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Huawei: UK’s 5G Network

Volume 801: debated on Monday 27 January 2020


My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer given earlier today in the other place by my honourable friend the Minister for Digital and Broadband on the security of the telecoms supply chain. The Statement is as follows:

“New telecoms technologies and next generation networks such as 5G and full fibre can change our lives for the better. They can give us the freedom to live and work more freely; they can help rural communities to develop thriving digital economies; and they can help the socially isolated maintain relationships. So the security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks is of paramount importance.

The UK has one of the world’s most dynamic digital economies, and we welcome open trade and inward investment. However, our economy can prosper and unleash Britain’s potential only when we, and our international partners, are assured that our critical national infrastructure remains safe and secure.

As part of our mission to provide world-class digital connectivity, including 5G, my department carried out a cross-Whitehall evidence-based review of the telecoms supply chain to ensure a diverse and secure supply base. That review’s findings were published in July 2019 and set out the Government’s priorities for the future of our telecommunications. These priorities are strong cybersecurity across the entire telecommunications sector, greater resilience in telecommunications networks and diversity across the entire 5G supply chain.

The review considered the entire UK market position, including economic prosperity, the industry and consumer effects, and the quality, resilience and security of equipment. However, in July 2019 it did not take a decision on the controls to be placed on high-risk vendors in the UK’s telecoms networks. Despite the inevitable focus on Huawei, this review was not about one company, or even one country, and we would never take a decision that threatens our national security or the security of our allies.

The Government’s telecoms supply chain review is a thorough review into a complex area and it has made use of the best available expert advice and evidence. Its conclusions on high-risk vendors will be reported once ministerial decisions have been taken. The National Security Council will meet tomorrow to discuss these issues. This work is an important step in strengthening the UK’s security framework for telecoms and ensuring the rollout of 5G and full-fibre networks. I know that honourable Members on all sides of the House feel strongly about this issue, and this Government will make a Statement to this House to communicate final decisions on high-risk vendors at the appropriate time. We will always put national security at the top of our agenda.”

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question given in the other place. She will be aware, as we all are, that there has been so much speculation on this matter for so long that the prospect, even tomorrow, of having something that might be direct and to the point and show us the way forward is to be welcomed.

We have allowed the development of a situation that seems to be becoming unsustainable. We have not completed the rollout of 4G, for example, and the present Government have to improve the universal service obligation for broadband that previous Administrations have dragged their heels on, or at least not delivered on. However, at the same time, operators are already buying into 5G provision, some without knowing at all how much they can rest in the certainty that their investment will be rewarded. The head of MI5 has said that he is confident that US intelligence-sharing with the UK will not be jeopardised if Britain uses Huawei technology in future 5G mobile phone networks, and there are such phone networks that have been using Huawei technology for some time.

In the other place, the colleague of the noble Baroness, in answering the Question, hid behind the fact that we have to wait for tomorrow, and of course mañana is what we all feel obliged to wait for. We will be interested to see how the noble Baroness dresses up “tomorrow” and gives us lots of assurances.

The fact is that we need certainty that 5G is the way forward, but the United States is putting all kinds of pressures on us that have little to do with the business case. Can the noble Baroness therefore give us the assurance that tomorrow everything we hope for today will be delivered?

I thank the noble Lord very much for his measured response on this issue. Obviously I cannot assure him that everything he hopes for tomorrow will be answered, but I certainly expect to come back to this place with an update for this House, and my colleagues will do that in the other place as well. I join the noble Lord in saying that I think a decision on this matter, should a decision be taken tomorrow—I am sure that noble Lords who have been in government or worked with government will understand that I do not want to get ahead of myself in saying that the decision will be taken—will be welcomed.

The noble Lord is right to say, and I think Members of this House will agree, that improving connectivity across the UK is very important for all residents. He is right to say that the rollout of 5G is already taking place and that those involved in that rollout obviously need guidance and a government view on who to involve in it. While I made it very clear in the Answer that this is not just about one company, Huawei is of course already involved in the 4G rollout. I am hesitant to say as a new Member of this House “Watch this space”, but I am afraid that that is probably going to be the basis of my answers today.

My Lords, this is an extraordinary Statement, not least the part that states:

“The National Security Council will meet tomorrow to discuss these issues.”

Then why make a Statement today?

Is the Minister aware that we, like everyone in this House, always put national security at the top of our agenda? However, to claim that despite the inevitable focus on Huawei this review is not about one company or even one country becomes a little difficult to swallow, given all the air traffic around about the activities of the US Government to influence our Government’s decision. I therefore want to make sure that the Government are sticking by the advice they are getting from their security services and their own best-informed sources? We must recognise that we have to decide whether this is a decision about “America First” or about our own best interests. This is supposed to be the golden age of co-operation between the UK and China across a wide range of issues. We have to be able to make security decisions in our way and in our national interest while protecting those wider interests.

I thank the noble Lord. In the interests of time, I will say briefly that I am having to give this Answer today because an Urgent Question was asked in the other place so quite rightly we are answering that in both Houses. I agree with him that it is quite correct that it is the UK Government who are taking this decision. There are a number of factors in making such a decision. We will rely on the best expert advice from our services that we have, but we will make the decision as a Government in the interests of this country.

My Lords, I know the final decision is due to come tomorrow but my noble friend’s Statement speaks about diversity, as indeed did the telecoms review in the summer. Can she reassure us that diversity really can be maintained and dependence on a vendor, particularly a high-risk vendor, avoided? If an integrated system can be assured technically, there seems to be not much of a problem to worry about and some of the American threats seem rather empty, particularly because, while we need a trade deal eventually, getting one is not of high urgency because we already have vast trade with the US under the present system.

I thank my noble friend, who is right to pick up on diversity. Diversification of supply is a critical issue in this whole debate. Obviously I cannot pre-empt decisions that might be made tomorrow or the discussions to be had, but that is of course one of the factors. The Prime Minister has said that it would help if those who wish us to take a particular decision had a particular alternative. There are other suppliers but I hope to say more if and when a decision is taken.

My Lords, notwithstanding the anxiety of our US allies, will the Minister say something about the anxieties expressed in your Lordships’ House on two occasions last week about human rights concerns and the surveillance technology that has been developed by Huawei in places such as Xinjiang, where over 1 million Uighur Muslims have been incarcerated? Will she cast her mind back to ask this question: would we in former times have made this kind of deal and opened up our technology, our security and the possibility of human rights abuses to the Soviet Union if we had known then what we knew later about what it was doing in places such as the Gulag Archipelago?

The noble Lord makes a very important point. I said in answer to the question just now that there will be a number of factors involved in making a decision of this importance. We will obviously take all of the advice from the services on a number of different issues. It would not be appropriate for me to pre-empt the decisions or some of the detailed factors, but I am absolutely certain that we will return to some of the issues he raised in this place.

My Lords, I will differ from other noble Lords and say to the Minister that there is no reason why this decision should be taken tomorrow, particularly since we are on the eve of a strategic defence and security review. Does it not make more sense to discuss this issue in the context of that review, given the critical nature of our digital infrastructure for the defence and security of this country? We have waited long enough. There is no reason why we cannot wait another few months or a year to get this right, because it is absolutely critical and should be decided in context, not out of it.

Again, the noble Lord makes a very important point. He is right to say that all decisions, whether on this matter or other related matters such as a defence review, are interconnected. There are issues relating to our foreign policy and our wider relationships with countries around the world. He is right to say that digital infrastructure is critical. However, this decision has been under debate and discussion in this House and the other place, and more broadly, for some time. We know that, as that digital infrastructure has been rolled out, providers are looking for guidance. The noble Lord highlights one of the factors that has to be balanced in making this decision.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness accept that while she emphasises the importance of 5G connectivity, it is the very connectivity that she talked about that will be jeopardised if we give control of our vital core services and infrastructure to a company which is controlled by the state? That is exactly what will be jeopardised. When she talks about the need for speed, will she not appreciate that we are better off waiting and getting the decision right, particularly when there are alternatives such as Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung, as well as UK-US co-operation that might deliver a more secure network in our national security interests?

The noble Baroness is right to highlight this. Some of the points she raises are part of the discussions between Ministers. I give her and the whole House the absolute assurance that high-risk vendors never have been and never will be involved in our most sensitive networks.