2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons
Tuesday 17th November 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate National Security and Investment Bill 2019-21 View all National Security and Investment Bill 2019-21 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Ed Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband
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The hon. Gentleman makes the point that the United States has exactly the regime that I am talking about and does indeed have those wide powers of intervention, so the notion that people are going to set up in the United States rather than Britain, when they have much stronger powers than us, does not hold water.

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
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The right hon. Gentleman is of course right that there is a difference between the United States and the United Kingdom. One of the differences is that there are 350 million people in the United States. It is a continental power, a position that the UK sadly does not share. It does mean that our investment regime and our investment protocols have to recognise that we are having foreign direct investment of a very different nature.

I appreciate that this is a matter for debate, and I also appreciate that this is something where we will probably not agree. In fact, interestingly, the right hon. Gentleman seems to align much more closely with the former Prime Minister’s special adviser Mr Dominic Cummings than he does with me. Apart from that, it is actually a matter for a separate Bill. I may actually have some views where I sympathise more with him, but this Bill is quite clearly about national security. There are issues about how much further it should go, but what he says is not the scope of this Bill.

Ed Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband
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I can say to the hon. Gentleman that this is the first time I have been called a Cummings-ite. I have been called many things in my time, but a Cummings-ite after Cummings is really unusual.

The final point I will make before I conclude, because many hon. and right hon. Members want to speak in this debate, is that when I listen to Government Members, I feel that they accept the logic that we have to move away from the old view—the two decades ago view best embodied perhaps by the Enterprise Act 2002—when it comes to national security. They say, “We are worried about the investment effects, but national security matters.” Of course it does, and I agree with that. But then, when it comes to our industrial base, suddenly they have a completely different view, which is, “No, no, no. We can’t go back. We can’t change our view.” I think there is a degree, dare I say it, of inconsistency on that.

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Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
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I start, as many other hon. Members rightly have, by paying tribute to the ministerial team and the team of civil servants for their consultation on the Bill with not just Members of this House, but the wider business community. It is a hugely important Bill. When, no doubt, some of it becomes an Act, we will all be living with the consequences, which are difficult to imagine in a fast-changing world in which technology is evolving.

I welcome enormously not just the consultation that the Secretary of State has already contributed to, and which he has welcomed, but that which he has also invited, because that is a really important part of the next few weeks and months. It shows wisdom and extreme judgment to make sure that the Bill survives contact with the enemy.

I welcome the fact that the Bill has been crafted to recognise the competition that we are seeing increasingly between states. The Minister in his place, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), as a former member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, knows only too well what we are seeing around the world and has regularly spoken with me about the various natures of competition that he, too, envisions. I welcome that he sees the Bill as being about the UK’s response and ensuring the prosperity and happiness of the British people around the world.

Power is not just about state power; it is also about the economics of strategic challenge through business. As the sadly likely recession following the covid pandemic rises, the reality is that state capitalism will pose a greater problem. As the wells of private sector investment dry up, companies able to draw on national reserves may do better.

Other countries have already seen that and reacted early. In March, in response to similar pressures that the Secretary of State responded to earlier, the Australian foreign investment review board reduced the threshold to zero for calling in acquisitions. In August, France reduced the shareholding required to trigger an inquiry from 25% to 10% for similar reasons. The United States has not followed suit on that basis, but the CFIUS regime, as we all know, is one of the most mature in the world. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has, in some ways, led the way, so the need to adapt to changing circumstances is not so immediate.

For our Government to introduce the Bill now is a welcome demonstration that the UK sees the changing circumstances and recognises that state-owned enterprises pose a different threat from five, 10 or 20 years ago. The Bill also recognises, in the 17 sectors that other hon. Members have spoken about, the rapid pace of technological change that we are seeing and the urgency of making sure that we realise what we are looking at. As assets are being developed that are essential to our continued prosperity and security, they now emerge much more quickly than we ever imagined.

Indeed, I would argue that two of the biggest strategic losses for the United Kingdom in recent years were the 2014 sale of DeepMind to Google and the 2016 sale of ARM to SoftBank, but they have been completed. What those two firms have both enabled, however, is quite phenomenal. Deep Mind, which one can pretty safely say is the world’s premier AI company, is an extraordinary asset. When it started in 2010, it was seen as a sideline, but today in 2020 it is seen very much as the main event.

The UK is not directly comparable with some of the other countries that we have spoken about. Some people have mentioned France, Germany or Australia, but the UK has about double the foreign direct investment of France or Germany, and our international co-operation—our links abroad—are quite different.

Here I declare that my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests shows that I, too, invest in businesses across the UK, and the reason why is that I think, as a Conservative, that if someone believes in business, they should put their money where their mouth is. I am proud to support some young people who have come up with some ideas, some of which may succeed and one of which may even make me as rich as the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon—[Laughter.]

This Bill looks at the challenge that such businesses are starting up with, and here I pay tribute to my constituency neighbour and right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) who spoke about the de minimis clause—the minimum amount that should be called in. Of course, it is absolutely right that companies can evolve. Technology can adapt very quickly, and ideas that one thought were insignificant can become very significant.

However, the reality is that that rarely happens overnight and, with the nature of British capitalism being as it is, the value of a company will be appreciated in the market a long time before the technology is appreciated by the Government. Therefore, although I understand why the minimum number is set at zero, there is an argument—I would welcome the Government’s thoughts on this—for setting it even as low as £1 million, which is actually a very small sum these days for many of the venture capital enterprises in our country.

I welcome the fact that this Bill makes the important distinction between national interest and national security. I see the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) in his place, and I know well that if this Bill were about national interest, he would be making one of the strong speeches about the steel industry that I have heard him make over the past five years, but this Bill is not about that. This Bill is fundamentally about the threats to the UK people and to our national security, not just our immediate interests.

It is important to make that distinction in the long term because, of course, to change that would be to fundamentally open a different question. It may be one that Opposition Members or, indeed, some Government Members, would wish to engage with, but it would be a big change to the investment environment of the United Kingdom. It would change our employment structures considerably and challenge many of the services that are built on the UK economy, from law and accountancy to finance and investment. It is a rather larger question, and I am glad that it is not included in the scope of this Bill.

The Government recognise that more consideration is needed, and they could do a little more, if I may say so, just to advertise the consideration that they are looking for in the 17 sectors. Having spoken to many lawyers in recent days—a confusion of lawyers, in fact—and to several businesses, it is quite clear that, although the consultation is welcomed, not all are as aware of what is required as would be beneficial.

If I may, I am going to start claiming some credit for some of this, because the Minister will know that the Foreign Affairs Committee has long pressed for tougher measures to protect our vital national security interests against growing threats. In our May 2018 report entitled “Moscow’s Gold”, we highlighted the corrupt investments associated with the Kremlin, but not unique to that Mafia-style regime, that have direct implications for the UK’s national security. The sanctions regime we rejected is a welcome addition to the state’s arsenal against those who seek to damage our national security. In 2019, we went further: in our report, “A cautious embrace: defending democracy in an age of autocracies”, we recommended that the Government establish a power to block listings on the UK markets on national security grounds as a matter of urgency. The Government have now announced their intention to do so to stop companies with questionable ownership from taking advantage of UK listings.

The fact that the Bill builds on both those reports is enormously welcome. They also led us to ask some pretty important questions about how the Government could achieve their aim, because there are various elements in which those questions exposed gaps or failures in the British structure that would allow the Government to be properly informed of where to get the information. That is why I will ask a few initial questions, before the Foreign Affairs Committee spends a few weeks hearing evidence and listening to commentators on the Bill and investors, practitioners and lawyers about its application. Indeed, we may even suggest amendments.

To turn to my first question, the Government have been clear that state-owned entities and sovereign wealth funds are not inherently more likely to pose a national security risk, especially if they have operational independence in economic investment strategies. This is of course important for many countries around the world, including Norway and many others, who operate very large sovereign wealth or national pension programmes. However, regimes such as that of the Chinese Communist party use opaque ownership structures to hide state interference. Will the Minister tell us what structures will be created and legal powers given to ensure that we can draw on the expertise and knowledge of those Departments and agencies across Government, including the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to shape decisions accurately? It is clear to all of us that UK missions around the world will need to be actively involved to ensure that the information required to take decisions is provided in a timely manner.

My second question is about the fact that this Bill provides gateways for disclosure of information to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and disclosure by him to a public or overseas authority. What we really need to know as well is not just how much he is able to exchange, but how much he is able to draw on other intelligence agencies and other partners and particularly, perhaps, on those in democratic and law-abiding countries, including the European Union, as we will no longer be part of the investment screening regulation and we have never been part of the different agencies or regulators in the United States, Australia and many other countries. Who are the likely partners with whom he is intending to share and how will we support each other?

Thirdly, the best estimate of the impact assessment suggests that the new notification regime will cost about £49 million a year and about £425 million over 10 years. Those numbers are, of course, uncertain. The new regime is expected to result in up to 1,800 notifications a year, which is a vast increase compared with the approximately 60 notifications a year that the Competition and Markets Authority currently deals with. The Bill introduces an investment security unit that will be staffed by 100 officials. May I seek assurance that this unit will have the capacity and necessary competencies to effectively screen this high volume of transactions and to expand if notifications are more than expected? The Minister will have heard from many people that there is the possibility that voluntary notification will result in a much higher level of disclosure than anyone is currently expecting, and therefore, the 100 officials could rapidly become overwhelmed and the timelines that he has very sensibly set out, of 30 and 45 days, could become impossible.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones
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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this unit or some of the individuals in it will need a high classification of security clearance? Without that, they will not be able to make informed judgments on some of these applications.

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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I agree entirely with the right hon. Member that what we are looking at here is a multi-agency taskforce, not a BEIS departmental body. The reason, of course, why it has to be a multi-agency taskforce is that, as he says quite correctly, the need to have access to high-level intelligence is clear, but so is the need to be able to understand the changing nature of the technology and, indeed, the changing nature of some of the individuals and groups that may be affected. It is, after all, entirely possible that a company owned one day by one individual abroad is likely to be, or is in the direction of being, controlled by a rather less salubrious individual only a few days later, and the need for such multi-agency taskforce access is clear.

Insufficient resources would of course cost delays and have a serious impact on the UK economy. Indeed, it could lead to the various obstacles that I know the Minister has been incredibly careful about avoiding, which is why he has made the scope of the Bill so narrow. I am sure that he will be able to help me in assuring me that this group will have the resources it needs. Fourthly, given the sensitivity of the cases—my mistake: I was going to repeat exactly what the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said, so I shall skip it. I was going to ask for exactly the same.

As this Bill makes its way through the House, the Foreign Affairs Committee will be following it closely. As I have said, we will be conducting various hearings with various people along the way in the next few weeks, and we will, I hope, be making welcome suggestions that the Minister will be able to consider. Properly implemented and with due consultation and consideration, this new investment regime should provide certainty and transparency for UK businesses and investors in this country. It is an important and valuable change to our laws to ensure that our businesses are able to prosper in the safe knowledge that the information they develop and the innovations they provide allow the happiness and prosperity of these people, our friends and our allies.

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Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
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I was going to say it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mark Logan), but I am not sure that it is. I welcome any measure that aims to protect or increase our national security. We live in an interconnected world now—a global world—in which capital is no respecter of national boundaries. We also live in a world in which nation states are using strategic investment as a way to pursue their own national interests, and there was mention earlier of the Chinese belt and road initiative.

We also live in a world in which nations or individuals use investments to launder money or to buy influence or protection, as was highlighted in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report. So the measures in the Bill are to be welcomed but, as the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) said, the issues that it addresses were raised seven years ago in the ISC report on Huawei. None the less, I wish to mention a few areas where the Bill is still deficient.

The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) mentioned the Secretary of State’s role. A call-in will be triggered on whether a transaction creates a risk to national security. Notification takes place in one of two ways—a transaction is notifiable either under four criteria or under a voluntary system. I believe the voluntary system is fraught with administrative difficulties and needs to change. However, I want to focus on how the assessment is then made and the role that the Secretary of State plays in deciding whether a case goes forward. I do so by reference to a recent case—that of the Cobham company.

The Bill would not have prevented the £4 billion sale of Cobham to a US company, even though the Ministry of Defence had huge issues around the sale, partly because it would allow unauthorised persons to understand either the details of the MOD capacity and activities, or give them a more strategic picture of the capabilities and activities that had been built up. The MOD said that the transaction posed a risk to the existing MOD programmes if the merger entity took decisions to exit from an investment or to move offshore the associated capabilities.

At the time, Lady Cobham’s concern was that Cobham would be split into various entities and sold off—and, lo and behold, that it is exactly what is happening. It has gone from four divisions to nine, and the risks to national security were clearly evident at the time. I see nothing in the Bill that would have stopped that, because it comes back to the decision of the Business Secretary.

I am not anti-business in any way, but I am not sure that BEIS takes a view in terms of security issues, which would be perhaps more evident in the Ministry of Defence and so on. So there is an issue about who takes the final decision on such bids’ going forward. I would prefer that to be a decision of the national security committee or a sub-committee of that, so that we may have in-depth intelligence reasoning—and I accept that such decisions should be taken on national security grounds only. If we look at the United States model, we see that some very dubious decisions are taken there on national security grounds, which, frankly, are more to do with protectionism rather than anything else.

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a real role for Committees of this House in such processes and that the ability to subpoena both witnesses and papers would add not only depth to the Government’s investigation but protection to the Business Secretary who was forced to take the decision?

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Jones
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I agree. There is an issue, in some of these cases, around national security. A point was raised earlier in the debate about whether the ISC should look at such decisions. Certainly there is an argument for an annual report, which I would welcome.

I said earlier that I had a fundamental problem with one individual’s taking such decisions, and I am sorry, but I do not think that the new investment security unit is the vehicle. The hon. Gentleman has referred to it as a taskforce, but unless it has national security at its heart, the push for business to get things moved on will take over, rather than what we should be looking at—national security. So decisions should not be left with the Business Secretary.

The other issue I raise is with supply chains. We all know that supply chains are now very complicated, long and diverse, from small companies right down to SMEs. I asked who will map those supply chains. We might say that small companies will self-notify, but would we miss things? There is a key role here for our security services in terms of flagging up things about particular companies, and I do not see that in this process. A small company very low down the supply chain, which may have only a very small element of either a nuclear project or a defence project, might lead to a security risk. I do not think that the new investment security unit will be able to deal with this. That is a role for our security services, which should be at the heart of this, rather than just being a member of the taskforce.

The other area I wish to focus on is in relation to the core areas. Listing them in the way that they have been listed is not helpful. For example, the term “military dual use” brings in a whole host of issues. Is a vehicle that is used for military purposes “dual use” even if it has a civilian use? Trying to define things in a list is actually very unhelpful. I would sooner come at it from the point of view of security and intelligence-driven information, which would inform the decisions that are taken. I am also a bit reluctant for things to be added to that core list by secondary legislation.

Then we come to an area that has already been touched on, which is the role of universities. The Bill mentions

“moveable property, ideas, information or techniques which have industrial, commercial or other economic value.”

When does an idea become a commercial value? I personally think that we need to be looking carefully at this. There is some perfectly legitimate and important foreign investment in our universities, and I do not want to stifle it, but if we have, for example, a Chinese or Russian company investing in a university, particularly in a research programme, is that covered by this Bill? At the initial stage, the investment goes in, but there is no actual product as such. A separate look at that needs to be part of our overall assessment, and, again, that can only be done not from a broad brush stroke approach, but from letting our security services look at some of these areas.

The other point I want to make is to do with land, which is referred to in the Bill, but, again, what is strategic? Would it be allowable, for example, for a Chinese or Russian company, or any company, to start buying up real estate with Government offices on it? The other thing that the Bill does not really cover—the Minister might say that there are measures to cover this—is the issue relating to the well-trailed arguments about the way in which Russian and former eastern European countries have used the property market in the UK, not only to launder money but to build up huge assets in terms of power and influence.

I have just two final points. One is referred to in the appeal system as closed hearings. Members may be aware of what closed hearings are. This is where intelligence, which is an informed decision, goes before a court within a closed hearing. These hearings are mainly used in terrorism-related activities or other national security cases. I would be interested to hear from the Minister in his summing up exactly how he envisages that working in relation to this Bill and how he will manage closed cases, because they are very controversial. At the moment, for example, there are a lot of legal challenges to cases when intelligence goes before the court and then it is ruled that it cannot be heard in open hearings. I just wondered what the Minister has to say on that.

My final concern is around the time limit, which I do not quite understand. It is six months from the date that it comes available to the Secretary of State. I am very opposed to anything that is retrospective, because, as has already been argued, to try to unpick these things will be very difficult. I just want to understand from the Minister the reason behind the five-year retrospection.

Yes, I welcome this Bill, but what it should have at the heart of it is security and intelligence. At the moment, there is too much emphasis on business. I am not arguing for one minute that we should get security and intelligence looking at every single investment decision. I am pro-investment, but the balance here is possibly wrong if we are trying to stop what we all want to stop, which is malign activity in our economy.