“Not later than 18 months after the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament—
(a) a report setting out the impacts the Act has had on Small to Medium Enterprises and early-stage ventures, and
(b) guidance for Small to Medium Enterprises and early-stage ventures on complying with the provisions of this Act.”—
This new clause would require the Government to produce a report setting out the impacts of this legislation on Small to Medium Enterprises and early-stage ventures, and to produce relevant guidance.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 3—Grace period for SMEs—
“For the purposes of section 32, a person has a reasonable excuse if—
(a) the entity concerned is a Small to Medium Enterprise;
(b) this Act has been in force for less than six months.”
This new clause creates a grace period whereby – for alleged offences committed under Section 32 – Small to Medium Enterprises would have a ‘reasonable excuse’ if the alleged offence was committed within the first six months after the Bill’s passage.
I am pleased to speak to the two new clauses, which stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South. Throughout our debate on the Bill, Members have spoken—sometimes with a surprising degree of cross-party consensus—of the need to find the right balance between protecting our collective national security and allowing beneficial investment into the United Kingdom to continue. New clauses 2 and 3 aim to give some recognition to the fact that among the Bill’s potential detrimental effects may well be a disproportionate detrimental impact on smaller businesses and early start-up ventures.
Smaller businesses often lack the resources to have their own in-house team of lawyers or other trade law experts, and they certainly cannot afford the services of the very experienced experts that gave evidence to the Committee a few weeks ago. They may be more adversely affected than a bigger business would be by delays in bringing in investment, because they do not have the same resources to fall back on. Compared with bigger businesses that may have more international connections, smaller businesses are unlikely to be as well informed about which possible investors or partners are likely to raise security concerns. There is a danger that small businesses could commit time and resources to negotiating deals, acquisitions, mergers or investments that a bigger business with a more global perspective would immediately know were non-starters. Small businesses may spend a lot of time on abortive deals and negotiations.
All the way through, I have said that these things may happen. I am not trying to reignite arguments about “may” and “must”, but at the moment nobody really knows what the impact of the legislation will be. We cannot possibly know until it has been in place for a few months, or possibly even a bit longer. What we do know is that when this legislation comes into force, we will rely massively on the growth of existing small businesses and the launch of new ones to drive our post-covid recovery. Big businesses will not do it, and they certainly will not do it on their own. We have all got a responsibility to avoid putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of small businesses who want to start to grow. If we do find that we have unintentionally put those obstacles in the way, we need to be able to remove them.
New clause 2 makes two simple requests—it has two simple requirements. The first is that the Secretary of State reports back to Parliament on impacts the Act has had on small and medium-sized enterprises and early-stage ventures, giving Parliament the chance—should it need it—to consider whether we have created unintended barriers to small businesses. The second requirement is for the Secretary of State to provide guidance to those same companies to give them a bit more certainty about what they need to do to stay on the right side of the law without having to spend money on expensive consultants or legal experts.
New clause 3 tries to minimise the potential damage that the Act could do to small businesses, particularly in the early days when they may be unused to some of the impacts. Clause 32 creates a new offence of completing a notifiable acquisition without reasonable excuse and without the proper authority of the Secretary of State. New clause 3 seeks to recognise that small businesses in particular may find themselves in the wrong side of that clause in the early days of the legislation, not through any malice or wilful neglect, but simply through ignorance, lack of experience or being too busy trying to run their business to be keeping an eye on what is happening in the Houses of Parliament. New clause 3 would effectively provide a grace period of six months in which a small business can put forward the fact that the legislation is new to be taken as a reasonable excuse, which would mean that neither they nor the directors were liable to criminal prosecution. It is critically important to bear in mind that nothing in new clause 3 would do anything whatever to dilute or reduce the effectiveness of the Bill in doing what it is supposed to do. It would not have any impact on the ability of the Secretary of State to take action to protect our national security. It would not have any impact on the exercise of powers either to block an acquisition or merger or to impose conditions on it, should that be necessary. It would not change the fact that if a small business during that six-month period completes an acquisition that should not have been completed, that acquisition would be just as void under the law as any other acquisition.
I understand that new clause 3 is a slightly unusual clause for a piece of legislation, but it would allow us to make sure that the Bill continues to protect national security to the fullest extent it can, but at the same time that we do not have businesses being scared to act in case they end up on the wrong side of the law. We would not have the possibility of the courts having to take up time dealing with prosecutions of small businesses or directors who genuinely meant no harm, but who just—
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to the zealous promotion of free enterprise and the cause of small businesses, but would he extend his support to any new taxation measures, new business regulation or employment measures that are advanced by the Government? While I support the thrust, the principle and the philosophy from which he clearly speaks, I do worry that the new clause could create somewhat of a precedent, and I am not sure that all of his colleagues have fully thought through the profound implications for the application of the law on business in this land.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have been a supporter of small businesses significantly longer than he has perhaps. I did make it clear that this is a way that we can protect small businesses without in any way compromising the integrity of the Bill. There is nothing in the new clause that will in any way weaken the effectiveness of the Bill and protecting our national security. I would be happy at another time to debate the reasons why, for example, employment measures in Scotland should be taken by the Parliament and Government elected by the people of Scotland rather than somewhere down here, but that is not a debate for today. I expect, Sir Graham, that neither you nor anybody else would be too pleased if we started to take up time this afternoon on that subject.
That is a valid point, but I do not think it is. The difficulty with the case-by-case basis is that it creates uncertainty and worry for the small business concerned. We are talking about a period of only six months. I do not really think that hostile overseas investors are waiting to pounce during those six months to gobble up small businesses in a way that will damage our national security. Let us face it: if they were going to do that in the first six months, they would be doing it now or they would have done it in the last six months.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but the new clause is deliberately worded to explicitly recognise the importance of small businesses, particularly during this period. The Bill is likely to come into force at the exact time that small businesses will be trying to get back on their feet. They need all the help they can get. There is a danger that the way that the Bill could be implemented and enforced will be an unintentional barrier to their growth.
All that we are asking is that, for a short period, until smaller businesses get used to the new legislation, it does not allow them to go ahead with transactions that are otherwise prohibited and would otherwise be blocked by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will still have the full power to block those transactions or to impose conditions on them. It does not mean that an acquisition is legally valid if it would otherwise be void under the terms of the legislation. The only difference it makes is that it removes the danger of small businesses or their directors spending time defending themselves in court when they should be developing their business and helping to get the economy back on its feet. On that basis, I commend both new clauses to the Committee.
I rise to speak briefly in support of additional support for SMEs. The hon. Member for Glenrothes is a champion of small businesses, which is a pleasure to hear. As he set out, and as has been set out in a number of the amendments that we have tabled in Committee, we are concerned to make sure that the seismic shift in our national security assessment with regard to mergers and acquisitions does not stifle our innovative but often under-resourced small businesses, which are such an important driver of our economy. New clause 2 reflects our intentions, particularly in amendments 1 and 11, to support and give further guidance to small businesses. I hope that the Minister and Conservative Members recognise the importance of supporting small businesses at this time through direct measures in the Bill.
I thank the hon. Member for Glenrothes and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central for setting out the arguments in support of new clauses 2 and 3, which both relate to the treatment of small and medium-sized enterprises in the regime.
On new clause 2, the Government are a strong supporter of SMEs and have sought to provide a slick and easily navigable regime for businesses of all sizes to interact with. We are creating a digital portal and a simple notification process to allow all businesses to interact with the regime without the need for extensive support from law firms, which is a particular burden for small businesses. Furthermore, there is no fee for filling a notification, unlike many of our allies’ regimes, which in some cases charge hundreds of thousands of pounds for a notification. Consequently, we do not expect this regime to disproportionately affect SMEs.
New clause 3 would create a grace period whereby SMEs would have a “reasonable excuse” defence if they committed an offence within six months of the Bill’s being passed. I can offer reassurance to the hon. Member for Glenrothes that we expect non-compliance to be very low, and we will be making every effort to keep it that way through, for example, effective engagement and outreach.
I can also advise the hon. Gentleman that for the purpose of estimating the cost to the justice system, the impact assessment suggests that for the most serious breaches of the regime, there will be a criminal conviction of any kind less than once a year. It is, however, crucial that the regime carries a sufficiently robust deterrent to ensure compliance. If there was a gap in enforcement with the absence of penalties, that could serve to undermine the deterrent effect of the regime in general, and therefore compliance along with it.
It is also crucial that the regime extends fully to SMEs. It is not just acquisitions of control over large businesses that might harm our national security, as we heard during the very good evidence sessions that we held. For example, imagine a takeover by a potentially hostile actor of a small start-up that had not yet gone to market or turned a profit, but had cutting-edge intellectual property that potential adversaries might use to undermine our security. Indeed, businesses of precisely that type are often seeking investment, and hostile actors could target them.
I should also refer to what is often SMEs’ role as acquirers, particularly for notifiable acquisitions. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Bill specifies that the acquirer is to notify the Secretary of State about notifiable acquisitions. Although most such acquisitions are not expected to give rise to a national security risk, the regime is predicated on the idea that some acquirers could do us harm, and that some might actively seek to do so. With the grace period that he seeks to put in place through the new clause, there would be nothing to stop hostile actors setting up an SME specifically to carry out notifiable acquisitions in the first six months of the regime’s operation, not notifying and then being immune from any penalties.
If and when the Secretary of State found out about such acquisitions, he could still call them in—I am sure that is what the hon. Gentleman was imagining—and, if appropriate, apply remedies. However, I hope he agrees that where the SME held sensitive intellectual property, that intellectual property would be long gone and transferred overseas before the Secretary of State could act.
We therefore need penalties to disincentivise that kind of dangerous behaviour, so while I fully appreciate the sentiment behind the new clause, such a grace period would create an unacceptable loophole that rewarded those seeking to undermine our regime. None the less, I recommit to the hon. Gentleman that the Government will continue to ensure that this regime is proportionate, and that SMEs and entities of all sizes can continue to thrive in this country while we safeguard our national security. I therefore hope that he will not press the new clause.