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Subsidy Control Bill

Volume 820: debated on Monday 28 March 2022

Third Reading

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Subsidy Control Bill, has consented to place her interest, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

For the benefit of noble Lords, I will first make a statement on legislative consent. As promised to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, on Report and as I have sought to do throughout passage, I would like to update your Lordships’ House on the legislative consent process.

Your Lordships will understand that there remain differences of opinion between the devolved Administrations and the Government. This includes the Scottish and Welsh Governments’ retained in-principle objection to subsidy control being a reserved matter, and their objection to the inclusion of agriculture in the scope of the Bill. It is therefore with regret that I inform your Lordships that we have not been able to convince the devolved Administrations of the need for the UK Government to act in this key area. This is, of course, not the end of our engagement with the devolved Administrations. It is our intention to continue to work closely with them on the future regime, and accordingly our next steps will focus on agreements at working level to support the operation of the Act, including a memorandum of understanding in two parts.

I want to reassure noble Lords that it has never been our intention to proceed without consent in place. Our preferred approach throughout has always been to secure legislative consent Motions. I want to reassure the House that the Government remain fully committed to the Sewel convention and the associated practices for seeking consent. We will of course continue to seek legislative consent from the devolved legislatures when applicable.

I am grateful to the Minister for fulfilling his commitment and producing the report for which I asked. It is disappointing, but I am reassured by the latter part of his statement—that engagement with the devolved Administrations will continue. I very much hope that that will produce a more fruitful result than has been achieved so far.

My Lords, I also express concern that it has not been possible to get agreement. Quite clearly, it is in everybody’s interest that the devolved Administrations and the UK Government should be working in harmony on these matters. There are issues, concerning agriculture in particular, that are causing concern. Could the Minister therefore give an assurance that, as his discussions go on with the Governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh, he will keep the House informed and give us an opportunity to debate, discuss, or at least put questions forward to him on, the outcome of any such deliberations?

My Lords, could the Minister outline the position as far as the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland is concerned? He mentioned Scotland and Wales, but perhaps he could touch on what the situation is as far as any legislative consent from the Northern Ireland Assembly—before it was dissolved at the start of this week for the Assembly elections. He is aware—this was raised in Committee—of the grave concerns that there is there now a dual subsidy control system: the EU system in Northern Ireland and the GB system now applying to England, Scotland and Wales. This could, as he said in his own letter to the chair of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Sub-Committee on 22 March, cause real problems and confusion for Northern Ireland.

I thank noble Lords for their contributions. In response to concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, of course I understand the points he is making. He will be aware that negotiations continue on the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The noble Lord and I have discussed this a number of times. The Northern Ireland Executive have not been able to respond formally to our request for a legislative consent Motion, given their current status. We will, of course, continue to work closely, as far as possible, with the Executive and with the officials. I will be certain to update the noble Lord when I am able to do so.


Moved by

I am delighted to open the debate. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in the many debates that we have had across Your Lordships’ House, to create a new domestic regime that will deliver on our international obligations but, crucially, will enable central government, the devolved Administrations and public authorities the length and breadth of the United Kingdom to deliver for their people and their communities.

It is my great pleasure to thank all those who have supported the progress of this Bill. First, I thank my noble friend Lady Bloomfield; it is always a great pleasure to work alongside her. I express my thanks for the considerable contributions that have been made on the Floor of this House in relation to this Bill. I thank, particularly, the Opposition—the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake—for their constructive challenge and the discussions we have had on the Bill, most notably on the issue of transparency, where we have been able to move a lot in response to the concerns raised in particular by the Opposition. It is also worth paying tribute to noble Lord, Lord Fox, for his engagement, and to his Liberal Democrat colleagues for their role in improving this legislation, particularly with regard to devolved powers—and for his personal forbearance with me in my illness during the latter stages of Report. I thank the noble Lord, in particular, for bearing with me.

I would also like to thank some of the Back-Bench colleagues who have contributed. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, for his diligent work on issues pertaining to areas of local and regional disadvantage; the Bill is better for that consideration. I thank my noble friend Lord Lamont, who is not in his place, for his constructive challenge, notably in relation to the role of the CMA. In that vein, we made improvements to the Bill to ensure that the CMA reviews the operation of the regime earlier than it otherwise would have done, ensuring that issues such as upload thresholds and deadlines, limitation periods and routes to challenge remain appropriate. I also thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, who made significant contributions to our debates and proposed well-reasoned amendments on this Bill. His contributions, made in his calm, deliberate and thoughtful style, have considerably raised the quality of the debate. Many other Front-Bench and Back-Bench colleagues contributed; they are too numerous to mention, but I thank them all.

I shall say a brief word on the excellent team of officials who have made this Bill possible. Again, there are far too many to mention today, but I shall single out one or two in particular: my private secretary, Ruth Kaufmann Wolfe; the Bill manager, Thomas Bingham, and the wider Bill team; and the policy lead, Matilda Curtis, and her team of officials. I thank them for their joint work over a long period of up to 18 months to make this Bill what it is today. I also pay tribute to some of the legal colleagues—Michael Brannagan, Giovanna Amodeo, Edd Williams and Tom Davis—as well as the wider subsidy control team and colleagues across government, who have been fundamental to making this Bill work and become a success. Today marks the culmination of almost two years of work on their part. I also recognise once again the exemplary work of the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel in both drafting this Bill and supporting its progress at so many points during its passage so far. The House authorities, parliamentary staff, clerks and doorkeepers, as always, did their work excellently and competently.

We will continue to gather feedback as the regime is developed ahead of implementation. I am happy to report that our subsidies of particular interest regulations consultation is now live and will run until 6 May, for any colleagues who wish to participate. I am grateful once again for your Lordships’ House’s scrutiny and the improvements to the Bill that have resulted from it, and I look forward to the Bill receiving Royal Assent.

I will start by sharing our concern at the information the Minister gave regarding the devolved authorities. We look forward to being involved in ongoing consultation and discussions as time goes forward. I echo the comments already made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Lords, Lord Wigley and Lord Dodds, on this issue.

I think it is fair to say that this Bill might not have been noticed by as many people as the more high-profile Bills that are going through the House at the moment, but everyone who has been involved in it recognises the significance of the work undertaken and just how deep the implications are for how public money will be spent for years to come. As we made clear from the outset, we agreed with the Government’s core principles in this area, including introducing greater flexibility through the removal of pre-notification requirements. However, as we have stressed throughout the debates on this Bill, with power comes responsibility. It is for this reason that we have focused on increasing the transparency obligations on public authorities, as the Minister just outlined. We are talking about large sums of public money, which must be easily accounted for and deliver real value for money. Unfortunately, we have had too many examples recently where we cannot claim that that is the case.

However, we are very grateful to the Minister and to the Whip, the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, for their genuine engagement on these matters. Although we did not achieve everything that we would have liked, we believe the Bill is much improved as a result of the substantial package of concessions brought forward on Report.

I would like to echo our profound thanks to everyone involved through the Bill team. Our access to officials has been particularly helpful; they have been very open. It has enabled us to delve into the detail and discuss potential ways forward, whether legislative or non-legislative.

Despite good progress being made in most areas, there are significant concerns in others—particularly, as we have already highlighted, in relation to the involvement or otherwise of the devolved Administrations and the substantial financial and practical barriers imposed on SMEs and others if they wish to challenge individual subsidies. A particular concern of the business community is the lack of clarity in the guidance around the decision-making on when subsidies will be awarded.

We will have a review, as is outlined in the Bill, of some of these matters in three years’ time, and we hope the Government will act quickly in response to the findings. Until then, we hope public authorities will make the most of this new framework. In particular, I am appreciative that the Government listened to all the arguments about focusing and directing money towards areas with economic deprivation. This is a welcome shift from the Government across this area.

Another regret is failing—just—to pass the amendment to improve the Bill’s green credentials. We hope all levels of Government will continue to have regard to the fight against climate change. Pursuing a net-zero strategy is not just a statutory duty but a moral one. I firmly believe we have missed a trick by not more firmly linking net-zero obligations to the awarding of subsidies.

All that remains is to thank all colleagues who took part during the Bill’s various stages—particularly, as has been highlighted, the noble Lords, Lord Fox, Lord Lamont, Lord Ravensdale and Lord Wigley, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan. I would like to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord McNicol. Unfortunately, he cannot be with us today, but I think we all recognise the amount of work he put in. I would like also to add my thanks to all the staff, clerks and doorkeepers in the normal manner. I end by thanking sincerely Dan Stevens, the officer in our office, for his unfailing patience, support, and clarity of thought and purpose, and for helping us to put down the improvements sought.

My Lords, it is genuinely pleasing to see the Minister looking in a substantially better state than he did at the end of Report. I am pleased that he is back up and at the Dispatch Box.

As the Minister has repeatedly told us throughout the process, this Subsidy Control Bill is a consequence of the TCA. The Minister also claimed that it was rare for such controls to exist in other countries around the world, and said it would be a permissive regime, the antithesis of the regime it is replacing. So it is something of a legislative experiment as it goes forward.

Since its introduction, as has been stated, improvements have been made, and the Bill leaves your Lordships’ House much improved. My noble friends, Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition and some important voices from the Cross Benches and Conservative Benches have helped to make these improvements, along with the work of the Minister and his colleagues.

But noble Lords would expect me to say that it remains a flawed Bill. As was highlighted, it is more transparent—but a £99,999 subsidy need not be reported, and that remains a very large sum of money that can be passed from government to business without a report. It invests some powers to the CMA, but insufficient authority. I align myself with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, on the subject of the burden on SMEs and the absence of any net-zero quantity.

The biggest uncertainty hanging over the Bill, as far as we can see, is this: if it is permissive, what will it permit? True to the nature of this Government, they have delivered a Bill that is not designed to deliver a strategy—almost the opposite. By permitting authorities to deliver subsidies or subsidy schemes in their area of control, essentially independent of schemes in adjacent areas, they are creating the potential for huge confusion and conflict, with money flowing from the richest areas back into their own communities to ensure that they remain the richest areas. The failure to grasp the need to map deprivation systematically could well render this system very divisive.

My noble friend Lord German used the Welsh example, but I will use an English one, because the Minister is the English Minister. As we know, EU funding in Cornwall over the seven years from 2014 to 2020 was nearly €600 million. This was based on a realistic assessment of the relative poverty of that county. The proof of this Government’s subsidy scheme, system or control, and of their promises, will be how much UK money flows into Cornwall.

As the Minister mentioned, there was the whole devolution issue. I will not repeat all the arguments, but the Government’s mantra of repeating over and again “It is a reserved issue” does not represent negotiation, nor is it designed to win the hearts and minds of those who sit on the edge of the unionist/separatist divide—quite the opposite; to then include agriculture, which is a devolved issue, in the Bill made matters substantially worse. We heard from the Minister that these were the issues driving the absence of legislative consent. Despite the many improvements we have seen, we on these Benches remain very concerned about the effect this Act will have on the union, but I will pass from this critique and move on to the Oscars ceremony part—the Minister can be assured that I do not mean that part of it.

I again thank the Minister. He showed remarkable fortitude during the Bill’s passage, along with his Whip, the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, who showed the customary availability and relatively good humour. Those in Bill team itself were, as usual, authoritative and helpful. I thank them, as set out by the Minister.

During the debates, the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Thomas and Lord Hope, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, made significant contributions that helped to shape the Bill. On these Benches, my noble friends Lady Sheehan, Lady Randerson, Lady Humphreys, Lord German, Lord Bruce and Lord Purvis offered wisdom and experience. In the office, making sure that the whole thing held together, we must once again thank Sarah Pughe, along with Dan in the Labour office, who helped to drive us along.

So the Minister will have his Act. Whether it is indeed a subsidy control regime remains to be seen. I think many of us still suspect that it is actually a mechanism for central government to parachute schemes into areas of its choice, unchallengeable by devolved authorities, local authorities or indeed the CMA.

Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.