The Subsidy Control Bill 2021: key questions for Parliament to consider (by Jonathan Branton and Alexander Rose, DWF)

Note: this article by Jonathan and Alex is particularly timely as the Subsidy Control Bill is getting its Second Reading in the House of Commons today (22 September).

  The Subsidy Control Bill will have its second reading in Parliament on Wednesday and is set to establish a UK wide statutory framework for awarding grants and other forms of subsidy that over 500 public bodies across the UK will need to follow in future. The main objective of the Subsidy Control Bill is to create a regime that ensures the UK meets its international commitments in respect of subsidies, whilst avoiding the rigidity and unnecessary bureaucracy of the EU State aid rules.  The Bill is likely to be controversial because it will raise issues as to when public funding should be used and what safeguards ought to be in place to avoid taxpayer money being wasted, but also it has wider implications for devolution and the ‘levelling up’ agenda.  
     Ultimately the prize for legislators is the creation of a new national regime that enables public bodies to be able to make awards of public funding that create new jobs and nurture the business sectors of tomorrow, whilst avoiding wasting public funds, stifling the free market or breaching the UK’s international trade agreements.  As the Subsidy Control Bill begins its passage through Parliament we have set out some key questions legislators will need to consider.  In doing so, we note that Parliament does not have an entirely free hand in deciding the shape of the new regime, its fundamental boundaries are already set by the Subsidies Chapter of the EU/UK Trade & Cooperation Agreement of 24 December 2020 (“TCA”).  This established high-level obligations between the UK and EU and formed the basis for an interim regime that the UK currently has in place.  That said, legislators still have significant discretion to create a system which meets the needs of the UK.  

Is the strategy of having looser rules for the award of subsidies in the UK’s interests?

At a time when taxes are rising and the country is emerging from the worst economic slump in over 300 years, legislators need to decide whether they want a lighter set of controls to apply to the award of subsidies.  Whilst greater discretion is naturally attractive to Ministers, it is important to appreciate that these rules will also apply to hundreds of public bodies and most likely to future administrations too.    Our view is that the UK was right to choose not to ‘copy and paste’ EU State aid rules, which were of course written to regulate the entirety of the EU, thus embracing many different governments, traditions and different styles of economy, rather than for just the UK.  The UK now only needs to develop a regime to suit the UK, albeit in saying that of course it does need to cover the whole of the UK and all its constituent parts. However, we were surprised that the UK Government did not include within its core objectives of the new regime an express commitment to avoid wasteful and unnecessary subsidies.  Very few types of subsidy are ruled out under the new regime.  Most subsidies can proceed provided they fall within six broad principles (the Bill also proposes to add a seventh).  Legislators will need to decide whether they are satisfied with such a system.  

How can the Subsidy Control Principles be improved?

The Subsidy Control Bill envisages that many awards of subsidy will be made on the basis that they satisfy the broad Subsidy Control principles set out at Schedule 1.  These general principles are (with the exception of Subsidy Principle F) based on the text agreed with the EU in the TCA. We agree with the objective of the principles, which aim to ensure that subsidies show certain characteristics, including that they are directed towards common interest activities, limited to what is necessary and represent the least distortive means to achieve the identified policy objective.    The problem is that these principles are very broadly drafted.  As a result there is a lack of clarity as to what they mean and how they may be deemed satisfied, which in turn leads to inconsistent application.  We believe that legislators should scrutinise the wording to ensure that funding may only be awarded where there is a strong case for intervention.  In particular, awards should only be considered to be consistent with the Subsidy Control Principles where there is tangible and measurable evidence in place.  This will improve the Subsidy Control regime by providing greater certainty and helping awarding authorities and businesses alike know where they stand. The new Subsidy Control Principle proposed is that ‘subsidies should be designed to achieve their specific policy objective whilst minimising any negative effects on competition or investment within the United Kingdom”.  This is designed to clarify that the regime is as concerned with domestic competition as with trade with the EU, but also to avoid different parts of the country competing against each other to secure investment.  However this suffers from the same problems as the other Subsidy Control Principles in that it is currently a vague and uncertain statement. We would recommend that the wording is removed and subsidies which are classed as being part of a “Subsidy Race” should be referred to the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) before being awarded (see Question 4).   

What rights should businesses have to challenge unlawful subsidies?

The main form of remedy or challenge under the new regime is Judicial Review in the national courts.  The Subsidy Control Bill proposes that the Competition Appeal Tribunal will hear such Judicial Review cases, determining whether the Subsidy Control Act has been followed and therefore the subsidy is lawful.  The period in which a competitor may bring a case under the Subsidy Control Bill is capable of being as little as one month provided a correct transparency notice has been posted online.  Legislators need to consider whether there are sound reasons why the Judicial Review period for subsidies is potentially shorter than for any other decision that is subject to public law.  It may be that legislators decide to make the challenge period consistent with the wider Judicial Review process.    Legislators should also be mindful that in most cases the Competition Appeal Tribunal will be assessing whether the public sector body has followed the correct process under the Subsidy Control Bill and thereafter whether it has made a sound decision or not.  Where an adverse finding is made, this may indicate that the process has been incorrectly applied in other instances.  

What kind of subsidies will be subject to the referral process?

Section 52 of the Subsidy Control Bill envisages that subsidies of “particular interest” must be directed to the CMA for review prior to award, the outcome of which will be a formal report including a recommendation as to whether the award should proceed.  However what types of subsidy will be of “particular interest” is not yet known at this time.  We believe that it would be helpful for the secondary legislation setting out these categories to be published at the earliest opportunity given the potential impact on the functioning of the new Subsidy Control regime.  It is self-evident that if almost all subsidies must go through the referral process, then the funding landscape will be radically different.    The Bill also envisages creating a system whereby it will be possible to seek the CMA’s view prior to award of a subsidy.  While it can of course be helpful to discuss a matter with a competent authority there needs to be very clear parameters and boundaries to a procedure like this, and clarity as to the value of the procedure, and any inferences to be drawn from seeking such views or failing to seek such views.  If this is not done then seeking a CMA view may become almost standard which will not only tie up significant resources and be costly (and therefore may become more a luxury for wealthier authorities as against others) but it will also be time consuming and run counter to any desire to keep the overall process nimble and effective.  

How will the Streamlined Subsidies be drafted?

The mechanism for Streamlined Subsidies is an ability for the UK Government in future to declare categories of subsidy which may proceed quickly without complicated individual assessments against the Common Principles.  This is to be welcomed as a pragmatic step to facilitate the easy delivery (with maximum legal certainty) of low level subsidies in supposedly uncontroversial situations.    According to the European Commission statistics over 95% of EU State aid is awarded on the basis of block exemptions, which achieve this same effect.  This means that funding can be lawfully awarded without further checks provided it meets certain conditions. The Government is right to include a mechanism under which it can set up Streamlined Subsidy Schemes in order to create simple exemptions where merited, but at the moment it has not published what these might look like.  Given how fundamental the Streamlined Subsidy Schemes are likely to be for the majority of awards, we recommend that this process is accelerated and the headings of the categories of scheme are published for legislators to consider. It should be noted that in drafting its block exemptions, the European Commission ran a consultation and sought the views of practitioners from both the public and private sector, and the existing suite of block exemptions in the EU now has evolved over nearly 20 years. We recommend that alongside the legislation some sort of similar process takes place.  

How can the Subsidy Control Bill better support Levelling Up?

However imperfect the EU systems may have been, one principle the State aid regime has at its core has been preferential treatment for disadvantaged regions, recognising that they need assistance to deliver new investments and thereby progressively even up disparities between regions.  This seems to be a very similar rationale as for the Levelling Up agenda.  Under these circumstances it seems strange that the UK Subsidy Control regime does not place levelling up somewhere at its heart.  Can it be right that the rules do nothing to facilitate a subsidy in Grimsby over one in Guildford?  Even though the Subsidy Control Principles consider such notions as proportionality and minimum necessary, this relates to issues such as investment costs and if these would be higher in wealthier areas then a subsidy could be based on that.  There is nothing built into the assessment system necessarily to compare investment in one area with another. One might say that levelling up has more to do with the allocation of funds (eg. future UK Shared Prosperity Fund and/or the Levelling Up Fund) rather than the legitimacy of spending those funds on subsidies in particular areas, but it still seems a possible missed opportunity that the Subsidy Control rules do not factor this in somehow.   

Hampering R&D start-ups by over-regulating the prohibition on subsidy to ailing or insolvent enterprises?

One of the consistent complaints against the EU’s block exemptions was its rigid prohibition of aid to so-called “undertakings in difficulty“.  This was an overly prescriptive test which meant many early stage companies were prohibited from accessing support. The interim regime based upon the TCA provided a welcome release on this point.  It contained a comparable provision only prohibiting subsidy to “ailing or insolvent enterprises”.  This term was not defined and was understood as those likely to go out of business in the short to medium term absent the subsidy under consideration.  Therefore, provided some sort of basic “going concern” demonstration could be provided, then a subsidy was able to proceed. In practical terms, this removed an obstacle that had affected public funding to help early start-ups in the tech and R&D sectors for whom there can be years of trading prior to income being generated.  Such companies arguably need subsidy the most.    The Subsidy Control Bill at Section 24 contains a prescriptive test for “ailing and insolvent” which threatens to dilute the benefits realised.  It is not clear to us that this extra rule is required on the basis that in any event the relevant funders are already considering the long term viability prospects of the applicants concerned.  

Conclusion  

The ability to mastermind its own State aid regime was put forward as one of the best opportunities for the UK post-Brexit, and with good reason.  Cleverly targeted State subsidies can dramatically improve economies and provided due care is taken this should not fracture a strikingly pro-competitive free market.  At the same time wasteful subsidies make poor use of scarce public resource, can undermine the functioning of markets and breach the UK’s international agreements.  With a Parliamentary majority of 80, the Subsidy Control Bill is almost certain to pass quickly through Parliament, but it is sufficiently important to the prospects of the UK to merit careful scrutiny.   Ultimately the new Subsidy Control regime must strike a difficult balance: it needs to take full advantage of new opportunities, whilst not opening the floodgates to wasteful and damaging subsidies.  For many decades, the UK has prided itself on being fiercely pro-competition and non-interventionist.  Although public spending has increased, the high standards that the UK has developed around managing public money should not be diluted. Ultimately the new regime must only allow subsidy to be awarded where there is a clear and demonstrable rationale for intervention, but should also contain sufficient checks and balances to ensure public funding is always applied proportionately.    

Jonathan Branton and Alexander Rose, DWF  
Posted in EU/UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, Legislation, New UK subsidy control regime | Comments Off on The Subsidy Control Bill 2021: key questions for Parliament to consider (by Jonathan Branton and Alexander Rose, DWF)

The UK’s Proposed Revisions to Article 10 of the Northern Ireland Protocol: a Sensible Basis for Negotiation

This post, written by George Peretz Q.C. of Monckton Chambers and James Webber of Shearman & Sterling, assesses the UK’s proposed revisions to Article 10 of the NI Protocol.

Introduction

Subject to the qualification that it applies only to “measures which affect that trade between Northern Ireland and the Union which is subject to this Protocol“, Article 10 of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (“the Protocol“) applies EU State aid law in its entirety to UK subsidy measures. Measures caught by Article 10 are subject to the suspension obligation, prior approval by the European Commission and supervision by the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU“) – as if the United Kingdom had remained a Member State.

The meaning of the “affect that trade” qualification is obviously critical.  However, its meaning is wholly unclear. Since services are not “subject to the Protocol“, subsidies affecting only services are unlikely to be caught (unless they have an indirect effect of helping goods suppliers): but the concept nonetheless creates the potential for aid to beneficiaries elsewhere in the UK to be caught by the requirements of the Protocol, given the low threshold the equivalent “effect on trade” concept is usually regarded as imposing in EU law (and the low standard of evidence traditionally accepted as sufficient to overcome that threshold). The significant legal uncertainty this “reach back” creates has been extensively commented on by State aid experts and has now reached the High Court in the British Sugar case (See R v Secretary of State for International Trade ex p British Sugar, not yet reported filed under Claim No: CO/1034/2021, which alleges that aid supposedly paid to Tate & Lyle Sugars Ltd (who only refine sugar in in London) engages the Protocol). That uncertainty has been made worse by substantial disagreements as to the extent of “reach back” as between guidance issued by the UK government and by the Commission (discussed here).

While one can see, given that the Protocol for many purposes has the effect of placing Northern Ireland within the customs union and the single market for goods, that the EU would be concerned to ensure that there was no possibility of subsidised Northern Ireland goods flooding into the EU, it is nonetheless unprecedented, and raises significant democratic issues, for decisions in areas as politically important and sensitive as tax and spending to be subject to prior supervision by a foreign power and oversight by a foreign court. Those problems are aggravated by the fact that the “affect that trade” concept is likely to extend that authority to at least some fiscal decisions that principally concern Great Britain – notwithstanding that GB is on the other side of a customs border and has agreed with the EU, in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (“TCA“), the most extensive (albeit reciprocal) subsidy control measures ever contained in a free trade agreement. This aspect of Article 10 is often referred to as “reach back”.

The UK Government published a command paper, entitled “Northern Ireland Protocol: the way forward” on 21 July 2021 (“the Command Paper“).  The Command Paper contained brief suggestions for replacing Article 10.

The suggestions are brief and still need to be worked up.  However, as explained below, in our view they are capable of providing a fairer, more reasonable and sustainable basis for dealing with subsidy competition between Northern Ireland and the EU than Article 10.  In particular, it is important to recall that Article 10 was negotiated in October 2019, at a time when it was entirely unclear what, if anything, would be agreed between the EU and the UK in relation to subsidies in their future relationship agreement and what subsidy control policy (if any) the UK would be likely to adopt after Brexit.  As the UK government points out, that uncertainty has now been replaced by extensive UK commitments on subsidy control in the TCA and by detailed legislative proposals by the UK government in the Subsidy Control Bill, likely to be enacted later this year.

Command Paper

The suggestions for replacing Article 10 are contained in three paragraphs, short enough to be fully quoted here:

“63. The Protocol at present means that Northern Ireland remains part of the EU’s subsidy control framework in certain areas. This is in part a result of the fact that the Protocol was negotiated in 2019 when neither the UK nor the EU knew the nature of commitments to be made on subsidy control in the future Trade and Cooperation Agreement or indeed whether it would be agreed at all.

64. We now know that there are comprehensive and robust commitments in place on subsidy control, based around shared principles underpinning both the UK and EU regimes agreed in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. These are being further strengthened through the UK’s Subsidy Control Bill which is currently before Parliament. These arrangements provide a more than sufficient basis to guarantee that there will be no significant distortion to goods trade between the UK and EU, whether from Great Britain or Northern Ireland, thus making the existing provisions in Article 10 redundant in their current form.

65. Nevertheless, given that Northern Ireland producers would continue to have some privileged access to the Single Market in this model, we would be prepared to establish enhanced processes for any subsidies on a significant scale relating directly to Northern Ireland – for example enhanced referral powers or consultation procedures for subsidies within scope, to enable EU concerns to be properly and swiftly addressed.”

The proposal has two basic parts:

1.To replace Article 10 with the subsidy control provisions in the TCA

Title XI, Chapter 3, TCA contains the subsidy control provisions.  These have been analysed in detail elsewhere (see here and here). However, the key points are:

  • The TCA has a common definition of subsidy.  This is essentially the same as the definition of State aid in EU law, except with respect to effects on competition and trade.
  • Subsidies must be assessed using a common framework of principles, encompassing concepts of good subsidy policy.  Subsidies must be proportionate, must pursue a defined public policy objective, must balance that objective against adverse effects on competition etc.
  • Each of the UK and EU must offer remedies in their domestic courts to affected third parties, including aid recovery when subsidies have been granted in breach of the requirements of the TCA.
  • Each of the UK and EU commit to transparency of subsidies paid, to permit scrutiny and allow private parties to seek judicial protection. 
  • At a state to state level, there are novel and extensive “rebalancing” measures, including rapid tariff retaliation if either party considers that subsidisation will cause a significant negative effect on trade.

Each side has procedural autonomy.  The EU retains its State aid system of block exemptions and prior notification, the UK is free to design a new system, as recently set out in the Subsidy Control Bill.   That system anticipates that the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA“) will play a significant role offering advice on compatibility with the subsidy control principles, with subsidy decisions of public bodies overseen by the Competition Appeal Tribunal (“CAT“).  Both are highly respected institutions that no neutral observer could plausibly argue lack capacity or independence for their anticipated roles.

The subsidy control provisions of the TCA, as implemented by the Subsidy Control Bill, are sufficient to provide each party with comfort that the other will not use subsidies to compete unfairly. That fact makes it much harder to justify the need for EU law and EU institutions to retain State aid jurisdiction over Northern Ireland in order to achieve that objective. 

Removing Article 10 would also resolve the “reach back” issue, whereby EU law and jurisdiction could apply to subsidy measures in GB, overlapping with the provisions of the TCA.  The interaction between the two schemes is not discussed at all in the TCA and is creating damaging uncertainty that needs to be urgently removed.  Clause 48(2)(a) of the Bill effectively disapplies UK subsidy control rules to any measure that has been given “in accordance with” Art.10, but, given the imprecision of the “affect that trade” concept, the dividing line remains highly uncertain in many cases. 

2.In respect of aid of “significant scale” to Northern Ireland producers, a new procedure that appears to be aimed at allowing the EU greater involvement in the UK subsidy control decision making process.

While the logic of replacing Article 10 with the subsidy control provisions in the TCA is compelling, the Command Paper implicitly anticipates the principal difficulty – convincing the EU that its interests are sufficiently protected – particularly in relation to subsidies that could significantly benefit goods suppliers in Northern Ireland, who are free to export to the EU without any possibility of tariffs.  Article 10 provides the EU with full control by imposing EU law, procedure and courts on the UK. As such, any revision will involve the EU relinquishing some of that control and a strong case will have to be made that the replacement is an acceptable alternative. That case needs to have two elements. First reassuring the EU that its concerns can be met in a different way; second convincing the EU that the problems thrown up already (and likely to be thrown up in future) by Article 10 make an alternative desirable.

The Command Paper’s strategy for this is to offer the EU “enhanced referral powers or consultation procedures for subsidies within scope, to enable EU concerns to be properly and swiftly addressed.

Consultation could mean that the Commission has a formal consultation or advisory role for aid with a genuinely significant effect in Northern Ireland – similar to the CMA under the Subsidy Control Bill.  This would be very helpful in building trust and allowing the Commission to input on subsidy decisions before they become disputes under the TCA. It would also respect UK independence as the final subsidy decision would not be subject to prior notification and approval but would be for the UK authorities (albeit, in cases where the Commission raised serious objections, in the knowledge that action could well be taken under the TCA).  We also see no reason why the Commission could not be given standing to challenge such decisions before the CAT, if it so wished: that would give the Commission a way of bringing a subsidy that it felt was prohibited or failed to take proper account of the agreed subsidy principles before an independent court.

It is less clear what the Command Paper means by “referral powers”.  It is very unlikely that the Paper is envisaging that approval of certain subsidy/aid decisions could be referred to the Commission. Another possibility, more likely to be acceptable on the UK side, is that EU State aid law could be retained in Northern Ireland but applied by UK authorities and courts (something like the model in the EU/Ukraine Association Agreement), possibly with referral mechanisms to the CJEU in the event that questions of law arise –  though much would turn on governance arrangements.  Further possibilities, within the proposed UK subsidy control regime, might be to provide for wider mandatory referral to the CMA of subsidy measures in Northern Ireland than is generally contemplated under the Subsidy Control Bill, or to even provide for referrals to the CMA at the request of the Commission. 

In any case, the Command Paper suggests that these enhanced procedures should apply to aid granted to “Northern Ireland producers.  This is narrower than in Article 10, since it removes the effect on trade concept and focuses on undertakings in Northern Ireland. The EU may also wish to extend this to deal with GB producers who make substantial supplies in Northern Ireland of goods that are likely to flow into the EU. However, one obvious difficulty here is that the UK would presumably need reciprocity – i.e. similar protection in respect of EU producers making substantial supplies in Northern Ireland at risk of flowing into GB.  This would be difficult to dovetail with existing EU State aid law and procedure. It is also notable that it refers to “producers” – presumably of goods rather than applying more widely as Article 10 does to banks or other service providers that may impact goods markets. 

Both limitations make sense in the context of the TCA and the Northern Ireland Protocol together.  The Protocol only applies to goods trade (and electricity) and the TCA covers subsidies in the economy as a whole.  Put together, that suggests that it would be possible to develop balanced proposals along the lines set out in the Command Paper, with an enhanced role for the EU in respect of goods producers genuinely active on the market in Northern Ireland, but otherwise relying on the level playing field provisions of the TCA.

Conclusion

It is fair to say that the Command Paper was, as a whole, not greeted with any great enthusiasm by the EU, though notably it was not rejected out of hand either. It is also well-known that there are considerable disagreements between the UK and the EU as to the future operation of the Protocol.  However, whatever view may be taken by the EU of the UK government’s general stance towards the Protocol either in the Command Paper or more widely, its specific proposals on Article 10 should, in our view, be considered seriously.

The sequencing of the negotiations between the UK and EU meant that Article 10 was agreed before the subsidy control provisions of the TCA (just as the trade and customs provisions were agreed before the zero-tariff provisions of the TCA). The EU considered that it needed to insist on the application of EU State aid law in Northern Ireland as a necessary protection for its internal market given the open north/south border: there was no alternative way at that time for the EU to ensure that it was protected from distortion to competition and trade via subsidisation of goods flowing south over that border. 

Now that the TCA is in place and the Subsidy Control Bill before Parliament, there clearly is an alternative way to regulate such subsidies. Moreover, this has been accepted as sufficient for the EU to agree a free trade agreement with the UK.

It is therefore quite reasonable for the UK to seek to replace Article 10 with something more proportionate based on the provisions of the TCA – indeed it is a shame that this was not done as part of the TCA negotiations, as the present authors both suggested at the time.  This would have been a more natural point for these revisions to occur. 

Since Article 10 is favourable to the EU, it is also realistic that the Command Paper anticipates replacing it with more than just the TCA provisions.  Although the precise proposals need to be worked up, enhanced consultation for the Commission – especially if prior to aid granted in Northern Ireland – would provide the EU with significant additional comfort that aid decisions were consistent with the TCA and therefore not distortive of competition and trade between the EU and UK.

In respect of State aid / subsidy control at least, the Command Paper is a helpful contribution and, we would argue, should be taken seriously by the EU, whatever its views of the Command Paper as a whole.

Posted in Brexit issues, EU/UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol, Legislation, New UK subsidy control regime | Comments Off on The UK’s Proposed Revisions to Article 10 of the Northern Ireland Protocol: a Sensible Basis for Negotiation

THE SUBSIDY CONTROL BILL AND DEVOLUTION: A BALANCED REGIME?

The Subsidy Control Bill introduced to Parliament at the end of June applies across the United Kingdom.  It has significant implications for the devolved administrations.

The provisions of the Bill are summarised here.  But, in essence, the scheme of the Bill is to require all public authorities (including the devolved governments and public bodies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) to satisfy themselves that any subsidy is compatible with a set of “subsidy control principles” (to be found in Schedule 1 to the Bill).  Public authorities are also prohibited from granting certain kinds of subsidy that fall within classes set out in Chapter 2 of Part 2 of the Bill.  Those duties are enforceable by way of judicial review before the Competition Appeal Tribunal (“CAT”), though the CAT will consider such challenges only on a judicial review, and not a merits, basis.  Certain kinds of subsidy (to be defined in secondary legislation) will have to be referred to the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) for a report on their compatibility with the principles and prohibitions in the Bill before they are implemented – although the granting authority is not bound by the CMA’s conclusions.  Other kinds of subsidy (again to be defined) may be referred by the granting authority or called-in by the Secretary of State to the CMA for a report before they are granted, or can be called-in by the Secretary of State for a report after they are granted.

The Bill raises a number of issues for the devolution settlement.  Before turning to those, it should be noted that – because section 52 of the Internal Market Act 2020 (“IMA20”) made the regulation of distortive and harmful subsidies a reserved (or, in Northern Ireland, an excepted) matter – the Sewel Convention does not apply and so legislative consent of the devolved parliaments is not required by that convention.  (IMA20 was enacted despite the refusal of legislative consent by all the devolved parliaments, the Sewel convention being a political convention that is unenforceable before the courts.)

The subsidy control principles and prohibitions

The subsidy control principles largely reflect the principles and prohibitions set out in Chapter 3 of Title XI of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.  However, there are some additions with implications for the devolved governments.

First, principle F in Schedule 1 will require all granting authorities to ensure that their subsidies are consistent with the principle that “subsidies should be designed to achieve their specific policy objective while minimising any negative effects on competition or investment within the United Kingdom”.  That will require granting authorities in, say, Wales, to consider the effect of the subsidy on competition and investment across the United Kingdom – so that, for example, a grant to a Welsh widget manufacturer would need to consider the impact on competition with English widget manufacturers. 

Second, clause 18 contains a specific prohibition on subsidies that are “given to an enterprise subject to a condition that the enterprise relocates all or part of its existing economic activities” and where “the relocation of those activities would not occur but for the giving of the subsidy”.  That clause would catch a grant of a subsidy by a Scottish authority to a widget-maker with a factory in Newcastle that required it to move its production to Glasgow.  But its practical application, as currently drafted, is likely to be limited, as few subsidies will make relocation an express condition (in my example, the Scottish authority is far more likely simply to insist on production being carried on in Glasgow rather than expressly to require relocation from Newcastle, even though relocation from Newcastle is the inevitable consequence).  That is in contrast to comparable provisions in EU State aid law that refer to the effect of a grant or which withdraw exemption from regional aid measures where relocation has recently taken place or will take place within two years (see Article 14(16) of the General Block Exemption Regulation).

The Bill does not, as such, create a framework for “regional aid” as that terms is understood in EU State aid law.  But principle A refers to the need for a subsidy to meet “a specific policy objective in order to … address an equity rationale (such as social difficulties or distributional concerns” – a phrase which covers subsidies designed to deal with disparities in wealth and opportunity between different regions.  It is also important in that context to note the joint declaration on subsidy control attached to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which notes the joint view of the EU and United Kingdom that:

1. Subsidies may be granted for the development of disadvantaged or deprived areas or regions. When determining the amount of subsidy, the following may be taken into account:

● the socio-economic situation of the disadvantaged area concerned;

● the size of the beneficiary; and

● the size of the investment project.

2. The beneficiary should provide its own substantial contribution to the investment costs. The subsidy should not have as its main purpose or effect to incentivise the beneficiary to transfer the same or a similar activity from the territory of one Party to the territory of the other Party.

Though that declaration is non-binding and is not written into the text of the Bill, it is nonetheless likely to be read into the principles, given that a large part of the purpose of the Bill is to implement the subsidy control provisions of the TCA.

However, neither the joint declaration not the Bill provide much guidance as to what is meant by “disadvantaged or deprived” (or by “distributional concerns”): and one question which may well arise is whether the question of whether a particular area is disadvantaged or deprived, or in relation to which there are legitimate distributional concerns, has to be looked at on a UK-wide basis or more narrowly.  For example, a region may be, on various measures, disadvantaged by English standards, but not (on those same measures) by Welsh standards.  It is not at all clear on what basis such questions will be resolved.

The powers of the Secretary of State

The Secretary of State has a number of important powers.  By regulation, he defines the category of “subsidies of particular interest” that must be referred to the CMA.  He may issue guidance on the practical application of the subsidy principles and other matters, to which granting authorities must have regard (clause 79) – guidance to which the CAT is also likely to have regard, though will not be bound by.  And as noted above he can issue call-in directions that require granting authorities to refer subsidies to the CMA.  Finally, under clause 70(7)(b) the Secretary of State has automatic standing to challenge any subsidy decision before the CAT (standing otherwise being reserved to “interested parties”, defined as persons “whose interests may be affected by the giving of the subsidy” – a phrase that does not obviously extend to devolved government concerned about the impact of a proposed subsidy on its own economy).

The devolved governments have no matching powers.  Indeed, there is no requirement in the Bill for the devolved governments to be consulted before the exercise of any of those powers (though the Secretary of State has a general duty to consult all interested parties before issuing guidance). 

The result looks distinctly unbalanced.  For example, if the Welsh Government decides to grant a subsidy to which the Secretary of State objects (perhaps on the basis of its impact on England), the Secretary of State may be able to refer it to the CMA, and will have standing to challenge it before the CAT.  The Secretary of State may also be able to issue guidance that recommends against types of subsidy that the Welsh Government might have in mind – guidance to which the CMA and the Welsh Government have to have regard.  On the other hand, if the Secretary of State grants subsidies to businesses in England – or, using his powers under section 50 of IMA20, to businesses in Wales – to which the Welsh Government has objections, none of those possibilities are open to the Welsh Government.

The CMA

As far as the CMA is concerned, it is worth noting that nothing in the Bill provides for the devolved governments to have any say in the appointment of CMA panel members who will, as part of the Subsidy Advice Unit, exercise the CMA’s powers under the Bill: there is no equivalent to the provisions of Schedule 3 to IMA20 that require the Secretary of State to seek the consent of the devolved governments before making appointments to the Office for the Internal Market (the part of the CMA that deals with IMA20 issues).

The devolved parliaments

The definition of “public authority” excludes the UK and devolved parliaments, with the effect that primary legislation is excluded from the main part of the Bill. 

However, a provision of primary legislation that provides for the grant of money to particular enterprises, or which imposes tax on some enterprises but not others, may well amount to a “subsidy” under the Bill.  That point is dealt with in Schedule 3 to the Bill (“Subsidies provided by primary legislation”), which applies a modified regime to acts of the UK and devolved parliaments. 

In relation to the UK parliament – and unsurprisingly, given the doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy – the Bill makes no provision for Acts of Parliament to be affected in any way by the Bill, save that paragraph 9 (which also applies to the devolved legislatures) allows the promoter of a Bill before the UK Parliament (typically the relevant departmental minister) to refer provisions in it that involve a subsidy to the CMA, the CMA’s report being purely advisory. 

However, paragraphs 6 and 7 of Schedule 3 make it clear that the subsidy control principles and prohibitions apply to devolved primary legislation as they do to any other measures, so that such legislation may be challenged on the basis of inconsistency with the prohibitions or inadequate application of the subsidy control principles.  Perhaps because it was considered unacceptable for such politically charged challenges to be brought before the CAT, in this case the challenge must be brought before the general administrative courts (the High Court in Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Court of Session in Scotland).  The court than has available to it all the usual set of public law remedies, including quashing the legislation: it may also order recovery of any subsidy granted.

Conclusion

The current UK government often makes the point that the removal of EU State aid law lifts what was often a considerable constraint upon the decisions of devolved governments.  That point is undeniable – the new regime under the Bill will be considerably more permissive, as it will have no equivalent to the need to obtain prior approval from the Commission before subsidies are granted, or to adapt proposed subsidies so that they fit into particular rigid categories of exemption.   However, the Bill gives the UK government considerable power to set the subsidy control agenda, and gives it an ability to subject subsidies by devolved governments to scrutiny which is not reciprocal.  The Bill also creates a constraint on the law-making power of the devolved Parliaments that does not apply to the UK Parliament (which is also the Parliament that legislates for England). 

The old EU regime bore down equally severely on both UK and devolved governments, whereas the new regime, though more liberal, is also more unequal.  Time will tell whether that inequality generates more political friction than did the previous severity. 

GEORGE PERETZ QC

Posted in New UK subsidy control regime | Comments Off on THE SUBSIDY CONTROL BILL AND DEVOLUTION: A BALANCED REGIME?

The Subsidy Control Bill: a short summary

NOTE: the following blog is an adapted version of an earlier post on https://eurelationslaw.com/. Subscribers who have their own comments or thoughts on the Bill are invited either to comment below or to send more detailed thoughts, amounting to a blog post, to gperetz@monckton.com and I will put them up.

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (“TCA”) left open significant issues in relation to how its subsidy control provisions would be implemented in the UK.  Published on 30 June, the Subsidy Control Bill fills in significant detail that was previously lacking.  We highlight below some of the key provisions proposed in the Bill.

Scope and definition of “subsidy”

Many of the key concepts simply carry over definitions used in the TCA, albeit in some cases with extra detail.  One important point to note is that the definition of subsidy in cl.2 includes subsidies granted by public authorities which have or are capable of having an effect on competition or investment within the UK and not just on trade and investment between the UK and third countries: that is a recognition by the government that the purpose of the new regime is not just to avoid the United Kingdom being in breach of its international treaty obligations, but also to protect domestic competition and investment against the distortive effects of ill-targeted subsidies.  That recognition is confirmed by the list of subsidy control principles in Schedule 1, which includes those listed in the TCA as well as the principle that: “[s]ubsidies should be designed to achieve their specific policy objective while minimising any negative effects on competition or investment within the United Kingdom.”

A further point in relation to intra-UK situations is that a specific prohibition is introduced in cl.18 on subsidies granted on condition that the enterprise in question relocates all or part of its existing economic activities from one area of the UK to another in circumstances in which it would not otherwise have done so.  Subsidy induced relocations are a potentially sensitive issue, but this is a very narrow prohibition applying only where relocation is an express condition of the subsidy – a situation likely to be very rare.  The government may wish to consider whether this clause needs to include the case where relocation is a likely consequence of the subsidy, as well as where it is an express condition.

Cl.4 essentially carries over from the TCA (and ultimately from EU law) the test as to when a tax measure counts as a subsidy. In particular, it appears that – as is now well-established in EU law – over-favourable tax rulings by HMRC, as well as differences of tax treatment, can amount to a subsidy, though enforcement of the subsidy control rules in such cases is likely to be problematic given (a) the absence of a body able to investigate subsidies on its own inititative and (b) (as discussed below) that the subsidy control rules do not affect the valdity of primary UK legislation.

Public authority

Also worth noting is the definition of “public authority” in cl.6.  This includes any person who exercises function of a public nature but excludes both the UK Parliament and the devolved legislatures.  At first sight this suggests assistance by means of a primary legislative act does not fall within the definition of a subsidy.  However, that is only the case in relation to a UK Act of Parliament, because para 6 of Schedule 3 (Subsidies provided by primary legislation) applies the subsidy control principles to subsidies provided by means of devolved primary legislation as it applies to subsidies given by public authorities (although it is notable that, in contrast to subsidies granted by public authorities, the Competition Appeal Tribunal is to play no role in such cases: it was presumably felt that a subsidy control challenge to devolved legislation was too sensitive a matter to be dealt with other than in the High Court or Court of Session).

The obligations on granting authorities

The central obligations on public authorities are in cl.12 and cl.33, namely to apply the Schedule 1 subsidy control principles to all subsidies apart from exempt ones (see below), not to grant a subsidy unless they consider that those principles are complied with, and to notify subsidies to a public subsidy database. 

In cases where a subsidy is “in relation to energy or the environment” the granting authority must, under cl.13, also apply the “energy and environment principles” set out in Schedule 2 – though, interestingly, cl.51 provides that it need not do so in relation to nuclear energy (though the usual Schedule 1 principles would apply).

The role of the CMA

As far as institutions are concerned, the “independent body” required by the TCA is to be a Subsidy Control Unit under the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”).  Under the Bill the CMA’s role is to produce reports pursuant to mandatory or voluntary referrals by public authorities before they give a subsidy or make a subsidy scheme as well as in relation to post award referrals.  The CMA does not make the final decision: that is ultimately for the granting authority, even if the CMA produces a negative report.

Mandatory referrals (cl.52) are required where a case qualifies as one of “particular interest” – the criteria for which are to be set out in regulations – or pursuant to a call-in direction by the Secretary of State (cl.55).  Following publication of the CMA’s report the Bill imposes a cooling off period of 5 working days during which the subsidy may not be given or scheme made (cl.54).  However, the public authority can proceed, if it so wishes, against the advice of the CMA: the constraint upon its ability to do so will be whether that exposes it to the risk of judicial review – but there may in principle be cases where a public authority is behaving entirely reasonably in taking a different view to that of the CMA. In practice, though, it is likely in many cases that concerns raised by the CMA as to the terms of any subsidy will result in adjustments being made to the subsidy during the CMA’s investigation rather than in an adverse final report.

Voluntary referrals to the CMA may be made by granting authorities in a case of “interest” (cl.56 – again to be defined by regulations) – though the CMA can refuse such referrals.  It is also possible for the Secretary of State to make a “post-award referral” in cases where it appears that the requirements of the Bill have not been complied with and there is a risk of negative effects on competition or investment within the United Kingdom (cl.60) (oddly, the Secretary of State does not appear to have that power if the possible subsidy only affects foreign countries, though such subsidies could well cause difficulty at international level).

The role of the Secretary of State

The Secretary of State has a number of important powers.  By regulation, he defines the category of “subsidies of particular interest” that must be referred to the CMA.  He may issue guidance on the practical application of the subsidy principles and other matters, to which granting authorities must have regard (cl.79) – guidance to which the CAT is also likely to have regard, though will not be bound by.  And as noted above he can issue call-in directions that require granting authorities to refer subsidies to the CMA, and post-award referrals where grants have already been made.

Since those powers apply to authorities outside England, they raise devolution concerns, particularly as the devolved governments have no equivalent power to ask the CMA to look at subsidy decisions by the UK government or by English authorities. However, since subsidy control is, by section 52 of the UK Internal Market Act 2020, a reserved (or, in Northern Ireland, an excepted) matter, the Sewel Convention (see e.g. section 28(8) of the Scotland Act 1998) will not apply to the taking of those powers by the Secretary of State.

Finally, the Secretary of State (though, again, no devolved government) is automatically to be regarded as an “interested party” able to challenge subsidy decisions in the Competition Appeal Tribunal (“CAT”): cl.70(7)(b).

Judicial review

As for courts, as noted above, the CAT is given judicial review jurisdiction in relation to subsidy decisions (apart from decisions contained in primary legislation of the devolved or Westminster Parliaments).  It may be noted that the Tribunal would appear from the general wording in cl.70 to have power to look at all grounds that there may be to challenge such a decision, including challenges on grounds of lack of power to make the grant under the legislation under which the relevant authority is acting, or other common law grounds such as procedural irregularity or apparent bias, as well as irrational or legally erroneous application of the subsidy principles. 

In cases where the granting authority takes the view that the measure is not a subsidy at all, or is exempt, then the CAT’s role is likely to be to determine whether the measure falls within the definition of a subsidy or is exempt: since the public authority will typically not have considered the subsidy principles at all in such a case, the finding that it was mistaken in taking the view that the measure was not a subsidy or was exempt is likely to be determinative. 

In case where the challenge is to the application of the subsidy control principles, interesting questions will include: (a) the extent to which the CAT is generally inclined to scrutinise the granting authority’s reasoning somewhat more closely than it would that of a regulator on the basis that the granting authority is “marking its own homework” and may be influenced in its assessment by extraneous political considerations; and (b) the extent to which the CAT will scrutinise with particular care cases where the granting authority departs from the approach of the CMA.

Further questions will arise in relation to who, apart from the Secretary of State, is to be regarded as an “interested party” able to start proceedings in the CAT: section 70(7)(a) tells us that it is a person whose interests may be affected by the giving of a subsidy, but the CAT will have to decide if that concept is to be defined narrowly as in the General Court (extending to competitors but few others) or whether it will include, for example, trade unions representing employees in affected businesses or even taxpayers of the granting authority. It should also be noted that “public interest” bodies such as the Good Law Project, which would almost certainly not count as “interested parties” and therefore not be entitled to bring proceedings in the CAT, may well be able to seek judicial review of a subsidy decision in the Administrative Court or Court of Session on the basis that there is no alternative remedy open to them.

Rescue and restructuring subsidies, and prohibited subsidies

Subsidies to “ailing or insolvent” enterprises are provided for at clauses 19 to 26.  The definition in cl. 24 of “ailing or insolvent” is more flexible than under EU State Aid law and potentially more demanding requiring an enterprise to be almost certain to go out of business in the short/medium term, unable to pay its debts as they fall due, or the value of its assets is less than the amount of its liabilities.  However, the details of the definition will be set out in secondary legislation.

Exemptions

Cl.36 of the Bill gives effect, in sterling terms, to the general de minimis thresholds under the TCA specified in Special Drawing Rights (£315,000 and in the case of payments for services of public economic interest £725,000). 

There are further exemptions for national security, financial stability (likely to apply in any repetition of the 2007/08 crisis), and subsidies to compensate for the effect of natural disasters and economic emergencies (such as current Covid subsidies).  One interesting and potentially important exemption is for any subsidy “given in accordance with Article 10 of the Northern Ireland Protocol” (cl.48(2)(a)): that would appear to mean that any subsidy that falls under Article 10 and is permitted under that Article (either by block exemption or individual exemption granted by the Commission) is automatically exempt from UK subsidy control  – a position which is somewhat odd given that such a subsidy could have distortive effects on competition within Great Britain, which is a matter that would not be relevant to the Commission’s assessment under Article 10).

Otherwise, the Bill does not create any “safe harbours” where granting authorities can simply award a subsidy that meets certain criteria without any analysis of its effects and without having to register it on the subsidy database.  There was some demand, in responses to the government’s consultation, for there to be such “safe harbours”.  One possibility is that the government uses its power to create “streamlined subsidy schemes” (cl.10) to create what is in effect a safe harbour for subsidies that the government wishes to encourage.  Otherwise, public authorities will have to get used to the fact that grants of subsidy above de minimis level are likely to require some analysis of the subsidy control principles as part of the granting process: in reality, the extent to which that analysis is conducted thoroughly and rigorously is likely to depend on the likelihood of challenge by an interested party or call-in by the Secretary of State.

GEORGE PERETZ QC

BEN RAYMENT

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U.K. Government trails Subsidy Control Bill to be published later today

The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy today issued a press release stating that the government will introduce its promised Subsidy Control Bill to Parliament later today.

The press release trails a few details of the proposals which are worth noting (subject to the terms of the Bill itself).

(a) The “independent body” required by the Trade and Cooperation Agreement will be part of the CMA (which may give the regime more credibility with the EU and other trading partners, which know the CMA well, but which some practitioners feel may lead to an inappropriately “competition law” approach being adopted to subsidy control).

b) The Competition Appeal Tribunal will have judicial review jurisdiction across the UK in subsidy matters (allowing for a common approach across the UK by a court familiar with economic regulation).

c) It is not clear whether there will be a “safe harbour” for subsidies deemed to be unproblematic – but we will have to see the detail.

d) “Displacement” of jobs and economic activity across internal UK borders will be a self-standing ground for not proceeding with a subsidy (it is not clear whether that will be alongside a more general distortion of competition ground).

More detailed analysis will have to await publication of the Bill.

GEORGE PERETZ QC

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Subsidy Control after Brexit – a practitioner’s perspective

By Alex Kynoch and Angelica Hymers

(This article was first published in Local Government Lawyer, www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk.)

Back in late 2020, we waited expectantly for news of what the rules on state aid were going to be when the Brexit transition period ended on 31 December. We, like many others, hoped that the existing state aid regime would be continued on a transitional basis until a new subsidy control regime could be put in place. However, the Government made clear its intention to repeal the old regime without setting out proposals for its replacement. No further details were available until the Government announced that agreement had been reached with the EU on the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) a free trade agreement which included the core principles of a new subsidy control regime for the UK. At this point it became clear that state aid practitioners were going to be spending their Christmas break reading through the TCA in order to understand the new rules which would apply from 1 January 2021.

We do not seek to summarise the TCA in this article, but the key point is that it is intended to be permissive rather than restrictive. A subsidy may be granted, provided it complies with six principles set out in the TCA, and it is not prohibited. There are few additional restrictions on the ability of a public body to grant a subsidy as far as the TCA is concerned. There are specific but limited rules on de-minimis subsidies (with a higher threshold than under the State aid De-Minimis Regulation) and rules on Services of Public Economic Interest (SPEI) – the replacement for Services of General Economic Interest under the State aid rules. But there are no block exemptions, regulations or decisions which place obligations or restrictions on how subsidies may be granted.

The six principles themselves are aimed at ensuring that only subsidies which will not have a ‘material effect’ on trade or investment between the UK and the EU are granted. They are somewhat esoteric, and appear to be, in effect, an approximation of the decision-making process that the EU Commission goes through when it determines whether a State aid is lawful. However, for many public authorities, interpreting them can be an onerous task. Some are straightforward enough – it is usually clear whether a subsidy is pursuing a specific public policy objective (the first principle). To know whether “the positive contribution of a subsidy will outweigh any negative effects, in particular the negative effects on trade or investment between the parties” (the sixth principle) on the other hand, is more difficult, seeming to require a high level oversight of the state of trade or investment between the UK and the EU. This is clearly something central government and the EU Commission will have but presents more of a problem for sub-central authorities.

The difficulty arises from a lack of detail within the TCA and a lack of guidance on how the TCA should be interpreted. The TCA has a single chapter on subsidy control, a mere 13 Articles replacing decades of EU instruments, decisions and cases. The only guidance on the UK’s subsidy control rules is the Technical Guidance on the UK’s International Subsidy Control Commitments, published on 31 December 2020.This document’s focus is compliance with the World Trade Organisation Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures and other Free Trade agreements – international commitments which are unlikely to impact upon the majority of subsidy measures granted by local authorities. This means that lawyers and clients seeking to interpret the subsidy control rules are heavily reliant on other sources to try to understand how the TCA applies to the measures that they are considering. In practice, the State aid rules are still being applied across the UK to fill the legal vacuum left by the repeal of the prior regime. This is a highly pragmatic solution – EU instruments such as the General Block Exemption Regulation (GBER) make provision for lawful granting of subsidies, and the specific articles along with the general provisions would seem to set out the tolerances within which the EU Commission considers that a subsidy is acceptable. A subsidy which was compliant with the State aid regime would therefore seem to be compliant with the TCA, although the requirement to consider the TCA Principles means that de facto compliance with the State aid regime is not sufficient of itself. It seems highly unlikely that this was the Government’s intention, bearing in mind the clear wish to put aside the EU’s “burdensome” State aid regime, but for many local authorities the risk that a subsidy is granted unlawfully and becomes subject to an order for clawback is too great to take any other approach. In practice, the greater freedoms available under the new regime are being restricted, simply because of a lack of guidance and the lack of certainty that results.

A Subsidy Control Bill was announced in the May 2021 Queen’s Speech. The Bill will implement a new domestic subsidy control regime, which will “reflect our strategic interests and particular national circumstances, providing a legal framework within which local authorities make subsidy decisions”. The announcement advises that amongst the main benefits of the Bill will be:

  • enabling public authorities to deliver subsidies which are tailored and bespoke for local needs to support the UK’s economic recovery and deliver Government Priorities, such as “increasing UK R&D investment and achieving net zero” – as specific GBER exemptions under the State aid rules exist to manage subsidy to these areas, we assume that the Bill will provide for increased flexibility for subsidies in these areas;
  • enabling the UK to meet its international commitments on subsidy control, including its international commitments at the World Trade Organisation and in Free Trade Agreements – these commitments generally require far less from the UK than the EU-UK TCA, and accordingly, it is likely that compliance with the TCA itself will continue to be the main focus for the UK public sector, other than in specific projects, for example those with an international angle; and
  • creating our own subsidy control system now that we are no longer bound by the EU’s burdensome State aid rules: – as set out above, our experience is that the State aid rules are still being applied by public authorities in the absence of any other guidance on how to interpret the UK’s subsidy control regime. Consequently, if the UK is to move away from the State aid rules, the Government will need to put in place a more detailed regime which gives public authorities clear guidance and, crucially, legal certainty on when a subsidy will be permissible.

The content of the Bill remains relatively unclear at this stage. The announcement advises that it will “create a consistent set of UK-wide principles that public authorities must follow when granting subsidies” and that it will “exempt certain categories of subsidies from certain obligations of the regime or leaving out of scope entirely”, but it is not clear to what extent the Bill will go beyond the provisions of the TCA. Certainly, the TCA already sets out principles which must be followed when subsidies are granted and exempts certain categories of subsidies from certain obligations (it contains less restrictive rules on de-minimis and SPEI, for example). However, if the Government wishes to move away from the State aid rules, it must ensure the Bill contains clear guidance and rules which give public authorities legal certainty about how the subsidy control regime should be applied. This might usefully be done by way of UK block exemptions setting out the conditions for subsidies in particular areas to be granted. Flexibility could be retained by allowing public authorities to decide that the TCA principles were still met even if a subsidy fell outside these safe harbours.

One important aspect of the Bill is that it will establish an “independent subsidy control body” which will oversee the UK’s subsidy control regime. This is required by the TCA. While the role of this body is not yet clear, it was mentioned in the Government’s consultation on subsidy control. The consultation sought views on the role of the independent body, including whether it should have enforcement powers and provide advice on specific subsidies – however, the consultation stated that decisions as to whether subsidies were compliant would remain with the public authority. The role of the independent body is critical to get right. A knowledgeable body which is able to provide authoritative guidance and advice on the application of the subsidy control regime would be invaluable, but too limited a role (i.e. one which does not consider specific cases in any detail) or a lack of expertise in the independent body could exacerbate the existing problems of the subsidy control regime. Several commentators have also outlined the benefits of a prior approval mechanism (akin to the EU Commission’s approach) to give certainty to public authorities and co-investors, but we understand the Government is reluctant to introduce a requirement to seek prior approval as this undermines the devolution of decision making power to individual authorities.

The consultation also considered whether a seventh principle will be added alongside the six in the TCA. This would protect the UK internal market by minimising the distortive effects on competition which arise where a subsidy might pull trade or investment from one part of the UK to another – this is something we have not had to deal with before. Although the rationale behind this principle is clear, implementing it will place a further burden upon granting authorities, who will need to consider not only the impact on trade and investment between the UK and the EU, but between the different parts of the UK. We look forward with interest to seeing whether (and how) this will be implemented.

Likewise, various issues are arising in practice which we hope will be addressed by the new Bill. Some of these (such as the treatment of existing subsidy schemes, or blended funds using new and pre-existing schemes) are causing difficulty within all levels of government so clear transitional provisions would be helpful. Other issues, such as equivalents to the Market Economy Operator Principle and public infrastructure rules could also be usefully addressed in the new regime. In the absence of this, public authorities are likely to lean heavily on the old state aid regime.

The lack of certainty caused by the withdrawal of the old regime without a full replacement, means the UK’s new subsidy control regime has made somewhat of a bumpy start. The Government now has the opportunity to remedy this by designing a new regime which finds the balance between flexibility and legal certainty – but a more permissive approach to regulating subsidies will only work if public authorities are given the tools and guidance to apply the new regime with confidence.

Legal Director, Alex Kynoch heads up Browne Jacobson’s subsidy control team which is part of the firm’s Government & Infrastructure practice. Alex specialises in subsidy control, public procurement and complex public sector commercial projects, with a particular interest in regeneration and energy projects. He regularly provides training sessions to local and central government departments and speaks at seminars on subsidy control and public procurement.

Senior Associate, Angelica Hymers also works across Browne Jacobson’s Government & Infrastructure practice. Angelica also specialises in subsidy control, public procurement and public sector commercial projects.

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Institute for Government report on the design of a new UK subsidy control regime.

The subsidy control consultation closed two months ago. And the subsidy control bill, announced in the Queen’s speech, is expected soon. In the meantime, a report from the Institute for Government, Taking Back Control of Subsidies, published at the end of last month, looks at how the government can design an effective subsidy control regime to prevent harmful subsidies and encourage beneficial ones while minimising legal uncertainty and bureaucracy.

The report argues that a system that relies solely on public bodies self-assessing their subsidies for compliance with broad principles, without a prominent role for a regulator, will not be effective. The new subsidy control system is also a source of potential tension between the UK and devolved governments, and a system without the devolved administrations’ support could be undermined from the start.

To make the new system a success, the new IfG report recommends that:

  • The system includes clear and detailed guidance to help governments and public bodies comply with the rules and to direct subsidies towards UK priorities.
  • A ‘safe harbours’ route for smaller subsidies. These are tightly defined rules which, if complied with, guarantee that the subsidy is legal. This is crucial if smaller subsidies are to proceed as or more smoothly than under the EU system.
  • The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) be appointed as the system’s regulator to provide advice before subsidies have been offered and to challenge subsidies that are harmful or waste taxpayer money.
  • The CMA’s governance should be reformed to ensure formal board representation to the devolved administrations.
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Review of “E.U. State Aids” by L. Hancher, T.R. Ottervanger and P.J. Slot, 6th edition, 2021

By Aidan Robertson QC, Brick Court Chambers

This excellent textbook is now in its sixth edition, having first been published in 1993. This edition is edited by Professor Leigh Hancher, Yvo de Vries and Francesco Maria Salerno, supported by a team of some 35 contributors drawn from private practice and academia in the EU and the UK as well as officials from the European Commission writing in their personal capacity.

This edition has been published five years after its predecessor. It continues to expand in scope and depth, as well as responding to the challenges posed, first, by the post-Brexit legal order in the form of the subsidy control provisions contained in the UK/EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement and, second, by the massive amount of State support which has had to be approved in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The structure of the book is helpfully described in the opening chapter. There are five parts. Part I sets out the general framework of EU state aid law. Part II then addresses six specific issues: services of general economic interest, social services of general interest, guarantees, risk finance investments, aid in the area of taxation and infrastructure These are singled out for individual treatment because both of their importance as separate topics and the fact that an in-depth discussion of them does not neatly fit in with the remaining parts. Part III covers sectoral aid, i.e. agriculture, the financial sector, transport, aviation, broadcasting, broadband deployment, shipbuilding, sports transport, energy and environment protection. Part IV addresses horizontal aid in the fields of regional aid, research and development, and rescuing and restructuring aid. The final Part V looks at procedure and remedies, devoting a final chapter to the challenges posed by COVID-19.

The breadth of scope of this subject is evident from this summary of contents. The number of contributors gives this book the impression of being the Bellamy & Child of State Aid law. It also shares the same approach of seeking to state and explain the law, while not engaging in detailed critique. This authoritative tone is a real strength as it enables one to rely upon it as an authority in court proceedings as well as in administrative procedures without the need for further citation.The exception to this Halsbury style approach is the second chapter in which Professor Nicolaides sets this work in context with a succinct and illuminating account of the economics of granting and controlling state aid.

Hancher, Ottervanger and Slot is destined to be with us for editions to come, so this review concludes with a couple of small suggestions for the future. First, it would be useful to have references to domestic case law applying the State aid rules. For example, the possibility of bringing a Francovich claims for damages against a Member State for granting unlawful aid is explained in the section on actions before national courts, without referring to the English cases exploring this issue, most notably the judgment of Falk J in Credit Suisse v HMRC [2019] EWHC 1922 (Ch) rejecting such a claim on the facts of that case. If there are national decisions meriting citation, they should be referred to in the text and all national decisions should have their own table at the beginning, separate from European Commission and Court references. This would add yet further value to this already invaluable work. Second, it is clear that the UK will continue to operate a form of State aid regime pursuant to domestic legislation announced in the 2021 Queen’s Speech giving effect to the UK/EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, It would be useful to have an overview analysis as to the extent to which that regime replicates or differs from the EU State aid regime (while recognizing that could be a topic for a book in its own right). Perhaps that could replace the final chapter in this edition on COVID-19 and State aid which one would hope would only be of historical interest by the time of the next edition.

AIDAN ROBERTSON QC

Full publication details: E.U. State Aids” by L. Hancher, T.R. Ottervanger and P.J. Slot, pub Sweet & Maxwell, London, U.K., 2021, 6th edition, pp 1298 (inc. index, + xcv tables), £325, ISBN-0780414080553, hardback

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Further response to BEIS consultation on subsidy control

We publish here a further response to the BEIS consultation on a new U.K. subsidy control regime, prepared by a distinguished group of experts in the field (Professor Andrea Biondi, Anneli Howard QC, Dr Totis Kotsonis, Professor Stephanie Rickard, Dr Luca Rubini, Dr Oana Stefan, and Kelly Stricklin-Coutinho).

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Joint Working Party of the UK Bars and Law Societies on Competition Law responds to the BEIS Consultation on the new UK subsidy control regime

The Joint Working Party of the UK Bars and Law Societies on Competition Law responded to the BEIS consultation on the new UK subsidy control regime. A copy of its response is here.

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