Government to tighten procurement regime to protect national security, and pledges timeline for removal of Chinese surveillance equipment
China is once again the unspoken reason for a new Government national security initiative to strengthen the UK’s procurement regime.
The UK government announced on Wednesday that it is “strengthening the Procurement Bill, which will have its report stage in parliament next week, with changes in three areas.”
China was not named directly, but it comes after the British government last November instructed government departments and locations to halt the deployment of any Chinese CCTV equipment.
The British decision to ban the use of CCTV camera from the likes of Hikvision and Dahua, was down to concern the two firms have links to the Chinese government.
The UK surveillance camera commissioner, Professor Fraser Sampson, in May 2022 had issued a warning about Chinese-made CCTV cameras, commonly found on British streets.
Professor Fraser Sampson said at the time he was becoming increasingly concerned about the security risks posted by “state-controlled surveillance systems covering our public spaces.”
Indeed, such was his concern, that Professor Sampson warned public sector bodies and local authorities against buying CCTV equipment from Chinese firms including market leader Hikvision.
Now the UK government has said it will instruct government departments to begin removal of the surveillance equipment.
The three areas the government is changing are as follows:
- Firstly, in an effort to address potential national security risks “which some suppliers may pose, we are establishing a National Security Unit for Procurement. This new team, based in the Cabinet Office, will investigate suppliers who may pose a risk to national security, and assess whether companies should be barred from public procurements.” The team will work across government to help “those responsible for public procurement avoid signing contracts with bad actors.”
- Secondly, the government said it will introduce new powers to ban certain suppliers from specific sectors. This means that the government can adopt a precautionary approach, banning companies which may pose a risk to sensitive areas of government, for example GCHQ.
- Thirdly and finally, the government is “committing to publish a timeline for the removal of surveillance equipment produced by companies subject to China’s National Intelligence Law from sensitive central government sites. By publicly committing to this timeline, we are providing reassurance and urgency around the removal plans.”
The statement did not name specific companies, but it is clear that equipment from Hikvision and Dahua is the intended target.
The government also said that besides the national security aspects of the Procurement Bill, it will also “repeal an array of EU rules. The Bill will deliver better value for money for the taxpayer, through slashing red tape, boosting growth and driving innovation.”
The latest government clampdown on Chinese equipment drew a reaction from Chinese firms and Beijing itself.
It comes amid heightened concern about Chinese surveillance capabilities over the past few weeks after the shooting down of a Chinese ‘spy balloon’ over North America, and the downing of three other unidentified flying objects.
“We believe that the possible action by the UK Government is a further step up of the mounting geopolitical tensions being expressed through technology bans, which by no means relates to the security of Hikvision’s products,” Hikvision told Reuters in a statement via email.
Beijing meanwhile said it “firmly opposes” overstretching the concept of national security to suppress Chinese enterprises.
The UK has already banned TikTok on government phones in March this year. In 2020 the UK said it would ban Huawei from its 5G networks.
In February the UK camera commissioner warned that British police forces are “shot through with Chinese camera technology”, amid concern about their use of Chinese drones and cameras.
Also in February the Australian government ordered the removal of Chinese surveillance cameras from sensitive government and military locations over national security concerns.
For example Chinese officials in March 2021 banned Tesla cars from entering Chinese military complexes and sensitive industrial or government facilities, due to concerns over the data collection capabilities of the cars with their cameras and sensors.
Elon Musk at the time denied the company’s electric cars could be used to leak information from China.
And last month China’s internet regulator banned chips made by US semiconductor firm Micron from being used by operators of critical infrastructure, after alleging the company’s products posed a “major security risk”.