Clause 15 places a duty on the Secretary of State to consider whether to retrospectively validate a notifiable acquisition that was not approved by him before it took place. As I made clear in reference to clause 13, a notifiable acquisition that is completed without the approval of the Secretary of State is void. It is in the interests of all parties to avoid that situation, and voiding should act as a powerful incentive for compliance.
None the less, there may be instances where a notifiable acquisition takes place without approval and is therefore void, but the outcome is not a permanent necessity. This clause places a duty on the Secretary of State, following the point at which he becomes aware of the acquisition, to either exercise the call-in power in relation to the acquisition within six months or else issue a validation notice. A validation notice provided for by this Bill has the effect of treating the acquisition as having been completed without the approval of the Secretary of State, as though it were never void.
There are a number of circumstances in which the Secretary of State may decide not to issue a call-in notice in relation to a void acquisition. For example, as the Secretary of State may only call in trigger events, he may decide that the acquisition does not give rise to a trigger event—for instance, the acquisition of a 15% equity stake in a specified entity is a notifiable acquisition, but is not in and of itself a trigger event. A 15% stake may or may not, depending on the facts of the case, amount to or form part of a trigger event, namely the acquisition of material influence over the policy of the entity.
Alternatively, the Secretary of State may reasonably suspect that a trigger event has taken place but not reasonably suspect that it has given rise to, or may give rise to, a national security risk. In those situations, this clause requires the Secretary of State to give a validation notice in relation to the notifiable acquisition, which in effect provides the retrospective approval for the acquisition and means that it is no longer void. I should be clear that retrospective validation does not change the fact that the acquirer may have committed an offence by completing the acquisition without first obtaining approval. If an offence has been committed, criminal and civil sanctions will be available and may be used to punish that non-compliance.
As provided for by subsection (2)(a), where the Secretary of State decides, following consideration of a void acquisition, to exercise the call-in power in relation to it, he must give a call-in notice to the acquirer and such other persons as he considers appropriate. For the purposes of considering whether a trigger event has taken place under the Bill, including when deciding whether to exercise the call-in power, clause 1(2) provides that the effect of any voiding must be ignored, meaning that a notifiable acquisition that has been completed without approval can still amount to, or form part of, a trigger event even though it is of no legal effect.
This approach has been taken because a legally void acquisition may still result in a de facto exercise of the rights purportedly acquired and, consequently, a risk to national security. Where the call-in power is exercised in relation to a void acquisition, the case follows the conventional assessment process and is subject to the same statutory timelines and information-gathering powers. At the end of this process, the Secretary of State may decide to unconditionally clear the acquisition, resulting in a validation notice being issued and the acquisition no longer being void. Alternatively, he may impose remedies in a final order.
I have a brief inquiry, following the Minister’s recent letter to me on a previous point raised in Committee, for which I thank him for his prompt attention. If a hostile company takes over another company, effectively puts it into liquidation and walks off with the intellectual property, patents and various other things, and those are out of the door by then, will it be necessary to provide a validation for the transaction, if it has not been previously notified or noticed, and to then pursue the consequences of that validation by subsequent means, given that the company was presumably in existence at the time of the validation, if not thereafter? Would that perhaps not be a cumbersome procedure?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question; I will write to him on that point, rather than attempting to go through our thinking on this. He raises an important point on what happens after the effect.
Where the final order has the effect of clearing the acquisition outright, subject to conditions, the Bill provides that the acquisition is no longer void. Where the final order has the effect of blocking all or part of the acquisition, the Bill provides that the acquisition remains void to that extent. Further provision on this particular situation is made in clause 17. The deadline of six months for giving either a validation notice or a call-in notice was chosen by the Government to align closely with the Secretary of State’s other requirements to act within certain timescales under the Bill.
I thank the Minister for his promise to write to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test. The Minister mentioned on a number of occasions that a transaction is no longer void when a validation notice has been given. However, the transaction was void when completed, because it was completed without approval, so there will have been a period when it was void. What are the legal implications of that period?
Is the hon. Lady is talking about a period when the Secretary of State was not aware of the transaction being void? If he is unaware of it, he is unable to act. It is only once he becomes aware, through a screening process or notification—
I want to explain myself better. The question is not about what the Secretary of State can do, because I clearly understand that he cannot act on what he is not aware of. The fact of the transaction being deemed legally void for a period, which it will have been, may have some legal implications for the owners or the customers or whoever.
Again, I am happy to write to the hon. Lady on that. Clearly, only when the Secretary of State is aware that a transaction is clearly in breach of the Bill is it then void. I am not clear as to what she is saying. Is she asking about before he is able to act?
Let me clarify. Clause 13(1) states:
“A notifiable acquisition that is completed without the approval of the Secretary of State is void.”
It is void at the time it is completed, not at the time the Secretary of State becomes aware of it. Sometime later, the Secretary of State becomes aware of it and gives a retrospective clearing of it, but there will regardless have been a period where that transaction was void. What are the legal implications for the owners? It seems to me that having a transaction being void for a period would have some legal implications, regardless of whether the Secretary of State has cleared it.
My understanding is that it becomes void at the point when the transaction is completed. At some point after that, the Secretary of State gives a retrospective validation, but there is nevertheless a period of one year, or however long it takes, when the transaction was void. Does that not have legal implications?
I am happy to write to the hon. Lady on that point. What I think she is talking about is about the gap between the Secretary of State being aware and when the transaction actually took place, because the date where it is void is the date of the closing of that transaction, but I am very happy to write to her about that.
It is not in the interests of either the Government or the parties for the Secretary of State to have an unfettered ability to issue a call-in notice, perhaps long after he becomes aware of the notifiable acquisition. This approach provides a sensible mechanism for resolving the effects of automatic voiding arising from failures to receive clearance. I reassert my view that such situations should be rare, but it is only proper that the Bill provides such a mechanism for the Secretary of State to resolve them satisfactorily, should they arise. I hope hon. Members agree with that position.
I thank all the hon. Members for their contributions, and the Minister for his remarks and his good humoured response to the interrogation on certain parts of this important clause. I recognise the importance of the clause and the importance of considering retrospective validations without application giving the all-consuming power through the voiding of notifiable acquisition without the approval of the Secretary of State. This debate has illustrated the need for greater clarity.
In the absence of the additional guidance that we were looking for in our earlier amendment, this has the possibility of becoming a legal goldmine for lawyers who are requested to give advice on what would or would not constitute a void transaction at what time. I raise that in the context of the requests of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test and myself for greater clarity about the period, which may represent some sort of legal limbo, between when a transaction takes place but before it is given retrospective approval. However, we do not oppose the clause.