Clause 42 - Chapter 2: supplementary and interpretative provision

Subsidy Control Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 2nd November 2021.

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Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade)

I beg to move amendment 45, in clause 42, page 23, line 43, at end insert—

“(1A) Before making regulations under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must seek the consent of the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland.

(1B) If consent to the making of the regulations under subsection 11(A) is not given by any of those authorities listed in subsection (1A) within the period of one month beginning with the day on which it is sought from that authority, the Secretary of State may make the regulations without that consent.

(1C) If regulations are made in reliance on subsection 1(6B5), the Secretary of State must make a statement to the House of Commons explaining why the Secretary of State decided to make the regulations without the consent of the authority or authorities concerned.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to seek the consent of the Devolved Administrations before making regulations under this section. Where such consent is not given within one month beginning on the day in which it is sought, the Secretary of State may make the regulations without that consent, but must publish a statement explaining their decision.

So much confusion today, in so many ways, in dealing with the Bill and in some of what is going on in the Bill, Ms Nokes, but there we are. It is all set to make the afternoon go by in a more entertaining fashion.

As with many aspects of the Bill, the clause fails to take into consideration the important role that the devolved Administrations have in state aid governance. The ability to impose regulations unilaterally by secondary legislation, without seeking the consent of the devolved Administrations, is inconsistent with the approach that Labour has sought to instil in Committee—to consider the devolved Administrations as public authorities equal in responsibility for state aid to the responsibilities of the Secretary of State.

Devolved Administrations are on balance more likely to understand what subsidies will be most beneficial for their respective nations than the Secretary of State. That includes such matters as setting the value thresholds for the minimal financial assistance and services of public economic interest assistance exemptions, as well as the transparency exemption for SPEI assistance. Last week, Daniel Greenberg told us in evidence that

‘throughout the Bill, you see “Secretary of State, Secretary of State, Secretary of State”—all powers of HMG—and you think, “Hold on, the devolved institutions are also public authorities. They appear in the list of public authorities in clause 6, so why is it that they do not also share Secretary of State powers?”’––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 61, Q80.]

We of course understand the role of the Westminster Government in the creation and operation of the UK subsidy regime, but preventing the devolved Administrations from creating streamlined schemes undermines their important role in our democratic infrastructure, as well as their responsibilities for their respective nations. We therefore seek to amend clause 42 to allow Welsh Ministers, Scottish Ministers and the Northern Ireland Department to require the Secretary of State to seek the consent of the devolved Administrations before making regulations under the clause. Where such consent is not given within one month, beginning on the day on which it is sought, the Secretary of State may make the regulations without it but must publish a statement explaining the decision. We believe that the amendment would help to increase the effectiveness of subsidies across the UK and respects the role of the devolved Administrations.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

The Government welcome the ongoing interest that the devolved Administrations have in the Bill, and that the Opposition have in this area. We understand how important it is to set the right thresholds for minimal financial assistance and services of public economic interest assistance, and to set the right reporting threshold for SPEI subsidies. Setting the appropriate thresholds for those categories of subsidy is key to balancing the administrative burden on public authorities, ensuring that proportionate levels of transparency are met and that we remain in line with our international obligations.

The hon. Member for Sefton Central will be aware that in the Government’s response to the consultation on subsidy control we committed to considering whether the threshold at which agricultural subsidies should be classed as minimal financial assistance should be different from that for other subsidies. That decision will be taken after further consideration, before the Bill comes into force. It is right that the regulations under the clause are scrutinised. The Bill provides for that by requiring that they will be subject to the affirmative procedure and will be debated and approved by both Houses in draft before they can be made. The UK Parliament is the right place to scrutinise any regulations made under the clause.

To reassure Members present, I reiterate that we have had numerous discussions with Ministers and officials in the Scottish Government, the Welsh Senedd and the Northern Ireland Executive while drafting the Bill, and since its introduction. We are committed to engaging regularly with the devolved Administrations, taking account of their views, as the Bill progresses through Parliament and in the run-up to its implementation. That includes engagement on the thresholds for those categories of subsidy, both in the round and on a sector-specific basis, so I ask that the hon. Member withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade)

I have to pick the Minister up on this: he thanks Members for our ongoing interest in the Committee’s deliberations, and the devolved Administrations for their interest. Come on. We are supposed to have a four-nation system. I think it is a bit more than just showing ongoing interest. Perhaps he can tell us the result of the discussions and the consultation feedback on the clause. What was the devolved Administrations’ response? Did they say that they were happy with the clause, or did they want to be in a position to give their consent before the implementation of its provisions? Certainly from what I have seen, they would want the ability to give consent, notwithstanding the importance of the UK-wide system that is in place and the Westminster Government’s role. I would be interested in his response.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I think we have established that subsidy control is a reserved matter. It will be subject to debate, but none the less it is a reserved matter, and it is therefore right that subsidy control policy is made and voted for here in Parliament, which is why I talked about the scrutiny. Parliament is the place to do this. We have engaged on a number of occasions on various aspects of the Bill—34 times at official level and 10 at ministerial level. On top of that, in response to the consultation the different devolved Administrations came up with different views on a number of issues. There was no one consistent view in a number of areas. There are provisions in the Bill that engage the legislative consent motion process, and we hope that the devolved Administrations will not only agree that the Bill is important, but give it their legislative consent.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The Minister keeps saying that the UK Parliament is the right place to deal with this, and we actually agree—that is the sentiment behind the amendment. All the amendment asks is that the UK Government adopt a collaborative approach by checking with the other public authorities, but, if the UK Government feel that they should proceed as originally intended, they should go ahead with it within one month. We are not divided on the question of whether the UK Parliament is the right place to do this. What we are saying is that a collaborative approach would deliver better results for everybody. The Minister should not use the argument that the UK Parliament is the best place to do this, because we actually agree with that.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

The devolved Administrations remain one of the key areas—perhaps the key area—where the subsidies will be given. We are not substantively changing the spending powers of the devolved Administrations, or indeed of any public authority.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Scottish National Party, Aberdeen North

The Minister specifically mentioned agricultural subsidies. Agriculture is devolved to the Scottish Parliament—it is a Scottish parliamentary competency—but he is suggesting that if Westminster intervenes in a devolved competency it is okay for it to not even run it by the Scottish Parliament in any formal way.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

We have not committed to changing the agricultural threshold. We intend to analyse carefully the full implications of lowering the threshold before making any final decision. Why would we want to do that? Because it may be desirable to effectively manage UK competition and investment as a whole. However, this was one area in which our analysis showed that there was no one single response to the consultation. I come back to the point that we will continue to engage closely with the devolved Administrations, as with all public authorities.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Scottish National Party, Aberdeen North

I disagree with the comments of the hon. Member for Aberavon. Clearly, I think that Scotland should be able to make its own decisions and have its own regime. In fact, I think it should be part of the EU and under the state aid regime, which has worked particularly well in an awful lot of areas.

I do not think that the amendment goes far enough. I am happy to support it if it is pushed to a vote, but I would have gone further in making sure that the Scottish Government, Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Senedd and Northern Irish Departments had even more of a say than that proposed by the amendment. If the amendment is pushed to a vote, I will support it on the basis of it being the minimum that I would expect, but I would prefer it to be even stronger.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

Perhaps we could have some clarity as to whether the amendment is to be withdrawn or pushed to a vote.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade)

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon and the hon. Member for Aberdeen North have made some powerful points about why it is so important to get this right. I did not get a satisfactory answer from the Minister. He mentioned engagement having taken place 34 times, but he could not tell me what was said about the point addressed by the amendment, and neither did he answer the points made by Daniel Greenberg last week about why the devolved institutions do not share the Secretary of State’s powers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon has quite rightly said, we are not saying anything different about the role of the UK Government in setting up the subsidy regime. What we are saying is that it would make perfect sense to include and engage properly with the devolved Administrations, not least because they have a much better idea of how to apply subsidies in their areas. We even recognise that there will be times when that would not be possible, which is why we suggest that after a month it would fall to the Secretary of State to make a statement as to why consent had not been sought.

We have done our best to give the Government a way to meet the consultation results and show that they really are serious about a four-nation approach to the new regime. It is a shame that the Minister has not taken that on board, and we will push our amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 13 Subsidy Control Bill — Clause 42 - Chapter 2: supplementary and interpretative provision

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London) 3:30 pm, 2nd November 2021

Clause 42 allows the Government to make certain amendments to the total value thresholds for the exemptions in chapter 2 of part 3, which have been set at the conversion rate between special drawing rights, International Monetary Fund reserved currency, and the pound. The UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement, the TCA, sets the threshold for minimal financial assistance, SPEI assistance, SPEI transparency exemptions and the total value thresholds of SPEI. That means that if the exchange rate changes significantly, the Government may need to amend the thresholds of the Bill to remain compliant with the TCA.

In addition, the EU and the UK may agree to change the special drawing rights amounts set out in the TCA, so the Government must retain the ability to amend the exemption total value thresholds. The Government must have the ability to lower the total value thresholds in response to any new international agreements. Clause 42 also provides a power to specify a lower threshold for minimal SPEI assistance and SPEI transparency exemptions for categories of subsidies. Essentially, these international obligations are why the previous debate is superfluous. Ultimately, the UK Parliament is the right place to discuss changes to thresholds to make sure that we continue to meet our international obligations. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 42 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.