Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:41 pm on 10th July 2017.

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Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden 8:41 pm, 10th July 2017

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 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—