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Newport Wafer Fab

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 7 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their position regarding the acquisition of Newport Wafer Fab by Chinese-owned technology company Nexperia.

My Lords, the Government are considering the case and no decisions have been made. I am unable to comment on the details of businesses’ commercial transactions or on national security assessments. The Government always stand ready to act, where necessary, to protect the UK’s national security.

My Lords, the problem here is that we seem to be looking at this issue in a vacuum. The Minister has said in the past that there are no specialist technologies at Newport Wafer Fab, but that ignores the need for industrial capacity to build technology. The Minister will say, and has said, that the factories will not move, so why should we care who owns them? I do care. There is a crippling shortage of microprocessors around the world that is hampering manufacturing. To combat that, the EU and the US have strategies. We seem to be waiting and seeing. So, to put this acquisition into context, can the Minister tell us when will we have a plan? Will he undertake not to allow this business to be sold until such a plan is forthcoming?

I cannot comment on the details of that particular transaction, which is still under consideration, but I can tell the noble Lord that DCMS is working on a semiconductor strategy that will also be published shortly.

My Lords, this about the United Kingdom’s biggest producer of microchips and semiconductors; it is about national resilience and whether or not we wish to become a wholly owned subsidiary of the People’s Republic of China, which has been accused of genocide by Elizabeth Truss, our Foreign Secretary. What can the Minister tell us, for instance, about the value of contracts that his own department has had, or that the Ministry of Defence, perhaps more particularly, has had, with Newport Wafer Fab? What is the value of those contracts, and will the departments become customers of the People’s Republic of China, should this deal go ahead? Why are we not giving consideration to, and why will he not comment on, the remarks of Ciaran Martin, the former head of the National Cyber Security Centre, who said that there are “very real concerns” about the buyout and that it poses a greater threat than allowing Huawei to build the United Kingdom’s 5G network; and this week’s statement by the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place, that

“it potentially compromises national security”?

I totally share the noble Lord’s frustration about this, and totally align with his remarks about the People’s Republic of China. On the awful human rights abuses going on there, particularly the treatment of the Uighur people, there is no difference between us. Unfortunately, this is a quasi-judicial decision that will be taken by the Business Secretary under the powers granted to him by the National Security and Investment Act, which many of us debated at great length in this House. I cannot comment on the details of a quasi-judicial decision, or on national security assessments. I apologise to the noble Lord, but that is the position.

My Lords, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee found no evidence to suggest that a review into the acquisition of Newport Wafer Fab had taken place, yet Politico reports that the Government’s National Security Adviser concluded that there were not enough security concerns to block it. Can the Government confirm, on record, whether the review that was promised by the Prime Minister took place or not?

My Lords, what does my noble friend make of the remarks by the adviser to the Board of Trade, Tony Abbott, that the sale of Newport Wafer Fab would not go ahead were it happening in Australia? What discussions have been had with him, and with our allies in the Five Eyes network?

What would happen in Australia is a matter for the Australian Government. Tony Abbott is a member of the Board of Trade, and of course we value his insight and opinions, but this is a quasi-judicial decision that will be taken in the interests of the United Kingdom by the Business Secretary.

The Minister will know that trade with China over the last few years has doubled, but that doubling has occurred because we now import £40 billion more than we export. This trade deficit is the biggest in this country’s history—with any country. We are now dependent in many sectors on imports from China, while at the same time, imports and exports with our closest trading partners have declined dramatically. Why does the Minister think that is the case?

I suspect there are a number of different reasons for that, particularly the importation of consumer goods. Globalisation and imports from China of consumer goods, consumables, et cetera, are a good thing in terms of global trade, but we have to be wary of dealing with companies from the People’s Republic of China. When it comes to matters of national security, we are incredibly vigilant. The NSI Act gave us new powers in this area, and we will not hesitate to act on anything that threatens the UK’s national security.

My Lords, as the Minister says, the National Security and Investment Act was passed—it shot through this House, actually—to stop things like this happening, because we have been caught out in the past. There is absolutely no doubt—it is known across all our intelligence communities, Five Eyes and everywhere—that this factory has strategic significance and is strategically important to our nation. Therefore, while I understand the Minister’s saying that this is quasi-judicial, it would be nice to have some commitment from the Government that they understand how important this is in strategic terms, and they will not let this go through by some sort of error.

Nothing will go through in terms of an error, I can assure the noble Lord of that. This transaction is being considered very closely and there is an ongoing review by the National Security Adviser, as I said in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Blake. But the decision has to be taken, as outlined under the terms of the Act, by the Business Secretary. It is his decision and his alone, in quasi-judicial terms.

My Lords, I realise that the structures and processes of government can be something of a mystery, but I am at a bit of a loss to understand—perhaps the Minister can help me here—how something so crucial to the security and defence of this country and our national infrastructure can be an issue for the Business Secretary.

I can certainly help the noble and gallant Lord on that. That is what Parliament decided under the NSI Act: that these decisions are a matter for the Business Secretary to take under the terms of that Act, under the powers granted to him by Parliament under that Act, and he will take those decisions. Obviously, a lot of advice is coming his way from all different parts of government, and from the National Security Adviser, but the decision is his alone to take.

I thought that an investigation into this whole matter had been announced in the other place. What happened to that investigation? Is it under way?

I am not sure I can help my noble friend—I do not know what investigation he is referring to. If he is referring to the question the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, asked earlier, on the review by the National Security Adviser which the Prime Minister announced, as I said to the noble Baroness, that review in ongoing.

My Lords, have the Tory Government learned nothing from the flirtation with Russian oligarchs? Why do they continue to put the interests of their friends, for the obtaining of a quick buck, ahead of national security?

I am sorry, but that comment is unwarranted. This is a commercial transaction between a company called Nexperia and Newport Wafer Fab. There are a lot of jobs involved—people are employed by Newport Wafer Fab—and this is an important issue. The Government will consider it properly with appropriate due diligence, based on the advice from a number of other government departments and from the National Security Adviser. The Business Secretary will take a decision in due course.

My Lords, did not the Prime Minister announce on 7 July last year an investigation and a review into this matter? What has happened to that review?

The Prime Minister announced that the National Security Adviser would be asked to look at the transaction, and he is indeed doing that.

My Lord, some of us find it difficult to understand why Chinese involvement is even being considered.

This is a commercial transaction. Nexperia already has existing semiconductor facilities in the United Kingdom. It entered into an additional commercial transaction and, therefore, that is being considered under the terms of the National Security and Investment Act.

I wonder whether the Minister thinks it would be a good idea for him to advise Parliament to be more careful about entrusting these wide powers to government Ministers.

The noble and learned Lord entertains us royally with his views on delegated powers. On every Bill I have brought before this House on behalf of the Government we have had a long discussion about the use of delegated powers, and I am sure we will do so again. At the end of the day, these are difficult issues. Someone has to take a decision, and the proper person to do so, in my view, is the Business Secretary. That was the power granted to him under the Act. He will do so in due course, and I am sure that when he has we will have further debates on this matter.