Clause 4 - Directions

UK Infrastructure Bank Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 22nd November 2022.

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Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury) 10:45 am, 22nd November 2022

I beg to move amendment 19, in clause 4, page 2, line 38, at end insert

“and any subsequent, consequential, or relevant correspondence between the Treasury and the Bank.”

This amendment increases transparency surrounding directions issued by the Treasury to the Bank.

I will briefly set out what the clause will do, because that context is necessary to understand what our amendment would do in turn. Clause 4 would grant the Treasury the power to give directions to the UK Infrastructure Bank about how to deliver on its objectives. Subsection (2) would require the bank to comply with those directions, but the Treasury would be unable to give those directions until it had consulted with the bank’s board of directors. The Treasury would be required to publish the directions as soon as practicable, and under an upcoming framework document the bank would have the right to publish a reservation notice in respect of the direction.

The bank has been described by the Government as operationally independent, but we know that the Treasury is the sole stakeholder in the bank. It is therefore possible for the Treasury to exert influence on the bank’s activities as a result of its ownership stake under the normal principles of company law. The Bill’s explanatory notes set out the Government’s position, stating:

“The Government’s policy is that such influence should be used sparingly in practice, and that the default position should be that the Bank is independent as regards its operations and investment decisions.”

Given that the Treasury is the sole stakeholder in the bank, however, we have concerns about the procedural transparency of the clause. We are conscious that the clause provides the procedural framework for the Government to direct the bank. As we have heard several times this morning, the Prime Minister’s infamous Tunbridge Wells speech indicates the need for an extra degree of caution.

The explanatory notes state that the Government’s use of influence will be constrained by the need

“to act rationally and proportionately”,

but the record of the Government causes us to have doubts. We therefore wish to enhance the safeguards in the Bill and ensure that the Government do not exert undue influence over the activity of the bank. Conservative Governments have recently rejected Treasury orthodoxy, and the bank may in future raise concerns about the direction of Government policy. As the bank is compelled to abide by directions given by the Treasury, it is important that we have a transparent process to allow for scrutiny in those circumstances. That is why we tabled amendment 19, which seeks to insert a requirement that

“any subsequent, consequential, or relevant correspondence between the Treasury and the Bank” be made public. The purpose of the amendment is to increase transparency surrounding directions issued by the Treasury to the bank. It will simply require the Treasury to publish additional relevant correspondence between the Treasury and the bank, providing fuller context to any directions issued and enabling the proper scrutiny of investments made with public money.

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

The hon. Member’s amendment is a solution in search of a problem. The bank is constituted with taxpayers’ money, for which Ministers are accountable to Parliament and to Select Committees, which have the power to compel information and witnesses. There is a strong degree of accountability, and it is entirely appropriate that Ministers, from whichever side of the House they may one day hail, have the ability to direct the bank as necessary, as part of the matrix of ministerial accountability. I therefore reject the amendment. The Government will not support it, simply because we consider it to be wholly unnecessary.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

I take no reassurance whatever from the Minister’s comments, so I will push this amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 5 UK Infrastructure Bank Bill [Lords] — Clause 4 - Directions

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.

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

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

Clause 4 contains a provision for His Majesty’s Treasury to issue the bank with a direction of a general or specific nature about how the bank is to deliver its statutory objectives. To address the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Ealing North, the bank must be consulted before any direction is given, and any direction given must then be published by the Treasury. Ministers are rightly accountable to Parliament for this bank, and for any element of risk to the Exchequer or taxpayer that its activities create. That is right, even though the bank will be operationally independent for its day-to-day operations and its own investment decisions.

It is therefore considered necessary and entirely appropriate that the Government have a reserved power to direct the bank about how it is to deliver its objectives. Without a power of direction in statute, His Majesty’s Treasury could still direct the bank; however, there would be situations where the board would refuse a direction if the power were not in statute, given directors’ obligations under the Companies Act 2006. The two things could conflict. The purpose of the clause is to clarify where that conflict could arise, and the power of direction in statute removes that potential.

I assure right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House that the Government expect to use the power infrequently. Constrained powers of direction are a relatively common feature of similar institutions, such as the British Business Bank and HMRC. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

I rise to speak briefly, as I set out our views on clause 4 more widely in the context of amendment 19, which I am disappointed that the Government chose to oppose. We were simply aiming to improve procedural transparency; it makes me wonder why the Government are so keen to avoid that being part of the Bill. Having lost that amendment, we will not be opposing the clause as it now stands.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.