Telecommunications (Security) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:17 pm on 29 June 2021.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 3:17, 29 June 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, for making time to see me and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, last week. The noble Lord is chairing his Select Committee this afternoon but intends to speak at later stages. By way of follow-up, the Minister will have seen the letter to her from the right honourable Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP, sent yesterday. Like them, I want to speak about human rights, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and the strengthening of national resilience and diversification, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes.

On its front cover, the Bill begins with a declaration from the Minister referencing the Human Rights Act 1998 and stating that the Bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms—to give it its full title—was originally proposed by Winston Churchill and drafted mainly by British lawyers, and it is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among other things, the convention insists on the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery, the right to liberty, the right to a fair trial, the right to respect for family and private life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, the right to marry and start a family, the right to participate in free elections, and the abolition of the death penalty. In considering a Bill which has been framed to explicitly rule out, in 5G provision, the future involvement of a company with close links to the Chinese Communist Party but which enables other links with other companies, it needs to be restated that every single one of these articles are broken each and every day by the Chinese Communist Party, and that they affect citizens outside its territory as well.

Although the Government may say that the ECHR is not the instrument with which to test their commitment to human rights, the compatibility statement should be read in line with other international law obligations, not least the prohibition on violating peremptory norms of international law, genocide, crimes against humanity, slavery and torture. The UK is, of course, a signatory to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and is bound by its own law on modern slavery. All provisions of customary international law and conventional law are binding on the UK Government, so we need to know what due diligence has been undertaken when considering their duty to prohibit and prevent genocide, along with the commissioning of other grave crimes.

The inadequacy of the compatibility statements led to an amendment to create a human rights threshold being tabled to the Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill. Later, in the Trade Bill, the House voted overwhelmingly for the all-party genocide amendment. Perhaps the Minister can say what has happened to the promised committee to examine genocide determination. In this context, the Joint Committee on Human Rights should re-examine the purpose of those declarations.

One year ago, the Minister pointed me to Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act, and she will recall promises to examine supply chain transparency and export controls. As I was assured:

“The Home Office keeps compliance under active review.”

Supply-chain transparency has been referred to in our debate by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes. In the absence of any progress on that promise to tackle the issue of supply-chain transparency, on 15 June I presented a Private Member’s Bill in your Lordships’ House to amend the Modern Slavery Act. To honour the Government’s undertaking, perhaps the Minister will consider adopting that Bill and providing it with parliamentary time.

Although this legislation is not specifically about China or Huawei, those were the country and company that have featured heavily in our debates. I welcome the explicit references to Huawei in the illustrative draft designation notices and designated-vendor direction to which the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, referred in her introductory remarks.

The situation in Xinjiang has not improved. The Government continue to say there are

“systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang, including credible and growing reports of forced labour”,

and the Foreign Secretary says this is “on an industrial scale.”

In 2019 and 2020, I specifically asked about Huawei’s compliance with the Modern Slavery Act and drew attention to China’s national intelligence law requiring Chinese organisations such as Huawei to support, assist and co-operate with state intelligence work. I also asked about reports that UK investors hold shares totalling £800 million in companies that supply CCTV and facial-recognition technology used to track Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. The Government admitted that they were aware of those reports but complacently said they had

“not undertaken analysis of British investor shareholdings in Chinese surveillance companies.”

Meanwhile, however, Foreign Office Ministers were telling me the department had

“serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, including extensive and invasive surveillance targeting Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. An extensive body of open source evidence suggests such surveillance, including the use of facial recognition technology, plays a central role in the restrictive measures imposed in the region.”

The House should recall that the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, urging him to

“cease consideration of Huawei as a contractor or partner for the UK’s 5G infrastructure until investigations have been conducted into Huawei’s work in Xinjiang and its relationship to the mass persecution”.

Has that investigation taken place, and what were the conclusions?

Professor Adrian Zenz, a German scholar who recently gave evidence to the independent Uyghur Tribunal, says:

“Huawei is directly implicated in Beijing police state and related human rights violations in Xinjiang … it has lied to the public about this … In 2014, Huawei received an award from Xinjiang’s Ministry of Public Security for its role in establishing citywide surveillance systems.”

Professor Zenz says that Xinjiang represents

“the largest detention of an ethno-religious minority since World War II.”

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute meticulously details the global expansion of 23 key Chinese technology companies. One of its researchers, Vicky Xu, says the idea that Huawei is not working directly with the local governments in Xinjiang is “just straight-up nonsense”.

Since the Second Reading of this Bill in the Commons last November, there have been a number of developments that make it even more important to address the implications of being joined at the hip with any company operating under the auspices of the CCP. How do we justify deepening trade relations, as the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, has told us he is seeking to do, with a country found by the House of Commons, in a vote on 22 April, to be complicit in events in Xinjiang where a genocide is under way? That was a vote in the House of Commons. It is not just my view or that of a group of human rights advocates; it is a view reached by the Commons. What action have we taken following that vote?

Last month, following that vote, Amnesty International issued a devastating report detailing arbitrary detention, forced indoctrination, torture, mass surveillance and crimes against humanity while the Daily Telegraph recently carried major first-hand reports from Xinjiang, including the destruction of 16,000 mosques. Harrowing evidence has been given to the independent Uyghur Tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, some of whose sessions I was able to attend with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and whose brave witnesses and their families are now experiencing threats and intimidation.

If we add to the charge sheet reports of forced organ harvesting and the destruction of the rule of law, free speech and democracy in Hong Kong, along with the outrageous incarceration of legislators, lawyers, journalists, and campaigners, it is obvious that as well as security questions the House should give close attention to the human rights dimensions of this Bill. Although Huawei equipment in respect of 5G must be removed by 2027, and since the beginning of the year there have been prohibitions on purchasing any Huawei equipment, I hope we will probe how the installation prohibition will work from September and whether companies have been purchasing stockpiles with the intention of installing such equipment until 2027. How will the Government monitor this? Will some parts of the network—the most sensitive parts—be prioritised?

Earlier this month the Sunday Telegraph revealed that UK local authorities will review contracts for CCTV equipment from Hikvision, a Chinese tech firm that makes cameras used to monitor Uighur Muslims in China’s detention camps. The company is blacklisted in the United States but not here. This weekend the Washington Post reported on how Hikvision had recruited former legislators to extend its power and influence despite President Biden banning Americans from investing in the company, citing its links to the Chinese military. The UK is not immune to the influence of organisations such as The 48 Group Club, with a network of links to former and current politicians—including one who now publicly urges us to tone down our criticism of the treatment of Uighurs.

Beyond such influence, the role of hidden cameras was dramatically illustrated last week, as others have said, from the office of the former Secretary of State for Health. Yesterday the Lord Speaker wrote to us all saying that there are several hundred CCTV cameras in Parliament. I hope that in Committee we will consider the implications for civil liberties of placing such power in the hands of companies that install or own these cameras.

We should also consider the implications for security of giving such power to a regime intent on the overthrow of parliamentary democracy and which makes no secret of its goal of global hegemony. The hidden hands on the levers of power was a theme explored by the admirable Dr Julian Lewis MP, chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, at Second Reading in the Commons. He asked

“in view of the revolving door, via which too many businessmen and ex-civil servants effortlessly glide between their former roles and the Huawei boardroom, what assurance can we have that the Government will be immune from lobbying campaigns by those on the payroll of high-risk vendors?”—[Official Report, Commons, 30/11/20; col. 84.]

That question was not answered in the Commons, and I would like to hear the Minister’s opinion on it. I have another question that I shall ask her directly: why have not we, like the United States, banned Hikvision? The company has been accused of helping to build the CCP’s surveillance state and profiting from human rights abuses. Does the Minister agree with that description or not? What will the Bill do to take back control of CCTV equipment in our high streets, public buildings and even government offices?

I shall speak briefly about the implications of this Bill for diversification and national resilience. During the Commons stages, Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State, said the Bill recognises that there are real threats to the UK’s security and interests, a point that my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup explored in his excellent speech. I welcome what Oliver Dowden and my noble and gallant friend have said about security and diversification. In addition to the diversification of telecoms to companies such as Ericsson and Samsung, is that not a principle that should be applied across government?

I will give two brief examples. In May, I asked how many Covid lateral flow tests we had bought from China. The answer was a staggering 1 billion—not 1 million but 1 billion. The Government declined to say how much they had cost taxpayers or to reveal the names of the companies involved, saying “It’s commercially sensitive”. I tabled a further Question asking why we could not be told how much 1 billion lateral flow tests had cost us and which companies had carried out that trade. Are we seriously saying that we could not have used taxpayers’ money to make those tests in the UK and to give British workers jobs doing it?

My second example raises equally troubling issues. I was recently contacted by a librarian in Wigan, a lady of 34 years’ standing, who has been suspended after using social media to criticise her council’s decision to award redevelopment contracts to Chinese companies. She was fearful that they might have links to Xinjiang.

The Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, should require all local authorities to provide details of such deals, and demand to see whether subsidised lowest bids for council developments have undercut unsubsidised UK companies, just as has happened in the telecommunications sector.

The persistent breaking of WTO rules on subsidies and competitions has enabled CCP dominance in telecoms, and now it is happening in other sectors as well. The Minister should tell us when we are going to raise this at the WTO and across Whitehall. Does he personally believe that it is ever licit or right to deepen trade with a country credibly accused of the crime-above-all-crimes: genocide. Diversification, national resilience and the upholding of our values, especially on fundamental human rights, are all reflected in the way we trade. Genocide is a line we should never cross. I support the Second Reading of this Bill today. I hope to return to these and other issues when we get to Committee and later stages.