UK Infrastructure Bank Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 22nd November 2022.
I am getting clear instructions from the Whip to be as brief as possible, so—[Interruption.] Not quite that brief. I draw hon. Members’ attention to clause 7(a). Clause 7 concerns the directors and 7(a) is about the number of directors; it says the bank is to have at least five and no more than 14 directors. It was that number 14 that caught my eye: it seems an extraordinarily large number of people to have on a board, and I do not believe that it is in accordance with corporate best practice.
Furthermore, there is no provision for the balance between executive and non-executive directors. It is a clear aspect of corporate governance that there should be a plurality and, often, a majority of non-executive directors. I want to probe the Government about why the number is 14, and why there is not more specificity about non-executive directors.
To back up my argument, I should say that the Minister will be aware that in the United States the average number of directors for the largest American corporations is between eight and 11, not 14. In its review of the FTSE 100 companies, Spencer Stuart said that the average board size is 10, and that 77% of boards are solely non-executive directors. The Minister will also be aware that the British Business Bank has nine directors, of whom four are non-executives and one is additional—he is a senior independent director. These are important points. There is a risk that the board could be full of people there to please—[Interruption.] He just told me to shush up.
No, I am not going to take an intervention. He just told me to sit down, but he can sit down while I finish making my speech.
The right hon. Lady is right about the potential here; I think I heard her use the word “cronies”. That is the concern—that with so many places the board will end up being stuffed full of people who have their own interests to play and that good governance will, as a consequence, be a victim of that large board membership.
Unfortunately, I was unable to catch the eye of the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire, but I do not necessarily disagree with much of what he is saying. I only hope that the idea would extend, for example, to reform of the House of Lords and even the size of the Cabinet of the UK Government, which I think is the biggest it has ever been. I am more than happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman. He can rest assured of my support if he chooses to push the amendment to a Division, but I think we need a degree of consistency if he is willing to pursue this line of argument.
Amendment 12 seeks to limit the maximum number of directors on the board of the bank, moving it down from 14 to eight. Amendment 13 stipulates that at least four of the board members must be non-executive directors. We will be opposing amendment 12, as we believe that it is important for a range of views and expertise to be represented on the board of the bank. We believe that narrowing the board simply narrows the potential for diverse insight and ideas. As we will push for in amendment 20, which I will speak to shortly, we believe it is vital that there be a workers’ representative on the board. Narrowing the maximum figure reduces the board’s capacity to gain workers’ insight. On amendment 13, we will abstain.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire for rightly raising the important subject of governance, which relates to the arms length body in scope today. It is a very important point when considering how we manage efficiency and the will of Parliament through arms-length bodies. While not disagreeing in principle, the Government will not be supporting amendments 12 or 13, but I would be very happy to engage with my hon. Friend to see if there is something practical we can do.
My concern is with reducing the maximum board size to eight in the UK governance structure under the combined code, which my hon. Friend may have views on as well. Unlike in the US, in the UK we have a large number of committees of boards—rather more than is the case in the US. The limit of eight may present the challenge of not being able to successfully staff and structure those committees. That would be a concern to me.
The amendment requiring non-executive directors to hold a majority on the board is sensible, but I believe that would be the objective of the organisation anyway, and it complies with the corporate governance code to have a majority of non-executive directors. I do not think we need a requirement in legislation, but it is something I am happy to explore with my hon. Friend to give him the comfort he seeks without us moving out of potential compliance. I would ask him to withdraw his amendment.
Well, Mr Davies, I am sorely tempted to push this to a vote, notwithstanding the comments from my hon. Friend the Minister. I understand his point and would ask that in his direction he would issues around governance. I am disappointed that Labour is not prepared to support my amendment. Therefore, rather than my valiant quest end in ignominious defeat, I beg to ask to withdraw the amendment.
I beg to move amendment 5, clause 7, page 3, line 23, at end insert—
“(ba) the Board is to appoint one or more directors to be responsible for ensuring that the Board considers the interests of the appropriate national authorities when making decisions;”
This amendment would require the Bank’s Board to include one or more directors with responsibility for ensuring that the Board considers the interests of the appropriate national authorities when making decisions.
The amendment sets out the requirement for UKIB’s board to appoint one or more directors to be responsible for ensuring that the interests of the devolved Administrations are considered in the board’s decision making. The work of the bank is UK-wide and it has already supported projects in each of the devolved Administrations. Given that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have strong interests in infrastructure investment in their respective nations, we, the Government, are keen to ensure that UKIB considers their views throughout its strategy and decision-making, including board discussions.
I would not necessarily oppose that argument, but I look forward to the day when the legislation can be updated to remove any representatives of the Scottish Parliament’s view, when Scotland takes its place as a rightful independent nation.
I will speak only briefly to amendment 5, which requires the board of the bank to appoint one or more directors to be responsible for ensuring that the board considers the interests of the appropriate national authorities when making decisions. Labour will not oppose the amendment as we believe it is important that the interests of devolved authorities are taken into full consideration through the administration of the bank.
I beg to move amendment 20, clause 7, page 3, line 23, at end insert—
“(ba) at any time, the Bank is to have at least one non-executive director who is a representative of workers.”
This amendment ensures there is a workers’ representative on the board of the Bank.
As I mentioned earlier, Labour is concerned about the absence of a workers’ representative on the board of the bank, especially as much of the board consists of political appointees at the behest of the Chancellor.
We are committed to a strong partnership between industry, workers and the state. Having a workers’ representative on the board of the bank is important for good governance. The UK’s corporate governance code states that a company should have a combination of a director appointed from the workforce, a formal workforce advisory panel, or a designated non-executive director to facilitate engagement with the workforce. It also states, however, that if the board has not chosen one or more of those methods, it should explain what alternative arrangements are in place and why. In the absence of such an explanation, we have tabled amendment 20, which was originally moved in the Lords. We recognise arguments made in the Lords about how the Government’s framework document, to be published after Royal Assent, provides safeguards and protective measures, however that document is not legally binding. Sufficient questions have also already been raised about the activity of the bank to require explicit assurances in the Bill.
Could the hon. Gentleman clarify to whom the clause refers when it talks about workers? Is he referring to workers of the infrastructure bank, and is he calling for a board representative of them, because most of those people will be bankers? I am not so sure that Labour has always felt that the bankers are the most in need of representation in financial institutions. Or is he referring to workers of the investee company? If so, how would that be facilitated?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks.
As I set out, the UK corporate governance code already has clear guidelines about the involvement of workforce in governance of boards. However, we have not had explicit assurances from the Government. We have tabled the amendment to push the Government on that. We need assurances that investments and loans made by the bank will be guided by the economic needs of the entire country. Investments made into tax havens pose a real risk to achieving that goal. Marcus Johns from the think-tank IPPR North has said that the use of tax havens
“hollows out our economy, keeps wages low, holds communities back, and enables money to be syphoned away into a globalised system of extraction”.
He argued that the bank
“must look seriously to prevent the use of tax havens and avoidance among the firms it supports.”
As the shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves, said, a Labour Government would support
“British industry, supply chains & support industrial strategy”,
and ensure that trade unions
“have access to workplaces” and that all
“businesses & bodies receiving public money from the UK Infrastructure Bank…have a plan to create good jobs with decent conditions”.
We believe that only with a workers’ representative on the board will the bank have that critical perspective on job creation and succeed in being governed with the entirety of the UK’s economic prosperity in mind.
I rise to indicate my support for amendment 20—[Interruption]—which I gather is also being given by Comrade Fuller on the other side of the Committee. It is very welcome that the Labour party, having recently departed from its relationship with trade unions and workers, is finally seeing the light and coming back to the idea that it ought to have a strong association with trade unions. The amendment probably could have been tidied up slightly, perhaps to include somebody from the Trades Union Congress, but on the broad thrust of the argument I very much support the idea that the Labour party is once again deciding to go back to its roots, rather than flirt too much with the policy of Keir Starmer.
I shall strongly resist the temptation to debate the fundamental merits of workers on boards, overturning the existing system of UK corporate governance, or indeed the nationality of any particular worker. Why stop at one English worker when one could have representatives of workers from all the DAs?
In thoroughly opposing the amendment, I confirm that the bank will comply with the corporate governance code, which provides, as the hon. Member for Ealing North outlined, a number of options through which a company can achieve the desired representation. The bank has already designated Marianne Økland to take on the role of facilitating engagement with the workforce. That will be set out in the annual report when published. I ask, perhaps fruitlessly, the hon. Member not to waste the Committee’s time by pressing the amendment to a vote, given that the bank is complying with the existing UK corporate governance code.
While I welcome the Minister’s assurance about the bank’s compliance with the UK corporate governance code, I am disappointed that he feels that a vote on worker representation on the board would be a waste of time. It is an issue of great importance to the Opposition, so we will press the amendment to a vote.
The clause sets out the core provisions on the make-up of, and appointment to, the bank’s board of directors. The clause requires that the board has a number of directors that is broadly consistent with comparable boards. It allows for the appointment of directors to have a spread of expertise across banking, infrastructure finance and climate change mitigation, as well as the appropriate balance between executive and non-executive directors. The clause sets out that the chair, chief executive officer and non-execs will be appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
All non-exec directors are recruited with reference to guidelines set out by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and are being appointed based on the skills that they could bring to the board around the UKIB’s mandate. Throughout the process we have been conscious of the need to ensure a broad spread of expertise, as well as cognitive diversity. Finally, the clause contains provisions on the circumstances that would prohibit a person from continuing as a non-exec director, such as bankruptcy, or mental or physical incapacitation. I recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.
As the Minister outlined, clause 7 concerns the appointment and tenure of directors to the board of the bank. We note that it requires at least five but no more than 14 directors; that the board’s chair, chief executive officer and non-executive directors be appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer; that the tenure of non-executive directors not exceed four years; and that a person may not be appointed as non-executive director more than twice.
The clause also requires that a person ceases to be a non-executive director as soon as they cease to be a director by virtue of any provision of the Companies Act 2006, or are otherwise prohibited by law; they become bankrupt or their estate is sequestrated; a registered medical professional treating them provides the written opinion that that person is incapable of serving as a director due to physical or mental incapacity for more than three months; or the person has resigned from the position in accordance with the notification procedures of the bank. We recognise that the number of directors is broadly consistent with comparable boards, such as the Bank of England board. We also understand that the intention behind that is to provide flexibility and a wide spread of expertise.
One of the difficulties is that the Bank of England does not have a spread across the regions. Does my hon. Friend not agree that we should have regional expertise as well, which is the whole point of levelling up all parts of the country?
My right hon. Friend is right: it is critical that the bank considers regional inequalities in its mission, and we are very concerned that the Government opposed earlier amendments on having a commitment to tackle regional inequalities in the Bill. The fact that there is no reassurance that the board will have that in mind either causes further concern about what the bank’s mission will ultimately be.
I am just drawing to a close.
We understand that the intention behind the composition of the board is to provide flexibility. Notwithstanding the important comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South, and our earlier comments about the lack of worker representation on the board, we will not oppose the clause.