17 November 2020
Nadhim Zahawi responds to debate on National Security and Investment Bill

Nadhim Zahawi winds up the debate on the Second Reading of the National Security and Investment Bill which introduces a new regime to intervene in business transactions and takeovers that pose a risk to national security.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Nadhim Zahawi)

It is a pleasure, as ever, to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in this important debate. We have had upwards of 25 speeches, all of which were thoughtfully delivered. I also thank the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), for his constructive approach to this important piece of legislation. I will aim to respond to as many points made by hon. Members as possible, but I will, of course, write in response to individual questions as well.

I begin by responding to the points of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who both raised the grounds for intervention when it comes to the legislation. The legal texts in the Bill are explicit in their reference to national security rather than public interest or wider economic considerations. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central mentioned the particular deal with DeepMind and Google. If it is deemed that the asset is so important to national security—it does not matter who the acquirer is—the Bill would allow us to intervene and block that acquisition.

I have to be clear to the House today that any action the Secretary of State takes under the proposed regime would be to protect national security and not for wider economic or industrial reasons. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North will look forward to the industrial strategy refresh that the Secretary of State is committed to publishing in the first quarter of 2021.

To address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), we already have a proportionate public interest power on the statute book, and most recently we have legislated to allow intervention for mitigating the effects of public health emergencies. The right hon. Member for Doncaster North and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central also asked about the engagement with Government. The investment security unit will ensure that clear guidance is available to support all businesses engaging with investment screening from the outset. We have made it clear to the investment community that we are committed to effective engagement with businesses on the regime itself, and to ensuring that they are able to access a dedicated, simple online portal to notify us of any potential transaction. Of course, we note the importance of a full Government approach to investment screening. While the unit will be based in BEIS—this point was made by the right hon. Member for North Durham ​(Mr Jones) when he talked about the ISC—it will work closely with the security agencies and other Departments with real sector expertise. The chief executive of Make UK, Stephen Phipson has recognised this point, saying: “Technology development moves at fast pace and this Bill will modernise the UK’s approach in a proportionate way, given the Government’s commitment to a quick and streamlined process of evaluation.”

More widely, I am happy to meet any hon. and right hon. Member who has today expressed an interest in the workings of the investment security unit. The right hon. Member for Doncaster North also raised the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee, as many other colleagues have done today, and we will of course work constructively with its members and, indeed, with other Committees across the House. I wish the Chair of the Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), well, and I would like to thank the other members of the Committee who spoke today. The contributions from the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), the right hon. Member for North Durham, my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) were typically excellent and well-informed.

The right hon. Member for Doncaster, North, along with the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), also raised the issue of the five-year period for retrospection. We have come to that view because six months would simply be too short, and we have looked at what other countries have done. It would be relatively easy for hostile parties to keep a trigger event quiet for six months and time us out, but that will be substantially more difficult in a five-year period.

Sir John Hayes

I am extremely are grateful to the Minister for his comments about the members of the ISC who have contributed to the debate. Given the range of questions posed to him by ISC members, will he commit to write to the Committee formally to pick up those points, so that the Committee has a clear set of answers to the series of questions posed? It would not be fair to expect him to deal with all of them now.

Nadhim Zahawi

I can certainly give my right hon. Friend that commitment; I will do that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) and the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), who is not in her place, probed on the definition of national security. A number of hon. Members have argued that the definition of national security is too narrow. I would gently point out that the Bill does not seek to define it at all, as some other Members have quite rightly argued, including, very wisely, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham. I think that is a real strength of the Bill, not a weakness. It means that the Government have the flexibility to act as risks change over time. The statement of policy that was published last week refers to espionage, disruption and destruction and inappropriate leverage. Those are examples of national security, not the exhaustive content of it. We need to maintain a degree of flexibility in our approach, as my hon. Friends the Members for Wantage (David Johnston) ​and for Beckenham recognised. I appreciate that these are quite important powers, and of course they are fully justiciable under the Bill. Hon. Members can feel secure knowing that their use, including the application of national security, can be fully tested in closed courts if necessary.

The Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin expressed concerns that these reforms will somehow threaten investment in small tech firms. I again remind the House that we estimate that the vast majority of transactions across the economy will not be affected by this legislation, and we do not expect to take action in relation to most of the small number that are notifiable. We will make any interactions with the Government simpler, quicker and slicker by providing clearance to most transactions within 30 days, and often quicker. Notifiable investments will be submitted through a new digital portal. At the spring Budget, the Government committed to increase public spending on R&D to £22 billion, which I think is music to the ears of many innovators in our country.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells and my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) made the important point that the Bill does not set out a minimum size of business affected by the regime. As the Secretary of State set out, the threats we face today do not correlate to the size of the parties concerned, as they perhaps once did. This is unfortunately the world we live in. I am glad that we live in a country in which small and medium-sized businesses thrive so mightily and are often at the vanguard of cutting-edge technologies, but it is only right that the Government have flexible powers to intervene when the acquisition of such businesses may pose a risk to our national security.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) and the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) raised the issue of supply chains. The covid pandemic has demonstrated the importance of resilience in supply chains to ensure the continued flow of essential items to keep global trade moving. We have focused on ensuring supply chains for goods such as PPE. When we entered the pandemic, only 1% was manufactured in the UK; it is now about 70%. That is why we are looking at what other steps we can take to ensure that we have diverse supply chains in place. We will consider all our global supply chains to avoid shortages in the event of future crises.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings and the hon. Member for Dundee East also probed the assessment process. We will make any interaction with the Government much simpler, quicker and slicker, and I am very happy to share how we are doing that.

The Chair of the BEIS Committee, the hon. Member for Bristol North West, probed our approach to sectors. It is important for the regime to reflect technological change and keep up with the investment landscape. We welcome views from across the business community on our sector consultation, and officials from across Government are already engaging with the sectors’ experts to ensure that those definitions are tight.​

In the time that I have left, I want to tackle the issue of human rights. My hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), and the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon raised the issue of human rights, particularly in relation to Xinjiang and the Uyghur people. We take our responsibility incredibly seriously and are concerned about gross violations of human rights being perpetrated against the Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang. We have played a leading international role in holding China to account on these abuses and we will continue to do so through the UN and other opportunities that we have. In respect of the risk of UK business complicity in human rights violations, including forced labour, we have urged all UK businesses to conduct due diligence on their supply chains and are taking steps to strengthen supply chain transparency.

In conclusion, we have had an excellent debate today and I again thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I look forward to further probing the Bill and getting it right together in Committee.