Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:16 pm on 10th July 2017.

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Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham 9:16 pm, 10th July 2017

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak for longer.

It is a pleasure to speak on this Bill tonight, because when I campaigned in the by-election back in December broadband was one of the major issues. Indeed, trying to deliver broadband throughout my constituency is part of the five-point plan on which many hon. Friends helped me campaign back in those winter months.

I agree with my hon. Friend Robert Courts that broadband is essential. That is a relatively new thing. I am not that old, but when I look back to my childhood, I remember there being one BBC computer in a corner of the school that we went to use a class at a time. Only when I got to university did we really start to use the internet and have the ability to send emails. At that stage, we were sending emails only to other people within the university—in my case mostly to the man who is now my husband.

Now, we cannot conceive of how we could possibly live without the internet, whether we are young or old. As my hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson said, people need it to be able to do homework. The children of my constituents and my own children have been given homework on Sumdog and other maths applications that they are supposed to do online, but they simply cannot do it with broadband speeds of less than 2 megabits per second. That is affecting the educational opportunities of the children in our most rural constituencies.

Young people in general are having difficulties. When they turn on the television and turn on Sky broadband, for example, they are told they can watch downloads, TV on demand or downloaded films, but they cannot because those things are not available to people who live in many of the rural areas I represent, where download speeds of less than 2 megabits per second are very common.

It is perhaps for business people that the lack of broadband represents the greatest problem. It is a particular problem for small businesses and, in rural areas, for farmers, who have to complete their single farm payments online. Reloading and reloading and reloading that page becomes very wearisome. We are now being asked to complete tax returns online—in fact, we will be asked to do so four times a year. VAT returns are also done online. All this becomes more and more wearisome when we have to do it online and we simply cannot do it. When businesses want to advertise for new employees they do it online and when people apply for those jobs they do it online. All those things cannot be achieved because we do not have access to what is now, in effect, a utility. In many parts of my constituency, it is not possible for families to do their shopping online. They write to me complaining, “We live in the most rural area in the country, and we cannot order our shopping.”

This is, perhaps, of even greater concern to the elderly. Jo Cox founded the Commission on Loneliness to help people in our community, such as the elderly, who are cut off from society. That may be more prevalent in rural communities than it is in cities. The internet offers elderly people living in such communities the opportunity to be connected to their families through Skype and other methods of communication. It also offers opportunities for telemedicine. At a time when we face challenges in relation to social care and the elderly, telemedicine and the use of the internet to monitor the condition of and check on the wellbeing of an elderly person can enable us to improve our social care offering to people in rural communities, and communities everywhere; but if we do not have the necessary internet resources, we cannot do that.

I welcome the Government’s 93% superfast broadband coverage—we have made great strides in increasing the number of people who have access to this wonder—but for those who do not have access to it, the position has become increasingly frustrating. Some people living in Wellingore wrote to me saying, “We can see the cabinet, but we do not have access to it, because we are on a different exchange, and by the time the signal reaches us from that cabinet, it is so slow as to be virtually useless.” Those people are being supported through the community fibre partnership, and I hope that in time they will be able to benefit from good broadband. The situation is similar in Swaton. A constituent wrote to me saying that they were full of excitement at the sight of the superfast broadband sign with the little box in the corner. It is right outside their house, but they are not connected to it; they are connected to one down the road.

People in Sudbrook—here I must declare an interest, in that Sudbrook happens to be the nearest village to where I live—were originally told that they would have broadband by this September. Unfortunately, however, they have now been told that that will not necessarily happen because of the railway line, although the railway line is not new but has been there for a long time. Their broadband seems to have been indefinitely postponed. It beggars belief that in this day and age something as simple as a branch line should prevent the upgrade of a broadband network.

Overall, I think that the Bill, which will abolish business rates on fibre broadband for five years, will encourage the placement of new fibre lines, and I hope very much that that will happen in the rural components of my constituency. I hope that, in focusing this benefit, the Minister is minded to ensure that providing broadband for people in rural communities who are currently suffering from a lack of access to that vital utility is given a higher priority than increasing broadband speeds from very, very fast to even faster in our cities and town centres.