A former MI6 chief says he was “shocked” not to be consulted over the decision to use Huawei technology in British infrastructure.
Sir Richard Dearlove said he had been “militant” at the time the original decision was taken as he felt the government was “going in the wrong direction”.
Speaking to the Danube Institute, a think tank, Sir Richard, head of the Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, from 1999 to 2004, said he never believed assurances that allowing the Chinese technology giant into Britain's 5G infrastructure was safe.
“The problem is I’ve been trained as a poacher, not as a gamekeeper,” he said. “If you’re a poacher you know what you can achieve.”
“I was Chief when the original deal was signed with Huawei and at the time we were not consulted.
“The government let this go through and some of us, when we heard about it, were intensely shocked.
“We were becoming partially dependent on Chinese technology and I think there’s no question now with 5G this is something we need to scale back and we need to be wary of.
“We need now to encourage replacements [and] have an industrial policy which makes sure that our dependence on Huawei is reduced.”
The former spy, who has in the past criticised David Cameron and George Osborne as “enthusiastic China huggers” added he was “thrilled” the government last year reversed its decision to allow Huawei into the most sensitive areas of the country’s communications network.
“It wasn’t sensitive in those days [and] I think GCHQ were saying ‘this isn’t a problem, we can keep it under control’ but some of us disagreed with that,” he said.
In 2003 telecommunications firm BT notified the government of Huawei’s interest in the £10billion 5G infrastructure deal, then known as the 21st Century Network contract.
However, in evidence given later to an investigation into Huawei’s interest by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), the Cabinet Office said officials at the time had chosen not to refer the matter to Ministers, or even inform them, until 2006, a year after the contract had been signed.
The 2013 ISC report said officials knew at the time of legal mechanisms by which Huawei’s interest could have been blocked but assessed “the potential trade, financial and diplomatic consequences of using them would be too significant”.
The then Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, told the committee she had discussed the contract with BT, but only in relation to the competition aspects of the decision and the implications for UK business, rather than any security concerns. Officials did not take the opportunity of her involvement to raise security issues with her.
“There was no justification for failing to consult Ministers about the situation when BT first notified officials of Huawei’s interest,” the report concluded.
“Such a sensitive decision, with potentially damaging ramifications, should have been put in the hands of Ministers.”
In 2010 the National Security Council (NSC) was established by David Cameron to bring greater coherence to issues of security, intelligence coordination and defence strategy.
The NSC today has representation from GCHQ, MI6, MI5 and other departments as required to ensure issues of potential security concern are exposed early to all relevant parties.
Sir Richard said the government had been “incredibly naive” over the handling of Britain’s commercial relationship with China, offering only an “easy-going” and “uncritical” approach in the past.
He said any future trading relationship with China needs to be “managed quite aggressively”.
“We’re not there to be set up and exploited. We’re there to have a controlled trading relationship. It’s very challenging and very difficult to find out what that’s going to be.
“In the UK we have the specific problem of Hong Kong, although the Chinese claim it’s nothing to do with us now...and the question of the treatment of Uighur muslims.
“I’m an opponent of moral foreign policy. You need a much more practical, pragmatic and modulated relationship with China.”
The Sunday Telegraph asked for comment from the Cabinet Office.