Telecommunications (Security) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:32 pm on 29 June 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Stroud Baroness Stroud Conservative 3:32, 29 June 2021

My Lords, it is a privilege to speak after my noble friend Lord Alton, following his extraordinary commitment to the Uighur community and to issues of human rights. I too will speak in support of this hugely important and timely Bill.

The UK stands at a reset moment in an increasingly changing world. We have delivered on Brexit, confronted a global pandemic and have an ambitious levelling-up agenda. It is in this context that we are looking now to empower those who have been left behind, revolutionise our critical information infrastructure with the rollout of 5G and see us become a more prosperous and innovative nation. Yet, as we get ready to build back better, it is also time for a rethink of our geopolitical, strategic and technological approaches to make a more honest assessment of the world we find ourselves in, ensuring that we harness the opportunity to become stronger, safer and more prosperous than before.

I support this Bill, as it is the first of many steps that will be needed in adapting to our changing geopolitical landscape. The provisions in the Bill are necessary, as we need to act quickly to ensure our security apparatus is configured for today’s challenges. According to MI5, the UK has at least 20 foreign intelligence services actively operating against the UK’s interests. The Government’s own telecoms supply chain review, published by DCMS in 2019, found that the telecoms market was not working in a way that incentivised good cybersecurity. In its October 2020 report, the Defence Committee concluded that the current 5G regulatory situation for network security was “outdated and unsatisfactory”.

We have a world-class security and intelligence community but, as we enter this new era, we must accept that enabling it to adapt to emerging threats will be the defining feature of its success. This Bill needs to mark a national security turning point, where key infrastructure decisions are based on fact-based risk assessments, and not on commercial or political convenience.

This Bill also recognises the threat posed by high-risk vendors such as Huawei. We have known that Huawei is a security risk since 2013. A report from the Intelligence and Security Committee concluded back then that Huawei posed a risk to national security and that private providers were responsible for ensuring the security of the UK telecoms network.

According to Ofcom, Huawei accounted for about 44% of the equipment to provide superfast full-fibre connections directly to homes, offices and other buildings in the UK. Although it is not in the text of the Bill, the Government have now accepted, as we have already heard, that 2027 needs to be the end point for Huawei as a provider. This is an important moment in taking back our information technology sovereignty.

The reason behind this is clear. We have entered into a new era of geopolitics, with the battle for control of information technology at the forefront. The recent integrated review acknowledged that China’s growing international stature was by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today, with major implications for British values and interests and for the structure and shape of the international order. It recognised China as the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security. Yet that same review remains ambivalent as to the action we should take. We need to rethink our relationship with China into a more robust foreign policy strategy that prioritises both our security and our sovereignty.

While I support this Bill, there is more that needs to be done. There needs to be a more formal structure embedded in the Bill with regard to the powers given to Ofcom and the Secretary of State, as other noble Lords have said. Could the Minister outline what powers the Government intend that Ofcom and the Secretary of State should have, and how they will work with the ISC and the security sector to ensure accountability and to ensure national security is not compromised through lobbying?

Even beyond the Bill, we also need to invest in diversifying competition. As part of this Government’s ambitious levelling-up agenda, they have promised the nationwide rollout of 5G across Britain. But we have become hamstrung by our dependence on Huawei for this critical infrastructure. It did not need to be this way. This situation has been constantly described as a “market failure”, but it was not really a market failure. The failure was in the reality of one country breaking WTO rules on subsidies. The key problem has been that China has subsidised its providers dramatically, destroying the market over the past 10 years.

The diversification of our telecoms network, working in close partnership with our Five Eyes allies, needs to be a priority for this Government and an integral part of Ofcom’s reporting. When we genuinely open up the market to competitors, we create the environment for the innovation and dynamism that will be required as we move into the next quarter of the 21st century.

Huawei, however, needs to be stripped out quicker. While it is encouraging to see that the Government have set the 2027 target as the date by which Huawei should no longer be a provider, we cannot afford to wait until 2027 to remove Huawei from our existing networks. The process of removing Huawei’s influence from the UK is an extensive task, but an absolutely necessary one.

The Government should take the opportunity to consider other high-risk vendors such as TikTok and other companies operating here. This problem goes beyond Huawei. We face the existential question of how we coexist in a world with a technological superpower that does not share the same values of privacy of personal information, freedom of speech and democracy.

Chinese national intelligence laws dictate that private companies must share their data, when asked, with the CCP. The White House has sanctioned 11 Chinese companies, including suppliers to Apple, Google, HP and Microsoft. The list features companies that work with major fashion brands, along with technology giants such as Amazon, according to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. I would like to ask the Minister what assessment the Government have made of other high-risk vendors that could compromise UK citizens’ safety and security due to reporting requirements that exist in China.

Although this Bill encompasses all security threats and high-risk vendors, it is impossible not to address the need for a reshaping of our relationship with China. That country has overtaken Germany to become the UK’s biggest single import market for the first time since records began. The worth of goods imported from China rose 66% from the start of 2018 to £16.9 billion in the first quarter of this year. As we witness events in Hong Kong, which absolutely break my heart, because I used to live there, and we learn more about the ongoing genocide against the Uighur people, observe the breaking of WTO protocols in ongoing trade wars with our closest allies and uncover espionage across our universities, tech and innovation sectors, it is perplexing to me that we continue to sit on the fence.

The much-vaunted belt and road initiative has united authoritarian leaders across Eurasia in providing a forum to plan strategically, without being held back by discussions of human rights, freedom of speech or rule of law. It is in that policy programme that China’s tech giants, such as Huawei, export their communications infrastructure. I would encourage us to take the lead in the build back better world initiative, as discussed in the G7, to create stronger diplomatic alliances across Africa and the developing world but also to facilitate a viable alternative to the belt and road initiative, which threatens our geopolitical and economic security. The UK also needs to strengthen its ties with its Five Eyes allies and south Asian neighbours in the region such as Japan, India and South Korea, as well as approaching this issue with our European friends.

Safety and security is the first building block for the prosperity of a nation. Without secure defence measures at the heart of our critical infrastructure and online, our country runs the risk of opening itself up to foreign intelligence working against our nation’s interests. This Bill is an important step to creating that foundation, and I encourage the Government to use its passage to ensure that the foundation is as strong as possible.