Telecoms Supply Chain Review

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:11 pm on 22nd July 2019.

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Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 6:11 pm, 22nd July 2019

Good afternoon, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and notice of today’s announcement. In January this year, the Secretary of State said that the telecoms supply chain review was

“not a Huawei specific exercise”.

I am afraid that the report published today may be stretching that phrase to its limits. The Government’s handling of the question of Huawei's involvement in the future of the UK’s 5G network has been defined by one thing: confusion. Rather than this review being published as expected—in March, including a decision on Huawei’s role in our future telecoms networks—we have had a flurry of delays, leaks and rumours.

Today’s further delay on a decision on Huawei means that this confusion will continue, leaving the telecoms industry without the clarity and the public without the confidence they need. A ban on Huawei products could significantly delay the roll-out of the 5G technology that will underpin our tomorrow’s economy. The innovative and green technologies that will form the basis of our future rely on the development and deployment of trusted 5G technology. Our digital infrastructure is already falling behind. The UK lags embarrassingly behind in international comparisons of full fibre roll-out. We are second last in the list of OECD countries, with just 4% of the UK having access to full fibre networks. What Britain needed from this review was not a muddle; we needed a new model for a genuinely world-class digital infrastructure, which we lack at the moment. So this decision must be taken as quickly and transparently as possible, because, whether the Government need to ban Huawei for security reasons or not, the Government have a roll-out target to meet: 5G for the majority of the country by 2027.

We need clarity, one way or another, and the Government should have a plan B for meeting this target if necessary. This review has provided neither. That goes directly against the advice of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which said last week that

“the extent of the delay is now causing serious damage to our international relationships: a decision must be made as a matter of urgency.”

Does the Secretary of State agree?

There are some measures in this review on diversifying the market that are welcome, but this is not an overnight solution, and surely these objectives are best achieved through working with our European partners. Hitherto, the Secretary of State has sought to keep our digital regulation regime in lockstep with Europe. Can he tell us whether the EU is following suit now that the Americans have taken action? If it has not, is he not now concerned that UK digital policy is significantly diverging from that of our closest trading partners?

The situation is indeed complex, as the Secretary of State says. The United States’ recent blacklisting of Huawei has added long-term viability concerns to the existing security considerations. But I am concerned that the future of the UK’s digital infrastructure is being held hostage by transatlantic geopolitics. The question here should be: what is in the UK’s public interest? It should not be: where does this fit into US foreign policy? The British public deserve a trustworthy and modern 5G network that is fit for the future; I fear that, under the new Prime Minister and his Administration, they will get neither.

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I will finish on one more point. This could be the last statement that the Secretary of State makes in his current role and, if it is, I would like to put on the record how much my team have enjoyed working with his. I have one phrase for him, from a very great man, who once sang these words:

“For what is a man, what has he got

If not himself, then he has naught

To say the things he truly feels

And not the words of one who kneels

The record shows”— he—

“took the blows

And did it”