Committee (1st Day)
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now begin. Some Members are here in person, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the Room to wear a face covering except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down, and to wipe down their desk, chair and any other touch points before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded, or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes.
I will call Members to speak in the order listed. During the debate on each group, I invite Members, including Members in the Grand Committee Room, to email the clerk, if they wish to speak after the Minister, using the Grand Committee address. I will call Members to speak in order of request.
The groupings are binding. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the question, I will collect voices in the Grand Committee Room only. I remind Members that Divisions cannot take place in Grand Committee. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill, so if a single voice says “Not Content” an amendment is negatived, and if a single voice says “Content” a clause stands part. If a Member taking part remotely wants their voice accounted for if the question is put, they must make this clear when speaking on the group. We will now begin.
1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Objective of this Act
(1) The overarching objective of this Act is to allow the Secretary of State to safeguard national security in respect of economic and social harm.(2) When making decisions under this Act, including for the purposes of assessing a risk to national security, the Secretary of State must have regard to the objective in subsection (1).(3) The Secretary of State must also have regard to the effect of the application of this Act on—(a) technology investment;(b) the research and innovation environment; and(c) business opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment sets an objective for the bill in relation to national security and includes a number of other elements to which the Secretary of State must have regard.
My Lords, Amendment 1 is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones. At Second Reading the Minister described the Bill as
“a major upgrade to the Government’s powers to screen certain acquisitions on national security grounds”,
which builds substantially on the Enterprise Act 2002. It certainly is, but perhaps in the Bill we are dealing with architect’s drawing of the upgrade, rather than a 3D model.
First, let me say without equivocation that those of us on our Benches see the need the Government to scrutinise potentially sensitive transactions, and we think that an upgrade is timely and sensible. However, as the Minister has acknowledged, there is the rub. Defining what is sensitive and what is a transaction of concern are key to the effective operation of the Bill. As we progress through the amendments ahead of us, I would say that virtually all seek to better define the operational process of the new investment security unit within BEIS and to ensure that the disquiet it has caused is alleviated.
At Second Reading, the Minister spoke about reflecting
“the modern economic and investment landscape in the UK.”—[Official Report, 4/2/21; col. 2332.]
In fact, what is proposed here is culturally different from what successive Governments have practised. Blair, Cameron—including and excluding us—through May to Johnson have all, so far, rightly or wrongly, pursued a distinctly hands-off approach. It is not hard to understand the alarm that the Bill might cause in the outside world.
Its publishing sends a message about the future nature of interventionism. This concern comes not just from the traditional free traders of the City but from universities, industry trade associations and sectors as wide as space and bioscience. The abiding link to these academic and industrial concerns is that these are, by necessity, international and collaborative activities.
The overwhelming concern coming from all sides of the House in that Second Reading debate was how this unit was to operate effectively without stifling innovation, scaring off capital and becoming a proxy for wider strategic considerations. It is with this in mind that my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and I penned this first amendment, which sets out the objective of the Act. By exclusion, it also sets out what is not the objective of the Act and thus what is within and not within the purview of the investment security unit. It is designed to send clear messages about how this Bill will operate in practice.
Looking at the amendment in detail, first, in making regulations under proposed subsection (1), the Secretary of State’s overarching objective must be safeguarding national security. This is reinforced by proposed subsection (2). There is no controversy here, given that this is the purpose of the Bill, and on their own the subsections would offer nothing new. That is down to proposed subsection (3), which would add that
“The Secretary of State must also have regard to the effect of the application of this Act,”
on other things. In our case we have listed:
“technology investment … the research and innovation environment … and … business opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises.”
We put those three there, because in our view these areas are key elements of our national security. I am happy to debate what should be on that list, but I will explain why we put these in the amendment.
Technology investment is key to keeping ahead of the security arms race, and it is reasonable that the Secretary of State and, by extension, the unit in BEIS would have regard to this technology base. Similarly, the research and innovation environment is needed to deliver that technology leadership. Without vibrancy in investment here our future security is compromised. Finally, in many cases it is the SMEs that bring true innovation to all the 17 sectors on the Minister’s list. They take technology to market and must not be disproportionately disadvantaged by the application of this Bill.
This amendment is designed to send two messages. One is internal, seeking to influence the nascent culture of the investment security unit to ensure that it recognises publicly what elements contribute to the delivery of national security. The second is an external message to the market, our universities and our innovative businesses, big and small. They need to know that these issues are in the Government’s mind when they are making security decisions. They need to be reassured that this is a vehicle to help to reassure them. The Minister may well say “trust me”, and of course I do, but what of future Ministers and future Governments? This amendment would ensure that the Government have regard to the conditions and the culture that will deliver national security and investment in that security. I beg to move.
My Lords, in principle, I do not support proposed new clauses such as this, whether they are called objective clauses or purpose clauses. I have tabled them myself in the past, but they are usually not much more than an excuse for another Second Reading debate, and we had a little of that in the introduction from the noble Lord, Lord Fox.
Amendment 1 could be positively harmful. It confines national security to “economic and social harm”. The obvious item omitted is physical harm, but other harms could be missing. Purpose or objective clauses would be used as an aid to interpretation of the main body of the Act so, if they are there, they have to be comprehensive in their drafting if they are not to act as a constraint on the operation of the Bill.
Similarly, the “have regard” matters in proposed new subsection (3) could act as a constraint on the Secretary of State. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, explained the rationale for his list, but I could not see why “technology investment” was singled out compared to other kinds of investment—for example, in manufacturing capability or intellectual property. What exactly is meant by “research and innovation environment” is unclear from the drafting, and is the omission of “development”, which is the normal companion to “research”, significant or not? Singling out SMEs, which we are all aware are important to our economy, implies that larger enterprises are not important in the considerations.
There is a good reason why Bills do not often contain purpose or objective clauses. They are traps for the unwary and can do more harm than good.
My Lords, there are very wide-reaching powers in this Bill and, to start where I ended my Second Reading speech:
“I am not against the notion of interventions, but the Bill should be more than notion and compulsion, and I hope that it is possible to include more direction and balance.”—[Official Report, 4/2/21; col. 2364.]
That is exactly the aim of Amendment 1. It aims to be positive rather than negative, by defining an overarching objective. One might debate whether it could be slightly different, but the idea is to have an overarching objective to safeguard national security in respect of economic and social harm. “Social harm” is a very broad term. Recognising that broad scope, it specifically lists that the Secretary of State must
“have regard to the effect … on technology investment… the research and innovation environment … and business opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises.”
I can almost hear the Minister assuring us that the Secretary of State will have regard to a lot of things, and that would be right, but it is also necessary to make sure that there are correct messages given by the Bill—messages that endure and give confidence to the business sectors most likely to suffer, perhaps entirely unnecessarily, from rumours, concern or finger-pointing from competing jurisdictions.
If we take the starting point that the Bill has good intentions, that there are similar moves internationally, that we have perhaps been too slack in the past, and that there are inevitably burdens arising from both notification requirements and notification concern, that will lead to unnecessary voluntary notification. One wonders if there are not more mechanisms that can give an all-clear signal.
Maybe some will become clearer or develop over time but, wherever that is possible, as we work through the Bill, I am mainly looking to see what incremental steps can be made towards certainty. That can be helped right at the start of the Bill by using the combination of broad objective plus a list of the most sensitive “have regard” matters. This appears in various other pieces of UK legislation, not least in the financial services legislation that is occupying both my time and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, on the days either side of this sitting. Therefore, I hope that the Minister sees the advantage of taking that approach here.
My Lords, I will disappoint my noble friend Lady Noakes by making a comment that is more a Second Reading comment than anything else. But it is important we see this Bill in context. The genesis of this Bill is, I assume, largely about Chinese influence and the debates we have had about Huawei and so on. I want to raise only one issue on the context; it is the way in which British commerce and the economy are so intricately and deeply linked with China. Is that globalisation? I am not sure.
We all know how much we buy now comes from China on the one belt, one road programme or elsewhere. The interdependence between western consumers and economies and the Chinese economy is extraordinarily deep-rooted. I am going to use a little example—a silly one, you may say. Old-fashioned fellow that I am, I try to buy British if I can. Looking for a butter dish online, I bought quite an attractive one from the English Tableware Company. I thought that was pretty safe, until the moment it arrived. I turned it over and found it was made in China, which seems quite strange to me. I took it up with the company, and it came back to me saying its products were all ethically sourced and it had checked the suppliers. Of course, we have no idea about the working conditions or possibility of slave labour in Chinese factories.
We know quite a lot about what is sadly happening in Xinjiang, and that the Chinese Communist Party sees commercial influence as intricately linked to broader power. We should all remember what has happened to the relations between China and Australia since Australia demanded an investigation into the roots of the Covid crisis. The Chinese apparently talk about civil/military fusion. Butter dishes may not be of huge importance to intelligence, but they reflect the broader context of the intricate involvement of western economies with the Chinese economy.
My Lords, I declare my interests as stated in the register. My noble friends Lord Fox and Lady Bowles have cogently outlined the purposes of Amendment 1 and the importance of having a framework of this kind for the Secretary of State when he is exercising his powers under the Bill.
I am taken by the fishing analogy which has been used in relation to the Bill. On these Benches, we support the trawling process and its purpose, but a large number of questions in consequence need answering about the extent of the net, the size of the mesh, and which species will be taken on board and which discarded, and how long that will take. We will come to those questions later in Committee. This amendment asks the broader question: what impact on the broader ecology is the trawling having? The Secretary of State cannot be oblivious to the impact on the investment ecology, as set out in the proposed new paragraphs, but must take account of the impact of what he or she is doing. I am sure that the Minister will want to give us assurances on many questions to do with the Bill as drafted. But we need certainty about this aspect and how the Secretary of State will exercise these considerable powers yet not thereby damage what we have in the UK—a thriving investment climate. As my noble friend Lord Fox has pointed out, it is not just the City but universities, trade associations and sectors such as space and biosciences that have raised concerns about the width of the Secretary of State’s powers.
Today, we have seen the outcome of the sector consultation, all 111 pages of it, which allays concerns somewhat, but I anticipate that many will still believe—as I do—that the net is being too widely drawn. This amendment is designed to constructively allay that concern. I hope that the Minister will recognise its merits. It is far from harmful, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, suggested it was. She asked why we singled out these three elements: it is because, looking at the sectors, it is precisely those areas that we believe are most likely to be damaged if a net is drawn too wide. I am going to resist the temptation to pick up the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, because I am conscious we are not on Second Reading, but he has raised some interesting questions.
My Lords, it was clear at Second Reading, and again today from when the noble Lord, Lord Fox, began, that everyone across the House agrees that national security is the number one priority.
The discussion therefore is twofold. First, will what is, and is not, covered in this legislation be clear enough? Secondly, is the balance between security needs and the desire for economic growth, research, innovation and freedom to invest, correctly delineated? On the first issue, it is obvious that the new regime must be based on the best advice coming from across government, as well as on emerging and current threats, and the behaviour and developments of our adversaries. We will come in the next group to the definition of national security.
This first amendment is focused more on the second question that I posed. Will the unit take sufficient account of technology investment, research and innovation, and business opportunities, particularly for SMEs? From everything said at Second Reading and even today, that is an important discussion. We should not expect the Bill, nor its new unit, to be the generator of investment, research and development—that is for an industrial strategy—but the Government must have a careful eye on whether the workings of the Bill have a detrimental impact on technology investment and innovation, while ensuring that the economy does not override security interests. That is a difficult judgment. If it were not, there would never be any problems for the Government to solve.
I read today—others may already have been aware—of possible changes to the listings regime to help the City compete with New York, Amsterdam and Frankfurt in attracting fast-growth companies by creating an “agile” new economy focused on innovation and technology. We welcome such moves and attention being given to making Britain a more attractive place in which entrepreneurs can take companies public.
We hope that the proposals emanating from one of our colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Hill, on relaxations on the use of dual-class shares, to allow founders to keep control over their companies by giving them deciding votes on decisions such as corporate takeovers, could work in harmony rather than at variance with the objectives of the Bill. I hope there will be an opportunity to discuss those interplays as we go forward.
In the meantime, we will consider future amendments that will look at whether the right procedures, definitions, timelines and so on strike the right balance as to workability in making those fine judgments between security and economic interests. However, this amendment is calling for the Secretary of State to be required to have regard to those other interests. The Minister will say that, of course, he or she is bound to do so. However, it is a question on which some assurance is needed and we look forward to the Minister’s view on that.
I am grateful to noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, for their introductions to this debate. I thank them for proposing this new clause and for enabling a further discussion on the purpose of the Bill.
Amendment 1 seeks to establish an objective for the Bill and include a number of elements to which the Secretary of State must have regard when using his powers. Let me say at the start that the intent behind this amendment is to provide a clear statement of the scope of the Bill, to prevent so-called mission creep and give certainty to businesses and investors, while avoiding the pitfalls of attempting to define “national security”. However, the legal effect of the amendment presents us with a number of challenges.
The amendment would require the Secretary of State when exercising his powers under the Bill to safeguard national security in respect of economic and social harm, which is reasonable. It is indeed possible that economic or social harms could give rise to risks to national security, but so could other harms such as physical or military harm. For example, a hostile actor could use control over a piece of critical infrastructure to put UK citizens in physical danger or they could acquire companies in the UK defence supply chain and thereby degrade our military capabilities.
The absence of other harms in the factors listed by the amendment suggests that the Secretary of State may not use his powers under the Bill to safeguard national security from those harms that I have outlined. It is also unclear how he should have regard to the factors in subsection (3) of the proposed new clause. As the amendment does not say that they are to be regarded as part of national security, that would suggest the scope of the Bill is being expanded beyond national security. It is important to note that the government position on the issue of defining, wholly or in part, “national security” remains consistent with when amendments in a similar vein to this were discussed at Second Reading and in the other place; I have discussed that with the noble Lord, Lord Fox, previously. The Bill does not set out the circumstances in which national security is, or may be, considered at risk. That reflects long-standing government policy to ensure that national security powers are sufficiently flexible to protect the nation. It also does not include factors which the Secretary of State must or may take into account in assessing national security risks on the face of the Bill.
While it is crucial for investor confidence that there is as much transparency in the regime as possible, there is clearly a limit to how much the Government can and should disclose in this regard, given that the regime deals explicitly with national security matters. National security risks are multifaceted and constantly evolving. What may not constitute a risk today may well do so in future. We may find over time that such specificity becomes outdated. Indeed, as my noble friend Lady Noakes pointed out, it is enough of a challenge to ensure sufficient specificity in the objectives of the Bill, especially with regard to concepts such as those referenced in the amendment.
While I have nothing but gratitude for the noble Lord’s intention—to provide a specific objective for the Bill—it is primarily for the reasons I have set out that I am unable to accept the amendment, and hope that in the light of that he feels able to withdraw it.
I am grateful for the Minister’s gratitude. I am also grateful to Members of the Committee who have spoken, but I am a little shocked by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who seems to have an internal inconsistency. I always think of her as such a logically consistent Peer, but in one breath the amendment was dismissed as legislative fluff and in the next it was the most harmful thing that could happen to the Bill; I suggest that it is either one thing or the other. I appreciate the Minister’s solid response.
My noble friends Lady Bowles and Lord Clement-Jones added to the point that is central to this. The culture of how the Bill is delivered by the investment security unit will be central to how it is viewed in the outside world. If the unit has a combative and aggressive culture, that will affect the way in which the investment community regards investment in this country. The amendment seeks to explicitly influence the culture of that organisation, but I am very happy if the Minister’s lawyers can find better ways to do so. However, a Minister simply saying something will not make the unit run that way. In the end, that will be the measure of how successfully the Bill sets the balance between seeking to assure national security while not throwing out all the good things that our current investment world has.
I look forward to debates on other amendments that seek different ways to do the same thing but, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 1.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 1: Call-in notice for national security purposes
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 10, after “security” insert “, including public order and public safety”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 13 and 83. Perhaps I will take a little more time than usual over this because it is one of the central issues on which we wish to hear the views of the Committee and, indeed, the response of the Government.
Given that national security is clearly the Government’s priority, it is important that to make the Bill work everyone involved in its provisions and their interpretation are clear about how the Government see national security—its range and depth, if I may put it that way. Therefore, Amendment 13 seeks to establish the issues which should be taken into account because clear rules will be vital for businesses seeking funds, researchers, investors and the unit having to take decisions. They need to work on basically the same template.
Let me take a moment to say that the Government have published 112 pages today—the Minister expected someone to say it, so I may as well say it now—but his letter covering the first amendment arrived as he was speaking to it and the Written Ministerial Statement did not even refer to a policy statement that I gather has also been put out, according to my up-to-date information. I think the Committee will understand that we have not had time to digest this and we may therefore have to try to look at some important issues in that.
One of the points relevant to Amendment 13 is that this response states that several respondents indicated that “national security” should be clearly defined. We are therefore interested to know whether the Minister will listen to those concerns which, in a sense, is what Amendment 13 is seeking to do. It is not trying to define exactly what is national security nor, by implication, what is not. It is setting out how people tasked with scrutinising potential investments may approach the first question—“Might this risk our security?”—by listing the sort of factors to be considered. The “have regards”, while not an exclusive list, indicate to officials, the Secretary of State and those handling investments the matters which should be considered in any decision.
We absolutely agree that neither the Government nor Parliament should prescribe or limit what national security covers, as is long-standing practice, and therefore do not seek by this amendment to curtail the Secretary of State’s flexibility to act, but we nevertheless think that the other parties involved who will be impacted by this legislation need to know the range of issues which will be among those considered by the Secretary of State.
Amendment 13 provides a framework which is neither rigid nor exclusive. It simply does what other countries have done, what experts have recommended and what we have heard that people submitting comments to the Government have also said. The Law Society argues that without something like this, there is a risk that a Secretary of State could become exposed to political influence, and the Investment Association says that a better understanding of national security could help calm investors. Therefore, the amendment indicates factors that the Government might consider, such as the impact of a triggering event on defence capabilities or how a hostile actor might be enabled to gain access to critical infrastructure. I hope that the Minister will accept that Amendment 13 provides such a framework and flexibility to help alleviate the concerns that have been raised, particularly in the defence sector.
We are also keen to ascertain whether critical infrastructure is included in the Bill. As we know from the ISC report published last year, Russia has
“undertaken cyber pre-positioning on other countries’ Critical National Infrastructure.”
It would therefore be useful if the Minister could clarify whether that is covered in the Bill.
Later this month—the rumour is a week tomorrow but certainly while the Bill is in this House—we will see published the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Perhaps the Minister could confirm its publication date and that it will indeed be a week tomorrow. He nods—I think I am not going to get a yes that question. Can he also outline how the results of the analysis of that review will feed into the work of the new unit and its decisions on what constitutes a security threat? Will the review focus on the private sector and on the role that the Government see for business, as well as on how the interests of innovation both in academia and in business should be promoted?
Amendment 83, to which the noble Baronesses, Lady Northover and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, have added their names, highlights the relationship between the review just mentioned and the objectives of the Bill and seeks a government statement on it. Given that the Government have said that the review will include the
“long-term strategic aims for … national security”,
there are questions about how these would align with the Bill’s new regime and how we are able to keep an eye on technological developments in the private sector while keeping pace with security challenges. What we do not want to see is an important new national security regime buried in BEIS which does not link with the UK’s wider and longer-term security concerns and priorities.
The ISC noted
“the extent to which economic policy dictated the opening up of the UK to Russian investment”,
whereas the Bill seeks to put security first and our investment needs second. As I said on the earlier group, it is an important but not always easy judgment to make. It is therefore essential that the Government’s view on security is considered by the BEIS unit and that Parliament is able to see how that is happening by way of the statement suggested in the amendment. That statement should focus both on how the Government will align the provisions in this Bill with the outcome of the integrated review and on how the UK will respond to identified threats, including new technology, biological weapons, cyber and misinformation. The reference to new technology is key since new weapon capabilities could as easily be developed in the private sector as in an MoD lab. The Government will need to procure these assets while preventing certain foreign states also purchasing them.
I return to Amendment 2, which probes whether public order and public safety are included within the Government’s view of national security. The similar German regime captures “public order” as part of its national security, while the Japanese regime applies equally to “public order and public safety” and to national security. Is the UK regime narrower than the approach taken by these other jurisdictions? Perhaps the major issue we want clarified within that is whether an investment which could have an impact on the working of our democracy would be covered.
Last year’s Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russia stated:
“The UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation … Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’ … It is clear that Russia … poses a significant threat to the UK”,
including “interference in democratic processes”.
With regard to elections, the discussion at the time of the publication of the report, which of course was written a whole year before it was published, was more on bots, messages, and so forth, the report noting that
“Russia has carried out malicious cyber activity … including attempting to influence the democratic elections of other countries”.
The Government’s own response concluded that
“it is almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 general election through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked Government documents.”—[Official Report, Commons, 16/7/20; col. 71WS.]
However, an external force intent on interfering with our elections could instead invest in the electronic gear that stands behind our pencil and paper voting, and perhaps pose a threat that way. Given, as the ISC report notes, the
“fusion of government and business”
in Russia, a business providing advanced IT for elections could have very close ties to that regime, or indeed to any other regime. Indeed, the Government’s response to the ISC noted that the Defending Democracy programme in the Cabinet Office includes consideration of
“direct attacks on electoral infrastructure.”
So the thinking is clearly there. Perhaps the Minister could therefore clarify whether foreign investment in democratic electronic infrastructure would come under the remit of the Bill. It is partly about what we think of as national security.
When the ISC covered this, it noted that
“the issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes … has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation”—
I assume it meant within government—
“recognising itself as having an overall lead.”
Could the Minister outline how such responsibility and oversight will sit within the BEIS unit, such that investment in any democracy-related hardware or software could be included in its remit, and explain how the Government will overcome what the ISC describes as
“nervousness around any suggestion that the intelligence and security Agencies might be involved in democratic processes”,
given the committee’s view that
“Protecting our democratic discourse and processes from hostile foreign interference is a central responsibility of Government, and should be a ministerial priority.”?
The answer to the questions may indeed be no, but to have a discussion on national security and the future of our democracy and our safety without considering this seems to us to miss out a vital ingredient. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for bringing forward this group of amendments. I will speak in particular to Amendment 13.
In preparing for this stage of the Bill we have received a number of briefings from outside bodies. Every single one has said, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that the trawl is being done far too widely. The Government would not be drawn on that at Second Reading, and it is absolutely appropriate that we try to pin them down through this form of probing amendment.
In leaving the parameters drawn as wide as they are, it is fair to say that all those who have briefed ahead of today would prefer to see a strict definition of what national security is. Am I right in assuming that national security for the purpose of the Bill covers everything that is not defined or covered elsewhere? Water treatment, the water supply and air traffic are covered by other legislation, so does that mean they are not covered by the purpose of the Bill? Are we wrong to assume that the Bill covers critical infrastructure in the way the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, set out? It would be helpful to know whether we have to work on a process of elimination rather than on a specific reference point such as a definition, as is set out in Amendment 13, which is quite wide in its own right, given its number of “have regards”.
The Law Society of Scotland states that
“national security itself is not defined within the Bill. We note that the Enterprise Act 2002 definition refers to EU legislation”.
Are we right to assume that that definition still applies, or can we safely assume that, because we have now left the European Union, it is no longer valid? A steer from the Minister would be very helpful in summing up this debate.
The Law Society of Scotland goes on to say that
“: it might be helpful to introduce a stand-alone concept appropriate to the current context. An exhaustive definition is likely to be neither possible nor desirable but a general delineation of the concept together with detailed additional guidance as to how this is likely to be applied would be helpful.”
Does the Minister intend to do that as the result of this amendment to date?
I, too, received the letter from the Minister within the last half hour, when I was on another call. In the normal course of events, I would have studied such a letter quite closely to enable me to prepare for today, so it is a matter of some regret that we have not had a chance to read it. Perhaps the Minister will cover its main points in replying to this little debate on this group of amendments.
I believe that either we should adopt something like Amendment 13 in the course of proceedings or the Minister should bring forward some definition of the Government’s own drafting during the proceedings, before the Bill leaves the House.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, laid out in her opening remarks the necessity for clarity about what risks this Bill seeks to address, arguing for a definition of national security in Amendment 13. There are indeed arguments for such a definition, as the Law Society of Scotland, and that for England and Wales, have laid out, lest the Government might, for example, respond to political, economic or electoral pressures to define risks which should not be brought within the scope of this Bill. Others see risks associated with such definitions and further legal minefields. However, the Law Society of England and Wales sees a risk in Amendment 2—that extending the scope of the clause to cover “public order and public safety” could give rise to similar concerns, unless these terms could be strictly defined so as not to include political motives. However, I hear what the noble Baroness says about her aim here, and about the risks to our democratic processes.
I speak here particularly to Amendment 83 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, which I have also signed. The amendment is extremely restrained. The Government have made much play of the importance of their proposed integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. From time to time, these reviews are made. There was one after the general election of 2010, and another after the 2015 general election. Of course, that latter one included pandemic as a risk, and emphasised how important it was to the United Kingdom, economically and strategically, to be at the heart of the EU, through which, as it put it, we amplified our power and prosperity.
One might say that a new assessment is indeed desperately needed. It was due last year but was knocked off course by the pandemic, which did not stop the Government pre-empting its conclusions by merging DfID with the FCO and cutting aid, even though in 2015 this was seen as a mark of our global reach—global Britain, you might say. In addition, the Government announced spending levels for the MoD before Christmas, none of this waiting for a proper strategic review.
So now we have this Bill on threats to national security, without that review having been published. We hear that it is imminent. Could the noble Lord update us? Is it indeed being buried by the Budget coverage? We have certainly heard that it has got thinner and thinner, perhaps one-fifth the length of the 2015 one, and that it is large on rhetoric and small on how it is to be achieved. Nevertheless, this should be an important statement of what the UK identifies as threats and ambitions. Therefore, this should have preceded this Bill and underpinned what it was trying to do, if the Government are to be joined up.
Amendment 83 asks that, when the review is finally published, the Government publish a statement that outlines how provisions in the Act will align with the UK’s long-term security priorities and concerns as identified in the review. The amendment states that this should be
“As soon as reasonably practicable”,
a generous phrase that Baroness Hayter used in tabling this amendment, more generous than the one I would have used.
Perhaps, because there is little confidence in the review, as one would have thought these areas would definitely be covered, this statement should also include how the Bill will respond to emerging threats, new technology, biological weapons, cyber, misinformation and military developments by the UK’s adversaries. One of the successes of the 2015 review was certainly the emphasis on cyber and the subsequent and important expansion of UK capacity in this area. I am sure that this will not be neglected in the new review. The amendment asks the Secretary of State to lay a statement before Parliament. It is surely the least that the Government should do to try to ensure that the Bill is aligned with whatever comes forward in the strategic security review. The Government should be able to simply accept the amendment, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, at Second Reading, I said that I felt that a lack of definition for national security was a problem, and I still feel uneasy about that. I understand the need for flexibility to take account of how threats evolve over time. My noble friend the Minister said at Second Reading that national security was not defined in other legislation, but I am not sure that is quite good enough, given that this legislation will have a particularly big impact on commercial transactions, and what the business sector needs is certainty. Other uses of the term have not had that sort of impact on business transactions. I completely understand the difficulties of definition—problems of being too restrictive or insufficiently comprehensive. I think Amendment 13, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is a better approach than Amendment 1 with its objective clause, but I am concerned that it may still carry some of the defects that I outlined when I spoke to Amendment 1.
The statement that the Secretary of State will make under Clause 3 will certainly help businesses and their advisers but, at the end of the day, national security is the big overarching concept in the Bill which is left without further detail. Several noble Lords have already referred to the letter from my noble friend the Minister to all Peers, which came out while he was speaking earlier. I have had an opportunity to have a quick look at it on my iPad, and I do not think that any Member of the Committee will find that it advances our consideration of the Bill this afternoon at all: it just says that there is a lot more work to do.
If there is no definition or further elaboration of what national security means in the context of the powers created in the Bill, the Government will be giving the courts a blank sheet of paper if, as is probably likely, at some stage a challenge to the use of the powers under the Bill is mounted in the courts. We must remember that we have an activist judiciary, especially over the road in the Supreme Court, and the Government really ought to be alert to that fact and try and proof legislation against what can be done there. I shall be listening very carefully to what my noble friend says are the reasons for leaving national security as such a completely open issue in the Bill, and I look forward to hearing his remarks.
My Lords, I should perhaps begin by noting my position as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, in opening this Committee, said that most of the amendments were seeking better to describe national security. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said that, without a definition, the Bill is missing a vital ingredient. It would indeed be interesting if, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, said, we were to continue to use the EU definition. My personal position is that we should keep as close to the EU as possible, but that has not seemed to be the Government’s position.
The noble Lord, Lord Fox, noted how successive Governments of different hues had taken a hands-off approach to mergers and acquisitions, those involving both national and international assets. We have had, to an extent matched by few other countries in the world, a “Robber barons welcome” sign out in the process of selling off the family silver in a veritable orgy of privatisation and financial isolation. That has clearly had an impact on public order and national security.
I will not let rip with a Second Reading speech—something that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, expressed concern about—but will point out that “have regard to” clauses are at the very core of democracy. If the Government are taking new or extending existing powers, for there to be democratic oversight there surely needs to be an outline of how those powers will be used, a legal framework against which a Government can be held to account, should they go off the rails. As the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, just said, that does not reflect an activist judiciary; rather, it is one doing its job and fulfilling its constitutional role.
We know that the Government do not like to have such oversight, both democratic and legal, but it is surely the responsibility of this Committee to attempt to insist on it—for nothing more than national security, because of the degree to which it was not secured by previous Governments, having been exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and imminently threatened by the climate emergency. I will address some of those national security concerns in my Amendment 93, which we will get to later, but I speak now on Amendment 13, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. I thank her for her clearly careful and detailed work on it. I will not address all its elements, but focus on a couple of paragraphs, particularly proposed new paragraph (b)(iv),
“enabling a hostile actor to … corrupt processes or systems”.
There is grave concern about the impact of big money on our quasi-democratic processes, particularly in the age of social media. These are so well known that I do not need to expound on them at length, but I will point to how the 2010 national security strategy already referred to such concerns, and they have obviously greatly grown since. Even in our conventional media, we have a quite astonishing concentration of media ownership, often foreign or offshore. That surely needs to be acknowledged as a national security concern. I note the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, about how Amendment 2 seeks to address such issues.
I also point to proposed new paragraph (f) in Amendment 13, which is about
“the likely impact of the trigger event on the United Kingdom’s international interests and obligations, including compliance with legislation on modern slavery and compliance with the UN Genocide Convention”.
This has obviously been of great concern to your Lordships’ House; we reflect on the debate around the Trade Bill. These are surely national security concerns. They are not just moral issues, but of great effect to our national security. A stable world, in which no one is subject to genocide or held in slavery, is a world that is far more secure for every citizen of the UK and the nation as a whole.
I come to proposed new paragraph (g) on
“organised crime, money laundering and tax evasion”.
The security of funding for schools, hospitals, roads, police and all the other services on which we rely depends on companies in our society paying their taxes. When it comes to money laundering, we have seen, in many aspects of our society and internationally, the disastrous impact of dirty money—something that, in some societies around the world, has led to almost a total state breakdown.
Overall, having such a set of definitions, as many noble Lords have said, has been of help to the Government, giving the relevant Minister a list against which their decisions can be checked. Without such a list providing an explanation against its clauses, how can a Minister avoid accusations of corruption, malfeasance or simple neglect of duty?
I am pleased to attach my name to Amendment 83 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, also signed by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, which refers to the integrated defence review. It is a great pity that we are forced to debate the Bill without that. It is a situation in which we find ourselves in many areas of government work. The reasons for ensuring that we have a tight interlinking between the review and the Bill have been clearly outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, so I will not go into them further.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I spoke at Second Reading and referred to this question. Together with the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, I took the view that there were inherent problems in attempting a definition of national security and that the best definition is rendered through the Bill as it stands. Once one defines the nature of an entity, the nature of the assets covered, the nature of the acquirer concerned and the extent of control—or the definition of control for these purposes—I think one arrives at what a trigger event is. By definition, a trigger event gives rise to the question: does this trigger event cause a problem for national security?
I do not dispute that large numbers of consultees to the White Paper and speakers in our debates have said that it would be very helpful to define national security and—I would expect nothing less from her—the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has done as well as one is likely to do. However, I fear that Amendment 13 in particular demonstrates all the flaws with providing such a definition. I will not seek to delay our debate too long, but I will go through a number of them.
The noble Baroness asked whether critical national infrastructure was included. In Amendment 13, critical national infrastructure is included but not defined. We do not know which bits of national infrastructure are in the regime and which are outside it. We know, broadly, the sectors in the scope of the mandatory regime even if we have further detail and amendments to them today. However, if I look at what the Government have published, I find the nuclear industry, the communications industry, data infrastructure, energy infrastructure and transport infrastructure, including ports, harbours and airports. I do not find water infrastructure and food security infrastructure. That is the question and, with the greatest respect, Amendment 13 does not answer whether they are in or out.
We will come on to debate these things but it slightly introduces the concept of whether we are using the EU regulation. My noble friend Lady McIntosh referred to it. The EU regulation includes food security and water. Even if we do not follow the EU lead, which of course now we will not be doing, it at least gives us an interesting list to work from and to question why there are differences.
This brings me to Amendment 2. One of the other differences between our proposed legislation here and the EU regulation is that the EU regulation says that it proposes to safeguard against threats to security and public order. Amendment 2 proposes including public order. However, the European investment screening regime includes freedom and pluralism in the media as one of its investment screening criteria. We are not including that in the Bill. Why are we not including it? It is already in the media public interest regime inserted into the Enterprise Act by the Communications Act 2003, on which I served. I also served on the Enterprise Act Standing Committee in 2002. In that sense, we are not pursuing a public order regime here; we are pursuing a security regime.
I now come to some of the other issues with Amendment 13. Proposed new paragraph (c) talks about the characteristics of the acquirer. If you were to say to me that in my little definition of what constitutes a security risk, we have definitions of the natures of the entities and assets concerned and quite exhaustive definitions of what constitutes control, I would say that what we do not have are definitions of the nature of the acquirer, other than that, presumably, it is hostile in intent.
Amendment 13 effectively tries to give us a list of the trigger events that might give rise to an intervention. In some senses, the amendment is far too narrow. There may be all sorts of unanticipated trigger events that would not be included in primary legislation through this amendment. In other respects, it might be far too wide. Proposed new paragraph (c) talks about
“the characteristics of the acquirer, including whether it is effectively under the control, or subject to the direction, of another state”.
There are virtually no Chinese entities for which that is not true. There are many American corporations for which one could say that that was true. One could certainly say the same of a number of state-owned European companies, including EDF and those engaged in our national infrastructure. What does proposed new paragraph (c) tell us? Does it tell us whether those characteristics are a threat to national security or not? It does not tell us either of those things; all it tells us is that we must have regard to them. We know that Ministers will have regard to them because they are having regard to that kind of issue. It does not get us very far.
The same is true on three occasions, in proposed new paragraphs (a), (e) and (f), which refers to
“the likely impact of the trigger event on”.
It does not say whether the impact is adverse, beneficial or on security. Therefore, almost by definition, all that Amendment 13 tells us is that Ministers should have regard to trigger events in relation to these activities, whether they relate to data or defence capabilities. That is what Ministers are setting out to do.
In a couple of respects, Amendment 13 takes us further than we were intending to go in the Bill. The idea that non-compliance with our international obligations is, by definition, a security risk to the United Kingdom seems to be misplaced. It may be a matter on which we have obligations or be of great policy importance but one cannot construe that compliance with our international obligations in every respect is a security risk to this country.
I am afraid that one also has to look at proposed new paragraph (h), which asks
“whether the trigger event may adversely affect the safety and security of British citizens or the United Kingdom”.
It does not say “British citizens in the United Kingdom”. For example, there are hundreds of thousands of British citizens in South Africa. I was in Natal a few years ago, where there are 500,000 British passport holders, many of whom are British citizens. Are they, by definition, therefore included in this security investment regime?
All that I seek to demonstrate is that although Amendment 13 is a helpful effort, trying to define all the trigger events is bound to fail. Therefore, we should focus on making sure that the listing of entities and assets—as, for example, those published today by the Government—is as good as we can make it, and we will have some debates on that. We should define control properly—not too broadly or narrowly—and we should understand what kind of acquirers we are talking about. We will talk about whether something is foreign or domestic, state or non-state, or hostile and in what circumstances. That is where the lack of definition in the Bill is as yet more important. I refer to the question of what kind of acquirers. I hope that we will talk about that matter in later debates but, for the present, I cannot see the merit of adding Amendment 13 to the Bill.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. Let me first say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that I anticipated that she might be a little critical—in her normal, super-polite way—about the letter coming out late. There were some delays in the internal approval process and, faced with a choice of whether to send it out now or wait until after Committee, I thought that, on balance, it was best to get it out to noble Lords. I was fully aware that when I arrived today, some noble Lords might have criticisms for me, but I thought they would like to see the letter rather than not see it before we started Committee. I hope that during a lull in proceedings, Members might have a chance to read the letter—all 100-odd pages of it.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, as well for her amendments to Clause 1 and after Clause 5, which are Amendments 2 and 13 respectively on the Marshalled List, and I give my combined thanks to her and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for the proposed new clause relating to the integrated review.
I will begin with Amendment 2, which would expand the scope of the Bill to include public order and public safety, in addition to national security. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is of course right that public order and public safety are exceptionally important and some of the highest priorities for any Government. However, the Bill is about national security—nothing more, nothing less. Including public order and public safety as grounds for calling in an acquisition would be a substantial expansion in the scope of the Bill, as has been pointed out. We do not wish to see any additions to national security, to ensure that we maintain the careful balance struck in this regime between the appropriateness of government powers for intervention and ensuring that the UK remains one of the best places in the world for investment.
In addition, I note that the regime has been carefully designed with the protection of national security in mind and not public safety or public order, as important as they of course are. For example, the trigger event thresholds in Clause 8 are calibrated to protect against activity that could harm national security due to an acquisition of control over a qualifying entity. It is far from guaranteed that these would also protect against risks to public order or public safety, or that they would be the most effective or proportionate way in which to do so.
For example, a certain type of investment may give rise to a risk to public safety or public order only if an entity were bought in its entirety or if, conversely, any investment could harm public order or public safety. Of course, there may be situations in which a risk to public safety or public order is considered to give rise to a risk to national security as well. I assure Members of the Committee that, in such cases, the Secretary of State will be able to call in the acquisition in question if it meets the tests in the Bill, and will be able to take action if appropriate.
I will pick up on a specific issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. The Bill would apply where a qualified acquisition could undermine democracy in a way that amounts to a national security risk.
Amendment 13 seeks to create a non-exhaustive list of factors which the Secretary of State must take into account when assessing a risk to national security for the purposes of the Bill. It will not come as a great surprise to the Committee to hear that the Government’s position on this issue remains consistent with their position when amendments related to this one were discussed on Second Reading and in the other place.
As drafted, the Bill does not set out the circumstances in which national security is, or may be, considered at risk. That reflects long-standing government policy to ensure that national security powers are sufficiently flexible to protect the nation. It also does not include factors which the Secretary of State must or may take into account under the Bill in assessing national security risks. Instead, factors which the Secretary of State expects to take into account in exercising the call-in power are proposed to be set out in the statement provided for by Clause 3. A draft of that statement was published on introduction of the Bill, to aid noble Lords in their parliamentary scrutiny. The draft statement includes details of what the Secretary of State is likely to be interested in when it comes to national security risks. That includes certain sectors of the economy, and the types of acquisitions that may raise concern.
While it is crucial for investor confidence that there is as much transparency in the regime as possible, there is obviously a limit to how much the Government can and should disclose in that regard, given that the regime deals explicitly with national security matters. Nevertheless, the draft statement goes into some detail about the factors which the Secretary of State expects to take into account when deciding whether to call in a trigger event. The proposed new clause would instead create, alongside this statement, a non-exhaustive list of factors which the Secretary of State must have regard to when assessing a risk to national security.
It is our view that this is not the right approach, primarily for two reasons. First, I note that many items on the list proposed may seem entirely reasonable for the Secretary of State to consider, where relevant, when assessing a national security risk. For example, the Secretary of State will, of course, consider the nature of an asset or entity over which control is being acquired, including its place in our critical national infrastructure, a fact that I hope is reassuring to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter.
Briefly on the subtopic of critical national infrastructure and to address the query first raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh regarding the water sector, while not all the national infrastructure sectors are included in the mandatory regime, the call-in power is economy-wide. I reassure noble Lords further that a number of additional protections already exist for these critical national infrastructure sectors. These include exiting regulation and controls about who can acquire entities in these sectors and the diverse range of suppliers in certain sectors. It would also be hard to argue that the Secretary of State should not consider whether such an acquisition could give rise to a risk of espionage or undue leverage. Indeed, these are two risks highlighted in the draft of the statement on the use of the call-in power which the Government published alongside the Bill and which I referred to earlier. It is therefore unnecessary to set these things out in the Bill.
Secondly, it may also be unwise. National security risks are multifaceted and constantly evolving. What may not constitute a risk today may well be one in future. We may find that over time such a list becomes outdated. Of course, the proposed amendment creates a non-exhaustive list, so the Secretary of State may consider factors that the list does not include. However, the value of this list would diminish over time, providing less insight to businesses, investors and Parliament on the expected use of the regime. It is therefore more appropriate that the Secretary of State sets out how he expects to use the call-in power in the statement provided for in Clause 3, where it will be reviewed and updated as appropriate, rather than it be codified in the Bill. There are also elements on this list that could take the Bill beyond the realm of national security, as has been discussed in the other place and mentioned in this debate. This Bill, which is focused solely on ensuring that investment does not cause harm to our national security, is not the right place to address these issues, important as they are.
I shall pick up on the specific issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that the Bill is careful not to define what is or is not national security, and I must be careful not to be drawn into defining or describing national security in this Committee. Clearly election fraud and the undermining of our democracy would be of great concern. If an acquisition met the tests within the Bill due to national security risks arising from threats to democracy, the Secretary of State would be able to call it in for scrutiny.
Turning finally to Amendment 83, to preface, the integrated review will define the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy, and it is entirely reasonable for the noble Baronesses to seek assurance that the national security and investment regime and the integrated review will align.
It may be helpful for the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Northover, if I touch on the function of the integrated review to begin. First, it will assess the current and emerging threats and opportunities that we face. Secondly, it will define the UK’s ambitions on the international stage. Finally, it will upgrade our soft and hard power credentials so that we can continue to defend our interests and support those ambitions.
I think the concern behind this amendment is that the left hand may somehow not know what the right hand is doing. In this respect, I can reassure noble Lords that my department has worked and continues to work closely with the Cabinet Office and teams across Whitehall in ensuring coherence across the range of government priorities that will be addressed in the integrated review.
The Government are of one mind that the National Security and Investment Bill will provide a key tool in enabling the UK to tackle its long-term security concerns and pursue its priorities. It will strengthen the Government’s powers to protect the country from hostile or harmful activity and enable them to prevent hostile parties gaining control of entities or assets to cause harm to our national security. The Bill would give the Secretary of State carefully calibrated powers to address concerns around acquisitions with the flexibility to respond to changing risks and a changing security landscape. In particular, the regulation-making powers in the Bill allow us to keep pace with threats as they emerge, including by enabling us to update the sectors covered by mandatory notifications.
In the delivery of this regime, the Secretary of State would be supported by a well-funded investment security unit that will co-ordinate considerable expertise from across government, including, of course, from the security services. The Government will therefore ensure that the powers in the Bill would be used to maximum effect to protect the nation’s security and would complement the aims of the integrated review. I hope, therefore, that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, recognises that committing in legislation that one area of government policy will align with another connected area would be novel, as I have demonstrated. She will, I hope, agree that it is unnecessary. While I understand the objectives of the noble Baroness, for the reasons I have set out I am not able to accept these amendments. I hope, therefore, that she will feel able to withdraw Amendment 2.
I have a received a request to speak after the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Fox.
During that comprehensive answer, I think I heard the Minister say something and I would like to test whether I understood correctly. In explaining why people should not be concerned that certain parts of infrastructure are not included in the list, I think I heard the Minister say that the Bill’s call-in power is economy-wide. That suggests to me that the list of 17 issues is irrelevant because everything is on the list. In other words, anything can be called in, whether it is on the list or not. So, the list is merely indicative, but the exhaustive list is the entire economy. Could the Minister explain whether that is the correct interpretation of what I just heard?
If the acquisition in question poses a risk to national security, yes, there is the general power, but the point I was making is that, with regard to areas of political and national infrastructure, there are also separate powers in different pieces of legislation that would help to protect in those areas.
First, I thank everyone for their contributions, which I found extremely helpful and thoughtful. In particular—this will not surprise the Minister—the Minister confirmed that it would be possible to call in any threat to democracy or anything like that. I am sorry he did not feel able to answer on when exactly the integrated review will be published, but we live in hope.
I was a bit disappointed that the Minister said that he did not want to define national security because it was long-standing government practice not to. My heart sank at that point, thinking that the Minister must have a better reason. Luckily, he did and he gave us answers other than, “It’s always been done that way”, which always seems to me a really bad answer. I am not saying I was completely persuaded by his answer, but it is a thoughtful and useful way of thinking about how we approach this. I hope it is not just because the Government would fear a JR if there are words that could be challenged over whether something should or should not have been brought in.
My fear is about the difference between the list and the call-in power. As the list will be mandatory, people will know what they have to do. Where investors, researchers or companies will probably have the biggest fear in respect of the call-in power is that they will not know in advance. I hope that we will come to the possibility of either safe harbours or a quick turnaround—though that does not get over the call-in power—because that seems the area of greatest uncertainty. We will probably have to return to that. In a sense, it is the same issue when it comes to critical national infrastructure. I guess I should leave it to those far more experienced in infrastructure to know whether those comments are helpful.
We heard a thoughtful and challenging response to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. If I understood him correctly, he suggested that we start at the back end: we discuss the assets; we discuss the acquirer; we look at the definition of control—which is the end part of the Bill—and use that to define national security in the front part of the Bill. I am bemused by whether that is the right way round; it may be, but by the time we have defined it, we may have got to it. It seems an odd way round to do things to have a Bill that has “national security” in its title and then to have to work through “Well, if it is that sort of asset owned by that sort of people to that sort of percentage” to decide that it comes into the category of national security. However, I want to read more carefully what the noble Lord said because the elements appear to be there, but it seems slightly upside down. The noble Lord also said:
“We know that Ministers are going to have regard … to that kind of issue.”
If we do, what is the harm in writing them down? He may know that Ministers would have regard to those issues, but will everyone else know what they are?
I have a lot more to think about having heard the wisdom expressed today. It is possible that we will want to come back to this issue on Report—maybe in a more refined way; I am sure that those who have read the Commons debates carefully will have noticed that my words were not all of my own drafting. I thank everyone who has contributed—more sincerely, perhaps, than in other debates. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
3: Clause 1, page 1, line 11, leave out “or contemplation”
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister and his officials for his briefing and help. I suppose I should thank him also for his letter of 18 minutes before the start of this debate, but that has been explained adequately, so we look forward to reading that in depth. I also thank others who have been helpful on this amendment and the Bill, particularly friends from the BVCA, the ICAEW and Herbert Smith.
I think we all have a common purpose here; we all know what we want to achieve, and this is not a party-political matter. We all recognise that, last year, there was £170 billion of FDI into the UK. We have been so consistently successful in the UK at FDI that we frequently, if not for a decade or so, come second in the world league tables. We all need to do what we can not to damage our reputation as a country that is easy to invest in, with clarity and the rule of law not subject to the power of lobbying and political whims. I believe that there is unanimity in that respect.
The Bill must strike a balance between national security on the one hand and economic growth on the other. At present, it needs amending by amendments such as mine and those of fellow Peers if it is to strike that balance. Funnily enough, I read Isabel Hardman’s book over the weekend, Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. In it she quotes, anonymously, an MP who says, “You can ram Bills through in the Commons, but it’s much harder in the Lords.” I do not want to let her down.
I declare my interests. I am the senior partner of Cavendish Corporate Finance, which specialises in selling businesses, typically private businesses. Nearly all our clients are SMEs, so I have a lot of experience there. Sixty per cent or so of our buyers of our clients’ businesses are based overseas, the principal country being the United States of America, but they have included pretty much most industrial developed countries of the world, including in Asia. Cavendish is, of course, part of finnCap, the AIM nomad broker. So I have worked hard to encourage overseas investment. I was lucky enough to find myself on the business trip to China with David Cameron a few years ago.
Hastily moving on to avoid my noble friend Lady Noakes’s accusation of a Second Reading speech in disguise, I want to talk about the amendment. It is a probing amendment, as I am not sure how a Secretary of State can determine or know that anyone is contemplating a bid other than through some very sophisticated mind reading. I think the intention here is to allow the clause to be the mechanism under which a buyer can go to the Secretary of State and make a voluntary notification. It is a sort of trigger for a trigger event, as I understand it, but it is somewhat worrying that, under subsection (4)(b) of Clause 1, the Secretary of State then goes and gives notice to the target, so suddenly the target is aware of some purchaser’s contemplations.
The White Paper at paragraph 52 sets out that parties in contemplation of a trigger event could, and in some instances should, notify Her Majesty’s Government, but I do not think it envisaged it the other way round, as it has emerged in the Bill. The way it is worded, it allows the Secretary of State to contact a purchaser and say, “I have reason to suspect that you are contemplating an acquisition”, or even a very small, 15% stake, in a UK business in a very widely drawn range of sectors, and that means that a call-in notice is issued.
I can see that this could be abused. What if a journalist notifies the Secretary of State that they think that a company is contemplating a transaction which, depending on your definition of contemplating, the potential purchaser could not really deny? That sets off a whole train of events, essentially forcing the hand of the potential purchaser or pushing them back into their shell as they then have to deny contemplating it. I can see boards of overseas purchasers saying, “We don’t really want to prepare a position paper on a UK target, as even contemplating it means that the UK Secretary of State can demand that we disclose this”, or management of a UK target wanting to flush out perceived, possibly hostile, buyers who they are worried might be interested in their company simply telling the Secretary of State that they think an acquisitive company is contemplating buying or investing in them, which sets the whole process going somewhat prematurely.
Can we have an explanation for that choice of wording, and perhaps a tightening of the clause to stop abuse and, most importantly, provide us with some clarity? According to my dictionary, contemplation is defined as, among other things, religious meditation, so let us hope that praying that one day you might be lucky enough to own a particular UK company does not lead you into big trouble. I beg to move.
My Lords, we are grateful to my noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley for his amendment, which is a helpful exploration of this issue. I rather enjoyed the way he introduced it as well, although I must say that the MP who was quoted by Isabel anonymously was clearly not in government in coalition.
I have an amendment of my own in this group; I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for signing Amendment 8 in my name. I shall talk to that amendment and to Amendments 3 and 4, tabled by my noble friend, and leave Amendments 9 and 10 to others, although I think that both add a little to probe the way in which Ministers propose to structure their statement.
Amendment 8 is designed to clarify what constitutes the Secretary of State becoming aware of a trigger event. In the absence of a further definition, a Secretary of State might claim not to be aware in circumstances where any reasonable person would say, “You should have been”. It is a belt-and-braces operation.
What does it mean? I looked to the relevant comparator in the Enterprise Act. The equivalent, in Section 24 of that Act, is whether something has been made public, which is defined as:
“means so publicised as to be generally known or readily ascertainable”.
I simply borrowed that language. Amendment 8 would not say that those are the only circumstances in which the Secretary of State becomes aware, but the Secretary of State should not be able to claim that he was not aware in circumstances that have generally been made public. The purpose of this amendment is to explore what “becoming aware” really means.
Reverting back to Amendments 3 and 4 and the question of “or contemplation”, I think the drafting derives, if it derives from anywhere, from Section 33 of the Enterprise Act 2002 and the question of a merger reference. It is when the Competition and Markets Authority
“believes that it is or may be the case that … arrangements are in progress or in contemplation which, if carried into effect, will result in the creation of a relevant merger situation”,
so contemplation exists in statute.
The guidance issued by the Competition and Markets Authority on this, published most recently in December 2020, said that “at phase 1”, which colleagues will recall is the earliest investigatory phase,
“the CMA will generally consider that ‘arrangements are in progress or in contemplation’ for the purposes of section 33 of the Act if a public announcement has been made by the merger parties concerned.”
When my noble friend defines “contemplation”, he does so accurately, but that is not how the Competition and Markets Authority has interpreted “contemplation”. It means somebody firmly considering such a thing, which Ministers may well be thinking of in this context, but it is important to make that clear in the guidance.
The Competition and Markets Authority and the Enterprise Act do this for mergers, which are defined acquisitions. Here, we are talking of a much wider scope of acquiring activity in relation to intellectual property, technology, assets, land and minority stakes. A merger control has bitten on 15% or thereabouts, in certain circumstances, but it is a much wider breadth of activity. If contemplation of such acquisitions is to be included, Ministers at the very least have to define it in the guidance in a way that corresponds to the way in which “contemplation” has been interpreted by the CMA for mergers.
My Lords, this group contains a range of amendments aimed at improving certainty which I broadly support. In particular I favour the removal of the expression “contemplation” because it is a broad expression that in my understanding, if it is not reinterpreted through guidelines, could range from not even a twinkle in the eye to serious preparations.
When I looked at this, it seemed that the first expression of “arrangements are in progress”, followed later on in the clause by
“which, if carried into effect”,
is already quite broad because it poses the notion that the “arrangements” do not have to be substantial enough to have an effect yet, only if carried through. That seems to cover quite a preliminary range of stages. Even if the Minister does not accept that proposition of deletion, is there case law that can point to what “contemplation” means? The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, has provided some useful indicators. I thought about “in contemplation of matrimony to a given individual”, which is accepted in wills as a means to overcome a negation of a will through marriage, but that will itself is a legal document defining intent. That would not necessarily be the case for just a random contemplation.
From my various adventures as a patent attorney I know better the interpretations of “serious preparations” or “effective and serious preparations”. They are used in patent and trademark law, which has received attention and clarification—or rather verification—in courts. If we have to use something, I prefer to use something akin to those terms, although this shows that it is quite difficult to define when a line is crossed.
As has already been raised, the intention of “contemplation” or anything else could be clarified by guidelines, but if that route is needed, is it not just simpler to delete “contemplation” and explain in guidelines what “arrangements are in progress” is intended to cover? To me, that sounded exactly like what the CMA had done: it had taken “arrangements are in progress” or “contemplation” as one and the same thing and then defined that, which implies something much further down the track than simple contemplation. I am therefore on the side of those who think that the wording just looks too vague, and if it has precedent elsewhere, it needs to be clarified that it does not mean anything more substantial. The CMA has pointed the way to showing that the word is not very much use.
I also support Amendment 8 relating to publication, which aims to give some certainty about when the Secretary of State can be regarded beyond doubt as having been aware of a trigger event. As the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, explained, that reflects the wording of the Enterprise Act and it would help to reduce unnecessary notifications.
Lord Vaizey of Didcot. No? We will come back to him. I call the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow some of the early speeches in this group today. Noble Lords have already started to unpick some key elements in the Bill and have shown how much further explanation and guidance is needed. I will come on to Amendments 3, 4 and 8 in a minute, but, given the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, I will speak first to Amendment 9.
As it stands, given the Bill’s very broad definitions of “trigger events”, “qualifying entities and assets” and “control” of entities and assets, businesses are not clear as to those transactions which require notification and those that do not. Although the Bill is retrospective, the Secretary of State will publish a Statement only after it comes into effect, so there will be little clarity for some time. Probably the word that will be most overworked during the passage of the Bill will be “certainty”, but that is exactly what we are all looking for as we proceed. The first person who used that phrase was my noble friend Lady Bowles, but I entirely agree that we must strive for that. If we are not careful, we will have significant overnotification of irrelevant transactions by businesses in order to avoid the risk of penalties for non-notification or subsequent call-in. As a former practising lawyer, I think I can testify to that.
Continuing with my fishing analogy, this is very much about the extent of the net, and it is important that clarity of the kind that is contained in Amendment 9 is given. The amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, which I signed, seeks to ensure that the Government provide effective guidance to organisations in order to minimise the volume of voluntary notifications and avoid legitimate business activity being otherwise discouraged. I very much hope that the Minister will take that on board as an attempt to create greater certainty regarding trigger events.
As regards Amendments 3 and 4, the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, is entirely right to probe the meaning of “contemplation”. We had very interesting speeches from the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and my noble friend Lady Bowles. I do not know whether the Secretary of State has to achieve some kind of nirvana before understanding what is about to happen, but I think “in progress” is a much more solid phrase. I very much take the point which has been developed in this small debate on this group that guidelines will be crucial, but we ought at least to start from the point where we understand what that phrase means. If there are precedents that the CMA uses, let us try to bring them on board. At the start of this process, we need to hear from the Minister exactly what he believes it to mean.
On Amendment 8, a number of the time limits which apply to the exercise of the call-in power are expressed by reference to the date on which the Secretary of State became aware of the relevant trigger event. It is important, as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said, that investors have legal certainty about how that date will be determined in order to be clear when the relevant period starts to run. As the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, also explained, it is based on a very good precedent in the Enterprise Act, and the Secretary of State will be treated as becoming aware of the trigger event if it has been publicised such as to be generally known or readily ascertainable, including through publication in a national newspaper or the London Gazette. I very much hope that in order to create the certainty that we are all looking for in the Bill the Minister will carefully consider the amendments in this group.
My Lords, there are very wide powers in the Bill, and the amendments in this group are sensible and proportionate and go some way to reining in the extent of those powers. Other noble Lords have spoken extensively about Amendments 3 and 4, which I fully support. When I first focused on that language, I simply could not believe that the Government would have drafted the basis of calling in being the Secretary of State thinking that somebody else is thinking about something. My noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley has set out the very dangerous consequences that could have for prospective transactions.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lansley for explaining the link under the Enterprise Act to how the CMA operates. My view is that we should not simply rely on guidance to make an unsatisfactory formulation in legislation work better. I do not believe that “in … contemplation” is the right place to start, and guidance which will go some way to reversing what the ordinary understanding of “in … contemplation” means is not a satisfactory way forward.
I also agree with my noble friend Lord Lansley’s Amendment 8, given that the Bill, as has been pointed out, gives the Secretary of State time limits that start to run from when he becomes aware of transactions. It is just not reasonable for him ever to claim that he has no knowledge of something that is clearly in the public domain. I fully support that.
I also support Amendment 9, which the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, spoke to a moment ago, because the Government need to consider the negative impact that the Bill is likely to give rise to. It is going to be very difficult to avoid the Bill having negative impacts on legitimate economic activity. It is absolutely right that the Secretary of State should actively consider that fact when he draws up his Clause 3 statement.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I believe that the volume of precautionary but unnecessary voluntary notifications is likely to be very significant, and it makes sense for the Secretary of State to ensure that his Clause 3 statement gives as many steers as possible to allow transactions to go ahead without having the Bill hanging over them. If the Secretary of State does not get this right it will result in the security and investment unit being overwhelmed by transactions, and that will do nobody any good at all.
The amendments in this group are soundly based and I look forward to hearing my noble friend the Minister’s response.
I will try the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey again. Lord Vaizey of Didcot?
Yes, I am definitely here. I am sorry that I did not realise that I had to unmute myself, but I will not detain the Committee with my farcical debut in tabling amendments to a Bill. I will simply say how pleased I am to be in this group of amendments with the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, and how much I enjoyed his introduction to his amendment seeking to delete the word “contemplation”, which I have been delighted to support.
As my noble friend made clear, we are all here to serve a common purpose, which is to tease out of the Minister his thinking on the wording of the Bill. The Minister may well come back with a slam-dunk justification for “contemplation”. One of the advantages of the delayed entry of my contribution is the arguments put forward by other Members of the Committee about that amendment. It seems that it boils down to whether the Minister thinks that “contemplation” has a religious, business or technical meaning. If it has a technical meaning, it seems perhaps important that that is teased out in these proceedings to help people in the future.
As far as my own technical amendment is concerned—and I was delighted as well that my technical ineptitude meant that it was much more ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—it seeks to echo some of the points that I made at Second Reading. Most of us who have taken an interest in the Bill and have discussed it with numerous trade bodies and City lawyers are aware that the Government’s estimate of the number of notifications under the Bill as drafted is somewhat low. We can expect thousands of precautionary voluntary notifications to come about, at least in the first instance.
More importantly—and what the amendment in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, seeks to deal with—is that the Bill will start to have a potentially deleterious effect on foreign direct investment. As the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, pointed out, we are second in the world in terms of foreign direct investment. We often proudly say that we have more of it than Germany and France combined, at least as far as Europe is concerned. Over time, more and more companies looking at potential investments and acquisitions may well start to shy away from the UK if they feel that they have to undergo certain additional hurdles.
No one of course is saying that we should not have a national security framework to protect our vital industries. But just as the Secretary of State under this clause is required in a very good way to give guidance on how he or she is exercising the call-in powers, it is important that a very real contemplation of the potential deterrent effect that the new regime may bring about is front of mind alongside the sectors and technical thinking lying behind acquisitions that might be called in. If this amendment were accepted down the line, it would ensure that future Secretaries of State kept this front of mind.
My Lords, I am second to no one in my admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, but I am quite glad that we have the other Minister in the hot seat for this one, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone. I suspect that in his previous lives he has seen more of the rough and tumble than possibly the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, and the rest of us put together, so will appreciate the nature of the debate introduced by the noble Lord.
For my part, I have usually been on the home team, the one paying advisers such as the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, huge sums of money to do deals or sell businesses. He hinted at the mischief that could be made around this, and I am sure that the Minister will understand the nature of that mischief: it is pretty ruthless and pretty hard. This gives another tool to those who would wish to cause that mischief, and it is not in the interests of the Government or the wheels of commerce for that mischief to occur.
The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, made a really important point. It is also in the interests of the Government to sift what comes across the Government’s desk; it does not behove the department to have tens of thousands of deals flowing across its desk. The Bill is designed to pick out the big problems and issues; it is not designed to deal with sacks of chaff that will come over as well as the wheat. It is important that the objectives of these amendments are taken on board by the Government. I am sure that there are many ways of doing that, and we look forward to the Minister contemplating how “contemplation” will be defined. What is the threshold? Is it the one suggested by the noble Lords, Lord Lansley and Lord Bilimoria—is it publishing? And even then, is it in the sense that the takeover panel would require a board to respond, or is it responding to a rumour? Then we are back into mischief territory again. Some sense of that, and of how the CMA has been able to negotiate this, would be helpful.
My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, in his amendment with the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, is right that we need some sense of guidance and help as to how this is going to work. I go back to the point that I made at the beginning. How will this thing operate? How will the unit work? The nature of some sort of pre-emptive process seems to take on board more than a unit could normally handle. The advice that the Government have been given by your Lordships is good advice, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I welcome the Minister responding to this group to his second Bill, this one under the auspices of the business department. I am sure that he will find it an enjoyable experience. In addition to Amendment 9 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Vaizey and Lord Clement-Jones, I propose probing Amendment 10 to Clause 3(3), on further considerations. Amendment 9 seeks to ensure that the Government provide guidance to minimise the potential volume of voluntary notifications and any chilling effect that the Bill may have on legitimate business activity. Businesses need to be clear when transactions require notification and when it is not needed. There may soon be a time when the department could find this very useful as well.
In assessing the potential to generate unnecessary notifications, the CBI has estimated that the Government could receive up to 10,000 notifications a year. Does the Minister recognise this amount as an outcome? How have the Government calculated possible outcomes in relation to the numbers that have arisen in other countries’ experience in similar regime circumstances? I would go along with the precautionary interpretation by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. This will have resonance with later amendments probing the resourcing of the new investment security unit and turnaround timings for notifications.
Today the Government published a Written Ministerial Statement in response to the consultation on the sectors in the economy subject to mandatory notifications. The Statement includes the 17 sectors, with an estimate that less than 1% of all M&A activity will result in a notification to the department. Can the Minister relate that percentage to actual numbers and whether that includes all notifications, mandatory as well as voluntary, and the split between them, so that custom and practice could be identified as smoothly as possible?
My Amendment 10 is on the positive side, highlighting the need to show support for research and development capacity to grow in critical sectors identified by the new security regime. In examining domestic and future capacity in these sectors, the Secretary of State would want to champion innovation, the engine of the UK’s national growth and prosperity, and the role that could be played by small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups. Policymaking does not need to be incoherent or vague. Does the Minister recognise that national security and industrial strategy could be closely connected? The Government could go further than calling in potential M&A activity and blocking hostile or inadvertent takeovers, and complement a robust industrial strategy that puts critical national infrastructure at the heart of government policy.
In the Written Ministerial Statement this morning, energy is identified as one of the 17 sectors that clarifies, to a large extent, Clause 3(3)(a). Can the Minister clarify the extent of the reference to energy, bearing in mind the urgency posed by the climate emergency? To reach net zero by 2050, much activity will be needed. As other speakers have commented, the Government have this afternoon issued the full consultation document, and many answers may be provided. The energy definition seems to be heavily focused on petroleum and gas. I am sure that the Minister will want to speak on nuclear capability. What about solar or the huge extension identified by the Government for offshore wind? Will the department wish to scrutinise all these areas to assess any protections needed? It is no wonder that there is widespread concern about the number of notifications. The statement points to the consultation response to the definition of satellite and space technologies. The response states that,
“almost all transactions in the UK space market could be covered.”
Similarly, the transport definition may focus on ports, harbours and airports. Should it not also include other transport infrastructure, such as EV infrastructure, which is also essential to meet the UK’s net-zero targets and the future of the automotive sector, not least Ellesmere Port and the development of battery production? Without any industry standards and clear regulations on cyber monitoring, we risk each individual charge point operator developing their own level of cybersecurity to protect their respective customers. The potential of vulnerability to hackers would be considerable.
I have not had sufficient time to consider whether these and other concerns are met in the inclusion of data infrastructure among the sectors. Will the Minister consider these points in his reply to ensure that the definitions are forward-thinking and cover all critical infrastructure interpretations?
My Lords, I extend my thanks to noble Lords for their invaluable contributions to this debate, which will allow me to clarify some important aspects of the Bill. It is a particular pleasure to be debating these matters with the experienced practitioners around the table, who have direct knowledge of these topics.
I speak first to Amendments 3 and 4, relating to when the Secretary of State can call in a trigger event, as tabled by my noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley. These amendments would limit the use of the call-in power in respect of trigger events that have not yet occurred to those that are in progress. As drafted, as noble Lords have focused on, the Bill provides that call-in notices may be issued in relation to trigger events that are in progress or contemplation, as well as those that have already taken place. This ensures that potential national security risks can be examined at any stage of the process.
The National Security and Investment Bill draws on precedent in this approach. Under the Enterprise Act 2002, the Competition and Markets Authority and the Secretary of State may investigate mergers that are in progress or contemplation. To reassure my noble friends Lord Lansley, Lord Vaizey and Lady Noakes, this is a tried and tested phrase, and I will come back to that in a moment to elucidate further. Using this precedent ensures the NSI Bill is in good company. It would seem strange to limit the scope of intervention on national security if, through the Enterprise Act, an intervention is allowed on other public interest grounds where a merger is in progress or contemplation.
I said I would give some further details of this. The term “in contemplation” is not new. As I have already said, it features in the Enterprise Act 2002 and, importantly, the detailed guidance that has been issued by the Competition and Markets Authority. Let me give some examples of what this phrase means. First, a party may choose to notify the Secretary of State that they are contemplating a trigger event to get the certainty of the Secretary of State’s judgment. Secondly, a party may notify the Secretary of State that another party is contemplating a trigger event, such as if they have received, or become aware of, an offer to buy their business. We expect that in most cases, call-in notices will be issued following a notification, so these are likely not to be uncommon scenarios. Thirdly, a public announcement of a deal may have been made by one or more parties but not yet implemented. As noble Lords will be aware, there are certain publicity requirements for public takeovers, but this could also happen in relation to a private acquisition. Fourthly, a public announcement of a possible offer or a firm intention to make an offer may have been made, which would itself show that an offer was in contemplation.
Any decision by the Secretary of State to call in a trigger, even in contemplation, would, as with other uses of powers in this Bill, be subject to judicial oversight through judicial review. If the Secretary of State had merely found he had been able to read someone’s mind to know they were in contemplation of a transaction, that would be unlikely to satisfy the requirements of a judicial review. I hope I have provided sufficient explanation of the Government’s approach. It is a tried and tested phrase, which I would say is well known in the market. I hope my noble friend, therefore, feels able to withdraw his amendment.
I welcome Amendment 8 from my noble friend Lord Lansley, which seeks to partially define what is meant by the Secretary of State “becoming aware” of the publicised trigger event by replicating provisions in Section 24 of the Enterprise Act 2002. In relation to trigger events that have already taken place, the Secretary of State would only be able to give a call-in notice within six months of becoming aware of the trigger event. The Bill does not currently define what “becoming aware” means.
The Secretary of State will have a strong incentive to call in trigger events that might give rise to national security risks quickly after becoming aware of them, as he will want to address any risks that they present. Similarly, many parties will have a clear incentive to ensure that the Secretary of State is aware of their anticipated or completed trigger events so that they can achieve deal certainty. That is why we encourage parties to notify trigger events to the Secretary of State, rather than to wait for the trigger events to be detected and called in.
In general, we expect the Secretary of State’s market monitoring team to detect trigger events of interest. However, in a limited number of cases, providing for imputed awareness on the part of the Secretary of State where a trigger event has been publicised so it is generally known or readily ascertainable, may open up protracted arguments about whether the trigger event in question was adequately publicised.
I do not disagree that providing for imputed awareness on the part of the Competition and Markets Authority, as the Enterprise Act 2002 does in the context of merger control, is appropriate. But the NSI regime—this is an important point—will deal with a wider range and larger number of acquisitions, with no de minimis thresholds and a strong likelihood that many will not be comprehensively or accurately reported. This presents much greater scope for ambiguity, and for deals, particularly private transactions, to be publicised in ways that may still cause the Secretary of State to be unaware of the precise trigger event in question. This amendment therefore risks opening up the Secretary of State to greater challenge, while still allowing for substantial uncertainty for businesses and investors.
I will now speak to Amendment 9, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Vaizey of Didcot and Lord Clement-Jones, and Amendment 10 from the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, as both relate to the content of the statement under Clause 3. These amendments seek either to add to the non-exhaustive list of the aspects that the statement may include or otherwise to regulate what can be included in the statement.
I turn first to Amendment 10, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. I will put to one side his valid points about sector definitions, as we will return to that topic in a future group. This amendment seeks to require the Secretary of State to have regard to the domestic and future capacity of sectors to promote research and development, and innovation, and to protect national security when preparing the statement.
Supporting the UK’s innovative industries, and research and development, are priorities for the Government. However, the purpose of the Bill is to set up an investment screening regime that is concerned solely with the protection of national security. Therefore, the Secretary of State is able to consider innovation, research and development, and future capacity—very important topics though they are—only in so far as they are relevant to national security risk, when he carries out his functions under the Bill.
Amendment 9 seeks to add to the list of the aspects that the statement may include. Of course, the Government want to promote legitimate economic activity and to minimise unnecessary voluntary notifications. The purpose of this statement is to set out how the Secretary of State expects to use the call-in power. I am afraid that these amendments are not suitable for the statement. The statement looks forwards to future use of the call-in power, not to highlight actions already taken. It sets out how the Secretary of State expects to use the call-in power, and it is not intended to serve as an indicator of wider government action in relation to the regime. It is crucial that the acquirers can look at the statement and that it assists them in coming to a judgment about whether to voluntarily notify. With these points, I hope that noble Lords feel able not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I have received one request to speak after the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that careful analysis, but I must admit that I am not wholly reassured as a result. I feel as though we have gone in a spiral of logic and I think we ended up where we began, in a cloud of uncertainty. In particular, I thought the Minister’s arguments on Amendment 9, that the statement was forward-looking not backward-looking, were very circular. It all depends on how the statement is constructed. It can be made both forward-looking and backward-looking simply in the way the Bill is amended. So the argument there was extremely circular.
I will read Hansard extremely carefully, but to me the question about the Secretary of State being unaware means that the Government have decided that the net is going to be extremely wide. We have assurances on the sifting process, but in the end everything falls in until it is thrown out. That, I think, is what worries quite a lot of us. The contemplation point may have some precedent, but the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, made the point that these transactions are not just mergers but intellectual property licences, know-how transfer, asset sales and a whole range of things. Is the merger regime fit for purpose for this broad range of transactions?
That is all I want to say at this stage. I thought the Minister valiantly tried to justify the current wording of the Bill, but I do not think he succeeded.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and I have had the pleasure of debating these matters at a meeting prior to this Committee, and I must confess that I was probably the author of the fishing analogy, which I may live to regret. The point is that when you are dealing with matters of national security, and these matters are so important, it is perfectly appropriate to use a large net to put the fish in, but then it becomes very important that the way your screening unit works removes fish from that net as expeditiously and efficiently as possible.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. As the noble Lord, Lord Fox, pointed out, he almost certainly has much greater experience than all of us in this Room combined in advising on transactions. For the avoidance of doubt, sadly the noble Lord, Lord Fox, has not paid me any fees in any matter, as far as I am aware, but I travel in hope. I have to disappoint my noble friend Lord Vaizey, because it does not look like the Minister will accept his very first amendment in whole. On the other hand, I do not think he has provided a slam-dunk answer, as he hoped, to reject Amendments 3 and 4 in particular.
We are very lucky to have the benefit of my noble friend Lord Lansley’s experience and wisdom from the Enterprise Act 2002, and I accept that that is where it came from. However, I do not quite see why there should be a cut-and-paste approach. The CMA will be dealing with a relatively small number of mergers of largely public companies. This will be dealing with all sorts, from minority investments of a few thousand pounds in 15% stakes to IP and—forgive me—a completely different kettle of fish. Therefore, the last thing one wants to do is to have to rely on a traditional review to see this sorted out. That would be hugely expensive and singularly inappropriate for most of the transactions envisaged, which will be of a much larger volume than the CMA and the legislation were structured to deal with. I very much hope that the Minister will have a chance to reflect on this and that he will be persuaded in particular by the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles—arrangements in progress must be strong enough. I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
Amendment 4 not moved.
5: Clause 1, page 1, line 18, leave out “void” and insert “voidable”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, with others in the name of Lord Vaizey that substitute “voidable” for “void”, is intended to ensure that transactions are not automatically void. Instead, the Government would have power to declare a transaction (or parts of it) void if it gave rise to national security concerns.
Second time lucky. I am not aware that an amendment like this was tabled in the other place when the Bill was being considered. However, Amendment 5 and the subsequent amendments are fairly clear, in that they substitute the word “voidable” for “void”. The amendments are designed to ensure that transactions are not automatically voided if a company fails to comply with mandatory notification procedures. I hope to set out in my opening remarks why that should be the case.
As far as I am aware, the Government have tried to make it clear that they could retrospectively accept a notification, and therefore in effect ensure that a transaction was not voided, so this amendment seeks to realise what I think is the Government’s ambition. Amending the sanctions in this way would therefore be consistent with their position and would show that the power to unwind a transaction to make it void would be a last resort used only in the most exceptional of cases. I accept, of course, that it is important to have significant sanctions in place where a transaction subject to the mandatory notification obligation is completed without first obtaining approval from the Secretary of State, but such sanctions need to be workable in practice—they need to be credible. Treating such an error as to make a transaction automatically void—as currently envisaged in Clause 13—would in reality give rise to a host of practical difficulties that would make it unworkable in practice.
I also venture to suggest that the approach is inconsistent with other established regimes in other jurisdictions, such as Australia, the US and Canada, where a problematic transaction is not automatically void but the authorities are able to step in and issue unwinding orders for parts or all of a specific transaction. It would be far preferable to provide for a similar “voidable” power, giving the Government the power to declare such a transaction—or parts of it—void if it gave rise to national security concerns but not automatically making that the case. This would mean that the Government could consider the circumstances of each transaction and provide workable steps to take to unwind the transaction where that is considered necessary because of national security concerns.
Declaring a transaction void is effectively to treat it as if it never happened. However, the acquisition which has given rise to the exercise of the voiding may be part of a much wider transaction. For example, as part of the acquisition, the acquirer will have paid consideration to the sellers as well. Following the acquisition, the acquirer may have invested in the business, and third parties may have contracted in good faith with the acquirer in relation to the business. Declaring a transaction automatically void due to breach of the standstill obligation could result in a situation where several parties—many of whom may have had no culpability at all for the failure to notify—are left in limbo and may also suffer financial losses as a result. I submit again that the proposed approach seems unworkable in practice, which is implied in the Government’s own approach but not in the Bill.
Will the Minister also consider a situation where the parties to a transaction have selected a law other than English law as the governing law of the agreement? Is it possible that a foreign court would continue to treat a non-notified transaction as valid? Would that not lead to extraordinary uncertainty? While these provisions will have full force and effect in relation to acquisitions governed by English law, I do not see how they can apply if the transaction is governed by US or other law. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken in this Committee, so I draw attention to my entry in the register of your Lordships’ House. I wish to speak to Amendments 41 and 44 in this group, which I have tabled with the support of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for which I am extremely grateful. I am also grateful to the Law Society for its assistance.
The two amendments build on remarks made by my noble friend Lord Vaizey in moving Amendment 5. Amendments 41 and 44 are to Clause 13, which is entitled “Approval of notifiable acquisition”. I am afraid I have to argue that that title is, at best, ingenuous because, under the wording of the clause as presently drafted, there is no requirement for the Secretary of State to register his disapproval; instead, his silence is all that is needed. I argue that, from the point of view of providing certainty for investors, bankers and—last, but by no means least—companies, their management and employees, this is not good enough. Furthermore, this silence inhibits a proper degree of parliamentary scrutiny, making it more likely that cases can be slipped through under the radar. It will also prevent Parliament having the opportunity of examining how practice may be shifting as regards preserving the delicate balance that this Bill seeks to create and maintain between protecting national security and providing maximum safety for investors’ property rights.
We need the spotlight to be shone on those tricky areas so that decisions taken by the Secretary of State have to be justified openly and publicly. That is what Amendments 41 and 44 seek to achieve. Famously, TS Eliot wrote:
“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
In this difficult policy area, a whimper is insufficient. I see no reason why in an open society the Secretary of State should not be under the maximum pressure to provide a clear, concise and public declaration of his decision and the reasons for it. Our society, together with our business and investment community, are entitled to no less, so I very much hope that the Government will be able to accept these two amendments.
My Lords, it is very difficult to follow the noble Lords, Lord Vaizey and Lord Hodgson, especially after the quotation from the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, of which I think we must be very mindful. I support both in their very similar endeavours, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, in his Amendments 41 and 44, which I have signed.
The case has been very clearly made that automatic voidness creates excessive legal uncertainty for investors and lenders. The proposed wording would mean no automatic voidness but a power of the Secretary of State to impose it. A voidable power would give the Government power to declare a transaction or part of it void if it gave rise to national security concerns and ensure that workable steps can be taken to unwind the transaction to the extent considered necessary. While it is clearly important to apply significant sanctions when a transaction subject to the mandatory notification obligation is completed without first obtaining approval from the Secretary of State, such sanctions must also be workable in practice. Treating such a transaction as automatically void, as envisaged in Clause 13, will give rise to a host of practical difficulties and is simply not workable in practice.
This approach is also inconsistent with other established foreign investment regimes, such as those of Australia and the US. It would be far preferable—and the argument has been very well made by the noble Lords, Lord Hodgson and Lord Vaizey—to provide for a “voidable” power, giving the Government the power to declare such a transaction, or particular parts of it, void if it gave rise to national security concerns. This would allow the particular circumstances of each such transaction to be considered and workable steps taken to unwind the transaction to the extent that this is considered necessary to address national security concerns. Amending the sanctions in this way would also be entirely consistent with the Government’s stated position that the power to unwind a transaction would be a last resort used only in the most exceptional of cases.
My Lords, the voiding of a commercial transaction that has already taken place is a massive penalty for those who have entered into the transaction. Parliament should be very wary of legislating in this way if it is not absolutely necessary. I believe that, as drafted, the Bill goes beyond what is necessary.
A transaction may not have been notified where the parties to it did not believe that they were covered by the legislation, perhaps relying on a misinterpretation of the statement that will come out under Clause 3 or perhaps a misunderstanding of advice received from the investment security unit about the transaction. These could occur in situations of good faith, yet the Act is capable of inflicting the penalty of voiding the transaction even in such an instance.
I do not doubt that voiding a transaction may well be the right result if the transaction really does engage national security, but even then it is not necessarily the case that every transaction should be voided. We have to understand that Clause 13 is one of the parts of the Bill that will drive unnecessary voluntary notification, which I know that the Government will wish to avoid. The amendments in this group are helpful and proportionate and I hope that the Government can accept one of the formulations.
My Lords, we have heard from a chartered accountant, a banker and a lawyer all in unanimity; it is very worrying. As I understand it, this approach is consistent with some regimes in certain countries. The idea of having a transaction fully voided would lead to many innocent third parties being in limbo. Would it not be better that a transaction or certain parts of it were voidable, as some parts of the transaction may not be in any way relevant to national security. That gives HM Government more flexibility. By being voidable, it allows for negotiation, discussion and parts perhaps to be voided and not the whole thing.
Once again, insisting that the transaction could be voided in legislation will simply deter overseas investors and buyers because it is a huge amount of uncertainty to have such a black and white separation. The amendments still allow for the dictum of the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, in respect of Clause 15 of non-notified acquisitions being able to be retrospectively validated rather than retrospectively invalidated. Giving the Government maximum flexibility seems a wise and good thing to seek.
I want to pick up where the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, finished: it seems almost punitively value-destroying to have a mandatory process. There will clearly be times when voiding will be the inevitable consequence, but there are others when a retrospective approval would be best for the country, the value, the shareholders, the employees and all the other third parties connected to that business. To lock the Government into auto-voiding seems unnecessary. It may be designed to put people off from not reporting in future but, by their nature, those who do not report probably are not aware of these sanctions, so it is unlikely to have that deterrent effect.
On Amendments 41 and 44, the “Waste Land” amendments, certainty comes up again, as predicted. All they do is ask for a clear signal rather than something simply not happening being the signal. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, raised external messaging, but such clarity would also help build a body of case law which would help future practitioners understand what they should and should not do. Having that case law and those examples clearly delineated by a full stop rather than the whimper that is currently enshrined in law would be a much better way of exposing such cases for the textbook.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, for these probing amendments relating to the penalty of deeming mergers and acquisitions void in the event of proper notifications and subsequent assessments by the Secretary of State not having taken place. The Minister will need to explain how this will work. Most of the amendments in this group focus on Clause 13, “Approval of notifiable acquisition”, in Chapter 3. Subsection (3) states that:
“A notifiable acquisition, in relation to which a final order has been made, that is completed otherwise than in accordance with the final order, is void.”
I appreciate the view of the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, that there could be alternative outcomes to certain elements or aspects of any deal. Has the Minister considered whether the Secretary of State could publish guidance on how the mechanisms of deeming non-compliant transactions void would work in practice? Clarity for SMEs would be most helpful.
The ability for transactions to be deemed void where they have not been approved by the Secretary of State, have not been notified or are non-compliant with any final order could have large repercussions. Clause 15, “Requirement to consider retrospective validation without application”, and Clause 16, “Application for retrospective validation of notifiable acquisition”, raise the issue of retrospection in relation to the legally void provision. Could transactions that took place in the past, even up to five years previously, be immediately deemed void? If the first transaction in a chain were deemed void, that would leave the legal rights and entitlements of all subsequent transactions’ parties in total confusion. There could be conditions in a transaction that came to fruition or were exercisable over a length of time, with these events deemed the trigger events rather than the merger itself. Those elements would have had impact at the inception of any M&A activity. An impossible series of rights, entitlements and developments would have to be unwound, which would cause great legal uncertainty.
The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, also raised the issue of other jurisdictions or cross-jurisdictions. Have these circumstances, among the many others, been considered in the provision of this power? What are the legal implications for the process where the possible imposition of a transaction to be void is under consideration? Have the Government made plans to publish guidance in this area, even though they may consider that circumstantial evidence may make such guidance highly speculative? Many speakers have found the provision impractical and unworkable.
My Lords, first, I apologise for my noble friend Lord Grimstone, who has had to attend a debate on Kenya in the Chamber. I am afraid you are stuck with me for this one, which is obviously disappointing for the noble Lord, Lord Fox. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed.
We understand the aim of this group of amendments, which is to convert the automatic voiding provisions in Clause 13 into powers to void. Further amendments in this group then seek consistency with associated provisions in the Bill. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Vaizey and Lord Hodgson, for bringing together this grouping. I will first address the purpose of the automatic voiding provisions, before turning to the amendments in detail.
Notifiable acquisitions are those that occur within the most sensitive areas of the economy—sensitive enough that the Secretary of State judges that he must be notified and must clear an acquisition to proceed before it can complete. As such, it is essential that there are clear incentives for compliance with the regime and that any national security risks arising from these sensitive acquisitions being completed without approval are mitigated, as far as possible. Noble Lords present will understand that any Government’s first preference in legislating to create requirements on persons, particularly where the matters relate to serious issues such as national security, is that compliance with such requirements is incentivised and that we do not merely rest on the threat of weighty enforcement.
The automatic voiding provisions in Clause 13(1) mean that there is no way around these requirements and that parties who wish to evade the requirements are unable to complete acquisitions which must be approved by the Secretary of State and have not been. This ensures that the regime mitigates a wealth of national security risks, without the Secretary of State ever being engaged. It is efficient and effective government, and a key tool in protecting our national security.
However, voiding is not a sanction; it is instead the logical implication of not complying with a mandatory regime that concerns only the most sensitive acquisitions. Clause 13(3) ensures that any notifiable acquisition in respect of which a final order has been made, which has been completed otherwise than in accordance with the final order, is also void.
I understand that the voiding provisions have raised some concerns, as outlined by my noble friend Lord Vaizey, that the unaware may be unduly or adversely affected, which would otherwise lead to significant costs for parties who are affected by voiding. I hope that I can offer them the following reassurance. First, those who have been materially affected by the voiding of an acquisition, including sellers and third parties, not just acquirers, may apply for retrospective validation of the acquisition using Clause 16. If a valid and complete application is received, the Secretary of State will have up to 30 working days to decide whether to issue a call-in notice. If he does not issue a call-in notice, for example if there are no national security risks involved, he must validate the acquisition retrospectively. The impact of retrospective validation is that the notifiable acquisition is to be treated as having been approved by the Secretary of State and is, accordingly, not void. Anyone materially affected by the voiding, including those unaware of the requirements, is therefore able to secure retrospective validation, such that the acquisition was always valid in law.
Secondly, there are concerns around what happens if a significant purchase of shares in a publicly listed company is caught by the provision. Usually, for significant purchases, parties are advised by a law firm of high repute. I can also assure the Committee that, where the acquisition involves a takeover, BEIS works closely with the Takeover Panel to ensure the there are no issues in the interaction with the takeover code.
Thirdly, there are murmurings that the voiding provisions might create uncertainty. I do not think that Clause 13 could be clearer and more succinct about the effects of not obtaining the approval of the Secretary of State before completing a notifiable acquisition.
Let me now respond to the heart of the proposition of the amendments in this grouping—that voiding should be exercisable as a power by the Secretary of State, rather than being automatic. I am afraid this raises a number of issues. It is, first, unclear why and when the power to void would be exercised. The Secretary of State is already able to order the unwinding or divesting of acquisitions, following assessment as part of the final order. Why would he need to void the acquisition if it can simply be unwound or divested? Would it be intended that the Secretary of State would decide whether to void the acquisition prior to the assessment? If so, on what basis would he make that decision?
Secondly, the power to void would be a significant, additional power for the Secretary of State, against arising by normal operation of statute. What would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to take into account as part of making any such decision? And what safeguards would there be on its exercise?
Thirdly, I am afraid the Bill does not function effectively with voiding being a power. It is not clear, even with Amendment 57, how a power to void would work alongside the power to make a final order or the retrospective validation process. In relation to the latter, for example, Amendment 57 appears to envisage the applicant applying for retrospective validation of an acquisition that is already valid.
Let me close by reassuring noble Lords that the UK is not alone in pursuing this approach. Our French and German neighbours both have similar automatic voiding provisions in their investment screening legislation. We are consistent in this with economies with similar national security concerns. To alter it would be to make our regime comparably less effective. I know noble Lords who have tabled these amendments have good policy as their motivation and good law as their objective. Therefore, I hope the points I have been able to provide them with assure them the Government are delivering these in the Bill as it currently stands. I hope, with these explanations, those noble Lords will choose not to press their amendments.
I have received one request to speak after the Minister, from the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley.
Although I mentioned it at Second Reading, I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register of interests. Also, as noble Lords have done throughout Committee, I thank all the trade bodies that have been so helpful in advising noble Lords on some of our amendments and, particularly, for me, Veronica Roberts at Herbert Smith Freehills. Just for the record, may I also say how delighted I am that it is the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, responding on my amendment rather than the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone? I had a touch of the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, on my previous amendment, and now, to have the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, frankly, my cup runneth over.
I thank all noble Lords who have supported my amendment. Without wishing to pick any winners, I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, put it most succinctly when she spoke of the automatic voiding penalty. She channelled her inner football commentator by saying the automatic voiding was a “massive penalty”. I think that is right. I also point to the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, who has been very good at introducing me to the mysteries of Lords amendments and has marshalled me extremely well. These amendments pose an unanswerable question to the Minister, because if they are accepted and a transaction can be made voidable, it can, by definition, be voided. It is just not automatic. It ensures voiding can apply where the Government think that is the only solution with a transaction that has not been notified.
In the real world, it is unlikely that a mandatory notification would not be made. The tenor of most of the speeches that have been made during the passage of this Bill is that the Government should expect far more notifications than they have estimated so far. The Minister is quite right to say that anyone transacting in the midst of a mandatory area is likely to have some high-powered lawyers advising them.
What I would say in response to the Minister’s excellent response to this debate is that there are certain points that I feel have not been addressed. One is obviously going back to the massive penalty phrase. If you void a transaction where it is part of a wider transaction, how do you go about unwinding it? Would there not be other, more suitable punishments than simply voiding the entire transaction? Indeed, as the Minister indicated, there will be plenty of people—shareholders, for example—who will be unduly punished by the automatic voiding provisions. Surely there must be alternative punishments.
However, by definition, given that you can effectively retrospectively apply to the Government if you have failed to comply with the mandatory notification requirements, you are, as my noble friend Lord Leigh pointed out, effectively making your transaction voidable. You are giving the Government the chance not to void the transaction, yet by introducing an automatic voiding penalty, the Government have precluded themselves from punishing the parties who failed to comply with their requirement for mandatory notification. Giving themselves flexibility by allowing themselves potentially to void a transaction also gives them the flexibility to impose other punishments.
There are other dogs that have not barked in this debate. In other amendments that we have been debating, previous legislation has been cited as an example that has guided the Bill—but there is no similar sanction, as far as I am aware, in any other business-facing legislation in this country. I hope the Minister will not mind me teasing him a bit at the end because I suspect I know—I think I am right in saying—where his sympathies lie in terms of the great debate of the past decade between Brexit and remain. Is there not an irony in him citing the great example of the French and the Germans but ignoring the far more practical Anglo-Saxon common-law tradition evidenced in the US, Canada and Australia? I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Before moving on, notwithstanding the successful last-second intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, I remind noble Lords that if they wish to speak after the Minister they should email the clerk. We now come to Amendment 6.
6: Clause 1, page 1, line 18, at end insert—
“(2A) For the purposes of this Act, the following shall not be taken into account when considering whether a trigger event may give rise to a risk to national security— (a) adverse effects on levels of employment in the United Kingdom, or a part thereof, except that adverse effects on the employment of one or more specific categories of employee may be taken into account,(b) the existence or extent of opportunities for persons resident or established in the United Kingdom to invest in, or make sales in or into, another jurisdiction, or(c) the protection from competition of business activities carried on in the United Kingdom or business activities carried on by persons resident or established in the United Kingdom, except to the extent that such business activities contribute materially to national security, or are likely to do so in the future.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would clarify that certain factors—namely employment effects, reciprocal investment or trading opportunities, and the desire to protect UK business from international competition—cannot be taken into account in assessing whether a trigger event would give rise to a national security risk.
I am delighted to move Amendment 6 and I thank my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for lending their support to this amendment. I also thank the Law Society of England for its help in drafting the amendment, and I very much look forward to my noble friend Lord Callanan keeping up his good efforts this afternoon in responding to this debate.
We have not so far succeeded in coming up with a definition of how to limit our understanding of a definition of national security, so I shall approach it by a different route, which is to try to understand, define and limit what constitutes a trigger event. In the view of practitioners, as expressed by the Law Society of England, this amendment is needed as it would ensure that “national security” in the Bill will not be conflated with other issues of political or industrial concern which cannot be seen to relate to security but would still be flexible enough to allow for genuine national security threats to be deemed to be trigger events. I suppose this relates to my noble friend’s earlier comment in summing up a previous debate when he said that trigger events or national security relate to the whole economy, not just parts of it.
The purpose of Amendment 6 is to understand what constitutes a trigger event that would be deemed to lead to or constitute a security risk. It is in terms of being critical to investor confidence in the United Kingdom that the new regime is seen to be focused clearly on national security concerns and free of industrial or electoral influences not relating to national security. Therefore, the Bill would benefit from a clause such as this, explicitly stating the factors that should not be taken into account in assessing whether a trigger event would give rise to a national security risk. I set out here that the factors that would be excluded would cover any,
“adverse effects on levels of employment in the United Kingdom”,
“the existence or extent of opportunities for persons resident or established in the United Kingdom to invest in, or make sales in or into, another jurisdiction”,
and the desire to protect UK businesses from international competition.
I accept that the amendment might not be necessary if we had established a definition for national security but, given that we have not achieved that, I am keen to press this as a probing amendment and include a clause such as this in the Bill, thereby making clear that certain factors such as employment effects, reciprocal investment and trade, and protectionist connections would not be deemed to be trigger events. With that brief explanation, I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, with whom I am often in agreement—although, I am afraid, not in this case.
In my little over a year in your Lordships’ House I have noticed a strong tendency for Members to sign up to speak on amendments that they support and not those that they oppose. However, this has a clear and damaging effect, and slants the debate. Proponents get to put their case and the Government attempt to bat it away, often on merely technical grounds, and only one side of the argument is put. That sets the tone of the debate beyond just that day; it unbalances it. There is also the issue that, on Bills such as this, as a noble Lord said earlier, we often have an accountant followed by a banker followed by a lawyer. That is not a representative sample of society or opinion. It is for that reason that I signed up to speak on the amendment and express my strong opposition. I will be brief but clear.
The earlier groups of amendments on which I spoke, including Amendment 2, sought to define the national security on which the Bill seeks to allow the Government to act. The amendment does the very opposite by seeking to restrict the Government’s hand. The former amendments were “have regard to” amendments. This is a “shall not be taken into account” amendment. It is extremely ideological and seeks to assert the primacy of the market and the interests of business—which, by definition, given the nature of the Bill, is almost certainly big business, giant multinational companies—over what might be regarded as a key concern of the Government regarding employment. That is also, I would strongly argue, a national security issue—certainly a public order issue—with regard to Amendment 2.
The market is a human creation, not some natural process or action such as photosynthesis or the tides. To say that the market should have primacy over the well-being of society is a profoundly ideological argument that would have been very strange for most of the 20th century and reflects a particular neoliberal political position. Again, we are back to talking about investor confidence and the idea that we have to be a competitive nation—the very ideology that led us to the 2007-08 financial crash.
My Lords, I respect the opinions of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, but she will not be surprised to find that I do not agree with a single word of what she said. I agree with the sentiments behind Amendment 6, but I expect that the Minister will say that the amendment is unnecessary because the items listed in it could never be considered to be national security considerations. If I am correct in that assumption, I hope that he will make a very clear Dispatch Box statement to that effect, with no hedging about or qualification.
The Bill goes against the instincts of many of us who value an open economy and welcome investment into the United Kingdom. Protectionism may well not be a motivation for our current Government, but who knows whether one day we might get a Government with quite different approaches and priorities? We need to make it as clear as possible in the Bill that the powers cannot be used to promote a policy of economic intervention unrelated to what we understand to be national security concerns. The wise electorate saved us from the prospect of a Government led by Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell in 2019, but we must never forget the danger that a Labour Government could well present with a statute such as this on the books, and I hope that the Minister will make very clear statements which will put beyond peradventure that the matters raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering could never be considered.
I put my name to this amendment, but somehow along the way I was left off the speakers’ list, so I am glad to have scraped back on again. My noble friend Lady McIntosh made the case for the amendment clearly and decisively, so I will merely sweep up and say that, at Second Reading, there was general agreement that we were seeking a balance between the fact that the country had to be protected from overseas powers gobbling up key companies in key sectors, yet at the same time keeping our economy open for inward investment, particularly in the tech sector, where we have such a worldwide reputation. We all agreed then, and agree this afternoon, that that is the difficult balance that we seek to strike.
Of course, once the Bill passes into law, Parliament’s opportunity to examine and, where necessary, recalibrate that balance will be limited, to say the least. When the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, talks about the dangers of the markets, I think she is headed in completely the wrong direction, with due respect. My concern about the Bill is about not markets but mission creep: that we will end up with the Bill doing nothing that was anticipated when it was first drafted.
Like my noble friend Lady Noakes, I have no doubt that the Minister and his officials will say they have a very clear idea of how the provision will be used, and there is no question of mission creep under the Bill. As we all know, Ministers, parties and policies change, and there are serious dangers if we do not accept some form of amendment such as this.
First, there is the issue of employment under paragraph (a). How easy is it to see a future Secretary of State, faced with some politically unhelpful headlines about unemployment following a potential takeover, being tempted to press the national security button to avoid some disobliging comments? Under paragraph (c), we should never underestimate the lobbying powers of big companies. Hell hath no fury like a big company that finds its market invaded by a smaller, nimbler competitor offering a better, cheaper product or service. The smaller competitor, perhaps growing faster than its internally generated funds can support, may need to find outside capital, and some of that outside capital may come from overseas—it is likely to. How convenient for the big company if it can lobby the Secretary of State to block funding for the growth of its successful smaller rival on the grounds of national security.
Those are just two examples where mission creep might occur; there are plenty of others. I hope the Government will understand that the purpose behind this amendment is to make sure that the Bill continues to do what it says on the tin.
My Lords, it was a pleasure to put my name to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, because I think that I understand its intentions entirely. It is also a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, in their elucidation of what the amendment is about. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, has entirely misunderstood the essence of this amendment.
Earlier in Committee today we were trying to get some sort of definition of national security, and I think that the noble Lord, Lansley, in his inimitable way, managed to unpick that rather successfully. As far as national security is concerned, it is a mission impossible to try to carry everything in one bundle in a definition. This tries the other way on and, as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said, it is designed to avoid mission creep. It is trying to make sure that the definition of national security is not used as a blanket term to cover damage to the economy and society. It has the huge benefit of simplicity; it tells us what is not in national security rather than what is in it. It clarifies that certain factors such as employment, reciprocal investment or trading opportunities, and protectionism will not be taken into account when assessing national security. If there was mission creep in the way that was described, it would undermine legal certainty and damage investor confidence in the way that we have heard from a number of noble Lords.
The Government have kept assuring us that this is not, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, a national interest Bill but a national security Bill. That is exactly what this amendment is trying to ensure—that we do not have that all-encompassing national security definition used by lobbyists or others to try to bring things into the net. I have seen it happen in the United States. The CFIUS is absolutely that kind of spider-like operation that brings in all sorts of spurious transactions. I very much hope that we will keep this provision absolutely focused, and this amendment is a very good way of doing it.
My Lords, we support the approach of this amendment. As we have all made clear, the new regime must focus on protecting national security. The clue is in the title of the Bill. The definition of national security has to take best advice from across the Government about the threats and behaviour of our adversaries.
While I hope the Government will monitor the impact of the Act on technological investment, innovation and SMEs—which I hope a different part of the Government is actively supporting—those interests, along with employment, investment and competition, cannot and should not trump national security, albeit that I hope that the Government would consider mitigating any detrimental domestic impact of placing security first if that were needed.
Clearly, concerns about any political pressure, rather than any disregard for the issues listed, give rise to this amendment. The tone and the purpose of it are ones that we share.
I thank everybody who has spoken in this debate and thank my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering for tabling the amendment. It seeks to clarify that certain factors, namely employment effects, reciprocal investment or trading opportunities and the desire to protect UK businesses from international competition, cannot be taken into account in assessing whether a trigger event would give rise to national security risks. I was surprised to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh are now differing on some things. That is most unusual; it is something to be encouraged for the future.
My noble friend articulates a reasonable concern here: that a regime used to screen investment for national security purposes could be used to screen investments more widely. Indeed, the shadow Secretary of State, in his opening speech at Second Reading in the other place, argued that the Bill should include an industrial strategy test—I was therefore surprised to see the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, supporting this amendment.
As such, I have some sympathy with the aims of this amendment. I can, however, reassure my noble friend that the Bill is about protecting national security, nothing more and nothing less. The Bill does not set out the circumstances in which national security is, or may be, considered at risk. As I said on previous groups, this reflects long-standing government policy to ensure that national security powers are sufficiently flexible to protect the nation. The Bill also does not include factors which the Secretary of State must or may take into account when assessing national security risks. Instead, factors that the Secretary of State expects to take into account in exercising the call-in power are proposed to be set out in the statement that we have provided a draft of and is provided for by Clause 3.
The draft statement, published upon introduction of the Bill, includes details of what the Secretary of State is likely to be interested in when it comes to national security risks. This includes certain sectors of the economy, and the types of acquisitions that may raise concern. It does not currently state anything which the Secretary of State intends not to take into account with regard to national security. This is a conscious choice. If the Secretary of State were to start listing areas of the economy or types of acquisition that he considered unlikely to present national security concerns, I suspect that this would result in a long and dense document of little use. We judge that it is therefore more helpful for businesses and investors to set out where the Secretary of State is more, rather than less, likely to use the call-in power.
I understand, however, the concern that without a definition extraneous factors may be taken into account. My reassurance for my noble friend comes from the courts. Were the Secretary of State to seek to use the powers in the Bill for a purpose beyond national security, his decisions could be challenged in the courts through judicial review and could not be successfully upheld. It is with this judicial oversight in mind that the Secretary of State is constrained in delivering the purpose of the Bill. I am therefore confident that the Bill as currently drafted contains sufficient safeguards against inappropriate use of the regime, and that the Government are already providing a good amount of information for parties affected by the regime on its likely areas of focus.
I hope that my explanation, taken together with these points, provides sufficient reassurance to my noble friend, and that she therefore feels able to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am most grateful to all those who have spoken in the debate, particularly my noble friend Lord Hodgson, and the noble Lord, Lord, Clement-Jones, for their eloquent support.
Like the Minister, I am slightly baffled by the sudden lack of support from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, with whom I have enjoyed a deeply cordial relationship. I obviously take issue with a number of issues to which she referred, not least setting out the importance to the economy of foreign investment, which is well established and repeated in the national security and investment government response published, I understand, this week. I also take issue with the fact that I am not a great expert on the financial crash, although I seemed to lose an awful lot of the small amount of money I had invested in the stock market. What is the saying about how to make a small fortune in the stock market? I have forgotten, but, anyway, that burnt my fingers.
I believe that the start of the financial crash was actually in the US, with the selling of mortgages, both in the US and here, for a greater value than the value of the property, and a lot of grief was caused as a result. I am pleased that my noble friend Lord Callanan feels that the Bill is still perfectly formed and fit for purpose, but I beg to differ. My noble friend referred to the statement in Clause 3, but we are told that the Secretary of State only “may” publish such a statement. Clearly, it would be immensely helpful to have such a statement at this stage, if possible, to give an indication of the direction of travel.
As indicated by my noble friends Lady Noakes and Lord Hodgson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, there are a number of reasons why the Minister is not keen to have a definition of national security, but it would be in the interests of practitioners to limit the understanding of what constitutes a trigger event that would lead to a national security risk. Our involvement is only in that we put the Bill on the statute book; it is for practitioners—whether solicitors, bankers, accountants or those of other professions—to understand how to apply it. The purpose of Amendment 6 is to make sure that we have greater certainty, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, would say, of what forms a trigger event. I will consider and read carefully what my noble friend said in summing up and responding to the debate, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2: Further provision about call-in notices
7: Clause 2, page 2, line 18, leave out “5” and insert “2”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment reduces the timeframe after a trigger event in which the Secretary of State can make a call-in notice from five years to two.
My Lords, Amendment 7 shortens the period in which the Secretary of State may give a call-in notice following a trigger event, under the provisions of Clause 2, from five years to two years. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for his support.
It was interesting that, when giving evidence to the Public Bill Committee in the other place, on 24 November, Michael Leiter—perhaps related to Felix Leiter—head of national security and the committee on foreign investment at Skadden, Arps, the major US law firm, described the Bill as
“a rather seismic shift in the UK’s approach to review of investment.”—[Official Report, Commons, National Security and Investment Public Bill Committee, 24/11/20; col. 46.]
He stressed the importance of clarity in what was proposed, given the criminal penalties that are now being introduced and that there is no interim period for familiarisation.
This amendment and all the others that I have tabled, two of which I have already spoken to, aim to test both the clarity and, importantly, the practicality of the proposals that the Bill contains. I stress that practicality because, there can be a danger, when Bills like this are in Committee, of focusing on legal terminology and overlooking the flesh and blood consequences of the decisions that Parliament is about to take. I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I spend a moment on two real-life examples, because they give useful background to this and my other amendments.
Members of the Committee may be aware that I am chairman of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of the House. In December 2019, our committee was notified of the laying and simultaneous making of two statutory instruments: SI 2019/1490 and SI 2019/1515. The full title of SI 2019/1490 is the Public Interest Merger Reference (Gardner Aerospace Holdings Ltd. and Impcross Ltd.) (Pre-emptive Action) Order 2019. The full title of SI 2019/1515 is the Public Interest Merger Reference (Mettis Aerospace Ltd.) (Pre-emptive Action) Order 2019. These were the first referrals under the new regime with reduced thresholds, and this was the very first time that the Government used pre-emptive powers; that is to say that they were seeking to stop a takeover before any offer was made, rather than reacting to an offer once made. These two statutory instruments therefore give us a glance into the world that the Bill takes us into.
I shall say a couple of words about the protagonists. Gardner Aerospace, the predator and potential acquirer, is based in Derby. It was acquired by Chinese investors in 2017 for some £300 million and has since made a number of acquisitions in the aerospace sector. Mettis Aerospace, one of the targets, is based in Redditch and has sales of £86 million, which is above the old threshold. It is substantially profitable—it made about £9 million of profit before tax—and has some 500 employees. Its customer list reads like a who’s who of world aviation and its two leading customers are Airbus and Boeing.
Mettis’s roots can be traced back to the early days of British aviation. For those who like a historical note to our debates, it produced the framework that held in place the bouncing bombs under the Lancasters flown by Guy Gibson and the men of 617 Squadron in their successful raid on the Ruhr dams in the Second World War. A few years later the company produced the fan blades for Frank—later Sir Frank—Whittle’s first jet engine.
Mettis is owned 25% by the management and 70% by a private equity firm called Stirling Square Capital Partners. The fund through which the investment is being made is based in Luxembourg. Stirling is based in London but, judging by its list of partners, has a strong orientation towards continental Europe. The investment will almost certainly have been made on behalf of third-party investors who have pooled their funds for Stirling to manage. Such investors may very well come from all over the world and this is unlikely to be their only investment in the UK, so if they perceive the treatment of any one of their UK investments as being inequitable, there will inevitably be a ripple effect on their readiness to invest in the UK generally. Mettis made it clear to the Competition and Markets Authority and the Government that it had not put itself up for sale. Gardner’s approach had not been sought and was regarded as being what in the trade is known as a fishing expedition. The outcome was that Gardner pulled away on 27 February, following a heavily redacted CMA report published on 13 February.
The story of Impcross is quite different. It is a much smaller company based in Stroud, Gloucestershire, with a turnover of only £11.9 million, so it would not have been eligible under the old thresholds. It lost money in the year to 30 June 2019, but only a small amount—£350,000—and, significantly, it is controlled by one person. Its accounts reveal a person of significant control, or PSC, holding between 50% and 75% of its shares. That has been built up over a lifetime and it would not be unreasonable if that director now wished to realise the fruits of his efforts. If the state stepped in to prevent that—we cannot be certain exactly what happened—without offering any alternative solution, it seems a hard moral choice. Either way, it all took a lot longer to resolve and it was only on 10 September that Gardner withdrew.
In speaking to Amendments 41 and 45 a few minutes ago, I argued that it was not good enough that, under the provisions in Clause 13, all the Secretary of State had to do to void an acquisition was to say nothing. For Mettis, this was not a problem: the company was clear that the approach was not welcome. For Impcross, there were 10 months of uncertainty with the Secretary of State appearing to set up a sword of Damocles but apparently never having to cut the string. That cannot be the right way to provide certainty for investors in the UK tech sector.
I have one final point. In our debate a moment ago on Amendment 6, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, the Committee expressed concerns about the degree of parliamentary scrutiny of developing practice in this sensitive area. The two cases I have referred to were authorised by a statutory instrument. Statutory instruments are not amendable, and it would seem vanishingly unlikely that either House of Parliament would seek to reject one—the nuclear option—so any scrutiny of future practice will be at a very high level, and even that scrutiny will be ex-post. Both the above SIs were made and laid on the same day, 6 December 2019, at a time when Parliament was in any case not sitting because of the general election. It would be worthwhile if the Minister could confirm whether in this brave new world of these pre-emptive actions, each would still be the subject of a separate SI, so affording at least some degree of parliamentary oversight.
I turn now to the details of Amendment 7. I have tabled it because giving the Secretary of State the ability to unpick a merger or takeover after five years is to ignore the real world. Acquisitions are made with a view that two plus two will make five and that overall, they will be profit-accretive. In the event, that promise is often not achieved, but that is the idea that people set out with and to do that, changes have to take place at various levels.
First, the acquiring company will want to ensure that the financial performance of the two companies are managed on the same basis so that one company’s financial reporting systems will disappear. Secondly, it is inevitable that in any acquisition, there is extreme nervousness among the staff of the two companies about winners and losers in the new configuration. That nervousness can be reduced by an exchange of staff between the two companies, so that they get to know each other. Thirdly, it is unlikely that it will be cost-effective to maintain two separate research and development facilities, so they will be merged as one. Fourthly, marketing and sales teams are likely to be combined to broaden and deepen product range and market reach. Finally, it may be concluded that the new entity would be more effective and profitable if it operated from a single site, so one facility will be closed and the site sold.
Within five years, all of these steps could have taken place and if they had, the companies would be indistinguishable. I appreciate absolutely that the Government need some power to reach back where a case may have been slipped past them, but I argue that two years should be sufficient. At the same time, there is at least a likelihood of there still being a unit that is sufficiently independent to resume an independent life.
Members of the Committee may remember their days in primary school and the magic of mixing paints. If one mixed blue and yellow paints together then, suddenly and miraculously, one had green paint. That is in effect what one does with the merger of two companies: you mix a blue and a yellow company, and the result is a green one. After some time, and certainly after five years, the two constituent parts will be indistinguishable. That of course is vital, considering the position of investors who may find that they still own an investment which they thought had sold five years previously. I would argue that a maximum of a two-year clawback will provide a better balance between the interests of all the parties in this delicate area. If my noble friend is not inclined to accept the amendment, will he tell the Committee how his officials will undertake the practical challenges of separating the green paint into its original blue and yellow parts? I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak in strong support of Amendment 7, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. I am a former company secretary and legal adviser to a publicly listed company. I know from personal experience what it is like to wait for competition decisions, takeover panel decisions and for all the uncertainties of regulation external to the company as a result of its commercial activities.
Given that, I am entirely in sympathy as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has set out what he calls the flesh-and-blood consequences of the two case studies that he put forward extremely graphically and well. Not least, he has hinted at some of the issues around statutory instruments and the level of scrutiny. There is little that I can add to what he has said about the undesirability of having a massive period of time within which a Secretary of State can act—up to five years. However, I would like to add to the practicality issues that the noble Lord has raised.
The longer a deal has been in place, the more difficult it will be to void or avoid—that is, unwind—a transaction. Unwinding a transaction after five years is a very long time in commercial terms. Thinking back to my own career, subsidiaries are sold, businesses are purchased and the commercial realities change over five years. It would be exceptionally difficult, even if it were possible, for a listed company involving public transactions to unwind those transactions.
It is not just a question of the undesirability and uncertainty of everything being kept in some kind of deep freeze if this goes through—you could not merge the paint colours in the way the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, described or choose one over the other. You would have to keep them as separate entities, so commercially you would not be able to achieve any of the objectives you set out to. On the grounds of practicality, going from five years to two, as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has so eloquently described, seems to be absolutely essential.
My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lords, who presented a compelling case that mergers of companies should not be sought to be unwound after five years. However, that is not how I interpret the effect of the legislation.
For Amendment 7, we have to direct ourselves to Clause 2 and the structure of Clause 2(2). It requires that a call-in notice given by the Secretary of State cannot be
“given after the end of the period of 6 months beginning with the day on which the Secretary of State became aware of the trigger event”.
Noble Lords will recall that I was interested in the question of when the Secretary of State “becomes aware”. My noble friends have so far rebuffed the idea that we can define “becoming aware” rather better.
In the case of a merger, particularly between listed companies, but between companies of the kind so ably described by my noble friend, the Secretary of State should become aware of it, because it would appear to be publicly known. The Secretary of State could become aware because the parties to the transactions could themselves provide notification to the Secretary of State. Either way, the question of five years does not arise. That arises only in relation to circumstances where the Secretary of State does not become aware.
It is not a matter of people being exposed to an uncertainty; they can remedy the uncertainty by notifying the Secretary of State. That is why we are going to get a lot of notifications and, to some extent, Ministers accepted that when they revised the number of notifications they are anticipating from the original White Paper, which I think was a few hundred, to about 1,800. I think that is partly anticipating that there will be such notifications.
The circumstances we are talking about are probably not mergers but the trigger events relating to assets. As we previously discussed, this involves quite a wide range of acquisitions of assets including technology, transfers of technology, intellectual property or even potentially land that people did not necessarily understand was sensitive. The five years is not an irrelevance because, as Clause 2(2) says, there is a five-year period which would apply in circumstances where the Secretary of State had not become aware of the trigger event.
At this point, I want to ask my noble friend a question. In so far as the trigger event relates not only to the acquisition and the entity or asset but to the understanding of the nature of the acquirer—I keep coming back to this question of who the acquirer is; we talked about it in the second debate—can the Secretary of State apply the five years in relation to the nature of the acquirer being somebody other than the person whom the Secretary of State thought it was at the point at which the Secretary of State became aware of an acquisition? That is when the five years really begins to bite and the uncertainty begins to become more manifest.
That is true not only because the acquirer might be somebody who the Secretary of State did not understand to be hostile but who turned out to be, but because when we get to Clause 10 and we understand the implications of Schedule 1, which Clause 10 brings in, a person may be held to have acquired an interest or right in relation to an asset or entity by virtue of things such as the fact that they are connected persons, they are in a common purpose or they have an arrangement, all of which might not have been evident in public or to the Secretary of State when the Secretary of State saw the acquisition in public material. Indeed, maybe he did not see it at all but became aware of this interest only at a later stage.
There is a reason for the five years being there, because two years is not very long in relation to these kinds of acquisitions. The Minister might entirely reasonably say that five years is not without precedent: there is five years in the French, Italian and German regimes. With this Government, if it is good enough for the Europeans it is good enough for us, as we often say. However, leaving that to one side, we have to be aware that understanding who is in a common purpose, what is the nature of arrangements that might not have been disclosed and what is their nature in relation to assets, not just mergers, gives one a reason to think hard about the circumstances in which the Secretary of State might have to intervene, even though a significant period of time has elapsed. For those reasons I am inclined to live with five years, on the strict understanding that, to get rid of uncertainty, people make a voluntary notification and then six months is the limit.
My Lords, it is always very interesting to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. He is approaching this partly in a similar way to me and partly in a different way. I was, and still am, attracted to the notion of trying to get this time of uncertainty down from five years to two. Part of what I would say to the noble Lord is that, if it is going to take five years to work out who might actually have bought something, that is something we should look at in its own right. If you cannot work out whether somebody is hostile and they have had it for five years, you have missed the boat if it is a question of whether they have learned the technology and found out things you do not want them to find out.
I would be interested to hear from the Minister the reasoning behind the length of the period. It could not really be due to a workload of investigating, because one must presume some sort of steady state pipeline with adequate staffing, but how much of it is fear that something new is not recognisable as having a security application until some time later. That thought was going through my mind: was there fear about missing things? This goes back to one of the issues I flagged at Second Reading about sifting being done by the right kind of skilled people—those who have the right kind of applied science or engineering knowledge, plus knowledge of potential usage in national security fields.
I have to say, these things are not necessarily all that obvious. I have experience of working as a patent attorney in the field of defence. I have worked with people whose job it was to invent—put two and two together and have something inventive at the end of it. If you work in a field where those kinds of things are deemed inventive, you will be very short of the people who have that kind of knowledge because, for the main part, they will probably want to be involved in more interesting and economically useful things than participating in what seems to be an overwide fish-sorting process, as it has been termed. I am turning this back to the Minister. On volume, if you cast the net wide, will you have sufficiently skilled people to be able to do the sorting, or will you find that important fish get missed? Will you then be trying to do things to backtrack on what has not been done or give yourself more time to do things?
That is a slightly different take. I know that there are some safeguards in there, but five years is quite a long time to live with uncertainty. If that uncertainty comes about because of ownership, one should sort the ownership or shareholding issues; I am actually among those people who think that we should have a lot more transparency on those kinds of things.
My Lords, in his excellent intervention, the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, started out by calling for clarity. We need some clarity on the wording of this part of the Bill because a number of different interpretations have emerged. I must confess, my interpretation is similar to that of the noble Lord; by the way, we would seem to be backed up by the Law Society, which took the same view. If the Government’s intention is something different, some different words need to be used to put that forward.
Assuming that, to start with, the intention was as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, set out, his counter to that was very clear. I have been involved in lots of what is known as integration, which involves bringing two companies together when one has bought another. Five years is well past the point at which you would find it very difficult to unmake that company. Indeed, the entire product life cycle in the sort of industries we are talking about here is probably about two years, so they will have marched through two and a half product life cycles by the time the five-year period expires.
In a way, I hope that the Government’s intention is more closely aligned to that of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. If that is the case, I have similar thoughts to the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles. How long do you need to leave the stable door open before the horse has definitely bolted? To me, five years seems much too long for that bolting to occur; two years is probably long enough in that respect. However, if, on the other hand, the Government’s intention is to offer an opportunity for 20:20 hindsight—in other words, the world changes and, looking back over our shoulder, that deal five years ago now does not look like such a clever deal for the nation and we want to unmake it—that is clearly unfair on investors and others but might perhaps be fair to the country.
We need a real understanding of what the Government’s intention was, and the Government need to understand that their intention needs to be articulated in a way that the outside world can understand.
I welcome the probing of Amendment 7, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Hodgson and Lord Clement-Jones, on the extent of five years in which the Secretary of State may issue a call-in notice once a trigger event has taken place.
The debate on how long this period may need to be and the reasons behind these decisions has been interesting. When the Government originally consulted on this, the period was much shorter. The Minister will need to answer why it has changed and been extended for such a long period, as well as the other questions raised. Indeed, five years is a far horizon in today’s fast-moving world—even if it is not long enough for some, often unpopular, Government to be able to continue in office.
Could this length of time threaten the policy stability of the economy across many sectors as well as give rise to unnecessary anxiety for businesses, especially in relation to retrospective elements previously discussed? However, the interpretation of Clause 2 may be that the Secretary of State is unaware of the trigger event but that the intentions of the parties have not materialised. The clause is rather unclear, and I appreciate the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, in his interpretation. I would certainly welcome the Minister’s reply.
I thank my noble friend Lord Hodgson for his amendment, which intends to shorten the time limit for the Secretary of State to call in trigger events which have already taken place. The Bill as drafted allows the Secretary of State to call in trigger events up to five years after they have taken place. This ensures that the regime powers can be applied to completed trigger events which have given rise to, or which may give rise to, risks to national security but which have not been notified to the Secretary of State.
The length of five years is important to give the Secretary of State sufficient time to become aware of the trigger event and to make it difficult for the parties to keep the trigger event hidden. However, the proposed change from five years to two would make it easier for hostile actors to hide their acquisitions and effectively time-out the Secretary of State. It would increase the incentives to keep an acquisition quiet or inactive, as hostile actors would need to do so for only two years.
While not necessarily straightforward, this is clearly easier—both practically and financially—than keeping an acquisition hidden for a longer period. For example, if a hostile actor acquires an entity and intends to merge it with their existing operations, there are practical costs of not doing so within five years. They would not be able to merge IT, payroll, HR, et cetera, or take advantage of that entity and its assets. Likewise, if a hostile actor acquired an entity for its technology, that technology might well be obsolete in five years, so they would need to use their acquisition now to get the benefit.
In the Government’s view, five years strikes the right balance between creating a substantial disincentive for efforts to obfuscate and conceal relevant acquisitions while giving legitimate business certainty that they will not be called in after that period. Importantly, this approach puts us into line with our international partners. For example, in Germany a review may be initiated up to five years after the purchase agreement. It is in line with other countries, including France and Germany, and we believe that it is appropriate. Indeed, it is shorter than some partners, including the USA and Japan, which have no time limits. Further, a five-year reach-back period applies only to trigger events which have completed or which will complete after the introduction of the Bill, contrary to what some observers have suggested. That is to say that no acquisition which has been completed prior to 12 November 2020 may be called in under the Bill.
As helpfully noted by my noble friend Lord Lansley, in the Bill the five-year period is tempered by the requirement for the Secretary of State to call in a completed trigger event within six months of becoming aware of it. This further reduces the time limit for intervention and creates greater certainty for parties to a relevant acquisition. If there is doubt, parties should submit a voluntary notification to the Secretary of State. This will give them certainty on whether their trigger event will be called in.
Before I conclude, in response to my noble friend’s query relating to whether final orders can require the unwinding of acquisitions, that is very much within the scope of the power. The order, however, makes commands and may not deal with practical arrangements. How remedies are given effect will be for parties to finalise, subject to the requirements of the order.
My noble friend Lord Lansley asked about the nature of the acquirer. To clarify, the five-year backstop applies to the date on which the acquisition itself took place. Circumstances where the identity of the acquirer is not known until some time after the trigger event took place are precisely why the reach-back period might be important in certain cases. In circumstances where a notification was given and false or misleading information was given about the true identity of the acquirer, the Bill already provides that the Secretary of State can re-examine such cases.
With reassurance provided for business, knowing that we are acting in line with allies, and for the reasons I have set out, I hope my noble friend will withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to my noble friend for her reply. I do not think I heard whether future pre-emptive actions under the new regime will be the subject of a statutory instrument or will just happen from the Secretary of State’s desk. Perhaps, she could answer how this or the other House will know what is happening.
I am grateful to everybody who spoke on this. It is obviously a tricky area. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. Undesirable, uncertain and impractical—I could not have put it better myself. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, for drawing attention to the question of the difference between two years and five years, and what will happen in that three-year period other than causing uncertainty among investors. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, raised very practical points.
Let me meet my noble friend Lord Lansley some of the way. I do not think that this will happen very frequently, but, like the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, I am not convinced that the three additional years are really needed. The point my noble friend makes, which has certainly eluded the Law Society, is the interplay between the six-month trigger and the five years. In the tech sector, these companies grow like Topsy: they are nothing now, and they will be quite big very quickly indeed. You could have a situation where some event, ex post, could have been described as a trigger event but was not picked up as such at the time. It is unfair for people to have that uncertainty lasting for five years. The Secretary of State could say, “I never became aware of that, so I have more time to start the unwinding process, as long as it isn’t within the five-year period.” I see my noble friend’s point, and I accept that it is a rare occasion, but I still think there is something to be teased out about how the different pieces fit together, particularly in sectors of the market where very fast growth occurs.
I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me about the statutory instruments and how publicity of pre-emptive actions is to be provided.
Does the Minister wish to respond?
The Minister is saying she will respond in writing. Is the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, withdrawing his amendment?
That was the indication.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
Amendment 8 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
Clause 3: Statement about exercise of call-in power
Amendments 9 and 10 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Clause 4: Consultation and parliamentary procedure
11: Clause 4, page 3, line 28, at end insert—
“(3A) If either House of Parliament resolves not to approve the statement under subsection (2), the Secretary of State may publish a new statement making any changes which appear to the Secretary of State to be necessary in view of the debates in either House of Parliament. (3B) A statement made in pursuance of subsection (3A) above is not subject to the requirements of subsection (1)(a) and (b).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would permit an expedited process for making a new statement where this is required following a resolution not to approve a statement.
My Lords, I am particularly grateful that the Government agreed to group my amendment with their technical amendments, Amendments 12, 37 and 75. I do not propose to refer to Amendments 37 and 75, which are purely technical in nature. Amendment 12 is not strictly technical but relates to exactly the same part of the Bill as my amendment. We are considering Clause 4, and the Government in Amendment 12 are changing subsection (7), which states that the requirement for consultation could be satisfied by consultation carried out before the clause comes into force. The effect would be that not only that consultation but changes to the draft policy statement—such a statement was published at the same time as the Bill—in the light of the consultation can take place before the clause comes into force. That is perfectly reasonable.
My amendment looks at the case that arises under Clause 4(2), whereby:
“Either House of Parliament may at any time before the expiry of the 40-day period”,
that is, after the statement is laid,
“resolve not to approve the statement.”
Under those circumstances, the Government, as subsection (3) makes clear, “must withdraw the statement.” My working assumption is that the Government, having withdrawn a statement, would have to make a statement in the same way in which they have made previous statements—that is, engage in consultation, respond to the consultation and make such changes as are required—and then lay the statement again. That is unnecessary.
My amendment would provide that if a statement was not approved by either House, the Secretary of State should lay a new statement on the basis of making such changes as the parliamentary debates on the previous draft statement required. The Secretary of State would not have to go through a public consultation process or make changes in response to one. That is because the parliamentary objection to a statement may be particular. One can speculate on what that might be but I shall not do so in any way. However, if something led one House of Parliament not to approve a statement, a particular and significant change would be likely to be required. If Ministers make that change, as the amendment would require them to do, they should be able to lay that statement directly. The 40 days would continue to apply because all that would happen would be the resumption of the same process in relation to a new statement.
I hope the amendment means, from the point of view that it does not in any way impinge on the parliamentary scrutiny, that a statement could be in place sooner. That is important because a whole range of things flow from the fact that a statement has been not only published but approved. I hope that Ministers may see merit in the amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I broadly support this amendment, although I am also interested in what happens after a statement is declined by Parliament. Statements take effect immediately and things already done under them are not revoked, even if Parliament votes one down, and I did not think that it was entirely clear whether there was anything to stop a new statement being made immediately, because the Secretary of State is under an obligation only to conduct
“such consultation as the Secretary of State thinks appropriate”.
Could they consider that it is appropriate to do none if there has been something tantamount to an exactly equivalent previous consultation?
My question, therefore, is: what currently would prevent an identical or near-identical statement to a rejected statement being relaid immediately or is it just that it is against convention? I am not sure whether convention necessarily always holds any more but I am not the best on these constitutional things. If you need Amendment 11, I am all for it. It is a good thing to have something that makes such a rapid retabling respectable, and it may also mean that it is less challengeable and in general it might also imply that other mechanisms of rapid relaying are not possible. Can the Minister explain to me what the relaying process is and what are the limitations that are imposed by the obligation to consult but only to the level that the Secretary of State thinks appropriate? However, if we need Amendment 11 and it positively does something, I will support it.
My Lords, in the spirit first put forward by my noble friend Lord Vaizey, I would like to tease the Minister at this point, if I may. Clause 3 states:
“The Secretary of State may publish a statement for the purposes of this section if the requirements set out in section 4(1) are satisfied”,
and now we have government Amendment 12, which amends Clause 4 to state that responses to the consultation may be required to be pursued through. What is the situation, if one might occur, if the Secretary of State chose not to publish a statement? Does the Bill permit that in this regard, and what would be the circumstances in which the Secretary of State may decide not to publish a statement?
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said, government Amendments 37 and 75 are technical and Amendment 12 covers the ground of Amendment 11, so I will speak to the latter. I am broadly supportive. Clearly, this is an issue about “may”—my noble friend Lady Bowles and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked the same question. If “may publish” means “may not publish”, where are we in this process, given that the statement is such an important part of setting out the modus operandi of the whole Bill? This is quite an important area.
I support Amendment 11 but it will be important to listen to the Minister’s response to decide how this might go forward in the next stage. I believe that some degree of accountability should not be left as an option to the Secretary of State; there should be an obligation on the Secretary of State to make that statement and, as the Government have said, to have the ability to remake it.
My Lords, we welcome the Government’s Amendment 12 to make changes to the sectors statement in respect of feedback from stakeholders. Can the Minister confirm whether all the suggested changes that come back in that consultation will actually be published?
I will make a comment about the document that has arrived in front of us today because, in a sense, it gives a very good description of how good consultation works—never mind the timing; we have made that point—in relation to the degree of change that looks as if it is going to happen as a result of conversation on that particular issue. However, it then feeds into what happens if, had this been the statement, changes were wanting to be made. For example, what we have heard today, as a result of some very good consultation, is that the definition of AI has been narrowed significantly to focus on three high-risk applications: identification of objects, people and events; advanced robotics; and cybersecurity.
The interesting thing is what happens after you have had a consultation that has got the Government to rethink and that may then have other implications. In this case, with those changes, does this change the Government’s estimate of the number of notifications that that might give rise to, in relation to the change in definition? It is that sort of issue that might come up, and it would want the dialogue that I think is being referred to in the amendment, in relation to whether there is a second stage—if it is turned down, so to speak—about having to go on further. As such, how we handle the feedback is about both the transparency of what has come back in and the full implications of any changes that that has made.
We keep coming up with the figures where, even though the Government have increased the assumption of how many notifications there would be—less than 1% or so—the CBI and other commentators feel it would be much greater. As such, that degree of dialogue is needed in relation to consultation over these very big issues. Some assurance about the results of such a consultation, as well as a second stage, seems very helpful, along the lines in the amendment.
On the Government’s Amendment 75, it would be interesting to know what advice led to the change—we are not questioning it but wondering why it has been made—to extend the regulatory power from a notice or serving an order to include all documents as well. It would be helpful, certainly to me and possibly to other Members of the Committee, to know what other types of additional documents will thus be added to this regulatory power—could the Minister spell that out?
First, I thank my noble friend Lord Lansley for his Amendment 11. With the permission of the Committee, I will speak first to the three minor technical amendments that the Government wish to make to the Bill: Amendments 12, 37 and 75. Briefly, before I begin, I reassure the Committee that the Secretary of State must lay and publish a statement before using the call-in power.
Amendment 12 is to Clause 4, which concerns consultation and parliamentary procedure for the statement pursuant to Clause 3, in which the Secretary of State sets out how he expects to use the call-in power. At present, Clause 4 enables the Secretary of State to meet the requirement to carry out such consultation as he considers appropriate, in relation to a draft of the statement under subsection (1)(a), before Clause 4 is commenced.
However, it does not make it clear that the Secretary of State is able to make any changes that he considers necessary in view of the responses to that consultation under subsection (1)(b) before the clause is commenced. Amendment 12 clarifies this point, ensuring that stakeholders will be able to see a revised draft statement before it is laid before Parliament.
Amendment 37 is to Clause 11, which provides an exemption for certain asset acquisitions which would otherwise be trigger events. Subsection (2), however, provides that assets that are either land or are subject to certain export controls should not fall within the exemption, and subsection (2)(b) sets out the relevant export control provisions. One of these provisions, Article 9 of the Export Control Order 2008, was revoked on implementation period completion day as a result of EU exit by Regulation 4 of the Export Control (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, with which I am sure all Members are very familiar. The amendment would remove the reference to this revoked provision from Clause 11.
Amendment 75 is to Clause 53, which enables the Secretary of State to make regulations, subject to the negative resolution procedure, prescribing the procedure for giving notices and serving orders under the Bill. At present this clause enables the Secretary of State to specify how a notice or order must be given or served, but does not make it clear that these powers are intended to extend to all documents given under the Bill. The amendment would clarify that point, ensuring that the Secretary of State has the power to make regulations in Clause 53(1) in relation to the procedure for service of documents for all the different types of notices, orders and other documents under the Bill. These are relatively small tweaks to the Bill, and I hope that the Committee will see fit to agree to them.
Amendment 11 was tabled by my noble friend Lord Lansley, and I will begin by briefly setting out its context. Clause 4 sets out a consultation requirement and parliamentary procedure for a statement about the exercise of the call-in power which must be published before the Secretary of State may issue a call-in notice. It requires the Secretary of State, before publishing the statement, to carry out such consultation as he thinks appropriate in relation to a draft of the statement, to make any changes to the draft that appear to him to be necessary in view of the responses, and to lay the final statement before Parliament.
My noble friend’s amendment seeks to clarify the process by which the Secretary of State may publish a new statement if either House resolves not to approve the previous version that he lays before Parliament. The apparent stumbling block that the amendment seeks to remove is that the Secretary of State is under a duty to carry out such consultation as he thinks appropriate in relation to a draft of the new statement, and make any changes to the draft that appear to him to be necessary in view of the responses to such consultation. However, I point out that the Secretary of State must carry out such consultations as he “thinks appropriate”, according to Clause 4(1)(a).
The Bill therefore provides the Secretary of State with some measure of flexibility in deciding whether, for how long and how widely the draft statement should be consulted on. Therefore, the Bill as drafted does not in appropriate circumstances prevent the Secretary of State from publishing a new updated statement, reflecting the debate in Parliament, almost immediately without first undertaking a consultation if he does not think that a consultation is appropriate.
In short, while my noble friend’s amendment seeks to ensure that a new statement may be laid speedily if either House resolves not to approve the previous version, the Bill as drafted already allows for this. I am grateful that he has afforded me the opportunity to make the functioning of this clause clear. Therefore, in the light of the explanation that I have been able to provide, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in this short debate. It is quite helpful just to focus on the question of making a statement because, if one looks back at Clause 1(6), it clearly states:
“The Secretary of State may not give a call-in notice unless a statement has been published (and not withdrawn) for the purposes of section 3.”
Although the word “may” is used in Clause 3, all it means in practice is that, if the Secretary of State chooses not to bring any of this into force, he would not publish a statement—but if he wants to issue call-in notices, he has to publish a statement. My noble friend the Minister is right in the sense that he must do this for the system to operate. The words I want to focus on, however, are “and not withdrawn”. If either House of Parliament resolves not to approve a statement, he must withdraw it. At that moment, the Secretary of State can issue no further call-in notices. My noble friend says the amendment is unnecessary because the Secretary of State has the power to consult only as he thinks appropriate.
We do not know under what circumstances one of the two Houses of Parliament may resolve not to approve a statement or what it may require of the Secretary of State for a statement to pass both Houses. If, as I assume, it is a matter of substance on which the public believe they have a right to be consulted—because there would be a significant change in policy—then I think my noble friend is wrong. I do not think it is possible that the Secretary of State would get away with simply re-laying the statement and engaging in no public consultation. It would be subject to judicial review and he would lose, because he is required to consult on a statement and he would not have done it. The only way would be if he had specific legislative cover, which is what my amendment is intended to provide. If he has to consult, we are talking eight weeks plus the time necessary for laying the statement thereafter, but eight weeks at the very least—not having the power to issue a call-in notice for eight weeks—is not advisable.
The only point I make to my noble friend before I beg leave to withdraw my amendment is that writing legislation is like writing a contract: we should not look at it in terms of everything going well but should ask what happens when it all goes wrong. What happens when one of the Houses of Parliament really takes against some part of this statement? If the Government need to compromise in a matter of substance and policy to get a statement through one of the Houses, they should not take up the time necessary for a consultation but should negotiate with the House—and this amendment would allow them to do that. It is in my view a desirable, if not necessary, backstop power. However, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
12: Clause 4, page 3, line 38, leave out “requirement in subsection (1)(a)” and insert “requirements in subsection (1)(a) and (b)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that as well as carrying out the consultation on the statement about the exercise of the call-in power, the requirement to make changes to the statement in view of the responses to the consultation may also be met before this section comes into force.
Amendment 12 agreed.
Clause 4, as amended, agreed.
Clause 5 agreed.
Amendment 13 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 14.
Clause 6: Notifiable acquisitions
14: Clause 6, page 4, line 11, after “may” insert “following consultation with relevant stakeholders”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would impose a duty on the Secretary of State to consult relevant stakeholders when making regulations as specified.
My Lords, Amendment 14 in my name came about as a result of my working closely with the Law Society of Scotland. I am very grateful to the society for drawing to my attention the fact that, on the present reading of Clause 6, the Secretary of State may make regulations without any further consultation in that regard. The reason for the amendment is that this consultation provides an additional layer of scrutiny by all interested parties. The requirement on the Secretary of State to consult will help to ensure openness and transparency of the Secretary of State’s actions. Imposing a duty to consult will ensure that any draft statutory instrument is exposed to critical comment from stakeholders, which may improve an instrument and help to avoid difficulties when it comes to progressing through Parliament.
All this assumes that the Government will actually pay attention to consultation and the results. It is felt that the provision as drafted gives the Secretary of State very wide discretion to amend the scope of notifiable acquisitions as per the present drafting of Clause 6(5). This can have far-reaching consequences, not least because, as set out in Clause 6(6), it may be used to extend the scope of notifiable acquisitions to acquisitions of qualifying assets. In particular, I want to put on record that Clause 13 states that where a notifiable acquisition takes place without the approval of the Secretary of State, this transaction will be void, although under Clause 15(2) and (3) the defect can be cured retrospectively.
This amendment addresses a concern that there will be a lacuna in relation to the impact on third parties. In particular, if the qualifying asset in question is land, and if it were to be established that a transaction had been void and that the ownership or other interest in the land had not been properly transferred, questions of liability may arise. This could be the case, for example, in relation to environmental or insurance liabilities. Although it appears that the third party would have an action under Clause 16, we are concerned that this could be both burdensome—that is the Law Society expressing its concern—upon that third party and unnecessarily complicated. There is also concern that it might not resolve all the relevant problems.
I welcome my noble friend to her speaking position, for once, this evening; I hope that this is not just paying lip service to diversity. If the Government are not minded to accept this amendment, can she say what the purpose is of introducing regulations at what would be quite a late stage and without having consulted at all with interested parties or stakeholders?
My Lords, I fear I might have missed a trick here. I think we have two quite different amendments and I should have been smarter and disaggregated Amendment 94 from Amendment 14. I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, that I am not going to speak to Amendment 14, although I firmly believe that my noble friend Lord Bruce of Bennachie will speak to it later. I will speak to Amendment 94 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones.
Under Clause 6 the Secretary of State has great power to make the regulations concerning how this Bill will work. The Secretary of State can specify the description of the qualifying entity for the purpose of identifying a notable acquisition. He or she can amend the circumstances in which a notifiable acquisition takes place or does not take place, exempt acquirers with specified characteristics from the mandatory notification regime and make consequential amendments to other provisions of the Bill. These will be set before Parliament using the affirmative procedure. This was confirmed by one of the other documents that was circulated just before our proceedings began today.
For the commencement of the regime, the Secretary of State intends to make regulations only to specify the sectors subject to mandatory notification—that is, the 17 sectors we have already referred to elsewhere in this debate. This covers the activities of the entities of both sectors which give rise to an elevated national security risk. In the Government’s own words:
“Mandatory notification of certain types of transactions in 17 key sectors will ensure that the Government is informed of potential acquisitions of control or ownership in these particularly sensitive areas”.
As we have heard, using this list they will take action to investigate and mitigate any national security risk. The list is central to the workings of this regime. Therefore, so is the making and updating of it.
For the avoidance of doubt, and possibly to bore the Committee, I want to put on record the length and breadth of this list. It includes advanced materials, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, civil nuclear, communications, computing hardware, critical suppliers to government, critical suppliers to the emergency services, cryptographic authentication, data infrastructure, defence, energy, engineering biology—which has now been commuted to synthetic biology—military and dual use, quantum technologies, satellite and space technologies, and transport. We heard from the Minister that in fact the Secretary of State can extend beyond this list if he or she feels it appropriate.
The so-called slimline version was published today, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, who has just popped out. She referred to the artificial intelligence sector which has been “slimmed down” to the identification of objects, people and events, advanced robotics and cybersecurity. The underlying software for that is going to be machine learning, and therefore that includes all artificial intelligence. While on the face of it this has been narrowed down, the reality is that if a Secretary of State so chose, anything involving machine learning could be dragged into this process. We need to be very wary of this list, which can be expanded and changed over time.
I expect that the Minister will choose to represent the proposed use of the affirmative procedure in the Bill as meaningful parliamentary scrutiny, but in truth the list can be amended by this and any subsequent Government as they please. For one thing, Parliament cannot amend statutory instruments, and for another, this House has voted down affirmative statutory instruments just four times in the past 70 years. That is nearly as long as my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones has been alive. As the Constitution Committee noted in its 2018 report The Legislative Process: The Delegation of Powers:
“Without a genuine risk of defeat, and no amendment possible, Parliament is doing little more than rubber-stamping the Government’s secondary legislation. This is constitutionally unacceptable”.
Affirmative statutory instruments do not constitute meaningful parliamentary scrutiny. This Government, or any subsequent Government, are effectively free to amend that already long list of technologies at will, so we need some sort of genuine democratic process. I am indebted to my noble friend Lord Sharkey; he proposed a very similar amendment to the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill, and I have ruthlessly plundered his thinking as it is just as apposite to this Bill.
As noble Lords know, there is a delegated legislation procedure that allows for significant parliamentary scrutiny. To the Government, it is known as “exceptional procedures”, and to Erskine May, in part 4, chapter 31.14 as the “super-affirmative procedure”. Erskine May characterises it as follows:
“The super-affirmative procedure provides both Houses with opportunities to comment on proposals for secondary legislation and to recommend amendments before orders for affirmative approval are brought forward in their final form … the power to amend the proposed instrument remains with the Minister: the two Houses and their committees can only recommend changes, not make them.”
Amendment 94, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, follows this pattern; it is more generally based on the variant of the procedure used by the Government of the day in the Public Bodies Act 2011, so it is not a stranger to government. It refers to the Secretary of State’s regulation-making powers and includes the long list of technologies that I have just read out.
First, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a draft of the proposed regulations and a document explaining them; secondly, he or she must request a committee of either House whose remit includes science and technology and business to report on the draft regulations within 30 days; thirdly, in proposing a draft statutory instrument containing the regulations, the Secretary of State must take into account any representations, any resolution of either House and any recommendations of the committee to which the draft was referred. After the expiry of the 30-day period the Secretary of State may lay before Parliament regulations in terms of the original or the revised draft. The Secretary of State must also state what representations, recommendations or resolutions were given in the 30-day period and give details. He or she must also explain any changes made in a revised draft. After that, the normal affirmative process continues.
I expect the Minister to marshal the full force of her department in resisting this amendment. She will repeat that the use of the affirmative procedure provides sufficient parliamentary scrutiny, although, as I have said, that scrutiny is a chimera. Secondly, she will contend that it is cumbersome and time-consuming. My response is that if the issue is so urgent that a change in the law is required to address a deal that is in progress, the department has failed, the unit designed to anticipate these issues has missed its mark, and the change will have been a knee-jerk and ill-considered reaction. In any case, the horse will likely have bolted. The Minister is better directed to serious technology foresight over time than relying on this undemocratic stable door.
The affirmative procedure, as proposed for this vital list of technologies, is not meaningful scrutiny, but the super-affirmative procedure set out in Amendment 94 is. I might have misspoken on the committees, so I refer to the amendment itself on those committees. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to being sure that we will get some movement when we get to the next stage of the Bill.
My Lords, I support Amendment 14, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, to which I added my name just too late. I also support the more detailed Amendment 94, tabled by my noble friends Lord Fox and Lord Clement-Jones, but as my noble friend Lord Fox has spoken at length and my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones follows me, I will leave them to expand on it, as has already been done. There is a connection, although I accept that there are distinct differences.
Amendment 14 and others that I have tabled reflect concerns that I raised at Second Reading, which have also been drawn to my attention by the Law Society of Scotland. Given the importance of financial services to Scotland and the contribution that Scottish financial services make to the UK economy, surely it is wise to ensure that relevant stakeholders are consulted in advance of any regulations. That is especially important given the importance of the professional services that underpin financial services and draw on different qualifications and traditions within Scotland.
The concerns that are being widely raised across many of the amendments to the Bill are directed not at its purpose, which is broadly supported, but at the possibility of it being applied too widely, with Ministers having too much discretion and with players in the market having inadequate information with which to make decisions and judgments. We are talking about people who have no particular intention to threaten national security but might inadvertently find themselves compromised in doing so.
I see Amendment 14 as trying to avoid unintended consequences or confusion that could prejudice investments made in good faith. As my noble friend Lord Fox has said, the Government can by regulation add new sectors to those designated as covered by the Bill. They can also expand on the definitions within the sectors. So surely it is appropriate that any such changes should be subjected to the same consultation as has been carried out to date with the 17 sectors so far designated. Why would you introduce new sectors or substantially modified ones and not apply the same level of consultation?
There remains a concern that investment transactions may be carried out in good faith, as I have said, without the intention or realisation of a national security dimension. It may therefore not be notified, as people may not feel there is a need to do so. However, if it is subsequently referred or called in and found by the Minister to be in breach, the transaction could be void, and we have had that debate already.
In the circumstance of, say, a land transaction, an area where the Law Society of Scotland has a particular concern, land being transferred could leave significant uncertainty in the air. Land issues have caused problems in Scotland in recent years. For example, landowners—lairds—often made land available for community use in the past, such as for a schoolhouse or cottage hospital. You may argue that that was generous— [Inaudible]— the community appreciated the benefit. Unfortunately, in those cases, formal conveyance did not always take place and, in more recent years, people who have acquired the title to the land have secured financial gain by putting charges on those who acquired the school, building, hospital or what have you and have made a nice little packet. You may say that that has nothing to do with national security, but it shows the problems when there is any confusion in the transfer of land.
Indeed, if I may briefly digress, the mountain from which my title is derived—Bennachie—for 60 years had people, smallholders, living on it on what was common land until, in a land grab, surrounding landowners simply seized that land and gave themselves the title, even though it had been held in common before, and evicted the squatters. We have had some controversial land decisions, but we are more concerned about legitimate transfers of land for environmental, recreational or financial purposes where because, for example, the landowner acquiring or disposing is not a UK citizen or is an institution that the Government may have suspicions about, it could lead to a problem.
Most people engaged in those transactions will look to professional services for appropriate advice. If those professional services have been part of the stakeholder consultation on any changes to the regulations or the detail of them, they will be able to provide transparency and legitimate advice to avoid those kinds of problems arising. That relieves the Minister of a problem and embarrassment and removes the possibility of otherwise legitimate investments being compromised or withheld because of a lack of clarity.
The conclusion I suggest to the Minister is that consulting with relevant stakeholder, when any legislation is being amended or introduced is to the mutual benefit of all players, including the Government and national security. We are talking about a relatively small number of clearly identifiable stakeholders, not a mass of agencies. The Government know who they are and they know who they are. It can be done quickly and efficiently, and the net result is that concerns that were raised would be headed off at the pass. They would not occur, so that we would not finish with legislation that leads to the threat of voiding contracts that in no way compromised national security, but somebody felt that they might have done. Sellers and buyers need clarity on the law; consulting relevant stakeholders will help to achieve this.
My Lords, there are distinct common factors in both these amendments. The proposers do not believe that the current way of approving regulations under Clause 6, purely the affirmative procedure, is satisfactory. That is because of the importance of the regulations under Clause 6. As we heard, they underpin the necessity for mandatory notification for certain types of transactions in 17 sectors and they can be changed. We heard, particularly from my noble friend Lord Fox, that the definitions of these sectors are highly complex.
My noble friend took the example of artificial intelligence, a technology I have taken considerable interest in. As he explained, machine learning technology permeates almost every single sector and every use for both consumers and businesses one can think of—fintech, edtech, regtech, you name it. Artificial intelligence permeates those, and the new description of the AI sector published in the government response today states:
“In narrowing the definition, the definition now provides further clarity for businesses and investors”.
However, the definition still covers:
“the identification of objects, people, and events; advanced robotics and cyber security.”
That is pretty broad.
The policy statement published today is also extremely helpful in emphasising the importance of Clause 6 regulations. The policy statement says:
“Under Clause 6, the Secretary of State has the power to make regulations to:… a) specify the description of a qualifying entity for the purpose of identifying a notifiable acquisition; …b) amend the circumstances in which a notifiable acquisition takes place … c) exempt acquirers with specified characteristics … d) make consequential amendments of other provisions of the Bill resulting from provisions set out in paragraphs (b) and (c).”—[Interruption.]
I hope that I am having some impact on the Minister, my Lords. The policy statement goes on to say:
“For the commencement of the regime, the Secretary of State intends to make regulations only to specify the sectors subject to mandatory notification.”
I underline “only” because you would have thought that was significant enough in itself. This is obviously a self-denying ordinance, but it is not a very large self-denying ordinance when you are dealing with the intricacies of those 17 sectors.
My noble friend Lord Fox has rightly quoted the Constitution Committee’s 2018 report The Legislative Process: Delegated Powers, which talked about the rubber-stamping of the Government’s secondary legislation. He also referred to my long life, and in my already long life I have been responsible for overturning a statutory instrument. The Blackpool casino was very much wanted by the citizens of Blackpool, so the SI for east Manchester was defeated by three votes in the House of Lords, and one of those votes was from the Archbishop of Canterbury—the former Archbishop of Canterbury, I am glad to say. It was I who put the Motion, and we passed it by three votes to deny the Government the right to build the casino in east Manchester. Unfortunately, the Government never came back with a proposal for Blackpool, and that is a sad piece of history. I do not know why they did not; it would have been a great place to build a casino.
However, that does show that, on a simple proposition, it is possible to have an effective debate. When you are dealing with 17 sectors and 111 pages of text, which are going to be the subject of this regulation, that illustrates that the form of affirmative resolution proposed in this Bill is not fit for purpose. This kind of super-affirmative procedure means that there would be a genuine debate on the regulations and the 17 sectors and their extent.
I have huge sympathy with the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, because of course one wishes to see consultation among stakeholders. In an ideal world, one would like to see both that and the super-affirmative resolution. But, to be frank, consultation is not the same as, or a substitute for, proper parliamentary scrutiny. These are crucial regulations, and it is right that they are opened up for full debate in this way. I am probably going to embarrass the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, by saying that he said earlier we will have some debates about the sectors—well, not really, unless this amendment is accepted.
My Lords, as we have just been hearing, these notifiable acquisition regulations are significant and require proper oversight, not just from both Houses of Parliament but also from experts involved, and with the opinions of those experts being made available to legislators. It will obviously be important to ensure that the stakeholders to be consulted are knowledgeable and, if I may say it, at the cutting edge of technology.
On Clause 6, the Government state that, for the commencement of the regime, the regulations will, as we have just heard, specify only sectors subject to mandatory notification, but that can be kept under review, and the regulations could be amended. The question, therefore, is, what would need to change for those regulations to be amended? How will the Secretary of State go about that, and how will it come back in a useful form along the lines suggested? This is particularly important—and I refer to advice I have had from the Wellcome Trust. Noble Lords will know that this is the world’s biggest medical charity, putting an enormous amount of money into very early research and start-ups. It says that Clause 6(6) of the Bill, which will be covered by this proposal, is of major concern, because it raises the potential for the control of assets to be brought into the mandatory notification regime by the regulations that we have been discussing. It is worried that Clause 9 defines qualifying assets so broadly that the mere use of ideas, data or software of industrial, commercial or other economic value would be captured. Anyone with experience of IP will immediately understand why that is concerning.
There is the issue of things being suddenly brought in. In the particular case of Wellcome, it could conflict with Wellcome’s approach to research, publication and open access—for example, giving a publisher the right to publish an academic’s results first. This open licensing could conflict with the requirements here. Wellcome has talked me through this and, although it is not there the moment, it would be if it were altered so that this was covered by the mandatory rather than the voluntary. The feeling also is that this possibility could have a chilling effect on research collaborations, especially if significant fines were extended to cover completing a notifiable acquisition of an asset without approval.
In the area of IP, of course, this would anyway be quite hard to quantify. While expanding the mandatory notification regime to assets may be a worthwhile step for easily identifiable strategic assets, such as land, the application to ideas and information could be extremely problematic. There is also the issue of the 15%, although it is not referred to in these amendments. For Wellcome, the overlap of that very low-capture area with the possibility of other things being added to the list causes it concern. I hope that, in light of that, the Minister will agree to meet me and the Wellcome Trust, because it would be better if we could capture and sort out these worries at this stage, rather than when the Bill becomes an Act. This is, as noble Lords know, an organisation well experienced in exactly the areas we are talking about, so I think its advice would be of considerable help to the Government, as well, as I say, of trying to get rid of the problem before it emerges.
My Lords, I welcome Amendment 14 from my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and Amendment 94 from the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Clement-Jones, which overall seek further consultation and scrutiny on Clause 6 regulations. Perhaps I may say at the outset that we would be delighted to meet the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, to discuss the concerns of the Wellcome Trust, which, as she said, is a world-class research organisation and worth hearing.
Perhaps I may begin by clarifying for the benefit of the Committee that while acquisitions of land are in scope of the call-in power, they are not in scope of the mandatory regime. Acquisitions of land, as with assets more widely, are expected to be called in only very rarely.
I turn first to Amendment 14, tabled by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. It would require the Secretary of State to consult relevant stakeholders before making any regulations under Clause 6. Those regulations are of significance as they define the scope of the mandatory notification regime. As such, the Secretary of State has already consulted on sectoral definitions for the qualifying entities proposed to be in scope of the mandatory regime, and further engagement is planned with particular sectors in advance of turning these definitions into draft regulations. Again, I echo my noble friend’s apologies that the information on sectoral scope arrived only as we came into the Committee. The consultation was extensive and lasted from November for eight weeks. We received 94 responses and have not yet finalised all the sectoral definitions. Further targeted engagement to refine these definitions will be made in advance of laying regulations. The Secretary of State will therefore undertake consultation where appropriate.
I can reassure my noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, that, given the importance and potential complexity of any future regulations under Clause 6—defining and bringing new advanced technology sectors into the regime, for example—it is difficult to foresee many instances in which consultation of relevant stakeholders will not be required. As such, there is no need to create a requirement in statute to cater for this. Public law duties already create the right incentives.
The second amendment to Clause 6, Amendment 94, proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Clement- Jones, would require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a proposed draft of any regulations made under the clause for 30 days before the draft regulations themselves are laid and are subject to the approval of both Houses. Amendment 94 would also require the Secretary of State to identify a committee to report on the proposed draft regulations and then himself report on his consideration of the committee’s recommendations. The Bill as drafted provides for regulations made under Clause 6 clause to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.
While I take the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, that these statutory instruments cannot be amended, they can be declined, as we have seen a small number of times in the past. This ensures an appropriate balance whereby the mandatory regime can be quickly updated should new risks to national security emerge, while still giving Parliament appropriate oversight by requiring it to approve the regulations.
In its report on the Bill published on 22 February, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee concluded that,
“there is nothing in the Bill to which we would wish to draw the attention of the House.”
So, although I was in some way surprised to see the noble Lords’ amendment tabled in relation to Clause 6, in disagreement with the judgment of the committee, we can agree that the powers of the Bill are necessarily drawn widely in order to make the process more efficient. I believe that the committee recognised the careful balance that the Bill strikes in Clause 6 and other clauses between allowing the Secretary of State the flexibility to ensure that the regime is effective in protecting our national security while providing sufficient opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny and input.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter further with noble Lords. However, for the reasons I have set out, I cannot accept these amendments and ask that they be withdrawn or not moved.
My Lords, I have received two requests to speak after the Minister: from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response but I do not think that she has quite got to grips with the full concern about this. It is not so much that there has not been consultation about the current sectors; there has been an extensive consultation and the Government have come back with their views and have explicitly said that they may change them even further. Yet they are still going to return to Parliament with a pure affirmative process. It is not as if parliamentarians will be able to change it. The stakeholder discussion and consultation is going forward as she said, but there is no guarantee that when that set of regulations is passed there will be proper debate in the House, nor will there be thereafter if the sectors are changed and made more specific, less specific, added to—whatever. There is no guarantee that consultation will take place.
The Minister said that there are the right incentives. That is a bit thin. If that is the guarantee of government consultation, it is not very solid, and even then, Parliament is entitled to have a view about the width of those sectors in the light of changing circumstances. It might have different views about new risks emerging, to use the Minister’s phrase. Therefore, it would be entirely legitimate to have that debate if those regulations were revised. The Minister has not got the nub of the concern in all of this.
I anticipated the Minister’s answer on the subject of time, and 30 days is 30 days, but the Government have shown that they are relatively adept. If there really was a national security emergency requiring quick action using other means, a statutory instrument with a debate in Parliament would act as a plug. My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones made the point that there is such significance, particularly around this list but also around the other elements of Clause 6, so I hope that the Minister will read Hansard and at least find some way of moving towards the very valid arguments that she has heard today on both amendments.
I thank all those who have spoken on both amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, will recall that we had a lengthy debate about the super-affirmative procedure during the passage of the UK Internal Market Act. I deeply regret that we did not go down the path of that procedure, for reasons that I gave. My noble friend the Minister cares passionately about Wales, and I hope that she will care equally passionately about Scotland and will be prepared to meet with me to bring these matters forward, because I do not accept that it is enough just to have regard to the public law requirements.
The Law Society of Scotland has identified three ways in which these regulations could move the parameters forward which I would like to discuss on a wider basis with her. While an official in the department said that it is not expected at this stage that those three areas will be covered, it is not excluded that that will happen in the future. I want to come back to that, but for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 14 withdrawn.
That concludes the work of the Committee this afternoon. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Committee adjourned at 7.29 pm.