Telecommunications (Security) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:48 pm on 29 June 2021.

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Photo of Lord Vaizey of Didcot Lord Vaizey of Didcot Conservative 3:48, 29 June 2021

My Lords, I am grateful to have the opportunity to take part in this important debate. This Bill is, broadly speaking, uncontroversial. No one would seek to oppose legislation that makes our telecommunications networks in the UK more secure. Certainly, if one looks at the debates in the other place, amendments were very few and far between, and they were tweaking amendments rather than fundamental.

It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, and I have a great deal of sympathy with what he said about combating online scams; whether the Bill can be used as a method to test the Government’s resolve in combating this issue remains to be seen. I certainly recall when I was the telecoms Minister working closely with Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office to try to combat nuisance calls. There are a variety of factors in play in trying to combat this kind of plague. One is the willingness of the regulators to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty in carrying out prosecutions, and another is certainly technology solutions, which can and should be encouraged by all the operators.

The third—the noble Lord referred to the Government’s review of action on fraud—is a much wider landscape approach from the Government on how to combat this. For example—and this is no criticism of the police—it seems to me that we still have a Victorian police structure in the 21st century. We should be thinking about leaning in and recruiting cyber specialists far more effectively to work in the police force to combat these kinds of crimes, not simply bringing people to justice but combating this kind of work on the network.

I will begin with one of the elements that lies behind this Bill: the concern over Huawei and its presence in our telecoms network. Many noble Lords have set out strong views on Huawei and the Chinese industry in general during this debate. I was particularly struck by the excellent speech of my noble friend Lady Stroud. When I was a Minister, I worked closely with Huawei, in the sense that we had in place a protocol with the security services to check the kind of equipment Huawei was installing in the networks. It was a transparent process; nobody was pretending that Huawei was not involved in selling equipment to our telecoms providers, nor that it was not being installed in the UK telecoms networks. That equipment was reviewed in a very transparent way and Huawei was forced to put in place a UK board made up of UK citizens to supervise its work.

While I wholly condemn Chinese behaviour as far as the Uighurs and Hong Kong are concerned, one should be cautious in assuming that every piece of Chinese commercial activity is somehow linked to espionage. I certainly do not think that, when one of my children uses TikTok, they are somehow being caught by the Chinese state. There is some irony that we often debate these issues while looking at our iPhones, which of course are manufactured in China, or perhaps using a Dell laptop supplied by the Parliamentary Estate, which has been made in China as well. One must be open-eyed and transparent about this, but not assume that everything coming from China will undermine our national security. Nevertheless, I wholly agree with my noble friend that one of the problems with Huawei was that it was effectively an unfair competition. Our markets are much more open to foreign investment than the Chinese market, and Huawei was certainly heavily subsidised by the Chinese state, so a pushback in that sense is very welcome.

The key to this Bill is ensuring that we have secure telecoms infrastructure, and I echo the remarks of noble Lords about the general resilience of our infra- structure. It is not only state actors who can provide malign effects on it; we have only to look at the recent SolarWinds attack on a critical piece of US infrastructure to see how easy it is for criminal groups, sometimes tacitly supported by the states in which they reside, to attack our networks. To make those as robust and secure as possible must be an absolute priority for the Government as we move more and more into the digital age.

It is quite right that this Bill comes forward to put security duties on our telecoms companies for the first time. I note that the detail of those security duties will be contained in regulations and hope that the Minister will bring us up to date on how those regulations are progressing. I also note that Ofcom will take a key role in overseeing how those duties are fulfilled, working closely with the National Cyber Security Centre. I am delighted to see that Ofcom’s budget has been increased to take account of those new duties.

Given the recent political furore over Ofcom, this is a useful reminder that it is not a political regulator; it is a boring but essential regulator that carries out vital work to keep our network secure and our communication markets competitive. I hope the Government take that point on board and give Ofcom as much freedom as possible to carry on doing the excellent work it has done for some 20 years. Ofcom is working more and more with other regulators such as the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Competition and Markets Authority. This is partly out of necessity, because to hire the talent that these regulators need, they will sometimes now have to hire employees who work across all three regulators. It is an illustration of how regulation is becoming more and more intertwined.

With that in mind, I hope that the Minister will bring us up to date on how Ofcom is working with other regulators to keep all our essential infrastructure secure—and with regulators across the world, because this affects us all, particularly western democracies. I also hope the important work carried out by the noble Lord, Lord Livingston, on supply chain diversification will be leaned into. I particularly support his call for government-sponsored research into how open RAN networks can play a vital role.

Finally, can the Minister bring us up to date on how well new vendors are doing in coming into the market? With Huawei effectively expelled from our market over the next five years, I hope we will see many more European vendors able to take up the slack and provide the equipment that our infrastructure providers need.