Debates between Baroness Noakes and Baroness Northover during the 2019 Parliament

Tue 2nd Mar 2021
National Security and Investment Bill
Grand Committee

Committee stage & Committee stage & Lords Hansard

National Security and Investment Bill

Debate between Baroness Noakes and Baroness Northover
Baroness Northover Portrait Baroness Northover (LD) [V]
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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.

Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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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.