Clause 66 - CMA Annual Report

Subsidy Control Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 16th November 2021.

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Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 10:15 am, 16th November 2021

I beg to move amendment 66, in clause 66, page 37, line 40, at end insert—

“(d) the proportion of subsidies and schemes in each of paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) in relation to which the CMA found that the public authority’s assessment under section 52(2)(d) or 56(2)(d) required improvement;

(e) the proportion of subsidies and schemes in each of paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) in relation to which the CMA identified a risk of negative effects on competition or investment within the United Kingdom;

(f) information on the geographical allocation of subsidies, including the total value of subsidies subject to mandatory and voluntary notification in the preceding 12 months that have been awarded to enterprises in each nation, region and local authority within the United Kingdom;

(g) the number of extensions to the reporting period made under section 53(6) at the request of the CMA and the average number of days of those extensions;

(h) the number of voluntary referrals made under section 56(1);and

(i) the number of those voluntary referrals in relation to which the CMA has given notice under section 57(2) that it has decided not to prepare a report.”.

This amendment would require the CMA to include the additional specified information in its annual report.

Clause 66 sets out the information that the CMA must include in its annual reports. It is connected in some regards to the debate that we have just had. Although we support the mandating of specific information to be included in the annual reports, the information required feels too high-level and not sufficiently detailed or useful. The clause envisages the CMA simply listing the subsidies and schemes in relation to which it has prepared reports. The Minister may explain what he expects in the annual report.

We believe that, first, the annual report should include information on the number of subsidies and schemes in relation to which the CMA found that public authority assessments required improvements. In doing so, the review would provide an assessment of how successfully public authorities are meeting their statutory obligations under the legislation.

Secondly, the report should include information on the subsidies and schemes that the CMA reviewed and found risked having a negative effect on competition and investment within the UK’s internal market. That would ensure that not only the House but the taxpayer and the devolved Administrations are made aware of what, where and how subsidies are putting pressure on the UK’s internal market, if that is happening.

Thirdly, the report should include information on the geographical spread of subsidies that the CMA considered in the last reporting period, as well as information on the value of subsidies that have been awarded to enterprises in each region, nation and local authority in the UK. We are used to statistics and information being available at a fairly granular level. This is important and significant, given that, despite our best attempts, the Bill currently provides no information or regulation on how subsidies and schemes will work to reduce economic inequality across the United Kingdom.

If the Government really believe in levelling up, they need to take action to match what they say. The new regime, and subsidies generally, can provide an important opportunity for channelling resources to deprived areas and reducing regional and intra-regional inequality. As the Bill currently stands, however, there are no regulations in place that actively allow for that. As Professor Fothergill, the national director of the Industrial Communities Alliance, explained:

“In certain places, if we really are serious about levelling up, we have to put more resources into that effort, and we have to use state aid as one of the tools for delivering new jobs.”––[Official Report, Subsidy Control Public Bill Committee, 26 October 2021; c. 11, Q7.]

Does the Minister recognise that the contents of the Bill do not currently match up with the levelling-up rhetoric? Does he agree that subsidies can be used and could make a significant impact by supporting and aiding deprived areas? Including information on the geographical spread of subsidies could be quite an effective and efficient way of providing some insight about whether the resources under the regime are working to reduce inequality, which would surely be of help to the Government in achieving their stated goals.

We believe that the CMA’s annual report should include information that would allow the CMA’s resourcing, capacity and effectiveness to be evaluated. We have proposed that the annual report should set out

“the number of extensions to the reporting period” for mandatory notifications that the CMA has made, the duration of those extensions,

“the number of voluntary referrals made”,

and how many of those the CMA has and has not prepared a report on. The CMA has a key role in ensuring that subsidies and schemes meet the principles and do not distort the market. If it is unable to carry out its responsibilities effectively, there will be a real risk that damaging subsidies continue without challenge or review.

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

I have just a couple of points to make. We have already raised a number of concerns about the limitations of the transparency that will be provided, particularly on the subsidies that will be on the database and our inability to get any meaningful information from it, because so many of the subsidies that will be made will be excluded from being on the website by merit of their being below the de minimis threshold. We continue to have concerns about that.

The amendment simply asks for transparency data and for the CMA to produce in its annual report data that it has already. These are data that the CMA will have within its local key performance indicators—stuff that it will be considering anyway. It will know the number of extensions and voluntary referrals that have been made. This is not an additional piece of work that the CMA will need to do. It is simply ensuring that such information is added to the annual report, rather than putting an additional burden on the CMA. It is stuff that the CMA will be measuring anyway—if it is not doing so, it is not a public organisation that is working sensibly. This is basic, bread-and-butter stuff, and it means that we would be able to scrutinise properly and have an idea of what is happening.

The points made by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston, particularly in relation to the resourcing of the CMA, are incredibly important. We want the CMA to be adequately resourced so that it can carry out its functions effectively, because the system does not work if the CMA is not adequately resourced. We will struggle to know whether the CMA has adequate resource if it is not producing data on the number of extensions that it has required. As I say, the amendment is eminently sensible, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to the speech made by the Opposition spokesperson.

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

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 requires the CMA to prepare an annual report of its activities and performance during the year. Clause 66 requires the CMA to include details within its annual report of any subsidies and schemes that have been referred to the subsidy advice unit in the previous year, including both mandatory and voluntary referrals. The purpose of including that information is to provide transparency on the number and types of cases being referred to the SAU each year.

Amendment 66 adds to the information that the CMA would be required to append to its annual report in ways that we believe are overly prescriptive. It would limit the CMA’s flexibility to determine what information to include in its annual report and the most effective way to deliver that. Some of the information that the amendment mandates would not be accessible or consistently available. For example, the requirement that the CMA publish the proportion of cases where the SAU found that a public authority’s assessment required improvement, or where it identified a risk to competition and investment, misunderstands the role of the SAU.

The SAU will evaluate the public authority’s assessment of whether the subsidy or scheme complies with the Bill’s requirements. It will also evaluate whether there are any effects of the subsidy or scheme on competition or investment in the UK. The SAU may include advice about how the public authority’s statement might be improved or modified to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Bill, but the SAU is not a regulator. It will not make its own independent assessment of potential risks to competition and investment, or make definitive judgements on the extent of them.

Other requirements of the amendment are similarly unnecessary, including the requirement to publish the number of requests made by the SAU under clause 53(6) to extend the reporting period for a mandatory referral. Clause 53(7) already requires that such requests are published. In addition, the low number of mandatory referrals that we estimate in any given year will mean that calculating the average number of days for extension is unlikely to offer much additional insight into the subsidy control regime. It therefore need not be mandated for inclusion in the annual report.

The amendment would also require the CMA to publish geographical allocations of all subsidies subject to mandatory and voluntary referrals. That would be a burdensome task for the CMA, and would be difficult to comply with consistently. First, the amendment asks for information to which the CMA would not have ready access, since not all subsidies eligible for voluntary referral will be referred to the SAU. Secondly, if a public authority referred a scheme instead of an individual subsidy to the SAU, it would not be possible for the CMA to determine the expected geographic allocation of subsidies not yet awarded under that scheme. The same issue may apply to the beneficiary of a single subsidy that operates in more than one location.

The right approach is to provide the CMA with a degree of flexibility to determine what information about subsidies and schemes referred to the SAU is presented in its annual report. For the reasons that I have provided, I request that the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thank the Minister and the hon. Member for Aberdeen North for their comments. I intended to press the amendment to a vote, but on the basis of some of the discussion I will not do so. However, I will challenge a couple of things the Minister said. We are all aware of where there could be burdens for the CMA or others in producing reports, but it is important to ensure that we have an X-ray view that provides insight into what is happening across the system as a whole. Where the CMA should have information that would be relevant, it may be useful to include it in the annual report.

The Minister talked about eligibility for voluntary referral, about which the CMA would not have information. We did not intend to include any wording around eligibility, and I do not think that we did. We talked about the number of voluntary referrals, and those for which the CMA decided not to prepare a report. It is important to ensure that our proposals are understood. I take on board what he said, I think in the debate on clause 65: that he would welcome suggestions from the Opposition, and perhaps from his own side, about what information would be useful. We all want to ensure that there is an effective and efficient regime. None of us wants to see unnecessary costs incurred, but we need transparency and the right information to inform the right decisions and the best response.

I will challenge the Minister slightly on this matter. The public and Parliament are the customers of that report. Reports are produced with the requirement to be accountable for what has been done in line with what might be expected, how efficiently and effectively it has been done, and to have metrics by which performance can be assessed and issues identified. We should not abdicate our responsibilities as good customers to say what we think is needed for Parliament to be able to review the effectiveness of the regime and the institutions involved in delivering it. I encourage the Minister to think about that and not just say he will leave it to the CMA to produce what it wants. We must also have in mind what needs to be produced to be able to make our decisions effectively.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Scottish National Party, Aberdeen North 10:30 am, 16th November 2021

I am a bit confused by the Minister’s comments on paragraph (d). He seemed to suggest that the CMA’s report may not talk about where local authorities’ assessments require improvement. That is slightly concerning because, if a local authority is making an assessment on a subsidy and the assessment requires improvement, who is going to tell it? Who is going to say the assessment requires improvement if the CMA does not have the ability to say, “Excuse me. You have done this a bit wrong. Could you do it better?”

It would be helpful if the Minister contacted us, by letter if possible, to say what he expects will be in the CMA’s reports. At the moment, I do not understand what will be in those reports, specifically in relation to the mandatory referrals. What will be in the CMA’s report on the mandatory referrals that come forward? What does the Minister expect will be in the report? It does not have to be prescriptive; it could be ideas of the kind of things that would be in there, because at the moment I do not understand what that report is going to be.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

It would be helpful, in the light of our conversation, if we could start with the Minister’s expectation. He may well have reflected on the discussion we have had today. That may a good and efficient way for us to come back with suggestions of what else might occur, or perhaps there will be full, total agreement on what we want to see in the CMA’s annual report; we do not know. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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)

In accordance with the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, after the end of each financial year, the Competition and Markets Authority must prepare and send to the Secretary of State an annual report of its activities and performance during the year. The clause requires that the CMA include details within its annual report of any subsidies and schemes that have been referred to the subsidy advice unit in the previous year, including referrals made on both a mandatory and a voluntary basis. That will help to provide transparency on the number and types of subsidies and schemes that have been reported on by the subsidy advice unit.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Notwithstanding the comments we have made in the ongoing discussion, we support the clause stand part.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 66 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.