Examination of Witnesses

National Security and Investment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 26th November 2020.

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Lisa Wright and Christian Boney gave evidence

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

Q80 Before calling the first Member to ask a question, I should like to remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee has agreed. For this session, we have until 12.15 pm.

I welcome the two witnesses from Slaughter and May. Can I ask you to introduce yourselves for the record, please?

Lisa Wright:

Hi, my name is Lisa Wright and I am a partner in the competition group at Slaughter and May.

Christian Boney:

Good morning. I am Christian Boney and I am a partner in the corporate mergers and acquisitions group at Slaughter and May.

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

Thank you very much, Ms Wright and Mr Boney, for sharing your expertise and time with the Committee. It is indeed extensive experience of mergers and acquisitions.Q

I am sure you are aware that many countries—the US and Canada are just two—give some sense of the factors that might be considered under a national security assessment. Do you think it would be helpful for market participants to have greater clarity about the types of factors that would be considered? How could we give that clarity while retaining the sensitivity and discretion that are needed on those matters?

Joined to that, there are cases such as Arm and DeepMind where economic security became national security over time. When considering what national security is, what links do you see between national security and economic security or sovereign capability? Can they better be reflected in the Bill?

Christian Boney:

Lisa, shall I have a go at that first?

Lisa Wright:

Yes, go for it.

Christian Boney:

Starting with the need for factors to help inform market participants’ decisions about whether, for example, their potential transaction presents risks, yes—in short, the more guidance that can be given about the kinds of factors that the Government will consider in determining whether a transaction presents a national security concern, the better. The statement of policy intent is very helpful in framing that, but clearly the more detail that can be included, the better.

The other thing that will be important in giving people a sense of whether their transaction should be notified or whether it falls within a mandatory notification sector is the interaction that will take place through informal engagement through the investment security unit. It is very important that the process for getting informal guidance from that unit is as streamlined, interactive and responsive as it can be. That will go some way to giving practitioners realtime guidance on potential concerns.

Lisa Wright:

Can I just add a point to the idea of the desire for more certainty around what national security means? I think it is worth recognising that that is particularly important if you look at where we have come from. With the existing regime under the Enterprise Act 2002, there have only ever been a dozen or so interventions on national security grounds. There is not a widespread understanding of what it means and the circumstances in which the Government would intervene. That is the historical position, but we all know that this is constantly evolving.

When you take that and add to it the fact that the prediction now is that there will be, as it says in the papers, between 70 and 90 call-ins a year, that is obviously a huge increase against the 12 since the Enterprise Act. Any greater clarity that can be given around the circumstances in which the Government would be looking to, for instance, exercise the call-in powers would be beneficial, particularly at the beginning of the regime when everybody is trying to learn the ropes.

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

Q You mentioned, and I think it is absolutely right, the issue about going from a standing start to such an increase in the number of callings but also in the number of notifications—the impact assessment estimates 1,830 notifications. That is on the acquirer and does not take into account the fact that almost every start-up seeks capital investment at some point and I imagine would, therefore, as a consequence have to think about this regime. What impact do you foresee on the UK’s investment climate and especially on capital sources for small and medium-sized enterprises? How could that impact be mitigated or encouraged to be as positive as possible?

Christian Boney:

I think this question really divides into two. In terms of larger corporates, investment by, and in, larger corporates is very likely to be unimpacted in any meaningful way by this legislation, because large corporates and their advisers are very used to going through regulatory clearance processes. This will just be another thing that needs to be added to the list.

I think you make a very valid point in the context of start-up and early-stage companies. The concern I would have principally is with those companies that are in that phase of their corporate life and fall within the mandatory notification sectors. Given the kinds of companies that this country is trying to encourage to flourish—those that are active in areas like artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and quantum technologies—a reasonable number of start-ups, I would expect, would fall within those mandatory notification sectors. For them, this regime is going to make the process of getting investment more time-consuming and more complex.

Anything that can be done in the process of consulting on the mandatory sectors, and anything that can be done to pair back the regime to make it more workable for companies in that stage of life, the better. An example might be some form of de minimis threshold, which is included, such that really early-stage companies do not fall within the mandatory notification regime, but the Government can nevertheless rely on their call-in power down the track, should that early-stage company becomes successful and more strategically important within the UK. Those are my principal thoughts. Lisa, do you have anything to add?

Lisa Wright:

Not on that point, no

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

Q May I return to the national security issue—as opposed to the wider public interest test, which is an important question—and get your view as to the Bill’s scope, which is very much focused on national security, versus the wider public interest, to which I think my colleague’s first question alluded?

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

To clarify, my question was this: how would you distinguish between national and economic security?

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

My question is more about your reflections on the Bill being narrow in its purpose to deal with national security versus the wider public interest.

Lisa Wright:

It is already a very broad regime; it catches a lot of transactions, as we have just discussed. I therefore think it is important and right that it is limited, in terms of the substantive concerns that it is catching, to national security. That is already a necessarily, I think, uncertain or undefined concept. Corporates and investors can make it work as long as other aspects of the regime work efficiently. That may be subject to some of the points that Christian just made about the impact on start-ups.

I think that once you broaden the regime out from national security into other considerations, you do risk introducing quite a degree of unpredictability, which possibly would impact on people’s assessment of the investment climate in the UK. My understanding is that the existing intervention regime under the Enterprise Act is planned to remain in force, so the national security considerations will come out of that and will be dealt with under this new regime. But there will still be the ability for—[Inaudible.]

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

Mr Boney, do you have any observations while we are waiting for the tech to work?

Christian Boney:

I agree entirely with what Lisa has been saying. I think the scope of the Bill is already broad, so to my mind, broadening it further to take account of other areas is likely to introduce the uncertainty that Lisa was referring to and, as a consequence, have a potentially negative impact on the investment climate in the UK.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

Lisa, it looks like we have got you back now. Would you like to add anything?

Lisa Wright:

I am not sure at what point you lost me, but I think I was saying—

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

We lost you while you were talking about a “degree of unpredictability”, Lisa.

Lisa Wright:

Okay. In my view, if you were to broaden the regime out from national security to take into account other considerations, that would introduce quite a degree of unpredictability and would, I think, potentially impact negatively on people’s assessment of the investment climate in the UK—I am sorry if I am repeating myself. However, my understanding is that the existing intervention regime will remain, so national security will come out of it, but the Government will still be able to intervene in transactions on other public interest grounds under the Enterprise Act. That regime has some limitations, but those powers will still be there.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

ThankQ you very much for the really excellent evidence you have already given us. I want to go back to what Mr Boney said about de minimis thresholds and whether you might look at introducing de minimis thresholds for particular areas, sectors or industries that I guess you would say are considered to be low risk from a security point of view and highly beneficial to the UK economy, which should therefore affect our thinking about how you might filter this whole process. But are there not other considerations on filtering as well? In essence, this is a risk management process and you have to identify the highest risks. Surely issues of critical national infrastructure would place a type of acquisition into the high-risk quadrant. If the acquirer is close to a state or Government—particularly a hostile Government—that would place it in the high-risk quadrant. Therefore, on having a more filtered process, is the de minimis threshold the right way to go, or would it not be better to have a strategic approach based on a hierarchy of risks?

Christian Boney:

I think the de minimis concept is potentially relevant and helpful in the context of thinking about what needs to be subject to mandatory notification. If you are not within the mandatory notification regime, that does not mean that the Government cannot exercise the call-in power so long as the relevant tests in the legislation are satisfied; it just means that the relevant company does not have to make a notification. There are elements of the mandatory sectors where some form of de minimis has already been included. Energy is a good example of that, and that makes sense in the context of energy.

I think it is worth exploring whether, within any of the other sectors, where we are more likely to see start-up, early-stage companies operating, there is benefit in introducing some form of de minimis regime solely in respect of the mandatory notification requirement. As I say, if a small-scale company operating in critical artificial intelligence is receiving investment from somebody who we view as a hostile actor, that transaction might escape mandatory notification, but that does not mean it escapes voluntary call-in by the Government at the point they become aware of it. That is something that might be worth exploring.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Thanks very much. Does Ms Wright want to add anything?

Lisa Wright:

No.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Q I want to explore a bit further the issue of critical national infrastructure, which is defined by the Intelligence and Security Committee as the Government’s 13 sectors ranging from energy to transport infrastructure and anything that relates to public health. With covid, we have seen the massive importance of how we have been overexposed in certain supply chains, and that might have an effect on our thinking about critical national infrastructure. To what extent does that influence your work on mergers and acquisitions and your thinking about whether such mergers and acquisitions in areas of our critical national infrastructure are in the national interest?

Christian Boney:

If I am following the question correctly, I think it is the correct balance to strike to say that people pursuing significant M and A activity involving the UK’s critical national infrastructure should expect to go through a notification process and should expect their transaction to be at potential risk of examination and call-in. From my experience, corporates undertaking transactions in the spheres of national infrastructure and so on expect that. It is what they see in other countries and jurisdictions, so it is something they come to accept as part of doing deals in top-tier democratic nations.

Lisa Wright:

I agree with all that. I guess I would also add that people are well aware that these considerations change over time. This year has shown that more than ever. People have an eye on what might not have been an issue yesterday; today, it might be different. We saw the amendments coming through to the Enterprise Act earlier in the autumn to bring in the power to allow the Government to intervene on public health grounds. People are very conscious of the fact that this changes, and they keep an eye on it from that perspective.

Photo of Simon Baynes Simon Baynes Conservative, Clwyd South

Thank you both for your submissions this morning. I want to go further into the issue of how you, the Government or the agency it sets up to do this makes a judgment about whether a small or start-up company really falls within being a threat to national security. I imagine that that might be quite a difficult judgment to make. I am putting to one side the issue of mandatory notification, which Mr Kinnock has looked at in more detail. I am saying that once it has been notified, how do you make the judgment about whether it is a threat to national security?Q

I would have thought that there are two aspects to that. One is the nature of the acquirer, which is partly what you have already alluded to. The second part is that I would have thought that it is quite difficult to ascertain whether something at the cutting edge of technology is or is not a threat. I would have thought that that is a really difficult judgment to make in practice. Do you have any thoughts on that, and what experience do you have of other regimes trying to make that kind of judgment?

Lisa Wright:

I think there are probably a number of ways to tackle that question. I guess that an answer is that it is ultimately a question for the Government. They are the ones who understand the threats and the intelligence. As advisers, we can look at the guidance and cases that have happened in the past, and we can speak to the unit, which, as we understand it, will be open for engagement and will welcome that. We can guide clients through the process, using the touch points and information that is available to us, but ultimately it is the Government that are in possession of the full set of facts and considerations that go into the decisions about whether that particular transaction is a problem or not. I guess what that speaks to is having the right people in the unit and getting them plugged into the right people elsewhere in Government to arm them with the ability to make these assessments.

Christian Boney:

To pick up on that, I agree entirely with what Lisa said. It is not necessarily an easy thing for the advisory community or clients themselves to make a judgment about whether they are presenting risk to national security. That is why this concept of real-time, interactive engagement with the unit that is set up to police this regime is going to be so important.

In the world I operate in, one of the regulators we deal with is the Takeover Panel, which is fantastic at being responsive, with real-time engagement. It results in a dialogue and an interaction that helps advisers navigate their clients through a regime that is not straightforward at times. That is the kind of practice that could usefully be learned from in the context of the investment security unit, because that kind of real-time feedback and informal advice will be very helpful in helping companies make the judgment about which side of the line they fall.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Good morning, Ms Wright and Mr Boney. I want to look in more detail at the kind of information that might be included in the Secretary of State’s clause 3 statement, which will set out the kind of factors that they will take into account in deciding whether they needed to intervene.Q

There is a fair amount of information in the Bill and the documents published alongside it about the kinds of businesses being acquired or taken over that might give rise to concern. There are quite clear definitions of what constitutes a trigger event, whether it is a purchase of shares or whatever, but there is very little detail about how the Secretary of State will decide which potential acquirers pose a threat. There are clearly good reasons why that information cannot be made public in too much detail, but is the fact that there is so little on the face of the Bill about how that decision is arrived at a problem? Does it make it less certain and therefore more likely to result in legal challenge?

Christian Boney:

Acquirer risk is one of the points picked up in the statement of policy intent that is going to be looked at when determining the level of risk that a transaction presents. When looking at and explaining acquirer risk, I think that helpful additional guidance could be added to it to, for example, make clearer how the Government will consider acquirer risk in the context of things such as private equity funds and other funds that may be looking to invest in the UK. By that, I mean in particular whether the Government will be willing to disregard the identity of limited partners and other investors in funds that sit above the particular acquisition vehicle that is doing the relevant transaction. That is the kind of thing that I think there would be real benefit in trying to make clearer in the statement of policy intent.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Q Thank you. I will focus a bit more on the definition of a trigger event, and in particular the catch-all provisions that define when somebody becomes a person with significant influence or control over a company.

The Companies Act 2006 has similar requirements for a company to notify Companies House if certain things happen that put someone in a position of significant influence. From a lay person’s point of view, such as my own, some of those provisions are almost word for word the same in the Companies Act and the Bill. Some appear to have the same effect but the wording is different, and therefore there will potentially be occasions when the definition is different. Would there be benefits in completely aligning both pieces of legislation so that a particular event either has to be notified or does not have to be notified? Otherwise, there is the possibility that some events will have to be notified under the Bill, and other events will have to be notified under the Companies Act but not the Bill.

Christian Boney:

In short, I think there would be benefit in having as much alignment as there can be. Clearly, the two pieces of legislation are not necessarily designed with the same intent and focus in mind. Yes, I think there is merit in having as much alignment between the two as there can be.

If I may, there is just one point about the trigger events that is worth considering. One of the points in the statement of policy intent in the context of trigger events is the Government considering the risk of espionage. That seems to me to be something that is worth thinking about in the context of this regime. At the moment, the trigger events are focused, as you were saying, on the ability to influence a particular company, but there are certainly circumstances where, without acquiring a level of shareholding that enables a person to influence the company, the person can nevertheless gain very significant access to information—for example, through a board seat, which might come at a shareholding of lower than, for example, 15%. That would give that person considerable access to information within the company.  If they were a hostile actor and they wanted to act in a nefarious manner, it would enable them to feed that information back to another hostile party. We have spoken about narrowing the scope of the regime, and I appreciate that that would be an amplification of it, but I think that is a point that is worth considering.

Photo of Mark Garnier Mark Garnier Chair, Committees on Arms Export Controls, Chair, Committees on Arms Export Controls

I will carry on with the line you took just now about an investor’s potential influence over or access to a company. A little earlier, you were talking about start-ups who sought to get staged financing in order to try to build their businesses. Of course, there are more ways of getting investment than just getting equity. We know that if a business has a relatively small amount of equity but a huge amount of debt, the provider of the debt has much more influence over the company than perhaps the shareholders do. We saw that on the banking commission when we looked at the role of bondholders in influencing banks, compared with equity holders. Clearly the bondholders, in effect, had much more influence.Q

The other thing is that a start-up company can raise money in other ways. The Bill tries to make sure that we are not losing intellectual property, but a business can raise finance by licensing the intellectual property that we are trying to protect—I am not sure that that would come within the scope of this Bill—or even sell the intellectual property and license it back again. There are various other ways in which a company can raise finance, over and above equity, where there is a huge amount of influence or it falls outside the Bill. Clearly, crucial national infrastructure is a very different thing, but intellectual property is something that is very difficult to grab hold of; it is like trying to grasp a handful of sand. Given the objectives, I wonder how the Bill tackles those other areas, which seem to allow malign investors a way through.

Christian Boney:

I think an important aspect of the Bill—this is one of the reasons why Lisa and I have described it as a broad regime—is that it does allow policing of the acquisition and control of assets, including intellectual property. In my experience, at least, that is quite different from what you see in other international regimes. Clearly, the acquisition of control of assets does not fall within the mandatory notification regime; nevertheless, it is helpful that the Government have the power potentially to exercise a voluntary call-in in respect of, for example, an acquisition or a licence of intellectual property.

Photo of Mark Garnier Mark Garnier Chair, Committees on Arms Export Controls, Chair, Committees on Arms Export Controls

Q And the debt issue—the fact that debt holders can be more influential over businesses than equity holders?

Christian Boney:

That is certainly fair. I think the level of influence and control that a debt provider will typically get in what I will call the ordinary courts means that it is less likely—I am certainly not saying it is impossible—to be at the level of getting such granular, sensitive, let us call it operational information, which is the kind of thing we would really be concerned about. It would more be focused on getting access to financial projections, financial performance and that kind of information, which, although it can still be sensitive, is probably less sensitive than operational data. A balance needs to be struck, it seems to me, in the context of this legislation. Not having debt providers obviously within scope does limit the legislation, but does it strike an acceptable balance? My personal view is that, on balance, it probably does.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

From your professional point of view and experience to date, what could be the long-term impact of the Bill on UK business and investors? Will the Bill help or hinder the global position on investing into the United KingdomQ ?

Lisa Wright:

In many ways, the regime just brings the UK into line with major international peers. From that perspective, for people doing deals around the world who have already experienced those other regimes, it ought not to have any real negative impact at all, provided that BEIS can deliver on the aspiration set out of a slick and efficient regime, turning around notifications within sensible deal timeframes and providing the kind of informal advice and early engagement promised. That will be critical, particularly in the early stages of the regime. From that perspective, I do not think this should have a long-term negative impact on people wanting to do deals in the UK. As Christian was mentioning earlier, it may be a slightly different picture for the start-ups and the smaller companies where they are caught up in the mandatory sectors, but overall I think it is right that this can be viewed as the UK bringing itself into line with what else is going on around the world.

Christian Boney:

I agree with that. That is the right assessment.

Photo of Sam Tarry Sam Tarry Labour, Ilford South

Picking up the idea of bringing us into line with global peers and equivalent countries, there are many different regimes and you both have incredible global experience legally. If you have experience of dealing with companies and transactions, mergers and so on, particularly in the US, you will know that it has the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, with its white list of almost green-lighted countries, which they can deal with slightly differently. Should we consider something like the US does with its more established regime and having not necessarily an approved list but different layers for our regime, from the most hostile countries through to those who are our closest alliesQ ?

Lisa Wright:

It is certainly worth considering. I would imagine that those sorts of considerations will be going through the mind of the officials and the Secretary of State tasked with making these assessments and issuing the decisions. I can see there may be some sensitivities and a desire perhaps not to make that all transparent in terms of public documents. Perhaps they think they will deal with it over time through this engagement and, with advisers and parties coming to talk to them, you will get a sense of who is okay and who is not that. But I can see that perhaps they will not want to put that down in very great detail on a public piece of paper, not least because one might imagine it could change over time. I guess there needs to be a degree of flexibility to recognise that.

Christian Boney:

I agree. I am certainly not a CFIUS expert, but my understanding of the exempt list of countries is that actually the practical impact is quite tightly drawn. I do agree with Lisa. I think we are likely to get the best sense of those countries that are viewed as more risky than others through the engagement process and as people’s experience of the regime develops.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

We are almost at the end of the time available for this session, so there will be no further questions for these witnesses, but thank you, Ms Wright and Mr Boney, for being so generous with your time and assisting the Committee so much. We will now move on to the next witness—either we will suspend the sitting briefly until everything is sorted out or we will move seamlessly on—but thank you both very much.