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Digital Minister denies final decision taken on Huawei and UK 5G network

It had been suggested that the PM had given the Chinese telecoms giant the go-ahead to help build the new network despite security concerns.

Digital Minister Margot James has denied reports that Chinese telecoms giant Huawei will be involved in the UK’s new 5G network (Steve Parsons/PA)
Digital Minister Margot James has denied reports that Chinese telecoms giant Huawei will be involved in the UK’s new 5G network (Steve Parsons/PA)

Digital Minister Margot James has dismissed reports that the Prime Minister has given the go-ahead for controversial Chinese firm Huawei to work on the UK’s 5G network.

It had been suggested that Theresa May had opened the door to the Chinese telecoms giant to help build Britain’s new network despite warnings of the potential threat to national security.

But Ms James said: “In spite of Cabinet leaks to the contrary, final decision yet to be made on managing threats to telecoms infrastructure.”

Her statement contradicts the Daily Telegraph, which reported that the National Security Council (NSC), chaired by the Prime Minister, had agreed on Tuesday to allow the firm limited access to build “non-core” infrastructure such as antennas.

Ms James also told Sky News that a final decision has not been made, although she indicated that a security review had concluded.

She said: “The decision has not been finally made yet and the Prime Minister will take advice from all of the relevant agencies and departments.”

You can’t just eliminate all risk by banishing one supplier. That won’t work Digital Minister Margot James

However, Ms James said she was not “biased against” Huawei and that “banishing” one supplier would not solve security concerns.

She said: “You can’t just eliminate all risk by banishing one supplier. That won’t work.

“It isn’t an open-and-shut case and it’s important we review the advice properly and the Prime Minister and her closest advisers come to a decision based on that best quality advice.”

Shadow digital minister Liam Byrne said immediate clarity was needed over the conflicting reports, with the UK’s digital networks already lagging “well behind” the world’s best.

We need clarity on the risks and costs of a decision either way, and we need it now Shadow digital minister Liam Byrne

He said: “We need clarity on the risks and costs of a decision either way, and we need it now.

“We’re at a fork in the road. If the Government thinks Huawei threatens our security, it needs to explain why and what it plans to do about it.

“If it bans Huawei, telecoms companies are clear that 5G will be delayed for years and cost billions of pounds more.

“If that’s the Government’s choice then we need immediate clarity on what their plan B is to give us the 5G network our future prosperity demands.”

Ciaran Martin, head of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the review was “about the fundamentals of how to keep these networks safe from any attacker” and not just Huawei.

“Some of the 5G infrastructure is built over existing networks so it’s not as if we are completely reinventing the wheel here,” he added.

“We’ve set out that objective independent technical assessment of what’s needed and I’m confident ministers will reach a decision that will provide for the type of safer 5G networks that we need.”

Ministers including Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt were said to have raised concerns about the plan, according to the Telegraph.

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Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid are among the ministers reported to have raised concerns (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “We don’t comment on NSC discussions.”

The reported decision came after a number of senior security figures warned publicly of the risks involved in allowing a Chinese firm access to the UK’s critical communications network.

MI6 chief Alex Younger has said Britain needs to decide how “comfortable” it is in allowing Chinese firms to become involved, while the head of GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, has spoken of both “opportunities and threats” which they present.

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MI6 chief Alex Younger (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Some critics have expressed concerns that the Chinese government could require the firm to install technological “back doors” to enable it spy on or disable Britain’s communications network.

Last month, a Government-led committee set up to vet Huawei’s products said it had found “significant technological issues” with its engineering processes posing new risks to the UK network.

The decision is likely to lead to fresh tension with the US, which has banned Huawei from its government networks and urged the other nations in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance – the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – to do the same.

There’s a reason others have said no Tom Tugendhat

This was taken up by Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat who tweeted: “Allowing Huawei into the UK’s 5G infrastructure would cause allies to doubt our ability to keep data secure and erode the trust essential to #FiveEyes cooperation.

“There’s a reason others have said no.”

Huawei has denied having ties to the Chinese government, but critics question how independent any large Chinese company can be, with a legal obligation on firms to co-operate with the state’s intelligence agencies.

A Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokeswoman said the security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks is of “paramount importance”.

“As part of our plans to provide world-class digital connectivity, including 5G, we have conducted a review of the supply chain to ensure a diverse and secure supply base, now and into the future,” she said.

“This is a thorough review into a complex area and will report with its conclusions in due course.”

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