Economic Growth (Regulatory Functions) (Amendment) Order 2024 - Motion to Approve (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:02 pm on 15 April 2024.

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Photo of Lord Leong Lord Leong Shadow Spokesperson (Business and Trade), Opposition Whip (Lords) 7:02, 15 April 2024

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the regulation and all noble Lords who have spoken. Every day, we hear of sewage dumping. On average, a sewage dumping event now takes place every two and a half minutes. The lack of investment in our water systems over the past 14 years is a scandal that is increasingly hard to ignore. Billions have been extracted in shareholder dividends and millions in bosses’ bonuses, all while delivering a deteriorating system.

During the passage of the Environment Act, Conservative MPs had the opportunity to support a Labour-backed amendment that would have brought an end to sewage dumping. Of course, they did not do so. We should be extracting sewage from water supplies, not extracting value in unjustified dividends and overleveraged debt. Let us imagine the economic growth, the skilled jobs and supply chains that could have been created if, instead, this money had been funnelled into developing creaking infrastructure, repairing and upgrading pipelines, and preparing for the predicted increase in demand and increasing rainfall.

The Labour Party has long been making the case for the increasingly urgent need to invest for the long term and to improve quality in the short and medium term. So on this issue we agree with the Government that bringing these three regulators within scope of the growth duty will help to ensure they consider how best to promote growth in their sectors.

However, making the changes required by this instrument will obviously require dedicated resources within Ofcom, Ofwat and Ofgem. As the amendment to the Motion makes clear, these regulators already have a lot on their plates, so can the Minister indicate how they are expected to juggle this as well? Are the Government confident that the regulators have the capacity to deliver to the full extent that the order demands?

Like the regulators, we want to support businesses and stimulate the vital investment needed to ensure a quality service to current and future consumers. For example, Labour’s plan to establish “GB Energy” would create half a million new skilled jobs in the industries of the future, rebuild the strength of our industrial heartlands and reduce energy costs and carbon pollution. Labour is already thinking ambitiously about the long-term future of this country.

Given that the Government’s order is about long-term growth, could the Minister explain over what timeline they expect to see the benefits of the change, and over what timeline they will be reviewing its impact?

As far as Ofcom is concerned, the growth duty will also not apply to its regulatory functions under Part 3 of the Enterprise Act 2002, which concern mergers. In particular, it will ensure that Ofcom is not required to consider other factors when providing advice to the Secretary of State on the public interest considerations on media merger cases. Can the Minister explain the reasoning for that very specific exception?

In this regulator’s sector in particular, many noble Lords will know that I am passionately interested in the enormous potential for growth in our telecoms industry, especially in AI, but the world will not wait for us. We risk missing out on exploiting the potential commercial benefits from our world-leading research base if we do not have a clear industrial strategy, if we do not encourage and invest in tech start-ups and scale-ups, and if we do not develop a serious regulatory presence alongside the USA and the EU as global standards are being established.

To conclude, we support bringing the three regulators within the scope of the growth duty, but we regret—who could not?—the failure of the Government to prioritise the sanctioning of polluters and the cleanliness of waterways. Just last month, rowers in the world-famous boat race, some of the fittest people in the nation, fell sick because of their exposure to the water in the Thames. I would be hard pushed to invent a metaphor more apt to sum up why this Government have so comprehensively failed—on regulation, on public health, for young people today and in investing in their tomorrows. Labour stands ready to deliver the decade of national renewal that this country self-evidently needs.

While we support the regulation, we acknowledge the amendment to the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. We must address the sanctions needed against short-term profiteering by the CEOs of utility companies enriching themselves. I look forward to the Minister’s response.