Clause 21 makes provision in respect of the persons on whom the Secretary of State may serve an information notice or an attendance notice outside the United Kingdom. The clause applies in relation to the two earlier clauses. Clause 19 provides the power for the Secretary of State to obtain information either before or after the call-in power is exercised. Clause 20 gives the Secretary of State the power to require the attendance of witnesses to assist him in carrying out his function under the Bill.
Those outside the United Kingdom to whom an information notice or attendance notice may be given are clearly set out in clause 21, which is technical in nature. The purpose is to ensure that certain categories of persons with a connection to the United Kingdom are caught by the information-gathering powers, even if they are outside the UK. These categories of persons are UK nationals, individuals ordinarily resident in the UK, bodies such as companies incorporated or constituted in the UK, and persons carrying on business in the UK. Perhaps more importantly, notices may also be served on persons outside the UK who have acquired, or who are in the process of or are contemplating acquiring, qualifying UK entities or qualifying assets that are either located in the UK or otherwise connected to the UK. In practice, this means that notices may be served on most parties from whom the Secretary of State may wish to require information or evidence.
I certainly would not seek to oppose this clause, but will the Minister go into a bit more detail about how it works in practice? What if a notice is served on somebody who is not in the United Kingdom, who is not a UK citizen or UK national, who has never set foot in the United Kingdom and quite possibly never intends to, as might happen if a big multinational is seeking to acquire a business intertest in the United Kingdom? Is the intention to create an offence that can be committed by somebody with otherwise no connection with the United Kingdom under UK law? That would mean that the person had committed the offence in a different sovereign territory, not even by something they did, but by something they did not do—not responding to a notice and not attending when required.
I understand why the requirement has to apply to everybody, and I understand that there is no point in serving a statutory notice if there are no consequences to refusing to comply with it; I am just not sure about the practicalities. Has the Minister considered alternative sanctions in those circumstances? For example, the person could be disqualified from being a director or a shareholder in significant UK undertakings. That would potentially have the same effect.
It seems to me that, generally speaking, we would create a criminal offence for the conduct of somebody in a different sovereign territory only in specific circumstances. If somebody is serving with the UK armed forces, for example, they might be covered by UK law even when they are serving abroad. The other circumstance is if the crimes are so heinous as to be regarded as crimes against international law—crimes against humanity and war crimes, for example. I understand that the Education Secretary thinks that Britain is just the best country in the word and nobody else can touch us, but I doubt even he would think that failing to respond to a notice from the UK Secretary of State constitutes a crime against international law.
Is the Minister concerned about setting a precedent whereby we attempt to apply domestic law to the actions or non-actions of people who, in normal circumstances, are covered by the laws of the country they are in and not the criminal law of the United Kingdom? Given that this might create a difficult precedent, is he satisfied that the Government have looked at every possible alternative sanction? This could create a precedent, and other countries could start legislating to say that what UK citizens do in the United Kingdom is contrary to their laws, which would therefore make any of us subject to arrest and prosecution by the authorities of another country. I am a bit concerned about the reaction that might be provoked from Governments elsewhere if we get this part wrong.
I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to parties that are abroad and have a business in the UK—what if notice is served on them and they are non-compliant? Obviously, under UK law that would be a problem for them. I certainly think that, if an information notice is served, the timeline for the Secretary of State’s assessment of a trigger event is paused until the information is provided from the individual in whatever jurisdiction they or the entity happen to be at the end of the time period provided for compliance in the information notice.
If a party does not comply during the assessment process, that may lead to more onerous and stricter remedies being imposed by the Secretary of State than would otherwise be the case, including the acquisition being blocked or unwound where appropriate. It will therefore plainly be in the interest of those involved directly in the trigger event to provide information in a timely manner to the Secretary of State in order that a speedy decision can be taken. That is where the leverage lies.
I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. As I say, I fully understand what the Government are attempting to achieve. I would expect that, in those circumstances, the Minister would block the acquisition if there was a serious failure to comply by anybody who was in practice beyond the reach of UK criminal prosecution. I would certainly hope that in those circumstances the Secretary of State would use the other powers to ensure that they could not become a controlling influence on any strategically important UK undertaking.
As I said, I do not want to divide the Committee. I did not even feel it was appropriate to table an amendment, partly because I could not think of a way of amending it that would make it any better. Having made those points, I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification, and we will leave it to future Secretaries of State to implement it as best they can.
I will pick up on one issue, which concerns subsection (3)(a). I would like some clarification from the Minister. I am trying to get my head around what is meant by
“a qualifying entity which is formed or recognised”.
Could he give an illustration of what is meant by “recognised”? I assume that this is about some takeover, merger or acquisition. Could it be some sort of shell company or some other form? Perhaps the Minister could clarify what is meant by recognition under the law.
Briefly, we fully understand the purpose of the clause. It is obviously necessary to ensure that witnesses, wherever they are, if they have a relevant interest in these matters, should be made available to give evidence. I share some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Glenrothes about how workable it might be. I particularly wonder whether subsection (2) includes UK overseas nationals. That is particularly relevant to some of our discussions earlier today. I see in the previous clause that if someone is a UK citizen and domiciled in the UK, they get their bus fare paid if they live more than 10 miles away.
But apparently there are no international flight payments as far as overseas witnesses are concerned. I do not know whether the Minister has that in mind, but I note a big difference between the two clauses. If such witnesses could get some payment towards their attendance in the UK, that might resolve some of the problems that the hon. Member for Glenrothes suggested—provided it is economy class, obviously.