All 2 Ronnie Cowan contributions to the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Act 2021

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Tue 10th Mar 2020
Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill
Commons Chamber

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Wed 24th Feb 2021
Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill
Commons Chamber

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Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport

Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith
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My right hon. Friend is correct. I will quote what happened in the debate we held in Westminster Hall, because we heard a really significant final statement. The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) said—quite rightly, by the way, as I think this is a very good starting point—that

“we will work to move towards no involvement of high-risk vendors.”—[Official Report, 4 March 2020; Vol. 672, c. 299WH.]

I want to conclude—and allow others to get into this debate—by simply saying that three things need to happen today. I recognise fully, and I say this to the Secretary of State, having done much the same kind of stuff as him, that it is not easy. I recognise that, strictly speaking, this is not the correct Bill to try to force through the whole change, but my view is any port in a storm. This amendment is a boat in a different port, but perhaps if he so wants, we can move it into the correct port when he brings through the relevant Bill.

I need some absolute clarity from the Secretary of State, as I think do my colleagues. First, we must plan and we need to know that it is the Government’s intention to move to essentially rid ourselves of high-risk vendors from our system. There also needs to be a concept of timescale in this. I want the Government to recognise and to accept that we have to set ourselves the task to do this. I accept that the Government have already said they want to do it with their Five Eyes colleagues—that is a start, because they have not said that before—but we need to work with our real allies to get ourselves into the position where we can actually go on to rid ourselves of these high-risk vendors. I accept that that is not without difficulty, so the Government need to make that pledge very clearly, and they need to give the timescale by which they will have achieved it and commenced the process of winding out those high-risk vendors.

Lastly, if the Government do not want us to try to create trouble on this Bill, they must give an absolutely lock-tight commitment that the Bill relevant to this will return before the summer—categorically before that, and an early as possible, perhaps in May—so that we can properly see these commitments plus others written into that Bill, and we can understand that those are the Government’s intentions. It is absolutely critical for me—I will make my mind up on this only when I have heard the words of the Secretary of State—and we need to know, that it is the Government’s intention to rid ourselves of high-risk vendors such as Huawei; that it is the Government’s intention to do that in the Bill that will come before us; that they will now work aggressively and at speed with our Five Eyes colleagues, inviting them in immediately to create, with all of us, a system that allows us to do that at the earliest opportunity; and that they will commence the absolute beginnings of that retraction before the end of this Parliament. I give way a little bit on those timescales, but I think I am being fairly reasonable.

It is not normally given to me to make any demands, and I am not doing so. I am simply urging my right hon. Friend, his colleagues and anybody else from the Government who is watching—I genuinely understand the difficulties they are in—to please stop lecturing us and saying that there is no other provider and to stop lecturing us about this somehow killing broadband roll-out—it does not. Most importantly, they must remember that the security of the realm is the No. 1 priority, and that is why I have tabled the amendment.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
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I will not take up too much of the House’s time—I have no intention of grandstanding on this issue—but it is always a pleasure to speak on behalf of the Scottish National party and to ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard in this debate about a key part of the UK’s infrastructure. It goes without saying that digital connectivity is absolutely vital as we seek to grow and evolve our economy. Indeed, full fibre roll-out and the 5G network underpin our progress towards the fourth industrial revolution.

The UK Government, who have responsibility for telecommunications, have a responsibility to ensure that this key driver of our future economic prosperity is appropriately protected and managed. I am pleased that, at a devolved level, the Scottish Government have taken strong action to support digital connectivity. Last month, the Scottish Finance Secretary announced that spending on digital connectivity projects is to double—up to £63.4 million in 2020-21. I want this investment to succeed in providing Scotland with world-class digital infrastructure.

With that in mind, the SNP welcomes the Bill before us today. The SNP acknowledges that the proposals will unlock opportunities for telecoms operators in Scotland that are being prevented from fulfilling consumer demands due to access issues.

The SNP also supports the introduction of laws that would benefit contractors by reducing the costs associated with the delivery of digital infrastructure to multi-dwelling units. The UK Government are entirely right to address any barriers to commercial deployment, and this will complement the Scottish Government’s ambitious plans for digital roll-out, particularly through the R100 programme.

I caveat my support by adding that the SNP will continue to monitor developments relating to this Bill. However, I am aware that Scottish Ministers stand ready to engage with their UK counterparts and I believe it would prove beneficial in making this legislation a success in Scotland.

On the amendments, I want to draw particular attention to those addressing high-risk vendors. We cannot ignore the National Cyber Security Centre’s determinations on Huawei, which it considers to be a high-risk vendor. We cannot ignore the fact that as a Chinese company Huawei could be ordered to harm UK interests under China’s national intelligence law of 2017. Once a virus is placed into our digital system, it cannot be contained by the Government washing their hands of the problem while singing “God save the Queen.”

We now find ourselves in the strange and contradictory position of admitting that Huawei is a potential threat to our national security yet granting it an important role in the development of our digital infrastructure. The UK Government can play around with the semantics of the situation by saying that Huawei will be limited to the periphery or to being a minority presence, but it is deeply irresponsible to dismiss the expert advice.

Sir Richard Dearlove, who led MI6 from 1999 until 2004, said

“we must conclude the engagement of Huawei presents a potential security risk to the UK.”

John Nicolson Portrait John Nicolson (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP)
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Does my hon. Friend agree that in 5G there is no such thing as a periphery anymore? That is the point: the core and the edge are interlinked, and that is what makes the Government’s position on this so disturbing.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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I wholeheartedly agree. The whole concept of a 5G network rides roughshod over the concept, which was brought into 2G, 3G and 4G, of a core and a periphery; once anyone is in that network, they are in that network.

This is not an attack on China or the people of China. They have done what we should have been doing; they have built what we should have been building. Because as I understand it, currently there are no wholly owned and run UK companies that can provide the services of a Huawei, a Nokia, an Ericsson or a Samsung. But with guaranteed work and a guaranteed cashflow we could create the perfect environment to grow such a company. Amid the Brexit jubilation did this UK Government not say they were “taking back control”? Well, they should put their money where their mouth is.

Finally, rhetoric in itself will not revitalise or rejuvenate a marketplace. I am asking this UK Government to plan, invest and grow a state-owned digital infrastructure company.

Liam Fox Portrait Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con)
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It is essential in this debate that we do not conflate the issues of trade and security. In order to achieve greater trade with China we do not need to sacrifice our national security by including Huawei.

I worked hard as Trade Secretary to improve our trade with China, and getting better Chinese trade is good, not least for bringing millions—billions—of people out of poverty in that country. That is in itself a good thing, but—and it comes with a very large but—it must, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) said, come with a rules-based system.

We know that there is an incredible lack of transparency in China about what is in the state sector and what is in the private sector, and Huawei is a classic example of that. The distinctions that we accept in the free-market west are not accepted in the Chinese system, which is why, for example, it is so able to get around some of the pricing constraints that we put in tenders. It is very unclear how investment is funded. While competitors to Huawei such as Samsung have to make very clear to their shareholders how investment is raised and then spent, that transparency does not exist when it comes to Huawei. When I spoke to Samsung about this issue and asked why it was not at the forefront in countries such as the United Kingdom, its answer was, “Well, we have to invest along with the international rules and we have to account to our shareholders and to the law.” These are not things that apply to Huawei, and in any case the way that the tenders were constructed allows a company that lacks transparency such as Huawei always to underbid. If I wanted to get into someone else’s national infrastructure, and I was able to count on ghost state funding to do so, I would certainly take that opportunity. Why would we be surprised that that happens with Huawei?

--- Later in debate ---
Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan
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As this Bill crawls forward, what could have been a UK-wide success risks becoming a fragmented and divisive Bill. An opportunity for the UK Government to engage with the devolved powers and build something to a gold standard—something that could have been seen across the world as a path forward—has been ignored. This Government have clearly learned nothing from their Brexit failures.

The SNP Scottish Government recognise that the geography of Scotland—with, for example, 94 permanently inhabited islands—and the spread of our population require specific solutions to provide world-class digital infrastructure. Despite telecommunications being a reserved matter, the SNP Scottish Government continue to set higher targets and provide additional funding. Currently, the SNP Scottish Government have committed £600 million to rolling out superfast broadband. They continue to strive for 100% access to superfast broadband, which they define as 30 megabits per second—the EU standard —as opposed to the UK’s definition of 24 megabits per second.

As we try to move forward with this Bill, I would ask that we look at the unique geography and the other obstacles that are hindering the roll-out. These should be considered by the UK Government when allocating their funds to specific regions and nations of the United Kingdom.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I pause in case there are any further contributions. No? What an incredibly efficiently short debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport

Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill

Ronnie Cowan Excerpts
Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
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It is good to see the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), in his place, discussing telecommunication matters again—it does not seem a long time ago that we were debating the whys and wherefores of Huawei. I am pleased to support him in encouraging us to ensure the completion of this Bill, albeit of course with due scrutiny, because it is well overdue. It seeks to establish a new security framework for the UK telecoms sector, and to ensure that telecommunications providers operate secure and resilient networks and services and manage their supply chains.

The Minister mentioned just how fundamentally this will change all our lives—how we live, work, socialise, travel and manufacture things. He is right to focus on how these difficult times of the pandemic have illustrated the importance of connectivity. It is all the more important that we are able to get Britain connected.

The Bretton Woods agreement after the second world war saw trading links—roads, ports and airports—deemed a priority so that we could get trade and the economy moving. As we come out of this pandemic and endure the recession, our digital economy will mean so much to our ability to advance and get back on our feet. I very much welcome the energy the Government are putting in here today.

I mentioned Huawei, but there is a wider dimension to this. Britain is in competition with other parts of the world, not least China, in making sure we have the high-tech digital capabilities to meet our future needs. The Bill is about not only putting in place protections against a country we are obviously in challenge with—China—but making sure we protect ourselves. The digital sphere provides not just opportunities but vulnerability to cyber-attacks; disinformation campaigns; interference, even in elections; manipulations on social media; data theft; and so on. The importance of security in communication links is paramount, and the longer we delay the Government’s being able to get on with this, the longer we have to lean on the older systems, which are very vulnerable indeed.

The Government’s target is to deliver nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025. When he winds up the debate, will the Minister update the House on the ambitions for gaining full access to dwellings? I note with interest that gigabit availability is at only 16% in Bournemouth, so we would be delighted if the south-west, which, at 18.6%, is again below the national average, could receive support.

With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will digress from the main theme of the amendments and pose what I call the Rockefeller question, which is related to data. Rockefeller, of course, was the multibillionaire who formed Standard Oil. It took a US President, more powerful than Rockefeller, to stand up and break that monopoly. Arguably, today’s tech giants are replacing those monopolies of the 1900s, and that poses some awkward questions for all of us—for Government and society. The likes of Google and Facebook dominate the digital world. They now own 80% of the advertising market alone here in the UK. That poses big questions about how data is harvested, about the levels of tax paid, and about the stifling of fair competition. Those difficult questions must be answered. I appreciate that they are beyond the scope of the Bill, but it is important to get them on the record.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP) [V]
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It is always a pleasure to speak in the House on behalf of the Scottish National party. Telecommunications is a reserved matter, and we have continued to engage constructively in refining the Bill from our part of the Opposition Benches. As I have previously highlighted in the Chamber, it is for the UK Government to ensure that our digital infrastructure is appropriately protected and managed as a key component of Scotland’s future economic success and of our position as a global leader in technology. Never has the importance of digital connectivity been more sharply brought into relief than during the ongoing pandemic. The fact that I am delivering a parliamentary speech from my home is evidence of this necessity.

On that note, I reiterate that the SNP supports the general aims of the Bill and wants to see it successfully implemented, with the appropriate amendments. I read with interest the recent debates on amendments proposed to the Bill in the Lords. Although the first amendment, in the name of Lord Alton, was withdrawn, I do not want to pass over it without making a quick comment. The purpose of the amendment was to prevent companies using UK telecommunications infrastructure to facilitate human rights abuses. The amendment was obviously not an accusation against Virgin Media, BT or others of having nefarious motives in allowing us to watch Netflix at home. Rather, it touched on a recurring theme in the Bill: our concern about the expanding tech influence of the Chinese Government.

I will not go over the debate on that amendment in detail, as Members can read it in Hansard. However, although the amendment was withdrawn, let us keep the spirit of it in mind. As the world becomes interconnected to an unprecedented degree, we must be vigilant about how our technology can inadvertently support abuses taking place elsewhere. Let us also take Lord Alton’s amendment as a worthy attempt to draw more attention to the increasingly disturbing evidence emerging from China regarding human rights abuses.

Not wishing to digress too far, I turn my attention to Baroness Barran’s amendment, relating to uncompetitive behaviour and a review of the Bill’s impact on the electronic communications code. The Scottish National party broadly welcomes this principled amendment, which would introduce sufficient measures to ensure that residents in multi-dwelling accommodation could access connectivity from the provider of their choice. Infrastructure provided by one supplier should not prevent a subsequent provider from installing their own service within the same building. Concerns were raised in the Lords about whether the amendment was necessary. Given that 10 million people could be affected by this legislation, there is no harm in taking a comprehensive approach. Some 76% of multi-dwelling units missed out on the initial efforts to deploy fibre because of problems in gaining access, so it should be self-evident to everyone in the Chamber that we must improve access and consumer choice.

Let us not pretend that previous amendments have created a perfect Bill. Industry experts have raised concerns that the legislation does not go far enough in providing flexibility for network operators. BT in particular is concerned that the bar set for a landlord to be classified as engaging with the network builder, and therefore not be subject to the Bill’s provisions, is far too low. Likewise, Virgin Media is seeking further clarity on the definition of “meaningful response” in relation to landlords’ communications with operators.

Questions have also been raised by operators on the balance the Government are seeking to create between the rights of landowners and the rights of telecoms operators. What does this mean in practice? Why would affording an operator the right to ask a court to grant access, independent of a tenant request, be against the public interest, especially if it ensures that tenants are given access to digital connectivity that may not have existed previously?

As the Minister will be aware, many utilities already have the right, with appropriate safeguards, to enter a property in order to maintain infrastructure. Do the Government agree with the future telecoms infrastructure review’s recommendation that telecoms operators’ right of entry should be brought in line with that of other utilities?

Of course, the process should be reviewed as per Lords amendment 3. If we are to achieve continual, irreversible improvement, the process must remain open to review. The Bill is now at such a late stage that I suspect some operators have effectively given up on seeing it reformed further, and they are merely accepting legislation that does not meet its full potential. Clearly, operators welcome this progress, but the industry is asking for greater clarity and engagement. It is unfortunate that the operators are still asking the Government to confirm basic definitions in legislation that is on the brink of becoming law.

Looking ahead, undoubtedly the consultation on changes to the electronic communications code is a primary way to build on the improvements that will come from this Bill. As the Government move ahead with the legislation and the review, it is vital that they consult more closely with relevant actors in the sector. After all, the telecoms operators are the only ones with the practical knowledge to make a success of the Government’s long-term ambitions for digital connectivity.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD) [V]
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Greetings from the far north of Scotland. I would like to put on record my thanks to my excellent Speaker’s intern, Mohamed; without his patience in explaining to me exactly what “gigabit-capable” means, I probably would not be quite as knowledgeable as I hope I am on these matters.

Clearly, my party and I welcome the Government’s commitment to speeding up gigabit-capable by 2025, but of course that takes us to 85% coverage. What we really need is 100% coverage, so I still await something better than 85% coverage.

Secondly, the involvement of private companies is noted, but of course there are areas of Scotland that—how shall I put it?—are less commercially viable for such firms. My constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross in the far north, and perhaps the highlands and islands in general, might be rather lacking when it comes to what private companies can do.

I also note that the Government are saying that they will commit real money, as opposed to there being private investment. Madam Deputy Speaker, you have heard me talk many times about connectivity in my consistency, and I make no apologies for saying that I will keep a very close eye on what actually happens in terms of Government money, as opposed to private investment, to make sure that the highlands are not disadvantaged.

Of course, we have a mixture at the moment. I have previously made jokes in the House about our having zero G in some parts of my constituency. We have 4G and 3G, but it needs to be improved right now, because what we have is not adequate. Such regional disparity is unfair on my constituents.

I welcome Lords amendment 1, which was tabled by my noble Friend Lord Clement-Jones. It is hugely important that tenants and other legal occupants in exclusive possession be within scope of the Bill. We wait to see what happens on that one.

Lords amendment 3 is fully supported by my party. Of course, a review is vital in assessing the impact of the legislation, but I understand that the Government will not be supporting the amendment, which I regret.

My maiden speech in this place three and a half years ago was about connectivity, which is a subject, as I said, that I return to again and again. As the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) said, the very nature of my speaking to the Chamber via Zoom right now demonstrates the fact that connectivity and the ability to do this has been crucially important during the pandemic. Thinking of the future, if we are to punch to the best of our ability in challenging circumstances post Brexit and post the pandemic, mobilising our resources and our abilities will be absolutely crucial, and connectivity will be part and parcel of that. At the end of the day, my plea is that nobody in the United Kingdom should be disadvantaged in this regard because of where they live.