Nadhim Zahawi, Minister for Business and Industry, responds to the debate on the Report Stage of the National Security and Investment Bill which enables the Government to intervene in business takeovers that raise national security concerns.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Nadhim Zahawi)
May I add my congratulations to President Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris, and their national security team?
I thank all hon. Members who have tabled amendments and new clauses and have spoken to them so eloquently: the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie); my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis); the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah); my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat); the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock); the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), who spoke so pithily; my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher); the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones); the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry); my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith); the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon); my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely); the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson); my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart); the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), my neighbour; and of course my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), who reminded us of the words of the great Edmund Burke.
National security is an area of utmost importance, and that has been reflected in a sober and considered debate, with the excellent contributions that we have heard today, and, indeed, over the past few months. I will take this opportunity to respond to some of the points raised this afternoon.
New clauses 4 and 5 create a non-exhaustive list of factors that the Secretary of State must have regard to when assessing national security risks arising from trigger events. In fact, the Secretary of State has joined us to demonstrate how important this Bill is to him. I congratulate him on his elevation to being my new boss at BEIS.
As currently drafted, the Bill does not seek to define national security or include factors that 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 when deciding whether to exercise the call-in power are proposed to be set out in the statement provided for by clause 3, a draft of which was published alongside the Bill. The Secretary of State is unable to call in an acquisition of control until that statement has been laid before both Houses. It is clear from the debate today, and also from conversations with colleagues, that these are the amendments on which there is strongest feeling in the House, and in the Foreign Affairs and Development Committee, so I will take care to set out the Government’s case.
The Bill’s approach reflects the long-standing policy of Governments of different hues to ensure that powers relating to national security are sufficiently flexible to address the myriad risks that may arise. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, national security risks are multi-faceted and constantly evolving, and what may constitute a risk today may not be a risk in the future. Indeed, the Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, said in its own excellent report that
“an overly specific definition of national security could serve to limit the Government’s ability to protect UK businesses from unforeseen security risks.”
Does the Minister accept that what is being proposed is not a limiting arena of what constitutes national security but a baseline of what constitutes national security, and that there may be a reason to adapt it over time? Indeed, paragraph (h) of new clause 4 makes an assumption that it can be expanded.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I mentioned, the statement that the Secretary of State has laid with the Bill takes in much of the direction of travel of this amendment from the Foreign Affairs Committee.
I acknowledge that the Foreign Affairs Committee is pushing for more detail rather than less, but I would reassure them that the Government agree with their main conclusion that the Secretary of State should provide as much detail as possible on the factors that will be taken into account when considering national security. Importantly, however, that is only up until the point that the detail risks the protection of national security itself. That is why the Government have taken this approach in the draft statement provided for by clause 3. In that statement, we identify three types of risk that are proposed to form the basis of the call-in national security assessment. These are: the target risk, which considers the nature of the acquisition and where it lies in the economy; the trigger event risk, which considers the level of control and how it might be used; and the acquirer risk, which covers the extent to which the acquirer raises national security concerns.
I would like to address each of the arguments made in the report, so that I can ease the concerns of hon. Members across the House. First, there are concerns that without a narrow definition of national security, the investment screening unit would be inundated by notifications, hampering its ability to deliver its crucial role. I acknowledge that, for business confidence in the regime, it is essential that we deliver on our statutory timeframes for decisions, which is why it is so essential that we do not allow any broadening of the assessment done by officials as part of the regime to occur, whether by inexhaustive lists, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has just said, or by any other form. To include modern slavery, genocide and tax evasion as factors that the Secretary of State must take into account as part of national security assessments, as these amendments propose, would not reduce the demands on the investment security unit but potentially increase them.
Secondly, there is concern that ambiguity could hinder the success of the regime. Let me be clear that this regime is about protecting national security—nothing more, nothing less—hence its real focus. Thirdly, the Foreign Affairs Committee report suggests that the staff responsible for screening transactions may lack sufficient clarity on what kinds of transactions represent legitimate national security risks, leading to important transactions being missed or to a large volume of benign transactions overwhelming the investment security unit. I want to assure hon. Members, and my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, that the investment security unit will be staffed by the brightest and best, with many of them being recruited on the basis that they have essentially written the book on national security.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting this point. May I assure him that I have absolute confidence that the people he will recruit into the unit will be the best and brightest? I pay huge tribute and send many congratulations to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who is sitting next to him. He is a friend of long standing, and I am delighted to see him serving Cabinet; that is well earned and somewhat overdue. I am sure that they are both going to have the best judgment possible. However—I am afraid there is a “however”—there are other people who are going to have to decide whether or not to file, and there is therefore a danger that people will over-file, even though the judgments will have been very cautiously made.
That is something I have been watching carefully as we introduced this legislation, obviously. We have had around 36 inquiries to the team already, so it feels to me that where we have landed is proportionate and right.
Mr Kevan Jones
I have no doubt that the Minister will aim to recruit the brightest and best. However, what assurance can he give that those individuals will have not only the necessary security clearance but the culture of thinking about security, as opposed to business and regulation?
They will be able to draw on all the experience, culture and, of course, resources of Government to be able to do their job properly, I assure the right hon. Member of that.
The report sets out a fear, as we have heard elsewhere, that without a definition of national security in the Bill, interventions under the NSI regime will be politicised. I wholeheartedly agree that it is crucial for the success of the regime that decisions made are not political but rather technocratic, dispassionate and well judged. I repeat the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), the former Business Secretary, who on Second Reading assured the House that:
“The Government will not be able to use these powers to intervene in business transactions for broader economic or public interest reasons, and we will not seek to interfere in deals on political grounds.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 210.]
Indeed, if the Secretary of State took into account political factors outside the remit of national security, the decision could not be upheld on judicial review. It is with this in mind, and our focus on protecting foreign direct investment, which so many colleagues are concerned about, especially as we come out of the covid challenge, that politicised decisions will not be possible under the NSI regime. I hope right hon. and hon. Members feel I have sufficiently explained the Government’s approach. We have sought to deliver what the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Opposition recommend.
I will not labour the point beyond this. The Minister says that tax evasion will not be a bar. I accept that the Government made that statement. Does he accept that, in Australia, tax evasion is one of those significant elements? He rather implies that tax evasion and tax evaders will not be opposed in buying UK companies, so how high will the bar be set on criminality or on unsavoury characters—maybe people close to Russian Presidents and oligarchs and questionable companies?
As colleagues have said, the Bill has been a long time in gestation, from 2017 to the 2018 consultation and White Paper and now today. We look at what other countries do, and I think we have reached a proportionate position. Of course, as I say, the Secretary of State’s statement sets out exactly how he would assess the risks to national security. I hope I have addressed that.
My final point of reassurance is that there will be further scrutiny on this point. As I explained in Committee, the statement provided for by clause 3 will go out to full public consultation prior to being laid before Parliament, and the Government will listen carefully to any proposals for further detail.
Amendments 1, 2, 3 and 6 broadly seek to ensure that the scope of the regime as a whole is right, that mandatory notification covers the right sectors and that both the statement and the notifiable acquisition regulations are reviewed within a year. Amendment 1 would require notifiable acquisition regulations to be reviewed within a year of having been made, and once every five years thereafter. It is right that the Secretary of State keeps a constant watch on these regulations. Indeed, it is vital that he has the flexibility to reassess and, if needed, seek to update the regulations at any time. The nature of his responsibilities under the regime creates sufficient incentive for this regular review.
Amendment 2 would, in effect, introduce two further trigger events to the regime. It would mean that a person becoming a major debt holder would count as a person gaining control of a qualifying entity. The amendment would also mean that a person becoming a major supplier to an entity counted as a person gaining control of a qualifying entity.
We on the Government Benches believe that access to finance is crucial for so many small businesses and large businesses to grow and succeed. They will often take out loans secured against the very businesses and assets that they have fought so hard to build; I did just that when I started YouGov. That is why the Bill allows the Secretary of State to scrutinise acquisitions of control that take place where lenders exercise rights over such collateral, but the Government do not consider that the provision of loans and finance is automatically a national security issue. Indeed, it is part of a healthy business ecosystem that enables businesses to flourish in this country.
I share the desire of the hon. Members for Aberdeen South, for Glenrothes and for Dundee East to ensure that businesses in our most sensitive supply chains are protected. The Bill does that already by allowing the Secretary of State to call in trigger events across the economy where he reasonably suspects that they may give rise to national security risks. That includes key suppliers.
Amendment 3 proposes that the Secretary of State must review the first statement under clause 3, which sets out how he expects to exercise the call-in power, within one year of its publication. As drafted, the amendment requires the Secretary of State to review that statement “at least” every five years. Let me assure the House that the Secretary of State will maintain the closest watch on the changing security landscape. He will therefore review and, if appropriate, update the statement more frequently than every five years if needed.
Finally, amendment 6 would require the Secretary of State to bring all broadcast, print and social media companies in scope of mandatory notification when making notifiable acquisition regulations. The requirement for mandatory notification should be limited to the most sensitive sectors. The vast majority of acquisition of shares or voting rights in media companies will not raise national security concerns. Indeed, they are captured by the Enterprise Act 2002. I hope that Members are reassured to know that the Bill allows Government to use the call-in power across the economy where any risks may arise.
I turn to the new clauses and amendments that consider reporting and accountability, with a particular interest in small and medium enterprises. The aims of these amendments are laudable, and the Government are a strong supporter of SMEs and of appropriate safeguards around information sharing and transparency. Indeed, as Members will be aware, clause 61 sets out the minimum reporting requirements that the Secretary of State must meet in the annual report. This clause provides for the fullest parliamentary and public scrutiny of the detail of the regime, which at the same time avoids giving rise to national security risks when published at an aggregate level.
On top of that, new clause 7 would create additional reporting requirements to the Intelligence and Security Committee. While I very much understand the grounds for seeking such reporting, and I was grateful for the discussion with the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, the Government are unable to accept this amendment. I wish instead to welcome and encourage the ISC’s security-specific expertise and its review of the annual report when it is laid before Parliament. Indeed, there is no restriction on the Secretary of State providing further information in the annual report, should it be appropriate, to the ISC.
Dr Julian Lewis
For the sake of clarity, the annual report that will be supplied to Parliament will not have any security-sensitive information in it. The Minister says that we could request further information. The only information we want to request is the information of a security-sensitive nature that will routinely have played a part in leading to these decisions. I do not want to tell any tales out of school. All I can say is that the Minister seemed very receptive when I put forward the idea of an annexe to the report, which would come to the Committee, or alternatively there could be an unredacted or redacted version of the report. Is he saying that the Cabinet Office is declining to do that? If so, it would appear that the malign influence of one Mr Cummings is not entirely eliminated from that Department.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s intervention. What I was saying is that there are no restrictions. His Committee will be able to invite the Secretary of State to give evidence to it, and it will also be able to ask for further information, which the unit will be able to provide.
Mr Kevan Jones
The Minister is wrong when he talks about asking the Secretary of State, because his is not one of the Departments that we overlook, but it is already there that this information be provided. I do not know why he and the Government are resisting this, because it will give certain confidence in terms of ensuring that decisions are taken on national security grounds. If he thinks for one minute that the Cabinet Office will divulge information easily to us, I can assure him that it will not. It does not do so. We have to drag it out of them kicking and screaming every time. I am sorry, but this is very disappointing.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Let me repeat again: there are no restrictions on the Committee requesting further information from the unit or from the Secretary of State.
Is this what the Minister wants? Every year, the Committee will request to have a comprehensive explanation of the security sensitive information that has underlain the different decisions that the unit has taken. All he is saying is that we can request this ad hoc every year and we will get it—I will believe that when I see it. If that were to be the case, there could be no possible objection to incorporating this in the legislation now so that it is not at the whim of a future Minister to either give us what we need or deny us what we need.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention and his powerful argument, but I just repeat that there are no restrictions on his Committee requesting that information.
Mr Kevan Jones
I will not give way. There is a lot to get through and time is short.
The Government will more generally monitor the operation of the regime and regularly review the contents of the annual reports, including in relation to academic research, spin-off enterprise or SMEs, and we will pay close attention to the resourcing and the timelines of the regime.
If, during any financial year, the assistance given under clause 30 totals £100 million or more, the Bill requires the Secretary of State to lay a report of the amount before the House. Requiring him to lay what would likely be a very similar report for every calendar year as well as for every financial year, which is in amendment 4, appears to be excessive in our view. He would likely have to give Parliament two very similar reports only a few months apart.
On amendment 5, I can reassure the House that, under clause 54, the Secretary of State would be subject to public law duties when deciding whether to share information with an overseas public authority. That includes a requirement to take all relevant considerations into account in making decisions. These are therefore considerations that the Secretary of State would already need to take into account in order to comply with public law duties.
Moving on to new clause 6, I want to be clear that we do not expect the regime to disproportionately affect SMEs, although we will of course closely monitor its impact. The Government have been happy to provide support to businesses both large and small through the contact address available on gov.uk. Furthermore, the factsheets make it clear what the measures in the proposed legislation are and to whom they apply, so there is real clarity on this. It would therefore not be necessary to provide the grace period for SMEs proposed under new clause 3 and neither would it be appropriate. Notifiable acquisitions by SMEs may well present national security concerns and this proposed new clause would, I am afraid, create a substantial loophole.
To conclude, although I am very grateful for the constructive and collegiate engagement from hon. and right hon. Members across the House, for the reasons that I have mentioned I cannot accept the amendments and new clauses tabled for this debate and therefore hope that they will agree to withdraw them.