Clause 5 - National Security Directions

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 22nd April 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 11:45 am, 22nd April 2021

I beg to move amendment 20, in clause 5, page 2, line 33, at end insert—

“(4) The Secretary of State must, in relation to each financial year—

(a) prepare a report in accordance with this section, and

(b) provide a copy of it to the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament as soon as is practicable after the end of that period.

(5) Each report must provide details of—

(a) any directions made under this section in the relevant financial year, and

(b) the nature of the national risks posed which triggered the making of the directions.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to prepare and provide to the ISC an annual report on any directions made under this section.

It is a great pleasure to move this amendment, which proposes an essential addition to the Bill. It would require the Secretary of State to prepare and provide to the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament an annual report on any direction made under the clause. I remind the Committee that clause 5 states that

“(1) The Secretary of State may give ARIA directions as to the exercise of its functions if the Secretary of State considers it necessary or expedient in the interests of national security. (2) The power to give directions under this section includes power to vary or revoke a direction. (3) ARIA must comply with a direction given under this section.”

We in the Labour party are very clear that we are the party of national security—[Interruption.] Would anybody like to intervene? Let me say it again: we are the party of national security, and we believe that it is vital that decisions taken by the Government reflect our national security interests. That is clearly in the interests of the nation. The first duty of any Government, of any colour, is to keep our nation secure, and we are very pleased that the Bill recognises the importance of national security. Indeed, we are often concerned that, at times, it seems that this Government place business interests, particularly foreign investment, ahead of national security.

Obviously, national security is an important consideration, but the issue and the challenge here is that, under the Bill as drafted, those directions cannot be subject to adequate parliamentary scrutiny. I am reluctant to remind the Committee again, but the Government are in the midst of a cronyism scandal. The Bill places power and responsibility in the hands of the Secretary of State, with little ongoing accountability generally. Part of our constructive approach to the Bill is to try to ensure that there is appropriate scrutiny provision throughout the Bill, particularly given that it was drafted before the cronyism scandal that has had such an impact on the public’s trust in procurement, funding and other decisions taken by this Government.

It is essential that the directions that the Secretary of State gives be subject to scrutiny, but how will that be possible under the Bill as it stands? A Select Committee does not have the intelligence clearance to discuss matters of national security. I hope that it is in order for me to remark that I have had the good fortune to work on the National Security and Investment Bill and the Telecommunication (Security) Bill as they have come through Parliament in the last few months. In both Bill Committees, we discussed the issue of a Secretary of State taking decisions on grounds of national security. By definition, those decisions would not be able to be subject to scrutiny, because only the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament has the intelligence clearance to scrutinise such decisions. By enabling that scrutiny, we want to correct the oversight of giving to the Secretary of State powers that are not subject to scrutiny.

The reports that we are proposing would be annual, coinciding with the financial year, and would provide Parliament with an accurate and periodic update on the impact of these measures on our national security. The Bill allows the Secretary of State to take decisions in the name of national security, but without any obligation to inform or liaise with the ISC. If the Minister objects to the way that the report would be required, we are quite happy to discuss other ways in which the ISC can provide the appropriate scrutiny.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy does not have a long-standing tradition of implementing national security measures. It was only very recently, with the National Security and Investment Bill, for example, which has yet to complete its stages in the House, that BEIS was given the powers to look at mergers and acquisitions and so on based on national security. We believe that experienced and qualified oversight is needed. If the Minister is reluctant to support the amendment, I would like to hear from her how the Secretary of State’s powers will be scrutinised.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk 12:00 pm, 22nd April 2021

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. I am intrigued by the amendment, because on the one hand, the Opposition were very keen with amendment 15 that ARIA’s mission be to drive the net zero agenda; on the other hand, this amendment would require the Secretary of State to report to the ISC. Can she explain where she thinks a report on the potential for net zero to the ISC would be necessary and what it would achieve?

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which I hope does not reflect a lack of understanding of the ways in which science research and our national interest work. On national security, a direction could be given to ARIA not to work in nuclear energy with a Government whose interests did not align with our own, for example. That is quite a relevant example, because we know that, rather than investing in it themselves—even though interest rates are so low at the moment—the Government have welcomed, and even encouraged, investment in our nuclear energy by the Chinese. Some kind of direction might well be given on that basis. There are many ways in which climate change is essential to our national security, so I do not think that example was very well chosen.

More generally, if the hon. Member is asking how trade-offs between national security and other priorities should be made, which is a very important question, we have already said that we believe in national security, and national security should always be the priority. However, when such a direction is made for reasons of national security, which we support, the fact is that we will not know why it was made. Perhaps that is right, because if it is an issue of national security, those concerns should not be shared publicly; none the less, somebody needs to scrutinise them. I hope everybody on this Committee will agree that someone in Parliament should be scrutinising decisions on national security, particularly when those decisions are taken by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. As I have already said, neither the Department nor the Secretary of State has long experience of making national security decisions.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I fully take the point made by the hon. Member for North Norfolk, but we Opposition Members have a degree of prescience in being able to predict the way that votes in this Committee might go. We anticipated that the Government might not accept our suggestion about giving ARIA this mission. Does not that the lack of a mission create this further problem? If we had had that clear mission around climate, this would be far less of an issue.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Once again, my hon. Friend raises an excellent point, and indeed he brings together the themes of our amendments. He is right to say that if ARIA had a clear mission, there would be better understanding of the kinds of decisions and trade-offs that might well need to be made, and we could have a much better informed discussion around that. However, the fact is that we have neither a mission for ARIA, nor any opportunity to scrutinise the national security directives that might be made in the interests of addressing climate change, but also might be made in the interests of ensuring that we have oil drilling rights, or that we continue to fund minerals extraction around the world in order to support other research objectives. It is clear to us that we need to have this scrutiny.

As I indicated, there have been a number of debates on Intelligence and Security Committee scrutiny of other Departments, including in relation to the National Security and Investment Bill and the Telecommunications (Security) Bill. In those cases, despite that Committee being keen to scrutinise national security decisions, the Government have shown a great reluctance to allow parliamentary scrutiny of issues of national security. Some believe—I am not one of those cynical people—that this is because the Government are not happy with Parliament’s choice of Chair of the ISC. I am loath to believe that the Government would be so petty when it comes to such an important matter as national security, so I hope the Minister will clarify how we will have appropriate scrutiny of national security decisions made by the Secretary of State, as set out in this Bill, and why the ISC is not the right vehicle for that.

I will finish with two brief quotes in support of the amendment. In the National Security and Investment Bill Committee, we had the great privilege of taking evidence from Richard Dearlove, former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

He said:

“My view would be that the annual report has as much transparency as possible, but you are probably going to require a secret annexe from time to time. It is a bit like the reports of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which I dealt with frequently as chief. They and we were keen that they should publish their reports, but there comes a point where it is not in our national interest that some of this stuff is put in the public domain.”

––[Official Report, National Security and Investment Public Bill Committee, 24 November 2020; c. 21, Q23.]

That is the case here as well.

My right hon. Friend Mr Jones has said:

“I do not want to give the impression that the ISC is looking for work, because I have been a member for a number of years and we are busy with a lot of inquiries—I have three or four hours’ reading every week looking through reports from the agencies. However, it is important that the ISC can at least look at the intelligence that lies behind decisions.”––[Official Report, Telecommunications (Security) Public Bill Committee, 21 January 2021; c. 143.]

That is all that we are seeking to achieve through this amendment.

Photo of Amanda Solloway Amanda Solloway Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Amendment 20 would require the Secretary of State to provide a report to the Intelligence and Security Committee at the end of each financial year detailing directions made by the Secretary of State to ARIA in the interests of national security and the national security risks that triggered the directions.

The Government take very seriously their duty to protect the national security of the country and its citizens. The ISC plays a valuable role in providing scrutiny and expertise in respect of its functions, as set out in the Justice and Security Act 2013 and the statutory memorandum of understanding. However, that remit does not extend to oversight of BEIS work.

I do not see any reason why such a report should be necessary. No such arrangements exist with UKRI through the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. Instead, the organisation has robust national security arrangements in place to ensure that appropriate action is taken. Similar arrangements will be put in place as ARIA becomes operational, and we are speaking with the relevant parts of Government to make sure that that is the case.

The clause reflects the fact that, while ARIA will be free from ministerial interference, we will always act on our responsibility to protect our national security. Information made known to the Secretary of State will be fed into the wider work of the Government to protect UK R&D from national security risks as appropriate. I see no case for ARIA to report on that to the ISC. I urge the hon. Lady to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the Minister for her comments, but she has not responded to the underlying and constructive aim of the amendment, which is to ensure that the ISC has sight of intelligence and security decisions.

She makes a comparison with UKRI. This agency is about high-risk, high-reward research, which we are told will be transformative. During many of our National Security and Investment Bill Committee debates, the point was raised that the nature of national security threats is changing and, as we heard numerous times in evidence, has moved, and is moving, very much into the technological domain. The question whether or not we play a leading role in artificial intelligence, for example, is an issue of national security, as are our cyber defences, which I am sure any chief executive of ARIA would be keen to look at. The agency needs the kind of intelligence scrutiny that only the Intelligence and Security Committee can give. On that basis, I would like to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 14 Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill — Clause 5 - National Security Directions

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Amanda Solloway Amanda Solloway Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Clause 5 creates a power for the Secretary of State to give directions to ARIA regarding the exercising of its functions that are considered necessary or expedient in the interests of national security. It is right that ARIA is free from too much ministerial oversight. However, when it comes to questions of national security, Ministers may intervene to prevent risk to the UK’s national security interests.

The necessary and expedient threshold of clause 5 offers adequate protection and limits the possibility of ministerial overreach, owing to a more broadly defined power. The direction-making power with which ARIA must comply can be general—for example, a direction not to conduct research in conjunction with partners from a particular jurisdiction that poses a threat to the United Kingdom’s national security—or specific: for example, a direction to terminate a specific contract.

Subsection (2) states that the directions include the

“power to vary or revoke”, which is to say that directions can be altered or withdrawn depending on how the national security risk develops or subsides.

I would like to take this opportunity to assure the Committee that my team are working hard to ensure that ARIA is set up with national security risks front of mind. That ranges from reducing the risk of cyber-attacks, to ensuring that ARIA is plugged to the appropriate Whitehall national security networks. This work complements a direct-making power in the Bill.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

The hon. Lady has said on a number of occasions that Labour is the party of national security. I would be very interested to hear her views about what date it became the party of national security. If my memory serves me right, Sir Richard Dearlove, to whom the hon. Lady has referred approvingly, said that the former leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, was a personal risk to national security, particularly if he ever got the keys to No. 10. He said:

“Do not even think of handing this politician the keys to No10.”

If that was the Labour party’s approach under his leadership, at what stage did it change its mind about national security?

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I am really disappointed in the hon. Gentleman for trying to make our national security an issue of party politics, and in particular for quoting a supposed critique of politicians by our intelligence service from previous years. I do not think that such comments have a place in this debate. We have elected leaders. I could go into a long list of quotations about our current Prime Minister and the concerns that he raises in many people’s minds, including from when he was Foreign Secretary.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

I think we should stick to the business at hand.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I recognise that, Mr Twigg, but let us be clear. When I say that we are the party of national security, it is also what the shadow Secretary of State for Defence and my party leader say. That is a statement, and I really do not think it was appropriate of the hon. Member for Broadland to try to undermine the unity on both sides of the House with regard to the importance of national security. I fear that that is what he was trying to do.

As I was saying, Labour is the party of national security and believes strongly in the importance of the Secretary of State’s ability to give directions informed by national security. However, I feel that the Minister has yet to set out how those directions will be scrutinised. That remains a significant concern for the Opposition if we are to be sure that those directions are really driven by our national security interests and if we are to give the scrutiny that ensures continuing public confidence. However, given the importance of national security, we will clearly not be opposing clause 5.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.