I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:
This amendment seeks to make the Secretary of State’s prescription of regulation of the form and content of a voluntary notice mandatory.
Clause stand part.
I will not take up too much of the Committee’s time, but I wish to say a few words about the excellent contribution that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South has made to our continuing discussions about “may” and “must”. It is a particularly egregious case that he has highlighted. If we look at the number of “musts” that appear in clause 14—this point has been made by other Members—we see that the subsequent “musts” would fall immediately if the Secretary of State may not prescribe by regulation the form and content of a mandatory notice—so the “must” in subsection (5) is relevant only if the Secretary of State does that in the first place, as are the “musts” in subsections (7) and (8), as my hon. Friend pointed out earlier.
There is also an interesting “must” at the beginning of the clause, which relates to the mandatory notification procedure itself. Subsection (1) states that
“a person must give notice to the Secretary of State before the person, pursuant to a notifiable acquisition…gains control in circumstances” and so on. So subsection (1) appears to stand whether or not, in subsection (4), the Secretary of State decides to prescribe by regulation the form and content of a mandatory notice. That means that a person must provide a mandatory notice, even if the Secretary of State has not prescribed any form or content of that notice. The person may therefore have no idea what is to be in that mandatory notice, because the Secretary of State has not put it in regulations, but still they must give notice because this subsection says “must”.
That does not seem to be particularly proportionate. It appears to be constructed in such a way that, regardless of whether the concept is completely unknown to the person giving the notice, it is entirely up to the Secretary of State whether he or she makes the mandatory notice in any way comprehensible. I think that is quite an odd juxtaposition in this instance of “mays” and “musts”.
The “may” in subsection (6) is perfectly acceptable, in as much as its states that:
“The Secretary of State may reject the mandatory notice on one or more of the following grounds”.
That “may” is absolutely appropriate. However, the positioning of “must” right at the beginning of the clause, and the positioning of “may” in subsection (4), does not look reasonable to me. That could easily be solved by using the word “shall”, so that the situation is proportionate between those circumstances. That is the essence of the amendment 18, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South outlined earlier.
I accept that there have been a number of occasions when, although I have not particularly liked “may” going into a Bill, it has had some justification. However, the particular juxtaposition that we see here causes me to think that it is a rather important issue, as far as “may” and “shall” are concerned. I am interested to hear whether the Minister thinks that the wording could give rise to the sorts of problems that I have suggested, in the event that another Minister—not himself, of course—might be tempted not to produce such regulations when defining the form and content, because I think that could cause potential problems for reasonableness, as far as this clause is concerned.
I rise to give some thoughts on clause 14 stand part, but will also refer to the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South. Clause 14 is a critical part of this process, because it sets out the mandatory notification procedure. In some respects, it is the mandatory notification which places the greatest burden on those falling, or who might consider themselves to fall, within its remit. This is because it requires the person who is to make a notifiable acquisition to give a mandatory notice to the Secretary of State prior to the acquisition taking place.
The clause goes on to give the Secretary of State the option to set out the form and content of the mandatory notice. I shall come back to that. It then sets out the process by which the Secretary of State “must” decide whether to reject or accept that notice. If a mandatory notice is rejected, the Secretary of State must provide reasons in writing for that decision to be made. It also sets out the timescale elements and the persons to be notified. We recognise that mandatory notifications are an important part of making the Bill have the desired impact on our national security. It is absolutely right that in key areas the onus should be on those who will be aware that the transaction is taking place to notify the Secretary of State.
However, the amendment set out by hon. Friend is all about protecting and supporting the interests of small businesses. I am concerned that the Minister does not seem to be as vigilant about reducing the burden on and setting out the guidance for small businesses as we would like. All our constituencies have small businesses—it is often said that they are the lifeblood of the economy—yet in the Bill, and particularly in the clause, the Minister is not setting out the minimum support that they might require.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test got to the nub of the matter in one of his very informative discussions about the difference between “must” and “may”. He observed that the “must” falls on the person who has to do the notifying. For example, it could be a small artificial intelligence start-up with a few members of staff, none of whom is a lawyer—remember that there are no de minimis provisions in the Bill for the size of the acquisition that must be notified—that is seeking investment from a foreign party. That start-up would be asked to indicate whether that investment would involve making a notification. Not only that, it must decide itself the form that the notification should take.
I really cannot understand why the Bill apparently seeks to give discretion to the Secretary of State to lighten his load, but not to our fantastic small businesses or to business generally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South said, why should a small business, the notifier, also have to set out the format in which its notification takes place? Given that the clause sets out,
“The Secretary of State may by regulations prescribe the form”,
why can we not simply turn that into “shall by regulation prescribe the form and content of a mandatory notice”?
Equally, when voluntary notices are considered, I hope the Minister has some ideas about what should be in the notification. If he does, is it not simple and desirable for him to share his ideas with our business community, which in less than a month’s time is facing a huge change in how it trades and does business with the European Union, our largest trading partner by value? That involves countless new forms to be filled out, as we have discussed in the Chamber, some of which are not yet designed. At the same time that that is happening, to require that they should decide for themselves what is involved in a notification seems wholly unacceptable.
On that basis, I ask the Minister to set out whether he intends to accept the amendment. If not, will he tell us what work has gone on in the Department to look at the kind of information might be required? How will the impact assessment assess the likely level of familiarisation required for this legislation—there is a phrase that says that there is not expected to be a huge amount of familiarisation required in it—while at the same time there is no guidance, assessment or inkling about the kind of information that will be required to be included in that notification?
I am grateful to the hon. Members for Ilford South, for Southampton, Test, and for Glenrothes, as well as to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, for their contributions on this set of amendments and clause 14. With the agreement of the Committee, I will begin with clause 14 stand part and then turn to the amendments.
Clause 14 provides a mechanism for proposed acquirers to notify the Secretary of State of notifiable acquisitions, which are those circumstances covered by clause 6. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central said, we on this side of the House really do care about small business; indeed, we will be celebrating Small Business Saturday by highlighting the great small businesses that are trying to recover from covid-19. To avoid duplication or unnecessary burden for businesses and investors, if the Secretary of State has already given a call-in notice in relation to the proposed notifiable acquisition, no notification is required. Otherwise the proposed acquirer must submit a mandatory notice containing the necessary information for the Secretary of State to make a decision about whether to exercise the call-in power.
The Government carefully considered which parties should be legally responsible for this notification. In many cases we expect this to be a collaborative process between parties that have an aligned aim for the acquisition to take place. However, there may be instances where an acquirer who is purchasing shares from a number of individual sellers is the only party aware that, in totality, they are carrying out a notifiable acquisition. For example, if an acquirer buys 10% equity in an entity specified under the mandatory regime from two separate sellers—20% in total—each seller may be operating under the assumption their transaction does not meet the threshold of a notifiable acquisition. Equally, the entity itself may be unaware of these acquisitions until after they have taken place. As such, only the acquirer can reasonably be expected to know that their activities constitute a notifiable acquisition and the responsibility to notify therefore rests with them.
The precise information that will be required and the form of the mandatory notice will be set out in regulations by the Secretary of State in accordance with subsection (4). For the convenience of the House, the Government have recently published a draft of the information that is likely to be required in a mandatory notice. As hon. Members might expect, this is likely to include all the pertinent details about the acquisition, including the target entity, the nature of its business, the assets it owns, the parties involved, the details of the equity stake and any other rights that form part of the acquisition—for example, any board appointment rights.
Following acceptance of a satisfactory notification—for example, conforming to the format and content prescribed —the Secretary of State then has up to 30 working days to decide whether to exercise the call-in power, or to take no further action under the Bill. The Secretary of State will be entitled to reject a mandatory notice where it does not meet the specified requirements, or where it does not contain sufficient information for him to decide whether to give a call-in notice.
The nature of the information required should mean that such instances are rare, but it is crucial that the requirements of the notice are met in order for the 30-working-day clock to start only at the point the Secretary of State is in a position to make an informed decision. By the end of the 30-working-days review period, the Secretary of State must either give a call-in notice or notify each relevant person that no further action will be taken under the Bill. In effect, the latter clears the acquisitions to take place unconditionally.
The power to specify in regulations the content and form of the mandatory notice is an important one, as the Secretary of State may need to change this over time in response to the operation of the regime in practice, and in response to the volume and quality of such notices given and rejected. I certainly believe that this approach ensures that Parliament can scrutinise any such changes. This clause is a procedural necessity to give effect to the mandatory notification regime once notifiable acquisition regulations have been made, and I trust that it will be supported by both sides of the Committee.
Amendments 18 and 19 are designed to require the Secretary of State to make regulations specifying the form and content of a mandatory or voluntary notice, ensuring that the parties have clarity on what information they need to provide in order to have properly notified. That is undeniably important—I share the focus of the hon. Member for Ilford South on that point—so this is an entirely sensible proposition. I suggest, however, that the amendments are unnecessary because the Bill as drafted already achieves that aim.
In practice, in order for the notification regime to operate, the Secretary of State will first need to make regulations specifying the form and content of a notification, regardless of whether clauses 14 and 18 say that he “may” or “shall”. I pay homage to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test for introducing that experience to the Committee. Regardless of whether clauses 14 and 18 say that the Secretary of State “may” or “shall” make such regulations, the notification regimes cannot operate without the notification forms being prescribed in the regulations.
Let me make clear to the hon. Lady what I actually said, which was that whether clauses 14 and 18 say that the Secretary of State “may” or “shall” make such regulations, the notification regimes cannot operate without the notification forms being prescribed in regulations. My point is that whether the clauses say “may” or “shall”, it makes no difference. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for Ilford South will withdraw the amendment.
I have listened carefully to the Minister, and I feel that several issues have not been fully explored. The whole point of the amendment is to compel the Secretary of State to be clear that those regulations will be forthcoming in a timely manner, along with the reassurances that small and medium-sized enterprises seek. The amendment would mean that it was not the Secretary of State’s choice when or whether that happened. The use of the word “shall” would allow us to move forward more directly, because the Secretary of State would be compelled to do that as quickly as possible. On that basis, I will press the amendment to a Division.