It is a pleasure and an honour to follow my comrade and hon. Friend Simon Hoare.
On my first day in this House, I was told by an older Member that if I wanted to keep something secret I should make a speech about it in the House of Commons. And so it was that on
I spoke on Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill, drafted an amendment and had a fruitful conversation with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital, who is no longer in his place, who persuaded me that, given some of the other amendments I had tabled, I should leave my proposal to the Government to mull over for some months and that they would give it some serious thought. Imagine my pleasure and surprise, first when it appeared in last year’s autumn statement, and now, even more so, that it has appeared in this Bill. It will provide an enormous boost to competition in the sector. There is no doubt that the asymmetric deal on business rates between BT and new entrants is choking off new investment in large parts of the country. Smaller companies have very little incentive to compete directly with BT; they have to look for areas of the country that are currently unserved or un-commercial in order to try to make their networks pay. As a result, innovation is hard to come by.
BT has been helpful to me and my constituents, as I know it has been to several other Members, and I hope it will take the Bill in the spirit in which it is intended. Those of us who believe in a market economy think that competition is good. We think that it will be better not only for the consumer, but for BT, because it will drive the company to greater innovation, efficiency and, we hope, profit.
The Bill represents a welcome move towards seeing broadband and telecommunications as utilities. Over the past few months, steps have been taken in legislation towards that position. The building regulations have been changed to make the provision of broadband compulsory in new developments. Broadband will, I hope, be provided as a universal service over the next few years, and now non-domestic rates are being lifted on parts of the network. Broadband is increasingly being treated—as water, gas and electricity are—as a vital utility, which is what it is becoming. I am pleased about that development, and I hope that broadband will continue to be viewed increasingly as a utility.
In a constituency such as mine, broadband is incredibly important for a successful, vibrant countryside. If the countryside is to compete with its urban neighbours, it needs to be connected to the world. These days, that social and economic connection takes the form not of roads, dual carriageways or motorways, but of superfast broadband. My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend Simon Hoare, is peppered with enterprises that do most of their business online. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that on Saturday I attended the Amport fête and came across a brand new and very pleasing business called Test Valley Gin, a new brand of gin that is taking the market by storm. Kate Griffin, the inventor of this gin, is having some success. The 36 bottles she produces each week are selling like hot cakes, many of them online on a website called theginstall.co.uk.