Skip to main content

Semiconductors Manufacturing

Volume 832: debated on Monday 18 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards engagement with the semiconductors manufacturing sector concerning funding to support future manufacturing in the United Kingdom, as set out in the Semiconductor Strategy, published on 19 May.

The national semiconductor strategy sets out the Government’s plan to build on the UK’s strengths to grow our sector, increase our resilience and protect our security. We will also announce plans by the autumn to further support the competitiveness of the semiconductor manufacturing sector, which is critical to the UK tech ecosystem and our national security. We have engaged, and continue to engage extensively, with industry. The Government’s new semiconductor advisory panel met last week to inform our approach.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. I think the concern lies around the rhetoric that has surrounded the May announcement, which very much focused on research and design while coupling that to resilience. As the Minister knows, good design companies and good research get bought and leave the country, and they do not necessarily contribute to resilience, whereas manufacturing does. As the Minister said, we in this country are home to some very innovative, lower-cost, niche manufacturers, but for those investors to have the confidence to further those companies, a strategy needs to be set out. Can the Minister assure your Lordships’ House that his department is putting maximum pressure on the Chancellor so that, when his Autumn Statement comes out, a proper manufacturing strategy for semiconductors in this country will be forthcoming?

The noble Lord raises, as ever, an interesting point, but to build an advanced silicon fab would, first of all, cost tens of billions of pounds. It would run into not only costs of operation but substantial risks of uncompetitive yields and, as we have seen several times historically, shifts in demand for semiconductors. I remind the House that, although 40% of the value chain of semiconductors is represented by manufacturing, 30% is represented by design. It makes sense that our strategy should build on the country’s strengths, particularly in design.

My Lords, may I follow up that point and ask a little more about the detail of who runs this strategy? In addition to the independent regulator, the CMA, there are, as I understand it, three government departments directly involved: the Cabinet Office, the Department for Business and Trade, and DSIT, as represented by the Minister. The focus of the third leg of the national strategy engages with export control, hostile takeovers and mergers. Who is in charge of that, and can the Minister explain it?

Indeed I can, and I recognise the importance of the question around clarity between these various arms of government. The ownership of the semiconductor strategy sits squarely with DSIT. There is a range of Acts—to do with export controls and protection of investment from states seen to be hostile to us—that of course come under other departments, but overall ownership must sit, and continues to sit, within DSIT.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some 90% of all advanced semiconductors are produced in Taiwan and that 60% of all semiconductors are produced in Taiwan, mostly by one company? Given the urgency that has arisen out of the hostile acts taking place in the South China Sea, can the Minister tell us what we are doing to bolster supply chain resilience and security? Can he tell the House the current position on the future of Newport Wafer Fab, given that a Chinese company attempted to buy it?

I am of course aware of the overwhelming market position of TSMC in Taiwan. It is a manufacturing foundry for semiconductors, but that is the only slot in the supply chain that it occupies. Having a foundry by itself is nothing without the vast, complex, integrated global supply chain of all other companies. On the second part of the noble Lord’s question, any threat to peace and stability in the strait of Taiwan is a deeply serious concern for the Government. We are looking at all scenarios and contingency planning in preparation for any disruption to that.

My Lords, graphene is the thinnest material known to man. It is about 100 times stronger than steel and has the most exceptional electrical conductivity. I understand that huge research is being done on this throughout the world—billions—but there are some small companies in this country, with the finest brainpower, that are working on this. Do the Minister and his unit feel that the conductive capability of graphene is going to be the future for this world?

My noble friend reminds me that I had the pleasure of visiting the graphene centre at Manchester University just a couple of weeks ago. I share not only his positive views of the material but his positive estimate of its future uses. It will play a significant role in compound semiconductors of many different kinds, and that is one of the areas of focus for the UK’s semiconductor strategy.

My Lords, shall we allow the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, to contribute and then the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones?

I am very grateful. I want to continue on the basis of the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, regarding the specific Newport Wafer Fab factory. I do not think the Minister got around to answering that fully, and I would be grateful to have his observations on the issue.

I apologise to the noble Lord for not having reached that bit. The concern about Newport Wafer Fab was that the ultimate owners of the buyer were Chinese investors; hence, under the NSI Act, that was blocked. I cannot comment any further on that specific case because it is under judicial review.

My Lords, the Government may have finally published a strategy on semiconductors, but is investment in our great south Wales compound semiconductor hub going to be encouraged by his ministerial colleague Paul Scully’s remarks about not wanting to recreate Taiwan in south Wales? Also, as has been referred to, there is the very much delayed decision over the future of Newport Wafer Fab.

What Minister Scully clearly meant was that there is no point attempting to construct an advanced silicon manufactory at the cost of tens of billions of pounds at considerable risk to both investors and the taxpayer when all those who have tried to mimic TSMC have failed at great expense. It is far better to focus on our strengths and on the compound semiconductor strategy that Minister Scully will have spoken about on that occasion. Again, Newport Wafer Fab is under judicial review and I cannot comment further.

My Lords, with regard to semiconductor investment, the US has tabled a package of $50 billion, China a package of $40 billion and India $10 billion, while the UK has put forward just £1 billion, or $1.2 billion, which is 1/13th of the subsidy given to railway companies. Can the Minister explain why the Government show so little ambition? Will he now publish all emails and minutes relating to the national semiconductor strategy document so that we can get some insights into its neglect of this vital field?

In respect of the first point, as I say, it is a highly risky undertaking to construct advanced silicon fabs in the way that those countries are setting out to do. That is not the right strategy for the UK. With regard to publishing all the emails written by the department, perhaps the noble Lord could write to me and set out his reasons for wanting them and I will be happy to talk to him.

My Lords, can my noble friend estimate what proportion of the semiconductors in our critical national infrastructure comes from countries that do not have our best interests at heart?

The global integrated supply chain for semiconductors is of a scale and complexity that make any attempt to answer that question for any given semiconductor, given the sheer quantity of them and the number of companies that may or may not have contributed in some way along the supply chain, futile. I do not think any human being—or computer, for that matter—could possibly answer such a question. I am sorry.