Amendment 13

Part of UK Infrastructure Bank Bill [HL] - Report – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 4th July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy) 5:45 pm, 4th July 2022

My Lords, I have added my name to all the amendments in this group but I will try to be brief. I want to pick up on the point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux. Amendment 21 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, deals with consulting devolved Administrations. It ought to be a matter of course that in every Bill where consultation is important, it is in the Bill. It then underscores the constitutional relationship between central government and the devolved Governments. The expectation that it is to be dealt with either in other documents or just off the cuff is, I suspect, one of the reasons we see so much stress and pressure on the union today. It embodies a lack of respect, to be quite frank, and it ought to be a matter of course that we see these arrangements in a Bill.

I will look at the other amendments tabled and so well drafted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. On updating the framework document, we have heard of nothing but the importance of that document. On almost every issue we raise, we are told that it does not need to be in the Bill because it is in this absolutely critical document—the framework document—which is actually a document agreed between the Treasury and the bank; it is not even necessarily in the public arena. Yet we can see that it is inconsistent with the Bill as it stands, never mind with the issues that have surfaced in the course of this very complex debate. It is a document that desperately needs to be updated. I know there is a plan to update it by the end of this year but that is completely out of touch with making sure that we have proper, consistent and meaningful arrangements in place for a bank that is already functioning as we stand here today. I very much support those amendments.

I now look at the two amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey. Amendment 13, so eloquently supported by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, addresses another fundamental problem that we see in one piece of legislation after another: the wide use of Henry VIII powers to allow secondary legislation—which cannot be amended and, in effect, cannot be rejected—to change primary legislation fundamentally. It almost makes a joke of primary legislation. I know the Government would say that they would not exercise the power widely and it is just a marginal change here or there, but the Bill is already written to allow for marginal changes. The only time when that clause would be relevant would be if fundamental changes were to be made. I would argue that those should come back to Parliament, at least for the level of engagement of a super-affirmative.

I want to speak most to Amendment 18 because I am truly exercised on the issue of transparency. As others have said, the Bill requires the publication of a direction when the Treasury basically decides it is going to tell the bank what it can do. It can give it instructions that are either general or specific. It could say, “Make this loan and do it this way.” That is entirely allowed and there has to be a publication. But what is not that established is that when the bank says no and then is overridden, that information comes into the public arena. When it says no, it says so in a letter of reservation and the kind of issues it can raise are fundamental, such as issues of propriety, issues of ethical behaviour and issues of departing from the fundamental purpose of the bank.

I think we must have an absolute assurance that those will be published so that they are in the public arena. Let me give an example. The Minister has often drawn parallels between this bank and the British Business Bank, which allows me to draw a parallel with the British Business Bank’s decision to accredit Greensill to provide a Covid-related loan. We know, because it is now in the public arena, that when Greensill applied to the British Business Bank for accreditation, various parts of the Government fairly bombarded the British Business Bank with emails. They did not say “accredit it” but kept saying how important it was that they knew the result, asking whether it was done yet and saying that this would be fundamental to the future of steel in the UK and so on. Anyway, as we all know, the British Business Bank did accredit Greensill and, I suspect, regrets the very moment that it did so.

If a direction from the Treasury had been published on that issue, I am sure it would have said: “This direction is intended to make sure that our very important steel industry survives. It is to support jobs. It is to support communities related to the steel industry.” The reservation would have said something very different. I suspect it would have said: “We do not believe that the entity, Greensill, meets our ethical standards. We believe that it is basically an organisation that has got itself into some very unfortunate and potentially unethical arrangements and is on the verge of bankruptcy.” That is why it is important that the reservation notice is published and the conversation does not exist only in the context of the direction. That is why I say to the Minister that we cannot have an arrangement where the bank could, if it wished, publish its reservation notice; it is crucial that it publishes its reservation notice. I argue that on the grounds of the propriety that should surely lie at the heart of all the legislation that we provide in this House.