Government faces Commons backlash over ‘regrettable’ Huawei decision

Written by Matt Honeycombe-Foster and Anahita Hossein-Pour on 29 January 2020 in News
News

A number of government and opposition MPs have joined US politicians in calling for Chinese vendor to be excluded from national communications network

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has been forced to defend the government from its own backbenchers after ministers allowed Chinese firm Huawei to help construct the UK’s 5G network.

Raab fended off Commons attacks from a string of senior Tories and insisted the move was "completely consistent with the UK’s security needs" after the National Security Council gave the go-ahead for the provider to help build the country’s new high-speed communications link.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has promised to exclude the firm – which it has deemed a “high-risk vendor” – from all “safety-related and safety-critical networks". Huawei kit will also never comprise any more than 35% of the “periphery” of the network, the government has stipulated.

Conservative MPs lined up to question the decision in a stormy House of Commons session on Tuesday.

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis called for Huawei to be "banned from our networks".


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"Even if it were not an arm of the Chinese government, the 2017 law requires it to take instruction from the Chinese intelligence agency and in the future, the size and complexity of the problem we are trying to protect against is enormous," he said.

And Penny Mordaunt, who served as defence secretary until last year, branded the decision "regrettable".

"I understand the restrictions of high-risk vendors to non-core. But... excluding high-risk vendors from any provision is one way we can encourage companies and states who do not operate under international norms and business standards,” she said. "That is why this decision is regrettable. Would he agree with me that this country must never find itself in this position ever again?"

Ex-Cabinet minister Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservative party, meanwhile said he was "deeply disappointed" in the decision and urged the foreign secretary to "drive Huawei out of our systems progressively as quickly as he can".

But Raab said: “Nothing in this 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 [intelligence partnership]. GCHQ have categorically confirmed that how we construct our 5G and full-fibre public telecoms network has nothing to do with how we share classified data, and 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.”

That view was backed by former prime minister Theresa May, whose government provisionally approved the decision to allow Huawei to be involved in the setting up of the network.

The Maidenhead MP told the Commons: "I commend the government for taking a decision that protects our national security but also recognises the interests of our economy, that is right for the UK because it recognises the construction of our networks and our capabilities and gives us the toughest regime in the world. My right honourable friend has already referenced the fact that we have never had, and never will have, high-risk vendors in our most sensitive networks and that this decision has no effect on our ability to share intelligence with our allies."

'A ludicrous position'
The 5G decision has however been the subject of intense lobbying from the US, which – alongside fellow Five Eyes members Australia and New Zealand, and other nations such as Japan and Czechia – has already banned the firm from its own public infrastructure projects.

Three Republican senators on Tuesday urged the National Security Council not to approve the provider, with Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton and John Cornyn saying such a move could force the US to “review US-UK intelligence sharing”.

"Despite years of dithering, the government still can’t tell us how it will restrict Huawei’s access to sensitive parts of the network."
Shadow culture secretary, Tracy Brabin

“We hope that your government will make the right decision and reject Huawei’s inclusion in its 5G infrastructure," the trio warned.

But the UK government has argued that the US has not suggested an alternative vendor and pointed out that Huawei has been involved in the country's communications infrastructure for 15 years.

Labour said ministers had "refused to take our technological sovereignty seriously" as the opposition party also condemned the decision.

Shadow culture secretary Tracy Brabin added: "As a result, they're in the ludicrous position of having to choose between the UK’s security concerns and our infrastructure needs. Despite years of dithering, the government still can’t tell us how it will restrict Huawei’s access to sensitive parts of the network.”

 

About the author

Matt Honeycombe-Foster and Anahita Hossein-Pour are news editor and reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared.

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