Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Baroness Morgan of Cotes Excerpts
Tuesday 19th May 2020

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB) - Hansard

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and I am extremely happy to be able to support Amendments 9 and 14, standing in the name of my good friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, and so ably moved by her this afternoon.

In tackling risks posed by high-risk vendors, she opens an extraordinarily important debate. Amendment 9 imposes a deadline on operators, and Amendment 14 puts in place a mechanism to ensure their removal should it be shown that they pose a national security concern. To pick up on a point the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, just made, I am delighted that the clerks have ruled the amendments to be within scope, and I hope that it will be possible, as I shall suggest in my later remarks, for us to build on them further on Report. However, in addition to supporting the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, I too am grateful to the Government for facilitating Second Reading speeches this afternoon.

These proceedings take me back to 1981, when in the House of Commons I served on the Standing Committee which considered the British Telecommunications Act 1981. It was a steep learning curve for me. Plessey was based in my Liverpool constituency, and it was inspiring to see British technology and companies at the very cutting edge. It is lamentable to see how far we have fallen back in manufacturing capacity. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is surely that we must become more resilient and less dependent in our supply chains, especially when so many authoritarian countries mock our liberal values. Even worse, it cannot be in the United Kingdom’s interests to have become so dependent on authoritarian regimes for the manufacture of technology which can be utilised by them for anti-democratic purposes, to undermine free societies, human rights and the rule of law.

That is why I hope to build on these two admirable amendments when we come to Report. I am grateful to have received through correspondence over the weekend the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, and the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Lord Adonis.

We should all do more to ensure that high-risk vendors credibly accused of egregious abuses of human rights, such as complicity in the modern slavery of Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China, will be excluded from being beneficiaries of the provisions of this legislation. In this context, I should mention that I am a vice-chairman of the APPG on Uighurs and human rights in Xinjiang and that, on 15 occasions since 2018, I have raised in your Lordships’ House the plight of the Uighurs: their incarceration, forced re-education and use as slave labour in various ways.

In January, in relation to Huawei and 5G, I asked the Government

“what assessment they have made in relation to their decision to award contracts to Huawei and other companies of the implications of the government of China’s National Intelligence Law requiring Chinese organisations and citizens to support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.”

I also asked the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, and the Government about

“Huawei’s compliance with the Modern Slavery Act”


“what consideration they have given to such compliance in regard to their decision to award contracts to Huawei”.

She replied:

“The UK Government expressed its concerns about China’s systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang, including credible and growing reports of forced labour, during the recent UN Human Rights Council.”

That deftly dodged my question and the issue of what we are going to do about the use of slave labour in our supply chains. Profiteering on the broken backs of enslaved Uighurs is either a criminal offence under British law or it is not. Either it is a nice slogan and good public relations or we take it deadly seriously and refuse to profit from it.

Be in no doubt about what we know. As long ago as December 2018, I pointed to reports that

“suggest that up to 1 million Uighurs have been incarcerated without trial in a network of sinister re-education camps: these are bristling with barbed wire and watchtowers, with torture and brainwashing that demands renouncing god and embracing Communism.”—[Official Report, 19/12/18; col. 1804.]

The Government do not disagree with these descriptions.

On 18 March 2020, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, about the use of Uighur forced labour and what assessment the Government had made

“of reports that the government of China transferred Uighurs from detention centres to work in factories where products are produced for global brands; and what plans they have to take action against such companies under the provisions of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.”

He replied:

“Recent reports indicating that Uyghurs are being used as a source of forced labour add to the growing body of evidence about the disturbing situation that Uyghurs and other minorities are facing in Xinjiang. Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires companies operating in the UK with a turnover of £36m or more to publish annual statements setting out what steps they have taken to prevent modern slavery in their organisation and supply chains. The Home Office keeps compliance under active review.”

In a Westminster Hall debate on 11 March, Nigel Adams, the Minister for Asia, said:

“We have also seen credible evidence to suggest that Uighurs are being used as a source of forced labour in Xinjiang and across China, and that if individuals refuse to participate, they and their families are threatened with extra-judicial detention.”

He went on to say:

“Our intelligence is that families are also obliged to host Chinese officials in their homes for extended periods, to demonstrate their loyalty to the Communist party. On the streets, Uighurs and other minorities are continuously watched by police, supported by extensive use of facial recognition technology and restrictions on movement.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/3/20; cols. 149-50WH.]

That was the Government, but in a report entitled Uyghurs for sale, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute outlined how Uighurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities are uprooted, wrenched from their villages, separated from their loved ones, and coercively transported under guard, across China, to work in factories. That report estimates that, between 2017 and 2019, around 80,000 Uighurs were transferred from detention centres in Xinjiang to factories throughout China. Far from their homes, devoid of family contact, incarcerated in segregated dormitories and subjected to propaganda and systematic attempts to destroy their culture, religion and identity, the labourers are kept under 24-hour surveillance. The report examines the direct and indirect supply chains of 83 leading global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, such as Apple, BMW, Huawei, Nike and others.

Are these companies directly complicit? One of the Australian institute’s researchers, Vicky Xu, says that the idea that Huawei is not working directly with local governments in Xinjiang is “just straight-up nonsense”. The 2018 announcement of one Huawei public security project in Xinjiang—as posted on a Chinese government website in Urumqi—quoted a Huawei director as saying:

“Together with the Public Security Bureau, Huawei will unlock a new era of smart policing and help build a safer, smarter society.”

This is not speculation, or evidence extrapolated from big data. This is straight from the horse’s mouth. We all know that safer, smarter policing is a euphemism that would make George Orwell roll in his grave. Huawei is making huge profits from Xinjiang’s unique techno-totalitarianism.

In December, our Government were alerted to the Australian report in a joint letter from parliamentarians from across both Houses, but again they sidestepped the issue. Their reply to us ignored the need for the Government to conduct the same human rights due diligence that they now demand of corporations. Where is that due diligence in the Bill? The more dependent we become on firms whose ties with the Chinese state extend as far as the construction of Xinjiang’s surveillance technology, the harder it will become to take a credible stance. The deeper our dependency becomes, the harder it is to stand up for our values. Huawei’s activities in Xinjiang should alert us to its true allegiances and values: its willingness to create mass surveillance technology and its devotion to, and dependency on, the Chinese Communist Party.

The most striking thing in the Government’s Statement to Parliament in January was the repeated admission of the risks involved, but where is that reflected in the Bill? And why take risks when alternatives are available? In January, like the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, I asked the Government to consider whether, in former times, the United Kingdom would have been willing to put its technology into the hands of the Kremlin, knowing what crimes were being committed in the gulags of Siberia, as in The Gulag Archipelago. The human rights-focused Helsinki process helped to bring an end to the Cold War and liberated the people suffering under the yoke of communist ideology. Today we need Helsinki with Chinese characteristics. We do not need to betray our values.

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day this year, I read Corrie ten Boom’s memoir, The Hiding Place. After sheltering Jews from the Nazi regime, Ms ten Boom was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. She describes her experience of doing forced labour for Siemens in the camps where her sister and many others died. The Holocaust saw state-sponsored mass enslavement on an appalling scale. Ironically, on the morning following Holocaust Memorial Day, the United Kingdom National Security Council committed to sign over up to 35% of our 5G infrastructure to Huawei, a company that the Government know actively partners with the Xinjiang Government to make the world’s most dystopian system of governance possible. Is what happened at Ravensbrück, or in The Gulag Archipelago, so very different from the plight of these 1 million Uighur Muslims, incarcerated and forced to work for nothing? It is surely our duty to ensure that legislation such as this does not further entrench what academics have described as the world’s worst incident of state-sanctioned slavery.

The United Kingdom Government have, admirably, expressed their ambition to lead the world in their anti-slavery commitment. When we come to Report, I hope that the Government will put flesh on the bones of that commitment and ensure that no deals are made with any company for which there are credible reports of slave labour. For now, I support the amendment standing in the noble Baroness’s name.

Baroness Morgan of Cotes Portrait Baroness Morgan of Cotes (Con) - Hansard

I thank noble Lords for the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I will speak to Amendments 9 and 14, but, as I did not speak at Second Reading and before I get to Amendment 9, it is important to set out some context.

I am pleased to see that both Houses are now focusing on business other than the current virus crisis. We have already been reminded today that our democracy is dependent on fast and reliable broadband, and we have seen the struggles that some of us have had with that. Therefore, fast and reliable broadband connectivity has become a national utility and something that people should expect as a right.

It is right that we pay tribute to all those who have kept that national utility going in the past few weeks, as we rely more and more on wi-fi, broadband and mobile connectivity. Although the people who have kept such critical national services going are perhaps not often referred to as key workers, I think that they should be included as such. They have connected loved-ones in hospitals, often at the worst possible time in anyone’s life, and provided online access to education—the subject of a wider debate. They have enabled online appointments for doctors working from home, which is a working pattern that is likely to continue, and family harmony—if anything is to be taken from the example of how much time my 12 year-old spends on his Xbox.

Therefore, the Prime Minister and the Government were right to make a clear commitment to gigabit connectivity nationwide by 2025, and it is important that Ministers stick with that target. I know from my time as Culture Secretary just how personally committed the Prime Minister is to this. Having that target of 2025 should concentrate minds both within government and outside in terms of those responsible for the rollout. I hope that there will be no let-up in making sure that the target is achieved.

Having better connectivity across the country is part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. It will also be part of necessary infrastructure spend, which will be very important in getting our economy moving after at least the first wave of the current crisis has passed and we can see how much work needs to be done to get our economy restarted.

This Bill is an important part of removing all barriers to faster broadband rollout. As we have heard, it is about accessing premises where leaseholders want better broadband. In a similar vein, I know that the department is working on removing other barriers to deployment. Another important step will be making sure that all new-build developments have broadband connectivity points installed right from the start so that people do not have to move into new homes or new business premises only to find that they cannot get better connectivity.

This is a short and focused Bill. That is why I argue today that Amendments 9 and 14, although very important—as we have heard, noble Lords feel very strongly about the issues under discussion—are not right for this Bill. I know that the Secretary of State made a commitment in the other place to bring forward a telecoms security Bill, but obviously he was speaking before the events of the last few weeks. The commitment was to bring forward such a Bill before the Summer Recess, although I think we all appreciate that the legislative timetable has been somewhat disrupted. However, we can see from the debates so far on these amendments that there is a real appetite both in this House and in the other place to have these discussions.

I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, that the decision to allow high-risk vendors to play a limited role in our national connectivity was not an easy one, and it certainly was not rushed through. It stemmed from years of looking at this situation, particularly the telecoms supply chain review conducted by my predecessor in the culture department, but I do think it was the right decision. I will talk about the Statement that I made in the House in January—not in March, as I think she said.

We need faster, better and resilient broadband. That is why having a number of key suppliers at this time is important, so that the infrastructure can be relied upon. It is also right, as I said in the Statement to the House on 28 January, that diversification of the suppliers’ market is important. We must not, as a country, find ourselves in this position again when we have to make difficult decisions about high-risk vendors. I understand the noble Baroness’s amendment but, as I say, the Government’s approach and the decision made at the National Security Council are right, not easy. I therefore hope that we will return to this important subject at a future date on a future Bill. Putting a hard deadline of the end of 2022 on it, although again understandable, also risks the wrong decisions being made and potentially a less resilient broadband network being rolled out across the country. That really will help no one in the longer term.

A full technical and security analysis was undertaken by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre. Its view and advice were central to the conclusions of the telecoms supply chain review and the decisions taken off the back of that. Just as a reminder, the UK Government’s approach is obviously to have a new telecoms security regime, which we will discuss in that future Bill, to diversify the supply chain. Although subject to the current crisis, of course, work should begin to start on that. It is very important that we work with our allies around the world on that supply chain to ensure that it is more diverse. However, we will put ourselves on the back foot if we ignore any key suppliers at the moment.

The third condition was the most important: we have to be clear about what makes a vendor high risk and have clear rules and guidance on how we mitigate the many cyber risks to our telecoms networks. We know that cyber risks come from a variety of sources. As I mentioned in that Statement, the most recent cybersecurity risks have come from Russia, and the Russians play no part in our telecoms infrastructure at all.

I said in the House back in January that

“high-risk vendors should be excluded from all safety-related and safety-critical networks in critical national infrastructure; excluded from security-critical network functions; limited to a minority presence in other network functions up to a cap of 35%; and be subjected to tight restrictions, including exclusions from sensitive geographic locations.”

I noted what the noble Baroness said about the answer that I gave to her back in January. I will certainly check the 2013 report again, but I also ask her to check the words that I used about the most sensitive networks. It is clear, as I also said in the Statement, that

“nothing in the review affects this country’s ability to share highly sensitive intelligence data over highly secure networks, both within the UK and with our partners, including the Five Eyes. GCHQ has categorically confirmed that how we construct our 5G and full-fibre public telecoms networks has nothing to do with how we share classified data. The UK’s technical security experts have agreed that the new controls on high-risk vendors are completely consistent with the UK’s security needs.”—[Official Report, 28/1/20; col. 1340.]

Given the current crisis, there will be time for a full-scale evaluation of the relationship between the UK and China. I should make it clear that companies such as Huawei could help their cause if they encouraged the Chinese Government to participate fully in any global inquiries, particularly into how the current coronavirus crisis was started.

We also need to be clear about the motivations of some who are objecting to the use of high-risk vendors and want to set dates. As we have heard in this debate but also in the other place, there are many different motivations. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has just set out a very powerful case in relation to human rights, and I hope that will be part of a future debate. There are of course issues of security and intelligence sharing, but there are also those who use this particular concern and debate to advance other geopolitical strategies: namely, the successful conclusion of a UK-US trade agreement. The US has strong feelings about Huawei’s involvement, as we have seen in recent developments. We need to be very clear, and the Government were very clear in January, that we were making a decision about the involvement of high-risk vendors on the basis of what was right for the UK.

I hope that the House will not want to see this amendment in the Bill, but it is clear that we must return to this issue in the Bill. It is right that we hold the Government to account over the diversification strategy so that, as I say, that we are not in this position in any further future telecom supply chain decisions that we might have to make.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones - Hansard

My Lords, we have heard some passionate speeches today, but, truth be told, this infrastructure Bill is about much more mundane matters. It is all about rights for operators getting access to install fibre broadband in order to achieve faster broadband rollout, not vendors or their equipment, or indeed high-risk vendors or their equipment, so we on these Benches do not believe that this is the appropriate time or place to discuss these amendments. Quite apart from that, the amendment deals with 5G infrastructure content and leads to our strong view that this debate is not appropriate now but will be when the telecom security Bill comes forward.

I do not say this very often, but I agree with the Government’s view on this, as expressed by the letter of the noble Baroness, Lady Barran. That will be the right peg for the noble Baroness’s amendments, and we should debate the substance then. For that reason, I am not going to engage with the substance of many of the statements made by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, in moving these amendments or indeed those of the noble Lord, Lord Alton.

The background is that, despite earlier speculation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said, after some considerable consideration the Government made their Statement in January 2020 and said that Huawei would continue to play a limited role in delivering the 5G rollout. As she said, that decision took into account analysis and insight from several security bodies and experts in the UK, including GCHQ and the National Cyber Security Centre, and she explained the reasoning very clearly.

On these amendments specifically, there is of course a problem in the operators being given the right to install equipment from high-risk vendors now but ahead of a deadline set in future. Will that fibre have to be removed? What level of use by a telecoms operator and Huawei is sufficient—that its network supports connections from Huawei phones, or that it uses Huawei equipment in its 5G network but not in its fibre installation? What about a company that installs fibre under this legislation but then sells the infrastructure to another company? Why should operators be forced to develop plans to remove high-risk vendors on the advice of the NCSC when that advice is that the risk can be accepted up to a 35% network cap? Do companies now have to submit plans to reach 0% but without any expectation of that actually being implemented?

All this adds up to enormous uncertainty just at the point when we need the maximum rollout of fibre and 5G. That is why the Government are right in their approach—as I said, I do not say that very often—when they say that the issue of wayleads in the Bill should be kept separate from security considerations that will be covered by the telecoms security Bill.

For the information of the House, I do not underestimate the substantive arguments. I considered these matters very carefully myself some 10 years ago. I was a member of Huawei’s international advisory board, but I think that gives me a useful insight into these matters rather than any conflict in the current circumstances. I hope we can debate all these issues at a future date, but not in this Bill.