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Telecommunications (Security) Bill

Volume 816: debated on Monday 15 November 2021

Commons Reasons

Motion A

Moved by

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 4, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 4A.

4A: Because the Commons consider it appropriate and sufficient for oversight and scrutiny of decisions made by the Secretary of State for DCMS in relation to telecommunications diversification to be conducted by the departmental select committee.

My Lords, noble Lords will recall that this Bill will create one of the toughest telecoms security regimes in the world and ensure the security and resilience of the UK’s telecommunications networks and infrastructure.

Amendment 4, which was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and the noble Lords, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Lord Fox, would insert a new clause into the Bill. The clause would require the Secretary of State to report on the impact of the Government’s diversification strategy on the security of telecommunication networks and services, and would allow for a debate in another place on the report.

I ask that this House do not insist on its amendment for two reasons. Our first objection to this amendment relates to the flexibility necessary for diversification. The reporting requirement, which is based on the risks as we find them today, is restrictive and premature for a market and technology that is evolving and rapidly changing. Policy work is at an early stage, and the criteria for how we measure its success is evolving in line with our policy. It would not be suitable to set out specific reporting criteria in legislation.

The diversification strategy and any reporting on its progress must be flexible so that we can focus on achieving the greatest impact. As we hope diversification to be a short-term problem, enshrining it in legislation—a long-term solution—would be counterintuitive and unnecessary. We are currently focused on diversifying radio access networks, for instance, but that may change in the future.

The Government take diversification seriously. I reassure noble Lords that mechanisms are already in place, through Parliamentary Questions and Select Committees, to thoroughly scrutinise the strategy and its progress now and in the future. This is the appropriate method of scrutiny for an evolving, time-limited strategy.

Secondly, this is principally a national security Bill intended to strengthen the security and resilience of all our telecoms networks. The Government’s 5G telecoms diversification strategy has been developed to support that objective but it is not the sole objective of the strategy. In addition, the strategy is focused on a specific subset of the telecoms supply market, not the security of public networks as a whole.

From debates in your Lordships’ House so far, it is clear that this amendment intends to hold the Government to account on the impact of the diversification strategy on the security of public networks. We will be happy to provide updates on the strategy’s progress through existing channels, and are encouraged by the developments that we have seen since the strategy’s launch. The amendment would extend the Bill beyond its intended national security focus and creates an inflexible reporting requirement on a strategy that, as I say, will evolve as it fulfils this important work. That is why I ask your Lordships’ House not to insist on Amendment 4.

I shall also speak to Motion B, which asks that this House do not insist on its Amendment 5, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 5A. As noble Lords will recall, Amendment 5 was tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Alton of Liverpool, Lord Coaker and Lord Fox, and my noble friend Lord Blencathra. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to review decisions taken by Five Eyes partners to ban telecommunications vendors on security grounds. In particular, it would require the Secretary of State to review the UK’s security arrangements with that vendor and consider whether to issue a designated vendor direction or take similar action in the UK.

As I said on Report, I welcome the intention of the amendment. It demonstrates that noble Lords across the House take the security of this country and its people incredibly seriously. However, while we support the spirit of the amendment, we cannot accept it for four reasons.

First, this amendment is unnecessary as the Bill already allows the Secretary of State to consider the policies of Five Eyes countries. Clause 16 includes a non-exhaustive list of factors that the Secretary of State may take into consideration when issuing designation notices regarding high-risk vendors. That list illustrates the kinds of factors we will be considering proactively and on an ongoing basis as part of our national security work. A decision by a Five Eyes partner or indeed any other international partner to ban a vendor on security grounds could be considered as part of that process. The amendment asks the Government to do something that has been part of the Bill from the outset. We believe that our existing approach is the right way to continually consider the decisions of all our international allies and partners.

Secondly, the amendment is unnecessary because we are already committed to a close and enduring partnership with the Five Eyes countries. We engage with our partners regularly and, where relevant, consider their actions when developing our own policies. The Five Eyes intelligence and security agencies maintain close co-operation, which includes frequent dialogue between the National Cyber Security Centre and its international partners. This dialogue includes the sharing of technical expertise on the security of telecoms networks and managing the risks posed by high-risk vendors. Engaging with our partners in this way is at the very core of our national security work.

In another place, members of the Intelligence and Security Committee agreed that the amendment was not necessary as the existing intelligence relationship with the Five Eyes, and other international parties, is strong. The chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Dr Julian Lewis, said:

“We looked at Lords amendment 5 and we understood the temptation to flag up the importance of the Five Eyes relationship. We agreed ... whenever a serious objection is raised on security grounds by one of the Five Eyes partners, we take that with the utmost seriousness.”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/11/21; col. 119.]

The chairman of the DCMS Select Committee, Julian Knight MP, agreed and said that

“any Government worth their salt would take very seriously the approach of our closest security partners.”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/11/21; col. 117.]

Our third reason is that naming individual countries in legislation would be restrictive to the development of wider international relations and set an unhelpful precedent on national security legislation. The Five Eyes alliance was not created through legislation and it has not required legislation for us to develop and strengthen that relationship in the past. Moreover, we need to consider the policies of a wide range of countries, including those of our European neighbours such as France and Germany, and those of other nations such as Japan, South Korea and India, to name but a few. It is highly unusual to refer to specific countries in legislation in this way, and the amendment would set an unhelpful precedent for future legislation.

Finally, the amendment is impractical because of the many different ways other countries operate their national security decision-making. It may not be immediately clear when a country has taken a decision to ban a vendor, particularly if it relied on sensitive intelligence. It also may not be clear why a country has taken this decision, and it may not always be based on national security grounds. So, while I welcome the intentions behind the amendment, we cannot accept it and that is why I ask that the House does not insist on Amendment 5 either. I beg to move.

My Lords, I hope my noble friend Lord Fox has given his apologies to the Minister for being unable to be here due to a Select Committee engagement. However, that does not mean that on these Benches we are any less disappointed—or indignant, as I think my noble friend Lord Fox would put it—about the Government having turned down both amendments, which my noble friend signed. The Minister is developing a fine turn of phrase in turning down amendments that appear perfectly sensible. On Report he talked about sharing the ambition and warmly welcoming the intent and then said that they did not quite fit the Bill and the Government could not accept these amendments. It is rather baffling since both are built very firmly on the Government’s expressed intentions —indeed, ambitions—set out in the integrated review. That was very clear in our debates on Report. It seems that the Government’s motives are much more firmly based on resistance to scrutiny and the idea that, somehow, they would be constrained in their work on diversification by having to report, in the case of Lords Amendment 4. However, the words he used were:

“legislating for a reporting requirement would be limiting and inflexible.”—[Official Report, 19/10/21; col. 86.]

Having reread the debate and heard again what the Minister had to say, I still cannot understand the Government’s rationale for this.

The rejection of Lords Amendment 5 is equally baffling because the Minister talks again about the limitation of the amendment to a particular set of countries. Surely, one of the reasons we are where we are, and the Government had to backtrack on their treatment of high-risk vendors, is precisely that they were not in step with their other Five Eyes allies. Therefore, the Government are not even learning from experience. We are where we are, however, and clearly we are not going to take this further, but I believe that the Government will regret not accepting both amendments.

My Lords, the matters under consideration today are about not party politics but the first duty of any Government: to ensure the security of our citizens and the United Kingdom. Following majorities in this House and considered debate in this and the other place, it is regrettable that the Government have rejected sensible amendments to this important Bill, which I still believe would have improved and enhanced our collective security. The arguments against these amendments have been somewhat wanting, generally conveying the message, throughout the passage of the Bill, that it is all being take care of—a view that this House, on all sides, has not shared.

Our extensive use of new technology throughout the pandemic shone a very bright light on the degree to which we rely on telecoms networks and our experience has reinforced how intertwined these networks are with issues of national security. So, to ensure our security, diversification is crucial and thus far an effective plan to diversify the supply chain has been absent. As I recall, we do, however, have broad agreement that we cannot have a robust and secure network with only two service providers, which is what will remain when Huawei goes. This is why we need to ensure diversity of suppliers at different points of the chain, with sufficient support for the UK’s own start-up businesses. I, too, will quote, from the debate in the other place, the words of Dr Julian Lewis MP, the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, who is obviously much quoted today. He said, of Lords Amendment 4:

“For the life of us, we cannot understand why the Government are opposing it. We believe it would strengthen parliamentary scrutiny and provide a valuable annual stocktake on the progress being made on the diversification strategy and how it is helping to improve national security.”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/11/21; col. 119.]

The Government have said that they are serious about protecting our telecoms security and they respect the vital role that diversification plays in achieving that. I would therefore have thought that the Government would welcome the added layer of diversification scrutiny that Lords Amendment 4 provided. It is disheartening, therefore, that the amendment is rejected by Motion A.

On Motion B, our telecoms security also depends on strengthening our international intelligence bonds and the Five Eyes provides the perfect opportunity to do so. It is therefore similarly disappointing that the Government, having promised to work with this alliance in the integrated review, have resisted introducing a requirement that the Government should automatically review vendors—and by that we meant only “review” vendors when others in the Five Eyes ban companies from their networks. This was provided for by Lords Amendment 5. Such a response, as outlined in Motion B, flies in the face of common sense and it is very disappointing to see this rejection.

I accept that on this occasion we have reached the end of the parliamentary road with the Bill. However, as time goes on and the provisions of the Bill take effect, I hope that the Minister will reflect on the debates in the House and the other place concerning the intent and practical considerations that would contribute to security improvements, as provided by Lords Amendments 4 and 5. I hope the Minister will not feel constrained when he further considers making improvements in this area.

My Lords, I certainly hear the disappointment and perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, even the indignation of his noble friend Lord Fox, in his absence. I am sure that if the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, who is not able to be with us today, were here he would have had something to say as well. However, I hope to be able to reassure all noble Lords that the Government certainly have listened to and taken on board the points which have been made. Where we respectfully disagree, I would point to the fact that another place has disagreed as well, but, as I said in my opening remarks, we are very conscious of the spirit of scrutiny in which these amendments have been put forward. Noble Lords have wanted to ensure that the Bill does what the Government intend: to set up a framework to protect the national security of our country. We simply disagree about the practicalities of some of the amendments which remain at this late stage.

It may be helpful to say a little more about the opportunities for parliamentary oversight of the diversification strategy which noble Lords and Members of another place will have been able to take advantage of. Since its publication, Members of another place and noble Lords have had the opportunity to scrutinise and provide feedback on the strategy. The Science and Technology Select Committee in another place held an inquiry earlier this year on 5G Market Diversification and Wider Lessons for Critical and Emerging Technologies. The Government responded to the committee’s report in April, agreeing with its assessment of the scale of the diversification challenge and that there is a need to work swiftly to make early progress and build momentum as we work towards our long-term ambitions. We have not yet committed to a specific way of reporting progress, as policy work is at an early stage and the criteria for how we measure its success is evolving in line with our policy, as I said in my opening remarks.

However, we have made and announced a lot of progress on our diversification strategy already: for example, on our programme of targeted R&D support, including the future RAN open competition, the winners of which will be announced soon. We will continue to update on progress and are planning to launch further policy commitments at the same time as announcing the winners of that competition later this year. I know that noble Lords, if they agree with us and do not insist on their amendments today, will certainly continue to watch this issue vigilantly and find every opportunity to pursue these important issues in your Lordships’ House and through Parliamentary Questions and Select Committees, and it is right that they do.

I end by thanking again the Bill team and all officials who have been involved in the development of this important Bill. I listed them in full last time, so I will not try the patience of the Hansard editors by repeating their names but I will add one final name: Daniel Wilson, who has been of great support to me and my noble friend Lady Barran in working on this issue in private office.

I commend the Bill to your Lordships’ House. It will create one of the toughest telecoms security regimes in the world and ensure the security and resilience of the UK’s telecommunications networks and infrastructure.

Motion A agreed.

Motion B

Moved by

5A: Because the Commons consider it inappropriate to specify the steps to be taken by the Secretary of State where decisions in relation to telecommunications vendors are taken on national security grounds by other countries.

Motion B agreed.