Motion to Approve
My Lords, these changes will extend the Government’s powers to intervene in mergers that might give rise to national security implications. The powers to make this secondary legislation are found in the Enterprise Act 2002.
The changes contained in the instrument will amend the share of supply test to allow the scrutiny of more mergers in three areas of the economy: military and dual-use technologies, and two parts of the advanced technology sector encompassing computing hardware and quantum technologies. Subject to parliamentary approval for this affirmative procedure statutory instrument, a second negative procedure statutory instrument will be laid to amend the turnover test to allow the scrutiny of more mergers in the same three areas of the economy.
Before I explain the changes in detail, I will say a few background words about the Government’s position relating to national security and mergers. The United Kingdom economy is open to the world. Core to our economic approach is to trade with and invest in other countries, and to welcome foreign investment into our economy. To facilitate this open economy, our framework of laws and policies on protecting national security and on the conduct of mergers must be continuously reviewed and updated. This tradition of periodic refinement has enabled the United Kingdom to remain a place where people can invest with confidence.
The Enterprise Act 2002 is the key legal means for the Government to examine mergers for the purposes of national security and other specified public interest criteria. In the light of technological advancements, economic developments and changes in the national security threat, it is now time for reform. Last year we set out a two-stage approach, beginning with action through this instrument and the proposed related instrument amending the turnover test.
I will briefly expand on the amendments. The changes made by this order and the proposed order amending the turnover threshold relate to mergers involving businesses active in three areas of the economy. First, the instrument covers businesses that produce military and dual-use technologies. Military technology includes such items as arms, and military and paramilitary equipment, while dual-use technology could have both military and civilian uses. These items can pose clear and immediate risks to the United Kingdom, our people and society. Furthermore, the acquisition of items that provide the UK with its military advantage can raise significant national security concerns. The instrument ensures that businesses involved in the development or production of goods that form parts of the UK’s export control regime will be in scope.
Secondly, the instrument addresses the risks created through advances in computing hardware, which now mean there are ubiquitous goods with the potential to be directed remotely should a hostile actor obtain access or control. Thirdly, it will bring quantum technology within scope. The huge technological potential offered by this area also presents national security challenges.
As a result of the changes made by the instrument, the Government will be able to intervene if the target business in a merger has a share of supply of at least 25% before the merger. The acquiring party will not need to have any share of the supply of the same goods or services for the test to be met.
We are making these changes because we are concerned about possible scenarios whereby a business with no existing share of supply in the UK buys a business in one of these three areas of the economy. Such a merger would not result in an increase in the share of supply in the UK and, therefore, the current share of supply test set out under the Enterprise Act would not be met. The changes will apply only to the areas of the economy that I have set out.
The amendments made by the second, negative statutory instrument will mean that the Government are able to intervene in a merger if the target firm or business being taken over has a UK turnover of more than £1 million, rather than the Act’s current £70 million threshold, in the same three areas of the economy covered by the first instrument. Microbusinesses are excluded from the scope of the revised thresholds, ensuring that the Government take as proportionate and focused an approach as possible to delivering our policy intention.
We have incorporated the constructive feedback from our consultation last October into the substance of these reforms. We have published an impact assessment and guidance to provide greater clarity to businesses and investors.
We will continue to assess risks in other sectors. If there is evidence to suggest that the Government should take action in additional areas of the economy, they will bring forward further legislation. In the longer term, the Government will bring forward primary legislation to make more substantive changes to how they scrutinise national security implications of foreign investment. We consulted on the proposals and are analysing the responses. A White Paper will follow in due course. I commend the order to the House.
My Lords, as the Minister said, the United Kingdom prides itself on having an open economy—open to trade and open to takeover and mergers, in the UK as well as overseas.
However, in some areas, mergers may be open to threats to our national security in the fields referred to in this order of dual-use military technologies, computing hardware and quantum-based technology. Examples of such threats might be espionage, disruptive or destructive actions, or exploiting investment as inappropriate leverage in other negotiations. I therefore understand why the Government might want to strengthen their powers to scrutinise mergers and takeovers which fall into these areas.
However, I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I express a few concerns, and a number of questions are worth putting to him. First, some of the responses to the Government’s consultation were quite hostile. Why did the Government reject the opinion of several legal firms that the proposals were “inappropriate” or “disproportionate”? Why is the special public interest regime, meant to deal with mergers below the £70 million threshold, considered inadequate? Why have the Government decided on these three sectors specifically? Why does the order not cover other sectors that could have national security implications?
While the Government are not doing it at present, we need to be wary of significantly expanding the national security grounds for intervention because they could be used spuriously, as we see President Trump doing. We need to ensure that Parliament can keep the Government accountable for this power. We are currently far from the situation that exists in the USA, with President Trump using national security concerns spuriously to protect US economic interests, but will the Minister commit to coming to this House regularly, as the Secretary of State has done in connection with GKN, so that Parliament can hold the Executive to account for how these powers are used? In addition, we have been calling for a public interest test that could widen the grounds for ministerial intervention. However, this is controlled at EU level so would require EU agreement or would need to be done post Brexit. Does the Minister agree that the grounds for ministerial intervention in corporate takeovers, particularly by foreign companies, need to be expanded? For example, would he be prepared to work with the EU to consider the case for intervention in mergers to ensure that the UK’s research and innovation capacity is not restricted? I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
My Lords I am grateful to the Minister for his introduction to this SI. I shall start with a very obvious point that I am surprised he did not reach for as his first line, which is why it has not been brought in on a common commencement date. The noble Lord will have heard me speak about this before and I am sure that the department is tired by my questions about this. Such regulations will have a huge impact on certain sectors of the economy. Common commencement dates were meant to give people good warning about when regulations would come in. They are 6 April and 1 October: it would surely not have been impossible to arrange for them to come in, if the 6 April date could not be met, on 1 October. That would have given people plenty of time and knowledge that it was happening.
The Minister has been very good in responding to this and seems to get the point, but of course no action seems to be flowing from the decision. I have decided to keep a tally of his scores: we have had six statutory instruments so far, only one of which has landed on a common commencement date, and I had to rule that one out because it missed the common commencement date that was available to it and went for one further down the track, so it really does not count. So it is really 6-0. I really think that this is not a good standard and I am going to bring this up every time we have a chance to debate these issues until he is finally goaded into doing something about it.
More seriously—although I think that this is a serious point—I agree with a lot of what the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, said about the general approach taken here, particularly the very hostile response that was given to the consultation, which must have given somebody in the department some concern. Like her, we agree with the broad thrust of what has been happening here. There is a concern for the national interest if there are not sufficient regulations set up around hostile takeovers—or, indeed, takeovers that have been done with consent—if they threaten our national interest.
My worry, which I think is shared by the noble Baroness, is that while it is relatively straightforward to see what is meant by the national security interest in relation to military technologies, where the regulations will bite, as soon as there is an introduction of dual use a grey area opens up. It is true that most of the material will be listed as part of the UK’s export control regime, and there is some consolation in that, but I worry a bit about material that could be judged by BEIS to have dual-use technologies, even if the original intention was never for that to be the case. It would mean that the company involved in making it might well get caught by this.
The problems get worse in relation to computing hardware and, in particular, in relation to quantum technology, for which definitions are so obscure, or so general, that it is a very hard to see that those who are working in this area will know whether they are or are not in scope of this regulation. Computing hardware is, as the regulation says, ubiquitous. It is very difficult now to see any technology that does not involve some form of computing, whether it is at the simple level or whether it is more complex, in terms of writing instructions and making things happen in a way that could be carried out to be hostile or difficult. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and I are saying the same thing here; that this is getting to the point where it is either such a broad list that it is going to include every company involved in technology and manufacturing in this country, or so wide that it will be useless, because it will be taking the Government’s control, through the merger process, into every sector of the economy, and I am sure that is not what is intended.
If it is bad in computer hardware, it is even worse in quantum technology, which is a phrase that is not well defined. As far as I can see, it certainly did not appear in any legislative document that we have seen in this House for some time. Of course, quantum could be restricted to mean very fast computing. Obviously, that is the sense in which the national interest is more likely to be at risk. But, again, in a short period of time it could include virtually every sector of our economy, and if it does not, it means that our economy will not be competitive across the world. The question underlying this is: is it not better for the Government to fess up and say that they will investigate every merger? In effect, every merger could be used as a way of breaching our national security. If that is the case, perhaps the Government ought to think again about the road being taken here.
My second point is about the change that is coming forward in the negative instrument, which is helpfully attached to the documents that have been circulated for this debate, which is to reduce the value of the target companies for the share of supply test from £70 million turnover per annum to £1 million. Again, it is a question of scale. Does that not suggest that virtually every company in the country will be subject to the share of supply test? If that is the case, how on earth will it reassure those who are carrying on a business which does not threaten the public interest to feel that any discussion or merger they may wish to do with their business—and many of them will be private companies—will be subject to call-in by the competition authorities? I wonder again if the Government are on the right track here.
It may be that the £70 million turnover provides a difficulty in relation to the companies the Government have concerns about, although it is true that according to the impact assessment that is attached to the regulation, we are talking about a very small number of companies—between nought and five. If it is the case that we are going for virtually every SME in the country—those with a turnover of more than £1 million—that probably excludes microbusinesses, but is that not another problem? Quite a lot of the innovative material that will be of concern to our national security may be being developed by two or three people with a very small turnover. If microbusinesses are excluded, the competition issues will not come to bear. I may be making too much of this, but I worry about the direction in which this is going.
My final point for the Government to respond to is that this was said by the Minister to be part of a longer-term project. This is the first stage: two statutory instruments, one of which we have to approve this evening and one of which is a negative and we will have to consider whether to pray against it. According to the Explanatory Memorandum, the second stage is:
“In the longer term, the Government will bring forward primary legislation to make more substantive changes to how it scrutinises national security implications of foreign investment”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, made a number of points about how there may be other considerations here. Will this be restricted to national security or are we finally going to see some sense of the public interest test—which clearly the Secretary of State wished he had powers to address when he was looking at the GKN merger a few weeks ago—which would deal with questions about how research, employment and sensitive activities across the country will be looked at when there is an aggressive overseas takeover that is not particularly welcomed or wanted or which is subject to concerns for which there is currently no adequate remedy in our companies legislation? The Stock Exchange can make recommendations, but these are not statutory. What we need is a government commitment to go forward on this basis which will look at undertakings that will have to be given by the acquiring company for which there will be statutory redress should it be recalled. Is this what is referred to in paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum, and if it is not, can we know when that is going to happen?
My Lords, I start with an apology to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, as I have done before, particularly about the common commencement date. I know that he considers this matter of considerable importance and I promised I would take it on board. I hope the message is getting through to the department. It has now also got through to my Whip, my noble friend Lady Vere, who is sitting next to me. She will kick me hard when it next happens. The noble Lord first gave me one out of six, but by his second count had reduced that to 6-0. We will see if we can do better in the future. I hope that I can deal with some of his concerns. I certainly hope we can get back to that point and, where it is important, stick to that common commencement date because I see the importance of what the noble Lord has said.
I forgot about this until I sat down in the Chamber; I then did a few quick sums and saw that the order had been laid on 15 March and comes into effect not 28 days after it is laid but 28 days after it is made. I imagine that it is made on the date when it goes through either this House or another place—I think it goes through another place tomorrow—and that is well off 5 April. I briefly thought, “Gosh, if it means laid then if I add this to that, I would only be a week out”, but I do not think I am as lucky as that.
Perhaps I may deal quickly with some of the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, raised. Some of them go wider than the order itself; no doubt someone will discuss some of them in due course if and when there is the primary legislation that I referred to in my opening remarks. The noble Baroness said that a number of legal firms felt, in the consultation, that these reforms were disproportionate or inappropriate. We considered the legality of the reforms carefully and they have gone through significant legal scrutiny by internal and external legal advisers. The reforms have of course been looked at by the JCSI, which we take very seriously. The JCSI certainly said that it believed that the reforms are within the powers granted under Sections 28 and 123 of the 2002 Act.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, also asked why the special public interest intervention regime is not enough. That regime is limited to mergers involving relevant government contractors. This statutory instrument takes us a little further and will enable the Government to scrutinise mergers involving an acquirer with no share of supply of the relevant good or service, in the case before a transition, in those three key areas of the economy that I mentioned. She asked why it was those three sectors and not others. Again, the Green Paper set out just how hostile actors’ takeover of certain businesses could raise risks to our national security. We will obviously keep our powers under review but we are acting only under the powers in the 2002 Act. We will not hesitate to take further steps, if necessary, to protect our national security.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, then took us wider. Perhaps I may link my response with that to some of the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. He was looking at the long-term project and how we manage to address it. I can really only take them both back to what I said: we had a Green Paper earlier this year and we are now in the process of looking at a White Paper. Following that, we will need to bring forward primary legislation, which will certainly give the noble Baroness the chance for any amount of parliamentary scrutiny that she wishes. Failing that, I can give an assurance that either my right honourable friend or a Minister here at the Dispatch Box will report to the House if and when it is necessary. As I said, we will want to bring forward primary legislation at some stage to make more substantive changes to how we scrutinise the national security implications of foreign investment. Whether we would want to go wider and look at further grounds for intervention—I noted what the noble Baroness had to say about research and innovation—is a matter that should be left for that occasion.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked about how respondents reacted to the changes to the share of supply test proposed in the consultation. Some respondents raised concerns that the test is subjective and that the threshold is complex and therefore involves complex assessments and would lead to disproportionately high costs for smaller businesses. Some businesses recognised that the proposed changes are necessary to prevent hostile states taking over smaller companies working in sensitive areas of the economy without due diligence being provided. Therefore we are clear that the amendments that the two orders make to the share of supply test are necessary to safeguard national security, as they ensure that our powers to intervene will cover deals involving a buyer with no footprint in specific markets.
I hope I have answered most of the questions put to me by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord. I again apologise to the noble Lord for failing to meet his requirements on the common commencement date. That point is getting through to me, and I have taken it on board. Other than those questions, I think there was a broad welcome for the limited measures proposed in this order and the associated negative instrument.