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Emergency Services Network

Volume 805: debated on Thursday 24 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the decision to ban Huawei equipment on the delivery of the new Emergency Services Network.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and draw attention to my interests in the register.

My Lords, the removal of Huawei equipment from EE’s network is being managed and monitored closely to ensure that any disruption to the build or operation of the emergency services network —otherwise known as ESN—is avoided. We do not anticipate any impact on programme schedules.

My Lords, I am sure that that is intended to be good news, but this has been an omnishambles from day one. It was supposed to take four years; now it is 10. We are the only country in the world using this technology. Is there any police, fire or ambulance chief who has confidence in this project? Last year, the PAC was told that it was running £3.1 billion over budget and would cost £9.3 billion, and now it has been delayed by another two years. So what will the final bill be before we have a communications system on which our emergency services can rely?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to point out that this has been a very challenging programme. There are police chiefs who have confidence in it and are keen to take it forward. In terms of the final bill, we understand that it will be some £10.3 billion.

My Lords, the London Fire Brigade and other emergency services are very concerned about the effect of the ban of the use of the Huawei equipment on the upgrade of the ESN. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s plan for damage limitation? Is the predicted overspend really as much as £3 billion? What plans do the Government have to deal with this?

My Lords, as I said initially, there is every plan in place to ensure minimal disruption. In terms of the Huawei equipment in the EE part of the ESN—the dedicated core network—EE is already working to remove it by 2023, well in advance of the 2027 deadline that DCMS set out.

My Lords, this matter can be added to an increasingly long list in a generally deteriorating set of relations with China. How much is the Huawei issue about political manoeuvring over security, when GCHQ has cleared that organisation for the supply of hardware year on year for the past 10 or so years? Have the Government altered their approach to Huawei to ensure being at one with the US, or is any effective high-level diplomacy being conducted, beyond megaphone diplomacy, to put the relationship with China on track? Do insurmountable red lines exist? If so, what are they?

I will respond to the areas raised by the noble Viscount that pertain to the Home Office and are linked to DCMS. Clearly, in January, the government restrictions on the use of Huawei equipment introduced the restrictions in 5G and FTTP networks. We expect the decision to be brought into law by the forthcoming telecoms security Bill.

My Lords, this new emergency service network will operate on old 4G technology, and current estimates are that it will cost £33,000 per user. We learned from the King’s Cross fire and the 7/7 terrorist attacks the importance of this network working on the London Underground but, to date, it does not—even though my own iPhone does. How and when will this be resolved?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to point to the importance of emergency networks in the London Underground. In fact, that work and that testing has begun with TfL— I visited one of its sites in Canada Water—but it has been delayed because of Covid-19, for very obvious practical reasons. I can assure the noble Lord on this. The testing is absolutely imperative, so that the technology that we have works in emergency situations such as those he referred to.

My Lords, will the Minister admit, in a moment of frankness and honesty, that this project is a total shambles? Will she tell the House what the arrangements are for consulting with the authorities in Scotland and Wales? What is their view about this interminable delay?

Well, I think I was quite frank initially in saying that it had been a challenging project. It is a project that I have paid particular attention to in trying to get it moving, in terms of emergency services testing it and taking it up. In terms of the Scottish view on it, we engage with all devolved Administrations on this sort of thing, and we want to get it up and running as soon as we possibly can.

My Lords, it looks as if this system is going to come on stream just at a time when the rest of us are moving on from 4G to 5G. Would it not be a good idea to start working now on the 5G replacement and use this as an exemplar of Dominic Cummings’s new way of government contracting and delivery?

My Lords, I will keep away from politics and say that, to meet DCMS’s original requirement relating to 5G RAN only, EE had already anticipated that a proportion of Huawei 4G RAN equipment would need to be replaced with equipment supplied by other vendors, and this would be increased to meet the new requirement for 5G.

My Lords, communications are clearly critical within and between the emergency services in dealing with major incidents. Could the Minister tell the House whether there have been essential improvements in comms technology recently, allowing better communications and connections between and within responder services? Have improvements been made? Can she guarantee that improvements are being made in communications in underground locations?

What I should say to the noble Lord is that the testing of the product is the essential bit in terms of gaining that confidence that noble Lords have talked about that the ESN will get online and will work, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, underground, above ground and in remote areas.

To be fair to the Minister, 20 years ago the analogue system was a shambles as well. But I would like her to agree to talk to her colleagues in DCMS about why we should not reach the kind of partnership deal with Huawei, using UK or European partners, that the Trump Administration have reached with TikTok.

I can certainly take that back, and I thank the noble Lord for telling me some of the historical problems that have been faced. Certainly, we want to make sure that the system works, cannot be disrupted and works in all areas where the emergency services need coverage.

The critical national infrastructure comprises many components. Emergency services are one; civil nuclear power is another. Does it make sense to ban the Chinese from one part of the critical national infrastructure and not another?

What is important with the infrastructure to which the Huawei systems relate is where security lies in terms of national security and, going forward, the security of people’s devices and that sort of thing.