Amendment proposed: 33, in clause 36, page 19, line 17, after “requirements” insert
“with the exception of duties under section 33,”.—(Kirsty Blackman.)
This amendment requires that Minimum financial assistance under £315,000 is subject to the subsidy database requirements in clause 33, despite being exempt from the other control requirements in Part 2.
The exemption allows public authorities to award low-value subsidies of up to £315,000 over three years with maximum flexibility and minimal administrative burden. Subsidies given through the minimal financial assistance exemption are very unlikely to have any appreciable distortive impact on international trade and investment, or UK competition and investment, so it is appropriate to exempt them from the substantive requirements of the regime, subject to the value threshold set out in the clause and the relevant procedural requirements set out in clause 37.
I continue to believe that subsection (2) of the clause is meaningless and unpoliceable because of the way that the subsidy control database is being put together. I would very much like it if the Minister would, either now or at some future point, in writing preferably, let us know how the Government intend to ensure that public authorities are able to find out whether an organisation has had a subsidy before, what its value was, and whether the subsidy that it will potentially award to that organisation will push it over the £315,000 limit.
There is no point in the clause if there is no way in which it can work because of the Government’s decisions on how the database is run. I am very pleased that a public authority will have to write a letter to an organisation to say, “We’re giving you a subsidy under the minimal financial assistance scheme,” but that does not go far enough. It may be helpful if it had to write a letter to all granting authorities, because then they would all be aware of the subsidy that had been given, and they could take decisions. This is an unfair and not sensible burden to put on granting authorities, because there is no way that they can ensure that they are abiding by the law, or get the transparency data to prove that they have done so.
We will not support clause stand part. My contribution will build on the arguments made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North. We debated amendment 33, which I think went part way to covering some of our concerns, but our concerns are broader, in questioning the exemptions from some of the control requirements.
The clause outlines subsidies that are exempt from the subsidy control principles, stating that the principles do not apply to subsidies worth less than £315,000 to one enterprise over three years. We believe that subsidy control principles exist for a reason; we are having these debates and setting up this regime for a reason. Subsidies should help to pursue a specific policy objective. They should be proportionate. They should encourage certain behaviours. They should not fund unnecessary costs. They should not be distortive or cause overwhelmingly negative effects. They should not affect competition and investment within the UK. Those principles should stand regardless of the size of the subsidy.
A subsidy being smaller does not mean that it cannot be disproportionate or bring about negative effects. All subsidies have the power potentially to harm the economy. They should be transparent and subject to scrutiny and the potential for challenge, and therefore all should be required to be in line with the subsidy control principles. I have not heard anything from the Minister, although he may yet persuade me otherwise, about why the clause is needed and why the Bill cannot require all subsidies to be transparent and in line with the subsidy control principles—it is the Subsidy Control Bill.
Clause 37, as we will discuss in a second, states that the public authority has to confirm with the enterprise that the subsidy is still below the threshold. That is the right balance for a proper process to confirm that the threshold is respected without applying disproportionate burdens of oversight for small subsidies that are unlikely to be distortive in any way. Although the regime is light touch, it still imposes some obligations, and it is not proportionate to impose them on very small subsidies that are unlikely to have an impact on trade and competition. For that reason, we feel that the balance is right between the transparency required to make sure that the subsidies are made and reported, and that we can understand the effect and distortion they may have, and the administrative burden that will be put on public authorities and those smaller businesses.