Telecommunications (Security) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:01 pm on 29 June 2021.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative 3:01, 29 June 2021

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her clear and convincing explanation of the need for this Bill, which I support. I have a possible interest as a beneficiary of the British Telecom pension scheme but, as it was a nationalised industry when I worked for it and our main preoccupation was the introduction of subscriber trunk dialling in the 1960s, I fear that much of my knowledge of the technical side of the telecommunications industry is 60 years out of date.

I mention in passing the report by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which says, on the power in Clause 3, that the committee is unconvinced by the department’s case and recommends a negative procedure for the code of practice. That seems to me to be a concession that the Government could consider. I noticed with approval the Minister’s conciliatory response when she spoke about the committee’s report.

There are three issues I want to raise briefly. The first concerns whether the Secretary of State’s directions and designations under the Bill are justiciable and whether issues of national security could end up being decided not by Ministers but by the courts. For example, could a potential supplier, such as Huawei, assert that there was no risk to national security in any ministerial designation, that decisions were being taken to protect domestic suppliers and that no reasonable Secretary of State could have reached such a conclusion and seek an injunction? In which case, despite the passage of the Bill, we would find that there was extensive and time-consuming litigation, during which time investment in telecoms infrastructure would be frozen and potential security issues would be ventilated in the courts. Can my noble friend say that every precaution has been taken to avoid such a scenario?

Related to this is whether the Secretary of State has to give reasons for his decisions. We are told in the Explanatory Notes:

“Designations and directions may only be made in the interests of national security.”

Paragraph 35 then sets out the factors that the Secretary of State will take into account, which presumably could give ammunition to a potential litigant. Subsection (5) of new Section 105Z1 of the Communications Act 2003 inserted by Clause 15 says:

“A designated vendor direction must specify … the reasons for the direction”.

However, the next subsection says that “specifying reasons” need not be given if it

“would be contrary to the interests of national security”,

while, in new subsection (2)(1) we are told that a direction can be given only

“in the interests of national security”.

So, we seem to be going round in circles. I wonder whether my noble friend can shed some light on this paradox.

My second question relates to responsibility for telecommunications security within the Government. The Explanatory Notes tell us:

“The security of telecoms infrastructure needs to be considered within an international context” and we read how cyberwarfare is going to displace conventional warfare. The powers given to the Government in the Bill to protect the integrity of our communications network rest with DCMS but, at the moment, the Secretary of State is not on the National Security Council, which to me seems a surprising omission. The National Cyber Security Centre, whose work is central to the operation of the Bill, is part of GCHQ, which reports to the Foreign Secretary. The Cyber and Government Security Directorate sits within the Cabinet Office, leading on the co-ordination and delivery of the classified national security risk assessment, which assesses the most significant risks to the UK. When I answered Questions for the Cabinet Office in Your Lordships’ House, I had to answer Questions about Huawei—or, if I did not answer them, I at least replied to them. Finally, a significant proportion of telecommunications research is led and funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and its external bodies, such as UK Research and Innovation and Innovate UK, report to BEIS. Can my noble friend explain, perhaps in a letter, the inner wiring of responsibility for dealing with cyberwarfare between the FCDO, the Cabinet Office, the MoD, BEIS and DCMS?

My last point concerns the ambition to create one of the toughest security regimes in the world and set up the UK as a global leader in the telecoms supply chain, a point made by my noble friend Lady Morgan of Cotes. I very much welcome this. Other countries in the free world face the same challenges as the UK in protecting the integrity of their national networks and others are reducing their dependence on Huawei. So, there is a real opportunity here to win new markets, create fresh investment and employment in the UK on the back of this Bill and build back better. To what extent is the UK liaising with other countries to ensure that the standards—the codes of practice mentioned in the Bill—are recognised by other countries, so that the new supply chains that we plan to create in the UK enable us to penetrate new markets? Can my noble friend amplify what she told us in her letter of 2 June about the steps we are taking to set up the UK as a global leader in this field? What progress has been made in attracting new suppliers to the UK market? What is the follow-up to the telecoms diversification task force under my noble friend Lord Livingston? It reported in April with a wide range of recommendations: the co-ordination of government activity, a targeted international engagement strategy, joint working on standards and buy-in by other countries.

I conclude by quoting from that report—-:

“It is therefore essential that the UK coordinates its efforts with like-minded nations and focuses investment in areas that can succeed on an international, not national scale. … If the Government is to move the dial towards the UK’s long-term vision for the market, it will require buy-in and support from a critical mass of nations.”

I have not seen a government response to those thoughtful and wide-ranging recommendations. Perhaps, again in a letter, my noble friend could set out how we plan to build on the recommendations in that report.

With these comments, I wish my noble friend well as she pilots this Bill on to the statute book.