Moved by Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted
68A: After Clause 43, insert the following new Clause—“State aid and the Office for the Internal Market (1) Within the period of six months beginning with the day on which section 30 comes into force, and within the existing budget, the Secretary of State must by regulations establish the Office for the Internal Market (“the OIM”) as independent of the CMA.(2) The Secretary of State must consult and seek the consent of Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers, and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland on appointments to the OIM.(3) Following public consultation about the United Kingdom’s state aid provisions and with the consent of the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland the Secretary of State may by regulations make the OIM the competent body for—(a) investigating harmful and distortive subsidies and subsidy races made by any administration within the United Kingdom and relating to harm in the United Kingdom;(b) recommending to the Secretary of State and the Devolved Administrations changes to the test for a harmful subsidy, remedies, the scope of exemptions and time limits on approvals;(c) recommending changes in its powers and functions.(4) After two years and before three years, beginning with the day on which section 30 comes into force, there shall be a review of the competences of the OIM.(5) Regulations under this section are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.”
My Lords, the amendment in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, borrows much from other amendments tabled in Committee and on Report, and credit is due to the authors of those amendments.
This amendment has three purposes. The first is to take the OIM out of the CMA after six months and set it up independently, using the budget already allocated for that purpose. For appointments to the OIM the Secretary of State must consult and seek the consent of Scottish and Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland.
The second purpose is enabling, not compulsory. It is to allow the OIM to become the competent body to investigate harmful and distorted subsidies and subsidy races made by any Administration within the United Kingdom that relate to harm within the United Kingdom. This can happen only after public consultation about state aid provisions, which the Government have already said will take place, and requires the consent of the devolved Administrations. The OIM will also, subject to the devolved Administrations’ agreement, be empowered to make recommendations to the Secretary of State for changes to the tests for harmful subsidies, and to its powers and functions. Finally, there is to be a general review of the competence of the OIM between three and five years after Section 30 comes into force.
The changes, following the devolved Administrations’ agreement, can be brought about by affirmative regulation. Overall, the amendment solves the problem of the unsatisfactory location of the OIM in the CMA and gives a vision for the consensual evolution of the OIM in its investigations of subsidy effects.
We have already debated, in Committee and since, why the CMA is not the right body. The mismatch stems from three sources. First, the CMA is expert in matters that are reserved, not devolved. Secondly, the CMA deals largely with disturbances to the market caused by market participants, whether that be through anti-competitive activities such as cartels, or through market concentration—which is culturally very different from looking at the actions of Administrations as they affect markets in the context of devolution. Thirdly, the tie to BEIS does not make it neutrally positioned in how it is embedded, or perceived, no matter what its objectives may be.
To some extent this proposal follows the TRA precedent of setting up in one location and spinning off, utilising whatever preliminary work has been done. Furthermore, if there is to be a body to examine subsidies —and it is an ‘if’ that can develop in the light of experience—an independent OIM, specialising in the workings of devolution, would seem the right home. As required, I give notice that it is my intention to test the opinion of the House on this amendment. I beg to move.
I support this amendment, the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, on these matters, and the need to have the OIM and CMA working at arm’s length. I have spoken several times on the need to have an office of the internal market that is at arm’s length from all government and is responsive to the needs and reservations of every nation—Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and, yes, England. I would prefer the OIM to be required to obtain the consent of all four nations, but I accept the wording in this amendment as a significant step in the right direction. I am very happy to support it and to vote for it if a vote is taken.
My Lords, I cannot support this amendment. We had a considerable debate on the OIM in Committee. There are already too many examples in the United Kingdom of where a service can be challenged, one way or the other, particularly in the financial services area, where there is the Financial Services Authority and the appeal mechanism of the Financial Ombudsman Service.
My experience is in the area of what are called doorstep loans. There is, of course, a rogue element, and that must be dealt with, but genuine operators have been servicing that market for decades, including the credit unions and two or three other companies of the highest repute. However, at some point the FSA may say that what they are doing is absolutely right, while five minutes later somebody has appealed and the ombudsman says the opposite.
We must have a uniform, single agency to deal with. The decision made by the Government to put the OIM underneath—for want of a better phrase—the CMA is absolutely right. This amendment would be a retrograde step that would confuse everybody.
My Lords, as the Minister knows, I am a strong supporter of the Bill and believe that it is important to allow the UK’s internal market to function, but I genuinely believe that the location of the office for the internal market is problematic. I fully support the OIM itself, as it will be essential to monitor the effectiveness of the UK’s internal market. However, the CMA is the wrong place for it at the wrong time.
It is the wrong place because monitoring the internal market is a radically different activity from the core functions of the CMA. To oversimplify, the CMA is focused on businesses which can and do behave badly on competition. By contrast, the office for the internal market will not target individual businesses or sectors; its targets will end up being the Administrations of the devolved nations or their regulators if they act in a way that undermines the internal market. Businesses trying to trade throughout the UK should be the beneficiaries of the OIM’s work, not the villains. Most of the CMA’s battles are fought on legal and economic analysis, which are often big battles with a lot at stake but a world apart from the kind of political battle in which CMA may find itself pitted against one of the devolved Administrations.
In Committee, I said that putting two different activities into a single organisation ran the risk of that organisation being a jack of all trades and master of none. Having thought about that further, it is potentially worse. If the CMA and the OIM get embroiled in long political feuds about restrictions on trade within the internal market, it could be very damaging to the CMA’s focus, which may take away from the attention it gives to its core competition-based work. We may end up throwing the baby out with the bath water. It is also the wrong time to put the OIM into the CMA, given the significant increase in size as it takes on additional activities following our departure from the EU. Organisations that try to take on too much and do too many things at once often end up achieving very little.
For those reasons, I support creating the office for the internal market as a separate body. I cannot, however, support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted, because it has gone beyond the simple purpose of setting up an independent OIM and has strayed into state aid, with its own version of how that may be taken on in future. That goes too far.
My Lords, I support the main thrust of the amendment, as I explained in Committee when leading a debate on my amendment, for which there was considerable support across the House. There is a good case for establishing a UK office for the internal market, but the CMA is the wrong home, for all the reasons that my noble friend Lady Noakes articulated so well. The CMA operates with values—notably a deep suspicion of the good business can do and an aggressive approach to enforcement—that are not appropriate to the new office.
Subsections (1) and (2) of the proposed new clause come from an earlier amendment which, frustratingly, was not moved, and are on the right lines. However, the proposed subsection (3) is not sensible. If any of the devolved Administrations withhold consent for appointments on whatever grounds, the whole purpose of the new office could be stymied. One is reminded of President Trump and the World Trade Organization, when unexpected and unforeseen actions by an elected officeholder—in this case, the President—in an advanced and democratic country came close to wrecking the operations of a major component of the global economic order. We would be foolish voluntarily to run such a risk.
It may be argued that it is unlikely the devolved Administrations will act like President Trump or that this is an issue of the same order. I would retort that, five years ago, it was deemed impossible by all informed observers that a US President would act as he has towards the WTO. Life can contain surprises, and we act foolishly if we unnecessarily set up arrangements that risk being sabotaged.
Accordingly, I call on the Minister to agree to bring forward an amendment at Third Reading that incorporates proposed new subsections (1), (2) and (5) of Amendment 68A, which seem entirely sensible and widely supported. I regret that I cannot support Amendment 68A as it stands.
My Lords, I regret that I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Flight, was here for the start of the debate and, therefore, cannot speak. His name has already been called.
I apologise. The noble Lord, Lord Flight, told me that he was here at the start of the debate, but that is not so. I am sorry, Lord Flight. In that case, I cannot call you, as you were not here at the start of the debate.
My Lords, the debate on this amendment has been relatively short, but the Minister should not conclude from that that it is unimportant. The reason why the debate has been short is that it crystallises points that have recurred since Second Reading, through Committee and in various discussions on other groups of amendments, around the basic suitability of the CMA as a home for the OIM. That is the central point.
I am pleased to follow the noble Baronesses, Lady Noakes and Lady Neville-Rolfe, whose analysis of the concerns around the location of the OIM I completely concur with. They conclude that they do not necessarily like the full nature of this amendment, and I respect that point. This amendment is the culmination of several other attempted amendments but, without it, we will not get the focus on this issue that we need from the Minister. Even though it may be a bitter pill to swallow for the noble Baronesses, Lady Noakes and Lady Neville-Rolfe, we need to get somewhere to concentrate minds—and this is the amendment.
It was ably set out by my noble friend Lady Bowles, and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, will also set out a good case, so I will not point to any more issues. I simply say that this is a really important issue, which will colour the culture of the market in this country and how it is run. I had not considered the point brought up by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that it may also jeopardise the CMA’s current role, which is a good point and well made. This is an important amendment to get behind. Noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches will vote for this amendment when it is put, and I hope that other noble Lords, who find problems with some words in this amendment, will stave that to one side and consider that, without it, we cannot change the culture of how the market will be run in future.
I am going to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Fox, as I will not go through my arguments at length, because they have been made so well by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. I put on record my absolute support for the noble Baronesses, Lady Noakes and Lady Neville-Rolfe, who, while they have comments about the detail of the amendment, support the principle of it. I am grateful to them for that.
It is a simple proposition: the internal market must work and be seen to work for all and, therefore, must have buy-in and support from all. It should not favour one geographical area or country over another. It is important that we do not upset the balance struck in the CMA and its functions. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is right that there may be an adverse impact on the CMA, if it is forced to take on something that is not its primary purpose. Thirdly, the devolved Administrations need to be part of the organisation, its process and appointments.
There are reservations about proposed new subsections (3) and (4) in the amendment. It is beyond our hopes, but perhaps the Minister will consider bringing forward an agreed amendment at Third Reading. If he did, we would support it but, if he will not do that, we will support the noble Baroness if she tests the opinion of the House.
I thank noble Lords who participated in the debate, particularly for their brevity. This is, I suspect, a simple difference of opinion, but I will give it a go anyway.
In previous groupings we have discussed the detail of how the office for the internal market would be governed, including the composition of its board, and so noble Lords will be delighted that I am not going to go through all that again. I have set out consistently in this House why the CMA was chosen as, in our view, the most appropriate body to undertake the new UK internal market oversight functions. The CMA has an outstanding international reputation as an independent regulator and is already equipped with highly relevant economic expertise, necessary to undertake its new functions in the context of the operation of the UK market. Moreover, the CMA has well-established relationships with all the Administrations, with offices in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. This UK-wide presence will help ensure that the OIM will work in the interests of all parts of the United Kingdom.
However, we have made it clear that some bespoke arrangements for the OIM will be necessary, in recognition of the focus on devolved matters. As provided for in the Bill, the OIM will be able to benefit from the CMA’s existing expertise and operate within its overall framework, while having its own functions and powers, including distinct governance arrangements such as the OIM panel and task groups. The Government have recognised that some degree of separation is vital and have developed proposals for the OIM accordingly. I wish to strongly emphasise that the distinct statutory objective for the OIM, and for the targeted adaptation in the Bill of the CMA’s statutory framework, enshrines this separation from the outset.
On Monday, we had a good debate on the composition of the board and the role of the devolved Administrations in appointments. The Government have taken a number of reasonable and pragmatic steps to secure the appropriate balance between ensuring that the devolved Administrations have a real say and that the appointment process is not held up unduly—that would, of course, be risked by the amendment.
Finally, I would like to discuss in a little more detail how this amendment would seek to propose a new role for the OIM regarding subsidy control. I recognise that the amendment reflects a desire for reassurance on the enforcement of any future UK subsidy control regime. However, we believe that it risks undermining and prejudging the outcome of the forthcoming consultation that we have announced. This consultation will inform our future approach to subsidy control, including the role of oversight and enforcement.
The Government have been clear that the UK will have its own approach to subsidy control; we want a modern system for supporting British business in a way that fulfils our interests. The amendment is therefore premature, as it seeks to confer specific regulatory functions on the OIM in respect of subsidies before the wider details of any legislative UK domestic subsidy control regime, including the appropriate mechanism for oversight and enforcement, have been developed and brought before this House or the other place.
On another point that we will discuss in more depth in our next debate, the Government’s view is that state aid—the EU’s approach to subsidy control—is a reserved matter. Therefore, the effect of the amendment’s provisions for consent from the DAs would be to create unacceptable uncertainty over the extent to which subsidy control is a reserved or devolved competence. As an issue of national importance, it should be treated in the same way as other nationally significant areas of economic policy, which are reserved. Having a single unified approach to subsidy control across the United Kingdom is vital to ensure that we continue to have fair and open competition across our internal market.
Finally, proposed new subsection (4) would require a review of the OIM’s competences within two or three years after Clause 30 enters into force. I recognise the need to ensure that the CMA’s new functions are undertaken effectively, but the broadness of this proposed review is unprecedented and unhelpful.
For the reasons that I have set out, therefore, I am obviously unable to support this amendment. I ask—perhaps more in hope than in expectation—the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
As noble Lords will know, this is not the first amendment to include proposed subsections (1), (2) and (5); indeed, we had hoped to be able to vote on that amendment, but the timing did not work. I will not conceal from your Lordships that this amendment was constructed so that we had something to vote on.
It is important. The parts that extract the OIM from the CMA are immediately functional. The rest is written so that it is fail-safe—and perhaps, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, astutely pointed out, it may never happen. It does not stop there being some further primary legislation to make it happen, but, of course, there are restrictions on what it is possible to put in when there are identical amendments already tabled. Therefore, this is not the end of the road on the wording of this amendment, but it does a lot more good than harm by inserting it into the Bill at this stage. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 298, Noes 257.
My Lords, we now come to Amendment 69. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press an amendment to a Division should make that clear in debate.
Clause 44: Regulation of distortive or harmful subsidies