Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:52 pm on 10th July 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney 8:52 pm, 10th July 2017

It is a great pleasure to follow the many distinguished speakers in this debate, who have made so many excellent points—particularly my hon. Friend Bim Afolami, who so eloquently laid out many of the issues that many of us face in our own constituencies.

I have a few brief points to make, but if I may I shall start with a little trip down memory lane. I have recently purchased a new iPhone. In doing so, I remembered the first iPhone I ever bought, which connected to a thing called EDGE—it did not have 3G. Of course, those days are long behind us, and with my new device, I can do a great many tasks I just could not have thought of in those days.

I say that because today is my baby son Henry’s first birthday, and I apologise to him in advance, if he ever watches this speech, that I am here, rather than speaking to him. But all is not lost, because, owing to the wonderful invention of mobile phones and the internet, I can take part in the happy day. I can, for example, see him and speak to him on Skype. For his part, he wonders why on earth his father’s voice is coming out of a small box my wife is holding in front of him.

I can also see photographs and videos of him opening presents. These presents were, of course, ordered from a well-known, very large internet company—and a gigantic number of them there are, too. His everyday necessities are ordered through the internet; there is no longer a requirement to go to the shop. Indeed, it is possible, although I do not have this system myself, to link up the house so that I could turn the lights up and down in his room if I wished. I could check on his welfare through a webcam that I could view on my mobile phone. The most extraordinary, and perhaps slightly disturbing, thing is that there is a teddy bear in his room—a company called CloudPets produces these—and, using an app on this iPhone, I can go online and record a message so that when he plays with the teddy bear and presses the button on it he can hear my voice. This is lovely, of course, on his first birthday.

However, the internet is not just something to amuse, and perhaps confuse or even slightly frighten, infants; it is of everyday importance for us all. As many hon. Members have rightly said, these days the internet needs to be seen, as it certainly is by the people of Witney and west Oxfordshire, as another essential utility. We all know that we are able to get about by road and by train, and that we are connected to water, electricity and, in some cases, gas. We expect those things now. Once, not so many years ago, the internet was seen as a bit of a luxury that people might want in order to go online and look at websites, but it was not something that they had to do. Now it very much is, because so many services take place online that it is increasingly hard to use them if we wish to telephone. Utility companies, for example, increasingly encourage us to go online, perhaps to pay a bill or change a tariff, rather than ring to speak to a person. It is therefore absolutely critical that everybody has immediate access to these services.

I would like, if I may, to clarify some of the terminology that we have discussed in the course of this debate. We all fall very quickly into the habit of referring to fast broadband, superfast broadband and ultrafast broadband —or full broadband, as it were. Superfast broadband—I appreciate that the House is aware of this, but it is worth dwelling on for a moment—uses fibre-optic cable to get to the cabinet but then, from cabinet to house, only copper. That is an old system that does not carry the data required these days due to attenuation—the breakdown of signal over distance and the physical effect of the current going through the copper. The signal slows down so that even if there is fibre-optic cable running to the cabinet, by the time it gets to the house the user does not necessarily receive anything like superfast coverage. That is why, although I entirely bow to the expertise of my right hon. Friend Mr Vaizey and thank him, on behalf of constituents, for all the work that he did, there is still a job to do, as I think we would all accept. Superfast broadband is being rolled out across the entire country, but still, in some places, 5% to 10% of people do not have it, never mind anything else. We increasingly need fibre-optic cable running to the property, which enables full-speed broadband all the way.

In my professional life before I was elected, I saw exactly why that is. I know that other hon. Members will feel exactly the same. As a barrister, I would be away at court; the papers are often sent through to barristers at the last minute. They would sometimes be very big bundles, and our clerks would wish to email them to us to save us having to go into chambers to pick them up before going home. If I had been in court in, say, London, and I wanted to go to chambers in Winchester or Oxford before I went home, I would wish to avoid that step. I would have to go to my home in Bladon, a village in Oxfordshire, to look at the email to see whether the papers had been sent to me, but there was not enough broadband speed to download them, so I would have to get into the car, drive into chambers, pick up the physical bundles, and then drive back. All the while, I was wasting time, wasting money, downgrading my productivity, and adding to the traffic and pollution on the roads, all of which was unnecessary. When people write to me, as they frequently do, to say that it is impossible for them to carry out their business, I entirely understand their point, because I have suffered that very same frustration.

West Oxfordshire is full of businesses that operate from home. Before this debate, I had a look through my emails to see how many villages had written to me. Over the course of the brief time I have been a Member of Parliament, I have been contacted by constituents from the Wortons, Spelsbury, Kencot, Lechlade, Bladon, Bampton, Bruern, Filkins, Stanton Harcourt, Chastleton, New Yatt, Sandford St Martin, Fawler, Minster Lovell, Taynton, Langford and Standlake. That is 17 or 18 places in all.

I shall concentrate on the example of Chastleton. A gentleman from the parish meeting wrote to me—I am sure you will be pleased to hear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that he made his point succinctly—to say that Chastleton is lucky to get a speed of 1.5 megabits per second and that that has implications. First, businesses simply cannot work from home or find it very difficult to do so. Secondly, as I have alluded to from my own experience, it affects traffic flow because people have to either collect items in person or go to their workplace in Oxford, thereby adding to congestion on the A40, which hon. Members will know is a subject that I mention frequently. Thirdly, on education, children who are required to do their homework online simply cannot do so in many cases.

If anything, my correspondent has missed out one of the real drawbacks of the absence of a proper broadband connection, which is its effect on elderly care. My hon. Friend Bim Afolami has referred accurately to an atomised society. When we go away to work, in many cases we leave elderly relatives without immediate access to family. It is absolutely crucial that people are able to make contact with loved ones quickly and easily, and to access the necessary services, including online medical advice and transport-booking facilities.

I remember my father going abroad on business trips. He would telephone during the week and we would wait while the signal bounced off the satellite, went around the world and came back again. We are a long way from those days. When I went to work in New Zealand some years ago, I was able to have a video conference with my loved ones at home and it was set up very quickly. That is all well and good. Those powers exist, but only if people have an adequate internet signal, which is clearly necessary for businesses, the elderly, family and care.

I know that many hon. Members represent rural areas where this issue is the chief concern. However, the situation is much the same in cities. The speeds experienced by many householders in Westminster and Lambeth are not much better than those in the rural areas we represent, so let us not think that the issue affects only those of us who have lots of small villages in our area. It affects cities as well. In fact, a lady who lives on Buttercross Lane in my biggest town, Witney, wrote to me to make a point about developers, which has also been made by my hon. Friend Amanda Milling, who is no longer in her place. My correspondent was frustrated that the cabinet is very close but the developers are not required to connect the rest of the properties. That issue clearly causes immense and understandable frustration for my constituent and many others.

The digital economy has contributed about 7% of national output over the past year and has grown three times faster than other areas of the economy, so it is of enormous significance to the economy, particularly in areas such as mine, where so many people work from home, are self-employed and run small businesses. I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for small and micro businesses. The issue is very close to my heart.

There have been many bank closures in Carterton. As other hon. Members have said, we are told that that is because people are increasingly using those services online. That is all well and good, provided that they have the ability to do so. Although someone in Carterton might have a strong signal—not everybody does—that is not necessarily the case in the surrounding villages. They need one if they are to pay council tax or do internet shopping.

When I was younger, if I wanted a particular book I had to order it from the local bookshop. It might be sourced from the other side of the world and take months to arrive. Some of the romance of that has been lost, because we can now order almost anything we want and it will appear in a matter of days or, at most, weeks. That is one of the wonders of the internet age. The same is true of music. Music lovers may remember that once upon a time, if we wanted to listen to a hard-to-find song or album, it was sometimes possible to track it down, but it might have to be ordered from abroad. Now, the many well-known streaming services make it possible to listen to whatever we like immediately, as long as we have a good enough internet service.

Decent, high-speed, ultrafast broadband is absolutely crucial for day-to-day necessities and for business. My hon. Friend Simon Hoare, who is not in his place, has given us an inkling of what is required in rural economies. In years gone by, the biggest contributor, directly and indirectly, to the economy of Witney and west Oxfordshire was something called the Cotswold Lion. The Cotswold Lion is actually a sheep, and in the not-too-distant past—only 50 or so years ago—the blankets and gloves made from its fleece were the mainstay of Witney’s economy. Now, we are looking to unlock tourism. It is essential that those who provide accommodation in bed and breakfasts, and in the great many houses that are available on short lets, can get those properties online.

On Saturday I attended the Witney carnival. At many such events all over west Oxfordshire, people sell things such as art or food products at small stalls. All such businesses are made possible and successful by access to good, fast broadband. Without it, they simply will not work. I apologise for saying it again, as I have done on many occasions in this House, but broadband is not a luxury; it is absolutely essential in this day and age. I entirely agree with west Oxfordshire residents who write to me to point out that they have a slow connection and they ought to have a fast one. They are absolutely right. It is essential in their personal lives and their businesses.

Broadband is entirely necessary for all of industry, in business premises, in home businesses and in the tourism sector. As I have said, a great deal of work has been done. I thank the Government for the work that was done before I came into Parliament and for their continuing efforts to roll out fast broadband across my constituency and beyond, but we must complete the job. I applaud the introduction of a legal right to superfast broadband. Coverage in Witney is about 90%, but we need to work towards 100%. I welcome the package of measures that the Government are introducing, which include the universal service obligation and £400 million towards the digital infrastructure investment fund.

As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend Mr Jayawardena, I particularly encourage private investment. I am grateful to BT for being proactive in my constituency and trying to connect as many people as possible. With sound money, good local governance, strong local councils and wise investment in flexible, agile and cost-effective local companies—there are several such companies in my constituency—we can provide this full solution.

I will briefly touch on the two clauses in the Bill that I consider to be most relevant. The first of them quite rightly puts business rates relief for broadband alongside the existing relief for small businesses, charitable organisations and rural businesses. Clause 6 promises that the effect will be more or less immediate, and I applaud that.

My final point—I do not want to test your patience, Mr Deputy Speaker—concerns 5G. I welcome the fact that broadband and mobile telephony will be combined over the coming years. As we seek to bridge the digital divide, we really must fix notspots. I applaud everything that the Government have done towards that, and I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading.