in relation to subsidies that risk having more distortive effects. It is a resource which public authorities, including the devolved Administrations and the Secretary of State, will find useful when referring subsidies and schemes under the regime. To reduce confusion, it is not an entity to which bodies can refer each other, which is an issue that has been raised in the past. It does not call in subsidy activity. That is for the Competition Appeal Tribunal—which is a separate matter and not relevant to this discussion—to which all bodies have equal access and to whom interested parties can apply for a review of a subsidy if they believe the subsidy requirements under the Act have not been complied with. That is a separate point—in terms of the discussion around the SAU having some type of referral powers, that is the Competition Appeal Tribunal, which is separate.

However, as has been mentioned in previous debates, the SAU will clearly take seriously any information given to it by any body relating to a subsidy issue. That is very important; it is a clear code of practice, so it is not trying to isolate itself from necessary inputs. However, noble Lords should note that the SAU has a limited role, and as such it would not be involved in judging a subsidy and whether it is appropriate or not. It merely focuses on ensuring that the public authorities who can or must make a referral have been justified in their assessment against the subsidy control principles and the other requirements which were established by the Subsidy Control Act.

I want to talk a little bit about the Secretary of State and how she fits into this. The Secretary of State sits above this structure as a Minister of the UK Government and, since subsidy control is a reserved matter, rightly she is responsible for designing the subsidy control regime, including the role of the Subsidy Advice Unit and how it should operate, which includes setting the rates of fines for non-provision of information and other relevant or technical matters. This is very specific. The regulations we are discussing today also stipulate that the Secretary of State should consult any such person she considers appropriate to consult, as clearly any changes require sensitive handling and clear communication. Just to clarify this further, the Subsidy Advice Unit carries out its activities independently, but it is right that the Secretary of State has a role in setting the framework for those activities, since she is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the UK remains consistent with our international trade obligations. Any significant changes to the mandate of the Subsidy Advice Unit would require consultation—I stress this point, as this has come up in the debate; I am thinking of comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake—aside from the fact that we would be committed to doing that as a point of good management.

The Subsidy Control Act takes the information-gathering powers provided to the Competition and Markets Authority by the UK Internal Market Act and modifies them for the Subsidy Advice Unit’s important monitoring role in the new subsidy control regime. The regulations we are discussing today give effect to that modification by removing unhelpful and unnecessary references contained in the UK Internal Market Act which relate to the role of the devolved Administrations.

Comments were made that the consultation process was not to the liking of some noble Lords—

Before moving off the point, to take what the Minister has said, I still do not quite understand why, if the CMA still had to consult the devolved Administrations in the way that it would have to without this measure, how that consultation would stop it doing anything that the Minister has just described that it will be doing. In other words, what is the purpose of removing that obligation to consult?

There are a number of useful procedural and technical reasons for doing that. The point is that the Subsidy Advice Unit is exactly that; it is an advisory unit which the devolved Administrations or local authorities will call in themselves in order to review whether their subsidies conform to our international agreements. There are some specific areas where these might be reviewed—I think that if it is above £5 million, that would automatically trigger some of them to review—but these are reserved powers and this relates to an advisory unit, so this is effectively tidying up the process. That allows the Secretary of State to have more control over the framework. I think we agree that setting levels of fines for non-provision of information, which is very important; it would not be helpful if devolved nations or local authorities were not providing the information we need in order to ensure that we are running an effective subsidy regime, and to ensure that each of the other devolved nations were able to view what each of the others were up to. Therefore it is absolutely right that the Secretary of State can set those rates, and it would not be appropriate for that to go to consultation, because it is a reserved matter and specifically relates back to the devolved nations. I hope I have explained myself; I am very happy to have further meetings on this at a later date. I have a few more comments to make, and then I will come to the end.

It is important to note that the Government have engaged regularly with the devolved Administrations on the design of a UK-wide subsidy control regime. Clearly, the whole point is to make this regime a positive factor of the post-Brexit vision of Britain. This is both at official and ministerial level, including through a regular policy forum. It is in all our interests to ensure that the regime works for the whole of the UK and enables the UK’s domestic markets to function properly. I note that as part of its outreach programme for public authorities, the Department for Business and Trade delivered in-person events in Belfast, Cardiff and Glasgow, and dedicated online sessions for public authorities in Wales and Northern Ireland. The series, attended by 1,500 people in total, also helped build awareness and understanding of the new regime among public authorities.

Therefore, while it is right and proper for debates in this House and for legislation to reflect important points of principle, such as the difference between reserved and devolved competencies, I hope noble Lords will be reassured that the actual delivery of specific polices, such as the administration of the UK’s subsidy control regime, is much more practical and pragmatic in nature. The Subsidy Advice Unit and Department for Business and Trade have had a productive and positive working relationship with counterparts in the devolved Administrations throughout the development of the new subsidy control regime. His Majesty’s Government are absolutely committed to maintaining that working relationship and looking for further opportunities to collaborate with devolved Administrations as we look to the future of the regime as well. We are not trying to make enemies of friends. For those reasons, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her Motion.

I thank the Minister for his response and thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dodds. With the many months that have passed without the Northern Ireland Assembly, we here speak only too infrequently of Northern Ireland in terms of devolution. It is important that we very much keep the situation at the front of our minds, because it is very complex.

I remind the Minister that I was in the Wales Office for three years and that I have spoken here on Northern Ireland as well. I know that consultations and relationships with the devolved Administrations need time, hard work, patience and respect, and I am pleased that he repeated the importance of respect. However, I also know that it helps to have a formal structure for consultation; that makes certain that corners are not cut. The error in the Explanatory Memorandum exemplifies that this is the sort of situation which would not have occurred if there had been proper consultation on the long-term implications, as there should be on this. The important thing here is not whether the SAU is advisory but the fact that the process overall, including the role of the Secretary of State, includes penalties for non-compliance for information gathering. When a penalty is involved, there are bound to be concerns about a lack of consultation. If this had been properly flagged up during the passage of the Bill, there would almost certainly be far weaker grounds for objection by the devolved Administrations. In effect, this is an SI to amend primary legislation, which is why they are concerned.

I repeat the meaning of the final words of my opening speech: how can a system established to cater for local needs seek to do so by centralising decision-making and ruling out consultation? If it is going to be sensitive to local needs, it should increase consultation. I will look very closely at the Minister’s detailed response, for which I thank him. I do not intend to push this to a vote, but I think it will be of interest to the devolved Administrations and to noble Lords across this House who are interested in devolution. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

Sitting suspended.