Clause 55 - Call-in direction

Subsidy Control Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 4th November 2021.

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Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade) 12:00 pm, 4th November 2021

I beg to move amendment 52, in clause 55, page 30, line 29, after “Secretary of State” insert

“, the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland”.

This amendment extends the call in powers under this section to the Devolved Administrations.

It is great to see you back in the Chair, Ms Nokes, bright and early this time.

The amendment addresses the call-in powers as they relate to the devolved Administrations. We think that the power to call in is a good power to have in the Bill, but it needs to be consistent and apply to the devolved Administrations, not just to the Secretary of State.

Clause 55 allows the Secretary of State to request an assessment of a subsidy or subsidy scheme if the Secretary of State believes it could be breaking regulations or having negative effects on competition and investment in the United Kingdom. As we have said a number of times, it is important that the First Ministers and the Northern Ireland Department responsible have those same powers. It makes no sense that the Secretary of State should be empowered to call in Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish subsidies that may damage English interests, but the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish leaders cannot call in subsidies that may damage the interests of their own nations. That is what we heard in the evidence sessions.

I start with the evidence from Thomas Pope, deputy chief economist at the Institute for Government, who told us that subsidy control

“affects devolved competence and the operation of policy in all four nations of the UK. I therefore think it is appropriate that there be better devolved representation.”––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 31, Q43.]

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

The hon. Gentleman is wearing a mask, so I will give way.

Photo of Simon Baynes Simon Baynes Conservative, Clwyd South

In the previous discussions on this issue, the opinion of the Bill Committee seemed to be that these matters were the responsibilities of the Secretary of State. It therefore makes no sense to me to devolve those responsibilities to the devolved Administrations. In some of their comments, Opposition Members have fully accepted that these matters are the responsibility of the Secretary of State, because it is a reserved power.

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

Just because the Government keep winning the votes, which they always will do because they have a majority in Parliament and therefore on the Committee, that is not a reason for us to not make valid arguments. This is a slightly different point on our concerns about the failure to reflect the devolution settlement in the Bill. Call-in is a slightly different aspect of the powers needed for a functioning subsidy regime, and it is right that we are raising it at this stage of the deliberations.

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

The hon. Gentleman is wearing a mask, so I will give way.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy

Is it not precisely the point that this does reflect the devolved agreement, because the Secretary of State has those reserved powers?

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

I think the hon. Gentleman missed the point I was making, but there we go. It is entirely appropriate, given that the regime is a four-nation regime, that the four nations have the powers of call-in to the CMA in the way that our amendment sets out.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy

This is an important point, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again so soon. There is no four nations concept within our constitution. We have one United Kingdom Government and three devolved Administrations. Four nations is something reserved for rugby matches and the vernacular—[Interruption.] Indeed, the rugby is six. It is not something within our constitution. He has referred to the four nations on several occasions, and on this occasion I feel it is important and relevant to make that point.

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

I suspect that more than one party would be very interested in repeating those remarks multiple times, certainly in two of the nations of this country. They are called nations within the devolved settlement; we have a devolution settlement that has “four nations” within it. It will be interesting to see how many times the hon. Gentleman is quoted saying that.

I will quote what George Peretz told us about why it matters that there should be a call-in power for all four nations:

“In a situation where an English local authority, the Secretary of State or another UK Government body acting as an English Department does something that is designed to benefit England but causes serious concern in Scotland or Wales, why should the Welsh or Scottish Ministers not be able to do the same thing if the concern is with competition or investment within the United Kingdom? I find it slightly hard to see what the argument against that is.”––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 44, Q63.]

I have not heard from either the hon. Member for Clwyd South or the hon. Member for Aberconwy an argument against what he told us last week.

Rachel Merelie, senior director for the Office for the Internal Market at the CMA, noted:

“It is really important that all granting authorities are treated fairly and equitably, regardless of whether they are in the devolved nations or in England.”––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 69, Q98.]

I am not the only one talking about the devolved nations by any means; we have it from the CMA.

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

The hon. Gentleman does not have a mask on, so I will not. He will be able to make a speech afterwards, as I think one of his colleagues said.

The devolved nations of the United Kingdom cannot be treated as second class when it comes to economic matters that could have potentially monumental impacts on the proper functioning of their markets. The devolved Administrations must have equitable powers with the Secretary of State to call in subsidies where they could be damaging to their own economies.

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

I stand as a proud representative of the nation of Scotland to make a brief speech on amendment 52. The powers that are suggested under clause 55 are limited powers. They are not unlimited powers to call in anything on a whim of the Secretary of State or of anybody else. They can only be called in in relation to subsidies or subsidy schemes of interest, or subsidies or subsidy schemes in which the Secretary of State considers there is a failure to comply with chapters 1 and 2 of part 2, or there is a risk of negative effects on competition or investment within the United Kingdom.

The amendment proposed by the Opposition does not affect that. It would still apply only in the case that the devolved Administrations wanted to call in something that was a scheme of particular interest, or something that the Secretary of State had presumably already called in that was against chapters 1 and 2 of part 2 or where the Secretary of State agreed there were negative effects on competition or investment within the United Kingdom. Those are not, as the Government members of the Committee have suggested, unlimited powers parallel to those of the Secretary of State; they are limited powers. The only time the power would be exercisable is if the schemes were of interest—rather than of particular interest, because they are mandatorily referred—and the three devolved Administrations would be able to call those schemes in. It would be a limited power that would only apply for schemes of interest. I absolutely support the amendment—it makes sense—and we would obviously like it to go further. We have a devolution settlement and this is a proportionate amendment that makes sense in the context.

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

Under the powers in the Bill as drafted, when the Secretary of State decides to exercise the call-in power, that direction has to be published. In addition, the SAU has to provide annual reports on its caseload, including any subsidies and schemes that were called in by the Secretary of State. That transparency will help ensure that the powers are used appropriately and that Parliament has oversight of how and when the powers are being used. Amendment 52 would allow those referrals to the SAU under the terms of clause 55 to be made by devolved Administrations, whereas the Bill provides the power for the sole use of the Secretary of State.

In the majority of cases, the most potentially harmful subsidies will be those that meet the criteria for subsidies of particular interest, which will be set out in regulations, but it is inevitable that there will be some subsidies or schemes that fall outside those boundaries. They will still benefit from the additional scrutiny offered by the SAU.

The call-in power provides a mechanism to catch potentially highly distorted subsidies that may not be caught within the “subsidies of particular interest” definition. It will also provide a safety net where there is a risk of failure to comply with the subsidy control requirements or there is a risk of negative effects of competition and investment within the UK. This is a reserved power and as such the Secretary of State’s responsibilities and interests in making referrals are UK wide. As a member of the UK Government, they are responsible for subsidies granted in all parts of the UK being compliant with our international obligations.

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

I have two questions. I would have expected that “particular interest” would cover anything that does not meet chapters 1 and 2 of part 2 anyway, so it would be nice if the Minister could clarify that point. Secondly, if any of the devolved Administrations request a meeting with the Secretary of State because they are concerned and want the Secretary of State to call something in, would the Secretary of State grant that meeting?

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

On meetings, I am not the Secretary of State, but effectively, yes—we want to engage with the devolved Administrations. We do that on a regular basis, and have done in the formulation of this Bill, as we have discussed many times, and we will continue to do so as we go through guidance and the working of the Bill.

In the event that one or more of the devolved Administrations has serious concerns about a subsidy given or a scheme made, of course they can request that the Secretary of State use that call-in power. The Secretary of State would carefully consider any request from their counterparts in the devolved Administrations, just as they would on any other policy matter. As I say, we have met the devolved Administrations a number of times since July 2020 on the formulation of this Bill. We continue to meet and engage with them regularly, and listen to their views as the Bill progresses through Parliament, and we will do so in the lead up to implementation. I request that the hon. Member for Sefton Central withdraws the amendment.

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

My other question was about the definition of “particular interest”, or “interest”. Subsidies of particular interest will be mandatorily referred, as we have already agreed, but subsides that risk to fail to comply with the requirements of chapter 1 and 2 of part 2 could be referred by the Secretary of State. It would concern me if compliance was not part of schemes of particular interest, or schemes of interest. I understand that some schemes of particular interest would be defined on the basis of the sector they are in and the specific details of the subsidy, but I would expect that lack of compliance with the rules would cause a scheme to be of particular interest anyway. I hope the Minister understands what I am trying to get at here. If a subsidy does not comply with the subsidy control principles, surely it is either not a subsidy—it is not allowed—or it is a scheme of particular interest that would need to be looked at mandatorily, or perhaps optionally, by the CMA.

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

I think I get the general gist of where the hon. Lady is going with that point. That is why, rather than trying to define them as not complying, we are trying to define them specifically at the outset, hence the regulations that we will be putting forward, but there is plenty of opportunity to have that discussion.

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

The hon. Member for Aberdeen North correctly made the point that the amendment asks for a limited set of powers. I set that out using the evidence. We should follow the evidence of people who are experts on these subjects. We had a range of very good witnesses, who set out why there should be the sorts of powers that we are proposing. I cannot help think that there will be occasions when the Secretary of State is making awards. If he, as it says in the Bill, is making those awards, is there not a potential conflict of interest if there is not another way of providing that call-in if there is perceived damage in the other three nations? The Minister might want to respond to that point.

The amendment makes a limited request. The Minister talked about requests to the Secretary of State for a call-in, but a request is not the same as a power. Unless there is that power—potentially in the case of a conflict of interest where the Secretary of State is the awarder—there is a limit to the way the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Administrations can ensure there is a fair application of the system in terms of call-ins. I would be grateful if the Minister could come back on this point about the potential conflict of interest where the Secretary of State is the awarder in relation to the use of call-in powers.

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

As I say, the Secretary of State will be acting on behalf of the UK Government. Subsidy control is a reserved power, as we established in the debate for the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 that we had at length at the end of last year. None the less, there is no special treatment for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There was plenty of opportunity through the publication of the advice and the reason for call-ins, and any enforcement that may need to be done through the Competition Appeal Tribunal to highlight that potential. None the less I think there were enough checks within the structure to avoid that. I hope the hon. Member will withdraw the amendment.

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

I do not think that we got an answer to my question. There is still the concern that if the Secretary of State says no and there are legitimate concerns in the three nations, there needs to be the additional limited opportunity of call-ins. We will push the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 16 Subsidy Control Bill — Clause 55 - Call-in direction

Aye: 4 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 8.

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) 12:30 pm, 4th November 2021

Clause 55 gives the Secretary of State the ability to direct a public authority to request a report from the subsidy advice unit on a proposed subsidy or subsidy scheme. That may be made in relation to a subsidy of interest or any other subsidy or scheme that the Secretary of State considers to be at risk of failing to comply with the subsidy control requirements or of negatively impacting competition or investment in the UK. It is not intended to be used routinely, but it is a necessary safeguard. It is there to ensure that an additional layer of scrutiny can be applied to subsidies that might risk creating market distortions but would otherwise not be subject to mandatory referral to the SAU.

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

I was going to ask a question about this clause, and the Minister has managed to make me even more confused. Subsection (1) states:

“A public authority may request a report from the CMA before giving a subsidy, or making a subsidy scheme, of interest.”

It does not state that, additionally, any other subsidy may be referred to the CMA under a voluntary referral. It might elsewhere in the legislation, but it does not at this point.

My concern was that it relates only to subsidies “of interest”—subsidies of particular interest are covered by mandatory referral, and that is fine—but for subsidies that fall outside the category of interest, perhaps because interest is narrowly drawn by the regulations when interest is set, there seems to be no way for those public authorities to refer them voluntarily to the CMA, as the legislation is drafted. It would be good if they could.

Let us say that “particular interests” and “interests” are defined by the Government, that goes through the affirmative procedure, we have a discussion, and the definitions are agreed. Accidentally, however, something is left out of the category of interest—because we do not think of everything—and a local or public authority discovers the anomaly and thinks to itself, “Do you know what, I should refer this to the CMA voluntarily, because I think it probably should be included in the schemes of interest, but in the way that the legislation is written, it does not fall under that”, so it tries to make a voluntary referral. It cannot, however, because it may make a voluntary referral only in the case of something that is of interest.

There is a bit of a gap. Authorities should be able to make that voluntary referral, whether it is a scheme of interest or not. There is a concern. As to what the Minister said, absolutely, if the Secretary of State has a concern additional to the interest section, that would be fair enough and make a difference, or if the authority itself decides that it should be referred to the CMA. I do not think that that will be a huge amount of extra work. Authorities will not refer themselves to the CMA for fun; they will do so when they feel that there is a reasonable chance that what they are considering doing is contentious.

I will not vote against the clause, because voluntary referrals are a good thing, but I do not think that it goes as far as the Minister suggested it goes—unless I have missed something.

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

I was not entirely clear which clause the hon. Member for Aberdeen North was speaking to. We are still on clause 55 stand part—but it was a very good speech on the next clause, so we now know what she will say.

We expressed our concerns in the debate on our amendment. I hope that the Minister will reflect on those concerns and consider whether greater strength is needed in this clause and, similarly, I suspect, in clause 56—when we get to that debate.

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

It is no wonder that I was confused by what the Minister said. He was speaking to clause 55 and I was looking at clause 56. Apologies.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 55 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.