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No final decision taken on Huawei 5G ban, government claims

Culture secretary tells MPs that a final decision on use of Huawei in UK 5G networks has not been taken, and says government is taking the leak of confidential discussions at the National Security Council very seriously

Culture secretary Jeremy Wright has denied that the government has taken a final discussion on whether or not to enact an outright ban on the use of Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G networks, and has promised that the government will investigate the source of the 24 April 2019 leak of confidential discussions at the National Security Council (NSC).

The leak alleged that prime minister Theresa May had personally taken the decision to allow some use of Huawei’s equipment in non-core parts of the various 5G networks that will be built in the UK in the coming months and years.

In an urgent question to the Commons, Labour’s Jo Platt, MP for Leigh, described the leak as a “mess”.

“The only reason we know of the decision to greenlight Huawei is from an apparent ministerial leak of a meeting of the NSC, which has only served to raise public concern whilst undermining the integrity of our security agencies,” said Platt.

“If a minister did leak the information, they are not fit to serve in the cabinet and are certainly not fit to be prime minister.... Critical issues of national security should be handled with utmost care....

“A full leak inquiry should be undertaken and, if identified, the individual should immediately resign or be removed from their position,” she added.

“There has not been a final decision made on this subject,” said Wright. “There is good reason for these discussions to be confidential, and I hope the government will understand that I don’t intend to discuss here, or anywhere else other than in the NSC, the matters that should be discussed there.

“The reason why we don’t is that officials, including the security and intelligence agencies referred to, need to feel that they can give advice to ministers which ministers will treat seriously and keep private.

“If they do not feel that, they will not give us that advice and government will be worse as a result. That is why this is serious and that is why the government intends to treat it seriously.”

Wright described the leak as “unacceptable” and “corrosive to the ability to deliver good government”.

‘Very, very shoddy’

Platt also questioned the culture secretary over the latest report from the National Cyber Security Centre’s (NCSC’s) Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) Oversight Board, which was highly critical of the China-based firm.

“Huawei is a company known from multiple public reports from our security services to manufacture sub-optimal equipment, often at a lower average cost, so can the minister clarify if the equipment described just two weeks ago by the technical director of the NCSC as ‘very, very shoddy’ will be the same equipment greenlit for deployment in our networks?

“We heard last month in a report from the Huawei Oversight Board, chaired by the head of the NCSC, that they still have only limited assurance that the long-term security risk presented by Huawei can be managed and they are still identifying significant issues,” she said. “Can the minister confirm this is still the opinion of the security services when the prime minister decided to allow them access into our 5G networks for decades to come?”

Platt added: “And don’t just listen to the security services, listen to Huawei themselves – in a letter to the chair of the Science and Technology Committee in February, they said it would take three to five years to see tangible results from their reform programme, so why is it that just weeks after these warnings this company has been given the go-ahead to help build our critical national infrastructure, and why are we in this situation today?”

Wright defended the Oversight Board report, saying its concerns related to the “technical deficiencies” of Huawei’s equipment, which while serious did not relate to the potential manipulation of said equipment by the Chinese state.

“The objective of this review is to ensure that the security of the supply network, regardless of who the equipment supplier is, is improved. It would be wrong to focus entirely on Huawei or on Chinese equipment,” said Wright.

“However, it is worth recognising that Chinese equipment and Huawei equipment is prevalent across the world, not just in the UK, and there is a good deal of Huawei equipment already in UK networks. It reinforces, in my view, the need to ensure that this review of the supply chain is broadly based, as it is, to ensure that we address the security of the network regardless of where the equipment comes from.

“It is important to realise that Huawei is a very significant player in this market – there are very few others, and the others that exist also use Chinese equipment or assemble their components in China, so the idea that any option available to us could completely exclude Chinese equipment or involvement of any kind is, I’m afraid, not realistic.”

The culture secretary added that Westminster had already taken definitive action to exclude Huawei from sensitive government networks.

He urged MPs to wait for the final conclusions of the ongoing supply chain review, saying it would be more appropriate to be able to discuss it in full once it is properly developed, rather than trying to dissect it piecemeal on the back of leaked information.

“I will make a statement to the house to communicate final decisions at the appropriate time,” he said.

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