Ed Miliband – 2020 Speech on the National Security and Investment Bill

The speech made by Ed Miliband, the Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, in the House of Commons on 17 November 2020.

I will start with the vital context to the Bill. At the heart of it is the first duty of any Government: to protect our national security, while meeting the shared desire across the House for our businesses to succeed and create wealth and jobs. The Bill must be seen against the changing geopolitical and economic landscape; the evolving nature of the threats to our national security in an age of rapid changes in technology; the lessons of covid about the critical nature of unexpected threats, including pandemics, which has thrown into sharp relief the critical need for advanced domestic capabilities in manufacturing and logistics and across supply chains; a shared sense across the House that we as a country have at times been too relaxed about some overseas interests investing in our country, with damaging national security implications; and an understanding that the existing legislation supported across parties two decades ago does not provide the basis for the kind of active industrial strategy that we need to build a safe and successful economic future. Those factors together demand legislation, and that is the context in which we view the Bill, so we support it and the fact that the Government are taking the necessary legislative steps to protect our vital national security interests. It is the right thing to do for our country.

Our main argument with the scope of the Bill is not so much about what it seeks to do on national security but what it omits on wider issues of industrial strategy. It is notable that the Bill brings us into line with other major economies on the security questions we face but fails to do so on broader issues of public interest and takeovers going beyond national security, despite the clear lessons that have been shown over the last decade. I will return to that point later in my speech, but first let me focus on the specific provisions in the Bill.

We should be candid that, in drafting the Bill, the Government face the very difficult challenge of keeping our economy open as much as possible to foreign direct investment, which is part of the lifeblood of business and jobs, and protecting our security. Navigating that challenge is hard, which is why getting the specific provisions of the Bill right is so important. This is obviously reinforced by the fact that the Bill goes significantly further in a number of respects than the 2018 White Paper envisaged—notably, the mandatory notification obligation that will apply in 17 sectors and the question of five-year retrospective application.

I want to raise a number of issues about the Bill in the interests of the constructive scrutiny that is the role of this House. These questions are about the scope of the Bill, ​the issue of retrospection, the capacity of the Government to make this regime work and the scrutiny of its effectiveness.

First, on the scope of the Bill, we do not take issue with the 17 key sectors identified by the Government. In quantum technologies, engineering, biology, space and a range of other emerging technologies, there are serious potential issues around national security. For example, the acquisition by a firm owned or funded by a foreign power of a company that designs graphic processes, networking routers or microchips could potentially risk national security, especially if the products are used by the UK Government. That is why the legislation is necessary.

However, as the Secretary of State acknowledged, the Bill goes well beyond those sectors. The call-in ability stretches to any entity or asset in the UK, irrespective of sector. While that was true in the old regime, this power will be viewed in the context of a much more activist, interventionist Government approach. We do not say that is wrong, or indeed out of line with some other countries, but there is a danger of a potential deterrent effect on investment.

To be fair to the Secretary of State, in his statement of policy intent accompanying the Bill he says that in those non-mandatory areas,

“transactions are only expected to be called in on an exceptional basis.”

The central question for businesses and investors in the non-mandatory sectors will be to decide whether or not to notify. The central challenge for the country is to make sure that investors are not put off from investing in the UK.

I would say to the Secretary of State that there is not yet clear, targeted guidance for market participants on how and when they should notify in those non-mandatory sectors; further detail on that will be crucial in due course. The Secretary of State will be aware of the example of the suspicious activity reports from financial institutions to the National Crime Agency where the system has, according to the Law Commission, been “swamped”. As with suspicious activity reports, there is a risk that the voluntary notification system sees businesses err on the side of over-reporting; the impact assessment already estimates that at least 1,000 notifications will be made each year. I hope that, during the passage of the Bill, Ministers can offer reassurance on that point.

Secondly, I want to raise is retrospection. The Government consulted on a six-month retrospective power to call in transactions for review, and certain respondents expressed the view that that was too long. The Government have chosen to go much further—for five-year retrospection. I appreciate that that is similar to France, Germany and Italy, and we have no inherent objection to it if the case can be made, but I have read carefully the Government’s response to the consultation, and I do say to the Secretary of State that Ministers need to do a better job of explaining the change in thinking to such a lengthy period.

In particular, I wonder whether Ministers would explain what the experience has been in those countries that have five-year retrospection—whether they have looked at its effects. As well as the possible deterrent effect on investors, there is obviously a massive challenge in unwinding a transaction that has taken place at five years’ remove. It would help if Ministers explained that, because ​there could be a subsequent series of transactions, so that unwinding from that would be very complex. There is also the issue that has been raised about the voiding, which is that a notifiable acquisition completed without the Secretary of State’s approval is void—not unwound by the Secretary of State, but automatically void without any decision required on his part. That is an unusual concept, and Ministers need to explain how it will work.

Thirdly—this is really important for practical purposes—I want to focus on how Government can guarantee an effective regime for the new powers. The Government have proposed a new investment security unit in BEIS. It is hard to overestimate the extent of the challenge for the new unit. It will have to respond to a large volume of mandatory, and potentially voluntary, notifications within a tight timeline set out in the Bill. The start of a new regime will always be turbulent.

The unit will have to track the development of fast-moving, highly complex technologies and monitor each of those markets, and the Secretary of State will have to take decisions on the advice of the unit, which can be challenged in court in the context of highly sensitive information and wide-ranging powers. And the unit will need to develop policy, practice and precedent to provide certainty to a wide swath of the economy. These are, as I am sure the Secretary of State knows, significant challenges, and it is no exaggeration to say that the success of the regime and the effective functioning of an important part of the economy rest on the new unit operating swiftly and effectively. If I may put it this way, the Secretary of State will be aware that his reputation and that of future Business Secretaries—not to be presumptuous —will depend on the resourcing and functioning of the unit.

I want to raise in particular the issue of small and medium-sized enterprises, which may well find the notification process most burdensome. Take the example of a small tech start-up founded by recent university graduates, who might incur much more debilitating costs in navigating the process than a large global corporation. It is essential that the Government find ways to mitigate this risk.

In any case, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and I are seeking from Ministers assurances that the unit will be adequately resourced, with access to the right technical capabilities; and crucially, there must be a clear flow of information and shared priorities between the unit, protecting our national security, and the Department of International Trade’s new office for investment, whose job is to get inward investment into the UK.

Mr Kevan Jones

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is also going to be needed is some very close relationships and working with the security services, because the information that it could rely on in these cases will mostly not be accessible straightaway by this new unit?

Edward Miliband

My right hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge on this issue, and he is completely correct. Indeed, I do not want to answer for the Secretary of State, but one of the issues that was raised was the definition of national security. These things are hard to define, for a whole range of reasons that we can understand, but for the reasons that my right hon. Friend set out, it is absolutely crucial that there is a close relationship with the security services.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith

Does the right hon. Member agree that the definition of national security provided in spheres such as the United States and Australia would actually help clarify for companies an idea of whether they are likely to fall within it? Without that, they are not quite sure what the judgment will be behind closed doors.

Edward Miliband

The right hon. Gentleman has taken a huge interest in these issues and, again, speaks with great expertise, and he may well be right that it is possible to do more on the definition. I am sure that is something the Secretary of State will consider. I can see there are definitely challenges, but I would agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the more guidance there can be for business about this, the better, because the more we will avoid a mountain of notifications that are not necessary and the more clarity there will be and the greater protection for our economy.

Fourthly, I want to talk about the role of this House in scrutinising the effects of this legislation. A large number of areas are left to delegated legislation in this Bill. Notably, the Bill enables Ministers to add new sectors to those subject to mandatory notification. I understand some of the reasons for this, but I do hope there can be proper scrutiny, if that is the case, in this House and, indeed, interaction with business. Given the sensitive nature of the issues involved in this Bill, I do think there needs to be a way—an annual report is envisaged, I believe, by the Secretary of State—for this House to monitor how this is working in practice.

I do not speak for it, but we have a special Committee of the House—the Intelligence and Security Committee—that can look at these issues. I would like to raise the question with the Secretary of State whether it could play a role in scrutinising the working of the regime and some of the decisions being made, because there are real restrictions on the kind of transparency there can be on these issues for the reasons raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). The ISC is in a sense purpose-built for some of these issues.

Again, this is one of a range of issues we will seek to raise during the passage of the Bill, because I think that it is really important. We see our role as a constructive Opposition to get this right. There is a shared understanding across this House that we need to update our legislation. There does need to be proper scrutiny, and I hope that there can be good scrutiny in Committee and an openness on the Government side to the points that are made across the House in relation to improving the legislation and a proper way to look at its operation, which is vital to our businesses.

Bob Seely

Is the shadow Secretary of State aware that some people on this side of the House, as part of this process and as part of the scrutiny, have been calling for an annual statement on strategic trade dependency to give ourselves an overview and an understanding of the strategic direction of some of our industries, including specific examples?

Edward Miliband

It sounds like a good idea to me, and I would welcome that. Actually, that is a convenient segue to the wider points that I want to make on this Bill.​

Our view is that this is only one part of the change we need, because I believe that the existing legislation has been found wanting. That legislation was passed by a Labour Government—I checked—and I think it was more or less agreed across parties; certainly, the then Opposition did not vote against it. It has been found wanting not just on national security but on wider issues such as the public interest test for takeovers on economic grounds.

I just want to raise a very specific issue, because it illustrates the point. We are in the midst of a threatened takeover in the tech sector: the Nvidia-ARM deal. We know that ARM is the crown jewel of the British tech sector. We know that Nvidia competes with companies to which ARM supplies. There is a widespread view across the tech sector and across this House that this takeover could be a risk to the future prosperity and success of the sector in the UK, but looking at the Secretary of State’s statement of intent, I do not think that it falls in this list. The list of trigger risks are: disruptive or destructive actions; espionage; or inappropriate leverage. Those are not the issues with Nvidia. The issue is our wider economic interests, which speaks to the point that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) made.

In the two months since the takeover was announced, we have heard little from Ministers. It is true that there could be a referral on competition grounds—I am sure that the Secretary of State is a bit constrained in what he can say about this, but let us hear it if there is. But we are deeply worried about the future of ARM. We are worried about the strength of the legal assurances on its headquarters and other matters. It would be good if Ministers could tell us what they think about this issue. These are deeply serious issues about our industrial strategy and our economic base, and they go beyond national security and, on my understanding, the tests that are set out in the Bill.

Andrew Griffith (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)

The right hon. Gentleman speaks very lucidly about the deterrent effect, which he talked about earlier, as well as some of the challenges in establishing this new unit. Surely he must understand that the answer to this is to make sure that the scope of this Bill is absolutely as narrowly drawn as it can be. With respect, he has fallen into the trap of immediately hanging Christmas-tree-like baubles of employment policy and other areas of his industrial policy in what would otherwise be a very narrowly drawn and constructive Bill.

Edward Miliband

I really appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point. These are not Christmas tree baubles that I have suddenly raised now. In 2010, there was the issue of the Kraft takeover of Cadbury. In 2014, there was the threatened takeover by Pfizer of AstraZeneca that had deep implications for our science base. I have felt for a decade that our legislation is not fit for purpose—and I acknowledge completely that this legislation was put in place by the Labour Government. These are deeply serious questions about the future of our industrial strategy and industrial base.

I do not pretend that these issues are easy to resolve. Of course there are dangers on both sides of the ledger, and we have to strike a balance between those two dangers, but we have enough experience with Kraft-Cadbury and with Pfizer and AstraZeneca— which did not happen, ​but not because of any powers of Government—to be anxious about Nvidia-ARM. If, as I believe, the whole basis of this legislation is to say that other countries are taking this action when it comes to national security and so should we, the logic applies here as well. It is not straightforward, it is not simple, and I completely acknowledge that to the hon. Gentleman, but I see the case for change.

Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)

The right hon. Gentleman used the phrase “I feel” and then talked about confectionary, then about how he felt about pharmaceuticals and about semiconductor chips that are used in mobile telephony. That is the problem, is it not, Mr Deputy Speaker? His feelings are not an appropriate way to interfere in the development assets of private capital. What could he provide to those businesses to protect their development from the vagaries of his feelings from time to time?

Edward Miliband

It is interesting; I believe the hon. Gentleman supports this Bill—I may be wrong—but on national security, the Government will apply some tests and we could apply some tests when it comes to our industrial base. Let me make this point to him: it is not just France, but Germany, Australia, Japan and the United States. It is all of the other major industrial economies that say, “Well, no, we do have a strategic interest in certain industries.” Of course, if we decided to go down that route, we would have a debate in this House about the specific areas in which we wanted to be able to intervene. We would have to look at exactly the criteria, and it is not just about whim, but the question is: is the status quo adequate?

I say to the hon. Gentleman that the status quo is not adequate, and we do not just have 10 years or more of experience to suggest that the status quo is not adequate; we also have a real situation now with Nvidia and ARM. If anyone in the House wants to get up and say, “We think it is fine. We think this should just go ahead. We are not concerned about what that means for our tech sector”, then fine, but everybody I speak to in the tech sector who knows about this issue, including my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, says that there is a real worry. Why have we not developed enough of these world-leading companies in this country? Why do we want to see ARM taken over?

Andrew Griffith

The right hon. Gentleman is probably aware that on the journey to build the fabulous enterprise that is ARM, which is still employing thousands of British people and will continue to employ many more in the Cambridge artificial intelligence hub, that business made 22 acquisitions to equip itself to be where it is today. Had each and every one of those been subject to the jeopardy and the predations that he talks about, we may not have great British businesses like ARM in the future.

Edward Miliband

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely entitled to his view; we just have a difference of view on this. When it comes to our industrial base, I believe that the current legislation is inadequate, and there have been a series of events that illustrate that point. Indeed, I would make this point as well, which is that the Government say that the crisis of coronavirus makes parts of our corporate sector more vulnerable, and I think that only strengthens the case for action.​

The overall point I would make is this: I welcome the Bill and think it is the right thing to do, but there is a broader picture here about what a modern industrial strategy looks like, and I do not think we can ignore these vital issues around our economic and industrial base.

Several hon. Members rose—

Edward Miliband

I have such an array of options. I think the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) was first.

Aaron Bell

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is perhaps proposing an industrial strategy Bill, rather than a national security Bill, but on innovation and science and technology, does he not worry about the chilling effect of what he is proposing? Individuals who may be setting up a scientific or technology company might prefer now to do that in the United States, where they have every option of going to California and setting up the company in the first place, rather than setting up in the UK, because they might fear that he, as a potential future Secretary of State, as he indicated earlier, might prevent them from cashing in on what they have done?

Edward Miliband

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 (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)

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.

Edward Miliband

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.

Mr Kevan Jones

Is there not a direct national security issue around telecoms? When BT was privatised, the old General Post Office was advanced in both mobile technology and fibre optics. It was because the Thatcher Government decided to throw it open to the open market that the advantage we had in this country was lost. That is why we now find ourselves at mercy of Huawei and other companies.

Edward Miliband

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and I were discussing this very issue last night—that these issues can interact.

I will just say this and then I will conclude, Mr Deputy Speaker, I promise. I think the public are in a different place from some of the Government Members who have spoken. I think the public really recognise this issue. We have many great companies, but some of them have been subject to takeover, and the public do not really understand why and they do not really understand why the Government have not played more of a role. I can see some hon. Members nodding.

Updating legislation to protect national security is long overdue, and we welcome it. We will support the Government as they seek to protect national security and defend our country. We will push them to go further on industrial strategy and the takeover regime. We think this is the moment to be bold and develop the industrial strategy that 21st century Britain needs, but we want to see this Bill pass through the House. We will engage on it constructively, and I know from the Secretary of State and the way he operates that he will do the same.