Telecommunications (Security) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:24 pm on 29 June 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:24, 29 June 2021

My Lords, this has been a thoughtful debate, with contributions from several former Ministers who have worked in this area, including the noble Lords, Lord Young and Lord Vaizey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan. Their insights into the challenges here are welcome. As this Second Reading has shown, we have a problem and the Bill is put forward as the solution. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, for laying out its provisions and intentions clearly.

The problem identified is the security risk potentially embedded in our telecoms systems, as exemplified by Huawei and other companies. Set against that, especially as we seek to make our own way outside the EU, is the Government’s aim that the UK should be at the forefront in science and technology, as laid out as the strategic direction for the UK in the integrated review. Therefore, there is a need to draw on the best telecoms systems, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, clearly laid out.

However, in addition, balancing the ability to use whatever is best in the market globally and the need to protect our security is another vital strand. We cannot and must not use technology built on human rights abuses and thus become complicit in those abuses, rather than fight to address them. Noble Lords have set out the challenges, particularly from the rise of China, as well as the necessity of not using companies built on abuse. The experience of the middle of the 20th century marks a huge warning to us. We need only look at the history of the chemical and pharmaceutical giants that multiplied in size in Germany and were built on the appalling slave labour in the extermination camps.

We know that genocide and gross human rights abuses are not things of the past. We need to be ever vigilant. Up to 1.5 million Uighurs have been forcibly removed by the Chinese state by mass transit and put into forced labour camps in which components used in Huawei technology are made. The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Balfe, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Stroud, all emphasised those important points. When the Minister winds up, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, requested, I should like her to outline what further action the Government will be taking that regard, given the international obligation to take such action once a country becomes aware that genocide may be occurring. We have signally failed to challenge China in regard to Hong Kong. What lessons have we drawn from that? Does the Minister agree that the Bill should not simply set technological advance against security but incorporate that concern? Can any other position be justified?

The key issue is whether the Bill achieves what it sets out to do and whether it brings its own risks and possible unintended consequences. As my noble friend Lord Fox and others have said in this Second Reading debate, we support the principles of the Bill. I note that the noble Lord, Lord West, the House of Lords member on the Intelligence and Security Committee, said that the Bill rightly seeks to address concerns first raised by his committee seven years ago in its report, Foreign Involvement in the Critical National Infrastructure. He feels that the Government are finally listening to those warnings. However, as with the National Security and Investment Act, he reports that his committee is

“concerned that the Bill does not provide for sufficient parliamentary oversight of these important new powers.”

The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and others also warned on that.

The noble Lord, Lord West, made the sensible point that if the material is sensitive, it should be submitted to the ISC—that is the very purpose of the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, just reiterated that. Alternatively, of course, we could just look behind bus stops in Kent and then gather it up and pass it to the noble Lord, Lord West.

The theme of scrutiny came through from other noble Lords. The Delegated Powers Committee has expressed reservations and my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones went further in his criticism in this regard. The Bill gives Ofcom new powers to monitor and assess the security of telecoms providers, with very heavy fines if companies are deemed to have transgressed. It introduces new controls on the use of Huawei 5G equipment, including a ban on the purchase of new equipment from the end of 2021 and a commitment to remove all equipment from 5G networks by 2027.

My noble friend Lord Fox set the Bill several tests. He asked whether the Bill’s effect can be shown to shut out the technology it is meant to shut out. Can we be assured that the Government and Ofcom have the right powers, the necessary checks and balances, and the resources to do such work? When it comes to supply chain diversification, are we able to shut out Huawei and others but still have 5G in a timely manner? My noble friend Lord Fox, the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and others also noted the lack of diversity we face here—the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, identified it as a market failure—and the risks that this poses to the economic position of the United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord Young, pointed to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Livingston, which sets out clearly the ways in which the UK might be able to develop this industry and how that requires working with other like-minded countries so that there are common standards and codes of practice. I look forward, as no doubt others do, to receiving the letter which the noble Lord suggests the Minister should write on the matter.

We have already heard concern about the powers given to the Government and to Ofcom. We also hear of concerns about the lack of clarity and transparency, which, as my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones said, is causing great concern within the industry. The criticism is that the proposed measures are either technically unworkable or damaging to the industry. One area which my noble friend flagged is in relation to providers whose networks are not based only in the United Kingdom and which would therefore find it challenging to engage as codes might be drawn up if there is no formal structure through which this might be done. My noble friend argues for a technical advisory board, and I note also that concerns were expressed about the flexibility and future-proofing of the Bill.

The Minister spoke of the Bill applying not just to one company, one country and one threat. That clearly must be the case. I note, for example, what the noble Lord, Lord Young, said about the number of departments which might be relevant here and the newly pressing risks of cyber rather than conventional warfare, yet the absence of the DCMS Secretary of State from the National Security Council points to our being behind the curve.

Questions have been raised which will need to be considered in areas beyond the Bill. There is a wide challenge here, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and others emphasised. As we move to green technology, China is far ahead of us, controlling the raw materials as well as the technology needed to power it. That competitive advantage has probably been given rocket boosters by the pandemic, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, noted in relation to lateral flow tests. I took one the other day; it was a sort of strange little pregnancy test. Clearly, all this has brought economic benefit to the Chinese economy from our reliance on its traders for so much of the resources needed in the pandemic. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, pointed out, we are moving into a different geopolitical landscape, although the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, put us as perhaps a little point in a very long historical process.

We are indeed in challenging times, out of the EU and unable therefore to strengthen our position as we could before as part of the richest trading bloc in the world. Instead, we need to find allies as the headwinds of changing superpower strengths buffet us. How closely then are we working with the EU on this as well as with the United States? The Bill marks a recognition of that challenging position, but in Committee and on Report there will no doubt be challenges as to whether it can deliver that security and moral compass which the Government claim, at the same time as we face major financial pressures, out of the EU and recovering from the pandemic. I look forward to the Minister’s response.