Baroness Morgan of Cotes (Con) [V]
My Lords, I thank your Lordships for the opportunity to speak in this important part of the debate. I agree with much of what the previous four speakers have said with great power and conviction, although I reach a different conclusion from theirs on this amendment.
This House and the other House are signalling to the Government that both this issue and broader ones—such as the UK’s relationship with China in the light of recent events, security considerations, telecoms considerations and the involvement of Chinese companies in the UK—need serious review by the Government. I would argue that that review is best led in a calm and sober way by the Foreign Office and senior Ministers, with them not necessarily spending too much time on it. It is impossible to do that important review justice in the context of this Bill; I hope to set out why that is the case in the few moments that are available to me.
In Committee, I said that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised an important issue. He has spoken about setting a human rights threshold; he is right to do so and to remind us that, in terms of our international relationships—including investment by foreign companies in the UK’s infrastructure—it is right to think about sustainable investment, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, just talked about, and that that has to include human rights considerations.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, is also right to talk about transparent supply chains. There is no reason why the digital supply chain or the telecoms supply chain, which we are talking about today, should be different from other supply chains. That means that they should be considered as a whole, rather than sector by sector. The UK has led the way on modern slavery, particularly under the previous Prime Minister. Many people in both Houses, including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, have quite rightly campaigned on it for many years. Again, the UK should consider this area soberly and as a whole.
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, talked about data capture and mentioned one particular company, which I will come back to. There is a lot of concern about the data that is captured from everybody’s mobile infrastructure, computers and networks by big tech companies. Again, that is another area of debate that it would serve us all well to consider as a whole.
This is a particularly short and focused Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others rightly anticipated the arguments that would be made about why this is neither the right time nor the right place for this amendment. Just because that has been anticipated does not mean that the arguments that I suspect the Minister will put in her response are not the correct ones. The Bill is about helping around 10 million people living in flats and apartments to have the right to ask their landlords to help them get better internet connectivity. In recent weeks, we have seen just how important better connectivity is and how things will continue like that. More people will work from home and more young people will probably end up doing more online schooling from home in the years to come. Obviously, we do not know for how long Virtual Proceedings or remote voting will continue in this House, but we need resilient and stable broadband connectivity to be able to participate. Those 10 million people are entitled to ask for that to be applied to them too.
The Bill was originally drafted to remove a specific barrier: that of landlords not engaging with telecoms operators. Other pieces of legislation will remove other specific barriers as well. The amendment talks about operators but, as noble Lords have talked about, the concerns that are outlined stem from one particular company and one particular country, neither of which is a telecoms operator. What is happening is that operators in the UK are seeking to use some Huawei equipment for 4G and 5G capability.
As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, the phrase “human rights” is extremely broad. Anybody who has ever dealt with the local planning process will know that, at some point, somebody comes along and says, “I’m going to object to this on the grounds of my human rights.” That is a very different set of human rights considerations from the human rights that, as noble Lords have set out, are being abused and where what is happening in China is seriously concerning.
As I said, this broad and important debate needs to happen but I would argue that making this amendment to the Bill will stop those who want to rely on better connectivity being able to do so. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, asked why those people could not perhaps have a short delay while other companies were found. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, rightly pointed to other suppliers that may be able to replace Huawei in the buying of equipment. From looking at this very closely when I was the Digital Secretary, I can tell noble Lords that, while there is the possibility of other companies wanting to enter this market, none is yet in a position to do so. The Government have rightly committed to working with other suppliers to make sure that we are not in this position again in future, but it will take some time.
On delays, the amendment talks about these restrictions not coming in until 2023. So, some scope for delay was already built in and we are apparently saying that it is okay for operators to work with the companies under concern until 2023, but that cannot be right if the concerns outlined by noble Lords are absolutely valid and urgent, as they have suggested.
As I say, this debate is obviously about one company and one country. The concerns are all perfectly valid but they would be better placed in a broader debate. To those who have talked about our dependency on Huawei growing, I say this: that is absolutely not what the UK Government have committed to. The Government have made it very clear that dependency on Huawei is to be reduced. I absolutely understand this and think that we should push the Government to make sure that that commitment is followed up on; we should also see what the glide path down to zero involvement by Huawei is and how quickly that is going to be achieved.
As I say, our relationship with China needs a proper broader debate; this is a short and focused Bill that does not need any more barriers put in its way, when it is designed to remove a barrier in order to enable millions more people to have a chance to have better, faster broadband. I hope that discussions can continue between the proposers of the amendment and the Government. There may well be an opportunity to revisit this amendment, and certainly the broader debate, in future. However, if this amendment is put to a vote tonight, I will not support it.