The decision on whether to allow Huawei to play a role in constructing the UK’s 5G network has been delayed until after the general election.
The question of whether the Chinese vendor would be permitted to contribute to the building of the next-generation mobile data network has dogged the government for the past 12 months. The Telecoms Supply Chain review was commenced in November 2018 and, in the spring of 2019, reports emerged that then prime minister Theresa May was prepared to assent to Huawei’s involvement in delivering “non-core” parts of the 5G network.
The results of the review were formally presented to parliament in July, but a final decision on what role should be played by certain “high-risk” vendors – principally Huawei – was delayed following the news that the US had decided to place the company on its “entity list”. This move severely restricts Huawei’s trading in the US.
Many onlookers had suggested that, if the UK allowed Huawei to participate in building national infrastructure, it could cause a rift in transatlantic security cooperation. The now-education secretary Gavin Williamson was sacked as defence secretary after a leak investigation led by cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill concluded there was “compelling evidence” he was responsible for unauthorised disclosure of information from the National Security Committee related to the possibility that Huawei could provide some elements of the equipment for the UK's future 5G data network.
The government’s final decision on the matter had been expected this “autumn”.
But, in a letter sent to the Foreign Affairs Committee today, digital, culture, media and sport secretary Nicky Morgan said that “the general election timetable and pre-election period mean that this will not now be possible”.
“The decision will, therefore, be for the next government,” she added. “I would expect that a future government would wish to inform parliament of its decision, once made, at the appropriate time.
“In the meantime, the government expects telecoms operators to continue to ensure that they take appropriate measures to manage security and resilience risks to their networks, and continue to engage with and seek advice from the National Cyber Security Centre and DCMS officials in relation to cybersecurity and risk-mitigation strategies. At the start of the review, we made clear to industry that the outcome of the review may lead to changes to current rules that could have implications for supply arrangements, and that operators should take account of this in their deployment plans.”
Elsewhere in her letter, Morgan said that the review had evidenced “the need for the UK to improve diversity in the supply of equipment to our networks”. This, she said, would allow the country to build a 5G network that delivered “innovation and long-term sustainability”.
“The review also concluded that there should be additional controls on the presence in the supply chain of certain types of vendor which pose significantly greater security and resilience risks to UK telecoms”, Morgan said. “High-risk vendors have never been, and will never be, in the UK’s most sensitive networks.”
While the government’s position on Huawei will remain unclear until at least the new year, one thing that is certain is that the decision will not now be made by Morgan. After nine years as an MP, the DCMS secretary announced this week that she will stand down from parliament at the election next month.