Telecommunications (Security) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:28 pm on 29 June 2021.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 2:28, 29 June 2021

My Lords, those of you who participated in this House’s consideration of the National Security and Investment Act may, I am afraid, detect a few similarities in the nature of my contributions to this legislation. That is an unfortunate consequence of the Government’s failure to listen to the strength of feeling in the House on the subject of oversight during those debates.

Like that Act of Parliament, the Bill seeks to address concerns first raised by the Intelligence and Security Committee some seven years ago in its report, Foreign involvement in the Critical National Infrastructure, namely that there were serious failings in the way in which successive Governments managed the entry of foreign telecommunications companies into the UK market. Clearly, the Government have been listening to what the ISC, with its unparalleled access to highly classified material, has been able to discover on behalf of Parliament, leading to both pieces of legislation.

The ISC therefore welcomes this Bill. We strongly support the principle behind it and the new safeguards it introduces. However, as with the National Security and Investment Act, we are concerned that the Bill does not provide for sufficient parliamentary oversight of these important new powers. As noble Lords are aware, the Bill provides significant powers for the Secretary of State to designate certain vendors as high-risk and to direct telecommunications providers to abide by certain requirements about the use of equipment from designated vendors. When the Secretary of State issues, varies or revokes a designation notice or a designated vendor direction, he will lay it before Parliament, except when this is contrary to national security.

This is a perfectly reasonable provision. I, for one, would not wish the Government to publish information that would damage national security. However, as things stand, this results in a significant gap in Parliament’s ability to scrutinise the Government’s decision-making and use of these powers. I am sure noble Lords agree that this is not what Parliament expects.

There is a simple and elegant solution to this problem: any designation notices or designated vendor directions that cannot be laid before Parliament for reasons of national security should be provided instead to the ISC for scrutiny. Parliament established the ISC for this purpose. Indeed, it is the only committee of Parliament that has regular access to the most sensitive protectively marked information. ISC colleagues have made these points repeatedly in the other place but they, again, have fallen on deaf ears. The Government’s resistance to this idea, coming so swiftly after their resistance on the NSI Act, gives the unfortunate impression that they are seeking to avoid scrutiny—an impression I am sure Ministers will wish to correct.

The Government have been clear that they do not think the ISC’s scrutiny role should be included in the Bill. This is regrettable. We should not knowingly be passing legislation that has holes in it. However, once again, there is a ready solution to that problem. As noble Lords are aware, the Justice and Security Act 2013 requires the ISC’s specific remit to be set out in a memorandum of understanding between the committee and Prime Minister. The Government told Parliament that the MoU would provide the ISC with oversight of substantially all the Government’s intelligence and security activities. However, with the passage of the NSI Act and now this Bill, the MoU is self-evidently out of date. It is a very simple matter to update it to provide the ISC with oversight of these powers in the specific and limited way I described a few moments ago.

The committee has formally raised this issue with the Government and asked them to take forward updating the MoU to ensure that it meets the commitments the Government made to Parliament during the passage of the Justice and Security Act. For that reason alone, I do not intend to table an amendment that would put the ISC’s essential oversight role on these powers in the Bill. However, the Government should be in no doubt that they must address this issue; the current situation is not tenable. If the Government do not wish to amend the Bill to fill this oversight gap, they must give a commitment to update the ISC’s memorandum of understanding and provide the oversight that Parliament requires in that way.

A large body of opinion from all corners of the House feels strongly about this and, should another Peer table an amendment on it, I would support it. The Minister will recall the strength of feeling in the House when the Government failed to provide for ISC oversight of the powers introduced by the National Security and Investment Act. I urge the Government to work constructively with the ISC on this issue.