International Investment - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:18 pm on 17th October 2017.

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Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:18 pm, 17th October 2017

My Lords, I draw your Lordships’ attention to the interests registered in my name. I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement in this House. He is of course right to declare that the UK economy should be open. All of us on these Benches earnestly hope that that is the way the Government continue to play it and that we do not start to close down and become a little England.

The Minister also rightly highlighted the need for changes in appropriate safeguards. The world is changing very quickly, national security needs are changing and the Government are right to keep those under review, so this is a timely process.

The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, asked for a holistic approach to the whole issue of mergers and acquisitions. En passant, I add pensions to that list, which he did not include, because increasingly pensions and the rights of pensioners are becoming a driver within the mergers and acquisitions section.

On the Statement, there is a powerful case for strengthening the public interest in takeovers, as, indeed our leader Vince Cable has argued regularly, most recently, I think, on the AstraZeneca case. However, while lowering the threshold is a welcome step, the Government’s proposals are narrow and do not add a great deal to the overall public interest element, which should be covered in a more holistic approach. In recent months we have seen several of the UK’s high-tech companies snapped up by foreign competitors. This has been exacerbated by the fall in the value of the pound. That is a regrettable outcome. Therefore, today’s inclusion of computer chips in the list of new technologies singled out is somewhat interesting given that it follows the much publicised acquisition of ARM, arguably the world’s best chip designer. That, again, was driven by the weakness of the pound. Perhaps the Minister agrees that there is an element of closing the stable door here. We wish that some of the measures we are discussing were in place at that time.

The addition of quantum technology raises the question: why only that? Again, the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, opened up a list of other technologies. I had biosciences and some aspects of IT and encryption on my list. It seems to me a rather narrow list when you consider the potential threats to a range of technologies. In some technologies, the threats have not been thought of yet but they exist. In our view the scope should be widened to defend not just the science base from a security point of view but also the overall knowledge base of this country. Knowledge can leak out from this country through a variety of means, of which mergers and acquisitions is but one. Joint research projects are another. In many cases you often have competing aims where inward development exercises try to draw foreign investors into research projects where the IP driver in this country would be to exclude some of those investors. In many cases, therefore, we are creating a situation that is leaking out valuable information —whether it is for security interests or economically valuable—through actions that the Government or local government are driving. Perhaps this is something that the Minister could look at. At the heart of this is the narrow look at security needs. These Benches would widen that to cover more economic interests of this country, and we hope the Government will take that on board.

Turning to Bombardier, I am sure the whole House welcomes the announcement of this deal, which should protect the future of the plane-maker. Clearly, only a few days ago, we were discussing a very bleak future for the 4,000-plus workers and all of those indirectly involved in the economic area that it has created in Belfast, so this is good news. I said at the time that even though this is not a case that would, in the end, be won by Boeing, time was the issue that would kill off and affect Bombardier. This is a very effective way of trying to bridge that time and of negating that problem. We should all congratulate everybody who has been involved in expediting this so swiftly and effectively. I am sure there are “i”s to be dotted and “t”s to be crossed, and I hope the Minister will give assistance to all those who require it to make sure that happens. In that regard, will the Minister tell us what anti-trust hoops he expects this deal to have to jump through?

We would also welcome some clarity from the Minister on what assurances have been forthcoming, both on investment and on the public statement made by the CEO, Tom Enders, on the notion that operations will be more efficient. What will be the job implications in both Belfast and perhaps in Broughton? What assurances have been given, and how will he be able to uphold them? In many ways, the US Administration and Boeing might feel that they have got off the hook somewhat by this, but there are still huge tariffs outstanding on this aircraft. The actions of the US remain a salutary warning to this country that its relationship with the Trump Administration is, at best, strained and poses something of a black cloud.

In conclusion, today’s announcement takeovers and mergers sets out steps in the right direction. We welcome greater breadth in scrutiny and the requirement for notification. I am sure that, as the consultation process goes through, the Government will look at the technologies, and at which elements of which technologies we should be concerned about. I hope they will also take on board the public interest aspect in mergers and acquisitions.