Telecommunications (Security) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:12 pm on 29 June 2021.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 4:12, 29 June 2021

My Lords, one of the great advantages of speaking late in a debate is that virtually everything has been said. I just want to light on a couple of things that have been said but I think could be said again.

First, I welcome the Bill. It is a useful Bill, but I do not think we should exaggerate where it is going to take us. At most, it covers a few bases. I was very pleased to hear the contribution of my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, because we do need to start looking much more carefully at the human rights and social practices in the countries we are buying from. The fact that it will take until 2027 for Huawei to be eliminated from our system shows just how interdependent we have become in this very small area, and how inter- dependent the whole world is becoming.

I was recently on a conference call with some people in Taiwan. One of the advantages that Taiwan has in its stand-off with China is Taiwan’s production of chips, just mentioned by the noble Baroness. The interdependence of this technological world is now really quite enormous. My concern, looking at the Bill, is that it is fine for us but it does not actually advance our security outside the United Kingdom.

Some years ago, when I was in a different party from the one I am in now, I was given the job of being defence spokesperson for the Labour Party in the European Parliament. If there were ever a non-job, that was it, because of course the European Parliament had no defence capacity whatever, and at that time the Labour Party thought that anything more advanced than a bow and arrow was not really an acceptable means of defence anyway. John Smith rescued me and I became, for my sins, the first leader of the European Parliament delegation to NATO—or the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, to be exact. One thing we had to look at there was the list of prohibited exports. If we are to safeguard our future, we will have to look again at getting like-minded countries together to look at how we can restrict the export of certain technology. It is going to be even more difficult now because technology is much more a worldwide thing.

There is a tremendous fragmentation of views in Europe. Germany still thinks it should be co-operating with China. It still thinks that the business side is more important than the human rights or the social side, but we have to bring the Germans back on board. We cannot force them; we do not have any levers any more. In fact, now that we are not in a place that is never mentioned any more in this Chamber, we do not even meet them in political co-operation. We do not meet them, and we never really understood how important it was that, on a regular basis, all our Ministers met European Ministers to exchange views, to keep up to date and just to keep knowing each another. We never seemed to grasp that and we have now lost it. Everything we do can move forward only if we can carry other people with us.

I make no excuse whatever for saying, as I have said in this Chamber several times before, that China is going to be the main threat, probably for the next 50 years, and it is going to get worse. We have to get ourselves a foreign policy that actually makes sense. A foreign policy that concentrates on a country with the GDP of Italy and the social organisation of, let us say, southern Italy—namely, Russia—is not the way forward. These people have to somehow be brought on board and that is what I, in my own small way in the Council of Europe, as a delegate, tried to do—to intervene in this huge debate that is going on in Russia: should we look west, should we look east? That is a debate, but at least it is a debate: it is not a debate in China.

If we look at the countries between the two—the “stans”—they are also countries that we have to put some diplomatic effort into. It is no good pretending that we do not know they are there; we have to put some effort into them. That is some way away from the Bill but it is part of what the Bill is about—trying to build a secure world. I would say, in the words of the old film, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” We have not really had a sustained cyberattack in this country. Our cashpoints have not stopped working yet. The computer system has not crashed completely yet, but the technology is almost there to make it happen, and that has to be part of our challenge.

I have great admiration for the Minister, but I question whether DCMS is the correct department of state to be looking at our future and our preparations to deal with the technological, technical challenges that lie ahead. I have a lot more confidence in looking at the noble Lord, Lord West, and the strategic and security services to lead on this measure than in DCMS, which I think has a very different job and I am not sure, frankly, is the right department to be handling this. Having said that, I look forward to helping my noble friend the Minister get the Bill through the House as a contribution—I think it will turn out to be a very small contribution—to the journey that we have to embark upon.