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House of Lords Hansard
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Domestic Infrastructure: Chinese Ownership
23 January 2019
Volume 795

Question

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the risks arising from Chinese ownership of technologies and platforms critical to the domestic infrastructure of the United Kingdom.

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My Lords, the Government take seriously any national security risks arising from the ownership of infrastructure assets and systems, and assess those risks on a case-by-case basis, irrespective of their origin. On 24 July 2018, the Government published the National Security and Investment White Paper, which consulted on reforms to powers to scrutinise investment for the purposes of protecting national security. The Government are now considering carefully the response to that consultation and will respond in due course.

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My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for his considered Answer, I point out that superfast 5G has great potential for our economy. It could be worth £200 billion over the next decade. The world leader in 5G is Huawei, but our closest security allies—Australia, New Zealand and the US—have already taken steps to restrict access to Huawei technology on the grounds of national security. Will we follow suit speedily? If not, why not?

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I am grateful to my noble friend, who has drawn attention to the need to get the balance right. America has banned Huawei from federal networks. We do not plan to go as far as that. I think America has a different approach from this country to international trade and inward investment, particularly under its “America first” policy. Of course, it has particular difficulties with China at the moment. We want to get the balance right and to have the best digital infrastructure we can, with up-to-date equipment to promote growth and inward investment, but we do not want to compromise national security. Huawei is precluded from taking part in certain sensitive parts of our infrastructure—lawful intercept, for example—and in other cases its equipment is interposed between equipment from other firms to mitigate risks. We keep the balance under review, but I think we have it about right.

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My Lords, the Government have the laudable objective of procuring for the United Kingdom the latest 5G high-speed technology communications system. We should all support that. We should also all support the idea that we need adequate protection against some people’s technologies. Since, in this case, the most advanced optical fibre technology is from either Huawei or ZTE—both Chinese-owned and controlled—how will the Government achieve their objective if we are not to deal with them? There is no other way to do it at that level of technology. As I said some time ago in this House, if we are not willing to trust the Chinese with our communications system, is it not a bit perverse to suggest that we trust them with our civil nuclear power?

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In the case of Huawei, we have set up unparalleled arrangements in this country. As the noble Lord will know, we have set up at Banbury a centre to evaluate Huawei’s strategy and the equipment it is developing. That board is overseen by the chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre, so we have a deep insight into what Huawei is up to and can take mitigating action in certain circumstances. As I have said, in certain circumstances we can ban it from taking part. But we want to make use of the latest technology and, as my noble friend said, Huawei is a world beater and it would not be in the national interest to ban it totally. We are looking at whether we have the legal structure right for the future in protecting national security, but I think we have the balance about right.

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My Lords, a word of caution on nuclear power—the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, mentioned it. Does the Minister agree with me that we need to collaborate with the Chinese in building our nuclear plants? The Chinese are now world leaders. They have been the first to build an EPR, such as we are building at Hinkley Point, and they have also been the first to build the American AP1000. Specifically, collaboration with China General Nuclear, CGN, will be key to our success at Hinkley Point, Sizewell and Bradwell and in qualifying CGN’s own HPR1000, especially in the light of the withdrawal of the Japanese. I declare my interest as a member of the parliamentary group led by Ian Liddell-Grainger MP that visited the EPR reactor in Taishan in November. I would like to say—

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Question!

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CGN has a remarkable safety record in nuclear power. We should run our plants ourselves but let it help us build them.

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My Lords, we welcome Chinese inward investment into the civil nuclear projects in the UK, as the noble Lord mentions, subject to our robust legal, regulatory and national security requirements. We have the most robust and stringent requirements. My advice is that the project at Hinkley so far meets all the necessary requirements that the noble Lord referred to.

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My Lords, are we working on our own in responding to the Chinese threat, or are we working with others? Would it not be sensible not only to work with our other Five Eyes colleagues but also to work with our European partners? If we have to find and develop alternative technology for some of these critical projects, clearly it might be much more sensible to work closely with other friendly governments.

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Of course we should work closely with our allies, but it is just worth pointing out that some of our allies have a different legal framework. Australia, for example, has a law saying that telecom operators cannot procure equipment from a company that has extraterritorial jurisdiction. That rules out Chinese companies and many others. We do not have quite that same approach, but, of course, we learn from experience, from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and our other allies.

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My Lords, does the Minister agree that the UK has had a much more sophisticated approach to Chinese companies for many years, both in setting up the cyber centre that looks at Huawei source code to understand it, and in recognising that in certain parts of UK networks, such as BT’s core network, it was not appropriate to put it in? It also recognises that much equipment from other countries actually has Chinese components in it, so the position is actually far more sophisticated and nuanced than perhaps were some of the headline statements made in many other countries.

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My noble friend is absolutely right.