Amendment 13

Part of UK Infrastructure Bank Bill [HL] - Report – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 4th July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 6:00 pm, 4th July 2022

My Lords, Amendment 13 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, seeks to make the bank’s delegated powers subject to the super-affirmative procedure. As indicated in Erskine May, the super-affirmative procedure has been deployed for secondary legislation where an exceptionally high degree of scrutiny is thought appropriate. This procedure has rarely been considered the appropriate one to prescribe in primary legislation; where it has, the relevant instances have tended to be of a particularly substantive and wide-ranging sort. The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, gave us an example but I had another: the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, where the super-affirmative procedure was used to regulate significant powers under which Ministers could amend legislation to remove regulatory burdens. It cannot be said that amending the bank’s activities or the definition of infrastructure reaches the threshold of requiring the super-affirmative procedure. I have noted comments from noble Lords, but I also draw to their attention the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s response to the Bill, which stated:

“There is nothing in this Bill which we would wish to draw to the attention of the House.”

On the other amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, in this group, Amendment 18 on the power of direction, I recognise that there has been some concern about the wording in the framework document in relation to the issuing of directions. In particular, there were concerns that the Treasury would be able to “gag” the bank. That is clearly not the intention, and I have taken away the wording in section 15 of the framework document to make it clear that Her Majesty’s Treasury is not able to prevent publication of a written direction or any reservation notice in respect of that direction.

It is incumbent on the Treasury to meet its obligation to publish the direction and any associated reservation notice as soon as appropriate. Of course, there can be circumstances in which the publication of a written direction or any associated reservation notice needs to be delayed for reasons of national security or commercial sensitivity. An example of this occurred, in relation to a similar power in a different circumstance, during the sale of British Steel Ltd, where the Secretary of State directed the Permanent Secretary to continue an indemnity with the official receiver but delayed publication during negotiations with Jingye, despite value-for-money uncertainties, as to publish at the time would likely have undermined the rescue deal due to commercial sensitivity concerns. However, I will be clear with the House that if publication of a written direction were to be delayed for reasons of commercial sensitivity or national security, we would ensure that it was sent to the chair of the Public Accounts Committee immediately and on a confidential basis.

I hope that I have addressed the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey. However, to be absolutely clear, and maybe to go further than I did in our previous discussions, we will amend the framework document to be clear that where a direction is issued, an accompanying reservation notice “must” be published—rather than “may”—and, to further clarify, the content of the direction and reservations must be published rather than the fact of their existence. I hope that that provides further reassurance to noble Lords on that matter.

The amendments to Clause 3 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, seek to ensure that the bank’s framework document is updated to reflect any strategic steer, and that any revised framework document will be laid in Parliament. In maintaining the bank’s framework document, the Treasury will follow the guidance set out in Managing Public Money. This guidance states that framework documents should

“be kept up to date as the partnership”— between a department and its arm’s-length body—

“develops.”

The Treasury will update the bank’s framework document as needed to follow this guidance. As has already been noted, the Treasury is currently reviewing the framework document and will publish a new version once the Bill has passed, which will include changes brought about by this House; for example, the clarification which I mentioned earlier in relation to the bank’s ability to publish a reservation notice if the Treasury subsequently issues the bank with a direction, and, in reference to an earlier debate, the clarification of the second objective in local and regional growth relating to levelling up and regional inequalities.

On the publication of framework documents, Managing Public Money is clear. Any revised framework documents should be published and laid in Parliament. Further, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury laid a Written Ministerial Statement today where he set out that all departments should lay their framework documents in Parliament. This has put the question of publication beyond doubt.

On whether the bank’s framework document should be updated to reflect the content of the strategic steer, I think that in that respect I differ in opinion from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. Managing Public Money sets out that framework documents should contain information on purpose, governance and accountability, decision-making, and financial management. It does not specify that they should contain information on current policy steers or priorities.

The bank’s framework document and strategic steers fulfil very different purposes; the framework document providing an agreement to govern the relationship between the bank and the Treasury, and the strategic steer providing an opportunity for the Government of the day to provide steers on current priorities and policy emphases. That does not mean that there will never be circumstances in which the framework document is updated. I have already told the House that we will reflect on the wording in the framework document on the regional and local economic growth objective. However, I do not think that the framework document needs updating every time a strategic steer is issued. It should be updated only when necessary, to provide for continuity and to avoid creating unnecessary resource burdens. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, would be inventing a new process for the framework document, when there is already a process set out in Annex 7.2 of Managing Public Money.

On this, I also refer noble Lords to the strategic steer issued by the Chancellor in March. This provided a steer on priorities for the bank in light of the situation in Ukraine, and the recently concluded environment review, as well as other priorities for the bank to reflect in its first strategic plan. None of this information impacted the high-level framework under which the bank operates, as set out in the framework document, and therefore a mandatory update to the framework document would have been unnecessary. However, the strategic steer must be reflected in the bank’s strategic plans. This is provided for in the Bill.

Amendment 21 seeks to bring a consultation process on the use of some of the powers in the Bill with the devolved Administrations. I appreciate the intent, but this will cut directly across the negotiations that we are having with the devolved Administrations on the legislative consent process. This was brought up in Committee and I explained then that the normal practice is to bring forward any amendments required for a legislative consent Motion in the second House, which for this Bill would be the Commons. It would not be appropriate to accept this amendment until we have begun those negotiations with the devolved Administrations in earnest.

I hope that I can reassure noble Lords by saying that we have begun those discussions with the devolved Administrations in a positive fashion. Engagement with the devolved Administrations on the set-up of the bank was also positive. They all support the establishment of a national infrastructure bank. The bank has also been developing its own relationships with the devolved Administrations and their respective institutions, such as the Scottish National Investment Bank. The bank has now also completed deals in all four nations.

The tone and tenor of the bank’s relationships with the devolved Administrations and their respective institutions, and the way that the bank has gone about its business so far, give noble Lords in this House quite a bit of reassurance, I hope, about the collaborative approach that the bank has taken so far and intends to take in future. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, feels able to withdraw Amendment 13.