Clause 29 - Publication of notice of final order

National Security and Investment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:15 am on 8th December 2020.

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Photo of Sam Tarry Sam Tarry Labour, Ilford South 11:15 am, 8th December 2020

I beg to move amendment 27, in clause 29, page 19, line 39, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

“(a) would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person and where the publication would not be in the public interest, or”.

This amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from redacting notices of final order (and information within them) on commercial grounds if redacting is contrary to the public interest.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on this frosty morning, Mr Twigg. The amendment is on the public interest for disclosure. It is really about preventing the Secretary of State from redacting notices of final order and the information with them. The Opposition believe that commercial grounds for redacting are contrary to the public interest. It is about putting as much information as possible into the public realm about stuff that is particularly controversial but is really about clear protection of our national security.

Our strong belief is that the fundamental task of any Government, and the reason for the Bill overall, is the protection of our national security. A critical driver of that security is the wider public understanding of the rapidly changing threats that we face, and the different sources of those threats. We have heard from various expert witnesses over the past few weeks that other countries understand, perhaps far better than we do, what some of those threats are, and that our public understanding of threats is even more limited.

When Sir Richard Dearlove gave evidence, with vast experience spanning decades, he said:

“What is important about the Bill is that it raises parliamentary and public awareness of the issue.”—[Official Report, National Security and Investment Public Bill Committee, 24 November 2020; c. 24, Q30.]

Everyone on both sides of the House would like to see that. He also said, talking about China specifically:

“We need to conduct our relationship with China with much more wisdom and care. The Chinese understand us incredibly well. They have put their leadership through our universities for 20 or 30 years. We in comparison hardly know anything about China”—[Official Report, National Security and Investment Public Bill Committee, 24 November 2020; c. 20, Q21.]

The wider point in his evidence was that for too long our business priorities and the desire to be an attractive investment destination had overridden some of the security concerns, across a number of different Governments, perhaps creating a pattern of not taking the threats posed by China as seriously as possible.

The Bill requires the Secretary of State to publish notices of final order, setting out the details of persons and events involving national security that meant the notices were made. Those details are critical to our security and to our understanding of the threats. They must be made public. The amendment would put into the public domain the accurate information that will create public confidence on what the clause seeks to achieve.

As drafted, the clause prevents the publication of information that is critical to our security if it prejudices commercial interest. The Opposition believe that is the wrong judgment. The whole point of the Bill is to take a more strategic view, as indicated by Sir Richard Dearlove. The focus should be on long-term security, but the Bill is a way to protect not only security but our long-term commercial interests. The approach in the amendment might mean some short-term commercial challenges, but it is absolutely right for our national security and our longer-term prosperity.

The amendment would require the Government to publish all details of a final order notice where it is in the interests of national security and the public interest, even when commercial interest could be prejudiced. Where a hostile actor acts against our security interests, it is crucial for the British public to know about it and that we have some appropriate conversations in the public domain. Not to disclose such threats or events for the sake of protecting imminent profits in the short term would be the wrong judgment.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank my hon. Friend for the amendment and for the excellent point that he is making. Does he think that if a company was being acquired by a hostile actor, and the Secretary of State thought that knowledge of the acquisition would be detrimental to the commercial interests of the company, the clause would allow the Secretary of State to redact that information? It would be in the general public’s interest to know that such an acquisition was taking place.

Photo of Sam Tarry Sam Tarry Labour, Ilford South

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is our belief that national security must be the overriding priority when threats emerge in an ever-changing world. We have heard evidence that threats that should have been seen were not dealt with in the correct way. Bringing that into the public domain through the amendment is incredibly important. That would override the short-term commercial pain if it guaranteed that security was paramount.

If we did not disclose such threats or events, and the focus was just on the short-term protection of swift profits, that would be the wrong judgment, because it would downgrade the overarching purpose of the Bill, which is to use all its mechanisms to enhance our security and ensure that we are on top of it at all times. The amendment would correct the focal point of this area of the Bill, by requiring before any redaction on commercial grounds an assessment of whether publishing would be in the public interest. That puts the onus on, and gives power to, the Secretary of State to make those crucial judgments.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I rise to say a few words in support of my hon. Friend’s amendment. The excellent points that he has made have highlighted a theme of the Committee’s discussions: the potential conflict between the Department’s focus on supporting business and investment into the UK, and our national security. As he set out, the public interest might be in knowing that a hostile acquisition was taking place and in being better informed generally about national security. In addition, I can think of many examples in which the knowledge that a company had come into the purview of the Bill could have a detrimental impact on its stock valuation or reputation.

When the Minister responds, I hope that he will set out what he expects the Secretary of State to do when there is a conflict of interest between public knowledge of hostile actors and specific measures in the Bill to ensure that companies related to potential hostile actors, or those for whom our national security is not in their interests—through chains of influence or company holdings, for example—should not be beyond the reach of the Bill. The clause, by enabling the Secretary of State to leave out details that prejudice the commercial interests of any person, seems to put the focus back on commercial interests rather than national security. The amendment would put the focus back on national security and the public interest.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.