Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport

Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Lindsay Hoyle Excerpts
2nd reading: House of Commons
Monday 10th July 2017

(7 years ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Act 2018 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Luke Graham Portrait Luke Graham (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Con)
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My hon. Friend will agree that the age disparity between young and old can be bridged through the internet and through proper broadband and mobile connections, particularly in rural constituencies and especially those in Scotland. Although some powers have been devolved—unfortunately no SNP Members are here tonight to speak on such an important issue—I hope that my hon. Friend and the Minister will recognise the important role that Westminster can play in all the nations of the UK by giving funding and offering direction for broadband and mobile.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
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Order. This Bill is for England and Wales, not for Scotland. That is the problem, so we need to deal with England and Wales and not drift too far.

Wendy Morton Portrait Wendy Morton
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) for making that valuable point. I am sure that I will be corrected if I am wrong, but although this Bill relates to England and Wales only, Barnett formula consequentials will apply, so my new hon. Friend from Scotland made a valid point.

The Bill is about looking to the future. It is about developing infrastructure, so that we can take our country forwards. As we seek to develop new relationships and partnerships in a post-Brexit world, the Bill will make connectivity around the world so much easier and better.

Turning briefly to business rates, the Bill will enable 100% business rates relief for new full-fibre infrastructure for a period of five years. I hope that that will provide an incentive and encourage the telecommunications industry to get on with the job of delivering what we in this House want to see. Together with the universal service obligation, I hope that rates relief will make a significant difference to our constituents. I hope that we will make a big contribution towards closing the digital divide that we have heard so much about and that we will get higher-quality, more reliable connectivity in households and businesses. That is what I want in my constituency and what other Members want for theirs. In closing, I am supporting a Government who are investing in our country, in our infrastructure and in the livelihoods and futures of not just today’s generation but tomorrow’s as well, so I will support the Bill this evening.

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Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Jayawardena
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right that copper’s capacity is insufficient for today’s challenges. We must make sure that we deal with not only today’s challenges but tomorrow’s, so we must ensure that there is more fibre than we even need today. We do not want to end up, perhaps in five or 10 years—not a million miles away—with the fibre we install today not being good enough for the challenges of tomorrow.

In turning to the challenges of tomorrow, it is important to consider mobile communication, which is enabled by the fibre broadband that links the mobile masts. Fibre provides the connectivity, via the masts, to users who perhaps want to do their banking on their phones, as several Members have said. Deploying mobile infrastructure remains challenging at times, particularly in remote locations or among difficult topography. It is important for us to consider the viability of such initiatives as we move from 4G to 5G, and as we do so, perhaps we could find a remedy for those communities that have not even moved to 3G or 4G. We must ensure that those initiatives are viable, so that no one is left behind. Mobile telecommunications can be an excellent way of providing mobile broadband—fast broadband—to rural communities, instead of running fibre to those rural homes. It could be that part of the solution, part of dealing with the final 4%, is to ensure that fibre is run to mobile masts, which are then accessible to those rural communities.

Reducing operating costs is critical to ensure that the potential economic viability of these sites is considered properly. I am sure that the Government will consider that in the deliberation that they will doubtless have in the time ahead. Targeted business rates relief to enable fibre cabling to be rolled out to those hard-to-reach areas would be particularly helpful in notspots that have been badly served by telecoms to date and could be much better served by telecoms in future.

It is important to prioritise sites such as railways and motorways, as mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). They demonstrated that to have connected commuters, which was the term used by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, we need fibre to be run alongside railways.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
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Order. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will have to sit down for a second. We cannot both be on our feet. I have given a lot of leeway, but I do not want to get too involved in 4G, 5G, and telecommunications being passed down motorways and railways, as they have absolutely nothing to do with what we are discussing. I know that you have been asked to filibuster, but do not worry because we have so many more speakers to come and you might deprive them. Come on, Mr Jayawardena.

Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Jayawardena
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Mr Deputy Speaker, filibuster never. I am informing the nation.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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Yes, but it has got to be on the subject that we are discussing. We will be talking about cricket next. Come on.

Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Jayawardena
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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con)
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I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Mr Deputy Speaker suggests that this is a filibuster. My hon. Friend has hardly cleared his throat.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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The worry is that I have heard too much already.

Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Jayawardena
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Mr Deputy Speaker, you are very, very kind, but I shall be bringing my remarks to a close very shortly.

It is important to recognise that new fibre, which will be rolled out under business rates relief, allows for better mobile connectivity in those hard-to-reach areas.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore (Ogmore) (Lab)
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The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point on the topic of infrastructure around railways and roads. Does he agree that airports are important and need infrastructure as well?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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I have a good suggestion for the House: I think you should put in for an Adjournment debate on that very subject. With two Members, I am sure that you can do the subject justice.

Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Jayawardena
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Mr Deputy Speaker, as ever, you make an excellent suggestion. I will speak to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

As we allow fibre to be rolled out, using this relief, to areas that have not been accessible in the past, it is important to reflect on the way in which people are changing their behaviour. People are moving to mobile. We need to ensure that accessibility to the mobile network—the fibre network—is possible. That is why it is critical that we work with companies such as Network Rail to roll out fibre on its land as well as across other people’s land.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, all of this is in stark contrast to the way in which we used to work. It is important that people are helped along this journey. If we want to roll out more fibre, we need to ensure that there is proven demand for it, otherwise it is simply not commercially viable. We need to reduce the operating costs, which we are doing through business rates relief for the roll-out of new fibre. It is good to see the new digital training opportunities that have been created as part of the digital strategy. The new digital skills partnership is seeing Government, business, charities and voluntary organisations come together, which is really positive news. I should declare an interest, so I refer Members to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. A plan by Lloyds Banking Group to give face-to-face digital skills training to 2.5 million people, charities and small businesses by 2020 is a good example of that partnership. Google has pledged to provide five hours of digital skills as part of its commitment, too. The idea has been adopted by business.

The strategy and these plans demonstrate that the Government take businesses and people seriously in rolling out fibre broadband across the country. This is part of the cuts to business rates that benefit all rate payers and will be worth almost £9 billion over the next five years, and it is part of the Government’s focus on ensuring that we create an economy that serves the whole country—all the nations and regions. It is about ensuring that the Government are committed to the long-term reform of this country.

Who would have thought that Alibaba and Amazon would be the big retailers of today, not the greengrocer on the high street? Who would have thought that we would have been speaking to people across the world on FaceTime instead of flying across the world to see them? Who would have thought that people would be able to watch this speech on their mobile phone rather than read it, dare I say, in Hansard? I am sure that many will.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
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Order. I have a slight problem. I did not expect to have to bring in a time limit—[Interruption.] Seriously. I do not want to have to introduce a time limit, but we have the summing up in about an hour and there are still five speakers to come, so can we aim at around 12 minutes? If this continues, two speakers will drop off the end, and I certainly would not want that to happen when Members have been sitting here all day. I want to help Members.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
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The words will ring in my ears: filibuster never, inform the nation always. That is a lesson for us all.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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Order. I will give you an extra lesson—[Interruption.] You will have to take your seat for a second, though. You might be informing the nation, but it has to be on the subject we are discussing, otherwise you are out of order.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
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Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker. Thank you very much for that kind reminder.

This Bill matters. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), the former Minister, mentioned, it is not necessarily the most thrilling Bill. It is relatively short, with six clauses; as a former lawyer, I can appreciate that brevity is often harder than writing something very long, so I admire the draftsmen’s ability in putting together something so succinct. The Bill should have strong support not just from the Government but from all parties, as has already been suggested by Opposition speakers.

My constituents in Hitchin and Harpenden, only 30 to 40 miles from central London, face patchy broadband coverage in many areas. I appreciate the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage—it is often harder to get broadband in spread out villages and rural areas than in tower blocks and urban areas. It is physically harder; I appreciate that, but the village of Kimpton, slap-bang in the middle of my constituency, has pretty terrible broadband.

Let me give the House some statistics to back my point up. In Kimpton, no residence or business receives superfast broadband. We are in the bottom 7% in the country for average download speed and in the bottom 0.5% for connections of more than 30 megabits per second. There is still a job to do and, with due deference as a new Member of the House, I say to the Government that we still have a job to do connecting up rural areas in our country. We should not forget that.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
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I agree. It is important for people to be connected to friends and family; the converse situation is one of loneliness in many respects. We live in a society that is increasingly atomised, so it is helpful to ensure that older members of society have full digital connectivity. That is another reason why the Bill is important.

At a recent meeting of a local business club in my constituency, a business owner whose business is situated in a rural area just north of Harpenden told me that it takes three days to back up her server, such is the slow download speed. Business rates relief for the installation of full-fibre broadband infrastructure will provide a huge incentive for operators to invest in the broadband network with the latest technology—a point made admirably by several of my hon. Friends, not least my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena).

It is important to consider why, in the broader sense, it is important to have world-leading digital infrastructure. Why are we all here? I shall offer a few observations. We are effectively going through a new industrial revolution. Technology, powered largely by the internet, is driving a global future. This country needs to be at the heart of that, and rolling out full-fibre broadband is central to the challenge. The Bill will make it easier, enabling small businesses in rural areas such as mine to access the superfast broadband they need. As the Minister said, the Bill will break down barriers to business, which everybody wants—at least on our side of the House.

The Bill shows that the Government can, in limited ways and when the time is right, provide innovative solutions to help to solve some of the biggest problems choking up areas of the economy. We need strongly to support the free market and free enterprise with little Government intervention, unless necessary. The Bill and the Government’s actions are bold. We need to be bold enough to use the tools of government to allow the private sector to work more efficiently and incentivise it to provide better results for our constituents, who send us to this place on their behalf, after all.

Business rates relief is welcome, as many hon. Members have said, but I urge the Government to ensure that we do not lose sight of our manifesto commitment to a full review of business rates, and to produce a system that is more fit for purpose. In certain ways, the current system has shown itself to be capricious, cumbersome and, in some senses, frankly unfair.

When discussing a Bill on digital infrastructure, it is appropriate to point out the fundamental asymmetry and unfairness for bricks-and-mortar businesses paying the levy in comparison to the digital technology-based businesses with which they often compete on a day-to-day basis. We all know businesses on our high streets that have this problem. It is important for the House to recognise that many international taxation treaties inhibit the United Kingdom from taking unilateral action on the taxation of global technology businesses because their nature is, indeed, global rather than domestic. Everybody can appreciate the difficulties with that. I urge the Government to look for more international agreement on the issue so that we can start to address the balance of the business rates paid by physical, bricks-and-mortar businesses compared with those paid by their digital cousins and friends.

In staying true to the detail and narrow nature of the Bill, it is incumbent on me briefly to talk about 5G mobile broadband, following on from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire. Now, this may seem like a dull topic, but I assure Members that it is not—it can be very dull. The reason is that 5G, like 4G or 3G, is something we take for granted; it is just there. We do not think enough about where it comes from or the work that goes into it. However, 5G will be the enabler for so much technological development in this country.

O2 estimated in a report that 5G infrastructure will be just as pivotal as broadband to the wider economy over the next five to 10 years and will greatly boost British productivity, which all Members of this House should wish to see. The benefits are manifold, from telecare health apps, to smarter cities, to more seamless public services. Those are some of the many benefits that 5G mobile broadband can help to bring about, and I urge Members to support the Bill, which provides some of the digital plumbing that will enable us to bring tangible benefits to our constituents.

To take up a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire about 3G and 4G, it is important to note that some areas, especially rural areas, are still not on 3G or 4G—

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
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Mr Deputy Speaker, I am coming to a conclusion.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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No, it is not that. I am trying to be helpful. I am bothered about time. I would like us to discuss broadband infrastructure to houses, rather than 3G, 4G and 5G, which is mobile phones. If we were having a debate on mobile telecommunications, it would be brilliant, but we are not. I have allowed a bit of freedom, but I do not want the debate to concentrate on that issue. The hon. Member for North East Hampshire should know better than to lead you on into discussing something I have told him off for.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait Michael Tomlinson
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On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Forgive me, but this is my very first point of order, and I am sure you will indulge me as a relatively new Member of Parliament. However, in clause 1, there is reference to mobile phone telecommunication as well as—

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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Don’t worry—I can help you. I am very bothered about the length of time and the number of speakers I am trying to get in, so if we can concentrate on the bolts of what it is about, it will be much easier to get everybody in to speak. The last thing I want to do is not get you in to speak, seeing as you have sat here all day. So I think it is better if I can help the House move along in the area I think we need to discuss. To go back and talk about 3G over 4G is not relevant to today’s debate.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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I will make the rulings. You can listen to my rulings, and we can have a discussion later if we need to, because I want to hear you speak in a little while.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
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Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.

In closing, I should say that the Bill is a significant step forward. It helps our country to lead the world in a new industrial revolution based on digital technology. It also shows that this Government, and indeed any Government using their powers effectively, can make truly positive impacts on people’s lives when acting in the right way—in this case, to enable superfast broadband to reach more people more quickly.

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None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
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Before I call Mr Tomlinson, I want to help him by saying that he might want to take a few pages out of his speech. If hon. Members keep to 10 minutes each, they will all get a chance to speak.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)
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I am very grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your guidance and for your earlier ruling, which has given me the opportunity to speak for 10 minutes, rather than the nine, eight or seven minutes I might otherwise have had.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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Order. If it is helpful I can make the limit eight minutes to give someone else more time.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait Michael Tomlinson
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My meaning is the exact opposite. I am very grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), for whom I feel great sympathy. I am sure that many of my hon. Friends as well as Opposition Members have been in a similar situation when trying to communicate with members of their family on birthdays, important anniversaries and the like. He and I, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—he has arrived in the Chamber at the appropriate moment to hear me say this—were members of the same chambers and therefore in exactly the same situation when trying to download papers attached to an email to make sure that they arrived in court on time.

I warmly welcome the Bill. As we have heard so many hon. Members say, the importance of broadband cannot be overstated. It is as important as road and rail, and is a vital part of our infrastructure. Although I am pleased with the progress the Government are making, I will dwell on one or two brief points about where improvements still need to be made.

I start with words of congratulation, because it is right to acknowledge where the Government are moving in the right direction, and to be able to stand up and say that 93% coverage for superfast broadband is indeed an achievement. I applaud the ambition to achieve 95% coverage by the end of 2017, and I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Government are on target for that. However, it is frustrating for the 5% who are still left without it. That point has been repeated this evening, but I make no apologies for repeating it again. Many of us who have spoken represent constituents who are in exactly that position, and I know that a number of my constituents are not consoled by the fact that 95% of the rest of the population have access to superfast broadband while they do not.

I need not dwell on specific internet speeds; suffice it to say that the 1,000 megabits per second lauded in relation to the Bill is to be warmly welcomed, but that figure would be staggering to my many constituents who are struggling with 0.5 to 1 megabits per second and really cannot imagine a speed as vast as 1,000 megabits per second. However, I will, if I may, dwell on two or three brief constituency examples that constituents have raised with me. I must declare an interest in that, in the village of Lytchett Matravers, I am affected by many of the same issues.

The first example involves a constituent who wrote to me expressing great concern about broadband speeds of between 0.5 and 1 megabits per second. As has been said, we use the internet for more and more things these days, including education. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) mentioned researching points for educational purposes, but it goes further than that because many of our children are asked to do homework based on the internet and purely on the internet; in fact, they have to access the internet to download the homework to do that evening. One constituent wrote to me saying that they have to ration the amount of homework that their family can do, with the children taking it in turns to get on to the computer and complete their homework, because speeds of 0.5 to 1 megabits per second simply do not allow two children to do their homework at one and the same time. The additional point was made that updating software—with Microsoft, people do not get a wonderful DVD or disc to put into the computer these days; they actually have to download it from the internet—simply cannot be done if the speeds are not fast enough.

The second example I was recently given by a constituent involves a rural business. Again, the constituent lives about 100 metres from a different network that is much faster and would allow the business to function properly. As it is, he is struggling on less than 1 megabit per second and has to go to his place of work to download his work. The speeds where he lives simply will not allow it. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) mentioned an example in his constituency in which BT was flexible, but in this case BT has not been flexible enough and will not allow my constituent to change from one exchange to another, despite the distance of merely 50 metres or so.

I am conscious of the time, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I want to make one or two final points about postcodes, if I may. I know that the Minister is soon to jump up to the Dispatch Box, but I want him to take this point on board. Quite often the data are arranged by postcode and the percentages are calculated on that basis. However, some roads have the same postcode but different exchanges. I can think of one example in Dorset where it is claimed people have the potential to access superfast broadband on the basis of the postcode alone, but that is not the case because the one postcode has two separate exchanges.

I warmly welcome the measures in the Bill. It will not solve all the problems overnight. When my constituents look at the full-fibre speeds, with fibre to the door rather than just to the cabinet, of course they applaud them, but they want them and they want them soon. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for indulging me and for giving me a full 10 minutes, and I sit down in advance of reaching those 10 minutes.