Amendment 9

Telecommunications (Security) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 19 October 2021.

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Lord Coaker:

Moved by Lord Coaker

9: After Clause 23, insert the following new Clause—“Provision of information to the Intelligence and Security CommitteeThe Secretary of State must provide the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament as soon as is reasonably practicable with a copy of—(a) any direction or notice (or part thereof) that is withheld from publication by the Secretary of State in the interests of national security in accordance with section 105Z11(2) or (3) of the Communications Act 2003;(b) any notification of contravention given by the Secretary of State in accordance with section 105Z18(1) of the Communications Act 2003; (c) any confirmation decision given by the Secretary of State in accordance with section 105Z20(2)(a) of the Communications Act 2003;(d) any reasons for making an urgent enforcement direction that are withheld by the Secretary of State in the interests of national security in accordance with section 105Z22(5) of the Communications Act 2003; and(e) any reasons for confirming or modifying an urgent enforcement direction that are withheld by the Secretary of State in the interests of national security in accordance with section 105Z23(6) of the Communications Act 2003.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would ensure that the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament is provided with any information relating to a designated vendor direction, notification of contravention, urgent enforcement action or modifications to an enforcement direction made on grounds of national security.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, to his position. I am sure we will end up speaking to each other across the Dispatch Box. I wish him all the best and good luck with the important work he will be doing as a Minister of the Crown. We all wish you well in that role.

Turning to my amendment, we appreciate that, obviously, it is sometimes difficult to strike a balance between the public availability of information, even for debate by Parliament, and national security. This amendment seeks to probe the Government’s thinking. So far, their reassurances have been somewhat lacking.

I often use, and want to use, evidence—not just what I think and others may wish to say—regarding how the Government should use the Intelligence and Security Committee. It was set up by a unanimous decision of both Houses of this Parliament because they recognised that some information is so sensitive that it cannot be put in the public domain, as that would undermine national security. No Member of this Chamber or the other place would argue with that or say that that is wrong in principle. But so far, in respect of the security aspect of telecommunications, the Government have said that the existing processes and way of doing things works. Many of us would disagree with that and feel that more reassurance needs to be offered and that the Government need to rethink this.

In moving this amendment, I will use evidence from the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee himself. I do not need to go on about this, because he summed it up in one sentence. Speaking about the Telecommunications (Security) Bill in the other place, he said:

“It is both puzzling and exasperating that the Government are yet again refusing to use the Intelligence and Security Committee for the purpose for which it was created.”—[Official Report, Commons, 25/5/21; col 286.]

That is quite a stunning sentence. I could quote the whole speech, but for me that encapsulates it. It is for the Minister say why he is wrong. Why is the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee wrong to say that about the powers in this Bill and the security issues that will arise in respect of telecommunications now and in future? Why is it wrong for the Intelligence and Security Committee to be the body that looks at that information for us?

Indeed, the Prime Minister himself agreed. Look at the Memorandum of Understanding of 2013, which was an appendix to the ISC’s annual report and governs the remit of the committee. That remit is agreed by the Prime Minister to be the purpose of the Intelligence and Security Committee. The memorandum states:

“The ISC is the only committee of Parliament that has regular access to protectively marked information that is sensitive for national security reasons: this means that only the ISC is in a position to scrutinise effectively the work of the Agencies and”— listen to this—

“of those parts of Departments whose work is directly concerned with intelligence and security matters.”

The Prime Minister of the day, in the Memorandum of Understanding, is saying that departments whose work impacts on this should be within the remit of the Intelligence and Security Committee. The Minister therefore needs to explain to us why this amendment is not right.

I do not want to add much to that. I have presented evidence from the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee and from the Memorandum of Understanding, agreed by the then Prime Minister, setting out the remit of that committee. For all of us who want to be sure that this Parliament has oversight of intelligence and security matters, this is an incredibly important issue. All of us value the security of our country, but we also understand that, at times, it is necessary for Parliament to scrutinise that. What is a sensible way to do that, one that does not compromise national security? Surely, is that through the Intelligence and Security Committee. That is what this amendment seeks to do, and it is for the Minister to explain why it is not necessary and why we should not put it to a vote.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 6:15, 19 October 2021

My Lords, veterans of the National Security and Investment Bill—I am not sure there are any—will recognise this amendment: it is exactly the same argument that was put forward then. The response from BEIS was to set up a unit, within BEIS, that the relevant Minister said would have the necessary clearance to review potential national security information. It was quite clear to those in your Lordships’ Chamber at that time that that group of people would not get to see the sort of information that the ISC is cleared to see. We are in the same situation now. The Minister will say that there are people in his department who, if necessary, will be able to see the relevant information. That will not be the case and to some extent, those in the Minister’s department making decisions that refer to national security issues will be flying a little bit blind. If this is not recognised, that is regrettable. This is a really important area of security, and decisions should be made on the best available information, with the best available people reviewing that information. The clue is in the name: this is the Telecommunications (Security) Bill, and it is the Intelligence and Security Committee that is best able to review that information. That is why I support the noble Lord’s Amendment 9.

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 Lord, Lord Coaker, for his kind words of welcome and for tabling this amendment. The important matter of parliamentary oversight has been raised a number of times in both your Lordships’ House and another place. I welcome the opportunity to clarify further how appropriate oversight of the Bill’s national security powers will be provided for both in this Bill and through existing mechanisms. The noble Lord’s amendment would require the Secretary of State to provide the Intelligence and Security Committee with copies of a directional notice when such documents, or parts of them, are withheld under Section 105Z11(2) or (3) in the interests of national security.

As regards enforcement, this amendment would also require the Secretary of State to provide the committee with copies of notifications of contraventions and confirmation decisions. Further, it would require the provision of reasons for giving urgent enforcement directions when withheld under Section 105Z22(5), as well as the reasons for confirming or modifying such directions when withheld under Section 105Z23(6).

We thoroughly agree with the need for effective scrutiny of the use of the Bill’s national security powers—that is why we have included measures to facilitate parliamentary oversight of the use of those powers. The Bill requires the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament copies of designation notices, designated vendor directions, and variations or revocations of either, unless doing so would be contrary to the interests of national security. We would expect in the vast majority of cases to lay copies of the directions and notices before Parliament. However, on very rare occasions there may be instances where the Secretary of State chooses not to do so because laying the documents would be contrary to the interests of national security. This would only be done in extremis.

We have already demonstrated our commitment to transparency with the publication of the illustrative draft designated vendor direction and designation notice last November. Indeed, it is in the Government’s interest to publish such documents as it sends a clear message to industry of our intent to use the powers in the Bill where necessary. However, while the presumption is to publish the directions and notices, it is right that we have the option to protect the UK if our national security could be put at risk through their publication.

It is worth noting that, under Section 390 of the Communications Act 2003, the Secretary of State is required to prepare and lay before Parliament annual reports on their functions under that Act. Those reports will show when the Bill’s national security powers have been exercised, whether or not copies of directions or notices are laid before Parliament. This will ensure that Parliament will always be made aware of the Secretary of State’s use of the national security powers to issue designated vendor directions and designation notices.

Having thus been made aware, the Intelligence and Security Committee will be able to request relevant information from the vital organisations it already oversees, such as the National Cyber Security Centre. Moreover, the ISC will be able to request such information at any time from the NCSC in relation to its assessment of high-risk vendors. The noble Lord is right to point to the importance of the committee. Given the cross-party support he enjoys, he knows better than most, as a former Security Minister, the important work it undertakes. The ISC will be able to do the work I have just outlined in line with its remit, as set out in the provisions of the Justice and Security Act 2013 and accompanying memorandum of understanding.

At Second Reading, the Noble Lord, Lord West, noted that the ISC had made a request for its memorandum to be formally reviewed. I understand that the chairman of the ISC has written to the Cabinet Office on these matters and that they are under consideration. Discussions and decisions regarding any changes to the ISC’s remit are of course for the Cabinet Office and the ISC to agree. That is the appropriate route for the ISC’s remit to be considered, not this Bill.

As I am sure noble Lords will appreciate, however, the advice of the security services will not be the only factor that the Secretary of State will take into account when deciding what is proportionate to include in a designated vendor direction. As well as the NCSC’s advice, the Secretary of State will consider, among other things, the economic impact, the cost to industry and the impact on connectivity of the requirements in any designated vendor direction. Those go beyond security matters and indeed fall under the work of DCMS; therefore, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is best placed to consider those wider impacts. Hence, that is the appropriate body to oversee the Government’s use of the powers to issue designation notices and designated vendor directions, including where those directions and notices are not laid before Parliament. The Government will work with the committee to ensure that it has access to all the information it needs to carry out that oversight.

Those are the reasons why the Government cannot accept the amendment. I hope that the noble Lord will be content to withdraw it on that basis.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

I thank the Minister for a generally helpful reply and for his engagement with the amendment itself, my remarks and those of the noble Lord, Lord Fox. It is helpful when a Minister engages with a debate, rather than just reading the words in front of him. The Minister did that, and that is to be welcomed.

The Minister offered reassurance on many of the issues that I raised—and they are issues. The debate has in some ways gone beyond the Bill itself and will help the debate within government about how to resolve the issue of national security and parliamentary scrutiny. Of particular importance was the Minister saying that the memorandum of understanding between the Government and the ISC is being reviewed. That MoU is crucial, and the debate we have had on this Bill and, indeed, this amendment, should inform the Government of the view of many in this House and beyond that the memorandum of understanding needs to be clarified and perhaps reviewed and changed. I ask the Minister to ensure that that review happens in the discussions that take place within government.

With those remarks, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 9 withdrawn.