All 9 contributions to the Subsidy Control Act 2022

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Wed 22nd Sep 2021
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Subsidy Control Bill
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Subsidy Control Bill
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Subsidy Control Bill

2nd reading
Wednesday 22nd September 2021

(11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Second Reading
15:23
Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Kwasi Kwarteng)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Government are determined to seize the opportunities arising from Brexit. Now that the UK has left the European Union and we are no longer bound by the EU’s regime, we have the freedom to develop a new, bespoke system of subsidy control for the UK that delivers on our national priorities. Before the UK joined the European economic community, as it was then called, there was no framework at all. That absence contributed, I think, to Governments pursuing a failed economic approach with Whitehall trying to run the economy. They distorted competition, often by bailing out unsustainable industries and attempting to pick winners. The regime that the Government have set out in the Bill will help public authorities to deliver subsidies where they are needed, without facing excessive bureaucracy or lengthy pre-approval processes.

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Con)
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One of the industries that I hope will benefit from the Bill is the steel industry. As my right hon. Friend will know from frequent and very welcome engagements with me on the issue, Liberty Speciality Steels in Stocksbridge is a key employer in my constituency. While we were in the EU, the industry had access to the EU’s research fund for coal and steel. Now that we have left, £182 million is due to be returned to the UK. Will my right hon. Friend look into the possibility of ringfencing that money, given that it has been raised from levies on the steel industry rather than through general taxation, so that we can have a UK fund for innovation in UK steel?

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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In her brief time in the House, my hon. Friend has been an impressive and focused campaigner on behalf of her constituents and the wider industry. As she knows, I am a particular fan of the steel industry, and want to seek a sustainable future for it here in the UK. I cannot give any budgetary guarantees, as she will appreciate, but this system does give us much more flexibility than was the case previously.

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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May I make a little more progress? Many other colleagues want to speak.

This is a Bill that promotes autonomy, transparency and accountability. It will empower hundreds of local authorities, as well as the devolved Administrations and other public authorities, to take control, allowing them to design subsidies to meet local needs while also meeting national policy objectives.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts
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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way to me now. I wanted to pursue his earlier comment. The Conservatives appear to be perpetuating a gift for blaming the EU for everything, to all intents and purposes, and it is no surprise that we have heard a little more of that today. We must bear it in mind that the UK was known for underutilising EU state rules—we were ranked 22nd out of 28 member states in 2018—and it could be suggested that that was due to Conservative ideology rather than to any intrinsic problem.

This Bill will steamroll devolved competence. Does the Secretary of State agree that it reflects a new Conservative ideology, which is deliberately dismantling the powers of devolved Governments and their accountability as elected Governments per se?

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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That was a rather lengthy intervention, if I may say so, although I do not want to entrench on the Chair’s prerogative. As the right hon. Lady will appreciate, the Bill is a function of our leaving the EU. We are not trying to rehearse the arguments of Brexit; we were doing that long before she was elected to the House. I was certainly involved in those debates.

The Bill sets out a regime founded on seven clear and transparent principles. According to those principles, the subsidy must be designed to remedy a market failure. It must be designed to bring about a change in behaviour. It cannot normally cover costs that would have been funded in any case. It must be appropriate, proportionate, and designed to minimise any distortions to competition and investment in the United Kingdom. Finally, the public authority giving a subsidy must carry out a balancing test, and proceed only if the benefits of the subsidy outweigh any distortions to UK competition and investment, and to international trade.

Those principles will be supported by guidance for all to see. That will ensure that public authorities fully understand their legal obligations, and will make clear which subsidies are permitted and prohibited and under what circumstances.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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As I understand it, the Bill also gets rid of assisted area status, which in the Welsh context includes my county of Carmarthenshire. Can the Secretary of State explain why the British Government are making it more difficult for the Welsh Government to help businesses in Carmarthenshire?

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s description of what the Bill does. If he listens to the rest of my remarks, he may well hear further clarification. Of course, as is always the case, many of these issues will be discussed in Committee if the Bill’s Second Reading receives the assent of the House.

Public authorities will be empowered to make their own assessment of whether a new subsidy meets the requirements of the regime and, in the vast majority of cases, to proceed directly to granting that subsidy. For the first time, the decision on whether to grant a subsidy will always fall to the granting authority itself. For the largest subsidies, or those that present the highest risk of distorting competition, it is worth recalling that the default process under the EU state aid regime could last between nine and 12 months, and that that often determined whether a project could happen or not. Under the new regime, a new body, the UK subsidy advice unit, must publish its report within 30 working days. That is in huge contrast to the nine-to-12 month period under the EU.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
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The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) mentioned ideology. One ideology that I hope will always hold firm on this side of the House is that of not wasting taxpayers’ cash. Is the Minister comfortable with the situation in which local authorities and devolved Administrations could grant subsidies of hundreds of thousands of pounds without having to publicly declare them? Would we not be better with a much lower threshold, so that public scrutiny could always be in place?

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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Local authorities have to declare spending at much lower levels than the figure that my hon. Friend has just put forward. Clearly, transparency is at the centre of what we are trying to achieve. Instead of a year, the whole process will take only a few weeks. It will be a much quicker process and it will allow public authorities to act with far greater agility than before. However, I do not believe that the transparency will be in any way compromised. This is an area that will give more flexibility while not diminishing accountability. In fact, it will enhance accountability because, under the EU state aid regime, there was no way we could change the rules in any way.

At the same time, this is a regime that will provide certainty and confidence to businesses within the UK, and also to those among the foreign investment community who are keen to invest in the UK, by protecting against subsidies that risk distorting competition or causing harmful economic impacts. And of course, the regime will operate alongside our usual, traditional stringent spending controls to ensure the best use of public money.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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Does the Minister not see the inherent flaw in his argument about levelling up and treating the whole of the United Kingdom as one, in so far as Northern Ireland will be subject to a dual subsidy regime: the state aid rules imposed by article 10 of the protocol and the Bill that is going through today? So any subsidy that a public authority Northern Ireland wishes to give will be subject to the very one-year scrutiny that he is talking about, whereas a public authority in the rest of the United Kingdom will have it cleared within 20 days, thereby placing any attempt to attract business to Northern Ireland at a disadvantage.

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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That is precisely why I am addressing this precise point in my speech, if the right hon. Gentleman will allow me. We are setting out the detail of a UK regime that is far from simply adhering to the EU, and it will clearly no longer be necessary for Northern Ireland to be subject to the EU state aid regime. That is precisely why we have proposed the change to the Northern Ireland protocol to bring all subsidies within scope of the domestic regime.

The Bill, as hon. and right hon. Members should know, has been informed by a public consultation, which showed broad support for the Government’s proposals. The Government also held a second consultation with the devolved Administrations as we reached the end of the policy work and the considerable time that we spent trying to get the Bill shipshape. That second consultation showed clearly that the UK Government and the devolved Administrations agreed on the fundamentals of the regime, including the seven principles, the objectives for the regime, and the need to respect the devolution settlements and support levelling up.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts
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If the devolved Governments are as content as the Secretary of State is saying, why are the Welsh Government making a legal challenge to this Bill?

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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As I said, there is agreement on the fundamentals of the regime. The seven principles are not contested; they are agreed across the devolved Administrations and the UK Government. I am not privy to the exact motivation of the devolved Administration in this case but, as far as the general principles are concerned, there is a wide measure of consensus.

It is worth reminding the House that the devolved Governments will have more control over subsidies than they have ever had before. Previously, it was Brussels that made the decisions about which subsidies could be granted to support viable businesses. Now, with this Bill, it will be for the elected Governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast to make those decisions.

During the trade and co-operation agreement negotiations and the creation of this new regime, ministerial colleagues, officials and I have worked closely with the devolved Administrations, and I thank those Administrations and the officials and Ministers here in Westminster for their considered and constructive input to the development of this policy.

Daniel Kawczynski Portrait Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)
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As somebody who has represented a border constituency for the past 16 years, I have become increasingly concerned about the additional levels of subsidy that the Welsh Government can give to businesses on the border, putting our Shropshire businesses at a disadvantage. Will the Secretary of State address that point, please?

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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As I have stressed, this regime has been discussed extensively with the devolved Administrations. Clearly we have conflicting views, but I believe the Government have worked constructively with the devolved Administrations and we feel that, along with our localism agenda, this is a step in the right direction. Compared with where we were for nearly 50 years in the EU state aid regime, this Bill is a significant improvement and enhancement that represents much greater devolution in this area than we have ever seen before.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con)
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Is my right hon. Friend as afraid as I am that the nationalists in Scotland will use any opportunity to be different and will impose big, generous subsidies to artificially support their own businesses simply to try to ensure that the English feel hard done by because it suits their agenda of separatism? That is not, in any sense, in the interest of the taxpayer.

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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My right hon. Friend makes a legitimate and correct observation about the general obstructionism we sometimes see. There are seven principles outlined in the Bill, however, and one of them is not to distort the UK internal market, so what she says would clearly raise issues.

Our emphasis in this regime is on transparency, accountability and, of course, agility. This all means that we will not simply be replicating the European Commission’s role in the process, requiring a central body in Brussels to sign off on specific subsidies. In other words, the UK Government did not go to great lengths to secure autonomy from the European Union on subsidy control only to reimpose the same old EU rules months later. That is not what this is about. I hope hon. Members will agree that outside the EU we will have the opportunity to do things differently. We did not leave the EU simply to settle back into the old ways of thinking and into the way things were done before. Those days are over.

I strongly believe that making the most of this new regime will need a culture change, not just in public bodies, devolved Administrations and local authorities but in central Government. It will be a culture change to take more responsibility for our own decisions, not simply outsourcing difficult decisions to the European Commission as we did for nearly 50 years. It will mean that we can be more accountable to the electorate for when and how taxpayers’ money is spent, and that we will be more agile in distributing public resources.

The Bill will ensure that our new subsidy system will maintain a competitive, free-market economy that has been central to the UK’s economic prosperity and success for decades. In that spirit, I commend the Bill to the House.

15:40
Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
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Let me start by saying that it is good to see the Secretary of State still in his place after last week’s reshuffle. I also wish to congratulate the new Ministers in his team on their appointments. However, I am sure I am not the only Member of this House who has noticed that there are now no female BEIS Ministers. While businesses across the country recognise the importance of balanced leadership at the top of their organisations, it is remarkable that BEIS seems to be moving in the opposite direction, and overlooking the important contribution that women Ministers make to ministerial teams and indeed to our economic debate.

To turn to the Bill, let me start by thanking the Secretary of State for his opening remarks, in which he laid out the subsidy control principles and talked about the need for autonomy, transparency and accountability in the new regime. Labour recognises the need for subsidy control legislation which establishes the framework for the UK’s post-Brexit regime. As of 1 January this year, EU state aid rules largely no longer apply in the UK. The EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement requires that the EU and the UK maintain their own independent systems of subsidy control. The UK also has to continue to comply with the World Trade Organisation’s subsidies and countervailing measures agreement. The Bill is therefore necessary for us to comply with our international obligations. More than that, however, it is necessary to protect the UK’s internal market and to ensure that public funds are being made available to businesses with the appropriate safeguards in place. That is why we will not be opposing the Bill tonight, but we are seeking to address significant gaps of concern during the passage of the Bill.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards
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As my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) alluded to and as the hon. Lady will be aware, the Labour Government in Wales are taking the British Government to court on this issue. Will she explain why the Labour party here in Westminster is not showing solidarity with its colleagues back in Cardiff?

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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I thank the hon. Member for his comments. I will be making a considerable contribution on the issues associated with devolution and our grave concerns about this Bill, which we would want to see corrected. They need to be addressed because we want legislative consent to be given and the concerns being raised by devolved Administrations to be addressed.

Much in this proposed regime reflects EU state aid rules, including the definition of a subsidy, the prohibition of unlimited state guarantees and the condition that subsidies should be justified on public interest grounds. Where the Bill significantly differs from the EU’s rules is in its departure from a pre-notification system, where subsidies had to be approved before they were granted. The Bill offers the potential of a quicker system where subsidies are not required to be approved in advance of being implemented, but are subject to a review and appeal system. We want this regime to be robust and to stand the test of time, but the new system will work only if it provides transparency, oversight and scrutiny, and there are key areas of the Bill where those are missing.

First, there are huge gaps in the Bill and crucial aspects are yet to be defined. The Bill may establish a regulatory framework of subsidy control, but it fails to provide any clear indication as to how and where the Government plan to see those subsidies being spent and at what scale. Labour is in favour of a subsidy system that backs British businesses and our economy, but it must operate in the context of a strong UK-wide industrial strategy, which for all intents and purposes is not nearly where it needs to be. Furthermore, there is no clear plan for how the new subsidy control regime will be used to support national priorities such as net zero. Much more needs to be joined up and coherent in the new regime.

Secondly, the Bill in its current form does not provide a fair role for devolved Administrations—we have heard that in hon. Members’ interventions—in developing and implementing the new regime. We believe that changes must be made.

Thirdly, we are concerned that the Bill does not strike the right balance between efficiency and oversight, particularly regarding the role of the Competition and Markets Authority. Transparency is also severely lacking in the case of some subsidies, putting the country at risk of allowing damaging subsidies on the scale of hundreds of thousands of pounds, and allowing the use of public money to continue unknown and therefore unchallenged.

Although the Bill may propose a quicker subsidy regime, we want to understand further how the Government plan for those subsidies to be used, what will be brought forward from the contributions to the Government’s consultation and the response to it, and how that will manifest in the guidance to come.

We have heard the concerns about support for assisted areas or key British sectors and foundation industries, such as steel. As the Minister for Finance and Local Government in the Senedd asked in her letter to the Government:

“If areas that have suffered historical economic disadvantage will no longer have the right to greater flexibility of subsidy over other regions… what alternative approach does the Government propose to ensure that disadvantaged areas can compete on a level playing field?”

Is the equivalent to an assisted areas policy implied under the seven principles, for example, equity rationale or specific policy objectives? In that case, will the Government make that clear in the guidance? Public authorities that will transition to the new regime in our devolved Administrations need that clarity.

Parliament is right to be concerned that the Conservatives are more interested in levelling-up rhetoric than in actually levelling up. In March last year, the regional deprivation fund highlighted that clearly, which led to considerable debate in the House. The Government appeared to direct money not to areas that needed it most, but to areas that seemed to serve their interests. If the Government are truly committed to their levelling-up agenda and their plan for growth, they need to show it. The Secretary of State should publish their plans and detailed guidance on how the subsidy control regime will direct public funds to the communities and businesses that need it most, in the interests of genuinely levelling up in deprived areas and our wider economy.

We also know that the UK has historically spent far less on subsidies than its international counterparts. For example, in 2019 the UK spent just 0.38% of GDP on state aid, far lower than Germany, which spent more than three times that or Hungary and Denmark. Indeed, we were seventh lowest in the EU.

The Secretary of State does not have the strongest record on industrial strategy, given that he scrapped his predecessor’s plan and wound up the Industrial Strategy Council in March.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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Why does the hon. Lady equate the fact that the UK has an excellent track record of allowing businesses to stand on their own two feet rather than being bailed out with state aid with not having an industrial strategy? Surely we are backing capitalism as the way for everybody to become richer and be in work.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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I will just leave the right hon. Lady with the Institute for Government’s feedback on the Government’s plan for growth, which was that it seemed more like a shopping a list than a prospectus. If those who independently look at what the Government are producing in terms of a plan and our industrial strategy make such comments, the Government would be wise to heed some of that feedback, in the interests of our country. I would like to be having a different debate. I would prefer to have a debate that was much more about content than on whether there is a clear plan.

Let me come back to my speech. We recognise the debate about whether the Government have a strong record on industrial strategy. Last week, the Confederation of British Industry urged the Government to

“build an economy of the future through catalytic public investments”

and to re-find its “role as market maker”. On research and development, innovation, regional growth and hydrogen—on which, perhaps, a strategy has since come forward—the CBI said that further action was needed for the UK

“to remain internationally competitive against peer nations where business investment levels–and public spending…far outstrips our own.”

Sufficiency of strategy is important here; it is not just about the publication of a document. There has been feedback on that, too.

We want to see well-designed, proportionate subsidies as part of the wider industrial strategy that we need to grow the businesses and industries of the future and to invest in our transition to net zero. Labour has also said that we must buy, make and sell more in Britain, as called for by our shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). That is part of how we can ensure resilience in our economy—the need for which has been highlighted only too starkly by the gas-price challenge and the CO2 challenge of the past week.

The Bill lacks in not only vision but key details and scrutiny. The Institute for Government has expressed concerns about the ability of this House and the other place properly to scrutinise the new subsidy control regime, given the important issues that are being left to secondary legislation or guidance. The Institute for Government claims that the gaps left in the Bill by the Government

“could deny Parliament a proper chance to scrutinise how the new system will work”.

The Government’s own impact assessment says:

“There are considerable unknowns—because key features of the regime will be defined later in secondary legislation or statutory guidance. The analysis of the regime’s impact is also based on historical data when UK public authorities had to comply with the EU State aid regime.”

The impact assessment also says:

“We should expect the behaviour of public authorities”—

perhaps the Secretary of State was alluding to this when he talked about culture change— “and the resulting distribution of subsidies to change under the new regime—although it is not possible to forecast how this will change.”

We are yet to hear how the Government plan to define categories such as subsidies “of interest” and “of particular interest”—categories that will determine which subsidies are voluntarily or mandatorily referred to the Competition and Markets Authority. Such definitions are to be determined not now, but through secondary legislation, in respect of which Parliament is given less opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s decisions. To aid scrutiny, which I believe the Secretary of State will want to be to the standards we would want in this House for a regime that will stand the test of time, he should set out the timeline for consultation on and the publication of secondary legislation that covers critical aspects of the new system.

Simon Baynes Portrait Simon Baynes (Clwyd South) (Con)
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Will the hon. Lady say why no Labour Back Benchers are present in the Chamber? If this issue means so much to the Labour party, why is it not properly represented in the debate?

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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I have been involved in extensive discussion with my colleagues, and they will want to make significant contributions in Committee to address the gaps in the Bill. We continue to work on that.

As I was saying, the Secretary of State should set out the timeline for consultation on and the publication of secondary legislation that covers critical aspects of the new system. I know the House will want to see that in good time.

Public bodies have faced significant difficulties since the start of this year precisely because of the lack of guidance on how to interpret the subsidy control principles agreed in the trade and co-operation agreement, so clarity on how public authorities should demonstrate that their subsidies comply with those principles will be an important part of the subsidy regime. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that we will want to see some decisions being made in the interests of how we recover and how we are to grow our economy for the future.

On the important issue of devolution, most importantly of all we are concerned that the Bill has not taken the four-nations approach that is essential for an effective UK-wide subsidy control regime. For example, the balance of the power to challenge between the Secretary of State and the devolved Administrations is asymmetric. I am sure that the Secretary of State has heard those representations made to him directly. Twelve months ago, the shadow Secretary of State stood at this Dispatch Box and warned the Prime Minister of the risks of undermining with policy decisions the devolution settlement that has been part of our constitution for two decades and is vital to our Union. However, on the evidence of the legislation before us, it appears that a shift in mindset and thinking has not been a part of how the Government have brought forward this legislation, and we hope that they are going to listen to the concerns that we and other Members are raising.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
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Let me make a point that almost follows on from the intervention of the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards). If Labour Members are so concerned about the devolution settlement, why do they not vote against the Bill?

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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The hon. Member will have heard my earlier remarks; although we have considerable concerns, we believe that the Bill is vital to us meeting our international obligations and we want it to pass. However, there are significant gaps and issues that must be addressed in Committee. I hope that he will work with Labour on those matters, so that the regime that comes out of this process is one that reflects the four-nations approach that I just articulated.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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I appreciate the hon. Member’s remarks and I admire her confidence in being able to get the Government to address Labour’s concerns, but let me just be clear: is it the Labour party’s position that this Bill—irrespective of the damage it does to devolution—should pass?

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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Perhaps the hon. Member will allow me to continue with my remarks, because he has not quite represented our position. It is important that we continue the debate and detailed scrutiny of the Bill. The remarks that I am about to make may provide him with some reassurance on this issue.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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Does the hon. Member accept that a regime of control is important for all the devolved areas of the United Kingdom: first, because it is a safeguard against richer regions being able to subsidise more heavily than poorer regions; and secondly, because it is a safeguard against central Government issuing subsidies that could affect the devolved regions? We need a strong regulatory regime.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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The right hon. Member makes an important point. I will make some points in that regard later in my remarks.

As I was saying, on the evidence of the legislation it appears that the Government have not reflected in the Bill a true four-nations approach in order that we have a UK-wide subsidy regime that commands the confidence and support of all parts of the UK. We do not contest that subsidy control is a reserved matter, but we recognise and support the requirement on public authorities to consider the impact of a subsidy on competition or investment within the UK. It is important for the Secretary of State to make it clear to the House why there is such a limited role for the devolved Administrations in the development of this new regime. They are not even required to be consulted beforehand on advice given by the Secretary of State on the implementation of subsidies.

Under the legislation, the Competition and Markets Authority’s new subsidy advice unit will play an important role in protecting the UK’s internal market, yet the Bill provides no formal role for the devolved Administrations in appointing members to the new unit. Remarkably, the Bill is even less generous than the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which at least requires the Secretary of State to seek the consent of the devolved Administrations before making an appointment to the Office for the Internal Market. Can the Government not see how this flies in the face of a four-nations approach?

It is imperative that the devolved Administrations be involved in the development of secondary legislation and in the amendments to the Bill. Even more worryingly, the powers given to the Secretary of State and First Ministers are significantly asymmetric. Although the Secretary of State is explicitly able to challenge Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish subsidies that may damage English interests, no complementary power is given to First Ministers. Unlike the Secretary of State, the devolved Administrations seem unlikely to be able to challenge English subsidies that may be perceived to be causing harm to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish interests. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether this is correct, or is it his intention that First Ministers would be considered as interested parties for the purposes—

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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Will the hon. Lady give way?

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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I have given way to the right hon. Lady already and I hope she will not mind if I continue my remarks.

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether it is the Government’s intention that First Ministers, or public interest groups, be considered interested parties for the purposes of being able to bring forward a challenge to a subsidy decision—if so, why will the Government not put that in the Bill?—or will a challenge have to be made via the Secretary of State?

This is not where the devolution challenges end. Perhaps the Secretary of State could clarify his remarks on Northern Ireland, because, as I understand it, under article 10 of the Northern Ireland protocol, EU state aid rules must apply to subsidies that affect trade between Northern Ireland and the EU. This affects not only subsidies granted in Northern Ireland but subsidies granted throughout the UK. There is a risk—unless the Secretary of State wants to correct me—that article 10, taken alongside the new subsidy regime, could cause legal or practical difficulties, particularly if the UK and EU disagree on what affects EU-Northern Ireland trade.

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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I thought that I could not have been clearer on this precise point in my opening speech. I repeat: it is clearly no longer necessary for Northern Ireland to be subject to the EU state aid regime, and that is precisely why we proposed a change to the Northern Ireland protocol in order to bring all subsidies within scope of the domestic regime.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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I thank the Secretary of State. Indeed, I did hear those comments in his opening remarks. I was seeking to clarify the issue because I do not think it is clear across the House, and it is important that it is tested and made clear in the course of the passage of the Bill.

Crucially, what is the Government’s intention if the Bill does not receive legislative consent from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as has been requested?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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Is the hon. Lady suggesting a four-nation approach whereby any one of the nations has a veto over decisions taken by those four nations that they feel are not in their interest?

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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I am not clear why the hon. Lady refers to a veto. I think we are talking about the symmetry of powers in terms of being able to bring forward a challenge. I hope that makes the point clear.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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If it is okay, I want to move on because I am conscious of time, but the hon. Lady may want to make her point in her own remarks.

Finally, on the issues of oversight and enforcement, while well-designed subsidies can support Government objectives and foster growth and opportunity, there are risks too. Subsidies can distort markets, undermine competition and unfairly discriminate between businesses. Effective oversight and enforcement are critical to the success of our subsidy control regime, yet they are lacking in certain areas of the new regime. The Bill does not provide enough certainty as to the definition of “interested parties” that are able to challenge a subsidy. Does that definition extend to local authorities and devolved Administrations?

There are also concerns about the limited powers of the CMA’s new subsidy advice unit under the Bill. We are pleased that a trusted independent regulator is being given key responsibilities. However, as the Bill stands, the CMA lacks any power to instigate an investigation on its own initiative or to take enforcement action. This requires careful consideration, particularly when transparency issues around the Bill are taken into account.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards
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Will the hon. Lady give way?

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am sorry but I will move on. I have taken an intervention from the hon. Member, so perhaps he can make his own contribution.

The Government have stipulated that subsidies under £315,000 over three years will not have to be reported on the subsidy database. However, there is an issue, also raised by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), about the threshold and reporting. In the consultation on the Bill, the Government asked whether there should be a minimum threshold of £50,000 below which no subsidies would need to be reported, and 64% of those who responded agreed on that threshold of £50,000. On that general point, what are the Government’s plans for reporting, oversight and accountability arrangements for subsidies below that threshold? I am sure they will want to ensure transparency in how public money is being spent and to whom it is going.

On the decision made for a six-month time limit to upload subsidies to the subsidy database, there was a discussion in the consultation on whether that period should be shorter, or three months. What was the reason for deciding on six months? That seems rather a long time for a decision to be uploaded and therefore in the public domain. If interested parties and the Secretary of State are not made aware of smaller subsidies or those that are uploaded—they have a month to bring a challenge—there will be no opportunity to prevent them going forward, even if they are harmful. The CMA may be able to produce reports on such subsidies, but it will not be able to enforce any of its recommendations. Does that not expose a significant transparency gap in the Bill? The Government could choose to have further reporting requirements. I urge them to review the CMA’s role alongside the necessary transparency requirements for subsidies.

Labour recognises the need to develop a post-Brexit subsidy control regime in line with the UK’s international commitments. There are benefits from a more flexible and speedy subsidy regime, but we have serious concerns about gaps in the Bill that we will look to address during its passage. Those include unanswered questions on the operation of the new regime, its enforcement and oversight, and the role of the devolved Administrations. We want to see legislation that establishes an effective UK-wide subsidy regime that commands confidence across the country. The Bill gives the Government and other public authorities greater powers to provide subsidies. It is an important Bill, but the gaps in it must be addressed.

16:06
John Penrose Portrait John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am seriously pleased to see the Bill coming forward. It is much needed, not just because, as the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) pointed out, it is a fulfilment of our international obligations, but because, as the Secretary of State rightly said, before we went into the EU and had any kind of proper subsidy control regime, it was pretty much a free-for-all and I am afraid that, no matter who was in government, broadly speaking, the lack of rules was terrible.

Politicians on all sides and of all stripes over an extended period have a dreadful track record in yielding to temptation, particularly when they are being lobbied hard by someone pleading desperately for this or that piece of help—it’s just one more wafer-thin subsidy, sir. We give way. We all do—it is only human—and it is a long proven fact that politicians are terrible at picking winners, but losers are really good at picking politicians. It is therefore essential that, as we come out of the EU, we have our UK-only version of a rules-based system in place. The Secretary of State is right to move towards that, even if we did not have those international obligations to deliver it.

I am also pleased to see the seven principles that are the core of the approach, backed up by various other environmental principles as well. They start with the notion that there must be a market failure before any form of taxpayers’ cash can start to be dished out. We can all think of businesses in the past—perhaps even today—that would have liked nothing better than to reach their sticky fingers into the taxpayers’ pockets and extract some cash to make their lives better, their shareholders’ lives simpler and their management’s lives easier. It is therefore absolutely right that the Secretary of State has limited his own freedom—and, more particularly, that of his successors—so that we can have, we hope, a consistent approach and we will not have open season for Government failure. We always talk about market failure in this place, but that principle is crucial for avoiding Government failure in future.

That is a point I made in the Government-commissioned report I was asked to write by the Secretary of State’s predecessor on competition policy. Self-denial is absolutely essential to make sure that we do not start splashing around taxpayers’ cash in an unproductive way and subsidising commercially hopeless cases because they have good lobbyists. The trouble is that the more hopeless they are but the deeper pockets they have and the better lobbyists they have, the harder it is to avoid that kind of temptation.

This is a welcome and necessary Bill, and it is vitally important. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) said earlier, I do not think we should have any truck with the notion that we were not one of the most prolific users of subsidies when we were still part of the EU. We ranked relatively low in the league table against other countries in the EU in our use of subsidies, and as a free marketeer I think that should be a badge of honour. It shows that we are in general allowing capitalism to run and allowing capitalist animal spirits to move resources, investment and productive assets around our economy in the most efficient way to drive our economic growth. Ultimately, it is that economic growth that pays for the public services we all care about, and that we all need and rely on as well. So yes to capitalism and yes to avoiding distortions, discriminations and, dare I say it, potentially the risks of political favouritism if we do not have these rules in place and a rules-based system. I am delighted that this Bill is here, and it establishes some really important principles for all of us.

There is one small fly in the ointment, which I will mention now. I do not want to try your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, by going into things that will I am sure be properly covered both in Committee and on Report. I will mention the principle at this stage—it has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and by others—and it is the point about transparency. The Secretary of State has made that a central point, and he is absolutely right to say that he wants to establish the UK as one of the leading examples of subsidy transparency in, I think, the world. I may be misquoting him slightly, but I am sure the principle is one he would sign up to.

That is an absolutely core piece because if we do not have such transparency—if we cannot see what these subsidies are or we cannot see what they are until it is too late—how on earth are we to know that this excellent new set of rules-based principles are being followed properly or not? Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as we all know, and exposing this to public scrutiny cannot be bad. Because we are setting up this rules-based system, we should have nothing to hide. If we are worried about transparency, that is always a bad sign in the first place. Therefore, the central principle, which the Secretary of State and his fellow Ministers have already enunciated, is entirely the right one.

My concern is therefore not with the principle that the Secretary of State has enunciated; it is whether or not this Bill will actually deliver the principle in the way he hopes. This is a technical concern, not one of principle at all, but the technical concern is real. We have left the EU, but the EU’s basic rules for disclosure required us to disclose subsidies of above €500,000. The new Bill, as we have heard, has a variety of different exemptions, but broadly speaking it requires us to disclose subsidies of above £500,000. That means we will be disclosing fewer subsidies in future than we were under the EU because the threshold is higher. It is not the only threshold; there are other thresholds. One of them is even higher still, at £725,000, for public interest subsidies of one kind or another, which I think is for subsidising things such as buses and social housing. All those things may very well need subsidies, but why are we being secretive about it? Why should we not make this public?

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
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There are very specific exclusions for inclusion on the central database. Would my hon. Friend extend his argument to consideration of those excluded items as well?

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There are a couple of exclusions that I think make an awful lot of sense. For example, there is an exclusion about national security, which I hope everybody on all sides of this House would sign up to. However, in principle, to follow and frank the principle that the Secretary of State has rightly put across about how we want to be the most transparent about our use of subsidies—because it will show that we are following those rules, and that we are letting capitalism rip and therefore that productive assets are being used in the most effective way without distortion—in general there should be fewer exclusions, with only the minimal number of exclusions that is safe, although I completely accept that there will need to be some. There is no reason why we should worry about disclosing pretty much any subsidy, particularly because local councils, for example, already have to report anything they spend above £500. They already take records, keep notes, and publish those details, and it would be peculiar to say that although they have to declare spending above £500, they do not have to declare subsidies above £500,000. I am not sure that is terribly consistent.

The Secretary of State has rightly pointed out that when subsidies are notified they have to be turned round and approved or disapproved by the CMA within 30 days. That is entirely right. We need a prompt, nimble, and agile response in order for our economy to work in a prompt, nimble and agile way. It therefore seems odd, if I may put it politely, that we are allowing subsidies not to be registered for up to six months after they have been made. We will therefore have fewer subsidies declared, in a way that does not match what local councils already have to declare. Councils already have to keep such information and data; it is not something they will have to start doing from scratch, and all they will need to do is paste it on to a central database. They also do not have to put it out for six months. These are small technical tweaks, but they are central to delivering on the principle, which the Secretary of State rightly enunciated.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Is the hon. Gentleman concerned that a subsidy could be well in place for six months but then there would be a challenge period of 30 days? If there was a reasonable challenge and another body had lost out, would it not be a bit late?

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. Gentleman is right, particularly because in the modern digitising economy, everything is moving faster and faster every year. Even if that issue was not a problem before—and I think it probably would have been—it certainly would become one in future. There is scope for tightening that part of the Bill technically, so as to deliver on the principles that the Secretary of State has rightly enunciated regarding timing, the degree of transparency and the level of disclosure. As we will have nothing to hide, we should not hide it; we should get it all out there and ensure that it is available.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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My hon. Friend makes some strong points, and I absolutely agree with those about transparency. One objection to lowering the threshold to a few hundred pounds rather than £0.5 million might be the burden of red tape attached, but, as I understand it, the costs for having a database that includes pretty much every subsidy—about £20,000 per annum—are minimal.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Indeed, he has led me to the final point in my speech. He is right to say—I know Ministers in the Department have this instinctively in the marrow of their bones—that we must not turn this into some bureaucratic red tape burden. Indeed, one chapter in the report that I was asked to write about competition policy refers to reducing red tape burdens. We all understand that too much of that will slow down even the best company and reduce its competitiveness compared with companies in other countries, so he is right to be concerned.

In this case, however, doing what I suggest should reduce the red tape burden rather than add to it. That is because one of the other exemptions, which I think is £325,000, is for a cumulative set of subsidies. If I have three or four subsidies granted by three or four different local councils, or perhaps by a devolved Government and some local councils, and they cumulatively add up to £325,000 over a three-year period, that has to be declared and everyone has to keep track of that. Under the existing Bill, individual councils making those grants will not be keeping that record. They will not be able to, because they will not know what the other councils have done. The companies that are getting those grants will have to keep their own records for three years. That is a business burden that we will create if we do not change the Bill right now.

If we just said instead, “There’s one central public database and everything gets put on it; no company has to keep any records whatsoever because it’s all out there and it’s visible, searchable, clear and transparent,” there would be no extra business burden at all and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton just pointed out, there would be minimal extra public burden, because the local councils, devolved Administrations and Government Departments keep these records anyway. All they would have to do is extend the print range on their spreadsheets slightly further down the page, or organise their automatic file uploads a little more simply, so the burden would be minimal. If we did it that way round rather than what is currently in the Bill, we would avoid creating a new red tape burden.

With that, I will do something unusual for a politician and shut up. This is a good Bill, it is an essential Bill, and it does some really important things. I am really pleased to see it come forward. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is doing precisely the right thing, in the right way. We have one concern about detail; with any luck, I am sure that can be ironed out.

16:20
Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who gave a fair tour de force of the Bill. I admired his concern about transparency, which was perhaps ironic, given that he sits on the Conservative Benches. The Tories have quite happily dished out billions of pounds worth of contracts to their donors and friends for wasted personal protective equipment throughout the pandemic, but I guess that in real terms, transparency comes and goes depending on—

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Has the hon. Gentleman bothered to read the National Audit Office report, which specifically says that Ministers had no involvement in any procurement decision? Will he put that properly on the record? All he is doing by making those points is trashing the name of the whole of politics, not just that of the Conservatives. It is a complete nonsense, and he should admit it.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. It does not put a stain on all of politics; it puts a stain on the Conservative party, where it firmly belongs, because Conservative party donors and friends have gained the most from this pandemic when it has come to contracts. [Interruption.] Conservative Members can argue all they want, but the facts are as clear as that.

Now, to the Bill before us; we got a little side-tracked there. It is important to look at the wider context of the Bill: the present situation, the past regime, and what is to come, which of course is what the Bill sets out. Let us look first at what is in place at this moment in time. As I see it, and as I think all of us in the Chamber will see it, we left the European Union, but we left to a system of nothing. We do not actually have an effective system at the moment. Indeed, I think it was the Institute for Government that deemed the current system to be completely ineffective.

That is understandable. Of course, a public body looking at what it is going to be doing does not want to break any rules, so if it does not have a full understanding of what the rules are, it will obviously err on the side of caution. In many ways, that might be an argument for the Bill. I can certainly understand why that may be the case, and that was what the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), intimated in terms of meeting international obligations and the like. I do not think anyone would necessarily disagree with that.

Let us reflect slightly on where we have come from in relation to state aid. Some of this has been touched on already by Members on both sides of the House, but there is one specific aspect of it that I think needs to be aired properly. It was mentioned by the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), at the Dispatch Box during Prime Minister’s questions earlier, and again by the Secretary of State—perhaps not directly, but he certainly inferred it—that state aid was a problem of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. Yet if we look at the facts before us, 95% of all state aid measures did not even go near the European Commission’s desk, so we are almost fixing a problem that did not exist in the terms that the Government think it did, irrespective of how much they want to make Brussels seem like the bad guys.

I appreciate, though I disagree with, the stance of some Conservative Members—the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare made this point, as I think did the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) when she was in her place—that we did not, when we were in the European Union, make the most of what we could do under state aid regulations. However, the facts are that, under those terrible state aid regulations, we invested but a third of what the Germans invested, and a fraction of what others invested, so the big bad guys in Brussels were not so bad after all. Yet we left that arrangement for a system that, at this moment in time, is completely ineffective.

That brings us to the next stage, as represented by this Bill. As I see it, the Bill’s objectives are to enable strategic interventions to support economic recovery, levelling up and net zero. That is not wholly different from the EU state aid rules, which were, of course, to support the environment and innovation. The one slight difference, however, is that the EU state aid rules had a specific remit for the EU regional aid system, whereby people advocated money to be directed to less developed regions.

I have to say that I am a little surprised that there are not a few more red wall Tories present, whose regions could be described as—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) is waving at me; I am sure he will seek to intervene on me in due course. If I were a Conservative Back Bencher representing a constituency in the north of England, I would be deeply concerned about this aspect of the Bill. Although the Government say that the objective of the Bill is to level up, it contains no detail at all. It says that the Secretary of State will come back, subsequent to the Bill, to provide the detail on how levelling up will work. More importantly, we have walked away from a system that put money directly into less developed regions.

Simon Baynes Portrait Simon Baynes
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I am a Conservative Back Bencher representing a red wall seat in north Wales. The previous EU system was very biased against regional and localised issues of deprivation. It went for large areas, but there are plenty of areas in north-east Wales that require the same amount of help as was gifted under the European system. I would argue that the new system is much more direct, much more localised and much more effective.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I admire the hon. Member’s optimism, but I am not quite sure where he has read that, because, of course, the Bill does not have that detail. He is hoping that the Secretary of State will subsequently provide that detail, but the Bill does not make that clear.

Another extremely important point that the Bill does not make clear is in relation to relocation subsidies. Essentially, the Government are saying that they will not relocate subsidies to areas with a more significant problem. They might want to level up—to use their term—but that is not going to happen under the terms of the Bill.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in fact, the Bill does the opposite of levelling up, in that it refuses to allow anything to happen in disadvantaged areas that will disadvantage rich areas? That is how the Bill is written—it is in schedule 1F.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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My hon. Friend could not have put it better. It is a pity that there are not more Tory Back Benchers present to hear her and understand the damage that they are going to do to their own communities.

The Bill’s key objectives also include net zero. Again, there is no detail on net zero or how the Government intend to subsidise its delivery. We are being told to just believe—to hope on a whim and a prayer—that the Government will do this, that they will deliver. Let us look at that from a Scottish perspective. Let us look at the Government’s record. As the Minister and, indeed, others in this Chamber know only too well, Scottish renewables projects, which are key and fundamental to reaching net zero, pay the highest grid charges in the entirety of Europe. In the UK—on these islands—renewables projects in the south-east of England get paid to access the national grid, whereas renewables projects in Scotland have to pay to do so.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is a vital point that will come forward in the next couple of months, when the Scottish islands could be providing as much as is coming across from some of the European interconnectors at present. On subsidies, the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) made a good point on enforcement. In part 5, an “interested party” is defined in clause 70(7) as “the Secretary of State” while others are just people who “may be affected”. Should not Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers and Northern Ireland Ministers be specifically outlined? Or is this something seen as being granted by London and London only, leaving London to make arbitrary decisions on subsidies? My hon. Friend makes the point very powerfully that producing renewable energy in certain parts elicits a subsidy, while in other parts it is penalised.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes that point incredibly well and I will come on to that clear power grab from the UK Government.

To finalise the point in relation to net zero, the UK Government are telling us that we should trust them. Well, we don’t and we won’t.

The second objective of the Bill I want to touch on briefly relates to empowering devolved Governments—I mean, come on! Empowering devolved Governments. We are going to have a subsidy advice unit set up, a new independent body that will sit within the remit of the Competition and Markets Authority, yet the devolved nations have no say, no input at all whatever, in the role of that organisation or, indeed, who sits on the board. So of course that is not the devolved nations being involved as they should be. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) says it is independent, but of course that is not the case. Was it not the former Prime Minister who had a role in appointments to the board of the CMA, or have I got that incorrect? I think what he is referring to in terms of an independent body is the subsidy advice unit. Of course that is, but it sits within the remit of the CMA—that is the point I am making. The devolved nations have no role in that body. Those are two very separate but important points that am sure he will come to reflect on.

The biggest and most concerning aspect relating to the devolved nations is the fact that when a public body in Scotland or Wales decides that it wants to invest in a project, the UK Secretary of State, irrespective of whether the project relates to devolved areas, can choose to call them in under the remit of the CMA. That is a clear step into devolution.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We could have a situation where somebody in England decides to set up something on the Welsh border or Scottish border without, seemingly, the powers of Scottish or Welsh Ministers, or even the Scottish Government, to try to remove the attention of Westminster. That is like the Scottish Government setting something up across the North channel almost in direct competition with Northern Ireland, with perhaps Northern Ireland not having the power of equivalence that it appears to be giving to the supremacy at Westminster, which I think is very wrong.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is an entirely fair and accurate point.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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From the Opposition Benches this afternoon, we are hearing a lot about asymmetry. In particular, we are hearing about a lack of involvement and so on. I will not make any points about sovereignty—I do not wish to go down that road—but I will make a simple observation and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can comment on it. Was that not the case when we were a part of the EU? We were directed into things. We did not have the same control he seems to think that they should have now.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member makes his point in his own way, but let me be clear. How can I put this? We do not think that the system that operated within the EU was one that we should have turned our back on. What did we turn our back on it for? Let me answer that briefly, as a slight anecdote: it was for Brexit—the chaos of Brexit. Food shortages, staff shortages, trade barriers, the chaos that we see—

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member has had his say, and I am sure that he will make further contributions later.

Conservative Members come to this Chamber and tell us that Brexit will solve everything, but of course it has not; it has only made things worse for working people in our society. What we have before us, in no uncertain terms, is a Bill that undermines devolution, following on from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the shared prosperity fund. If they want to protect their Union, they are doing a damned good job of destroying it. Do some more!

16:35
Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn). I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) in broadly welcoming the Bill’s direction, and indeed its existence; I think that we need a robust subsidy control regime and I am glad that we are putting one in place.

I largely welcome the Government’s central decision to put parameters and rules in place and then trust public authorities to follow them, rather than having a very strict consent regime that would then become slow and cumbersome. I think that that is the right way to go, but it is intriguing to read the Bill and find a control regime that applies only if there is a

“subsidy…of interest or particular interest”,

neither of which terms is defined. At some point, a future Secretary of State could end up with quite a controlling regime by defining “particular interest” as any subsidy of more than half a million pounds, and then we would be back where we were.

It would be interesting to hear what the Minister thinks a “particular interest” might be and what the criteria might be for going into it, so that we know roughly where the line will be drawn, where the discretion for authorities is, and where we will start to expect mandatory or voluntary referral for advance clearance. I do not object to that process, because one of the key things for any subsidy regime is getting certainty so that when a business receives a subsidy, it knows that the rules have been followed, that it is entitled to it, and that there will not be a claim in six months’ or a year’s time that ends up with its having to repay the subsidy and being in worse distress than at the start. Having a regime with clearly drawn lines, so that everyone knows where they are and knows that once something is given it will stick, is hugely welcome. When we consider the Bill in more detail, it would be helpful to know where the line of discretion will be drawn.

The quid pro quo of a regime without intrusive up-front clearance is that we must have transparency on what is being paid, so that everyone knows that it is consistent with the rules and that some public authorities around the country are not misinterpreting them or, heaven forbid, deliberately doing things that they should not be doing. Clearly a risk in any subsidy regime is money being paid out in unlawful ways, so we want to be able to identify that situation pretty quickly.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. I think that a Bill’s Second Reading is the time to test the arguments. He mentioned transparency, and a colleague of his debated a similar point with the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn). The crux of it comes back to the state aid point. In the European Union, there were 27 or 28 states and a very defined gamekeeper among all those poachers, namely the European Commission. The concern that I think SNP Members share is who the gamekeeper is and who the poachers are. Are the UK Government playing both gamekeeper and poacher in regards to subsidy? I am testing the arguments in this debate, but over time the Government will need to address the point and be very clear that they are not taking both sides, as poacher and gamekeeper.

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think that I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. One attraction that I think the EU system had for the Treasury and occasionally for some politicians was that they could say, “We’d love to give you a grant to save your business, but tragically we’re not allowed to under EU rules,” when actually they did not want to because they knew it was not the right thing to do, so it was handy to have somebody else to blame. I think the Bill sets out that the CMA is the body that will or will not give clearance. It will not be Ministers doing that, so if the hon. Member wants a gamekeeper in this situation, I think it is the CMA.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

But is the CMA not a body of Westminster construction, as opposed to being a body of the Union?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is the United Kingdom Parliament.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Well, there are many Parliaments in this United Kingdom at the moment, and we know that each and every one should have the same voice. If this is the poacher and gamekeeper Parliament, surely that is a problem for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales—that is the argument that I would postulate.

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think it is fair enough for a UK single market to have a single regulator that decides a subsidy regime to ensure that the application of the rules is consistent across the whole of that single market. The hon. Gentleman wants to go back into the EU single market, which has a single regulator which decides things across the whole of that its single market. He does not seem to accept that the EU single market should have the same arrangement.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I strengthen my hon. Friend’s point by saying that whatever people’s views of the CMA may be, it is pretty well respected as being a robustly politically independent organisation, no matter who is in government?

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I think we should move on from this point before we lengthen the debate into something that we do not want.

As I was saying, a transparency regime enabling us to see promptly what is being paid to whom and for what reason, and what the expected outcomes are, is of key importance. I agree with what my hon. Friend was saying earlier: a regime in which we have to wait six months for a disclosure, and then only of amounts over half a million pounds, has the wrong balance. I think that is where we end up with concern over subsidies, and scandals brewing, and then a lurch back towards more of a clearance regime. I urge the Government to rethink those points.

We are not expecting public authorities to be handing out huge numbers of subsidies after half an hour’s consideration. The rules that we are introducing are fairly strict. There will have to be some careful consideration of any proposed subsidies to ensure that those rules have been met, and there are processes for checking that the person who is being paid has not already exceeded a certain threshold. It is not a half-hour, quick and dirty process; there is plenty of time to gather the information that is needed to declare the subsidy, which can then, pretty promptly, be put on to what I suspect will be a simple database form that the CMA, or whoever, will put in place. I do not think it is an intrusive burden to have to say, “Here is what we gave to whom and why.”

I should add that I would like it to be possible to see the identity of the beneficial owner of the entity that has received the subsidy on the database, so that we can see who is really benefiting, rather than seeing some obscure, lower-down subsidiary name, which would make it not very easy to trace by going through the whole system who has been getting what from different public authorities.

Let me suggest as a comparison the furlough scheme, which is essentially a subsidy being given to businesses to pay their employees’ wages. We have published the names, in a range of bands starting with £1 to £10,000, of employers who have received that subsidy during the pandemic. I think that if we can publicise the details of employers who have received up to £10,000, we can justify publishing the name of anyone who has received a subsidy that has gone through a due process, down to a much lower level than £500,000, without its being unduly damaging to their commercial confidential interests. I think that someone involved in the process of asking for money from the taxpayer should accept and welcome that transparency. There should be nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide: if that money is needed for a good purpose, there is no reason why we should not know about it. I urge the Government to make some changes in that regard.

I was intrigued by the remarks about the way in which taxation policy can elide with the subsidy regime. There are quite a few cut-outs for taxation situations which I guess make sense, but I think there could be a role here. If we are giving individual taxpayers very generous tax deals, letting them off liabilities that they may owe for reasons that may not necessarily be entirely technically robust—as people have feared before—I see no reason why those should not count as subsidies and therefore be published through this regime, in order to get around that horrible situation in which we know that deals are being done but we do not know who the beneficiaries are. I think that it would be an interesting legal challenge to establish whether they are caught by these rules.

My final remark—I think—concerns the exclusion of subsidies for purposes of national security. I have absolutely no objection in principle to our being unable to publish everything that is spent in relation to national security, but those words—

“for the purpose of safeguarding national security”—

constitute a very broad definition. We have hit a problem with the freedom of information rules in this regard. Some authorities have an incredibly broad interpretation of what that means. I think it was the West Yorkshire fire and rescue service that would not publish a response to an FOI request about the vehicles it had bought in case someone could somehow clone them and thus get into its premises. I hope that the Government are not expecting to have such a ridiculously broad definition of national security that we cannot in any circumstances see the subsidy given to any defence company, or police authority, or fire and rescue authority. Given that energy security is probably a national security issue, presumably no energy subsidy could be published. I suspect that some creative people around the country could find all manner of ways of making the broad definition “for the purposes of national security” exempt almost anything from these rules. I hope that we can be clear in Committee about the sort of things we think we should not publish, and about where the line should be drawn as to what we can see. If we have too many exemptions from these rules, we will end up weakening confidence in the system. We could end up with scandals that could lurch us away from the fast-moving, flexible system that the Government want in order to get aid where it is needed fast. We could end up back in a cumbersome, slow and bureaucratic system to try to avoid the scandals that we could see from a lack of transparency.

16:45
Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
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It is great to hear the thoughtful contributions from that Tory Bench, although not from the Treasury Bench, I hasten to add. The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) and I have spoken in many debates together, and I always appreciate his forensic assessments of the details in the Bills before us. I hope that he will be on the Committee, and I hope that I will be too.

First off, I want to ask a couple of questions about what the Secretary of State said, because I am immensely confused by a couple of the things that he said. First, he said that the devolved Administrations were broadly happy with the Bill. If they are broadly happy, why have the Welsh Government said that they object to five of the six parts of the Bill? One out of six does not equate to “broadly happy”. In fact, I get the impression that they really do not like it and are not happy about it.

We have not seen what the Scottish Government are saying about the legislative consent motion, but I cannot imagine that they will be terribly happy with the power grab that is occurring as a result of the Bill. So I am quite confused by what the Secretary of State said. Does he mean that the devolved Administrations are broadly happy with having a state aid regime? Does he mean that they are broadly happy with the detail of the Subsidy Control Bill? I do not know. I do not understand what he is saying, because it does not seem to be coherent with what the Welsh Government have said in public about this.

The other thing that I am really confused about is what the Secretary of State said about the EU state aid provisions no longer applying to Northern Ireland. I thought he said something about article 21 of the Northern Ireland protocol, but maybe he meant article 16. I am not sure what he meant. In terms of the planned changes to state aid application in Northern Ireland, he seemed to be saying that the new subsidy control regime would apply there and that the UK Government were seeking some sort of change to an article in order to ensure that that happened. I am not aware of any publicity around the UK Government asking the EU for a change, but if that has happened, why have we not heard about it?

Could we please have a bit more information on this? We have the trade and co-operation agreement and we have the Northern Ireland protocol, but how do the UK Government expect these measures to apply in Northern Ireland without us breaking either the agreement or the protocol? That does not make sense. If the Secretary of State was making that important an announcement, you would think he would do it in a ministerial statement rather than as an aside during the Second Reading of this Bill. I would be really keen to hear a bit more information about what this actually means.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the confusion that has been raised. Does she agree that it is important that the Government clarify what they are suggesting has changed in relation to article 10 of the Northern Ireland protocol and whether it has been dropped on the basis of this Bill? Should they not also tell us whether their proposal has been negotiated with the EU, and what the status of those discussions and any agreement might be?

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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Absolutely. If we as a country can suddenly renege on our international obligations and agreements, why cannot Scotland hold an independence referendum next week? The UK has agreed to these agreements and it would be great, when the Minister speaks at the end of the debate, if he could explain exactly what is going on. This is serious enough for a Minister to be making a separate statement to the House, because it is such an important matter for the people of the UK and particularly for the people of Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) spoke eloquently about the levelling-up agenda, and I agree that the red wall Tories elected in the north of England should be jumping up and down about this—we are jumping up and down about it, as the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) suggested—because it explicitly excludes us from doing anything that may disadvantage any other area of the UK. In schedule 1, principle F says:

“Subsidies should be designed to achieve their specific policy objective while minimising any negative effects on competition or investment within the United Kingdom.”

And principle G says:

“Subsidies’ beneficial effects…should outweigh any negative effects, including in particular negative effects on competition or investment within the United Kingdom; international trade or investment.”

That reference to international trade or investment confuses me.

The principles try to level the playing field across the UK, so there can be a subsidy in Manchester only if a person in the south of England would not move their company as a result.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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For balance, does the hon. Lady accept that principle A says:

“Subsidies should pursue a specific policy objective in order to remedy an identified market failure”?

If there is market failure and certain regions of the United Kingdom are disadvantaged because of their distance, history, lack of skills, lack of resources or whatever it happens to be, principle A allows subsidies to be used for levelling up.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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Principle F rejects that, so which one has primacy? Which one is the most important? If they directly disagree with each other, is it more important that we can do what is said in principle A or is it more important that we can do what is said in principle F?

I think the subsidy regime should be used in the same way as the EU state aid regime, which focuses on regions that need additional support. Whatever this Conservative Government say—we will not believe them anyway, given the amount of lies we have been told—it is not the case that this regime assists levelling up; it does the opposite. If they want to assist levelling up, they should design a regime that ensures different areas can have different subsidy regimes that benefit their local area even though they may disadvantage other areas.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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The hon. Lady may have identified this herself already, but freeports, for example, allow businesses to relocate and benefit from different taxation regimes. Such businesses are treated more beneficially in how they operate and in their cost of operation. Does she accept that freeports do exactly what she is setting out?

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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Freeports are not covered by the subsidy regime we are talking about today. They are a separate thing. I can say from the Back Benches that I am not particularly keen on freeports, but the idea is that there is a wall around the port—the guidance specifically says that there has to be a physical barrier around the area—and there is a different taxation regime within that wall. I am yet to be convinced of the economic benefits that will come as a result.

We hope to have green ports in Scotland, and the failure of the UK Government to agree that we can pay the real living wage and focus on net zero within those green ports means that the freeport system, as it stands, is not nearly as advantageous as it could or should be. Even though the freeport system is set up to encourage such things, I have not seen evidence that it will actually do so, particularly given the rejection of the key principles we want to put in place.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil
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It is unclear that the UK Government have a strategy to replace the EU’s successful regional structural funding for Wales, Northern Ireland and many parts of the highlands in Scotland. Such funding and state aid go hand in hand, and they are seen as different things. Indeed, the freeports are seen as a different thing. There needs to be something else to go with this for areas of the UK that are disadvantaged by policy set in the south-east of England for the south-east of England.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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Absolutely. We need to replicate the good things we had in the EU, the things that supported different areas. A system has been put in place to ensure that different parliamentary constituencies can get money from the UK Government, but it is super-interesting that the constituencies the Government have chosen to put at the top of the list are those constituencies represented by Conservative MPs, rather than the constituencies with the highest levels of deprivation. The difference is dramatic.

It is hugely concerning that, if the UK Government are left to do so much in this Bill by guidance, as set out in clause 79, we are going to have a situation where the Secretary of State will have significant control and flexibility without even having to come through door of this House. The Bill says that the Secretary of State is going to issue guidance about

“the practical application of—

(a) the subsidy control principles;

(b) the energy and environment principles;

(c) the subsidy control requirements in Chapters 2 and 3”.

I am clear that there needs to be detailed guidance, but we should be at the stage where we are scrutinising it. When we come to the evidence sessions in Committee, the people before us should be able to talk about the guidance. I get that some of the regulations are going to be made by the affirmative resolution and some by the negative resolution, but my major concern is not those that are going to be made by resolutions in this House; it is those that are going to be made by guidance.

Let us we look in detail at some of the stuff in this Bill. Schedule 2 says:

“Subsidies in relation to energy and environment shall be aimed at and incentivise the beneficiary in—

(a) delivering a secure, affordable and sustainable energy system and a well-functioning and competitive energy market, or

(b) increasing the level of environmental protection compared to the level that would be achieved in the absence of the subsidy.”

I am keen to know what “environmental protection” means. What does it mean? It is not in there. We do not know what it means because we have not seen the guidance that the Secretary of State is going to be allowed to produce on their own without running it past this House.

The same applies in respect of

“a secure, affordable and sustainable energy system and a well-functioning and competitive energy market”.

Does that mean a well-functioning and competitive energy market for those people who buy and sell energy, or for the consumer? Does it mean for the person who is being hit by those higher fuel bills or for the people trading gas on a daily basis? I do not know what it means because we do not have that information. If the Government were willing to provide us with the guidance, and we had access to it and seen it, we would be able to ask questions and comment on the specificity of the guidance. When we have experts come before the Committee, we would be able to hear their expert opinion on it, but we cannot, because we do not have the guidance. It is really unfortunate that, on Second Reading, when we are deciding whether or not the Bill should go forward, we have not got the information we need in order to do that.

I want to make a couple more points about energy. One of my colleagues mentioned the transition charges. The subsidy regime that is being set up says, “We can’t have one part of the UK advantaged over another part of it.” However, it also says, “No subsidy can negatively affect interconnectors.” So we will still have a situation where energy from the EU is allowed to come into the UK—the companies are not paying any charges for using our network—yet people who have wind farms in Scotland are paying £5.50 per unit of energy. And those in Wales are being paid £2.80 per unit of energy. That system was created when fuel was driven around in vans and had to be driven to places that then used the power. One of my colleagues said that there is an incredible level of disinterest among those on the Government Benches about dealing with transmission charges. I appreciate that some of them have considered it, but a Minister has not stood up to say, “You are right. This is a travesty and we need to fix it.” We would really like a commitment on that, particularly if this Bill is going to give protection to interconnectors but no protection to those wind farms in the north of Scotland that are being charged an absolute fortune.

I want to talk about the Labour party’s position on the Bill, as I am really disappointed that it is not willing to vote against it. It is important for it to do that. We are going to vote against it. I am on the left. I appreciate all the things that the Labour party has done in the past, but I have spent six years getting increasingly frustrated by the failure of the Labour party to oppose this Tory Government and to stand up even for the Welsh Government at this point. This is really unfortunate. I do not understand at all why the Labour party is not voting against this tonight. We are voting against it. I am not going to support this Bill, as I do not think it should get its Second Reading. I say that for reasons of the power grab, the massive inadequacies in the Bill and the fact it is going to do the opposite of levelling up—it is going to entrench the inequality we already have.

16:59
Simon Baynes Portrait Simon Baynes (Clwyd South) (Con)
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I welcome the Bill, particularly as a Welsh Member of Parliament, because it will provide the framework for a new, UK-wide subsidy control regime. This will, for the first time, enable authorities, including the devolved Administrations and local authorities, to deliver bespoke subsidies that are tailored to local needs. I want to reinforce that point because it has been a key part of the discussion, in reference to the EU subsidy areas. In my opinion, those regions were not targeted enough. Large parts of Wales were not included in them, despite having areas of deprivation. The Bill will apply to the parts of Wales where need is greatest.

The Bill is also essential—the UK internal market is essential to our prosperity. Trade with the rest of the UK is worth more than trade with the rest of the world combined to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is especially the case in Wales, where Welsh businesses purchase more from the rest of the UK than from Welsh businesses plus the rest of the world.

The Bill promotes accountability through a standardised, UK-wide database. Transparency and simple comparison will provide accountability across the UK. It must be stressed that reporting by the devolved Administrations is often absent or uses different criteria, which prevent like-for-like comparisons. For example, the Welsh Government do not publish waiting list times for all NHS procedures, unlike other parts of the UK.

The Bill promotes the Government’s levelling-up objectives. The UK is built on local communities, not just Belfast, Edinburgh, Cardiff and London. Building up and streamlining local authorities’ partnership with the UK Government are key to strengthening the Union. Speaking as a Welsh Member of Parliament, I have to say that the Welsh Government are not the easiest organisation to deal with for those living in north Wales and looking for Government help. Their focus is very much on south Wales. The message from the debate that giving money and subsidy control to the Welsh Government will mean that money is spread across the Principality is incorrect. I was interested by the remarks of the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards). He should be fair and recognise that Plaid Cymru is riding two horses in negotiating an agreement with the Welsh Government in Cardiff, yet criticising the Welsh Labour party while here. Plaid Cymru Members need to recognise that they cannot have it both ways.

The Bill benefits the devolved Administrations, too. That message has not come across strongly enough in the debate. It lowers costs and streamlines decision making, including for the devolved Administrations. Streamlined subsidy administration ensures that the devolved Administrations can roll out their own regimes at lower cost and greater speed. The UK internal market competition distortion principle will protect the devolved Administrations and the English regions from being pushed into competition spirals with neighbouring authorities.

I am pleased to back the Government on the Bill, which takes back control from the EU, allows us to deliver on the British people’s priorities, strengthens the Union and gives confidence and certainty to businesses and investors. It will enable local authorities across the UK to play an equal role, rather than everything always being put in the centre, in London and in the devolved Administrations. We need to enable the whole country, at a local level, to become involved and provide the dynamic to create a better life for all our citizens.

17:04
Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD)
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It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. I thank the Minister for his engagement on the Bill; it was useful to discuss the seven principles in detail beforehand. We welcome the fact that the Bill has been introduced, that there is a proposal to replace the EU subsidy regime and that the Government are making provision for it, but I put it to the Government that what is in the Bill is really only half of what we need if we are to have an effective and adequate UK subsidy regime.

The first thing missing relates not so much to what is in the Bill but what should stand alongside it: an effective industrial strategy. The Bill makes it clear that the purpose of the regime is to guide the awarding of grants for strategic purposes, but we do not know what the strategy looks like because we do not have an industrial strategy that identifies our key sectors and industries. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) put it so succinctly, we are not even entirely sure which regions of the UK we most want to support. Any subsidy regime that is not accompanied by a clear industrial strategy is really only half the picture, because we just do not know where the public support might best be directed.

As a number of Members have already said—I defer in particular to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and the points he made—the key thing missing from the Bill is transparency. What subsidies will be paid to whom? Without that level of transparency, we will have no real scrutiny of the decisions made. Quite apart from all the other related points that have been made, the key thing for me is how we can measure the value or impact of subsidies if we do not have a clear idea of exactly what subsidies are being paid to whom and for what purpose. How can we be certain that those subsidies reach the right people, organisations, regions and sectors, and that they provide the kind of targeted support that we want? Without clarity and transparency, we cannot properly evaluate what the taxpayer subsidises.

The point about the scrutiny of individual subsidy decisions has been made a number of times. There has been much discussion about the CMA’s role, but it strikes me that although the CMA will have a role to play in scrutiny, it will have no enforcement role. It is probably right that the CMA will be consulted not on every particular subsidy but just on those that are of interest, but for it to be asked to look at subsidies of interest but have no enforcement role seems to me to be a bit of a waste of time. It also highlights the fact that no overall independent body will assess the subsidy regime and whether subsidies have been awarded according to the principles outlined in the Bill. Who will hold the various local authorities to account for ensuring that the principles have been adhered to? There does not seem to be a role for any independent body.

Without an industrial strategy, clear data on which bids are successful and an independent body to provide guidance, how much faith can individual businesses, or their lenders or investors, have in their likelihood of success? How can confidence be built among investors who bid for a subsidy? How can they assess their likelihood of success? The Bill will lead to inefficiency in the system, because it will discourage businesses that might have had a good chance of getting a subsidy if only they had had all the information available when making their bid, and the available subsidies will perhaps then be given to businesses that do not have such a good case.

I refer again to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare, who used the term “unproductive”. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I care as deeply as any other Member in this place that we get good value for taxpayers’ money. It seems to me that without clarity, guidance or an overarching industrial strategy, there is a real danger that subsidies will be awarded behind closed doors, without clarity. That would make for the inefficient allocation of resources, which we all want to avoid.

The only restraint on subsidies that this legislation allows for is the threat of legal action by competitors who might have missed out. Without that clear information about who is getting a subsidy and what for, it seems the information simply is not going to be available for those legal challenges to be mounted. How will affected businesses know that they have been disadvantaged and how will they be able to gather sufficient information to mount an effective legal challenge? None the less, that legal challenge appears to be the only effective restraint on how subsidies are handed out.

Through this Bill, the Government seem to have constructed a regime that will enable secret payments without scrutiny or challenge. It does not provide enough of a route to challenge or anyone to hold to account in order to ensure that the principles are being observed. To be honest, it surprises me that this Government, who already have a reputation for cronyism, would not take greater care to ensure that those perceptions were not perpetuated.

17:10
Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to listen to the various arguments on both sides of the House.

I am a committed free marketeer and have been in business for most of my life, and I do not think that I have ever accepted a Government subsidy—other than perhaps last year under the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. I would be interested if the Minister could reflect on whether that would qualify under this legislation. I do not really believe in subsidies, but a world without subsidies requires a perfect free market and we do not have a perfect free market. We do not have the perfect consumer, the perfect market competition or the perfect provision of small and medium-sized enterprise finance. At times, a Government absolutely need to step in and provide subsidies where there is market failure, so I welcome this legislation and the vast majority of its provisions.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the hon. Member think that the Government, under these new terms, will provide more subsidies than they did under EU state aid, or the opposite?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I know that is the hon. Member’s question, but I think it is the wrong question. For me, the key question is whether the subsidy is going to spend taxpayers’ money well. We can claim success not just by giving more money away than was wasted, but when the taxpayers’ money that is used proves fruitful. We should not be disappointed that we have had one of the lower subsidy levels of the countries compared today. We should be proud of believing that our businesses should stand on their own two feet. Nevertheless, I do support on occasion the Government and other public authorities providing subsidies in certain areas and for certain things.

I welcome the Bill. I know that the Minister will ensure that it receives good scrutiny and passes through its different stages. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), in that my key point is about having a greater level of scrutiny and transparency. The No. 1 reason for transparency is that, as my hon. Friend said, Governments of all shades are pretty poor at picking winners, so it is important that Governments and public authorities are held to account for their decisions to grant subsidies, which are taxpayers’ money and must therefore be spent well.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) made an important point about cronyism. Some of the claims of cronyism in procurement that we have heard today are unsubstantiated and have been shown to be inaccurate in the National Audit Office report. People who claim otherwise bring shame on every single Member of this House; it is a flawed method of political point scoring that is deeply unhelpful. The National Audit Office clearly said that Ministers were not involved in procurement decisions.

Nevertheless, I believe in scrutiny and complete transparency, particularly when significant amounts of money—up to half a million pounds in some schemes, as we can see from the legislation—can be handed out by a local authority or devolved region, without scrutiny. Some local authorities have better reputations than others when it comes to spending money, so it is really important that we can see exactly what local authorities and devolved Administrations are doing. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) brought up this point. If we do not see a level of scrutiny, different parts of the country could try to use different means of creating some advantage, or indeed try to raise grievances, which is something that we hear not too infrequently in this place.

I absolutely support the proposal to reduce the threshold for scrutiny and transparency from the current level of £500,000, or £315,000 for cumulative subsidies outside a scheme, to a much lower level of £500. As a businessperson myself—I declare an interest—I would have no objection to declaring any taxpayers’ money we had received in our business. I think the only time we have ever received it was through the furlough scheme and the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, which we returned without drawing on it. If we are taking taxpayers’ money, we should be accountable for it, whatever level it is at. I think the only objection that could be raised to a much lower limit would be creating red tape, but according to the research I have seen, there is a minimal amount of red tape and a minimal amount of cost—about £20,000. This simplifies matters in many areas.

In all the different cases where things have gone wrong—I deal with lots of cases of fraud and malpractice in all kinds of different financial markets—the key element of scrutiny and transparency in identifying wrongdoing has usually come from members of the public, who are perhaps closer to the ground than our regulators. If the database is made fully public, we are more likely to pick up on wrongdoing. Members of the public, and members of the press, do a fantastic job in tracking down this kind of wrongdoing.

I urge the Government to look at the threshold and bring it down to a much lower level. Aside from that, I welcome the Bill and look forward to the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister.

17:16
Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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In principle, we welcome this Bill. First, it represents an opportunity for us to introduce subsidy control regimes that are specific to the United Kingdom and are not influenced by Brussels and the wider European interest, hence sometimes actually detrimental to our own country. It is an important part of the whole Brexit process that we have this independence.

Secondly, it is important that we have a nationally controlled regime. As one who speaks from a region of the United Kingdom, of course I want an even playing field when it comes to the application of subsidies. Some regions are richer than others and will therefore have more money to be put into subsidies than others. Some areas may have more political influence. That is partly why I find some of the objections raised by Opposition Members very odd. For example, a Minister in central Government could introduce subsidies for constituencies in a way that is beneficial to the electoral interests of his own party—the governing party—and we need a control regime that enables that kind of decision to be challenged.

My only concern about the Bill—perhaps the Minister will clarify this later; it has been raised by Members already—is that the challenge function seems to be limited to either the Secretary of State or to interested persons. As far as I can see in any definitions that have been given in the Bill, interested persons would not include Ministers from any of the devolved Parliaments or Assemblies in the United Kingdom. In fact, the only such definition is in clause 8, which refers to businesses and enterprises. The Minister needs to clarify this. If he wants to argue that this is a robust control regime, then the ability to make referrals must not just rest with the Secretary of State. It must also rest with devolved Administrations, who have interests in how subsidies may be used, particularly by central Government Departments or Ministers. Others may want the challenge function so that they can make mischief. If the Minister is serious about saying that we want to have an effective UK-wide regime, it must be clear that the function is available to all interested parties across the UK.

I come specifically to the Northern Ireland issue. Of course, in Northern Ireland the control of subsidies will not be totally under the Competition and Markets Authority or the tribunals. We will operate a dual regime under the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol. On state aid and its controls, it is quite clear:

“The provisions of Union law listed in Annex 5”—

a whole list of EU rules is there—

“shall apply to the United Kingdom, including with regard to measures supporting the production of and trade in agricultural products…in respect of measures which affect that trade between Northern Ireland and the Union which is subject to this Protocol.”



The Secretary of State said in answer to the Opposition spokesperson and, I think, the Scottish National party representative that, as far as the Government are concerned, it is clear that Northern Ireland is covered by the Bill, but the only way in which Northern Ireland can be totally within its provisions is through the removal of article 10.

I know it is a lengthy Bill, but I have read through it and I do not find any reference to article 10 being altered, removed or changed. Perhaps the Minister can point that out to us later on. I would welcome that, by the way; in fact, I would be overjoyed, and people in Northern Ireland would be overjoyed if that is hidden somewhere in the Bill in words that I do not understand, have not spotted or whatever. If it is there, please point it out. There will be great rejoicing in Northern Ireland as a result.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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Even if that were in the Bill, I am concerned that it is not in the competence of this place to change that unilaterally without having a discussion with the European Union.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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The hon. Member made that point, and I was not sure whether she was supportive of the withdrawal of article 10 or appalled at the prospect because the EU opposes it. The one thing I did notice, however, was that she was appalled that there should be any interference in the role of the Government in Scotland to make subsidy decisions. If that is the case, she should be equally appalled for policy makers in Northern Ireland and welcome any unilateral decision by the Government here at Westminster to give them the same freedom.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I honestly do not have a view on whether it is a good or bad thing. I am just utterly confused, because I do not think that the Government have the power to do it. I want to know what they mean so that I can work out whether I oppose it or not. I do not know what they are saying.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Of course, the Government have the power to do it under article 16 where it is deemed that provisions in the withdrawal agreement are damaging economically to Northern Ireland. I cannot think of anything more damaging to Northern Ireland than a subsidy regime that applies in the rest of the United Kingdom but which can be stopped from applying in Northern Ireland.

Let me give some examples of how conflict between the dual systems could operate. One of the principles outlined in schedule 1 is that subsidies should be proportionate—there is no fixed percentage; it is simply that they be proportionate—but under the EEA-EU state aid regime, subsidies cannot be more than 50%. For example, if a subsidy is made available to a firm in Scotland that could equally be looking at Northern Ireland, Scotland would have the advantage of saying that it is so important to Scotland and fits in with its objectives that it will give it a subsidy equal to 70%—that may even be accepted under the control regime in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, Northern Ireland would be excluded from seeking to attract that firm on the basis that the EU state aid rules say it cannot go over 50%. That is one way in which the dual system is going to be a disadvantage.

Another example is that the EU refuses to allow state aid to be given where it is simply for expansion, but under the principles outlined in schedule 1, a subsidy of that nature could be given in the rest of the United Kingdom. We could find that a subsidy complies with the control regime in GB, but does not comply with EU state aid rules in Northern Ireland, so placing Northern Ireland at a disadvantage.

On the EU state rules—and the Secretary of State said it—one of the reasons for bringing forward our own control system is that it can be more flexible and quicker. In fact, I think he said that a decision could be made within 30 days, but under EU state aid rules, there has to be a standstill period that can last up to a year. The Secretary of State said that in the House today. Again, when it comes to attracting businesses by using subsidies in Northern Ireland—even if we could match the subsidy available in England, Scotland and Wales, or wherever else somebody is trying to attract the firm—the slowness of the process, imposed by the fact that we are subject not only to the control regime in the rest of the United Kingdom, but to EU state aid rules, could mean that we find that a firm simply says, “Well, we can get a decision quicker in England, Scotland or Wales, and that is where we are going”, and Northern Ireland would be disadvantaged.

That is one of the reasons why no fiddling about with regulations is going to make a difference here. If Northern Ireland still remains firmly under article 10 of the withdrawal agreement, state aid rules apply there and the dual system has to apply there, then this is not a case, as someone has said, of trying to control the subsidy race, because Northern Ireland cannot even enter the race. We will be spectators of the race, stopped from entering it by the provisions of article 10 and the requirement for Northern Ireland to remain under the state aid rules.

Lest people think that this is just an issue for Northern Ireland—they may say, “Well, tough! That was what happened with Brexit.”—let me say that this is the elephant in the room and the issue has not been addressed in this Bill. Those state aid rules apply to trade between Northern Ireland and the Union, but any subsidies to a firm that operates through Northern Ireland into the EU, even though it is based in England, Scotland or Wales—or might even trade into the EU through Northern Ireland—will also be caught up in this.

The issue of the reach of the state aid rules has not been addressed in this Bill, and it is not just an academic argument. It is not even just for subsidies that may be given to firms in England, Scotland or Wales; this can also affect the international trade deals that the Government do with the rest of the world.

For example, British Sugar has challenged the deal made by the Secretary of State that allows 250,000 tonnes of sugar cane into the United Kingdom tariff free. That has been challenged by British Sugar on the basis that it represents unfair competition in the European market. British Sugar sells on the European market. It uses sugar beet, and tariff-free sugar cane would give Tate & Lyle an advantage. That is being challenged in the courts, and article 10 has been cited. If we are to ensure that a subsidy control regime does not disadvantage one part of the United Kingdom, or catch some of the subsidies that may be made available to firms located in other parts of the United Kingdom, rather than in Northern Ireland, article 10 is all-important. It is important for the Minister to provide clarification on that.

I have spoken to officials in the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland. They have said—it is quite clear why—that they are finding it difficult to get information about how this scheme will work. So much of the Bill depends on new regulations being made. The general headlines are there, but the regulations need to be made. For example, what is an interested party, and will the Minister regulate to widen the scope of that? What about guidance for the subsidy and the person of interest, or about subsidies of particular interest? We do not know which subsidies are likely to be of particular interest, but that will be made by regulation. The Bill is peppered throughout with indications that such things will be clarified by regulations from the Minister, and that is important when it comes to the operation of subsidy control. We are dealing with the Bill, yet we are blind to some of the issues that need to be addressed.

Another issue is the time allowed for appeal or challenge, which is 30 days. I do not want the same long drawn-out process that the EU has, but 30 days in which the subsidy is registered or placed on a database is particularly short. Why has that period been selected, especially since getting information together for such a challenge might be that much more difficult? Lastly, the tribunal has significant powers, but it is how those powers will be used that is important. When the Bill comes to Committee, it is important that many of these issues are addressed.

From a Northern Ireland perspective, I hope that the promise made from the Dispatch Box is correct. If it is, I would love to see where that is being delivered in the Bill. If not, I would say that the Bill does not deal with some of the factors that have caused the greatest distortion of trade when it comes to the application of subsidies, namely a dual regime in Northern Ireland—a regime that allows the European Court of Justice to make those decisions. The promise made by the Minister in his opening speech that the Bill represents the freedoms we have thanks to Brexit is not quite true. The Bill still leaves a significant foothold in the United Kingdom for Brussels and the European Court of Justice when making final decisions about subsidies that apply in Northern Ireland, or about subsidies that are given to firms in England, Scotland or Wales, but that may fall under the EU state aid regime because, through their trading in Northern Ireland, they impact on the European market.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me say that it would appear that the Division bell is not operating properly in Speaker’s Court, and that those in the offices in that part of the Palace might not hear the bell properly. I hope hon. Members will not rely entirely on hearing the Division bell to know that there is a Division taking place. It is not unusual for there to be a Division. There may or may not be one when we conclude this debate, but it is not unusual that there should be a Division when we have Second Reading of a Bill.

For new Members who have not quite got it yet, if a Division takes place, it will take place immediately after the concluding speech by the Minister. In this case, the Minister is the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), so if anyone is in any doubt as to when a Division might take place, if there is one, it will be after they see the hon. Gentleman’s name on the Annunciator. If they watch out for that, it will not matter that they cannot hear the Division bell, because they will know that a Division is likely, and on their monitor it will say “Division”.

I hope that that will help to prompt people to know that a Division might take place. I have no idea when that might be. I can only tell hon. Members that it will be at 7 o’clock at the latest; it depends on how long the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam speaks at the Dispatch Box. But first, we have Robin Millar.

17:36
Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I sense a restlessness among colleagues, so my comments will be brief, and the moment we are all waiting for, when the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), gets to his feet, will be upon us shortly.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, and it is only right and proper that UK law and a UK subsidy regime must prevail in that part of the United Kingdom. I hope, indeed, that they will be rejoicing on the streets. My understanding is that the Government have, in effect, made it clear that article 10 of the protocol is redundant, given that the subsequent trade and co-operation agreement establishes a framework of mutual recognition of state aid rules, with which the Bill complies. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that in his remarks.

I want to make a point about how the Bill supports devolution. We have heard Opposition Members refer—not universally, but on a couple of occasions—to how the Bill damages devolution. There is much that could be said about the gaps between the way the world is viewed by Opposition Members and the way it is viewed by Government Members, but one such gap has come through during this debate in the constant references to things that are missing. I suggest that that gap indicates different ways of looking at things: while Government Members are happy to set down principles within which business can flourish and prosper, it seems to me from the comments made today that Opposition Members are looking for a high degree of prescription about what can and cannot be done. Those are different ways of looking at the world.

Let me make it clear that I am a supporter of the principles behind devolution. I want to draw out three principles in particular: local leadership, broader accountability and shared prosperity. Sadly, the first, local leadership, has never really been fully realised in north Wales. To us, devolution has led to decision-making powers flowing south to Cardiff bay. In Scotland, too, we have seen a centralisation of powers, with decision-making powers drawn from the regions to Holyrood and reserved to the Government there.

As just one example—I could give many—we saw that in the disbursal of EU funds. Only 9% of EU funds spent in Wales made it as far as local authorities for decision making; the majority were decided on and spent from Cardiff bay. England has its own problems and challenges in this area, but, by contrast, the figure in England was 36%: four times as much money and decision making flowed out into the local authorities and the regions from Westminster. That is a telling tale, because the sense in north Wales is still that Cardiff is distant and remote—accusations that are typically laid against this place. The Bill will help to address that and give local authorities and even the devolved Administrations freedom to set up targeted, effective and practical schemes in their area.

I must say, though, that something has changed in the air in north Wales since the arrival of this Government in Westminster. The sense of alienation is starting to evaporate. Those who know the area of the world I am talking about will know that in the Conwy valley and Aberconwy, the morning mists start to roll down the valley at this time of year, and they are starting to evaporate now thanks to the Government’s involvement.

There is much that I could say about how the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 has changed things, but I will not, for reasons of time. I will say, though, that the prospect of inbound UK Government funds has rapidly mobilised my own council, Conwy County Borough Council. It is engaging with communities and leaders on their thoughts and plans for delivering change, and I am grateful for the support and engagement of its leader, Councillor Charlie McCoubrey, and the economy portfolio holder, Councillor Louise Emery. For my part, I have been meeting local councils, organisations, residents and business leaders in the community to seek their thoughts and advice, and there is no shortage of them.

The second principle that I would like to draw attention to is accountability. I welcome the universal reporting database being introduced through clause 33. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) gave a tour de force on the benefits of the transparency that it will bring and even prescribed fresh air and sunshine to bring benefits to businesses.

The different reporting systems that exist in different parts of the UK have often clouded transparency and obscured comparisons. Wales and Scotland have different reporting regimes in many different areas—we have heard reference to patient waiting lists—and during the pandemic we have seen different local responses only causing further confusion. Key universal systems avoid such inconsistency, and the database provided for in the Bill will be one of those. They allow for public transparency and comparable information about how money is being spent in the UK.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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Will the hon. Member give way?

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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I will, as the hon. Gentleman gave way to me.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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I thank the hon. Member. He said at the start of his speech that he respected devolution and believed in the principles of devolution, yet throughout his speech all he has done is criticise it, to the point where he is now criticising local authorities in Scotland. Far be it from me to defend a Tory-led local authority in Aberdeen, but why is he criticising local authorities, and how does that marry with his support for devolution?

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I am not sure what he was listening to. Not one word of criticism of local authorities has passed my lips. I was explicit in starting my speech by addressing the principles of devolution. I suspect that he may be confusing the principles of it with the practice of it that he sees in Scotland. Accountability is important, and it has been allowed to slip, but I believe that the Bill addresses that by supporting and encouraging it.

The third and final principle that I want to mention is shared prosperity, which the Bill will support. Aberconwy has seen an impressive recovery from the pandemic, and according to some reports Llandudno has experienced the fastest recovery of any town in the UK. I pay tribute to those who are working so hard in their businesses, from Glenn Evans and his team at the Royal Oak in Betws-y-Coed to Clinton and his team at the Blend coffee shop on Clonmel Street in Llandudno. Right across Aberconwy, it is people like them who make that economic recovery a reality. We owe them a debt of thanks and gratitude for their hard work—it is not we in this place but they who make the difference, and I am grateful to them for it. The prospect of additional funds and subsidies coming their way—coming our way, into Aberconwy, directed by local leaders and businesses—provides the potential to capitalise on that endeavour, help economic recovery and bring forward the promise of a locally delivered prosperous future.

Of course, there is much to do. Other principles set out in part 2 of the Bill ensure that our internal market operates freely and without hindrance, avoiding the subsidy race that has already been referenced between different parts of the UK. Other parts of the Bill reduce bureaucracy and—again, I make this point—enable decision making by devolved Administrations in a targeted and effective way, faster and in a way that they could never do before.

Finally, I support the Government’s hopes for the Bill that it will enable a thriving competitive economy and, in north Wales, lead to the kind of investment that we want to see in renewable energy, road, rail and broadband connectivity, and, I hope, even a freeport. It is because I believe the Bill delivers on the principles of devolution and makes possible a prosperous future in Aberconwy that I will be voting in support of its Second Reading.

17:45
Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate, which in general has been a very considered and well-informed debate with some excellent contributions. We heard from the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) and the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) about the many gaps in the Bill, while the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) highlighted concerns over the Northern Ireland protocol, which I will also mention in my contribution. Even the contributions from the Government Benches highlighted some of the issues and challenges with the Bill.

I start by echoing the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) in her excellent contribution at the start of the debate regarding the lack of female representation on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ministerial team. It is disappointing not to see balanced leadership, particularly in a Department working on such critical issues as increasing diversity in science, technology, engineering and maths and increasing start-up businesses among female entrepreneurs.

We recognise the need for legislation in the area of subsidy control to meet our commitments under the trade and co-operation agreement, and to ensure subsidies are provided to businesses with appropriate safeguards in place. It is clear that the current temporary arrangements are insufficient and have not provided the clarity that businesses and public bodies need. We also recognise that a new regime will allow local authorities and others to make some subsidy decisions more quickly under a simplified process than under the EU regime, and it is welcome that we are moving away from a system of advanced notifications towards one of self-assessment against a set of common principles. However, there are substantial issues with the Bill that have been raised in this debate.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Considering some of the procurement practices during covid, particularly for personal protective equipment, is my hon. Friend not concerned about the lack of definition around subsidies of “interest or particular interest”, which might create the appearance or the actuality of cronyism, considering the Government’s record?

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As always, my hon. Friend raises an excellent point. Indeed, he anticipates a couple of points I will be making. It is certainly the case that we should not leave this Government to define their own procurement principles. The Bill as it stands leaves a significant amount to secondary legislation. The balance between the efficiency of the system and the need for effective oversight, and, most importantly, the role for the devolved Administrations in developing and implementing the new system, are all important gaps.

First, as with previous Bills, including the National Security and Investment Act 2021, important aspects are left to secondary legislation. Public bodies need guidance on how to interpret the subsidy control principles, as we heard from Members during the debate. There is also little clarity on how the Bill will support the UK’s most deprived regions, which is something that was built into the EU state aid regime through the assisted areas system. The Bill was a key opportunity to spell out what levelling up actually means, but the Government have not risen to that challenge.

Secondly, there needs to be a balance between oversight and efficiency. An expedient system is vital, but we must be clear that any subsidy regime comes with the risk of market distortion and unfair discrimination, which is why the ambiguity regarding interested parties is a concern. It is also important to consider the role of the CMA’s subsidy advice unit and particularly to ask whether its lack of investigative and enforcement powers is appropriate. We will work with the Government to ensure that the right balance is struck. I hope that the Minister will provide more clarity when he winds up.

Finally, our most serious concern about the Bill relates to the role for the devolved Administrations in the new system. We have heard from Members across the House, as we did during the passage of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, that yet again the Government have given the matter little consideration. The Secretary of State’s intervention on that point did not provide the clarity that he seemed to think.

We recognise that subsidy control is a reserved matter, but the wider context cannot be ignored. Devolved Administrations have important powers in the area of economic development, so the Government need to tread carefully. Leaving so many areas to secondary legislation only means that there will be no requirement on the Secretary of State to consult the devolved Administrations when developing the system. The same point applies to the Secretary of State’s ability to call in subsidies. We are clear that the devolved Administrations must have an explicit role in developing and implementing the UK’s subsidy regime as part of a four nations approach.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am afraid not. I have to make progress and I have very little time. [Interruption.] The hon. Member has intervened on a number of occasions, and I am afraid that I need to make progress.

We recognise the need for the Bill to replace the insufficient current arrangements, but although it significantly increases the speed and ease with which public bodies can grant subsidies, the key question, as we have heard again and again, is what the Bill is for. We have still not had an answer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston said, we lag behind our G7 neighbours in granting subsidies to our businesses. Speeding up the system will benefit businesses only if there is a proper plan in place. That is where an industrial strategy could step in, providing the framework for the Government to set priorities, target deprived areas and boost business investment.

Labour has set out a plan to make, sell and buy more in Britain. From green jobs in manufacturing electric vehicles and offshore wind turbines to FinTech, digital media and film, we must grow businesses and industries that are fit for the future. The use of well-designated, proportionate subsidies would be critical to that plan. Instead, thanks to the Secretary of State’s ideological aversion to industrial strategy, we have no clarity on how or where public money will be spent. I urge the Minister to give close consideration to the points that we have raised.

17:53
Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to respond to the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in this important debate. I aim to respond to as many of their points as possible in the time available—I know that we have further business—but I would like to begin by quickly reminding the House of what the Bill signifies and what it will achieve.

The Bill is the very first subsidy control framework designed by the UK for the UK. It will be flexible and agile, allowing all public authorities to design subsidies that deliver strong benefits across the whole UK. For the first time, in all instances, public authorities will decide whether to grant a subsidy. The Bill will provide certainty and confidence to businesses investing in the UK. It will enable public authorities to deliver strategic interventions that will support our economic recovery and deliver on the priorities of the British people, such as levelling up.

We have talked a little about scrutiny; the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central spoke about scrutiny of secondary legislation and guidance. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) raised the issue of the lack of scrutiny in this debate. It is nice that the Opposition have found a couple of Back Benchers to come and join the debate, but it is outrageous that we have had so little input from Opposition Members.

This Bill will strengthen our Union by protecting our internal market through a single coherent framework that fully complies with our international obligations. On that note, I thank the hon. Members for Feltham and Heston, for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) and for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for their points. To ensure that the new regime works for all parts of the UK, we look forward to continuing to work closely with the devolved Administrations, as we have throughout its development, as the Bill passes through Parliament. We hope that the devolved Administrations can understand and support the approach that we have taken, and will give their legislative consent. I can say to the SNP Members who spoke earlier that to date we have had 30 meetings with the devolved Administrations on an official-to-official basis to discuss the Bill, and 10 at ministerial level.

We also heard a bit about the devolved Administrations’ input into guidance. Obviously an agreed framework is needed before there is something to give guidance for, and we have made that clear in discussions with our devolved Administration colleagues. We will continue to work with them as we work through that guidance.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister will have noted the concern of the Welsh Government about the fact that the agriculture and fisheries subsidies will be within the scope of the UK subsidy regime as a result of the Bill. We have already heard today a member of the Minister’s party express concern about his local farmers being undercut by devolved Governments’ support for their farmers. Can the Minister assure us that this Bill and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 will not be used to interfere with decisions by the devolved Governments on devolved matters such as agriculture?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We have consulted on agriculture, fisheries, and sanitary and phytosanitary measures. There was no particular agreement among the devolved Administrations, but some people raised those issues.

The Bill introduces a permissive framework. It is totally different from the EU state aid regime, which is the only regime of its kind in the world. No other country, no other trading bloc, has such a restrictive regime, whereby authorities must ask permission and then wait for months to receive it. The Bill flips that on its head. A public authority can give support where it feels the need for it, and only the most distortive levels of support will then be challenged and go through the courts.

Let me turn to some of the issues raised by the hon. Members for Feltham and Heston and for Aberdeen North, and by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) in relation to how this interacts with the Northern Ireland protocol. I reiterate that the UK will continue to be a responsible trade partner that respects our international obligations. However, as the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said in his opening speech, the robust subsidy regime that the Government propose makes it clear that there is no need for EU state aid rules to continue to apply in Northern Ireland, and that all subsidies will be within the scope of the domestic regime. This framework has to work with whatever is involved in our international obligations. However, as the right hon. Member for East Antrim will know, the Command Paper gives the details of that, and I should love nothing more than to hear of rejoicing in his constituency.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister argues that the robust regime should mean that there is no need for EU state aid to apply because there is already sufficient scrutiny of any subsidy regime. Does he not accept that the fact remains, as far as the EU is concerned and as far as the law states at present, that the EU state aid rules still have to apply in Northern Ireland?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the Command Paper, and assure him that those negotiations will continue.

The hon. Members for Feltham and Heston and for Aberdeen South raised the important question of how the Bill helps deliver on our priorities to level up opportunity in this country, ensuring that every region and nation benefits from growth. I can reassure Members throughout the House that our new regime will give authorities the flexibility to deliver subsidies where and when they are needed to support economic growth, without facing excessive bureaucracy or the same lengthy pre-approval processes that they faced while we were members of the EU. In response to points raised by the hon. Members for Feltham and Heston and for Aberdeen South, I would highlight that assisted area maps are not the only way of addressing inequalities. A map can be a blunt instrument, making it difficult to address inequality and disadvantage within regions.

I also want to respond to concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on whether the domestic regime would allow Ministers to resist the siren call of ever greater intervention in the market, and whether it would be sufficiently rigorous compared with the EU’s prescriptive and prohibitive rules. I want to reassure the House that the regime in this Bill is indeed robust. It operates alongside the UK’s existing spending controls—the Treasury controls—which are subject to significant parliamentary control. The Government have no intention of propping up unsustainable or failing businesses, nor will future Governments be able to do so.

The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston was right to say that it is vital that there is independent oversight of the UK’s domestic subsidy control regime. The subsidy advice unit will provide advice that is genuinely useful to public authorities in designing their subsidies and assessing them against the regime’s requirements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) talked about advance approval. As I say, this is a permissive regime, so this is not about advance approval; it is about advice that public authorities will be able to take. On the Secretary of State’s referral powers in relation to the subsidy advice unit, he will not be able to overturn decisions unless they relate to security issues or international obligations. The regulation of harmful and distortive subsidies is reserved to the UK Parliament. The Secretary of State therefore has a responsibility to ensure that the new regime is enforced consistently across the UK.

The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston and my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) raised points on the importance of transparency in the regime. Our regime strikes a proportionate balance between minimising the administrative burden for public authorities and gathering more data. I think this is more about an issue with the interoperability of databases themselves, rather than about legislation. The guidance that we will work on will help public authorities and recipients to understand the practical application of the regime and what they will need to do to comply with it.

To conclude, I want to thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to an excellent and informative debate today. I strongly believe that the new UK subsidy control regime that the Bill sets out will help us to deliver key Government objectives, protect jobs and make the UK the best possible place to start and grow a business. I look forward to discussing the Bill further in Committee, but for now I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

18:02

Division 83

Ayes: 287


Conservative: 285
Independent: 1

Noes: 50


Scottish National Party: 33
Liberal Democrat: 8
Plaid Cymru: 3
Independent: 2
Democratic Unionist Party: 2
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 1
Green Party: 1

Bill read a Second time.
Subsidy Control Bill: Programme
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Subsidy Control Bill:
Committal
The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on 18 November 2021.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No.83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.
Other proceedings
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Steve Double.)
Question agreed to.
Subsidy Control Bill: Money
Queen’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52),
That, for the purposes of any Act arising from the Subsidy Control Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of:
(1) any expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State in connection with the establishment and maintenance of the database of subsidies for the purposes of Part 2 of the Bill, and
(2) any increase attributable to the Act in sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided as a result of the carrying out of functions by the Competition and Markets Authority under or by virtue of Part 4 of the Bill.—(Steve Double.)
Question agreed to.
[Relevant Documents: Oral evidence taken before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on 30 November on Post-pandemic economic growth: State Aid and Post-Brexit Competition Policy, HC 742.]
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Exemption: agriculture
‘(1) The subsidy control requirements in Part 2 of this Act do not apply to—
(a) the giving of an agricultural subsidy, or
(b) the making of a subsidy scheme, so far as it relates to the giving of agricultural subsidies.
(2) For the purpose of subsection (1), a subsidy is “agricultural” if it is subject to the provisions of Part IV or Annex 2 of the Agreement on Agriculture.
(3) In this section “the Agreement on Agriculture” means the Agreement on Agriculture, contained in Annex 1A to the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization, done at Marrakesh on 15 April 1994 (read with any adjustments necessary for context).’ —(Kirsty Blackman.)
This new clause exempts agricultural subsidies from the subsidy control requirements.
Brought up, and read the First time.
18:23
Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2—Annual report on climate change impacts

‘(1) The Secretary of State must once every 12 months lay a report before Parliament setting out the impact of subsidies granted in the preceding 12 months on the environment and climate change.

(2) Any report under subsection (1) must include an assessment of the impact of subsidies granted in the preceding 12 months on the UK’s ability to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

(3) The first report must be laid before Parliament within 12 months of this Act being passed.’

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to lay an annual report before parliament detailing the climate change impacts of subsidies granted that year.

New clause 3—Post-award investigations

‘(1) The CMA may conduct an investigation in relation to a subsidy that has been granted or a subsidy scheme that has been made.

(2) A decision under subsection (1) may be made in relation to any subsidy or subsidy scheme in respect of which the CMA considers—

(a) that there has or may have been a failure to comply with the requirements of Chapters 1 and 2 of Part 2, or

(b) that there has or may have been a failure to comply with the transparency obligations set out in Chapter 3 of Part 2.

(3) Where the CMA makes a decision to investigate a subsidy or scheme under subsection (1), it must direct the public authority to provide it with—

(a) any assessment carried out by the public authority as to whether the financial assistance fell within the meaning of “subsidy” or “subsidy scheme” for the purposes of this Act, and the reasons for that conclusion,

(b) any assessment carried out by the public authority as to whether the financial assistance if assessed to constitute a subsidy or subsidy scheme would comply with the requirements of Chapter 1 and 2 of Part 2 and the reasons for that conclusion,

(c) any evidence relevant to those assessments,

(d) in a case where such assessments were not provided, the reasons for the assessments not being provided,

(e) any information that the public authority failed to enter in the subsidy database in accordance with Chapter 3 of Part 2, and

(f) such other information as is specified in regulations under section 60(8)(a).

(4) Where the CMA decides to conduct an investigation under subsection (1), the direction given under subsection (3) must be made before the end of 20 working days beginning with the day on which the subsidy is given or the scheme is made.

(5) The CMA must send a copy of the direction given under subsection (3) to the public authority and the Secretary of State.

(6) The public authority must provide to the CMA the information required under subsection (3) before the end of the information period as defined in section 60(7).’

This new clause provides the CMA with the power to conduct a post-award investigation where the public authority has or may have failed to comply with its requirements.

Amendment 10, in clause 10, page 6, line 31, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

‘(a) is made by—

(i) a Minister of the Crown,

(ii) the Welsh Ministers,

(iii) the Scottish Ministers, or

(iv) a Northern Ireland department; and’.

This amendment allows devolved administrations to make streamlined subsidy schemes.

Amendment 18, page 6, line 33, at end insert—

‘(4A) A streamlined subsidy scheme may be made, in particular, to support areas of relative economic deprivation.’

This amendment would allow for streamlined subsidy schemes to be made for the purposes of supporting areas of deprivation.

Amendment 19, in clause 11, page 7, line 9, at end insert—

‘(4) Before making regulations under this section, the Secretary of State must seek the consent of the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland.

(5) If consent to the making of the regulations is not given by any of those authorities within the period of one month beginning with the day on which it is sought from that authority, the Secretary of State may make the regulations without consent.

(6) If regulations are made in reliance on subsection (5), the Secretary of State must make a statement to the House of Commons explaining why the Secretary of State decided to make the regulations without the consent of the authority or authorities concerned.’

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to seek the consent of the Devolved Administrations before making regulations under this section. Where such consent is not given within one month, the Secretary of State may make the regulations without that consent, but must make a statement to the House of Commons explaining their decision.

Amendment 20, in clause 32, page 17, line 10, at end insert—

‘(c) the subsidy database is subject to routine audit to verify the accuracy and completeness of entries.’

This amendment requires the Secretary of State to ensure that the database is subject to routine audit.

Amendment 1, in clause 33, page 17, line 21, leave out “£500,000” and insert “£500”.

This amendment would reduce the threshold for entering subsidies into the subsidy database from £500,000 to £500.

Amendment 2, page 17, line 24, leave out “one year” and insert “one month”.

This amendment would require subsidies or schemes to be entered in the database within one month of being made, rather than one year, if given in the form of a tax measure.

Amendment 13, page 17, line 24, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

‘(a) if given in the form of a tax measure, an entry with a provisional tax deduction value must be entered within one month, and a final value entered within one month of the date of the tax declaration, or’.

This ensures that tax measure subsidies are entered in the subsidy database within one month.

Amendment 3, page 17, line 26, leave out “six months” and insert “one month”.

This amendment would require subsidies or schemes to be entered in the database within one month of being made, rather than six months, if given in any form other than a tax measure.

Amendment 4, page 17, line 33, leave out “one year” and insert “one month”.

See explanatory statement for Amendment 2.

Amendment 5, page 17, line 35, leave out “six months” and insert “one month”.

See explanatory statement for Amendment 3.

Amendment 6, in clause 34, page 18, line 27, at end insert—

“(j) the date the subsidy or scheme was entered onto the database.”

This amendment would require the date a subsidy or scheme was entered onto the database to be included in the information public authorities are required to enter into the database.

Amendment 14, in clause 36, page 19, line 17, after “requirements” insert

“with the exception of duties under section 33,”.

This amendment requires that subsidies under the minimal financial assistance threshold are entered in the subsidy control database.

Amendment 7, page 20, line 4, at end insert—

‘(7) In this section, the reference to the subsidy control requirements does not include the requirements as to transparency in Chapter 3 of Part 2.’

This amendment requires that “minimal financial assistance” subsidies are not exempt from the database transparency requirements, while remaining exempt from other subsidy control requirements.

Amendment 21, in clause 41, page 23, line 15, leave out “£14,500,000” and insert “£500”.

This amendment would make section 33 applicable to SPEI subsidies worth more than £500.

Amendment 22, page 23, line 16, leave out subsection (b).

This amendment would make section 33 applicable to SPEI subsidies worth more than £500.

Amendment 23, in clause 55, page 30, line 40, after “State” insert

‘, the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland’.

This amendment extends the call-in powers under this section to the Devolved Administrations.

Amendment 24, page 31, line 2, after “State” insert

‘, the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland’.

This amendment relates to Amendment 23.

Amendment 25, page 31, line 7, after “State” insert

‘, the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland’.

This amendment relates to Amendment 23.

Amendment 9, in clause 66, page 37, line 39, leave out paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) and insert—

‘(a) all subsidies and subsidy schemes granted in the past 12 months, and

(b) an assessment of the extent to which they satisfy the subsidy control principles and the energy and environment principles.

(2) Any report made under this section must be formally laid before parliament by the Secretary of State.

(3) The Secretary of State must make an oral statement to the House of Commons when any report under this section is laid.’

This amendment ensures that the annual report prepared by the CMA includes all subsidies along with its assessment of the extent to which they fulfil the 7 principles set out in the Bill. The report also places a requirement for the Secretary of State to report to Parliament when a report is laid.

Amendment 26, in clause 68, page 39, line 1, at end insert—

‘(3A) The Chair of the CMA Board may appoint up to three non-executive members to the Subsidy Advice Unit established under subsection (1) in order to ensure that the Unit includes at least one person with relevant experience in relation to each of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.’

This amendment would allow the CMA Chair to appoint up to three non-executive members to ensure that the Unit includes at least one person with experience in relation to each of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Amendment 8, in clause 70, page 39, line 35, leave out subsection (2).

This amendment intends to allow individual subsidies given under a subsidy scheme to be reviewed, without the requirement for the broader subsidy scheme to be reviewed too.

Amendment 12, page 40, line 16, at end insert—

‘(c) the Welsh Ministers,

(d) the Scottish Ministers, or

(e) a Northern Ireland department;’.

This amendment includes the devolved administrations in the list of those who can apply to the Competition Appeal Tribunal for a review of a subsidy decision.

Amendment 27, in clause 79, page 46, line 3, at end insert—

‘(5A) Before issuing guidance under this section, the Secretary of State must seek the consent of the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland.

(5B) If consent to the making of the regulations is not given by any of those authorities within the period of one month beginning with the day on which it is sought from that authority, the Secretary of State may make the regulations without that consent.

(5C) If regulations are made in reliance on subsection (5B), the Secretary of State must publish a statement explaining why the Secretary of State decided to make the regulations without the consent of the authority or authorities concerned.’

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to gain the consent of the Devolved Administrations before issuing guidance under Clause 79.

Amendment 15, in schedule 1, page 51, line 8, after “concerns” insert

‘and areas of relative economic deprivation’.

This amendment includes areas of relative economic deprivation as an example of the equity rationales that subsidies should address.

Amendment 16, page 52, line 6, at end insert—

‘(c) consistency with the United Kingdom achieving its net-zero commitments established under the Climate Change Act 2008.’

This amendment adds consistency with the UK’s net-zero commitments as a particular consideration for public authorities before deciding whether to give a subsidy.

Amendment 11, page 52, line 6, at end insert—

‘Net Zero

H Subsidies should not normally encourage behaviour which will have a negative effect on the achievement of the UK’s net-zero commitments.’

This amendment adds a subsidy control principle relating to the UK’s net zero commitments.

Amendment 17, in schedule 2, page 52, line 15, at end insert—

‘(c) delivering the UK’s net-zero commitments established under the Climate Change Act 2008.’

This amendment would ensure that subsidies related to energy and the environment incentivise the beneficiary to help deliver the UK’s net-zero commitments.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a delight to be present in this incubation Chamber, where viruses from all around these islands—every corner of them—can come to mix freely, so that we can return this toxic cocktail to our constituents, constituencies and families. I am delighted to be able to be physically present at this time.

I will speak briefly to new clause 1, which is in my name and those of my colleagues, as well as the other amendments that stand in my name. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) will fill in the rest of the details and explain more about our rationale for the new clause.

The logic behind new clause 1 is that agricultural subsidies do not fit neatly into subsidy control regimes. That has been recognised by the World Trade Organisation, which is the reason for its agreement on agriculture; it has been recognised by the European Union, which is the reason for the common agricultural policy; indeed, it has been recognised across the world. We, and the Scottish Government, still have no idea why the UK Government decided to go against the flow and include agricultural subsidies in the Bill, rather than providing a separate arrangement for them.

The new clause simply removes agriculture from the consideration. It does not mean that we should not have a control regime of some sort for agriculture, and it does not mean that we should not have rules relating to agriculture. It means that agriculture does not fit neatly here, and should not form part of the main subsidy control regime in the Bill.

Amendment 10 relates to streamlined subsidy schemes. The change for which we are asking would allow devolved Administrations to make such schemes. Given that those Administrations have devolved competences by law, it makes no sense that the schemes can only be made by the Secretary of State in the UK Government. Obviously we would like Scottish independence, but in the absence of a vote on that, we are not asking for devolved Administrations to be able to overstep their devolved competences. We are merely asking for parity—for the ability of devolved Administrations to create streamlined subsidy schemes. They would still only be able to do that within their areas of devolved competence, and they would still only be able to do it within their limited financial envelopes. We are not asking for anything strange or unusual; we are not seeking some sort of power grab; it is simply to do with parity.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I understood from discussions I have had with the Minister in the past that the intention was to give the regional Administrations a say in this process so that their views could be taken on board if necessary, but the hon. Lady seems to be saying that that will not happen. Have I got it wrong, or have I got it right?

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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Some parts of the Bill give the devolved Administrations a say, but many others do not. The key part concerns the issue of interested parties, which I will explain in some detail later.

Streamlined subsidy schemes can go through a “streamlined” process rather than being made by, for instance, a local authority in order to benefit organisations. We are not asking for all granting authorities to have access to that process; we are simply asking for parity of esteem for the devolved Administrations, specifically on streamlined subsidy schemes.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The point that I was trying to make relates to farmers’ subsidies and environmental schemes, which are critically important to Northern Ireland, as they are to Scotland.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. We are asking for the agricultural references to be removed from the Bill because we do not think that this gives us, or any of the devolved Administrations, the flexibility we need. The Welsh Government have raised concerns similar to those raised by the Scottish Government, particularly in relation to legislative consent. As I said earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith will speak in more detail about agriculture in particular, so it may be worth questioning her at that stage.

Let me now turn to the issue of tax declarations and the transparency database. There is already a subsidy control database, which is rubbish. There is very little on it because a huge amount of information is missing. The Minister has made it clear that this is a preliminary database, an interim measure, and not the final database. We have had a degree of reassurance from him that the new database will be better, but the way in which the legislation is drafted—the number of exemptions, and the length of time that authorities have to upload information—causes us great concern. and was raised a number of times in Committee.

Amendment 13 would amend clause 33 in respect of a local authority or granting authority giving a subsidy in the form of a tax measure—a tax rebate or tax reduction. To give a theoretical example, if an authority says in April 2022, “We’re going to subsidise this company by not having them pay a certain kind of tax,” it does not have to put that on the database until the year after it appears on a tax declaration. It can be made in April 2022, it can appear on the tax declaration first in April 2023, and there would be no requirement to upload it to the database until April 2024, which is almost two years after the subsidy was made. By that time, an organisation that had been egregiously damaged by the subsidy would have sunk—it would have gone under.

18:30
There is no rationale for the two-year period. The Minister made it clear that he was concerned that public authorities or granting authorities would not be able to give an absolutely accurate number for the tax rebate’s financial value. However, I am clear—as are a number of Members across the Chamber—that an indicative value would be better than no value at all. Having an indicative value in the subsidy control database as early as possible would provide the best opportunity for organisations to challenge the subsidy as it was being given and before they went under as a result of it.
Having been a local authority councillor for eight years, I am well aware that, when a granting authority makes a subsidy or any decision to do with funding, it knows how much it is funding. It knows how much it is budgeting for it. It may not know the exact number of pounds and pence, but it knows what size envelope it is budgeting for that spend or, in this case, subsidy. Therefore, the authority could very easily put on the database, “We expect that it will not be more than £750,000,” or whatever the number is. Given the way in which the Minister hopes the legislation will work, I suggest that that would be a much more sensible way to proceed than the two-year period in the Bill, which is frankly ridiculous.
Amendment 3, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), would introduce a one-month declaration deadline for non-tax-related subsidies. Under the Bill, there is a six-month period to upload a subsidy that is not in the form of a tax measure and then only one month to challenge it. That is backwards—it does not make sense.
If the Minister is saying that seven months is the right period for the total length of time for it to be uploaded and for the challenge to take place—he has raised a number of concerns about not wanting the uncertainty to be prolonged—I suggest that the balance is incorrect. I think the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare is also suggesting that, but he can speak for himself. I think that, actually, the upload should happen much more quickly so that the transparency data is available on the database, and that there should be a longer period for challenge. To my mind, it is not about increasing the seven-month period; it is about rebalancing the seven-month period so that there is a longer time for challenge and a shorter time for upload.
As I have said, granting authorities know how much they are spending. They have to write a letter that says how much they are spending. It would be the work of a few moments to put the details from that letter on to the database at the same time. In the interests of transparency, in the interests of having the best possible legislation and in the interests of ensuring that subsidies—this is surely the point of the Bill—can be made and can be challenged when they need to be, the Minister needs to consider these amendments seriously.
Next, I will talk about the amendments to the minimal financial assistance provisions, about which I raised a number of concerns in Committee as well. The Bill talks about minimal financial assistance, which is when a subsidy is under a certain level. Over a three-year period, an organisation cannot have a subsidy of more than £315,000. If a granting authority is giving a subsidy to company A, and it gives a subsidy of £100,000, it knows that is below minimal financial assistance, so it knows it does not need to worry about uploading it to the database —but what if somebody else has already given that organisation a £200,000 subsidy and somebody else has given it another £200,000 subsidy? The authority has no way of telling, because those all come under the £315,000 limit, so not one of them requires to be uploaded to the database.
That is a concern, because we could find granting authorities, through no fault of their own, giving a subsidy to somebody who is not eligible to receive a subsidy, a subsidy they should be uploading on the subsidy database, because it comes over the minimal financial assistance amount. The logic behind amendments 14 and 7 is ensuring that all subsidies, whether or not they are under the minimal financial assistance level, require to be uploaded to the database.
That is not about granting authorities’ necessarily having to jump through a huge amount of extra hoops; it is about transparency and the ability to monitor whether this legislation is working as intended. It is also about the ability to ensure that they are kept on the right side here and are not worried about giving a subsidy to somebody and then finding themselves on the wrong end of the law because they have accidentally pushed somebody over the £315,000 without having any idea that they had done so.
In the event that the grant is under £315,000, granting authorities must send the company a letter to say, “This is a subsidy that we are giving you. We are giving you a £100,000 subsidy.” It then rests with the company to say to a granting authority, “Oh yes—we’ve had three of these letters.” It rests with them; there is no ability for that to be stored anywhere other than the company and the granting authority itself.
I represent Aberdeen North in Aberdeen city, which is bounded with Aberdeenshire. There are a lot of people and organisations and a lot of stuff happening between the two authorities. Aberdeen city is surrounded by Aberdeenshire. It is not out of the question that an organisation could be eligible for a subsidy from both local authorities because of the work it does across the boundary. That issue might arise because both local authorities could be giving a subsidy—particularly because it might not be uploaded in the subsidy control database until six months later. That compounds the problem, even if the Minister agrees to make the change to the MFA rules.
Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
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The hon. Lady makes some very fair points, but to be fair to the Government there are requirements under clause 37(6) for the business to keep records of the subsidies received and report them. That is probably in many ways more practical. That subsidy might be given to all kinds of different subsidiaries of that particular enterprise and therefore, even if she wanted local authorities to determine what they had received in the past, it would potentially be difficult to do so by checking against the database. It makes sense to give the business some responsibility for recording that.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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Actually, what the legislation does is to give the business a responsibility to keep the letter. It does not give the business much more responsibility, in my mind, although I will go back and have a look at the clause the hon. Gentleman points me to. I think having the subsidy on the subsidy control database would make all the difference, but if he wishes to come back in, he can.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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Clause 37(6) states:

“The enterprise must keep a written record detailing—

(a) that it has received a subsidy,

and

(b) the date on which it was given, and

(c) the gross value amount of the assistance.”

That to me indicates that it must keep a full record of what it has received.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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Once again, yes, it has to keep a full record, but it does not have to show Aberdeen City Council that record. There is no requirement on the company to be transparent about that record; there is a requirement to keep it, but not to share it. Having it on the database or adding the requirement to share that record, should a granting authority ask in advance of granting a subsequent subsidy, would make the difference we are asking for.

However, that does not fix the issue in relation to transparency of data and ensuring that the database and the scheme are working properly. This was mentioned in the witness sessions. We need to know whether this is working, and we will only know if it is working if we have an idea of the subsidies being granted, even if they are below the MFA threshold.

I said I would come on to the definition of interested parties. Amendment 12 adds devolved Administrations to the list of interested parties. Again, we discussed this at some length in Committee and the Minister gave some assurances. I shall quote a couple of questions that I asked and the response that the Minister gave. I said:

“Does a devolved Administration’s interests include indirect interests?”

I also asked:

“What if a number of organisations in their jurisdiction are potentially affected by a subsidy given?”

The Minister answered:

“Yes. I would say that is a direct interest rather than an indirect interest. Public authorities, including devolved Administrations, may be interested parties.”––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 16 November 2021; c.308-309.]

I am glad that he gave some clarity. It is sort of because of the way the questions were asked that the Minister’s response was slightly woolly. I would very much appreciate it if, when he responds to the debate, he could make it absolutely clear from the Dispatch Box that, in cases of indirect interests, devolved Administrations are considered as interested parties.

Let us say that a subsidy was given somewhere else in the UK, or even in Scotland, and that subsidy negatively affected the chances of seven businesses in Scotland. I think that the Scottish Government should be able to bring a request to the tribunal to say that that needs to be looked at and that they believe that that is an issue. Under the definition of interested parties, it is only those people whose interests have been affected. The Scottish Government’s interests would not have been directly affected by that, but they would have been indirectly affected. I was trying to tease out from the Minister that he believed that, definitely, the Scottish Government or any of the other devolved Administrations could bring a challenge on behalf of organisations within their area. I am quite happy for that to be limited to devolved competences even. However, if they are not in the Bill as interested parties, we very much need that commitment from the Minister. If they are not in the Bill as interested parties, why is the Secretary of State included in the Bill as an interested party? If the definition is wide enough to cover all those areas—

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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The Secretary of State is not necessarily an interested party, which is why he needs to be named in here; he might not be affected. The hon. Lady’s point about being directly or indirectly affected is covered under clause 70(7), which says that an interested party means

“a person whose interests may be affected”.

That could be directly or indirectly, surely.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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We discussed this at length, with a lot of banter, in Committee. But I have a concern that the provision does not say “directly” or “indirectly”. It does not make that as clear as it could. A clear statement from the Minister at the Dispatch Box would give me a level of comfort. I do not think that it is the intention of the Government to exclude the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government, or the Northern Ireland Assembly from making these challenges, but I think that the Bill is written in a woolly enough way that it potentially accidentally excludes them.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The hon. Lady has outlined the issue very well on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly. This has to be an equality issue. If it should happen that some other part of the United Kingdom affects businesses in my constituency or in Northern Ireland, equality is part of that. Should not the Minister and the Government address the issue of equality for all those reasons as well?

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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I completely agree that there is not a level of parity here. There should be because the Government recognise that the Scottish Parliament has responsibility for some things—the Government recognise that most days. They recognise that in relation to the other devolved Assemblies, too. This is not about any of those Administrations having a veto; it is simply about the right to refer this to the Competition Appeal Tribunal in order for it to be looked at. It is not about any of those authorities being able to cancel subsidies, or to veto them in any way. It is simply about being able to raise that challenge. It is something that was raised by the witnesses in the Bill’s evidence sessions, so it is not something that I have just somehow invented, or that the Welsh Government have invented, or that the Scottish Government have invented. It is a real worry for people, so the more the Minister could say on this the better.

I will not speak for too much longer. I have just one more amendment—amendment 11—to cover. There are two schedules—schedules 1 and 2—in relation to the subsidy control principles. The subsidy control principles are set in the Bill, and it is clear that they are the principles that authorities need to look to in guiding the decision making about giving subsidies. There are two schedules: one for the general principles and one for the environmental principles, which relate specifically to subsidies around energy and environmental matters.

00:02
The general principles, as they are written, do not mention the UK’s commitment to net zero or the most important challenge that is happening anywhere. Covid is very important right at this moment, but tackling climate change is vital for the futures of us all and for the futures of our children. This Bill will not stand the test of time if an attempt to tackle climate change or at least to hold people to some level of account when it comes to climate change and decision making is not in it.
Amendment 11 would add a final principle to the subsidy control principles that states:
“Subsidies should not normally encourage behaviour which will have a negative effect on the achievement of the UK’s net-zero commitments.”
The amendment would not totally tie things down; it just says that authorities granting subsidies should have regard to net zero commitments in the subsidies they are giving. The subsidy control principles are important because, should there be any challenge or any referral to the CMA or the CAT, they will be looked at—there will be a requirement to see whether the subsidies met the subsidy control principles. I just do not think we can allow the Bill to pass without saying that it is really important that any decisions taken—remember, this is public money—on the spending of public money in the form of subsidies should have regard to our climate change obligations. I am delighted that the Opposition have tabled similar amendments, and I would be happy to support any of those that they look to press.
The Bill is not perfect—in fact, it is far from perfect—and we have a huge number of concerns. I am disappointed that the Government have not tabled amendments at this stage to change the Bill, because there was a lot of consensus on the Opposition Benches and from the witnesses about some of the deficiencies that we see in the Bill. If the Government are not willing to listen to us, I hope they will listen to the voices of their Members, who are similarly pushing for transparency on the databases.
The key things that we are keen to look at are: the issue of agriculture being included; the issue of net zero not being included; the issues around transparency; and, finally, the issues around parity of esteem, particularly with interested parties. I hope that the Minister can give me some comfort from the Dispatch Box on the last of those, to make clear for anyone looking at this in the future that the devolved Administrations are counted as interested parties when it comes to indirect, as well as direct interests.
John Penrose Portrait John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
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I rise to speak to the amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friends. I start by saying that there is a great deal to support about this Bill, and I think I mentioned that on Second Reading. This Bill is vitally important, not just because it is required under the terms of our leaving the EU, but because it does some very important things to how the future subsidy control regime will be applied. We have already heard that the central set of principles is crucial. The notion of pre-approval and allowing things to be done at pace to create a much less bureaucratic, much more nimble, much more predictable regime is overall hugely to be welcomed. I hope everyone will be able to sign up to that.

The Bill also means that I hope we will be able to move to a principle where we have as few exemptions and exceptions to our subsidy control regime as possible. It is essential that we have a subsidy control regime that does not allow loopholes through which—I am sure the Minister would never dream of doing such a thing—some less principled future Government might try to drive any sort of measures through that might involve either cronyism or economic distortions of any kind. It is essential that there are minimal loopholes and that the Bill covers as evenly and as predictably as possible the entire economy.

It is no accident that this country has had one of the lowest levels of public subsidies granted in recent years under the guise of the EU’s regime. For the free marketeers among us and those who care about economic efficiency and productivity, that should be a source of pride, and we should not be trying to overturn or change that in future. In fact, I made that point in the Government-commissioned competition policy review that I was recently asked to do, which has a chapter specifically on subsidy control that says that less is definitely more. It is far better to do less in the area and therefore ensure more space for companies and business leaders to compete on their organisations’ abilities and the quality of their products and services rather than on whom they know in Government and, as a result, how much rent and subsidy they can wring out of their political connections. It is essential that we remember that, adhere to it and persist with it as much as we can.

That is crucial, because the Bill done right ought to be a major piece of post-Brexit dividend that we should seek to achieve as a result of leaving the EU. If we get it right, we can have a faster, more nimble and more economically rational way of dealing with subsidies. We can keep the best of the objectivity that everyone said we had under the EU but do it in a faster, more digitally enabled and generally more modern, less bureaucratic and less covered-in-red-tape fashion. Such a post-Brexit dividend is here for the taking. It is waiting for us to pick it up off the table, provided that we can do it correctly.

My concern—this is why I tabled amendments 1 to 8 —is that while the Bill does an awful lot of that right, we may be about to make one critical error. We have already heard the points about transparency made by the SNP spokeswoman, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman). It is all very well to pre-approve and to have a more flexible, faster and more nimble approach, but that will work only if we have an army of armchair auditors who can spot when something is going wrong and say, “Hang on a second. This is a marvellous principle, but it isn’t being adhered to in this case.” Without transparency, hon. Members, people in our constituencies and the journalists who pore over such things will not be able to do so until it is too late. In a digitising economy, speed matters, too. If it cannot be done before it is too late—or at all—companies will be driven out of business. Once all that is left is rubble, the jobs are lost and the investment is forgone, it is too late to come back two years later—or even eight months later in fast-moving sectors—and say, “We’re terribly sorry; we got this wrong.” We need to be able to move rapidly and pick up things up as soon as possible. That is why I tabled the amendments.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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My hon. Friend makes a strong point about armchair auditors in particular. As soon as the US published all loans of $150,000 under the paycheck protection program—its version of the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme—$30 billion was paid straight back to the US Treasury on the basis that companies did not want that visibility. It was not that money was taken fraudulently—perhaps it was taken inappropriately.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. For those of us who worry about the scale of subsidies, who take pride in ours being a relatively low-subsidy country and economy and who want it to stay that way—we do so because we care about competitiveness and people competing only on the basis of their ability to please their customers rather than whom they know in Government—that must be the right approach. That American example of how transparency can drive down subsidy levels is a good one. Incidentally, it would be fascinating to see how that applies to countries such as Spain, which have low thresholds for declarations and therefore high levels of declarations. We can follow that carefully.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is making a very useful speech, and I very rarely say that in Parliament—not about him, but generally about speeches here. Does he agree that the value of his amendments is that they would increase the number of pieces of information we have, and that the Government are missing the value of predictive analytics in considering the way in which subsidies are or are not working, as that can then be applied to other areas of Government expenditure?

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
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That is absolutely right. Transparency is of course about trying to improve the productivity of our economy and avoiding distortions of our economy, and of course it is also about trying to reduce cronyism, but my hon. Friend is right to say that there is a longer-term benefit in that we can then tell whether the subsidies we are offering are any good: are they actually having the effect we want them to have and can we learn from that? I am afraid there is a long and ignoble history—we can all see this and cite examples from Governments of all political types and stripes in history—of politicians just getting it wrong and not learning that extra data might very well achieve something. I am afraid the old phrase that politicians are terrible at picking winners but really good at picking losers applies here in spades, and data and objectivity are essential in pricking that bubble and avoiding that happening again.

The good news is that Ministers get it: Ministers are clear about the value of transparency. They have said so to me and others. In fact, the Minister said to me in a letter earlier in December:

“Transparency is fundamental not only to the future subsidy control regime but also to good governance more widely.”

That is absolutely right. So, the principle is clear: there is no disagreement in any part of the House that this is the right thing to do.

So, why are we not doing it? That has been covered partly in Committee, but it bears being repeated here strongly and forcefully. The EU regime which the Bill is supposed to supplant has a series of transparency declaration thresholds. Everything over half a million euros must be declared; there are thresholds too for cumulative grants, which we heard about in the speech of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North, although half a million euros is the basic threshold. This Bill, however, says that everything over half a million pounds has to be declared. Unless the exchange rate has gone completely doolally in the last 10 minutes, that is a much, or moderately, higher level than half a million euros, and as a result we will in the future be declaring fewer subsidies under this transparency regime than we were in the past, in spite of the fact that Ministers have rightly said transparency is absolutely essential and a core principle with which we all agree. We are not delivering on the central principle on which everybody agrees, and that is why I have tabled basically three groups of amendments. They do three things, some of which we have already heard about; the hon. Lady summarised them nicely, so I will not go through the detail again.

The first group addresses amounts and says, “Look, we shouldn’t just say we have to declare anything over half a million pounds; we should be much more transparent than that.” If we are really serious about trying to be world-class about this issue, let us knock three zeros off that number: let us go for £500 instead. What have we got to hide? What have we got to be scared of? Why do we not just put it all out there and let people see? That would be transformational, for the reasons I have just described.

Dan Poulter Portrait Dr Dan Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is making a very good speech and making very good points. On the issue of transparency, surely it would be cheaper as well as more transparent to do exactly what he says, because when there is a digital system putting all this information together it takes more time and money and reduces the productivity of the staff involved if they have to sift through what meets a certain threshold. Why not, as my hon. Friend says, just put everything out there?

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
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Absolutely; my hon. Friend makes an important point. Equally, the point about cost goes more broadly than that too. We heard about the cumulative threshold where, if a single company receives multiple different grant applications or subsidies that collectively go above £315,000 over three years, that is supposed to be declared—but how will it be declared? The company is supposed to keep the letters, but it does not necessarily have a duty to declare it. The different subsidy granting organisations, be they local authorities around the country or whatever, will not necessarily know to talk to each other and will not know for at least six months, or a year in some cases, whether someone else has made those grants.

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It would be enormously simpler if, instead of all that, we said, “Do you know what? If it’s more than £500, put it on the subsidy database within a month”, then everybody can see it. If someone is about to grant another subsidy, they just have to look at the subsidy database. They know if a company is going to go over a threshold and what else it has, and they can do the comparison easily and simply if they like.
To the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), it would cut costs not just among the granting organisations—the subsidy disher-outers—but dramatically for the subsidy receivers too. All of a sudden, people would not have to worry about whether they had all the letters about all the subsidies that they had been granted by Aberdeen City Council or Aberdeenshire Council. People would not have to keep them any more, so that would not be a burden on their business. It would not be a burden at all, because it would be on the subsidy database. As the Bill stands, we are creating a burden on businesses that we do not have to create. We can easily reduce and remove it completely with this simple measure.
Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con)
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Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a general presumption that there should be more transparency about people receiving money effectively from the taxpayer? We could have a strange situation where if I am being paid £600 for grass cutting for my local council, the council would publish the invoice on its database, yet if I am receiving tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money, it would not be published. Surely, that cannot be the right balance.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
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That is absolutely right. Although I appreciate that there is a technical distinction between amounts of subsidy and amounts of general local authority spend, it is a very strong comparison. If it is worthwhile recording £500 spend on anything by a local council, why are subsidies so special and why should they be different? If anything, because of the scope for potential cronyism and other concerns, we should be tougher on subsidies than on other kinds of spending. Let us at least make the thresholds the same at £500, and then there can be no concern or worry about it.

The first collection of amendments is about the amount. The second collection of amendments, about which we have already heard a bit from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North, is about speed. As I have mentioned, in today’s digitising economy, publishing details of a subsidy potentially almost two years later, or even six months later, could be way too late. A company could have gone under if it had been faced by a successfully heavily subsidised competitor in its local area. Jobs will have been destroyed, wealth will have been destroyed, investment will have been forgone and, most importantly, the reputation of that local economy as a free, fair, sensible level-playing-field place to do business will have been damaged.

Clearly speed matters today, and it will matter more and more as our economy moves faster through digitisation. It makes no sense at all, therefore, to allow six months, and in some cases even longer, for those subsidies to be declared. When someone dishes out a subsidy, a letter has to be sent to the person receiving it, so in most cases they could put the subsidy on to the database at the same time—they could probably do it electronically if they had the right interface. I am suggesting that that could happen within a month; it could probably happen within days, but let us be generous and kind, and give people a bit of space.

I will expand on the point about tax-related subsidies. It is true, as we heard, that a tax-related subsidy can take almost two years to be recorded and to become transparently visible under the current proposals. I cannot see any reason why that should be the case, not just for tax-related subsidies but for anything else at all. In general, for most tax-related subsidies, we can do it immediately because we know the value with some certainty right up front. If I am giving someone a subsidy as a reduction on their business rates, I know how much the value of that subsidy is going to be on the day it comes out, so I can put that out on the subsidy database right there and right then. The same goes for most other kinds of tax-related subsidies, such as subsidies on VAT or whatever it may be.

Only for a very small number of tax-related subsidies would there be uncertainty for any length of time. As we have already heard, and I think this is absolutely right, it is perfectly possible to come up with a good estimate to begin with, and I do not think it works—it is not an adequate piece of logic—to turn around and say, “Well, because we don’t know precisely what this particular subsidy amount will be, we should not reveal it at all.” That is making the best the enemy of the good, and the trouble with that, and with saying that we are therefore not going to put anything out, is that we do not end up with the best or the good. We end up with something that is actually pretty dreadful, because we are keeping it secret for up to two years. How does that make sense when, as we have already heard, we can estimate it very accurately? In fact, in many cases these things are done in bands, and we can certainly say, at the very least, that it will be roughly in this or that band. Even if we get it wrong, we can still correct it later, and people know it is there, what it was and roughly how much it will have been. That will have allowed challenge, if necessary.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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Specifically on the issue of uploading subsidies to databases and challenging such subsidies, the only way in which a subsidy will be overturned anyway is if the subsidy was given incorrectly—if it was against subsidy principles or was distortive in some way—so surely this has no effect on the vast majority of subsidies, except that it means they will be uploaded much more quickly. However, in the case of subsidies that are wrong, bad and going to cause problems, surely the quickest possible time is better so that we would be able to see them.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
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That is absolutely right. It is not just about whether a particular subsidy breaches those principles, but as the hon. Member rightly points out, it is also a question of whether we can then spot that a pattern of cronyism is emerging. If a particular local council was giving out grants to its mates, we could see that much faster. That may not be breaching the subsidy control principle, but you can bet your bottom dollar that people would want to know about that and that the most almighty stink would be created.

That brings me on to the final group of my three groups of amendments, which is about the ability to challenge and check individual items or individual examples of a subsidy within a broader subsidy scheme. At the moment, if someone registers a subsidy scheme under the terms of the Bill, dishes out subsidies under that subsidy scheme and then basically ignores the terms of the subsidy scheme or misapplies them in some terrible way—because of cronyism, because they are just doing a bad job, or even fraudulently—nobody, under the terms of the Bill, can challenge the individual decisions being made. That cannot be right, and it seems daft. All I am saying is that we need to be able to challenge individual examples within a broader scheme, otherwise this transparency mechanism or challenge mechanism will be fundamentally flawed.

That is the modest proposal. So far, I have not heard a single argument that unpicks the logic of that. As far as I can see, there are three Departments of Government with a dog in this fight. There is Lord Frost, who is in charge of the Brexit dividend, and he ought to be thoroughly in favour of this because of the opportunity it offers. There is the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—he was here briefly just now, and I hope he will be back later—who is of course a good free marketeer and is thoroughly committed to improving productivity, so he should be in favour of this, too. Finally, there is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is the guardian of taxpayers’ money. As I have said, we should be taking pride in the fact that we are one of the least heavily subsidising economies in the developed world, and we certainly were when we were part of the EU, so I cannot see that he is going to be objecting to it either.

As I sit down, I therefore just ask the Minister to please explain the logic behind opposing any of the arguments that not just I but others have been advancing. Will please explain who on earth thinks this is a bad idea, because I cannot find them or see them and I do not think anybody knows who they are?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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I rise to speak in support of all the amendments and new clauses in the names of my hon. and right hon. Friends and myself, but specifically new clause 1. I am aware that the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands has already written to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs specifically on this matter.

To begin with, I will tell a little story to illustrate that the apprehensions around this issue were long-standing, even before the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 passed into being, and now appear to be fully justified, especially when we take into consideration the principles of mutual recognition and non-discrimination contained in that Act. In late November 2020—on St Andrew’s Day, rather ironically—in the debate on the statement on the agricultural transition plan, I asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for assurances that the Bill, as it was then, would have absolutely no impact on Scotland’s ability to set support in Scotland independent of the system chosen for England. He responded that Scotland and the other devolved authorities

“will have more freedom than ever before to design a policy that they judge to be right for them. We will set up a joint group across the UK to do market surveillance, to ensure that there is not disturbance to the internal market”.—[Official Report, 30 November 2020; Vol. 685, c. 42.]

The House will note that there was no answer to my question in that reply. However, shortly afterwards the Secretary of State reassured a fellow Conservative MP who had expressed fears on behalf of farmers in his English constituency that food production might not be supported under the new English scheme and that his farmers could

“be undercut by farmers, including in the devolved nations, who are subsidised for food production or by area, not just for stewardship”.—[Official Report, 30 November 2020; Vol. 685, c. 50.]

I wondered how he could give any such assurance if he intended keeping the UK Government’s nose out of our agricultural support choices, but I ken noo.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) has mentioned, at the heart of the problem is the broad recognition that agricultural subsidies do not fit neatly into standard subsidy control regimes. That is why agriculture has its own separate subsidy control arrangements in the EU through the common agricultural policy, and in the World Trade Organisation through the agreement on agriculture. Equally, while the trade and co-operation agreement has provided interim rules on subsidy control in the UK since Brexit, it does not apply to subsidies subject to the provisions of part 4 or annex 2 of the WTO agreement on agriculture, which relate to most agricultural subsidies.

The Scottish Government have asked the UK Government repeatedly why agriculture is included in this new regime when it is not included in most standard subsidy control regimes, but I understand that to date no satisfactory reason has been given. The Minister has responded that a majority of respondents to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy consultation thought it should be included, which seems jolly fair-minded of the Minister, we might think. On the other hand, the UK Government have so far chosen to ignore the serious concerns raised by the Scottish and Welsh Governments. The UK Government have refused to share the consultation responses with our Government, even the anonymised ones, which makes it even more difficult for Ministers and civil servants to understand the reasoning behind this decision or at least to assess whether the responses were weighted and, if so, how. The only reply that I have seen from the Government’s response to the consultation is that this hitherto accepted exemption has been removed in order to maintain a “consistent approach” and a broad sectoral scope. So it is some sort of tidying-up exercise, apparently.

Taken all together, this ratchets up what were considerable levels of concern to—I think it is fair to say—alarm not just in the Scottish and Welsh Governments and other devolved Administrations but in organisations such as the National Farmers Union of Scotland. There is less concern from the National Farmers Union of England. I wonder why that might be. It is worth reminding ourselves that the high percentage of less favoured areas in Scotland’s agricultural land—some 86%—is almost directly reversed in England, where it is only 12%. We have unique agricultural conditions and practices, so the need for a support system that recognises and understands that and takes it fully into account is vital.

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As the National Farmers Union of Scotland said in its submission to the subsidy controls consultation, financial support for agricultural and rural development remains critical if a vast array of policy objectives, including producing food to the highest standards and addressing climate and biodiversity challenges, are to be achieved. It is almost as though the UK Government learned no lessons after the tortuous arguments over convergence funding that the Bew review eventually clarified to Scotland’s benefit—but surely not.
I realise that this will not be of particular interest to farmers in, say, Wiltshire, but it is of great interest to those of us in Scotland who treasure the more remote and rural areas of Scotland and want them to flourish. We see support for our farmers and crofters as an investment in those communities’ futures. For every pound invested by Government, many times that is spent by farmers and crofters. That fuels jobs and our economy, and builds food security, which given the UK’s reliance on imports for, give or take, 40% of our food, and the recent impact of the disastrous Brexit on supplies, should make us all think again. We consider it vital that the Scottish Government—indeed, the devolved Administrations more widely—retain the ability to support agricultural businesses as they see fit for the foreseeable future. This, as the NFUS makes clear, relates to the proposed regime’s potential impact on policy development in a devolved area.
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I very much sympathise and agree with the argument the hon. Lady is putting forward. In Northern Ireland we have the highest quality products, we have an export market that we want to retain, and we want to retain food security as well. She referred to the National Farmers Union of Scotland; the Ulster Farmers Union is also committed to retaining that. Does she agree that the Minister should consider this very seriously, with that in mind?

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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Yes, very much so. I agree with the hon. Gentleman because the excellent food produced in Scotland is also to be taken into account. I hope the Minister is listening carefully to what I am saying and will take it into account when he speaks. I would be interested to hear his point of view.

There is a risk that schedule 1 will constrain Scotland’s ability to tailor future policies to the needs of Scottish agriculture. There are concerns about how the regime will work for legacy common agricultural policy schemes delivering income payments and coupled support, and doubts about whether clauses 48 and 81 will allow devolved Governments to make changes where required in order to develop and progress agricultural policies in future. Additional difficulties and potential for legal challenge are created over what could effectively be the avoidable double-banking of subsidy control schemes through the application of the new regime. The Scottish Government are also concerned about the principle that a subsidy that does not unlawfully distort international law could still be challenged, as set out in our Cabinet Secretary’s letter to the Minister,

“on the basis that it does not minimise negative effects on competition or investment in the UK which is a principle that goes beyond the minimum required under the TCA”.

Apart from those numerous concerns, the inclusion of agriculture could dramatically weaken the role of what has been the agreed common frameworks process in this area, which was put in place specifically to manage policy divergence within the UK and any impacts that that might have on the UK internal market. I have been told that no other state in the world includes agricultural payments as subsidies. While I am not entirely sure that that is the case, it is certainly highly unusual. In May, the Minister indicated to the Cabinet Secretary that he was prepared to work on bespoke solutions in the regime that would recognise the particular needs of the agricultural sector, but there has been nothing so far and, I repeat, no real explanation of how it is all supposed to actually work. Perhaps it has been filed in the “too hard” bin, along with many other devolved Administrations’ concerns, or the “can’t be bothered” bin—I am not sure.

If agriculture is left in this Bill, that could create serious problems for devolved Governments in the delivery of their own policies on food production. If the Government are serious about protecting devolution, they will abandon their plans. I urge the House to hear the concerns voiced by Scotland’s devolved Government—I am sure we are going to hear from the Welsh Government as well, and potentially from the Northern Ireland Assembly—and support the inclusion of new clause 1.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I rise to speak briefly in support of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). I will particularly address amendments 1 and 8, which are about something brutally simple: scrutiny and transparency. The Government are rightly approaching this through their obligation to meet the competition requirements of the European Union. For that purpose, £500,000 would perhaps be the right level.

I think this is about more than competition; it is also about cronyism and, potentially, fraud. My hon. Friend put it well when he talked about armchair auditors. Time and again, information about things going wrong is brought to the attention of parliamentarians like me by members of the public and members of the press. The more we give people access to such information, the more likely we are to clamp down on any suggestions of cronyism. Although most are ill-founded, it is important that we clamp down on any suggestions of cronyism and of fraud.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should lower the threshold for reporting and registering on the database from £500,000 to £500. That seems an enormous difference, but consider what we know already. The easiest place to look is the furlough scheme and the bounce back loan scheme. The National Audit Office estimates that some £26 billion may have been lost in those coronavirus loan schemes, not all of it through fraud—some of it was through non-repayment of debt, or defaults. Nevertheless, a significant proportion of the moneys granted to businesses, which were effectively a subsidy, might have gone missing. The Government rightly put together a huge new team of people within Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, with an investment to the tune of £100 million, to try to clamp down on it by investigating the potential for fraud.

Alongside that, it would be a simple requirement for the database to include every single subsidy over £500 for the armchair auditors, the press, the public and—another important component—the whistleblowers. People within an organisation often do not know what subsidies the business may have received, but they might be able to identify the moneys as inappropriate and alert the authorities to that effect. Some 43% of all crimes are now economic crimes, and 40% of those are brought to light by whistleblowers, so it is hugely important that they have access to this information so they can scrutinise what is happening within these businesses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare asked why would we not do this? One answer might be bureaucracy and cost—we are not big believers in bureaucracy and unwanted, unneeded cost, and we rightly want to make our system simpler, not more complicated, for businesses—but the requirement to publish on the database is negligible. As others have said, businesses have to issue a letter anyway, so putting five bits of information on a database is not exhaustive. The impact assessment suggests that the total cost of doing it annually will be only £20,000 extra, which is insignificant in terms of the cost of red tape, but the benefits are huge.

As I mentioned in my earlier intervention, the US had much lower levels for reporting than we did. Our level was €500,000 for telling the EU who received benefits from the loan schemes, and it was done quite late in the day, after the loans were received by businesses. In the US it was $150,000, which effectively brought about a $30 billion return of moneys to the US Treasury because those businesses were embarrassed to be receiving the moneys inappropriately.

Another reason we are not doing this is that, when the British Business Bank looked at the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme and the bounce back loan scheme, it felt it should not report on this because it might be likely to lead to

“speculation about the Recipients’ financial position”.

I do not agree. Even if it were true, we are already putting on the database loans over €500,000. Are we saying only businesses below that level would have that problem? That is clearly not the case. A lot of businesses that received coronavirus business interruption loans over £500,000 were quoted on AIM, for example, including my own business. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, although I am no longer associated with that business in any meaningful capacity, as it was subject to a takeover earlier this year. I would have no problem at all with the loan we took under the CBILS programme being declared on a database so people could see it. The reasons we were taking it were quite obvious and I do not think it brought our financial position into question at all. Clearly, in the desperate times we were in, most people would see that we were going after desperate measures in terms of insurance policies, which the loan was to most companies. I do not see that as a valid reason for preventing the declaration to the database being completed for all subsidies down to that £500 level.

I will refer quickly to amendment 8. Allowing individual challenge to individual decisions under a subsidy scheme is another check and balance—another way to ensure money is being handed out appropriately. I think all these amendments make sense, which is why I have signed them all. To give the public, the press and Parliament access to the database is a crucial step. I do not think it would be a bureaucratic issue at all for the people responsible for it. I know we have spoken about it, but I urge the Minister to look at this again and to table such amendments at a later stage, if they are not accepted today.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
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Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lefarydd. It is interesting to hear the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) describe this Bill as part of a post-Brexit dividend. For many of us from the devolved nations, it actually bodes ill. It bodes ill in relation not just to key devolved competencies, but to questions about whether this negates the power of public procurement and, particularly, whether it undermines the levelling-up agenda. We would expect to see more principles in operation than we currently do, particularly when we compare this with the regimes we worked with and complained about, but were familiar with, under the European arrangements.

My party, Plaid Cymru, will support new clause 1, proposed by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), which would exempt devolved agricultural subsidies from the subsidy control requirements. This is a vital new clause that protects our farmers and ensures that the devolved nations can continue to tailor support to local requirements and priorities. I do not think I need to persuade anybody in this Chamber that UK agriculture is highly regionalised in its type, its significance, the impact it has on its local economies and whether it requires region-specific subsidy for its needs.

I am very much aware of that for the less favoured areas, representing as I do the constituency of Dwyfor Meirionnydd, which is very much an upland area. I have whole communities watching these legislative developments with some concern. I know the farmers’ representatives from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are equally concerned about the implications of what, on its face, appears to be a fairly technocratic Bill, but none the less sets a precedent for the sort of legislation we see coming out from the trade and co-operation agreement in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020.

In Wales, where more than 80% of land is used for agricultural purposes and farmers are the bedrock of our rural communities, guardians of our natural environment and protectors of our cultural identity, subsidies are vital to protecting that legacy. The latest farm business survey showed that subsidies provide on average 30% of upland cattle and sheep farms’ income. Leaving their fate to a Westminster Government set on securing questionable trade deals that boost UK GDP by 0.01% to 0.03% while at the same time sacrificing our farmers is clearly unacceptable. Equally, without this new clause, the Bill would pre-emptively tie the hands of the Welsh Government as they look to establish a new, post-EU subsidy regime. I therefore urge hon. Members across the House to support the clause to protect our farmers, as well as amendment 11 on net zero commitments.

I also extend my support to the amendments tabled by the Opposition, including amendments 19, 23 and 26, which would extend the rights of the devolved Governments. Although I believe that they could, and possibly should, be strengthened by recognising the value of the co- production of guidance, they nevertheless address somewhat some of the Bill’s governance issues. As we have seen time and again, the Government play hard and fast, and make the rules up as they go along. That is why such guarantees as are offered by the amendments are so important.

19:30
My point about the value of co-producing subsidy rules speaks to two wider issues: the role of public procurement in supporting levelling up and the Government’s conduct when developing the Bill. First, the Bill wrongly assumes that the UK economy is a level playing field, deserving therefore of a level subsidy regime. The UK is one of the most regionally unequal countries in the west. That is supposedly being addressed by the Government’s levelling-up agenda.
My party, Plaid Cymru, has long advocated greater public procurement to nurture local businesses in underserved and peripheral areas of the UK. This highly local and nuanced policy, which is recognised in the new co-operation agreement between my party and Welsh Labour, but too often ignored by the Treasury, is vital in delivering levelling up. The Bill’s restrictions on local procurement are therefore economically damaging and contrary to the needs of the levelling-up agenda. I urge the Government to reconsider.
My second point—namely, the Government’s conduct when consulting the devolved Governments on the Bill—helps explain why Wales and Scotland have not given consent to the Bill. It is important to reiterate that in this place, because we will hear it again. It does matter if what is being produced here is creating discord with the devolved Governments.
In July, the Welsh Government stated that the Bill undermines
“the long-established powers of the Senedd and Welsh Ministers”
in devolved areas, including
“economic development, agriculture and fisheries.”
They concluded that the Bill was too “high-level”, lacked “sufficient granularity” and, worse, meant that the powers being given the Secretary of State had
“little scrutiny from the UK Parliament and no scrutiny available to Welsh Ministers or the Senedd”—
our Parliament in Wales. The Labour Minister for Finance in Wales put it more bluntly:
“Despite suggestions from the UK Government that detailed engagement has been undertaken, the Bill only reflects the narrow interests of the UK Government.”
In sum, the Bill asks the devolved Governments to sign a blank cheque, with no explicit provision for further scrutiny or input.
This is yet another power grab that undermines not only devolution but the levelling-up project the Government are allegedly so keen to promote. It simply is not good enough, and it speaks to an unconstructive disdain for the rights and responsibilities of the devolved nations from the Government. The Bill is an assault on devolution, wilfully ignorant of the needs of the national economies of the UK or the role of public bodies in advancing them, and has been prepared by an out-of-touch Government that is overly centralised. It is a mistake that we are set to make again in the Professional Qualifications Bill. As such, my party will not support the Bill before us and I urge Members across the House to oppose it in favour of a more co-operative and informed subsidy regime.
Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to contribute to this very thoughtful debate. I do not share the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) for Brexit as a whole; nevertheless, I support his comment that if this is to be one of the benefits of leaving the European Union, it is important that we get it right, especially since all the other benefits seem disappointingly slow to materialise.

I support many of the hon. Gentleman’s comments about transparency: it is important that the information is made available. He is right that it will improve the efficiency of subsidies if we can see who is getting them and understand where they are being applied. I valued the intervention from the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) about what has happened in the United States, and that is an important point to consider. It is important to think about the effectiveness and efficiency of subsidies, and the use of taxpayers’ money.

This will be a new subsidy regime for the UK. The more information that is available to the widest number of people, the more we will be able to see as a country—not just the Government—what is and is not an effective subsidy. We will be able to see what has worked, what has played a role in driving investment to underdeveloped regions and what has helped to build new sectors of the economy. It is so important that that information is available. More particularly, I support the moves of the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare to move the threshold to £500, because, where subsidies can distort markets, it will have a disproportionate impact on smaller businesses. That is why moving the threshold in the way that he proposes is so important.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I back the hon. Lady up by saying that it is about not just smaller businesses, but local economic effects? Something that may, on a large scale, be distortive for the entire national economy may be distortive at a much smaller level for a particular city region or a particular town. I hope that she agrees with that point as well.

Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I absolutely do, which is why it is so important to get this level of oversight at the much smaller threshold that the hon. Gentleman is proposing. Potentially, within the gap between the £500 that he is proposing and the £500,000 that the Government are proposing, there will be a great deal of market-distorting subsidy, and it will be up to competitors who have been disadvantaged to challenge or to bring their own court cases against those subsidies. If they do not have knowledge about how they are personally being disadvantaged, what can they possibly do about it? That is why that point is so important.

My new clause 2 is about climate change. I welcome the comments made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) about the importance of this matter in her excellent opening speech. There are the seven principles against which the subsidies will be assessed, and also the nine energy and environmental principles. What I am disappointed about is that they do not add up to a broader commitment to using public money to fight climate change. I can only amplify what the hon. Lady said about it being our key public challenge at this time, covid notwithstanding.

The Liberal Democrats would have welcomed the opportunity to put the transition to net zero at the heart of the UK’s subsidy regime, and for the Government to have used every tool at their disposal to make the transition as swiftly and painlessly as possible, and we can see how public subsidies can help to achieve that.

New clause 2 provides for an annual report to Parliament detailing the climate change impacts of subsidies granted that year. This would have been an important mechanism for reviewing the extent to which subsidies are being used to stimulate or to de-risk investment in the green economy. We look to the private sector to drive much of the innovation that we need to see and to create the consumer markets for our net zero future, but the Government must do all they can to encourage the private sector to prioritise reducing emissions alongside creating economic value.

Public subsidies are an important part of the levers available, and taxpayers need to see that they are being used effectively. Let us take, for example, the nine environmental and energy principles. In the past few months, we have seen a tremendous concern about our energy sector, and it is easy to imagine a scenario where subsidies are being granted to improve energy resilience and energy supply. Such goals might make sense in the short term as they are in line with the principles, but when we are making short-term decisions about subsidy use, it is really important that we step back and look at the longer-term impact of some of those decisions. We need to take the opportunity every year to make sure that, regardless of the short-term decisions that sometimes need to be made, we are nevertheless continuing along the path towards net zero—the challenge that the Government have set for themselves. To have that separate net zero/climate change consideration of the total use of all of our subsidies would be an important check for the Government to make sure that they are progressing towards net zero in the way that they should

In short, this Bill would have been much improved by enabling greater scrutiny of the subsidies granted. I regret that the Government are not doing more to enable that.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to follow some powerful speeches on Report tonight. I share the frustration of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) that we could well have moved forward with some of the issues we debated in Committee with some amendments brought forward by the Government. Some of the robust debate we had in Committee led to looking at how we could address those issues more quickly. I acknowledge the contributions from the hon. Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). I will be talking about their amendments later in my speech, but we have discussed at length transparency and the ways in which we need to reform this regime in order for it to be the most effective it can be. I wish to make a brief remark about new clause 1 before carrying on further. I hear the concerns raised by the hon. Members for Aberdeen North and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), because they are important, particularly in relation to legacy subsidies in agriculture, as well as future subsidies. The Minister will need to make sure that he can respond clearly to the concerns that have been raised, and we will certainly be listening closely on that.

It is a pleasure to speak to our amendments—new clause 3, on post-award referrals, and amendments 15 to 27. I will also speak in support of similar and, in some cases, identical amendments to those tabled by Labour in Committee, which I was pleased to see have been influential in colleagues’ consideration of the Bill. I refer in particular to amendments 1 to 8, which were tabled by the hon. Members for Weston-super-Mare and for Thirsk and Malton, and amendments 10 and 12, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North. There are only slight differences from our position in Committee, and I am sure that today’s debate will also help consideration of the Bill in the other place. Amendments 13 and 14 are similar to amendments 2 and 7, and are consistent with our significant concerns on transparency and accountability, which we raised in Committee. New clause 2, tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), is also consistent with the position on net zero leadership that we set out on Second Reading and in Committee. We are not actively supporting two amendments—we are more neutral on them: amendment 11, which has similar intentions and principles but is slightly weaker than our amendment 16 and which runs the risk of being unclear for local authorities to implement; and amendment 9, where we understand the intention to broaden what the Competition and Markets Authority reports on. However, arguably it would not have the information on all subsidies, as most would not be notified to it, so this provision could be impractical and create a significant burden. However, in Committee we also provided suggestions on how the CMA’s annual report could be strengthened and what areas it could report on. We had a considerable debate on that, including in respect of the CMA reporting on where it had identified non-compliance with the principles and examining the geographical spread of subsidies that had been notified to it.

Labour recognises the need for this legislation, which establishes the framework for the UK’s post-Brexit subsidy control regime. It indeed allows for quicker subsidies to be granted to businesses, which we support. We recognise that a system of subsidy control is important to ensure that public funds are made available to businesses, but with appropriate safeguards in place. Where we departed from the Scottish National party in Committee is that we also believe that the Bill is necessary to protect the UK’s internal market. We are speaking to our amendments today on two main strategic areas: the purpose of subsidies; and the way in which the new regime will operate. I will deal first with the purpose and the use of subsidies. Subsidies and their controls should be an integral part of a strong, long-term industrial strategy, promoting growth and supporting industry, jobs and prosperity across the country. We want to see our foundation industries such as steel supported, and we want to see a plan for how we can buy, make and sell more in Britain.

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
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It was an honour and pleasure to serve with my hon. Friend on the Bill Committee. Does she agree that the strategic purpose of a Bill such as this must be about supporting areas of greater economic deprivation and that therefore there is a glaring hole at the middle of this Bill, which is that it does not have that clear, proactive strategic purpose?

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for his contributions in Committee and for that very important point, which I will come on to. We know that the assisted areas map is not part of the UK’s regime, but there has to be a way to deal with the principle of that, which is how to ensure resources are targeted to the areas where they are most needed.

19:45
As I was saying, subsidies and their controls must form part of a long-term industrial strategy. Our approach for such a long-term industrial strategy has been to call for long-term investment, clarity for our transition to a green economy and a serious levelling-up agenda. These pledges are integral to our £28 billion a year climate investment pledge.
We recognise that this is framework legislation, but it is missing clear direction or a plan on how subsidies should be used. What are the goals of the UK Government? We know there is a glaring hole in Government strategy: their industrial strategy, which seems to have been watered down and is hard to even find on their own website.
There are two areas on which we believe the Bill should be more vocal: it should more clearly require public authorities to consider the impact of subsidies and schemes on achieving our net zero commitments; and tackle inequality both between and within nations and regions of the UK. Labour’s amendments 16 and 17 would ensure that subsidies and schemes under the legislation were consistent with the UK’s net zero targets. Amendment 16 would ensure that all public authorities should consider the impact of subsidies on achieving the UK’s net zero commitments. COP26 highlighted starkly how strong committed action across Government is needed if the UK is to reach its net zero targets. Unfortunately, as the Bill stands, the commitment to net zero is not enshrined in the new regime. Quite frankly, that is not good enough. We need firm resolutions and firm policy commitments to achieve net zero and subsidies are no exception.
Labour tabled amendments 15 and 18 to ensure the Bill explicitly states that subsidies and streamlined subsidy schemes can be used for the purpose of reducing regional inequality. Under EU state aid rules, subsidies could be, and indeed were, targeted at areas of economic deprivation, significantly aiding struggling regions. Labour recognises there were some drawbacks to the EU’s assisted area map, but it did, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) said, direct resources to areas of most need. The Government should not waste the opportunity the Bill brings to ensure we can target areas of economic deprivation.
John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady. I am sure everybody here would agree with the principle of trying to level up, particularly in parts of the UK outside London and the south-east, but can she address the point I was making about politicians having a long and really pretty awful record in picking losers? How does she think that, under her proposal, things are going to be different this time?

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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I do not think it is about us picking losers or winners at all. This is about us using the data, understanding where there are areas of greatest need and having that as part of a data-led levelling-up agenda. Given that the Government have created a specific Department for levelling up, Labour is surprised that that mandate is not clear and that the hon. Gentleman does not have the answers he needs to have a framework that gives confidence that we are applying resources to areas of greatest need. To be frank, the Government’s record on that is not very strong. The Bill should be explicit that supporting areas of deprivation should fall squarely within the subsidy control principles.

On improving the way the new regime will operate, there is a serious lack of transparency in the Bill on how public money is spent and how value for money can be assessed.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the hon. Lady not agree that the problem with amendment 16—the net zero amendment —is judging what is consistent with the net zero commitments? I have a Westminster Hall debate tomorrow —at 4 o’clock if anybody has nothing better to do and wants to tune in. On greenwashing, for example, it is incredibly difficult to ascertain what complies with net zero when there is so much noise around this. We need to improve in that area. Is this not really a charter for lawyers to take these subsidies to court time and again? Is not that the problem with her amendment?

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. We have agreed with many of his amendments. What he has just said actually lends even greater weight to wanting to make sure that that is a consideration and that we have the resources to support that. Perhaps he will talk to those on his own Treasury Bench about this, because we would have hoped that by now there would be a clearer road map for how the country is supposed to move forward to achieving our net zero commitments. He will know as well as I do that many small businesses have been crying out for a road map to net zero to know what can make the most difference, how to assess it and how to look at whether they have a decarbonisation strategy that is fit for purpose. So I think he is lending weight to our argument that we need something in the legislation to help drive the processes behind that. People want answers and want to know they are doing the right thing and making the right investments on our road map to net zero.

I was referring to the serious lack of transparency in the Bill around how public money is spent and value for money can be assessed. There is no requirement to report subsidies below £315,000 over three years. An unlimited number—an unlimited number—of subsidies up to £500,000 could be made under a scheme and not one would need to be reported, as long as the scheme itself apparently is reported. That is not good enough. The argument that this is in order to be consistent with the EU fall because the thresholds in the EU state aid regime were in the context of a very different regime; they were in the context of a scheme of pre-notification, where scrutiny took place before the allocation of the subsidy, not a permissive regime that challenges subsidies after they have been granted. In that context, we must think differently about what we seek to import; we are not importing the whole environment around how those decisions were made in the past.

The Minister has previously stated that we are in a position to be able to change those thresholds—it is not a matter of can’t; it is a matter of won’t. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) said very cleverly: if this is so obvious and the Minister agrees with transparency, why are we not doing it?

During covid, we have seen Ministers wasting money on crony personal protective equipment contracts. I could spend my entire speech talking about this, but my main point is that that would have remained hidden from the public and from Parliament without ongoing freedom of information requests. Transparency on public expenditure—who is paying out, how much is being given, who it is going to and what it is being used for— are basic questions that we should know answers to as a matter of routine on subsidies being paid by our Governments, local authorities or other public authorities. Greater transparency, not less, should underpin the system of self-assessment by public authorities that sits at the heart of the Bill and our responsibility to the taxpayer.

The Centre for Public Data has made it clear that greater transparency would help ensure the honesty, consistency and efficiency of the system. It is also essential that interested parties—be they competitors, other public authorities or groups acting in the public interest—are able to challenge subsidies that they believe are distortive or unfair.

On the subsidy database, we support amendments 1 to 8 on transparency and reducing the threshold for the requirement to report on the database. This includes subsidies made under a scheme referred to in amendment 1. As the Bill stands, subsidies made under a scheme with a value of less than £500,000 do not have to be entered on to the database. There is no convincing reason for that, and it is in the public interest that all subsidies under a scheme be published. Worse still, a scheme can be registered with little information so that there will be no overall transparency for a scheme under which millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money could be spent without scrutiny.

Amendment 8 in the names of the hon. Members for Weston-super-Mare and for Thirsk and Malton amends clause 70, which currently provides that, where a subsidy is made under a scheme, the decision to grant an individual subsidy cannot be reviewed. The amendment suggests that the response given by the Minister in Committee was not reassuring enough.

This set of amendments also reduces the timeframes in which subsidies must be entered on to the transparency database and the timeframes in which any modifications must be uploaded. Members will be aware that the Bill currently requires subsidies or schemes to be entered on to the database within six months of being made or within one year in the case of a tax measure. We argued in Committee that there was a need to reduce those timeframes. Having longer makes it more likely to result in an incomplete or inaccurate entry, because officials may leave or records may be lost. We heard evidence from Jonathan Branton, a legal expert in the area, who said,

“I have yet to hear a…persuasive case for why you need that long to publish…an award.”––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 58, Q79.]

Amendments 21 and 22 were intended to bring all services of public economic interest subsidies with a value of more than £500 into the scope of transparency requirements. We do not understand why such subsidies—those up to £14.5 million or all those in the case of hospital care, adult social care and certain public transportation services—should be excluded from transparency requirements. With respect to amendment 6, we firmly support the need for the date of the subsidy to be entered on to the database. There should be no ambiguity about the day that the clock starts to tick for the period in which a challenge can be brought.

If the Minister wants to try to argue that greater transparency would lead to higher costs and more red tape for public authorities, that does not hold up to scrutiny either, because they have that information and they are used to reporting their expenditure above £500. That point was made on Second Reading as well by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare. When giving evidence in Committee, Dr Roger Barker of the Institute of Directors said that

“there should be transparency at every level of subsidy”.––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 37, Q48.]

A transparent system is important, but so is the quality of the data contained in it. That is why we tabled amendment 20, which would require the Secretary of State to ensure that the subsidy database is subject to routine audit to verify the accuracy and completeness of entries. That would incentivise complete and accurate reporting and provide a mechanism for putting errors right.

In Committee, we heard clear evidence that the database in its current form contains significant inaccuracies and gaps in the data entered. Expert witnesses suggested that not all subsidies were being entered, as just 501 subsidies were recorded in the best part of 10 months. Of those entries that had been recorded, more than half had a zero or nil value, so either the database is not fit for purpose or the entry of data by public authorities has not been up to scratch—or both.

If the database is not subject to any oversight or control, and if inaccurate or incomplete information entered on to it is not checked, poor-quality information is likely to lead to misguided legal challenges or to harmful subsidies failing to be addressed. We want to be constructive on this point, which is why the amendment is drafted in a way that permits the Secretary of State to decide who should undertake the audits and how they can be done most effectively.

On devolution, this is not a fair four-nations Bill. As it stands, regulations and guidance can be developed without seeking the consent of the devolved Administrations; only the Secretary of State can call for subsidies to be assessed by the CMA; and there are no requirements for the devolved Administrations to be represented on the CMA’s new subsidy advice unit. That is important because we need a system that commands the confidence of all four nations.

The devolved Administrations should be given a genuine voice in developing and implementing the new regime. The Minister’s response in Committee to our concerns and those of the devolved Administrations was that he had had a number of meetings with the devolved Administrations and would keep talking to them. I would be grateful if he could provide an update on those discussions.



Amendments 23 to 25 would provide Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Ministers with the power to call in subsidies or schemes under clause 55. Currently, only the Secretary of State has the power to issue a call-in direction, triggering a report to the CMA. On that basis, the CMA’s reports are not binding on a public authority. The harm of extending the call-in power to the devolved nations is not clear to us. Why is the Secretary of State empowered to call in Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish subsidies that may damage economic interests in England but the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish leaders cannot call in subsidies that they believe can cause economic harm in their nations?

20:00
Our amendment 19 would require the Secretary of State to
“seek…consent of…Scottish Ministers…Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland”
before making regulations under clause 11. The Minister may recognise our amendment as it reflects precisely the equivalent consent mechanism that exists under the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. As Members will know, this Bill is a piece of framework legislation, with lots of questions left to secondary legislation. Clause 11 is important because it allows regulations to be made defining subsidies “of interest” and “of particular interest”. Those important definitions should not be left to secondary legislation, but if they are going to be set by regulation, we believe that the devolved Administrations should be given a formal role in the process of setting the terms.
Amendment 27 would require the Secretary of State to seek the consent of the devolved Administrations before issuing guidance under clause 79 for similar reasons. Our amendment 26 would provide the chair of the CMA board with the power to appoint three non-executive members to the subsidy advice unit to ensure that the unit’s leadership has relevant experience of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The purpose of our new clause 3, on the role of the CMA, is to allow the CMA to conduct post-award investigations on subsidies and schemes on its own initiative. There is a gaping hole where payments that are in fact subsidies are not reported as such by a public authority, possibly through genuine misinterpretation of the rules or as part of a wilful attempt to get around them. These may be subsidies that are damaging and distort competition but have not been picked up by interested parties or the Secretary of State, so they can go on unchallenged. The CMA should have the backstop power to be able to carry out an investigation and report.
In relation to that, the Minister may also want to respond to amendment 12 on the definition of “interested party” under the Bill. The proposals establish which parties have the standing to make an application to the Competition Appeal Tribunal to challenge a subsidy. There was considerable uncertainty on that point, which leaves this open to further debate. Does the definition provide standing only to parties whose commercial interests have been affected? We tabled an amendment to include explicitly the devolved Administrations in the definition of an “interested party”. Rather than leaving that to the courts, Parliament’s will should be made clear.
We in the Labour party have taken a constructive approach to scrutinising the Bill. Subsidies are a critical tool to supporting our vital interests, but we need a clearer plan for the use of subsidies and much stronger transparency and accountability on spending public money. If public authorities, our four nations’ businesses and the public are to have confidence in the new system of subsidy control and in the new regime to deliver the outcomes for our economy and society, the Bill requires significant improvement. I hope that the Minister will respond favourably on the points that we have raised today.
Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank hon. Members across the House for the informed debate on the Bill and will try my best to respond to their comments in the few moments that I have.

A number of amendments have been tabled on the topic of transparency, which I take really seriously. My Department is working on a programme of improvements for the subsidy database. To name just two examples, we are resolving the technical glitch that meant that subsidies were uploaded with a zero value. Additionally, we are developing an update to add the data for upload to the information published on the database. Officials will actively look at further improvements over the coming months and in advance of the new regime coming in.

The Government intend to review again the evidence collected as part of the consultation alongside that provided by witnesses to the Committee about the transparency provisions. We will reflect carefully on the points raised so far and engage further on our findings with parliamentarians in both Houses as the Bill progresses. I know the strength of feeling in the House on this matter, and we will consider carefully what further action we could take to address those concerns if they come back in the Lords.

I start with the amendments that would reduce the threshold at which subsidies are uploaded. The transparency provisions seek to minimise the administrative burdens and costs to public authorities while ensuring that information is available on subsidies that must meet the substantive subsidy control requirements. That is an important tool to aid interested parties to challenge potentially harmful subsidies. However, the amendments would create an additional administrative burden for public authorities, including small local authorities. Paradoxically, they could make it harder to identify in the database the most potentially harmful subsidies that are eligible to be challenged in the Competition Appeal Tribunal. Many small subsidies will also be publicly available via other transparency tools. Such data may not be perfectly formatted, but it does go far wider than subsidies.

In relation to services of public economic interest, there was broad support from consultation respondents for the application of different transparency measures. The contracts must meet the specific requirements set out in clause 29. That is why the database requirements are different for those subsidies.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I just caution my hon. Friend? I think the paraphrase of his argument about the size of the subsidy database is that big databases are less transparent than small ones. That is clearly bonkers and not right, and I do not think it stands up to any scrutiny. He may be arguing that that is okay because other databases will have the information and that it can all be compared and contrasted, but that works only if the data is in a common format that allows for mutual searching, and there is no such plan for that. May I gently caution him about pushing that argument too far? I do not think it will stand much strain in the Lords.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

All I would say is that it is easy to hide something in plain sight, but the subsidy transparency database is being developed under the Cabinet Office’s standard system for all Government databases. I have talked before about interoperability, and we would expect to be able to link those databases and to scrape them in the future.

Dan Poulter Portrait Dr Poulter
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I echo the transparency concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). I welcome the Minister’s commitment to allowing the other place to look at this area, but, to reassure some of us, will he please outline the transparency tools that already exist?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not sure in terms of transparency tools. What I am saying is that we will ensure that the database is eventually interoperable with other databases. We clearly want the subsidy database to have enough easily accessible, searchable fields to allow people to make meaningful use of the data.

I turn to the amendments that seek to reduce the time period to upload subsidies to the database for both tax and non-tax subsidies to one month. The risk of a deadline as short as a month is that public authorities are more likely to make mistakes. Although it is possible to correct data, that creates an additional administrative burden for public authorities. Inaccurate or otherwise poor data would also undermine public confidence in the database.

A short deadline is particularly challenging for tax subsidies, which are often calculated from the information provided in a tax declaration, which the beneficiary is entitled to change within the 12 months following its due date. That is true, for example, of the Government’s research and development subsidy scheme for small and medium-sized enterprises, where quarterly uploads to the database are planned for the hundreds of subsidies above £500,000 that are awarded every year. Significantly more resource would be required to upload to the database more frequently and to make corrections to previous uploads as required. I note the proposal to require an initial upload of a tax subsidy as an estimate. However, I believe that more changes and revisions to the database would cause confusion.

On auditing the database, I share hon. Members’ desire to make the database as accurate as possible, and my Department is already taking steps to improve data quality. However, a new obligation to subject the database to a routine audit is unnecessary because the system already incentivises accurate entries. Public authorities may not have fulfilled their obligation to make an entry on the database if that entry is not accurate, so the limitation period for a challenge would not start until a correct entry was made. Public authorities must therefore take responsibility for their own data. Ultimately, it would not be a good use of taxpayers’ money to have central Government officials independently verifying every piece of information provided by public authorities. As for the requirement to include the subsidy upload date in the list of requirements for the database that may be included in regulations, I entirely agree that that is useful data. As I have said, we are currently developing an update so that that is part of the publicly available information on the database.

Let me now deal with amendments that raise important points about the nature of the subsidy control regime, and especially about the role of the subsidy advice unit. The SAU’s job is to be an impartial adviser in respect of the most potentially harmful subsidies and schemes. The regime places clear duties on public authorities that are awarding subsidies. It will be for those authorities to assess whether they are compliant with the regime. That is not the SAU’s job. It will only review public authorities’ assessments in a relatively small number of cases that have the potential to be the most distortive. New clause 3 would require the SAU to monitor and investigate subsidy activity, and amendment 9 would require it to list all subsidies annually, whatever their size, along with an assessment of their compliance. Both would involve a fundamental shift in the unit’s role, to an intrusive, investigatory one.

I fully expect that there will be high levels of compliance with the regime, and that public authorities will take their statutory duties seriously. Of course, failure to fulfil these duties would expose public authorities to legal challenge, and would create unnecessary uncertainty for beneficiaries. Members will appreciate the resource burden that monitoring and assessing all subsidies would involve, and will recognise that not only is it entirely disproportionate to the risks that the amendments seek to address, but it would distract from the SAU’s proper focus.

Amendment 26 would allow the CMA chair to make appointments to the subsidy advice unit to bring greater experience in relation to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The CMA’s staffing is an internal matter, but I note that job vacancies for the new unit are currently being advertised in all four capitals of the UK.

Amendment 8 proposes that subsidies granted under schemes should be open to challenge in the Competition Appeal Tribunal. Schemes represent an important efficiency for public authorities. They allow similar or identical subsidies to be given on the basis of a single, comprehensive assessment against the principles. A scheme should not be made unless the public authority believes that the subsidies given under it will be consistent with the principles. It would therefore be unnecessary for subsidies granted under schemes to be eligible for review by the tribunal. However, if there were a question as to whether a subsidy given under a scheme really met the terms of the scheme, that subsidy could be challenged in the tribunal on the basis that it should be treated as a stand-alone subsidy.

Let me deal next with the amendments relating to the role of the devolved administrations. The UK Government have engaged regularly with the DAs on the design of a UK-wide subsidy control regime, and we will continue to listen carefully to their views. None the less, it is important to reiterate that subsidy control is a matter reserved to this Parliament. That is because we need a UK-wide regime to prevent distortions harmful to competition, and to facilitate compliance with our international obligations. I fundamentally believe that the amendments are inappropriate for a reserved policy matter. The Secretary of State will act in the interests of all parts of the UK.

Amendment 12 concerns who can challenge a subsidy decision. I can clarify that: the devolved administrations, or local authorities, would generally be able to apply for the review of a subsidy when people in the areas for which they are responsible might be adversely affected by it, but there is no reason for the DAs to be able to challenge subsidies that have only a tenuous connection with the interests of people in those areas.

Amendment 10 would allow the devolved administrations to create streamlined subsidy schemes. All public authorities in the UK will be able to use such schemes, but they will function best when they apply throughout the UK. In any case, all public authorities will be free to create subsidy schemes for their own purposes, and primary public authorities, such as the DAs, will be able to create schemes for the use of local authorities and other public bodies within their remit. As for amendment 27, the Bill already requires the Secretary of State to consult such persons as they consider appropriate before issuing any guidance. Attaching a formal consent mechanism to this clause risks delaying the issuing and updating of guidance.

New clause 1 would exempt agricultural subsidies and schemes within the scope of the World Trade Organisation agreement on agriculture from the requirements of the new domestic regime. Having agriculture covered by the same single, coherent framework as other sectors will protect competition and investment within agriculture, while securing consistency for public authorities and subsidy recipients. The Bill’s design ensures that public authorities are empowered to give subsidies that best fit their local needs, whether that means supporting innovation in pharmaceuticals or innovation in farming. I therefore do not agree that agriculture should be exempt from the regime.

Let me now turn to the amendments dealing with net zero.

New clause 2 would require the Secretary of State to report annually on the impact of all subsidies granted in the previous year on the environment and climate change. This would represent a significant administrative burden, not least on smaller public authorities, and would discourage them from granting subsidies in the first place. There are also long-standing existing obligations on public authorities to collect this information in specific circumstances, and therefore this amendment is unnecessary.

Amendment 11 would add another principle to schedule 1 centred on net zero, but net zero is not inherent to all subsidies. A great number of subsidies will not have a meaningful impact on the UK’s emissions. A requirement for public authorities to assess all subsidies against net zero is therefore disproportionate.

Amendment 16 would add an explicit net zero test to the balancing test principle in schedule 1. The terms of the balancing test are not limited to negative effects on trade or investment within the UK, or to international trade and investment, so this amendment is also unnecessary.

Finally, on levelling up, amendment 18 would establish that streamlined subsidy schemes can be made for the purpose of supporting areas of deprivation. The Bill allows the Government to create streamlined subsidies for any purpose, not least for levelling up, so this amendment is unnecessary, but I certainly commit to ensuring that streamlined subsidy schemes collectively support public authorities in delivering levelling-up objectives.

The first subsidy control principle specifies that subsidies should pursue a policy objective that either remedies a market failure or addresses an equity rationale. Clearly, relative economic deprivation would fall into that category, so these amendments are unnecessary.

I am grateful for the constructive engagement of hon. Members on both sides of the House, but I cannot accept the amendments tabled for this debate. Consequently, I ask hon. Members not to press them.

Finally, I thank the team that prepared the Bill: Jamie Lucas, Jess Blakely, Carmen Suarez, Jane Woolley, George Kokkinos, Hannah Swindell, Sam Naylor, Joe Smith, Matilda Curtis, Dharmesh Jadavji, Steve Huntington, Kerry Mattingly, Anthony McDonough, Tim Beaver, Christian Garrard and Josephine Sherwood.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

20:16

Division 146

Ayes: 31


Scottish National Party: 13
Liberal Democrat: 9
Plaid Cymru: 3
Democratic Unionist Party: 2
Independent: 2
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 1
Alba Party: 1

Noes: 292


Conservative: 291

Clause 11
Subsidies and schemes of interest or particular interest
Amendment proposed: 19, page 7, line 9, at end insert—
“(4) Before making regulations under this section, the Secretary of State must seek the consent of the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland.
(5) If consent to the making of the regulations is not given by any of those authorities within the period of one month beginning with the day on which it is sought from that authority, the Secretary of State may make the regulations without consent.
(6) If regulations are made in reliance on subsection (5), the Secretary of State must make a statement to the House of Commons explaining why the Secretary of State decided to make the regulations without the consent of the authority or authorities concerned.”—(Seema Malhotra.)
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to seek the consent of the Devolved Administrations before making regulations under this section. Where such consent is not given within one month, the Secretary of State may make the regulations without that consent, but must make a statement to the House of Commons explaining their decision.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
20:30

Division 147

Ayes: 180


Labour: 146
Scottish National Party: 15
Liberal Democrat: 9
Plaid Cymru: 3
Democratic Unionist Party: 2
Independent: 2
Alba Party: 1

Noes: 292


Conservative: 291

Schedule 1
The subsidy control principles
Amendment proposed: 16, page 52, line 6, at end insert—
“(c) consistency with the United Kingdom achieving its net-zero commitments established under the Climate Change Act 2008.”—(Seema Malhotra.)
This amendment adds consistency with the UK’s net-zero commitments as a particular consideration for public authorities before deciding whether to give a subsidy.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
20:42

Division 148

Ayes: 178


Labour: 144
Scottish National Party: 15
Liberal Democrat: 8
Plaid Cymru: 3
Democratic Unionist Party: 2
Independent: 2
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 1
Alba Party: 1

Noes: 292


Conservative: 292

Third Reading
Queen’s consent signified.
20:53
Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Kwasi Kwarteng)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for his leadership and diligence in steering the Bill through this House. I recognise the contribution of all the officials in my Department whose outstanding work has advanced us to this point. I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and your colleagues for all the work you have done. I extend my thanks to all the House staff who have made sure that everything has gone as one might expect.

This Bill is a hugely important piece of legislation. It establishes a subsidy control system that has been designed by and for the UK. It demonstrates the Government’s clear commitment to seize the opportunities arising from Brexit. For the first time, the decision on whether to grant a subsidy will fall to the granting authority itself. At the heart of the regime is a set of clear and proportionate principles that will be underpinned by guidance.

Local authorities, public bodies and the devolved Administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast will be empowered to decide if they can issue taxpayer-funded subsidies by acting consistently with the principles outlined in the legislation. That includes a principle specifically designed to minimise distortions to UK competition and investment. The new regime will help to unlock potential so that all areas of the UK feel the benefits of targeted subsidies. That includes investment in skills, infrastructure, new technologies, and research and development.

With agreement, in Committee, the Government made some technical changes to the provisions to provide clarity in certain areas. Those included ensuring that the transparency requirements apply to subsidies under legacy schemes subject to certain exemptions and that the content of the CMA’s post-award report is consistent with that of its pre-award report.

There has been a thorough debate, including today, about specific elements of the regime. I welcome the recognition on both sides of the House of the need for the Bill. The new subsidy control regime will ensure that the UK maintains a competitive free market economy, which is fundamental to our national prosperity, while protecting the interests of the British taxpayer. The debate will continue through the remaining stages of the Bill as it passes to the other place and we will of course be mindful and attentive to that continuing debate. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.

20:56
Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a privilege to come to the Dispatch Box for the first time as the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This is an important Bill. On the face of it, it is a technical matter, as our exit from the European Union and single market means that a replacement for the former state aid rules is a legal and practical necessity. However, the debate we have had about how the new regime will be used shows that it is much more important than that.

I thank all hon. Members who have worked on the Bill, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for their work in Committee. I repeat the Secretary of State’s thanks to all the Clerks and ministerial officials for getting it ready.

The current Government’s economic record sadly combines the worst of everything. Our long-term growth forecasts are low, our taxes are high, our productivity is appalling, inflation is growing and our trade is shrinking. In short, the Conservative Government have created a high-tax, low-growth economy, so the country needs a plan for growth if we are to generate the living standards and public services that the British people rightly expect. Therefore, how the powers and responsibilities that are contained in the Bill will be used is of major interest to us all.

I want to see some ambition from the Government—not just big talk, but real delivery. Throughout the Bill’s passage, we have tried to tease out the outlines of their strategy, or some indication of their plans, but we are none the wiser, mainly because they do not seem to know what they want to do. For any industrial policy to be successful, its focus must be the long term and its fundamental objectives should be cross party to give industry and firms the reassurance that they need to invest for the future.

This Government cannot even agree with what former Conservative Governments proposed and adopted as policy just a few years ago. I have still heard no clear reason from them as to why the previous industrial strategy and bodies such as the Industrial Strategy Council have been abolished. It smacks of the fundamental short-termism and lack of seriousness that infects the whole Government. That matters because for the powers contained in the Bill to work, they have to be a part of a coherent strategy. I do not believe that we have that.

I do not believe in corporate welfare; it is not the Government’s job to bail out firms that are not viable or to distort fair competition in markets. But I do believe that there is a huge role for the Government in partnering with industry to meet our national objectives, particularly on net zero. A good example of where that support is needed is our energy-intensive sector, which has a significant carbon footprint domestically but which compares favourably to the same industries in other countries when international comparisons are made. I want to see from the Government a coherent and effective strategy to use the powers in this Bill to support these industries because, without that, all we will do is offshore our emissions by making these sectors uncompetitive. At present, we have a Government who are willing to intervene, but whose approach is best described as completely scattergun. I know some Conservative Members are converts to economic intervention, but they have skipped the part where that intervention needs to be driven by purpose, rather than short-term political expediency. Michael Heseltine put it best when he said that the Government appear to have “no coherent approach” and the Prime Minister is just

“lurching from crisis to crisis.”

That is harsh criticism, but it is fair.

In many ways we will not be able to judge the success or not of this legislation until we have learnt more about how the Government intend to use it. Quite simply, the Government must do better. If they had taken our amendments, and those of other colleagues here today, on board, that would have substantially improved what we are being presented with on Third Reading. It would have given us greater transparency to show where public money is going and a commitment that any subsidies help the UK achieve the net zero targets, and ensured that the nations and regions have the powers they need to make the new regime a success. It is a real regret that those amendments are not part of the Bill, but I hope members in the other place will take these arguments up.

To return to my opening remarks, although the Bill is not the one we would have proposed, it is clearly a necessity. We will therefore not be opposing it on Third Reading. However, in the months and years ahead, it will only have meaning for the British people if it is combined with the kind dynamic and coherent policy agenda that so far has eluded this Government at every level.

21:01
Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to start with a few thanks. I thank staff member Dr Jonathan Kiehlmann and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) for their assistance on the Bill. I also thank—this shows the seriousness with which Scotland treats this—Cabinet Secretaries Kate Forbes, Ivan McKee and Mairi Gougeon, who have all taken an interest in the Bill and in trying to improve it. We recognise that it is an incredibly important regime and we have significant concerns about it. I wish briefly to comment on amendment 19, which we voted for. We did so not because it was perfect but because it would have made the Bill marginally better than it is currently. So the amendment is not something we would necessarily back wholeheartedly, but it is better than the current Bill as drafted. I thought it would be best to make that clear.

The three major concerns we continue to have about the Bill relate to the inclusion of agriculture. Agriculture is not included in subsidy control regimes elsewhere and I do not believe we have heard enough justification from the Minister or the Secretary of State to understand why they have chosen to include agriculture in this scheme. We believe that the scheme is not transparent enough. Indeed, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) tabled a number of amendments to that effect, as did a number of other colleagues across the House. There are significant concerns about the transparency of the subsidy control database in particular, but that also applies to the subsidy regime more widely. I hope that the Government will take these things into account and will consider them as the Bill moves on to further consideration in the other place.

The last issue we have is about climate change, which should form part of the key principles. I know that the principles can be updated, including by future Governments, but, for the Bill to stand the test of time, reaching our net zero targets should have been put at its front and centre. I appreciate the Opposition tabling an amendment to that effect. The Liberal Democrats did the same, as did we. This is so important and we feel that the Minister and the Secretary of State are abdicating some responsibility on that.

Lastly, I wish to thank the Minister for his clarification in relation to interested parties. I very much appreciate him saying what he said at the Dispatch Box on the role of devolved Administrations when it comes to interested parties. That will make a difference to the operation of the Bill and I appreciate that he did that.

21:04
Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very pleased that there have been as many contributions as there have been. I look forward to taking the Bill forward, as does my hon. Friend the Minister.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Subsidy Control Bill

First Reading
15:19
The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Committee (1st Day)
15:45
Relevant documents: 17th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 1: Overview and application of Act
Amendment 1
Moved by
1: Clause 1, page 2, line 4, after “Parliament” insert “or in legislation enacted by Senedd Cymru or the Scottish Parliament”
Lord Wigley Portrait Lord Wigley (PC)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to open Committee on this important Bill by moving Amendment 1, which stands in my name, and for which I am grateful for the support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys. I apologise that I was unable to participate at Second Reading: at that point I was self-isolating after testing positive for Covid. I wrote to the Minister to explain my absence. I was able to follow the whole Second Reading debate on the parliamentary live feed and from that I am aware that the dimension I raise in this amendment was touched upon by several speakers—and of course, I am conscious of the sentiment expressed in Senedd Cymru on the matter.

The point of the amendment is to ensure that Senedd Cymru and the Scottish Parliament are fully involved in the procedures triggered by Clause 1, and thereby the application of the Act for which Clause 1, of course, provides. This goes to the heart of the issues addressed by the Bill. That relates to the essential and totally valid role of Senedd Cymru and the Scottish Parliament in matters relating to subsidy control. I make it clear that I accept that there needs to be a framework in any common market or customs union in which subsidies can be permitted or prohibited. Therefore, there has to be a clear and transparent mechanism for defining the context within which subsidies can be paid, and therefore also the mechanisms of subsidy control that are necessary.

Let us be clear: subsidies have been a tool of government for both Conservative and Labour Governments down the years. One has to think only of the agricultural subsidies applied in UK long before our accession to the Common Market to see that such interventions have been regarded as legitimate. Before the UK entered the European Union, both the Wilson and Heath Governments operated substantial capital and revenue interventions, such as the selective employment tax and the regional employment premium. At one time, such schemes on a revenue basis and capital investment schemes could provide as much as 45% support for manufacturing industry investment. Indeed, when I was head of finance at Hoover, we negotiated an investment package in which £11 million out of a £16 million expansion scheme—substantial money in the early 1970s—came from public funds.

However, in acknowledging the validity of such interventions, as I believe the Minister does, it would be quite unacceptable for the power to decide whether subsidy controls are necessary to rest in one legislature alone. It must be on the basis of parity of esteem for all relevant legislatures—and Senedd Cymru and the Scottish Parliament are most certainly relevant legislatures. It would be totally unacceptable if one Parliament could legislate to protect its own interests while other Parliaments, with responsibility for economic development within their nations, were denied that power. If such powers are to be at the disposal of one partner within the union, they must be equally available to other nations.

It could be that the intention of the Government in proposing the wording of Clause 1(7) is to use the term “an Act of Parliament” in a generic manner, but the definition in Clause 89, the interpretation clause, rules that out, as indeed does the normal usage of that term at Westminster. It may well be that the Government do indeed regard Westminster as the senior partner in these matters and are deliberately choosing to legislate in a preferential manner that enables Westminster, by the use of Acts of Parliament, to seize control of this entire agenda. If that is so, it can be little surprise that the devolved Governments are extremely unhappy about the implications.

This matter, in various guises, is likely to arise again at various junctures in our deliberations. Indeed, other amendments on the Marshalled List raise these considerations. I shall listen to other speakers when they address those other amendments in due course, and there may well be better ways of dealing with this fundamental dimension than the wording that I propose in Amendment 2. However, let the Committee be in no doubt that an equal, even-handed approach must be built into the Bill for it to be acceptable in both Wales and Scotland. On that basis, I beg to move Amendment 1.

Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and I agree with what he has just said in support of it. As he mentioned, it will be apparent from the many amendments on the Marshalled List that mention the devolved Administrations that there are real concerns that the provisions of the Bill as they stand will have an adverse effect on the relationship between those Administrations and the UK Government.

I recognise that subsidy control was made a reserved matter by Part 7 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, but that does not mean that the UK Government should shut their eyes and ears to the views of competent authorities throughout the UK, and of the devolved Administrations themselves, as to the way that subsidies are distributed and controlled. After all, while we were in the EU the Commission had a very robust evidence-based consultation procedure which ensured that other voices were heard, and that should continue to be the position.

“Respect” and “co-operation” were the key words in the recent report by the Constitution Committee, of which I am a member, about building a stronger union in the 21st century, but I am afraid that those virtues were absent when the internal market Bill was being designed and debated in this House and the other place. As a result, relations with the devolved Administrations became very strained. We do not want to go back to that, but the way in which the Bill has been drafted appears to pay very little attention to the concerns and needs of the devolved Administrations.

I am sure that the Minister will remember, very well, the conversations we had with regard to the amendments I tabled to the internal market Bill to enable exemptions from market access principles to be given to agreed common frameworks. They did not seem to get us very far, until, at the very last moment, there was a change of mind in the Government and an appropriate amendment was put through. Of course, I understand that the Minister’s hands were tied, but I hope there may be a little more flexibility this time.

I respectfully ask the Minister to say something about the legislative consent procedure in relation to the Bill. The Constitution Committee said:

“For the Sewel convention to operate well, constructive relationships and good faith is required between the UK Government and the devolved administrations.”


I hope that that is how things are being handled this time and that the Minister will keep the Committee updated as discussions continue, with a view to settling the devolved Administrations’ concerns, which I believe are still there; as I understand it, a consent Motion has not been achieved in either case.

Baroness Humphreys Portrait Baroness Humphreys (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and support Amendments 13, 16 and 17 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNicol of West Kilbride, to which I have also added my name. Clause 1 provides an overview to the contents of the Bill. Amendment 1, in a few words, points out exactly what is wrong with the clause and the Bill itself, which is that, by their very omission from the Bill, there is no role to be played by the devolved Ministers or the devolved Administrations in the subsidy control scheme, even in areas where they have devolved competence.

All noble Lords agree and accept that the regulation of subsidies is a reserved matter, as do I and my colleagues from the devolved nations, but no consideration is given in the Bill to the sensitive issue of the UK Government acting in the areas of economic development, agriculture and fisheries—areas which, until now, have been overseen by the devolved Administration under powers given to them under the Government of Wales Act 2006. I understand the Minister’s desire to create a UK-wide scheme for the regulation of subsidies, and I know that he sees it as a way to strengthen the union, but I must respectfully disagree with him. Strengthening the union is a political concept and should have no place in underpinning a practical scheme such as this.

I refer the Minister to this document: the supplementary legislative consent memorandum agreed by the Senedd to the Building Safety Bill, which will have its Second Reading in this House tomorrow. I must admit that it gladdened my heart to read it. In that Bill, the Government place a requirement on developers across the UK to belong to a single, independent new homes ombudsman scheme. Paragraph 4 of the Welsh Government LCM reads:

“As housing is a devolved matter, the UK Government has worked with devolved governments to seek agreement for the new arrangements under the NHO to be UK-wide for home owners and developers.”


Amendments were tabled by the UK Government at both Commons Committee and Report stages, one of which provided for consultation with Welsh Ministers before the Secretary of State makes arrangements for an NHO scheme. The list includes amendments made at the request of the Welsh Government that recognise their devolved competence.

So we have another Bill seeking to create a UK-wide scheme, just as the Subsidy Control Bill does, but what a difference in approach between the two government departments. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has been constructive, co-operative and willing to recognise the powers of the devolved Governments. Because the housing department has chosen to collaborate with the devolved Governments, one must ask the Business Minister: does he believe that this has really resulted in a weakening of the union? I would argue that the union is at its strongest when each component part is strong and using its powers, experience and knowledge to contribute positively to the proper functioning of the whole. The acceptance of Amendment 1 would begin to achieve that.

The amendments to Clause 10 to which I have added my name follow a similar theme and would clarify the role of devolved Ministers in making a streamlined subsidy scheme. They clarify that those schemes must be laid before the relevant devolved legislature and, if modified, the modified terms must be laid before the relevant devolved legislature too. I fully support those amendments. If both noble Lords wish to table their amendments again on Report, they will have my full support.

Finally, I am aware that the Under-Secretary of State, Paul Scully, was scheduled to meet the Welsh Finance Minister on Thursday last week. Can the Minister confirm that the meeting took place and when, and tell us what was discussed and the outcome?

16:00
Baroness Bryan of Partick Portrait Baroness Bryan of Partick (Lab)
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My Lords, I too support this group of amendments.

I recognise that some aspects of the Bill should be welcomed. It has the potential to produce a more flexible and responsive system. The ability to streamline could make a crucial difference to local economies. What is concerning about the Bill is that the devolved Administrations are treated as having the same role in their economies as that of local authorities. It fails to recognise that each has a strategic responsibility for their national economy. Despite the Minister’s assurance that

“the Government have worked closely with the devolved Administrations, including sharing the consultation response document ahead of publication and carefully considering their representations”—[Official Report, 19/1/22; col. 1711.]

the devolved Administrations disagree and feel that they have been told rather than consulted.

The Scottish Government argue that the Bill should give Scottish Ministers the same powers as the Secretary of State has over matters such as referring subsidies to the Competition and Markets Authority, making streamlined subsidy schemes, and providing subsidies in response to natural disasters and other emergencies. The Welsh Government are concerned by the powers being given to the Secretary of State to shape the regime in future, with little scrutiny by the UK Parliament and none by Welsh Ministers or the Senedd. Both Governments agree that this legislation undermines powers which are fundamental to their ability to shape their own economies and industrial development.

People in Scotland and Wales view their devolved Governments and Parliaments as being responsible for the economy of their country. When they voted in last May’s elections, they chose to vote for policies that were different from those of the UK Government. My worry is that this Government want to turn back the clock to pre-devolution times.

Having looked closely at the Minister’s response at Second Reading, and the concerns raised about the exclusion of the devolved Administrations from some of the powers given to UK Ministers, I could find no explanation for why this should be the case. I hope the Minister will give a clear reason why these Parliaments and elected Governments should not have similar powers to those that the Bill awards to UK Ministers.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, these amendments, which I fully support, allow the Senedd Cymru and the Scottish Parliament actually to decide issues for themselves. The legislation itself is deeply annoying because this should be standard in every Bill. I do not understand why the Government keep leaving it out.

In the Scottish independence referendum, the people of Scotland were promised devo-max. They received no such thing and then Brexit came along and gave this Government an excuse to steadily unpick devolution and centralise power in the UK Government. This is evidenced by Clause 1(7), which allows the UK Parliament to legislate contrary to the Bill but does not allow the devolved Parliaments any similar power. I simply do not understand that.

I will support these amendments if they come back on Report. I hope by then the Minister will understand that this should be in every single Bill. It should not be fought over every time. We do not want constant battles in Parliament to enact the devo-max that Scotland was promised. So please let us get some movement on this and actually make it fit for purpose.

Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I will speak specifically to Amendment 20, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, to which I have added my name. Before I do, I want to place on record my concern that our debates on the Bill are being held only in Grand Committee. This Bill is of equal significance to the internal market Bill, and it has both economic and constitutional significance way above the status it is apparently being given by being located here.

Amendment 20 closely reflects the concerns of the Welsh Government, and there are of course similar concerns among the Scottish Government. In comparison with the other amendments in this group, Amendment 20 is a modest request for the Secretary of State to seek consent from the devolved Governments. However, if consent is not given the Secretary of State can go ahead anyway. This reflects a formula accepted by the Government in other pieces of legislation, which I assume is why it was written in this way—because it is the least controversial option of those put forward. It implicitly allows for a situation in which a devolved Government might seek simply to frustrate the UK Government’s efforts without full discussion and, therefore, does not reflect that in the vast majority of situations devolved Governments seek to negotiate in good faith with the UK Government. That is what the Welsh Government have certainly done this time, but they are not prepared to issue an LCM.

I signed the amendment despite my reservations that a Secretary of State’s Statement is to go to the House of Commons and that this place is not referred to. Given our attention to detail, I would hope that both Houses would be kept informed.

The amendments in this group all seek to restore an appropriate counterbalance to the sweeping powers the Bill allocates to the Secretary of State. Despite the Government’s chastening experience during debates on the internal market Bill, they seem heedlessly determined to continue their smash and grab on the powers of the devolved Parliaments. I am pleased to hear that at least one department of the UK Government has seen the light on this, but that does not alter the fact that the Bill is unreconstructed in its approach.

The Government talk about strengthening the union but are seizing every opportunity to undermine devolution. Powers over economic development and its funding have been devolved, in effect, since the Welsh Development Agency was established in 1975. Long prior to devolution, it was an example of excellence in pursuing successful economic development opportunities, mostly using funding.

The Minister will undoubtedly protest that nothing here removes powers over economic development or agriculture, for example, but power without funding power is a meaningless shell. This system allows the Secretary of State to halt schemes devised by devolved Governments because they are deemed unfair, but it does not in turn allow the devolved Governments to complain about the Secretary of State’s schemes devised for England.

It is not surprising that this is a sensitive issue in Wales. Under the EU system, two-thirds of Wales benefited from regional funding. In the Brexit debate prior to the referendum, people in Wales were promised specifically that they would not lose a single pound or euro, and voted accordingly. That promise proved very wide of the mark, and people in Wales feel betrayed.

It is worth noting that devolution in Wales is much less controversial than in Scotland. It enjoys very broad support across the political spectrum, and chipping away at the Welsh Government’s power to deliver on economic development or agriculture, for instance, is a dangerous path for the UK Government to take. I hope Ministers will see the light.

Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Portrait Lord McNicol of West Kilbride (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Humphreys and Lady Randerson, for putting their names to a number of my amendments in this group. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, as well. His opening remarks summed up the thrust of group one, which is to ensure that the devolved Administrations are fully involved and engaged, and that there is parity of esteem for all the relevant legislatures. It set up the framework for this group of amendments rather well.

As we have heard, this is the first of several important debates on devolution, one of the major concerns about the Bill. As has been noted, at Second Reading the Minister outlined the number of meetings he had had with devolved officials—45, I think, 13 of them to talk about the regime itself. It is concerning that those meetings have taken place but we still find ourselves in a situation where there are unresolved issues with the Scottish Government and the Senedd.

My take on this is that it will not take a lot to move this on. In fact, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said, Amendment 20 is a very modest amendment, which would give the Secretary of State the power still to press ahead after a month if an agreement has not been reached. These are not tough amendments, especially following some of the debates in the Commons.

On that subject, I thank the department for releasing the guidance, but it is a bit bizarre that the Bill passed through the Commons stages without any of the guidance being published or being able to be read. There are still a lot of square brackets in the guidance and bits that needs to be filled in. As we will touch on later, the concerns that the DPRRC raised will, I hope, lead to some positive changes to the Bill.

A number of noble Lords spoke at Second Reading of their concerns and those of the devolved Administrations, many of which we shared and echoed. Amendments 13, 16 and 17 are intended to make it clear that the devolved authorities can make and modify streamlined subsidy schemes. As we are aware, at present the Bill reserves that power for the Secretary of State, although comments were made in the debates in the other place by the Commons Minister that this could be broadened out. It would be good to hear from the noble Baroness, when she responds on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, whether we have seen any movement or development in broadening it out.

We also saw, throughout the Brexit process, which was touched on by a number of noble Lords, that when we got down to the detail in your Lordships’ House we were able to make changes and amendments. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, talked about some of those regarding the internal market Bill. It would be good if we did not have to take this as far or go through the same pain and difficulties that we did on that Bill, especially when the amendments we are looking to make fit into and sit alongside the same changes made there. With that, I will conclude. I look forward to the noble Baroness’s response.

16:15
Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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I thank the noble Lords, Lord Wigley and Lord McNicol of West Kilbride, for tabling Amendments 1, 13, 16, 17 and 20, and all other noble Lords who participated in this debate. I say at the outset, in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that the use of the Moses Room is not intended to minimise the importance of this Committee stage. We agreed through the usual channels that this would be the best use of time.

Before I discuss each amendment in turn, I start by saying that the proposed UK subsidy control regime empowers public authorities, including the devolved Administrations, to award subsidies flexibly and quickly to meet their policy objectives. As noble Lords have said, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 amended the relevant devolution Acts to make the regulation of subsidies a reserved, or in Northern Ireland an accepted, matter. The devolved Administrations are, and will remain, responsible for spending decisions on devolved subsidies within any subsidy control system.

As the Minister in the other place clarified, the devolved Administrations have standing to challenge UK Government or any other subsidies in the Competition Appeal Tribunal in instances where the interests of people in the areas in which they exercise their responsibility are affected. Some provisions of the Bill engage the legislative consent Motion process, as they alter executive competence; for example, they confer new functions on DA Ministers. We hope that the devolved Administrations will agree with us on the importance of the Bill and be able to give us their legislative consent for the relevant provisions. Those discussions are continuing and I will keep the Committee updated.

We have engaged closely with the devolved Administrations throughout this process at ministerial and official level, not only on the LCM process but on our policy development ahead of the Bill’s introduction, in advance of our publication last week of the illustrative documents, and as we continue through the parliamentary process in the run-up to implementation. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, I confirm that the Minister for Small Business met the Welsh Minister for Finance and Local Government, Rebecca Evans, last Thursday—27 January. The meeting discussed the Bill as part of ongoing engagement to understand concerns on it and to provide reassurance.

I will begin with Amendment 1. Clause 1 provides an overview of what each part of the Bill will cover and establishes its application to other legislation. Clause 1(7) and (8) specify that if a subsidy is granted, or a scheme is created, using powers contained in either primary or secondary legislation, the subsidy control requirements will apply, unless an Act of Parliament specifies otherwise. The specific reference to an Act of Parliament here is solely to clarify that nothing in the Bill should be interpreted as conflicting with the fundamental principle that no Act of Parliament may bind a future Parliament; in other words, it reflects the constitutional reality and does not create any further exemption or special treatment.

Amendment 1, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, extends this clarificatory statement to cover the Senedd and the Scottish Parliament. In doing so, it fundamentally changes the character of this statement from a clarification to an exemption from the subsidy control requirements. The amendment would allow the Senedd and the Scottish Parliament to set aside the subsidy control requirements set out in the Bill, not only for the purpose of subsidies given directly in primary legislation, for which specific provision is made in Schedule 3, but for subsidies given by means of a power in that legislation; in other words, for all devolved spending powers in Scotland and Wales.

The discrepancy highlighted here between the Parliament of the United Kingdom and the legislatures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales is not a matter of government policy but a reflection of constitutional reality. The subsidy control regime differentiates between devolved legislatures and Parliament in a way that respects the devolved legislatures and reflects this Parliament’s status as the supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom. The devolved legislatures have a unique constitutional status and we have ensured that the requirements placed on subsidies given directly in devolved primary legislation are proportionate and respectful of their status and processes. Schedule 3 sets out the specific arrangements that take account of this. None the less, it is important that the subsidy control requirements apply comprehensively and that we do not create exemptions.

As for subsidies given through powers conferred by Parliament or the devolved legislatures in secondary legislation or otherwise, it is essential that these are compliant with the subsidy control rules without exception. As it stands, the clause simply clarifies that express or implied repeal by a future Act of Parliament remains a possibility. It does not suggest that the Government will, on a whim, propose legislation that exempts a particular project or power from the subsidy control requirements.

It is absolutely right that subsidy control is a reserved matter: by its very nature, it affects how all public authorities in the UK, including devolved authorities, may exercise their spending powers. That is because its purpose is to establish common rules for different authorities with different interests and policy objectives to protect UK competition and investment. The Bill will also facilitate our compliance with our international obligations, including those set out in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which reflect exactly this constitutional reality.

I turn to Amendments 13, 16 and 17. Clause 10 concerns the making of subsidy schemes and streamlined subsidy schemes. Public authorities using a streamlined subsidy scheme will not have to access any subsidies they award under the terms of the scheme against the subsidy control principles. Streamlined subsidy schemes will have parameters for use that must be complied with by the public authorities using them, and can be made by a Minister of the Crown. Two illustrative streamlined subsidy schemes were published by the Government last week; I trust that they provide practical examples for noble Lords of the possible terms of these parameters for use.

Together, Amendments 13, 16 and 17 would have the effect that a Scottish Minister, a Welsh Minister or the Northern Ireland department would have the power to make streamlined subsidy schemes and lay them before their relevant devolved legislature. I will therefore take them together. The first amendment would allow streamlined subsidy schemes to be made by Ministers in Scotland or Wales or the Northern Ireland department. The second and third amendments would require such streamlined subsidy schemes to be laid before the relevant devolved legislature when made or amended.

Related amendments on this matter, regarding the role of the devolved Administrations, were made in the other place. The position of the Government remains that we will create streamlined subsidy schemes for public authorities across the UK to use to award subsidies that help UK-wide priorities. Streamlined subsidy schemes will therefore function best when they apply across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. The Government will design these streamlined subsidy schemes such that they are fit to be used by public authorities in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Given that these streamlined subsidy schemes will be part of the UK-wide subsidy control regime, the appropriate place for them to be laid is in this Parliament. We have published two illustrative streamlined subsidy schemes and an accompanying policy statement that sets out for Parliament how the Government intend to use these schemes. We have worked with the devolved Administrations while developing this policy at both official and ministerial level. Officials will continue their close engagement with the devolved Administrations as the regime continues to develop. Finally, it is important to note that Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers or a Northern Ireland department, as primary public authorities, can also make schemes for use by other public authorities where that is within their existing functional powers; for example, the Scottish Government may choose to make a scheme for use by local authorities in Scotland.

On Amendment 20, Clause 11 sets out the terms for making regulations to define subsidies and schemes of interest or schemes of particular interest. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to seek the consent of each of the devolved Administrations before making regulations on subsidies, schemes of interest or schemes of particular interest under the clause. If this consent was not forthcoming, the Secretary of State would be required to make a statement to the other place explaining why they had chosen to proceed with the regulations without DA consent.

This amendment was also raised in the other place; the Government’s position on it remains the same. Regulations made under Clause 11 will define subsidies, schemes of interest and schemes of particular interest to ensure that the work of the subsidy advice unit is focused on subsidies and schemes that are most likely to cause negative effects on competition and investment in the United Kingdom, or which may do the same to our trade with other countries.

These regulations are key to the functioning of a reserved policy area. It is right, therefore, for the regulations to be debated and voted on here in the UK Parliament. I simply do 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 from the devolved Administrations on a reserved matter. A requirement to seek the consent of the devolved Administrations each time regulations are made under Clause 11 also risks introducing significant delays into the process, particularly if regulations need to be amended quickly in the future, such as in the event that economic conditions change rapidly. In such cases, the Government may need to legislate rapidly without consent, so the amendment would not achieve its aim.

The Government have had numerous discussions with Ministers and officials in the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive and we are committed to continuing to engage regularly with them. We have published illustrative regulations on subsidies and schemes of interest and of particular interest, in addition to the accompanying policy statement outlining the Government’s approach to this important question. Ahead of publication, officials have discussed the approach to these regulations with each of the DAs, taking on board their comments and suggestions as the policy has developed. We have also provided early sight of the draft regulations for comment ahead of publication. I assure noble Lords that this engagement will continue as we prepare for implementation of the regime. I also welcome any comments or questions that my noble friend may have regarding the illustrative products. Indeed, I welcome any further comments or questions from the devolved Administrations. I therefore humbly request that the noble Lord withdraws his amendment.

Lord Wigley Portrait Lord Wigley (PC)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her response, which I will come back to in a moment. First, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this short debate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, spoke of respect and co-operation between Westminster and the devolved Administrations. That goes to the heart of what we are talking about. We need a regime, as far as these aspects of business are concerned, that has mutual respect and co-operation between all parties; otherwise, we are bound to find ourselves in a position where one body is trying to outdo the other and perhaps to gain political kudos for doing so. That is not what this should be about.

The noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, whose support I was grateful to receive, spoke about the Bill giving no consideration to the issues that arose in respect of earlier Westminster Bills taking powers from the devolved Administrations. That is the feeling that exists, certainly in Cardiff Bay and the Senedd and, as I understand it, in Edinburgh as well.

I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan of Partick, for her comments. She highlighted the failure of Westminster to adequately consult in good time. That, again, is an element of this lack of respect. By properly consulting in time, there is an opportunity to be able to amend proposals taking such consultation on board. But it is done at the last moment. I understand that one consultation took place last Saturday—not from this department, I think—on something that is happening today. That is no good. There has to be an active engagement between the Governments of our three nations, or four nations if we include Northern Ireland—I have not included Northern Ireland in this because of the complex situation there, but of course the principles apply equally.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, spoke of the need to have proper respect for devolved Administrations. That should run through every Bill. I noted the strong feelings that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, who spoke mainly to Amendment 20, had concerning the consent of the devolved Administrations. The parity of esteem that the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, talked about goes to the heart of this issue.

The other amendments in this group will no doubt be taken at later stages in different guises, because they touch on subjects that arise in different parts of the Bill, but the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, said that the question of the relationship between the Governments in Cardiff, Edinburgh and here at Westminster “reflects the constitutional reality”—those are the words that she used. Those words will create a reaction in Edinburgh and Cardiff that will cause even greater problems.

We need to seek a new partnership approach. If the unity of purpose within these islands is to mean anything, it must be on the basis of respect between all three or four partners and not the idea that because Westminster was the original one and the all-powerful one, it can overrule or ignore what is felt in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast. I believe that it is possible in the general context to get a formula that can reflect that need for recognition and respect, but it is not going to be achieved in the way that the Bill is drafted. The reaction in Cardiff and Edinburgh was totally foreseeable and it could have been avoided—and it needs to be avoided.

16:30
We will get into other details later when we consider the mechanics of subsidies, where they are appropriate and for what purpose, and who should be driving them forward. However, I counsel the Government to be very careful about thinking that they might be able to leapfrog the Administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff to engage with local government. Local government will never say no to any money that is given, but the political reaction to that could be severe. In other words, there needs to be some careful thought as we consider the Bill.
Clearly, I am not going to press Amendment 1 at this stage and I may or may not return to it in this format at a later stage, but, my goodness, the questions that have arisen will come back at later stages. We need to get our act together and think how we can get a partnership that will serve business, industry and commerce—and the people, the population—in all parts of these islands. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2: “Subsidy”
Amendment 2
Moved by
2: Clause 2, page 2, line 21, at end insert—
“(1A) No payment may be regarded as a subsidy if it is equally and freely available to all enterprises whose economic activity, to which the payment relates, is undertaken wholly or largely within the territory of the body making the payment.”
Lord Wigley Portrait Lord Wigley (PC)
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My Lords, I apologise for appearing to hog the Committee at this early stage. I will have a self-denying ordinance as things go forward, I promise. Amendments 2 and 3 are in my name and go to the heart of the use of subsidies as a legitimate tool for securing economic objectives. From the Minister’s remarks at Second Reading, it is clear that the Government accept that in some circumstances the payment of subsidies may be legitimate. Surely that must be right.

Let us take as an example the Covid crisis. If the payment of subsidies was necessary to enable a company to bring forward a vaccine more quickly, say, or to enable an adequate supply of face masks to be available for hospital and home care workers, if that is the only way of securing such socially necessary provision, no one in their right mind would oppose such payments being made. Equally, if subsidies were made to one company to give it an unfair advantage over another, that would clearly not be an acceptable use of public funds, unless it was to enable economic or social benefits to become available in a manner that would not have been possible by paying similar subsidies to other potential providers.

This brings us to the fundamental question of the circumstances in which the payment of subsidies is legitimate and who decides that that is the case. I do not pretend for one moment that we can define in legislation all the circumstances and eventualities in which a credible argument can be made for the use of subsidies, although there clearly needs to be transparency and the circumstances need to be defined in terms that can be appreciated by those who might want to supply goods or services for which subsidy payments may arise. This might be difficult to define in words that are both comprehensible and able to withstand scrutiny in the courts.

To make that process easier, I believe that it would be helpful if some of the principles on which a determination of the efficacy and appropriateness of subsidies could be defined in the Bill. If such a detailed approach is difficult—or, indeed, impossible in some circumstances—at the very least there should be some principles spelled out in legislation for the benefit of the Governments of the four nations of these islands and for the guidance of those involved in the provision of goods and services, who have the right to know the ground rules within which they operate.

Amendment 2 seeks to deal with a set of considerations that may well arise for Governments trying to operate within the framework of the Bill. For colleagues to appreciate the background against which I bring it forward, I draw the Committee’s attention to the way in which successive Governments in Wales have tried to tackle the endemic unemployment levels that have blighted Wales for most of the last century, consistently running at twice the level experienced in England. To tackle this, the Welsh Government have—absolutely rightly, to my mind—tried to ensure that public sector contracts for the provision of goods and services in Wales go, as far as possible, to contractors based in Wales or those that will make it their policy to employ people living in Wales to undertake the work.

Clearly, there has to be value for money and tender prices are a factor that cannot be ignored, but that is only one of several relevant factors. The best deal for the community as a whole is not necessarily ensured by insisting that tender prices are the only factor that determines where widgets must be purchased. Quality of product, security of supply, and aftersales service are absolutely legitimate considerations which may trump a pure price consideration.

There is also the effect on the local economy. It is worth noting that in pursuing a local sourcing policy, which clearly can also have significant environmental benefits by cutting unnecessary transport costs, the Welsh Government have succeeded in raising the level of local sourcing from under 35% to some 55% over the past 20 years. The target is to push that figure to 70%. To my mind, that is an absolutely valid approach. If sandwiches for Welsh hospitals can be made locally rather than brought in from Birmingham or London, they most certainly should be sourced locally, as should service provision contracts. There was a nonsense a few years ago when a contract for grass cutting in schools in Anglesey was apparently placed with a company in the east Midlands.

The net effect of this approach has been to reduce Welsh unemployment figures so that they now stand below the level in England for the first time in my lifetime. Activity rates have also increased.

I readily concede that this approach does not solve all our problems. The level of GDP per head of population remains stubbornly low, and I understand that this argument has to be confronted. The quality of work and the added value must also come into the equation. Our Governments, in Wales and Scotland as well as Westminster, must take these considerations on board when developing public policy.

In this amendment I seek to write into the Bill a provision that states that it is absolutely acceptable for Governments to seek to secure economic activity within the communities for which they have responsibility and that it is legitimate in some circumstances to pay subsidies to businesses that employ people within those communities and pay taxes to local government in those areas, and whose profits may circulate in those local economies.

I make it clear that this is not a block on tendering for contracts to provide goods and services for an area. Those who are primarily based away from that area should not be debarred, but surely it is necessary that when such decisions are made, consideration is given to whether companies are willing to locate an office in the areas offering subsidies, to purchase supplies from within those economies and to have a transparent policy of recruiting people in those areas, preferably to work within their communities.

My amendment states that no payment should

“be regarded as a subsidy”

for the purpose of this Bill

“if it is equally … available to all enterprises”

that undertake “economic activity” to which the subsidy relates “within the territory” of the governmental body making any such payment.

In his wind-up speech at Second Reading, the Minister stated that it would continue to be in order for a public authority to give subsidies if in doing so it is “addressing regional inequality”, so I hope that he will either accept the amendment or undertake to bring forward his own, either at the end of Committee or preferably on Report when it can be voted on. It may be that the wording of this amendment needs to be tightened and more focused. What I now seek is an indication as to whether the UK Government appreciate that other Governments must have their hands free to improve the economic well-being of their communities and that the judicious use of subsidies is a perfectly legitimate tool in trying to stimulate economic activity.

Briefly, Amendment 3 is different in nature but relates also to ensuring that Governments are not precluded by this Bill from making payments for the provision of local services by public bodies in their territory. There are many aspects of local services that may be provided by both public authorities and private contractors. One has to think only of care homes, refuse collection, recycling or highway maintenance to see areas where there could be arguments as to whether public authorities are subsidising activities in competition with the private sector.

My amendment is tabled to give the Minister an opportunity to state categorically that the Bill, when enacted, will not constrain public authorities from making such payments and to point out in the Bill where such safeguards are provided, if indeed they are. If they are not, we will need to return to these matters on Report. I believe I may be knocking on an open door with this amendment but I will listen to what the Minister has to say. I beg to move.

Viscount Chandos Portrait Viscount Chandos (Lab)
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My Lords, I support Amendments 2 and 3 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. With the agreement of the Committee, I shall speak to my Amendment 2A. My amendment would add just one word to Clause 2(2) and I will try to be commensurately brief.

Clause 2(2) lists examples by which financial assistance may be given, starting with

“a direct transfer of funds (such as grants or loans)”.

It does not purport to be exclusive or comprehensive, so why do I think it is important to add equity to the examples given of grants and loans? The guidance published last week, following Second Reading, includes the following:

“Subsidies can be provided in many different forms, including grants, soft-loans, loan guarantees, and tax breaks. Other forms, such as taking an equity stake in firms … may also constitute subsidies [to be insertedlink to future section on determining whether an intervention is a subsidy].”


That prospective insertion of a link to a future section—further evidence of the Government’s ill-preparedness for a Bill that they have known for months, if not years, was needed—gives a clue as to why it is important to add equity to the examples given in the Bill.

A grant from central or local government is self-evidently a subsidy. It is relatively easy—not totally simple, but not rocket science either—to gauge whether a loan is, for the borrower, more favourable than market terms and hence has a subsidy embedded within it. A loan will ordinarily carry the requirement to pay regular interest and, by final maturity, to have repaid all the principal amount. The arithmetic is pretty simple. Equity is much more difficult to analyse as the future returns are unpredictable. The risk of loss is total and the potential returns unlimited. Professional venture capital and other investors can take strongly divergent views about the prospects for any one company, which explains the huge dispersion of returns between different funds.

I acknowledge that it can be difficult to say whether an equity investment is made on market, and hence unsubsidised, terms. A judgment has to be made about the share of the company concerned received for the investment made; the speed with which a decision to invest is made; the proportion of the funding contributed; any liquidation preference attached to different classes of shares; and a whole range of other conditions, whether imposed or waived. Even if private sector investment is made pari passu with the public sector’s commitment, that may not be prima facie evidence that the public sector’s investment is on market terms, since the commitment, particularly if as a significant cornerstone investment, may in itself attract private sector investment in a way that could disadvantage competitor companies.

16:45
I emphasised at Second Reading that I support selective, targeted and rigorously analysed public sector investments in companies, particularly those that are highly innovative, but it is essential that this is done transparently and fairly, which means that public authorities must disclose on a timely basis any equity investment made containing an implicit subsidy. The very complexity of equity investing means that, for clarity, it should be included as an example in the Bill. The choice of examples is symbolic, as well as bringing emphasis and clarity. It should reduce the likelihood of transactions being overlooked and unreported, and there would be no conceivable downside of including it as an example in the Bill rather than relying solely on the guidance note.
Lord German Portrait Lord German (LD)
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My Lords, I want to speak to these amendments because we have reached the point in the Bill when we are looking at the architecture for the future. Clause 2 sets out very clearly the fundamentals that we need to understand. I seek to ask the Government whether the subsidy regime proposed here is more or less permissive, and whether it is more or less bureaucratic, than what we have had before.

I am grateful to the Minister for letting us have more information and some draft regulations and draft guidance, but the problem that the devolved Administrations have is summed up in the statement in paragraph 5 of Streamlined Routes: Objectives, Operation and Next Steps:

“The Devolved Administrations have also had the opportunity to share their views on Streamlined Routes to support their development.”


I am often asked to share my views and very often I am told that the Government do not agree with them. I am sure that that is very common. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether there has been any accommodation of these views when they have been shared and whether any changes have been made. It would be interesting to see that happen.

My fundamental point is whether the scheme’s architecture is more or less permissive than what we had before. The situation is very different for Wales, of course, because we received the largest amount of European money of anywhere in the United Kingdom over a sustained period. Only two things mattered in terms of the regime itself, as opposed to how it was dealt with: there were subsidies—money and cash—and there were rules on which the subsidies operated. The Government’s own words to us in the Chamber, if they are to believed, were that Wales would not suffer, pound for pound, any less in the money it received than from the European schemes. Clearly, that is not true yet.

My first question to the Minister is: when will the money be received? It clearly has not been yet. Can he repeat the commitment that, pound for pound, Wales will not suffer? We could get that side of the subsidy regime out of the way. However, I suspect that some of us might have been misled in our thinking over the promise that money would be available. I hope that the Minister, on a day when we have been told that we may have been misled about promises put to us, can set the record straight for us right now.

Leaving aside the subsidies themselves—we have heard a little bit but we do not yet know whether there will be cash on the table—we now turn to the rules for them. I had the opportunity to be deeply involved in setting up one six-year period of the European funding for Wales. The way in which it was brought about was interesting. We had to secure an operational programme with the European Union; that programme was broad but very detailed and extensive. When that happened, it gave us, for six years, the rules by which we could operate and understand how to deal with the problems in our country.

The direct comparison now is between the operational programmes, where the EU determined after extensive negotiation, and the other, streamlined schemes, several of which we have in front of us. That comparison includes how these might work and which is more permissive. The former was for six years. It was very broad. You knew where you were. The latter is a tighter constraint around a specific topic. One of the obvious criticisms from the documentation we have received is that there is going to be a whole lot of narrow, siloed regimes. It will be extremely difficult for public authorities and anybody else to find their way not only through those regimes but to the interconnecting places.

An obvious example of that concerns the general conditions in the innovation scheme. I do not think anybody would disagree that a UK subsidy regime should not compensate for costs that the beneficiary would have funded in the absence of any subsidy—that is a fundamental. So why is it in this document? It may also be slightly different in another one; we do not know because we do not have the extent of it before us. Essentially, what we needed was an overarching set of rules that were clear enough to be in the Bill or, alternatively, in any regulation that we see in advance. Perhaps the Minister could tell us, in saying what a regime should look like, where we can get the specifics of these overarching things and the subsidy regimes that will take place.

The amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, would return the decision-making clearly to the Welsh Government; it is quite clear that, under these powers, they will lose that. One of the suggestions that has been made—it will come up later in our debate, of course—is that we should have an agreed framework of activity within which there would be an ability to do things in a much more free-flowing way. It is absolutely essential that authorities intervene in areas of deprivation. If you do not do that, you certainly do not use the words that begin with an L and a U, which the Government are so keen on. We certainly cannot bring lifestyles to a better place if we do not target where public money should go.

Overlaid with the broad set of rules that I have just talked about, including on such things as displacement and the fact that people cannot be compensated where they would have done it for themselves, we need to understand whether these rules will provide a level playing field. The understanding I get from my reading of them is that we will continue to have an uneven playing field and one on which politics will play a far bigger role than the clear set of understandings that there were in the past between, for example, the Welsh Government and the European Commission, about what one could do. Can the Minister explain why this scheme is an improvement and why it is proportionate between the Governments of this country? The suspicion is that one Government are using their powers to disadvantage another.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick Portrait Lord Lamont of Lerwick (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak even more briefly than did the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, in expressing a modicum of support for him. It is up to the Minister to explain why equity is not included rather than for the noble Viscount to prove the case for including equity; it seems a bit of an omission. We read today about the failure of the British Business Bank to do well on some of its investments. We have also had the publicity about the Covid loans that have not been recovered. Why do I mention the British Business Bank? Because we have seen a whole series of equity injections by this Government that have not always had an overall rationale.

The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, referred to the spread of returns from equity investment and how different investors would take a different view of the future, but the reason often advanced by government for direct investment is what is termed “market failure”, and I see that the phrase “market failure” is referred to in the Bill. Unfortunately, market failure is a convenient get-out for Governments wishing to subsidise a particular entity. The very fact that Governments provide direct investment, which I know the noble Viscount favours in a way that I would not, often disguises the fact that there is a subsidy. They say that it is because of market failure and they want it to be on market terms, but, too often, it turns out just to be an implicit subsidy. I agree with the noble Viscount that equity, particularly from a public sector grant-making organisation, can often conceal a degree of subsidy. I hope that careful consideration will be given to the point that he has rightly raised.