I beg to move amendment 25, in page 20, line 27, leave out from “in” until end of line 28 and insert
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to set out reasons, and an assessment of the likely impacts, when publishing directions under this section.
The amendment would require the Secretary of State to set out the reasons for and an assessment of the likely impacts of published directions under the provisions regarding the Enterprise Act 2002. That is incredibly important because, in one respect, the Bill creates a radical shift by taking the merger control process, which is currently located primarily in the Competition and Markets Authority, and creating an alternative centre for merger control in the new investment security unit in BEIS. That is a big shift. We are trying to focus on setting out the reasons, and an assessment of the likely impacts, when directions come out of the new unit.
I want to expand a little on this. We have a series of reasons for intervention in investment and merger scenarios, such as national security, competition, financial stability, media plurality, public health—the list goes on. Having a single centre for merger control in the CMA helped ensure, partially, that the different reasons for intervention were considered coherently. At the very least, they were coherent as a package, ensuring that where, for example, national security demanded one solution, competition remedies did not force another. The multiple centres that the Bill creates make coherence more challenging. This is about ensuring that the process is as smooth as possible.
The Government must clarify how they intend the CMA’s merger control process to align with their new national security screening and approval process. That is particularly important when we reflect that the Government consultation process currently indicates that national security reviews will be run in parallel with CMA assessments and that the Government will cover interaction between the CMA regime and the new national security regime in a memorandum of understanding. Unfortunately, there is no specific indication of when this will happen. The amendment pushes for clarity now and for statutory accountability when a Secretary of State could otherwise undermine the CMA or take a decision that is contrary to something it will bring forward.
In relation to the Enterprise Act 2002, public interest intervention notice regimes allow the Secretary of State to direct the CMA to ensure that it does not inadvertently undermine the Secretary of State’s decision on national security in addressing competition concerns. The power to undermine the CMA is not in itself a problem, but it is about the accountability—that is what we are trying to drive at here. In the face of a vastly extended set of powers for the Secretary of State, the amendment would provide important clarification.
Previously, the CMA had a good reputation with business for independence and for reasons and rules-based decision making. We are really keen that that is continued, and that is what the driving force for this amendment is. For that reason, we seek greater accountability from the Secretary of State. The amendment would require that whenever the Secretary of State subordinates the CMA’s decision-making process, the reasons for doing so are published alongside an assessment of the impact in terms of whatever reasons the CMA would have had to act under its part 3 powers, whether that be competition, media plurality or quality, financial stability or, as I mentioned earlier, public health.
This is about the smooth and rational alignment of the merger control process. That is important for the integrity and impartiality of our national merger control processes and so that business can have certainty that these will be fully aligned. The question I would really like the Minister to answer is about the assurances the Government can give on providing specific, timely guidance on how many different parts of the merger control process will now work. How will the combination of the new unit and the pre-existing regime produce the guidance, and be driven by Government to do so, in a timely fashion? One thing that businesses are certainly seeking at the moment is assurances that things are set out as early and as clearly as possible. If that happens, it will allow businesses to plan in a much better way. For those reasons, I would like to hear how the Government plan to bring those two elements together.
With your permission, Sir Graham, I will speak initially to clause 31 stand part, before turning to amendment 25. As the Bill separates out national security screening from the competition-focused merger control regime, we must, I am sure colleagues agree, ensure that the two regimes interact effectively, while also maintaining the CMA’s operational independence in relation to its merger investigations.
A trigger event under the Bill which is also a merger under the Enterprise Act may raise both national security and competition issues. Not having a power to avoid conflict between the two regimes raises an unacceptable risk for businesses’ operations and, of course, the Government’s reputation. The United Kingdom has a deserved and hard-earned reputation for being a dependable place in which to do business. Transparent regimes are fundamental to building and maintaining this reputation and fostering trust between Government and business.
Currently, under the Enterprise Act 2002, if both national security and competition concerns are raised, the CMA provides a report to the Secretary of State, who would then have the final say on how best to balance national security and competition concerns. This clause will ensure that the Secretary of State continues in his vital role of balancing national security and competition concerns. We will be able to avoid the risk of undue regime interference by maintaining regular and open channels of communication with the CMA.
There may, however, still be a risk that parallel investigations for national security and competition reasons reach conflicting conclusions. That may be particularly true in terms of the remedies required to address national security risks and competition concerns respectively. To remedy that issue, the clause enables the Secretary of State to direct the CMA to take, or not take, a particular course of action. The obligation on the Secretary of State to publish any direction given ensures that the decisions will be transparent, and provides certainty for all parties.
As directing the CMA interferes with its independence, we have drafted the clause so as to allow the Secretary of State to give a direction only where he reasonably considers that it is necessary and proportionate to prevent, remedy or mitigate a risk to national security. Furthermore, the power may be used only when a final order under the Bill is in force, or a final notification that no further action will be taken in relation to a trigger event under the Bill has been given. The clause also requires the Secretary of State to consult the CMA before giving a direction.
The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Ilford South would require the Secretary of State, when publishing a direction given to the CMA under the clause, to set out the reasons for the direction and provide an assessment of its impact on any grounds for action by the CMA in relation to the merger. Let me reassure the Committee that I expect the use of such directions to be rare. Most mergers are unlikely to trigger both competition and national security concerns, and for those that do, the separate processes of the CMA and the Secretary of State will be able to take place smoothly in parallel with each other.
The Minister says that it is unlikely that investigations would trigger concerns on both national security and competition grounds. However, the position that we are in right now with regard to Huawei is one in which the desire for more competition in our telecoms supply chain—that is, to have three vendors as opposed to two—led to a national security impact, which is why we are now in the process of ripping Huawei out of our network. Does he recognise that such examples may happen?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but the difference is that I was referring to mergers. Such mergers would be rare. I do not think that anyone is merging with Huawei, or will in the future.
It is quite clear that the acquisition of a vendor in our telecoms network by another country would have almost exactly the same outcome, so it may well apply.
I was merely pointing out that there was no merger. The hon. Lady will forgive me: she is correct, but I did say that it is a rare occurrence. That is the point that I was making to the Committee.
The amendment seeks to impose a requirement to publish the reasons for giving a direction. We do not think that that is necessary. The clause already requires the Secretary of State to publish a direction in the manner that he considers appropriate. I do not think that I would be disclosing too many state secrets were I to speculate that that would be published on gov.uk. That is a reasonable bet. In many cases, I envisage that it is likely to be accompanied by a high-level explanation, but it is right that the Secretary of State should be able to decide what is appropriate on a case-by-case basis.
The amendment also seeks to require publication of an assessment of the direction’s impact on any grounds for action under part 3 of the Enterprise Act 2002. I have two points to make to the hon. Member for Ilford South. First, such a duty would not be appropriate in all cases—for example, where a direction simply required the CMA not to make a decision on competition remedies until a national security assessment had been concluded. The amendment as drafted would still require an assessment to be published in those circumstances.
Secondly, the predominant impact on grounds for action will of course relate to competition. The CMA is the independent expert competition authority, and nothing in the clause as drafted would prevent it from publishing its own assessment of the impact of a Secretary of State direction on the possible competition issues of a case. The clause also requires the Secretary of State to consult the CMA before giving a direction, so it will be able to inform him of the likely impact and he can factor that into his decision whether to give the direction. I believe that is the right approach and while I understand the hon. Member’s motivations in tabling the amendment, I urge him to withdraw it.
One of the questions that sprang to mind while listening to the Minister’s answer was: if there are conflicting remedies, which of security and economic competitiveness would the Secretary of State decide had primacy? In drawing the matter out as clearly as possible, we have seen that one of the issues with telecoms and Huawei was that the primacy of economic competitiveness was viewed as paramount over security. The Bill is not clear about the framework for assessing primacy when it comes to security. We have argued throughout that security needs to be the primary focus, and sometimes that will mean economic competitiveness taking a slight hit. However, we think this is about protecting our long-term economic interest.
I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman. He asks whether the Secretary of State can override the CMA’s assessment. To give him some clarity, the power to direct may be used only if a trigger event has been called in for assessment under NSI and either a final order has been enforced or a final notification of no further action has been given. That is stage 1. To direct the CMA without a trigger event having first been called in and assessed would not be either reasonable or proportionate, in the Government’s view. However, if a merger is considered to be crucial in the interests of national security after an assessment, no competition concerns should be allowed to prevent it from continuing or remaining in place. I hope that offers him that reassurance.