Telecommunications (Security) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:02 pm on 29 June 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 4:02, 29 June 2021

My Lords, I should perhaps declare my position as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. I will begin with a short list of things to agree with. I very much agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Fox—not currently in his place—and particularly his remarks about privacy. I associate myself very much with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. When we are talking about trade and commerce, we have to think about the human rights aspects as well. That and the environment, as in the Environment Bill, all interlinks together. The targeting of the Uighurs—the situation in what the locals called Altishahr—is a situation of genocide, and we simply cannot stand by.

To finish the tick list of issues that were covered in the other place and that a number of noble Lords have also covered, once again we find ourselves, as we do on pretty much every Bill, saying that there is not adequate scrutiny of the Secretary of State’s powers. Whether Ofcom will have the resources to complete the role foreseen for it in the Bill is a very familiar story. We also do not have sufficient consultation with devolved Governments written into the Bill.

However, I want to start today’s remarks with a bit of a longue durée perspective, an overview, because we are once again in the context of privatisation. We are talking about what used to a public service run for public good—our telecoms network—which was, for ideological reasons, handed over to the private sector through a privatisation that has been allowed to become a wild west. Now we are trying—to coin a phrase—to take back control of that wild west. It is increasingly clear, and the Government are acknowledging this by actions if not words, that telecoms are now an essential service or a utility just as much as water or energy supplies are, and that we need to think about these issues for a larger future and about running them for public good, not private profit.

I will focus particularly on Clause 1 of the Bill, which amends Section 105 of the Communications Act. The focus here is on compromising security. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, among others, talked about the idea of security being comprehensive. Indeed, new subsection (2)(a) says that a security compromise is

“anything that compromises the availability, performance or functionality of the network or service”.

To think about what might compromise our services, I invite noble Lords to look across at America right at this moment: there is a massive, record heat wave. To cite one set of figures, the city of Portland has had three days in which it has broken record temperatures—not by points of degrees but by degrees. Today, the top temperature in Portland is 46.6 degrees Celsius. For those who prefer a more old-fashioned system, like the Americans, that is 116 degrees Fahrenheit. The infrastructure is melting in a very literal sense. You have what are being described as non-linear and threshold effects, where systems go utterly, totally and completely down because they just cannot cope with the environmental conditions.

Looking back to new Clause 1(2)(a) on compromising

“the availability, performance or functionality of the network”,

I agree with Boris Johnson, who said as he was chairing the UN Security Council earlier this year that climate change is a threat to our security. It seems to me very clear that the Bill should tackle these kinds of issues. I ask the Minister: do the Government regard it in this way? If they do not, what other steps are the Government taking to tackle these issues?

I stress that I have seen this first hand, not just in distant structures. I happened to be in Lancaster a few days after it was affected by very serious floods—well, the flooding was not that serious; what was really serious was that it took out the city’s electricity supplies for about two and a half days. When I saw the people about a week or so later, the city was shocked about all the effects that no one had really thought of. Nearly all the student accommodation had electric security doors; with no electricity you have a massive access problem. In a flood, you normally put people into emergency accommodation in hotels, but with electronic key cards there is no access to hotel rooms without electricity. Of course, the cash machines went down, and the pumps did not work at petrol stations.

I come to a broader question about security and telecoms, and indeed our whole increasingly digitalised world. I think we are all agreed that this is a fairly small and modest Bill, but we also know that the Government are planning what is being described as an internet of things Bill; I believe it is called the product security and telecoms infrastructure Bill. These are big, existential issues about our security, our survival and the ability of our basic systems to function—to provide people with food, water and the essentials they need. I think this is an ideal time to ask the Government whether they have really considered how much IT, telecoms and digital integration we actually need. I refer here to the words of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup; he said we cannot assume that any attack will fail. The kind of breakdowns I am talking about are not necessarily an attack in those terms, but they can be absolutely disastrous, as Lancaster illustrated.

Yesterday, in debating the Environment Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, talking about damage to the environment, said that the first question we should ask is: do we actually need the thing we are building that is destroying the environment? We really have to ask about the digitisation of our society, the incorporation of everything linked together through 5G. Do we actually need these linkages, and what vulnerabilities are they creating? That is the main point I want to make, but I shall pick up a couple of other small points.

I forget which noble Lord said that what we have now is a situation of market failure. The Government are saying explicitly, associated with the Bill, that they have a diversification strategy to see that we have more different producers and suppliers. Are the Government looking at direct research funding—direct support for that kind of diversification? Market failure has got us into the situation where there is very little diversity, and relying on the market to fix that is, I suggest, very difficult and will not necessarily be successful. I point out that if we go back to the origins of all the things that got us to this point today, it was government funding that created the TCP/IP protocol and that funded the people whose research created the world wide web. We really have to think about ensuring that we put government funds into things if we really believe that they are needed.

That is pretty well all I wanted to say, but I have one final thought, coming back to the issue of resilience. We are in a situation now of huge supply problems. We are talking about not allowing certain supplies into the country, but we have a global chip shortage. I am relying on anecdote here, but I have a friend who is a manager in a fairly large public service and who simply is not able to upgrade the wi-fi because it is impossible to get the technology, to buy the bits of kit needed to do that, because of the chip shortage. Going beyond anecdote, there was a report in the Financial Times quoting the major infrastructure manufacturing company, Flex, which says that this chip shortage is likely to continue for another year. We are stuck in a situation where we have very fragile, just-in-time, complex supply chains, we are saying there are companies we cannot use any more, and we are in a situation where resilience needs to be thought about a great deal more.