Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:07 pm on 10th July 2017.

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Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent 7:07 pm, 10th July 2017

I thank my hon. Friend very much, although I doubt whether even one of my constituents is watching my speech. I will not hold my breath while waiting for confirmation.

We know that children, including mine, often get set homework tasks requiring them to look up things on the internet. If a child lives in a rural village or at the end of a track and they cannot get online, they are disadvantaged. There is also the very basic thing of staying in touch with distant relatives, who often live all around the world. I remember when I was a child that the cost of making an international call was enormous. During my gap year as an 18-year-old, I made two phone calls to my parents in nine months, because it cost such a huge amount to phone home, but people can now make video calls basically for nothing so families around the world can stay in touch. As older people go online—many people in their 70s, 80s and 90s are very active internet users—I hope that the internet will be one way in which we can tackle the challenge of loneliness. For someone to make a FaceTime call to their grandma or grandpa is a great way for them to keep in touch, and that is often much easier if it is very difficult to go to see them.

There is also the question of the use of the internet for work, where it can make a huge difference for rural areas, as it does for the economy in general. It enables people to work from home—I have two caseworkers who do most of their work supporting me and my constituents from home, which enables them to juggle that work and their family commitments—and I know that a huge number of people in my constituency now run businesses from home, including many quite significant rural businesses. There is a fabulous business called Bombus around the corner from where I live just outside Faversham, which makes amazing products out of maps. If any hon. Members want interesting products based on maps of their constituencies, I recommend that they contact Bombus to get all sorts of books, paper goods and lampshades. On the other side of my constituency, near Maidstone, a business enabling people to compare utility prices has about 100 employees in a really rural spot. There is no way in which that business could exist without good broadband, so it is very important for the rural economy.

We have got to this point very quickly. About 12 years ago I worked at AOL Time Warner launching digital products, such as the UK’s first video on-demand service for downloading films. Back then, just over 10 years ago, people had to plan ahead: if they wanted to watch a film, they had to start downloading it and then go away, perhaps to cook something for supper, and come back a couple of hours later when enough of it had downloaded to enable them to watch it, if they were lucky, although it may well have stopped downloading halfway through. We probably launched the product a little ahead of what the technology could do. Now, however, my children sit down in front of the television on a Sunday morning, when I am trying to catch up on some sleep, turn on the iPlayer and watch something immediately, with none of that delay. That change has turned watching television into a completely different experience.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to this area, but I very much ask them to press on with making sure that we get high-speed broadband to 100% of properties across constituencies such as mine. I also ask them to make sure that the new technologies enabled by the Bill such as 5G and full-fibre broadband—I will now turn to the Bill— benefit those not only in more urban areas of the country, but in rural areas. I would ask that as far as possible that should not be a simple sequential process, with the people of Headcorn being able, if they are lucky, to make a phone call and then getting 3G, 4G and eventually 5G sometime in the distant future. I am very keen for some leapfrogging so that those in more rural areas can catch up thanks to new forms of technology.

It is particularly important for the Bill to go ahead, with investment in these new technologies, in the challenging economic climate and the challenging economic times in which we live. I am very mindful of the ageing population in this country. We have talked a lot during the past couple of weeks about the cost of the public sector and the desire to increase the pay of people working in the public sector. We know that as a country we face a productivity challenge in that we are not nearly as productive as we need to be for people to have a good or a better standard of living, and we face global competition. I am pretty realistic in saying that—unfortunately, unlike Andrew Gwynne, who wishes to raise business rates and thinks, erroneously, that that will increase revenue to spend on public services—history tells us that, as we very well know, increasing business rates results in a fall in revenue.