Clause 20 - Attendance of witnesses

National Security and Investment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 3rd December 2020.

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

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

The clause provides the Secretary of State with the power to require the attendance of witnesses.

The Government are acutely aware that many of the acquisitions considered by this regime will be complex and highly technical. In addition to clause 19, which enables the Secretary of State to require the provision of information, most likely in written form, this clause enables the Secretary of State to require the giving of evidence. A notice requiring a person to attend under this clause is called an “attendance notice”. The clause is complementary to clause 19, discussed previously, as it provides, for example, for the Secretary of State to be able to receive expert explanation, in person, from those involved in a trigger event, where the information previously provided does not provide sufficient clarity.

In responding to an attendance notice and providing evidence, a person is not required to give any evidence that they could not be compelled to give in civil proceedings before the court. That protects privileged information. In addition, the Secretary of State will only be able to request information through an attendance notice that is proportionate in assisting him in carrying out his functions under the regime.

We envisage a range of scenarios where the Secretary of State may require the attendance of a witness in order to gather further evidence to make an informed decision on the case. I will provide a few to illustrate. First, I expect that a number of cases will involve complex acquisitions, either because of the advanced nature of the technology in question, or due to their financial structuring. In those cases, the Secretary of State may require those who hold expert knowledge to provide him with an explanation. There may also be cases where it seems that parties are being deliberately non-compliant, or only partly compliant with information-gathering requests. I expect those to be rare but, again, it is only right that the Secretary of State has the power to require the attendance of those parties to provide further information.

The attendance of witnesses may also be a more efficient way to secure additional information in some circumstances, and limit the risk that further time will be needed to consider additional information. There will be criminal and civil sanctions available to punish non-compliance with the notices and the provision of false or misleading information. The attendance notice is provided under threat of such sanction as it is important that the Secretary of State receives the information he needs and can count on to come to a decision.

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

A brief question: is it the Government’s intention to allow for witnesses to attend virtually, if it is unreasonable for them to attend physically at the Department, or the Minister’s office?

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

I suspect that the Government will accommodate whichever way is secure and provides the evidence.

I am sure that hon. Members will agree that the clause is crucial in allowing the Secretary of State to consider the fullest range of information in order to make informed decisions under this regime.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The Minister has given a good exposition of what the clause is about: the attendance of witnesses. I note that, as he said, the witnesses are required to give evidence on the equivalent level of civil proceedings before the court—as the clause states:

“A person is not required under this section to give any evidence which that person could not be compelled to give in civil proceedings before the court.”

To return to our previous debate, if that is the test—if the sanction is not a criminal sanction—what if the witness were to say, “I do not consider the evidence I am being required to give to be proportionate to the use to which it will be put”? What would that mean for the evidence in front of the Secretary of State? Would it be stopped? Would the Secretary of State then be unable to sanction that witness further? Or could the witness be compelled to provide information even if they did not think it was proportionate, and could they take action against the Secretary of State on the grounds that the evidence they had given in the first place was not proportionate? Perhaps the Minister could take us through that procedure, possibly in an intervention.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton 3:45 pm, 3rd December 2020

If the Minister wishes to make an intervention, that is a matter for him.

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

I think I have made very clear how these notices will work. The judicial procedure is open to any party that feels hard done by in any way by this Bill.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thank the Minister for confirming what I thought, which is that this can be challenged post hoc but not at the point of giving evidence. That is what I understand the Minister to have just said—but hey, I could be wrong. That is the clarification we wanted. On the issue of witness attendance, it is important that the Secretary of State is able to specify a time and that the evidence is undertaken at a level commensurate with civil proceedings. We do not oppose the clause standing part of the Bill, given the Minister’s clarification on proceedings involving witnesses.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 20 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.