Clause 2 - Obtaining or disclosing trade secrets

National Security Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 12th July 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

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

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Clause 2 provides for an offence of obtaining or disclosing trade secrets. It will be an important tool for law enforcement and the intelligence agencies to detect, deter and protect modern espionage activity. It will introduce an offence to criminalise the illicit acquisition, retention or disclosure of sensitive information with a commercial, industrial or economic value linked to its secrecy for, on behalf of or to benefit foreign states.

There is an inherent link between economic prosperity and our national security; we cannot ignore one and expect the other not to suffer as a result. We must respond to the fact that our adversaries and competitors are already acting in a more consolidated way, taking a whole-state approach to state threat activity. It is crucial that we ensure our legislation covers the wide range of threats and harms that constitute modern espionage.

For the purposes of this legislation, a person commits an offence if they obtain, copy, record, retain, disclose or provide access to a trade secret; additionally, the person’s conduct must be unauthorised and they must know or ought reasonably to know that their conduct is unauthorised. As with clause 1 and a number of other provisions in the Bill, there must also be a link to a foreign power, such as an intention to benefit that power or to direct tasking by that power.

The clause provides for a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both. That reflects the severity of the conduct and the potential damage to the UK, its businesses and our economy, as well as being comparable to existing similar legislation.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The Minister said that there must be a direct link to a foreign power. May I give an example? Suppose that somebody obtains information and gives or sells it not to a foreign power but to a competitor business. Is that covered under the legislation?

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

The legislation takes civil offences and makes some of them criminal. That case would remain a civil offence. What we are doing is providing the intelligence services with the tools they need to prosecute people who hand over trade secrets in the criminal system. For example, MBDA in my constituency builds Brimstone missiles, which are currently being used in action. If some of those secrets were to be removed and handed over, that would be difficult for the people using those missiles and for the country. There are clear examples of how the loss of trade secrets threatens the country and our allies’ lives.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I agree, but is it the case that to prosecute under the Bill there will need to be a causal link from the individual to a foreign power and not necessarily to a competitor in the UK?

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

My understanding is that the action would have to be done on behalf of or for the purposes of a foreign power. If it was done unknowingly, it would be for the lawyers and the Crown Prosecution Service to decide how to proceed.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

In the example that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham gave of a person obtaining information and trade secrets and selling them to a competitor business, if that business had a complex ownership structure that led back to, say, China, would that be enough for the person to fall foul of the legislation?

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I appreciate the question and understand the spirit in which it was asked. However, one thing that we must be careful of is laying out exactly what someone must do to fall foul of the legislation. If we did, in that example, the Chinese would create that structure and be in a position to use it ensure that anybody acting on their behalf would not fall under that power. We must provide the intelligence agencies with the tools that they need to interdict and decide whether such people can be pursued and taken to court. As we have seen, it is difficult to get anybody on espionage. However, as we have said throughout proceedings, we do need the foreign power condition, or to reasonably know, and reasonableness is a huge test within English law, so a person would have to reasonably know that what they are doing would benefit a foreign power.

The offence under the clause is first and foremost a national security offence. We have created a definition of “trade secret”, found in subsection (2), which is intended for use in the state threats context. The introduction of the definition in the offence will help to address the increasingly diverse set of tactics employed by state actors to undermine the UK’s national and economic security and target a wide range of information.

There is no specific criminal offence in UK law that directly criminalises the threat to trade secrets by or for the benefit of foreign states. We have trade secrets regulations that transpose European law, but they serve a different purpose. We have therefore modified the definition of “trade secret” to ensure that it is suitable for our specific purposes. For example, as well as requiring that protections are in place that would limit the utility and potentially impose obligations on businesses, the definition in the Trade Secrets (Enforcement, etc.) Regulations 2018 does not account for information with a potential value. We are seeking to capture early-stage ideas such as research as well as established ideas that are more likely to be subject to protective measures.

Subsections (1)(b) and (3) set out in the instances in which a person’s conduct is unauthorised and what that means. The clause uses the term “unauthorised” because it focuses on the consent of the person with the power to give that consent. We want to make it absolutely clear that legitimate conduct is not captured by this offence. For the purposes of this offence, a person’s conduct is unauthorised if they are not entitled to determine whether they are able to carry out the conduct in question—for example, if they disclose a trade secret to a foreign power and they do not have the permission of the person who does have the power to make that decision. An example of where someone is not captured by the offence could be a team of researchers who are working with a foreign power, but although the information they control amounts to a trade secret, their research partnership authorises them to share that information with the foreign power.

Technological developments have enabled espionage and information acquisition to be conducted from a foreign state with greater ease. United Kingdom business interests are often targeted. Implementing an offence with extraterritorial jurisdictions is necessary to defend the United Kingdom against threats posed by foreign powers. The clause applies overseas where the conduct takes place wholly outside the UK, but only where the trade secret is in the possession or control of a UK person.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:15 am, 12th July 2022

That is one of a couple of issues that I have. I would like the full information on why the offence can take place only outside the United Kingdom if it is in respect of possession by a United Kingdom national, as opposed to a UK resident or any other description of persons. I do not know whether the Minister can answer that now, but it would be useful to understand it.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I will come back to the hon. Member on that point.

The clause applies overseas where the conduct takes place outside the UK. That includes both a UK national overseas and a UK company based overseas, provided that it is incorporated or was formed, if unincorporated, under domestic law. The clause brings forward an important offence that will form part of a modernised toolkit for our world-class intelligence agencies and law enforcement. It is proportionate to the threat posed by this activity, and imposes no restrictions or obligations on UK businesses, but offers further protections for them, and the UK as a whole, against modern espionage activity. We cannot promote economic prosperity without enhancing our national security and responding to the modern threat posed by espionage.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

As the Minister just outlined, the clause creates an offence in relation to obtaining or disclosing trade secrets. The former deputy National Security Adviser, Paddy McGuinness, set the scene for this new offence when he gave evidence last week. On the trade secrets element, he said that it does “a very significant thing”, and continued:

“This kind of legislation and the type of work that Sir Alex and his successors in MI5, MI6 and GCHQ are doing has Darwinian effect, so I have no doubt that as companies have got better at certain kinds of protection advised by the interaction with the CPNI and the National Cyber Security Centre, so the opponents have got better at it. And we will have to go on doing it.”

He said:

“It does not feel as though we have quite the same volume of opencast mining of our intellectual property and economic value that we had, as was described previously by General Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency in the US. He described the enormous volume—trillions of value—taken out of our economies. There still is a very high level, though, so there is more work to do on this, and it is a significant challenge to the corporate sector to do the right thing in this space, because of the difficulty that it represents.”

He also said:

“The Bill provides a really solid basis for that discussion, because of the criminalisation of the trades secrets aspect.”––[Official Report, National Security Public Bill Committee, 7 July 2022; c. 25, Q50.]

All that provides an incredibly sobering outlook on the scale of the challenge that we face as a country.

Let me work through some of the detail further. We have some queries about this clause, as we did for clause 1. The seriousness of the clause is underlined by the fact that it creates an offence for which, if someone was found guilty of committing it, they would find themselves with a jail term not exceeding 14 years imprisonment, or a fine, or both. The Minister did not give us that extra bit of detail about the sentencing guidelines in the discussion about clause 1. I wonder if he might be able to return to that point in the discussion on clause 2.

Further to that, I confess that on my first reading and several subsequent readings of the clause, and having listened carefully to the Minister explain the detail of who can be prosecuted and where, it seems to suggest that this offence could be committed only by a UK national. I asked a former member of the intelligence community to have a look at it, and they felt that subsections (4) to (7) on who can commit the offence only seem to refer to a UK person, a United Kingdom national or a British citizen. Only on seeking a legal opinion was it judged that it could be interpreted to apply to non-UK nationals, but only if their criminal activity takes place in the UK. It does not apply where this activity is wholly outside the UK. That same legal opinion queried what it means to be “wholly” outside the UK, as that is unclear in this online age. It is also unclear why obtaining UK-related trade secrets unlawfully is not criminalised for non-UK nationals operating entirely from abroad, as is the nature of a lot of this type of activity.

We are not naive to the additional barriers to bringing someone to justice in these circumstances, yet such activity is no less wrongful because of nationality or where the criminal act takes place. With that in mind, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm, first, for absolute clarity, that this crime can be committed by non-UK nationals when acting in the UK and we could prosecute them using this clause on that basis. Secondly, why does the clause not extend to criminalising non-UK nationals when they commit this offence in the theft of UK intellectual property and trade secrets outside the UK? Will the Minister clarify those points?

Again, we have the principle of “ought reasonably to know”, which warrants further consideration and clarity. On the “ought reasonably to know” threshold, I have it on good authority from former members of the intelligence community that the duping of individuals by nation states into doing the bidding of that nation state is not uncommon tradecraft. Are we satisfied that we have the right balance in that regard? Any clarity that the Minister can provide on the sentencing guidelines would be enormously welcome.

Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon

On a point of order, Mr Gray. Would you mind awfully if Members were to take their jackets off?

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I will not be taking my jacket off, but hon. Gentlemen and hon. Ladies may take their jackets off if they wish, as it is very hot.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I have three short points building on what Members have already raised in relation to this clause.

First, as raised by esteemed colleagues from the Intelligence and Security Committee, there is a question mark over what happens if somebody recklessly starts dishing out trade secrets, not directly to somebody in way that meets the foreign power condition but in a way that makes that inevitable or very likely. That does not seem to be caught by the clause at the moment, so that is something for the Minister to think about.

Secondly, as I have already asked, I want to understand why the offence is only committed “wholly” abroad if the trade secret is in the possession of a UK national, not, for example, a UK resident who is not a national. The Government have made a conscious choice about that drafting and I am interested to know why.

Finally, the clause states that the offence is committed if

“the person’s conduct is unauthorised”.

Do we need to be a little more explicit about what we mean by authorisation and authorised by whom? I can imagine situations where, for example, the person who we want to prosecute might say, “Actually, my conduct is authorised. It is authorised by the laws of my country,” which may be considerably different from the laws of this country. Does that need to be clarified? That might be implied in the phrase

“the person’s conduct is unauthorised” but it may be something the Government want to look at.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Earlier, we talked about sentencing guidelines. My understanding is that we are not in a position to give more detail on that yet. That is something I have discussed with the Ministry of Justice, as we will come to later.

With regard to the offence, one issue we have is the offence is designed to catch overseas activity with a strong link to the UK. It has been set at the threshold of a UK offence, so if we extend who it will to apply to, that will end up extending the scope of the offence. It is almost as if we have tried to put a safeguard in place to protect and control it, and the more we extend it, the more it will extend the scope of the offence and bring more and more within its scope, so that is the position we are in.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

As a point of clarification, how will it apply to somebody who has indefinite leave to remain, who is not a lawful British citizen in the United Kingdom but very much operating here?

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

It applies in the sense that if that person were to commit murder, they would be prosecuted in this country under the laws applying to murder.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Effectively, it would apply in the same way. As I have said, with all these offences the Advocate General has to sign them off, and the Crown Prosecution Service as well.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

In actual fact, on a number of occasions I have handled cases where someone with ILR in the UK has committed murder abroad and there was absolutely nothing that could be done about it.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

That is well beyond the scope of the Bill.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

But it is not beyond the scope of what—

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

It is beyond the scope of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.