Clause 16 provides a mechanism for any person materially affected by a notifiable acquisition being void to make an application to the Secretary of State to retrospectively validate the acquisition. Although there is a duty in clause 15 for the Secretary of State to give a validation notice or a call-in notice within six months of becoming aware of the acquisition, we recognise that in practice that is often likely to be a process driven by the parties themselves. It may be, for example, that a party realises that their transaction was a notifiable acquisition only after the event, and wishes to take proactive steps to resolve the situation. The clause allows them to make a formal application for retrospective validation, following a similar process to the conventional mandatory notification route.
Subsection (3) enables the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing the form and the content of a validation application. It is likely that that will closely resemble the mandatory notification form, given all of that information remains pertinent to the Secretary of State’s decision on whether to give a call-in notice. The Secretary of State will be entitled to reject the application where it does not meet the specified requirements, or contain sufficient information for him to decide whether to give a call-in notice.
If the validation application is accepted, all relevant parties must be notified and a 30 working-day review period begins. By the end of the review period, the Secretary of State must issue either a call-in notice or a validation notice. Once again, if a validation notice is issued, the acquisition is no longer void and the Secretary of State must confirm that no further action under the Bill will be taken in relation to that acquisition. As is the case with clause 15, retrospective validation through that route does not provide immunity against criminal or civil sanctions being pursued.
Validation does not change the fact that a notifiable acquisition did not have the Secretary of State’s approval prior to taking place. This is simply about how the acquisition itself should be treated, following the screening of all pertinent details relating to the acquisition. I hope that hon. Members will be supportive of parties being able to apply to the Secretary of State for a validation notice, and that they will see clause 16 as part of our business-friendly approach to the investment screening regime.
This is more of a slightly extended intervention than a speech. The Minister has set out very clearly what the clause means and how it is to be operated, but I am not sure that he completely covered what the opinion of the Secretary of State may consist of. I am looking at subsection (8), which refers to the Secretary of State’s opinion that
“there has been no material change in circumstances since a previous validation application in relation to the acquisition was made.”
My concern is that the words “material change” are potentially subjective. That may be overridden by the fact that it is
“in the opinion of the Secretary of State”,
but there is no definition of what a material change might be considered to be, and what the boundaries of a material change consist of.
The provision does not say “no change”; it says “no material change”. Does the Minister consider that that is safe enough, in terms of the Secretary of State’s opinion overriding the material change, or does he consider that the subjectivity of a material change is potentially actionable if the Secretary of State were to say that there has been no material change, but somebody decided that the Secretary of State’s opinion was not reasonable or proportionate in the context of what has happened to a particular company?
I think the hon. Gentleman has answered his own question. Obviously, I do consider that the Secretary of State’s ability on the opinion is safe.