Clause 14 - Reviews of sections 1 to 13

Telecommunications (Security) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 26th January 2021.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 9:45 am, 26th January 2021

I beg to move amendment 15, in clause 14, page 21, line 28, leave out from beginning to end of line 30 and insert—

“(3) The reports must be published not more than 12 months apart for the first 5 years, then not more than 5 years apart.

(4) The first report must be published within the period of 12 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”.

This amendment requires the Secretary of State to report on the impact and effectiveness of clauses 1 to 13 every year for the first five years after the Act is passed, and then every five years following.

The amendment reflects another of our key concerns about the Bill, which is the level and extent of appropriate scrutiny for such broad and sweeping powers. It seeks to ensure appropriate scrutiny. Clause 14 requires the Secretary of State to review the impact and effectiveness of clauses 1 to 13 at least every five years. Our amendment would require the report to be published every year for the first five years after the legislation is passed, and then up to every five years after that.

As we have said, the Bill gives the Secretary of State and Ofcom sweeping powers. We want to ensure both that they are proportionate and that there is accountability. As we have previously emphasised, we are sure that the Minister and the Secretary of State are inclined to exercise the powers in a proportionate and accountable way, but they will not be in their posts forever, and perhaps not for the entire first five years of the legislation’s operation, so it is important that the Bill requires that Parliament be able to scrutinise its effectiveness, as that is so important to our national security. In that sense, this amendment follows amendments 5, 9 and 10 with respect to the requirement for appropriate oversight and accountability.

I emphasise—I am sure that you will understand, Mr Hollobone—that in some ways we are here because of a lack of effective parliamentary scrutiny of the presence and growth of high-risk vendors in our networks. It was only when Parliament became aware of and was able to give its full-throated input on concerns about the dominance of high-risk vendors in our telecommunications market that the Government took action. We do not want to be in the position of finding again that there has been a dramatic change in the security of our networks without appropriate scrutiny.

Clause 14 states that the Secretary of State must

“carry out reviews of…impact and effectiveness” and that the report must be laid before Parliament for parliamentary scrutiny. However, we are to wait up to five years before it will be made possible to give parliamentary scrutiny to a Bill that is so important to national security, as both the Minister and the Secretary of State, and indeed the security services, have emphasised. We are not to review its effectiveness for five years.

Photo of Sara Britcliffe Sara Britcliffe Conservative, Hyndburn

Does not the clause state that the period is up to five years? The review could be done during that period; it would not have to be at the five-year mark every time.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The clause enables the Minister or Secretary of State to choose to lay a report more frequently. Again, I do not want to impute anything against the Minister or the Secretary of State, but given the importance of the subject and of parliamentary review, why not ensure that it is more frequent?

I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that Parliament has many things to consider, and so does the Secretary of State. There is competition for parliamentary time, particularly in a pandemic and in view of the challenges that we shall face in the next few years. How can I put this? We have concerns that the priority may slip in the face of, for example, economic challenges, investment challenges and recovery challenges. We want to be sure what is happening. We are the party of national security and we want to ensure that, in this context, national security is brought to Parliament to be debated, discussed and reviewed at least every year.

I have outlined the importance of parliamentary scrutiny as part of our wish to do that, but we should also consider what might happen in the next five years, before the first review mandated by the Bill. We have seen vast technical, technological and geopolitical shifts in the last five years. We face security challenges from China and Russia, and terrorist threats in a complex security environment. I am sure the Minister does not anticipate that those hostile actors against whom the measures in the Bill securing our networks are primarily directed will not respond; they will do so. We cannot imagine that we will take these measures to secure our networks against those who seek to attack or undermine our telecommunications capability in their own interests and they will not respond in some way. As it stands, the first review of that response could be five years after it has happened.

In addition, specifically with regard to the hope on which the Government might be placing an unjustified amount of assurance in diversifying our supply chains using open radio access network technology, we heard from witnesses that the next five years are key. The next five years will be the period in which we will see—or not see—the maturity of open RAN technology. There was a discussion about whether open RAN will be a viable and credible alternative in the next year, two years, three years or four years. While there are technological changes and the maturity of open RAN is in question, spending the next five years without having a review of its effectiveness seems to me to lack appropriate oversight.

There is support for increased review measures. We heard from Derek McManus, the chief operating officer of O2, about the evolution of open RAN. He said:

“There are trials in the UK…it will be at least a couple of years before you have a viable technical and commercial product, focused initially on rural.”––[Official Report, Telecommunications (Security) Public Bill Committee, 14 January 2021; c. 11, Q5.]

As things stand, that period could pass without any review or report. We also heard from Emily Taylor, the chief executive of Oxford Information Labs, who said:

“Imagine if we were sitting here, in five or 10 years’ time, lamenting the fact that the equipment market is now dominated by Microsoft and Google. I am just making that up as a hypothetical example—I have no knowledge to back that up—but those are the companies that have the sufficient scale and skills, and as Chi Onwurah said in her question we are moving to a more hybrid network, where skills in cloud computing and software are going to define the success of the player.”––[Official Report, Telecommunications (Security) Public Bill Committee, 19 January 2021; c. 77, Q92.]

I am quoting someone quoting me, who says that

“skills in cloud computing and software are going to define…success” but we are going to wait five years to review, when, as I am sure the Minister is well aware, given his background, five years could be five technological generations in this area.

The next five years will be key to the maturation of the technologies about which the Minister has so many hopes to help with the diversification of our supply chain and in terms of the global security and geopolitical environment and landscape, yet we have no requirement for reporting or accountability during that time. That is what the amendment is designed to change.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 10:00 am, 26th January 2021

I listen with interest to the points that the hon. Lady makes, and to the assertion that she is a member of the party of national security. I welcome her to this side of the House, if that is the case. [Interruption.] Thank you, but no.

As the hon. Lady says, clause 14 is a review clause requiring the impact and effectiveness of clauses 1 to 13 to be reviewed at least every five years by the Secretary of State. The review report must be published and laid before Parliament, but it is by no means the only source of parliament scrutiny, as she knows. Her amendment would increase the frequency of these reports to every year for the first five years after the Bill is passed and then every five years thereafter.

Increasing the frequency of the reports would bring its own challenges for a number of reasons. First, the framework is considerably different from the previous security regime in the Communications Act 2003. It seems to me that we will not be able fully to assess the impact and effectiveness of the new security regime instituted by clauses 1 to 13 until all parts of the framework, including secondary legislation, codes of practice and other things, have been in place for a reasonable period of time. The code of practice that will provide guidance on the detailed security measures that telecoms could take is intended to set clear implementation timelines. Some measures may require significant operational change, as we heard in the evidence sessions for telecoms providers, and we are aware that that may be costly. For that reason, we cannot reasonably expect all changes to be implemented instantly or, indeed, all necessarily at the same time.

There is a further practical difficulty with the amendment. If the first report is to be produced 12 months after Royal Assent, it will require the review to be undertaken well in advance of that deadline. That means that the report will represent an incomplete picture of the Bill’s impact, even at its very first production. Some measures will not even have been implemented by telecoms providers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn was exactly right that the current requirement for publishing reports is at least—rather than at most—every five years. We have been deliberate in our choice of this timeframe because five years is the reasonable point by which we expect the majority of telecoms providers to have implemented most, if not all, changes. It is therefore considered appropriate to require a report on the impact and effectiveness of the framework by that time. I recognise that five years is a long time. That does not mean that the framework will be free from scrutiny in the intervening period. As clause 11(3) sets out, the Bill amends section 134B of the Communications Act so that Ofcom’s regular infrastructure reports will include information on public telecoms providers’ compliance with the new security framework. Ofcom publishes the reports annually, rendering the amendment unnecessary.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

On a point of clarification, I have the impression that the Minister anticipates that the first report under the Bill would only happen once all the requirements had been implemented. I think that that implies that it would only happen once a high-risk vendor, specifically Huawei, had been removed from the network.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

No is the short answer, because while this is a progress report, five years from 2021 is 2026—the deadline is 2027, even at the most extreme end, which is not where we anticipate it will end up—and it would be before the point that she identifies.

The infrastructure reports from Ofcom will help to provide Parliament and the public with a view on how telecoms providers are progressing with compliance with the new framework. As I alluded to earlier, they are not the only means of parliamentary scrutiny. We have the Intelligence and Security Committee and we have Select Committees. I suspect that there might be one or two debates on this matter over the next five years as well. To pretend that this is the only method of parliamentary scrutiny is not accurate.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

If the Minister will give way briefly, he may find it saves time. To clarify: for the first report we will not necessarily have to wait until all the provisions of delegated legislation associated with the Bill are in place. As for the infrastructure reports that Ofcom publishes, to which he refers as a form of alternative scrutiny, will they, might they or will they not reflect progress in the diversification of the supply chain?

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Lady asks me to predict what is in a report that has not been written yet by an organisation that is not a Government Department. I agree with the principle of what she is saying. This is an important aspect and one would reasonably expect it to be reflected in the reports that we have talked about. It is, however, important overall to say that Ofcom’s own regular infrastructure reports will, as I have said, include information on public telecoms providers’ compliance with the new security framework, which is the broadest interpretation and gives a huge amount of latitude for the sorts of information that she seeks. I hope that those infrastructure reports will help to provide Parliament with the kind of scrutiny that she seeks, and the public with the kind of scrutiny that we all seek. [Interruption.] For those reasons I hope that she will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham for an exciting intervention from his phone, and I thank the Minister for his comments. As I think I have said, I spent six years working for Ofcom with the Communications Act 2003 on my desk. I know the importance that our independent regulator places on the words of the Minister during such debates as this. As he has indicated that the reports would do well to include reference to everything that appertains to security, including the diversification of supply chain, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.