Moved by Lord Purvis of Tweed
16: Clause 12, page 7, line 10, leave out subsection (3)Member’s explanatory statementThis is part of a series of amendments based on recommendations from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee which states that a number of subsections in the Bill “contain inappropriate delegations of power and should be removed from the Bill.”
My Lords, in rising to move Amendment 16, I warmly thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for supporting this suite of amendments, which raises concerns about the breadth of the order-making powers that Ministers seek to gain from this legislation.
I start by thanking the Minister for his holding letter indicating that he is conferring with the noble Lord, Lord Caine, on responding to the questions raised on Monday. I am grateful for that and the efficiency of his private office.
The information from the Northern Ireland Executive suggests that there are approximately 14 live areas where there are subsidy controls, which operate within Northern Ireland under one element of the protocol. The purpose of my amendment is twofold: first, obviously, to raise the concern about the breadth of the power, which is in breach of international obligations, and about powers that the Government seek without formulating policy first.
Secondly, the purpose is to further probe what the Government intend the position to be with regard to subsidy control for Northern Ireland, and when they came to their conclusions. We are told that the position is grave and imminent—that is the defence of necessity for breaching international obligations. But we spent a lot of time in Committee and on Report on the Subsidy Control Bill. I moved two amendments relating to Northern Ireland, and the noble Lords, Lord Dodds and Lord Empey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, also raised these issues in Committee. Like others, I asked on a number of occasions what interaction there would be with the protocol and what difficulties operating two systems would cause. The noble Lord, Lord Callanan, reassured me that they would work together.
That legislation is now apparently not fit for purpose and needs to be amended—in breach of our obligations, of course. We passed that legislation this year, and it came into force this spring. With seriousness, I say again that, at no stage during the passage of that Bill, which is being amended by this Bill, did any Minister say that there was a grave and imminent threat that required that we withdraw entirely from the agreement on state aid that we negotiated and secured.
In fact, the timing of this is interesting. As we have heard, the Government indicated in 2021 that the protocol was working, but we now hear that there is grave and imminent peril. We legislated during this time, and the Government said that they played no role in bringing about the circumstances of the peril. But, legislating at the time, we obviously had a role to play.
The paper that the Government published on the UK solutions, raising concerns about the operation of the protocol, relates to Northern Ireland, tax and spend, and subsidies. It says:
“The Protocol applies EU state aid rules regardless of developments since—despite the robust subsidy control commitments agreed by the UK and EU in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which we have built on in the Subsidy Control Act 2022”.
If we put in place robust subsidy control commitments in the TCA, that was after the protocol. I am not sure why the Government say that they are unaware of some of the consequences of the regime that they agreed and then put in place, which they considered to contain robust subsidy control commitments.
I asked questions about the Government’s position and what they were negotiating, or seeking to negotiate, with the European Commission. I asked how a dual system would operate, and, when I moved my clarity-seeking amendments, the Minister—the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield—said that there would be enhanced referral powers or consultation procedures for subsidies within scope, to enable EU concerns to be properly and swiftly addressed. So, when we were passing this legislation, the Government were negotiating not a removal of subsidy controls from the protocol but a more efficient approach to the operation of the two systems. The noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, said to me that, under the two systems, there would be “specific and limited circumstances” where EU rules would apply to Northern Ireland. I asked what “specific and limited” meant, and it seemed to be simply a more efficient way of reporting and declaring. I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate at what time and stage the Government drew the conclusion that they had to entirely remove state aid elements from the protocol.
The consequence of this is a major chill effect, because businesses operating within Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK simply do not know what the Government’s intent will be when they are looking to make investment choices. I repeat that there are a number of live situations where this is currently in operation. So the Government are actively contributing to a state which is bringing about concern and which they cite as “necessity”.
As the noble Lord, Lord Caine, was not able to confirm to me on Monday whether the Government are formally seeking that the EU change its mandate for negotiations, in this Bill we are seeking to remove from the protocol a key part that the Government negotiated. So I hope that the Government can provide crystal clarity on this point, because it is needed for the economy of all parts of the UK. I beg to move.
My Lords, I must inform the House that, if Amendment 16 is agreed to, I will not be able to call Amendments 17, 18 or 19 by reason of pre-emption.
My Lords, I shall be very brief and will say nothing about the breadth of the power being sought by Clause 12. I will read Clause 12(3):
“A Minister of the Crown may, by regulations, make any provision which the Minister considers appropriate”.
We all know what that means: a Minister will be empowered to create any regulations as he or she thinks fit. That is not objective: as he or she, sitting down, thinks fit. It is purely subjective. If we allow this piece of legislation to go through, we are saying to the Minister, “At whatever time it may suit you, take a blank sheet of paper and either write with a pen or type on your laptop whatever you think you want”. That will then be put before the Commons and the Lords, and, as they have not rejected anything for an eternity in real terms, it will become law.
Is that really how we think that power should be given to Ministers anywhere within the UK? It surely is not. There are other ways of making regulations. Good heavens, no Minister needs a lesson from me in how to create regulations; we are bombarded with them all time. But I do ask the House: is this really how we expect to be governed? The Minister can do what the Minister likes. The clause uses a different and longer phrase—“considers appropriate”—but it really means no more than whatever he or she wishes. It is not good enough.
My Lords, I simply express my very strong support for what the noble and learned Lord has said: there is absolutely no limitation on the power conferred on the Minister to make
“any provision which the Minister considers appropriate”.
There is no test here of necessity or a requirement that the Minister should be satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for thinking that the regulation is necessary. In any event, the regulation is both unamendable—as all regulations are—and subject to the negative procedure, which means in effect that it will never be discussed. So it is thoroughly bad. I have no doubt that it is for that reason that the Joint Committee recommended that this particular power should be removed from the Bill, and if I am given the chance to vote for that view, I shall do so.
My Lords, in the spirit of trying to help the Government, I will repeat what I said in relation to an earlier group of amendments: it would help the Committee, as well as the other place, if the Government could give us an indication of the type of regulations that they have in mind, so that we do not have this blanket provision before us today. There is still time to do that.
I will also ask a question of information. I understand that the “provision” to which the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, refers in removing it from this particular clause does not apply to agricultural subsidies. So, if it is the case that agricultural subsidies are still going to apply, who is in a position at the moment to decide on that, and within what timeframe would that be?
My Lords, I have been looking at Clause 12 through a particular prism. As my entry in the register of interests discloses, I have a particular interest in financial services. I am also an investor in various enterprise investment and seed enterprise investment companies, which I will refer to as EIS and SEIS companies, and venture capital trusts. For those who are not aware, EIS schemes are those which allow UK investors to invest in UK companies and deduct the amount invested in those companies against their income tax at prescribed rates to encourage investment in private companies.
For some time, I have been frustrated that these truly excellent schemes have been hampered by restrictions. The schemes are hugely popular. EIS has helped some 66,000 companies in the UK in total, with some 3,755 companies raising over £1.5 billion last year alone. Since 2018, VCTs have made some 1,000 investments, raising £1.7 billion, of which 45% were less than £1 million. So I am very concerned by anything that threatens the existence of these schemes and am keen to find ways of enhancing their effectiveness. There are, however, restrictions and regulations reducing the opportunity for UK businesses to raise this vital small equity for essentially risky enterprises, and I have been concerned that these restrictions have in part been due to the requirements of EU state aid rules.
The enormous success of the EIS and VCT schemes is very much a British phenomenon and probably viewed with some mistrust by the EU, given our tremendous track record in starting and growing new UK businesses. In fact, most businessmen and investors I have spoken to are amazed to discover that it is governed by EU state aid rules. Fortunately, at the moment we have EU approval for the design of the EIS and VCT schemes under Article 107 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, and the smaller SEI schemes, due to their size, fall within Article 21 of the general block exemption regulation. However, as we decide how to plough our own path post Brexit, it is important that we are entirely free to create our own rules concerning subsidies that might amount to state aid—within, of course, the constraints of WTO and other commitments.
As mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, we now have our own Subsidy Control Act but, under the protocol, some EU state aid rules still apply. I can see the issue, namely that the EU is worried that a company based in Belfast has cheaper finance than a competitor in Dublin—but, frankly, that should be our choice and the choice of other countries to offer incentives to finance their businesses.
Why do we have this problem? As Andrew Harper helpfully wrote in the British Tax Review in autumn 2020, the two sides promote opposing perspectives: the EU very much promulgating its state aid regime on the basis of the level playing field and the UK adopting the subsidy language of the World Trade Organization. This is much more than a semantic or linguistic distinction. It is one of substance, both in the scope and the enforceability of the rules.
In these circumstances it appears sensible to point out the key issues that could arise. Without Clause 12 —and I am aware that there is a stand part debate following—first, the EIS and VCT schemes as they operate in Northern Ireland will presumably have to remain fully EU state aid compliant because of EIS companies and VCT investees based in the Province trading with the Irish Republic or the wider EU. Secondly, following from that, barring the UK Government being prepared to countenance two separate systems within the UK, the EIS and VCT schemes as they apply to England, Wales and Scotland will be difficult to modify.
Thirdly, if, post transition, these schemes were to diverge as between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, what is the position in the case of, say, an English EIS company raising scheme funding that would be in excess of that sanctioned by EU state aid rules? If that English company then sends its goods to Northern Ireland, where potentially they can be traded with the south or the rest of the EU, how will that be allowed to happen? It simply cannot make sense to exclude Clause 12.
Just to give some perspective and a feeling of the situation at the moment, the proportion of EIS recipients in Northern Ireland is really very small. In 2020-21, out of the aforementioned 3,755 recipients of EIS I mentioned, only 40 were based in Northern Ireland—some 1%, and by no means all are goods traders, to whom the protocol applies. Some may say that the state aid provisions in the protocol do not really apply to the sort of state aid such as EIS and VCT, but there is a risk that it might—and, of course, famously, of reach-back, which would be wholly unwelcome. That is why we need Clause 12(1). I welcome Clause 12 to ensure we have a single UK-wide subsidy control policy and that, for example, with a Covid-19-type recovery loan scheme there would not be greater restrictions on Northern Ireland companies than GB ones, and that we would be free to amend our own rules freely.
There is a pressing example of an EU state aid restriction that needs urgent attention: the sunset clause imposed by EU state aid rules on EIS and VCT, which kicks in on
The criticisms of Clause 12, which is needed to enable a Government to accommodate the result if the EU successfully takes international action in respect of something it regards as unhelpful, are answered by my amendments, which tighten up the ability to make change through regulation. In particular, proposed new Clause 12(4)(c) in my Amendment 19 deals with the most unfortunate case, if there is a change, to stop it applying retrospectively. My amendments would ensure a minimum framework for the Minister’s regulatory power, which could arise following alterations in national law to provisions within the scope of EU state aid at the international level, and set the boundary between the exercise of the regulatory power by the Minister and the requirement for primary legislation. I appreciate that, under Clause 23(3), any regulation has to be a statutory instrument and is treated as such. However, most importantly, the amendments would ensure that the Government were unable to make any retrospective provision, so that investments and reliefs to date were protected.
I hope all those speaking to Clause 12 standing part understand that there is a fundamental difference in approach to subsidies between the EU and UK. The EU tends to favour money handed out to companies at its discretion for the companies’ direct benefit—frequently, of course, through individual states. We like to empower investors and, as such, the markets to decide where the money should go. It is, in effect, the investors who decide which companies will benefit from their money, which is enhanced by a tax break. Like so many areas in business life, we have a different way of thinking from the EU and we have to protect our interests first. Concerns that this is a breach of other international treaties or laws are fair to raise and difficult for many of us non-lawyers to understand. But even if they are correct, what I do know is that UK companies need protection to enable them to carry on being financed in the way our Parliament feels appropriate.
May I ask the noble Lord two questions? First, should these problems not have been considered by the United Kingdom Government before they signed the protocol? Secondly, is there any reason why these problems cannot be raised in the negotiations with the EU to take place in the near future?
I cannot answer for the UK Government on whether they should have been raised before; that is clearly historical and we are where we are. In theory, there could be a negotiation with the EU to try to deal with some of these problems, but we would be on the back foot and there would be no reason for the EU to agree, whereas Clause 12 deals with it satisfactorily.
My Lords, I associate myself with my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who have made the case in very strong terms for why subsection (3) should be removed. I pause only to make one observation: it does not even specify the Minister but says:
“A Minister of the Crown”.
So not only is it an extremely wide power, it is a power available to any Minister in any ministry of any kind, at any time, without any restraint whatever. How can that possibly be consistent with the principles on which we pass legislation in this Chamber?
My Lords, I apologise for not having been present for the first two days in Committee for family reasons. I am in violent agreement with my noble and learned friend the Convenor. It seems to me that this amendment, others in this group and, indeed, others in the Marshalled List seek to address something of a legislative slough of despond. If that is the case, it is a swamp that needs draining. I think noble Lords on the Government Front Bench will realise that the bar will be set very high indeed on Report.
I shall briefly address two other contributions. First, to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, I may be misremembering but, from my past, I think “a Minister” is used as a generality in drafting to reflect the collectivity of government. It could be any Minister given the particular responsibility at the time, although I agree that some of the flanking provisions might draw that into a certain amount of doubt.
As for the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, she is ever the peacemaker but I would discourage noble Lords from pursuing the idea of putting in an illustrative list of measures that might be subject to these powers. Illustrative is only illustrative: if they are not in the statute, they are simply a bit of an Explanatory Memorandum, if you like. Even if they are in the statute, no drafter or Minister will allow them to lie there without the assertion that they are not an exhaustive list, so that anything can be added at the whim of Ministers. As my noble and learned friend the Convenor pointed out, quite a lot is being done at the whim of Ministers.
My Lords, I too support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, for all the reasons that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, gave. When the Minister replies to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, will he point to the incident that triggered the grave and imminent peril that forms the basis of the doctrine of necessity that the Government have used in justifying the Bill, with its extraordinary powers for Ministers?
I should just like to ask a question of whichever Minister will reply to this brief debate. I am of course entirely on the side of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in what they said. I understand why my noble friend raised his commercial points, but between us and him is a great gulf fixed. What we are concerned about is the arbitrary and unfettered power of Ministers.
I have great respect for all three of the Ministers who are handling this Bill, and great sympathy for them, but are they truly happy to exercise such unfettered powers without reference to Parliament and proper debate? We go back to where we were on Monday: the imbalance of power and the excessive power of the Executive, which has been growing like a mad Topsy for the last few years. It is deeply disturbing to anybody who believes in parliamentary government, and I want to know if it is deeply disturbing to the Ministers on Front Bench this afternoon, because if it is not, it should be. I would be much more worried than when I got up if they tell me that they do not mind.
As so often, the noble Lord puts it very well. It ought to be a parliamentary lesson to us all: never seek to take to yourself powers that you would not be happy to see the other side have. The noble Lord put it very succinctly and I endorse what he said.
The big point about this clause is the one made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. We should not be writing into our statute book such extraordinary sweeping powers, to be exercised at the stroke of a pen, with no real supervision or scrutiny by the Executive.
I would like to speak briefly to the second important point, which is, in my view, the one made by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, when he spoke of the “chill effect”. I also found things I agreed with in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, rather to my surprise. The chill effect is real and will continue. Investors will be deterred from coming to Northern Ireland, and Northern Irish businesses will be deterred from investing, by the uncertainty which will not be resolved by the passage of this Bill but created by its passage. The effect of Clause 12, taken with Clause 22, is to enable the Minister to establish a different regime in Northern Ireland from the regime in Great Britain. The assumption might be that if the protocol falls, what results is the status quo ante: the UK rules. That is not the case. The Minister would be entirely free to produce whatever rules for Northern Ireland he thought fit. It is obvious what that uncertainty does to investment.
I am surprised at the silence of the DUP.
I am delighted that the silence may be about to be broken. It seems to me it would be odd to be insouciant about this uncertainty. The DUP may have been given assurances that only UK rules will be applied and nothing will be different, in which case I suppose it might believe such assurances. That would be a triumph of hope over experience, because we would not be where we are today—we would not have this Bill to discuss—if the DUP had not been betrayed and misled by the last Prime Minister but one.
My Lords, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to participate, and would have done so earlier had I stood up more quickly. I will address some of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge.
First, the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, touched on the reasons behind Clause 12 and why it is necessary, and I think it is worth reminding noble Lords of the current position following the approval of the Subsidy Control Act. Under the provisions of that Act, Northern Ireland is specifically excluded from the UK subsidy scheme. Therefore, we are subject, as per Article 10 of the Northern Ireland protocol, to EU state aid laws, and all the laws listed in Annexe 5 to the protocol shall apply to the UK
“in respect of measures which affect that trade between Northern Ireland and the Union which is subject to this Protocol.”
I have spoken to Invest Northern Ireland—the body that looks after foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland—about these matters. In effect, while the UK is setting up a new, more flexible state aid regime, under Article 10 of the protocol the UK subsidy control regime would apply only to about 50% of the financial support that will be provided to Northern Ireland, with the remainder continuing to fall within the scope of EU state aid rules, applying mainly to the manufacturing of goods.
So, Northern Ireland will be forced to adhere to the strict rules and conditions of EU law on things such as no expansions, maximum grant rates, only new establishments and so on, and when the projects are large or outside the scope of the exemption regulations, Northern Ireland will have to seek European Commission approval. Effectively, we have two regimes which are very different in policy terms and practical effect. Under the UK scheme, things effectively will be automatically approved unless specifically prohibited, and in Northern Ireland, under EU rules, everything will be prohibited unless approved—very different policies, and two very different systems operating in one country.
The reasons behind Clause 12 are sound; otherwise, there will be no level playing field across the United Kingdom for state aid. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, talked about uncertainty, but Invest NI has expressed concerns about the application of this dual regime. We will be at a disadvantage compared to other parts of the UK competing for inward investment. Other parts could be much more attractive as a location for investment as a result of not having to wait for European Commission approvals, for instance. Northern Ireland approvals will take significantly longer than the new timescales envisaged in the Subsidy Control Act for the rest of the United Kingdom. Other areas could have far fewer conditions or restrictions and might well receive greater levels of funding and subsidy than will be possible under the EU regime in Northern Ireland, which prohibits subsidies greater than 50%, whereas under the Act subsidies should be “proportionate”, but no maximum is specified.
Indeed, your Lordships’ Select Committee on the protocol in Northern Ireland, on which I am honoured to sit, wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, on this matter. He responded by letter on
“in some cases a more flexible approach will be available in Great Britain than in Northern Ireland and that this could affect all subsidies relating to trade in goods.”
There are real concerns about the application of EU state aid to Northern Ireland when it is not applicable to the rest of the United Kingdom.
On the issue of what replaces the EU regime for Northern Ireland, I have heard what has been said. That is why I am on record in this House as agreeing with the Opposition Front Bench that we need to see the regulations, and they should be published in good time for your Lordships to consider in detail. It is not enough simply to have broad outlines of policy or indications of where it might go; we need to see the regulations at the same time as the legislation. I fully accept that this should be done, and I said so in a previous debate.
I understand also the very strong opinions, many of which I share, on the idea of giving the Executive more and more power at the expense of the legislature. However, I ask noble Lords to bear in mind the situation we are faced with in Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol. Powers have been taken away in 300 areas of law affecting the economy in Northern Ireland. Powers have been taken away from this House, this Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont, and handed over to the European Commission in Brussels, which initiates law in all those areas.
Noble Lords have expressed great dissatisfaction with the idea, which is regrettable in many cases, that one of His Majesty’s Ministers may be able to sit down with a pen and paper or an iPad and write what comes to mind; but we have a situation where somebody in the European Commission building in Brussels—I do not know who or where they will be, or their name; they are certainly not accountable to anyone here or in Northern Ireland—will write laws for Northern Ireland. It will not be a question of putting them down in statutory instruments, which this House may reject—although we have heard that it hardly ever rejects them. There will be no system of approval or disapproval at all. There will be dynamic alignment of the laws of the European Union with Northern Ireland. Legislators and the people of Northern Ireland will be handed those laws by the European Commission and told: “That’s the law you’re now operating.” Those laws are not necessarily going to be made in the interests of Northern Ireland. They are made by people who have their own interests.
I understand why noble Lords may rail against the delegated powers in this Bill, but why is not the much greater problem of the powers that have been given to Brussels to impose laws directly on part of the United Kingdom in the 21st century a subject for even more outrage? People may say that the Government signed up to this. I agree—they did, against our advice. We voted against it, as did other noble Lords in this House and Members of the other place. But we have this problem and we need to fix it. If it cannot be fixed, we are in serious trouble. I hope that negotiations and the negotiating mandate of the European Union will change to allow these things to be negotiated, but there is no sign of that thus far. If they do not change, this sovereign Parliament must take action to protect the people of Northern Ireland against laws imposed on them. Surely that should have the support of all true democrats in this mother of Parliaments.
My Lords, listening to the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, just then, my mind drifted back a decade or so to a debate in the domed hemicycle in Strasbourg on the issue of state aid in a neighbouring jurisdiction, one that was partially under single market regulation; namely, Switzerland. One after another the MEPs from different groups got up and fulminated against the unfair competition and unfair subsidies that were being carried out in particular Swiss cantons. It became clear as they spoke that what they regarded as unfair subsidies were lower taxes—lower corporation and business taxes, and a lower VAT rate. My point is that what we regard as an objective measure will not necessarily be seen that way in Brussels when it has full control of these things.
I did not make the wise life choices that my noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley did, so I have no idea how efficacious these vehicles are, but surely that is an issue that ought to be determined through our own national democratic mechanisms and procedures, rather than handed to us by people over whom we have no control. It is this point of trade-offs that I think is being missed.
Of course, how could one not be persuaded by the customary wry, terse brilliance of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in the way he phrases the problem of executive overreach? I think that all of us on all sides recognise the problem. But we are dealing with a world of imperfections, and the alternative is an also unconstrained, and to some degree arbitrary, power where decisions are made, often by middle-ranking European Commissioners who are not accountable to anyone. Inadequate as the statutory instrument is, there is some mechanism of control here. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, just explained, we will have a situation where the state aid regime in Northern Ireland is being imposed by people who are completely outside the democratic process.
Now, I very much hope that this Bill goes through without these amendments. I realise that I am a very lonely supporter of it in these debates, but I hope that once it has gone through, Northern Ireland can become a bridge between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and a forum for co-operation. But that will be possible only if we live up not only to the Belfast Agreement but to the wider principles on which it rests: above all, representative government and a proper link between taxation, representation and expenditure.
My Lords, there has been much discussion today, and it goes back to the issue of democratic deficit and how we deal with what Northern Ireland’s public representatives cannot deal with. There is a very simple solution. Under the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, amended by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, provision was made for the institutions according to a three-stranded approach: the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, the North/South Ministerial Council, and the British-Irish Council, with east-west, north-south, and internal to Northern Ireland being addressed.
At the moment, we have no Northern Ireland Assembly, no Northern Ireland Executive and no North/South Ministerial Council that would hold these matters to account and address that democratic deficit. I would say to the DUP: there is a duty and an obligation to ensure, working with all the parties in Northern Ireland and both Governments, that those institutions are up and running. That will allow all of these issues to be adequately addressed by the MLAs who were duly elected in May.
My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, but, before doing so, I repeat what I said the other day: I feel extreme discomfort about the extensive reliance on Henry VIII clauses in this legislation. I sit near enough to the Convenor to almost feel partly convened on the issue of Henry VIII legislation: he and the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, did suggest how this particularly egregious example of it could be constrained a little. However, I think neither was here when I posed the question of what the structural alternative was, in the context of negotiations, to relying on Henry VIII legislation. I still await a satisfactory answer to that question.
To return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, I share an interest with him in the EIS, because I was the Secretary of State who introduced them. I had forgotten that I was until he reminded me. Indeed, slightly earlier, when I was invited to speak on the 25th anniversary of their formation, I found that I was the warm-up act for Mike Yarwood at that event. But they are important and have been useful. They, at present, will cease under EU legislation unless that EU legislation ceases to apply in this country.
I want to make a general point, which I made earlier: the protocol is intrinsically temporary under European law. The Europeans themselves said, while we were negotiating the withdrawal agreement, that they could not, under Article 50, enter into a permanent relationship with the United Kingdom. Any arrangements reached under that agreement could only be temporary and transitional. Consequently, the protocol is transitional and temporary and not permanent. Indeed, in Mrs May’s protocol, it specifically said in the recital that the withdrawal Act, which is based on Article 50, does not aim to establish a permanent future relationship between the EU and the UK.
Subsequently, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, wrote in a letter to the Times that
“the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland states that the objective of the withdrawal agreement ‘is not to establish a permanent relationship between the Union and the UK’. If, therefore, the UK and the EU were unable to reach an agreement on Northern Ireland/Ireland, despite good faith negotiations … the UK would be entitled to terminate the withdrawal agreement under Article 62 of the Vienna convention on the Law of Treaties.”
It may be said that the final version did not include the recital that referred to Article 50. But it is still negotiated under Article 50. It still lacks any legal basis under Article 50. It is still temporary and transitional under Article 50. Therefore, if the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is to be believed, it can be repudiated if, after good-faith negotiations, we cannot reach a satisfactory alternative.
Moreover, the final treaty omits not only the recital but the phrase that was in the original protocol but is not in the final one, that the provisions of the protocol shall apply
“unless and until they are superseded by a subsequent agreement.”
So it no longer contains that claim to permanence which the original protocol negotiated by Mrs May did.
So it is very clear that the original approach laid down in Article 50 was that you could enter into temporary and transitional arrangements which were necessary to ensure that, in case there was no final agreement, no subsequent TCA, there would be some appropriate arrangements for the Northern Ireland border. It was expected that if subsequently they could not enter into negotiations until they had completed the withdrawal agreement under Article 50, under the TCA that would deal with such things as subsidy arrangements. Largely, it did deal with such things as subsidy arrangements, and they should not be dealt with under a temporary protocol which ceases to have any validity if, after good-faith negotiations, we fail to reach an agreement. We should then repudiate it, accepting the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.
There are many difficulties with that argument, the first being that there are good-faith negotiations that the United Kingdom is involved in. One cannot assume that they will not succeed. We do have a protocol.
The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, made a point which has been made previously in Committee, concerning the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. There is a provision in the protocol that expressly addresses democratic consent in Northern Ireland: Article 18. It sets out a detailed procedure to ensure that there is democratic consent, and it requires in detail provisions to ensure the consent, in due course, of both communities, the nationalist and the unionist. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, will say that it is far from perfect and that he does not like the detail set out there—but that is what we agreed. It simply cannot be said that the subject of democratic consent has been ignored. It was negotiated and it was agreed.
Does the noble Lord accept that the provisions of Article 18 are contrary to the agreement that was made between the European Union and the UK Government in December 2017? Article 50 of the joint report said that before there could be any regulatory difference between Northern Ireland the rest of the United Kingdom, there had to be the assent of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive. The current arrangements are in breach of an EU-UK agreement and the process for giving consent is deliberately made a non-cross-community vote, contrary to the Belfast agreement.
It is elementary as a matter of diplomacy and of international law that a country is perfectly entitled to reach a new agreement in the circumstances as they then exist. That is what happened when the protocol was agreed. Both sides agreed a mechanism in Article 18 for ensuring democratic consent.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for effectively giving way. He rightly said, both in his letter to the Times and his remarks today, that, as long as there was good faith, fair enough, but if good-faith negotiations failed to reach an agreement—not if there was any lack of good faith, I think—we would be entitled under Article 62 to repudiate the treaty.
Certainly, the EU is showing a lack of fulsome good faith in two respects. First, it is refusing to accept in the current negotiations that any change to the protocol can be made—only to its implementation. Secondly, it is repudiating its original position that it could not enter into a permanent arrangement, which was the whole basis of the negotiations we entered into under Article 50. It is now trying to make something which was intrinsically temporary, and which it said could be only temporary and provisional, into something permanent. I would have thought that, in both respects, had the British Government taken such positions, he and his friendly noble Lords would have denounced it as an appalling demonstration of bad faith.
If the noble Lord’s position is that the EU is acting in bad faith, the United Kingdom, if it takes that view, is perfectly entitled to use the procedures set out in the protocol of independent arbitration—if it does not like that, it can go to the Court of Justice—to resolve any dispute. What the United Kingdom cannot do is ignore the dispute resolution mechanisms that are set out in the protocol and simply make an assertion that it thinks there is no good faith. Indeed, I had not understood it to be the position of the Government at the moment that there was no good faith. They are about to enter into negotiations.
My Lords, it is certainly my understanding that the negotiations are being undertaken in good faith on both sides, and it would be useful to have that confirmed by Ministers when they reply.
There are a few issues here, but I say first that it is very helpful to have the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, make his contribution on his concerns about chapter 10 of the protocol, because sometimes our discussions can get a little philosophical—that may be the wrong word—and it is very helpful to have them grounded in reality. His view is that he does not want a scheme that is any different to that which exists in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is understood and we know why he thinks that. We may not feel that it is realistic in the circumstances that we find ourselves in after Brexit, but there are most certainly good prospects to negotiate, come to agreement and perhaps find exemptions that would give him close enough to what he needs to be able to move us forward and give clarity and certainty to businesses in Northern Ireland, which is surely what we all want to see.
I am worried about the potential for retaliatory measures should Clause 12 of the Bill come into force. We know that this is something the EU is deeply concerned about. That does not mean that we cannot negotiate a much better position for ourselves, but there is the prospect of some form of retaliatory measure being forthcoming from the EU. I would like to know from the Minister what assessment has been made of the potential for this—although I am not quite sure which Minister to address my gaze to on this.
That is helpful, thank you. What kind of measures do we anticipate, and what would be their impact? It is all very well to play hardball and say, “This is what we will do”, but that will always have a consequence and we need to understand what that might be. Not to do so would be deeply irresponsible.
Then there is the issue of powers. A lot has been said and I agree with pretty much all of it. Clause 12(3), which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, referred to, says
“may, by regulations, make any provision which the Minister considers appropriate in connection with any provision of the … Protocol to which this section relates.”
That is incredibly broad and we ask whether it is necessary for it to be so broad. If I have understood the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, correctly, he seeks to put some sort of frame around it. We are all very concerned about where those powers might lead us.
The problem is that we have to look at this in conjunction with the Subsidy Control Act, which is itself very broad, has powers for Ministers and lacks clarity about what the UK Government intend for Great Britain’s subsidy regime. We are compounding one unknown with another. That is quite a lot for noble Lords to swallow. We have been asked to show a lot of faith in Ministers when really what we need, and what the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, has signalled he would like too, is some more information and draft regulations. We want to know where we are going with all this so that we can assess whether it will be the right approach to benefit businesses in Northern Ireland and answer the challenge made by the DUP. At the moment, I can see a set of circumstances in which it would not.
It is right that these issues are resolvable only by negotiation; we all know that. We have to start accepting that and asking ourselves whether the Bill’s approach will assist those negotiations in reaching a positive outcome. My noble friend Lady Ritchie said that this is something where we want the voice of the Northern Ireland Assembly. We want to know what MLAs from all communities have to say. It really matters that we hear from all sides, because this is about solving problems, not making things worse. The Bill really does risk making things worse.
The only other thing I would add is that there is now a different subsidy control regime in Great Britain, but where are this interventionist Conservative Government, who are making use of their new powers up and down the country? Speaking as somebody from the north-east of England, we see lots of tinkering and plenty of things that we could have done whether we were in or outside the EU. I do not particularly see that there will be the massive difference that warrants the kind of tension this is leading to. I suggest that the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and my own are designed to be helpful. These are issues that we will not make progress on through this Bill.
I agree with the noble Baroness that I was trying to create a framework, in a very amateurish way that is way above my normal pay grade. I take her point that she is trying to do the same thing with her Amendment 18, which is sensible, but does she think removing Clause 12 would weaken or strengthen our hand in the negotiations? If a vote on the clause standing part was to take place, what would be her plans for those people planning EIS investments in the future?
That is a very helpful question. I do not think the situation is about being with or without Clause 12. The Bill places the future of the regime in Northern Ireland in some doubt because nobody is clear about what is to be negotiated, what the outcome will be and what the rules will be. Even with Clause 12 in the Bill, we do not know the answer to those questions. The negotiations need to pick up pace, and they need political leadership as well as technical negotiations at official level. Experience tells us that you need that leadership—that buy-in and that clout—from the Prime Minister down. That is how you get resolution, and that is the approach I would take. I do not think the Bill, or this clause, are the make-or-break questions to resolve this issue.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and fully acknowledge that there are issues that noble Lords have raised before. In particular, I refer to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who once again, in his usual forensic and specific way, highlighted with great brevity the main issue of concern. I acknowledge that this has been raised by noble Lords during the passage of the Bill. However, I will revert to the specific amendments and seek to provide answers to some of the questions raised. I caveat that by saying that we will review some of the specific technical questions relating to previous debates—and, indeed, to previous Bills and treaties—and ensure that we provide a comprehensive response.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for acknowledging the letter. I hope that having three Ministers on the Front Bench is better than one. It underlines the importance that we attach to your Lordships’ House on the Bill. I also want to say from the outset, on the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised about the extent of the EU mandate, that we shall ask it to change from its earlier negotiating position.
My noble friends Lord Dodds, Lord Lilley and Lord Hannan alluded to the essence of why the Bill is necessary. Of course these things are negotiated. Every contract and treaty is made in good faith. The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, was right to gaze in my direction. We are of course negotiating in good faith. If we were not, it would be a non-starter—it is as simple as that. I mentioned that I was in the last call that we had with the European Commission. We want to pursue a negotiated settlement because we believe it is in the interests of all parties and, in particular, it takes forward the concerns to which my noble friend Lord Dodds alluded. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, that it is important that we hear a broad debate about all the concerns that exist, particularly among all the communities in Northern Ireland.
Turning to Amendment 16 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, the power in Clause 12(3), also referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, is in line with those contained elsewhere in the Bill, but it ensures the proper implementation of the regime set out elsewhere in Clause 12, including taking account of any developments that could arise as a result of changes to the subsidy control landscape.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh raised the issue of agriculture. To respond to her, my understanding is that Clause 12 applies to agricultural subsidies. The purpose of Article 10(2) was to provide the flexibility needed to avoid Northern Ireland businesses losing out from leaving the common agricultural and fisheries policies. Clause 12 achieves flexibility by disapplying EU state aid law, rendering the carve-outs unnecessary. Agriculture and fisheries will be dealt with under the domestic regime. The new domestic regime provides a single coherent framework for all sectors. The inclusion of agriculture and fisheries will protect competition and investment in these areas across all parts of the UK, as it does for other sectors.
My noble friend Lord Dodds also talked about the detail of the regulations. Of course, I accept the importance of the need for the regulations. There will be opportunities to look at the regulations and for them to be scrutinised through normal parliamentary procedures. However, I note the points that have been made by my noble friends and other Peers in this respect. As I indicated earlier in respect of the information that we will seek to provide—
I believe that my noble friend is talking about the ministerial powers that exist here. We have had this debate before as well. We believe that a broader nature is necessary, and that is why “appropriate” is being used: to allow the maximum level of flexibility that the Government believe will be required. Of course, I accept there are differing opinions and views on this. Indeed, in conversations I have had, including with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, to which I have alluded previously, there have been various Bills that have gone through your Lordships’ House where this discussion about “appropriate” and “necessary” has taken place, particularly with regard to the powers of Ministers and how those might be exercised. Of course, I note the point my noble friend is making.
The issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on TCA structures and state aid continues. TCA structures allow disputes to be raised, and the withdrawal agreement also provides structures for consultations as well. That very much remains the case. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, also asked why the Government concluded that they had to remove state aid requirements from the protocol. The Government have been clear about the problems caused in practice by Article 10 of the protocol. This was first raised in our Command Paper in July 2021.
The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, talked about a trigger point. Partly, this has been a culmination of the evidence and the practical experience, as was articulated by my noble friend Lord Dodds. The current system of operating two subsidy control systems within one country has created complexity and uncertainty, which is impacting policy across the UK. Irrespective of how noble Lords are approaching this Bill, either in support of or against what the Government are proposing, we all recognise that what needs to be resolved is the situation in Northern Ireland. Article 10 has also placed considerable administrative and legal burdens on businesses; for example, facing detailed questions about their operations from authorities to establish whether subsidies could be in scope of the protocol itself.
I have already referred to the powers. Noble Lords have been very articulate in making their concerns about the powers known but, again, I have underlined the importance of the necessity of these powers. To demonstrate in detail, in the previous day in Committee, we alluded to what this would require if everything was put into primary legislation.
Turning to Amendments 17 and 19, tabled by my noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley, I am grateful for my noble friend’s contribution and for his reaching out to officials before this debate. My noble friend has powerfully illustrated the problems arising from Article 10 of the protocol and how they can arise in unexpected places across the United Kingdom and our economy. Article 10 can lead to uncertainty and delays in the delivery of subsidy schemes in Northern Ireland in comparison with Great Britain. They are exactly the sorts of problems that Clause 12 is seeking and intending to resolve, including to unleash further investment, to which my noble friend alluded, across the whole of the United Kingdom. The concurrent operation of two subsidy control regimes is a fundamental challenge for public authorities and beneficiaries across the UK. The solution put forward in the Bill truly addresses the challenges the Government believe exist, and will provide certainty across the UK.
Can I take from what the Minister said that the intention is that there would be one UK-wide scheme? If that is the case, that surely could go in the Bill.
I acknowledge what the noble Baroness has said. As I said, what we are looking to do in the basis of the Bill is to provide clarity and simplification in the current procedures.
No, I think we are. That is exactly what we are seeking to do. It is clear that the noble Baroness remains unconvinced.
Turning back to the amendments themselves—
I do not think it is clear; I do not understand. If the wish of the Government is to apply UK state aid laws in Northern Ireland—and that would be the wish of the noble Lord, Lord Dodds —why does the Bill not say that? Why, instead, does it import this uncertainty, which would be continuing far into the future, because the regulations applying in Northern Ireland would depend on the whim of the Minister, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, pointed out?
I have listened again to the noble Lord and, if I may, just for clarity, I will ensure that I get a full response to this. I will check with my officials again and provide the added clarity that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord are seeking. If that needs to be followed up in writing, I will, of course, do so as well. Ultimately, I stand by what I said earlier, that what we are seeking to do here is to address the specific issues that there are in practical terms.
My noble friend’s concerns about the scope of the Bill’s delegated powers were raised by other noble Lords. I hope that I can reassure my noble friend that the power may already be exercised only to make appropriate provision in connection with the exclusion of Article 10 of the protocol and the domestic provision that Clause 12 places on it. This provides a clear and limited framework for what the power can do; providing further constraints would provide additional uncertainty to businesses and consumers. In this case, it would put off, and potentially circumscribe, the ability to facilitate an effective domestic subsidy control regime that applies to the whole of the UK, leaving Northern Ireland being treated unfairly compared with the rest of the UK.
The Government are aware that regulations with retrospective effect are exceptional. However, it is clear that the continuing application of the state aid acquis in Northern Ireland has led to a sense of disconnection for many people, particularly the unionist parties, and puts the re-establishment of power-sharing arrangements at risk. As the EU state aid acquis is removed, it may be necessary to ensure that actions granted under the regime are appropriately reconciled with the UK regime. Removing Ministers’ ability to make retrospective provision, which was mentioned by several noble Lords, could undermine the Government’s ability to ensure a single, coherent, domestic subsidy control programme throughout the UK. It would also, in the Government’s view, create further uncertainty for businesses in Northern Ireland and across the UK. Any such regulations would already be subject to the higher level of scrutiny in the House. I know that my noble friend is concerned about creating uncertainty for investors, to which he alluded in his contribution. I hope he is reassured by what I have said: that the Government’s intention in this case is only to provide certainty. There will be time to examine any subsequent regulations.
The amendment also seeks to ensure that the power can make incidental and transitory provision. I am happy to be able to inform my noble friend that this is already the case by virtue of the operation of Clause 22(2)(e). The amendment also seeks to make necessary regulations subject to annulment by Parliament. We will, of course, debate this further when we reach Clause 22, but the Government’s proposition is that this is appropriate when regulations are making retrospective provision or amending an Act of Parliament, but that it would not be the appropriate level of scrutiny for other instruments making what are likely to be smaller or more technical free-standing provisions. I hope, for these reasons, that my noble friend will be minded to not move his amendment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, spoke to Amendment 18. We have had these discussions before, and she will know that the Government’s position remains the same; my noble friend also alluded to this a few moments ago. The Government’s position remains that “appropriate” gives the correct degree of ministerial discretion, with substantial but constrained powers, which this House ultimately accepted on Acts including the EU withdrawal Act, the withdrawal agreement Act, the Trade Act and the sanctions Act. The use of those powers has shown that appropriateness stands the test and is resilient to the kind of abuse that noble Lords have alluded to and feared. I accept what my noble friend Lord Cormack said about the test for any Minister in government and the powers given by a government Bill to those who may be in power at some future point, but at the same time, as I said, previous Acts have been passed and have stood that test.
I move briefly to Clause 12 standing part of the Bill. Clause 12 provides the basis for a single, UK-wide subsidy control policy—a point on which the noble Baroness sought clarification—rather than two separate regimes, as currently provided for under the Northern Ireland protocol. Once commenced, this clause will provide legal certainty and confidence, on the basis of which businesses can receive subsidies. We believe it provides clarity in domestic law that Article 10 is disapplied. Any subsidies that would have been notifiable under Article 10 will no longer need to be notified to the EU.
The clause also amends Section 48(3) of the Subsidy Control Act so that UK subsidy control requirements apply in Northern Ireland. Clause 12(3) provides powers for a Minister to make appropriate provisions in connection with any part of the Northern Ireland protocol to which the clause relates. The Government believe this clause is vital in facilitating a single domestic subsidy control regime applying throughout the UK, thereby giving businesses in Northern Ireland and across the UK greater certainty, and I therefore recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.
I know that more general issues have been raised in this debate and previously, and I am sure they will be raised in our future discussions in Committee. I hope I have provided detail, to the extent I can, on some of the questions, issues and concerns raised. Equally, I give the added assurance, as we have in previous Committee stages, that I shall write to the relevant noble Lords if there is further clarity or detail to be provided.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the Minister’s response. He knows that I respect him greatly, but he said the current scheme had complexity and uncertainty and, with great respect, I do not think he added simplicity and clarity regarding the successor scheme.
My lack of a social life will bear witness to the fact that I was in for every day of the Committee and Report stages of the Subsidy Control Bill, as I will be for this Bill. I asked about complexities and uncertainties. The Minister replied to me in February:
“To respond to the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that state aid rules would continue to apply even if the UK’s negotiating position were accepted, these are specific and limited circumstances. I trust that this will allay the Committee’s concerns on this important issue.”—[Official Report, 2/2/22; col. GC 244.]
The Minister is now saying that those “specific and limited circumstances”, which the Government said would result if they were successful in their negotiations, will be impossible to secure, so they are now seeking sweeping powers. He did not indicate when that policy change happened. It is a major change, and I simply do not know when it happened.
“This dual market access position means that Northern Ireland can become a gateway for the sale of goods … This is a unique proposition … These additional benefits”.
Invest NI is using dual market access to promote Northern Ireland. The Government may be right that this is now acting to the disbenefit of Northern Ireland, and we have asked for evidence for this. If they are designing a new scheme, the real risk, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, indicated, is that uncertainty will have a major chill effect that will bring about the very things the Government say they are concerned about.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, that we are asked to legislate for unknown unknowns. On Monday I called these “Rumsfeld clauses”. The Government are seeking powers for known unknowns, but if they get it wrong in the future—which they do not know about—they want powers to deal with it now. The problem is that none of the powers in this Bill, which is replacing the Subsidy Control Act, has any of the restrictions and requirements of the regulating powers of that Act. The breadth of the powers goes way beyond the Subsidy Control Act, which is now proposed to be a single element.
Supposedly, these powers are simply for what Ministers consider appropriate, but I am not sure that a Minister would ever think their actions inappropriate when they bring forward proposals. It is for the law to say what is not appropriate in regulations; that is our job. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is absolutely right: it is not about what just Ministers or even necessarily just opponents on the Opposition Benches might use. It might be their successors as Conservative Ministers—we have had a fair few of them—who completely change policy. This is so broad.
A point of substantial importance is that there is a deep inconsistency in the Bill. The Government seem to think that it is acceptable to have a dual regulatory regime for goods but one route for subsidised goods. I have seen no mechanism that might cover a subsidised good. I really do not know whether that situation is clear.
With the greatest respect to the Minister, I do not think the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, received a sufficient response to her question. She will make up her own mind about this, of course. Agricultural subsidies are not included in the Subsidy Control Act—we debated this long and hard—and although the Minister said that this will now be covered in the proposals, I do not know where. The danger is that there is now an enormous black hole in the provision of agricultural subsidies. Given the agricultural support scheme announced earlier this year, I do not think it fair to have these concerns.
I do not think the Minister has satisfied the Committee. I hope that he and his officials will reflect on Hansard and provide more of the information we want to see. Unless the Government’s proposals are made much clearer, significant doubt will remain. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 16 withdrawn.
Amendments 17 to 19 not moved.
Clause 12 agreed.
Clause 13: Implementation, application, supervision and enforcement of the Protocol
Amendment 19A not moved.