Amendment 1

Telecommunications (Security) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 19 October 2021.

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Lord Fox:

Moved by Lord Fox

1: Clause 1, page 3, line 22, at end insert—“(1A) Regulations under subsection (1) may not be made unless a draft has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require Parliamentary approval before regulations regarding the duty to take specified security measures are made.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My Lords, Amendment 1 applies the affirmative procedure to the regulations made under new Section 105B in Clause 1. It requires secondary legislation to be laid in Parliament in draft and to be subject to a debate and a vote in both Houses. Clause 1 allows the Secretary of State to introduce regulations that have wide-ranging consequences for providers, and there is no provision for any independent or specialist formal oversight of these regulations. This continues a worrying trend whereby the Government make key regulations with no meaningful parliamentary scrutiny. New Section 105A introduced by Clause 1 is wide-ranging. In fact, it covers

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

—I repeat: “anything”.

This means that the Secretary of State has the means to make regulations that have highly onerous provisions, laying down that any provider must take “specified measures” of any kind. This is currently under the negative procedure, which, as we have noted from these Benches on many occasions, gives a near-certain guarantee of their coming into force with a minimum of scrutiny—none, it is safe to say. In Committee, the Minister’s predecessor was adamant that additional scrutiny was not desirable. She said that this was meant for technical people and had to be explained in technical language, which it was not appropriate for Parliament to discuss. However, there is the rub: the Bill covers a huge range of potential issues and, as I said, there is no formal independent or specialist oversight of these regulations, yet the Government said that they were too technical for Parliament to have its say on them. My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones spoke about the Secretary of State having unfettered power and, as usual, he was right.

Since then, the Government have slightly changed their mind, and this is seen in Amendment 3. We welcome Amendment 3 as far as it goes, which, given that it is effectively a negative process, is not very far. It does demonstrate that the Government now believe that your Lordships’ House can review technical issues and that we are capable of this onerous task, which the Minister’s predecessor deemed us incapable of doing. Clause 1 covers virtually anything the Minister decides, and we are in danger of signing a blank cheque. Amendment 1 addresses this issue and gives Parliament particular scrutiny of how these regulations affect the communications networks that are so vital to the UK’s economy and our public life. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, the amendment just moved by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, is about transparency, accountability and parliamentary scrutiny. It puts Parliament into the driving seat. It deserves the support of the whole House, and I hope we will give it.

Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, as we start Report, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, to his new ministerial role. I am sure we all look forward to working with him.

I remind the House that national security must be the first duty of any Government, which is why we welcome the intention behind the Bill. As we have said repeatedly throughout the passage of the Bill, we believe that there are a number of issues with the Bill that need to be addressed, including parliamentary oversight of the new powers, which this group focuses on. As Comms Council UK said, the Bill represents an

“unprecedented shift of power from Parliament to the Minister in relation to how telecoms networks operate” and that

“the Minister will be able to unilaterally make decisions that impact the technical operation and direction of technology companies, with little or no oversight or accountability.”

With reference to Amendment 1, I shall not repeat the arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Fox. Suffice it to say that we on these Benches appreciate and wish to stress the importance of parliamentary scrutiny, which we have stressed throughout the passage of the Bill.

I thank the Minister for tabling Amendments 3, 4 and 5. They are very similar to our Front-Bench amendments in Committee and reflect a key recommendation from the Delegated Powers Committee. I thank the former Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, for her work on these amendments. As noble Lords will remember, the Delegated Powers Committee called the powers in Clause 3 unacceptable and called for the negative procedure for the new telecoms security codes of practice. This important change from the Government ensures adequate parliamentary scrutiny, which is a welcome step forward.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, for the amendment standing in their names, and I thank the noble Baroness for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box in my new role.

The question underlying this group is whether the new telecoms security framework will have proper scrutiny. Noble Lords have proposed ways to strengthen that scrutiny throughout the passage of the Bill and your Lordships’ Constitution Committee and Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee have made their own recommendations, and I thank those committees for their work.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, invited the Government to make a trade-off, a choice, in his words, between

“a loose definition of ‘security compromise’” and

“a very tight way of agreeing the codes of practice.”—[GC 487.]">Official Report, 13/7/21; col. GC 487.]

With that in mind, I turn first to Amendments 3, 4 and 5 in my name—although I should stress, as the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, kindly did, that they also represent the work of my predecessor, my noble friend Lady Barran. We both listened to the arguments put forward in Committee and these amendments represent her views as well as mine.

We have carefully considered the concerns raised and, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, invited us to do, we have proposed how to make that trade-off. The government amendments we have brought forward today affect Clause 3. It provides the Secretary of State with the power to issue and revise codes of practice. The code of practice is a fundamental building block of the new telecoms security framework as it will contain specific information on how telecoms providers can meet their legal duties under any regulations made by the Secretary of State.

In its report on the Bill, the DPRRC noted the centrality of codes of practice to the new telecoms security framework. The committee drew attention to the statutory effects of codes of practice and their role in Ofcom’s regulatory oversight, and because of those factors, the committee recommended that the negative procedure should be applied to the issuing of codes of practice. The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, tabled amendments in Committee to implement that recommendation. We are happy to do that. Our amendments today require the Government to lay a draft of any code of practice before Parliament for 40 days. Your Lordships’ House and the other place will then have that period of time to scrutinise a code of practice before it is issued.

We think that these changes strike the balance that noble Lords have called for today and in previous stages. I hope these government amendments demonstrate that we have listened and are committed to appropriate parliamentary scrutiny across all aspects of the framework.

Amendment 1, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Clement-Jones, would apply the affirmative procedure to regulations made under new Section 105B in Clause 1. It would require the regulations to be laid in Parliament in draft and subject to a debate and vote in both Houses.

I share the noble Lords’ desire, echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, to ensure that Parliament has a full and effective scrutiny role in this Bill, but I fear we disagree on the best way to achieve it. The only powers in the Bill that are subject to the affirmative procedure are delegated, or Henry VIII, powers that enable the amendment of penalty amounts set out in primary legislation. The Bill currently provides for the negative procedure to be used when laying the statutory instrument containing the regulations.

In the context of these new powers, the use of the negative procedure is appropriate for three reasons. First, Parliament will have had to approve the clauses in the Bill that determine the scope of regulations—Clauses 1 and 2—and the regulations will not amend primary legislation. Secondly, evolving technology and threat landscapes mean that the technical detail in regulations will need to be updated in a timely fashion to protect our networks. Thirdly and finally, as I noted in Committee, the negative procedure is the standard procedure for instruments under Section 402 of the Communications Act. The negative procedure delivers the right balance between a nimble parliamentary procedure and putting appropriate and proportionate measures in place effectively and efficiently to secure our networks.

The two noble Lords will also be aware that the changes they propose in their amendment are not ones that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee made. I accept that they are keen to explore avenues for scrutiny of this framework, but that committee made its recommendation for increasing the scrutiny of this regime, and the Government have brought forward our amendments to accept it. For these reasons, we are not able to accept the noble Lords’ Amendment 1. I hope that they will be content with what we have proposed in our amendment, and may be minded to withdraw theirs.

In conclusion, the Government were asked to make a trade-off. Through the passage of this Bill, we have been invited to provide greater opportunities for Parliament to scrutinise this regime. We have listened to those concerns and we have brought forward an answer. We feel that our amendments maintain our flexibility to adapt to an ever-changing technology environment and give your Lordships’ House and the other place a greater say in its operation, so I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My Lords, it was remiss of me not to welcome the Minister formally; I have welcomed him personally, but not formally. Also, it was helpful that he was the Whip during the process thus far, and I should also welcome the new Whip to his seat. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, for their contributions. The fact that this has been a short debate does not mean to say that it is not an important one. The reason it is short is because we have had the same debate so many times on so many different Bills, with not just this department but others. That is why it is an important issue and why, when the Minister says that we should strike a balance, we agree, but we think the balance is in the wrong place. That is why I am unable to withdraw this amendment and I should like to test the will of the House.

Ayes 185, Noes 187.

Division number 1 Telecommunications (Security) Bill - Report — Amendment 1

Aye: 185 Members of the House of Lords

No: 187 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Amendment 1 disagreed.

Clause 2: Duty to take measures in response to security compromises