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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
With apologies to T.S. Eliot, it is obvious that the naming of Bills is a difficult matter, but this Bill’s title does not do it justice. The Government are committed to delivering the infrastructure that this country needs, and the Bill is the first step on that road. To continue to channel T.S. Eliot, we know that if we do not deliver that infrastructure, too much of this country will be a digital wasteland.
The Minister is right: this is the first part of a much greater endeavour. An increasing number of younger people find that they can do without a landline at all, so can he reassure me that this great, expensive endeavour will not be overtaken by the development of new technology, particularly as regards 5G, that will render it obsolete?
I can absolutely assure my right hon. Friend that our approach to connectivity is technology-agnostic, and 5G is very much part of the solution, rather than something leading to the exclusion of connectivity. He is right to imply that we aim to go significantly beyond current demand to pre-empt the sort of problem that would occur if we did not build far in advance.
The Prime Minister and this Government have been unwavering in their commitment to the delivery of high-speed, reliable, resilient connectivity to every home and business as soon as possible. For the United Kingdom to remain at the forefront of the global economy, our businesses and consumers must have access to the tools they need to thrive. Already, our superfast broadband programme covers over 96% of the country and has brought connectivity to more than 3 million premises that would otherwise have been bypassed by commercial deployment.
Labour Members recognise the importance of faster broadband. Indeed, I have worked with previous Ministers on this, and on the issue of notspots in my constituency. Does the Minister agree with me on the importance of the issue to young children, who need to study and do their school homework, and to people working at home? Issues have been raised about that in my constituency. Does he agree that the essential criterion of affordability must also be part of the Government’s strategy?
Yes, the hon. Member is absolutely right. Teachers can only teach at the pace of the slowest broadband in the class if they are using digital technology; we have to be cognisant of that. We, with Ofcom, also have to be determined to ensure that competition continues to preserve the low prices that this country has typically benefited from.
May I make a point of clarification? I was talking about children studying at home, and being able to do their homework. That is the issue raised with me by my constituents, particularly in areas where there are leasehold properties.
The hon. Member is absolutely right. My point about teachers was that when they send pupils home to do their homework, pupils must of course have to have the tools to do it. The pencil is now digital, shall we say?
On that point, the universal service obligation will give people in the UK the legal right to request a decent and affordable broadband connection if they cannot get 10 megabits per second, and we intend to invest £5 billion to ensure gigabit-capable networks are delivered without delay to every area of the country. We are proud of the work that we have done, and continue to do, to support deployment across the United Kingdom, from the Scottish highlands to Cornwall, from Armagh to Anglesey, but the digital revolution is far from finished.
And I am standing for re-election, as the Minister knows.
The Bill gets rid of unnecessary delays in rolling out superfast broadband, which is what consumers want. He will know that in some areas of the country, particularly rural, notspot areas, one of the problems is that alternative providers—say, to Openreach—will not come in and provide superfast broadband because they are concerned that it will be overbuilt by another operator. Are there things we can do beyond the scope of the Bill—things he is working on now—to give more certainty to people who want to invest in the network, but want to make sure that they get a fair return if they do?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend will know that the single greatest barrier to rolling out in the final 20% of the country is the risk of overbuild, which makes roll-out uneconomic and potentially makes using public funds even harder. We are absolutely working hand in glove with Ofcom on that, and to ensure that the system that we design ensures that the money—as my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne said, it is a significant amount—is spent in the best possible way.
Those gigabit-capable connections, by which I mean 1,000 megabits per second and above, will ensure that British businesses can retain their global reach. They will be a catalyst for entrepreneurs in areas such as cyber-security, big data and artificial intelligence, and will support innovation in operations that use cloud services and blockchain technologies. They will transform how and where people work and collaborate.
Perhaps the most exciting promise of gigabit broadband is for consumers, because as we all know, poor internet connections hold people back. They prevent children from doing their homework, the ill from arranging appointments to see their doctors and those who need it most from saving money online. It was superfast broadband that facilitated the rise of Netflix, Spotify and the iPlayer; gigabit broadband, with its improved reliability, resilience and speed, will herald the era of the internet of things, the connected home, integrated transport networks and personalised healthcare, and that is why this Government are committed to investing in it across the country.
I wonder what conclusions my hon. Friend draws from York, which became a gigabit city in 2008, and whether the Government are looking at that example and learning from what has happened in that great city.
York is an exemplar for these sorts of projects. It demonstrates why investment is the right thing to do for the commercial sector, and why it is right for the state to support it. I look forward to the other place seeing the Bill in much more detail. That will happen imminently, I am sure—or maybe not; we will see.
As I say, superfast broadband facilitated the original internet that we are so familiar with, and gigabit will do so much more. It will support older people in staying independent for longer, will allow people to work how and where they choose to a much greater extent, and will make sure that commuters can join up their life in a much more effective way. However, the benefits for businesses and consumers can be realised only if digital infrastructure providers such as Openreach, Virgin Media, CityFibre and many others—increasingly more—can access homes, workplaces and public buildings such as hospitals and train stations. It is for that reason that this Government have made the deployment of gigabit broadband one of our key priorities.
With this Bill, we are taking the first hammer blow to the barriers preventing the deployment of gigabit connectivity. We will similarly take aim at new-build homes that are being built without access to futureproof connections, and we are exploring how we can make it easier for digital infrastructure providers to share the infrastructure of others, and how we can promote 5G mobile services by simplifying the planning regime.
The Minister mentioned delays. I welcome the Bill, although it is overdue, and its objectives. One of our challenges, however, is that up to 3,000 applications a year could be going to the tribunal from suppliers wanting to secure access. The Minister said that he would be taking a hammer to the delays and barriers; what will he do to ensure that the tribunal has the capacity and resources to process those applications and ensure that they go through?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the system is only as good as the resourcing behind it. We will explore every option to ensure that the tribunal gets those resources. We are confident that what we are proposing will work—we will make sure that it does—but of course we are open to considering what we can do to make it better as soon as we might need to.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. Will he clarify how he envisages the Government working with the devolved Administrations and councils —we should bear in mind the very good work with Transport for London on connectivity through tube stations—so that we get the maximum for the investment made from the public purse?
Telecommunications is a reserved matter, but I have already discussed how the system will work through the equivalent tribunal schemes in the devolved Administrations. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that although bodies such as TfL are not directly affected by the Bill, we are working with colleagues at the Department for Transport to make sure that London and other places get the connectivity that they deserve on public transport. Plans are forthcoming for wider deployment of the wi-fi system that is currently available only in stations.
As I say, the Bill ensures that those living in blocks of flats and apartments—known by the telecommunications industry as multi-dwelling units, or MDUs—are supported in accessing new networks. Operators have raised concerns that multi-dwelling properties are proving exceptionally difficult to connect. As I am sure Members will know, operators require the permission of a landowner before they are permitted to install equipment on a property.
My hon. Friend is right that we should not simply look at residential property. We are exploring with the industry what that issue looks like; the Bill has been carefully designed to make sure that it delivers on what both the Government and industry feel is right. Obviously, commercial property is different. It is less prone to the sorts of issues that we are tackling here, but I will be happy to work with my hon. Friend to see what we can do to help Meon Valley in particular.
For those who own their houses, the issue is simple: they request the service and sign a contract, and an operator does the installation. However, for those in flats, whether rented or owned as a leasehold, the permission of the landowner or building owner is required for the common areas—the basement, corridors, stairwells and so on. Currently, on identifying a property in their network build area, operators will attempt to contact landlords, request permission to install, and offer to negotiate a long-term agreement on access. Those wayleaves set out the responsibilities of both the landlord and operator in respect of the installation.
Evidence from operators, however, suggests that across the UK’s major digital infrastructure providers, about 40% of requests for access issued by operators receive no response. That cannot be acceptable. Through inactivity, a building owner can prevent multiple families and households from accessing the services that, as so many people have said, are essential for modern life. The UK’s digital infrastructure providers are already upgrading this country’s broadband network. Failure to address this issue now will give rise to pockets of connectivity disparity. Neighbours will have different connections, based on whether they own a house or flat, and on whether their landlord is engaged or absent. That cannot be fair, and the Government are acting to address it.
This is about commercial realities. The Prime Minister and I made it clear to the industry only last week that we want nationwide access to gigabit-capable connection as soon as possible. Our ambition is to deliver that by 2025.
We all welcome the Government’s commitment to full-fibre broadband, particularly in Eddisbury, where it remains pretty woeful, but the quality of mobile phone coverage also leaves a lot to be desired. Will my hon. Friend update the House on what is being done through the shared rural network to improve that through a final agreement, and will that include indoor as well as outdoor coverage?
My hon. Friend is right that mobile coverage, while unrelated to the Bill, is an essential part of the connectivity solution. We have committed to the industry concluding its negotiations in the first 100 days of the Government, which takes us to the middle of March, and we are on track for that. On measurement of a network, we have historically been lumbered with standards that are not terribly useful. We need to do more to ensure that we provide the right kind of information to consumers; Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Agency have a hand in that, alongside Government.
If operators are to achieve our ambitious target, they need to get on and deploy their engineers and civil contractors, and to keep them moving to maintain momentum. They cannot afford to keep their teams idle while they wait for a response from a landlord that never materialises; from a commercial point of view, it makes more sense to bypass the property and its residents and deploy elsewhere to prevent that situation. The Bill will create a new application process in the courts that will allow operators, when faced with an unresponsive landlord and with a resident requesting a service, to apply to the courts to gain the rights to install.
It is important to make it clear that the new court application process is a last resort for operators. The key goal of the legislation is to increase the response rate to operators’ requests for access. The Government have always believed—and continue to believe—that the best, most efficient way for operators to install equipment in a property is through a negotiated agreement being reached between the operator and the landlord.
In December 2017, this House passed the Digital Economy Act, which among other things updated the electronic communications code. The code provides a regulatory framework for the relationship between landlords and telecommunications operators and includes provision for the operator to use the lands chamber of the upper tribunal, or its equivalent in the devolved Administrations, to have rights imposed in situations where a landlord is unresponsive.
To the best of my knowledge, as I speak, operators have not sought to use that power to address an unresponsive landlord, in part because they estimate that it will cost £14,000 per application, including legal fees and administrative costs, and take six or seven months in practice, and the outcome would by no means be certain. However, there are estimated to be 450,000 multi-dwelling units in the UK, housing some 10 million people. If operators’ current 40% failure-to-respond rate is projected across the country, we are talking about 180,000 cases and some £2.5 billion in costs. I am sure that Members will agree that the money and effort would be better used delivering better connections. The new process proposed by the Bill is proportionate and balanced, and places an exceptionally low burden on the landlord and a high evidential requirement on the operator.
An operator will be expected to have a tenant in the property who has requested a service. They will have issued multiple requests over 28 days and, thereafter, a final notice that explicitly says that the court may be used to gain access, and they will be able to show evidence of all the above to the courts. A landlord who wishes to take themselves out of the policy’s scope need respond to only one of the operator’s multiple notices. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that responding when someone writes is simply a courtesy. The expectation is that applications made to the tribunal through the provisions in the Bill will allow judges there to make decisions based on operators meeting an evidential threshold. This will allow decisions to be reached quickly and efficiently. Discussions are still ongoing about how we can make the process even faster.
The Minister has said that landlords will have opportunities to respond. If, for whatever reason, they do not respond, and they find themselves in the tribunal, will any costs fall upon them?
The charging landscape will be set in collaboration with the tribunals and—I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will care about this in particular—the devolved Administrations, but the whole point of this regime is for it to be faster and far more affordable than the current regime. As we work with our colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and the devolved Administrations, we will have that at the front of our minds.
If applicants are successful, they will gain interim rights under the electronic communications code in relation to a property. Those rights will allow them to install, maintain and upgrade infrastructure for a period no longer than 18 months and will be accompanied by strictly defined terms regarding their use. These terms, which we have committed to consulting on publicly, will set out the standard to which works must be completed, and will make it clear that care must be taken to minimise the impact on other residents. If an operator wishes to continue providing a service to the building after the interim code rights have expired, and the landlord continues to be unresponsive, applicants may use provisions in the electronic communications code to apply for full rights. Time-limiting the rights to a maximum of 18 months incentivises operators to continue their efforts to contact landowners so as to avoid the cost, time and uncertainty of making a further application to the tribunal. It also ensures that where a landowner does engage, there is sufficient time for negotiations to take place and an agreement to be reached without disruption to residents’ broadband service.
To conclude, this is a technical Bill that achieves a specific purpose, but it does that in the context of the Government’s significant scale of ambition in this area. Gigabit broadband will be the enabling infrastructure of the next century. It will turbo-charge businesses, facilitate innovation and change how we work, live and engage in society, and how society engages with us. It is good for every part of this country, for our economy and for the public. The Government will support every home—every family wanting to shop online, and every pupil wanting to do their homework—whether it is in the middle of a city or the middle of nowhere, and whether it is a mansion, a terraced house or a block of flats. The Government will help them all to be part of this country’s gigabit future. I commend the Bill to the House.
It is a great pleasure to speak on the Bill as the shadow Minister for Digital. I start by declaring an interest: before entering the House, I worked as a telecommunications engineer for 23 years, rolling out telecoms infrastructure in countries as diverse as Germany and Nigeria, Britain and Singapore. I have a lifelong interest in and passion for digital and technology. I love a good network.
I am afraid that the 10 years I have been in Parliament has coincided with a rapid decline in the quality of our telecommunications infrastructure—not because of my move, but because successive Conservative Governments chose to leave everything to the market. As a consequence, at a time of digital revolution, of which the Minister spoke, when so much could have been achieved, we have instead had 10 wasted years. The last Labour Government oversaw a communications revolution, with first generation broadband reaching 50% of all households within 10 years. Labour understood the importance of supporting both investment and infrastructure competition. Under the Conservatives in the past decade, fibre has reached only 10% of homes and without meaningful support for competition.
Our telecoms infrastructure is letting us down, economically and socially, and it is our towns and villages that are suffering most, with farmers and rural businesses, the poor and the isolated in a digital no man’s land. We have lost a decade, and we need to make up and build out the full-fibre infrastructure that the country needs.
The Conservatives talk about unlocking the whole of Britain’s potential, and we are at the top of the class in business, research and technology, development, science and education, but how can we continue to lead on bottom-of-the-table infrastructure? The OECD ranks us 35th out of 37 countries for broadband connectivity, although ours is the fifth largest economy, and 85% of small and medium-sized enterprises said that their productivity was adversely affected by unreliable connections in 2019.
My hon. Friend is making an important contribution to the debate. Does she agree that it is important to assess what this will achieve in practice, and to establish whether we will then be getting anywhere near the levels of full-fibre coverage in leading nations such as South Korea or Japan? Should we not measure the outcomes to ensure that the poorest and most distant communities can have the broadband that they need and deserve, and—as I said earlier—should we not also ensure that affordability remains at the core of the Government’s strategy?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s experience and knowledge of the digital sector, which makes her very aware of the importance of ending the current digital divide. I shall say more about that in a moment.
I was glad to hear of the hon. Lady’s expertise in the building of infrastructure. The situation in rural Wales is particularly dire. I could name a host of villages in Carmarthenshire, including Abergorlech, Pont-ar-goth, Brechfa and Llansawel, where there are cables coiled along the posts which have not been connected. Will the hon. Lady please have a discussion with her colleagues in Cardiff so that some progress can be made in improving connectivity in the villages in my constituency?
The hon. Gentleman paints a disturbing picture of rural communities that have yet to have the connectivity that they require, but it is also very true of the country as a whole. Telecommunications are not a devolved matter but the responsibility of the UK Government, and we need to look to them to ensure that we have the environment and the investment that are necessary to deliver fibre for everyone.
Sadly, our wasted 10 years in telecoms are not limited to fixed infrastructure. As we have heard, mobile and the softer infrastructure of regulation have also been left to languish, and that will have an impact on the effectiveness of the Bill. Conservative Governments have entrenched the digital divide in the UK: 11 million adults lack one or more basic digital skills, and 10% of households do not have internet access. At this rate, there will still be 7 million people without these skills in 2028, which is tantamount to leaving one in 10 of our population permanently disenfranchised. It is a real issue of social justice: for instance, the West End food bank in Newcastle receives many visits from parents who have been sanctioned because they cannot sign on online.
My hon. Friend is continuing to make an excellent speech. Does she agree that it is important to address the issue of notspots as well as the issue of speed of broadband access, and not just in rural areas? Thousands of households even in big cities like London, and more than 1,000 in my constituency, have little or no access to broadband.
My hon. Friend has made another important point. Notspots do happen, even in city centres. There are householders who can see Canary Wharf from their windows, but cannot connect with its broadband network. We need to take responsibility for ensuring that we have a network infrastructure of fibre that reaches every home.
This wasted decade in telecoms has made many of us digiphobes. Two decades into the online age, we still do not have any date for the online harms Bill, even though the harms it addresses—children accessing pornography and online grooming—were well identified 10 years ago. Newer harms from algorithms, artificial intelligence, the internet of things—which the Minister did mention—and data dominance are ignored, repeating the mistakes of the past. We need a robust legal framework that deals with privacy, data, age verification and identity, complemented by measures that put in place protections for vulnerable people online, not ones that kick in after they have already been exposed, compromised, abused or scammed.
This wasted decade has allowed algorithms and disinformation to take hold of the news online. It is said that a lie gets around the world before truth has had a chance to get its shoes on. Unfortunately, this Government have taken 10 years just to tie their laces. They have failed to understand the opportunities and challenges of the digital revolution in the way in which the Labour party did. A decade of inaction has seen regulatory and infrastructural failures at the expense of the British people and British businesses.
The hon. Lady talks about Labour’s record, and we heard about its plans during the general election to nationalise the broadband network. Is that still the Labour party’s policy, and is the £100 billion figure that BT estimates would be necessary to do that something that she would be prepared to admit to at the Dispatch Box?
I would like to ask the Minister whether he feels that the current regulatory environment is delivering for businesses and people. Does he feel that a regulatory environment where we have a monopoly—Openreach is a monopoly that is regulated, but not as a monopoly; it still has market share—is the right environment in which to deliver the digital economy that we need? The answer is clearly no. As for the solution to that, I can say with absolute certainty that the Government have absolutely no ideas and, more importantly, no plans to address this. We need to ensure that a monopoly network—which is what Openreach currently is—is enabled to deliver the excellent service, speeds and infrastructure that the whole country needs.
We recognise that the Bill is an acknowledgement by the Government of their current failure and an acceptance that the market as it stands is not delivering, but what is it actually trying to achieve? The Prime Minister has held three different positions on broadband infrastructure in six months. Standing to lead his party, he promised to deliver full-fibre connectivity to all households by 2025.
Jonathan Edwards made an important point in highlighting the issues in Wales, and I would ask that the UK Government look at the recent Welsh Labour Government’s review of the superfast broadband project to roll out full-fibre broadband throughout rural premises in Wales, only 16% of which are currently covered.
I welcome my hon. Friend. She makes an excellent point: an active Government can really make a difference in ensuring that all their citizens can benefit from broadband. It is a real pity that we do not have such an active Government in Westminster.
As I was saying, the Prime Minister first promised full-fibre connectivity to all households by 2025. Then the Conservative manifesto committed his Government to
“a massive programme of improvements for our roads”— and—
“gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025.”
What is gigabit broadband? However, the Queen’s Speech dropped the 2025 reference altogether, saying only:
“New laws will accelerate the delivery of gigabit capable broadband.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 669, c. 32.]
I am sure the Minister knows as well as I do that gigabit-capable broadband can be delivered through various forms of infrastructure, not only fibre.
Whichever promise the Government are thinking of keeping, they will not do it through this Bill. As the Minister said, it provides a bespoke process for telecoms network operators to gain access to multiple-dwelling buildings in order to deploy, upgrade or maintain fixed-line broadband connections in cases where a tenant has requested electronic communication services, but the landlord has repeatedly failed to respond to an operator’s request for access. Network builders say that they face significant challenges, and if they cannot identify or do not receive a response to requests for access from the building owner, they cannot proceed with network deployment. According to Openreach, 76% of MDUs miss out on initial efforts to deploy fibre because of challenges in gaining access.
The Bill takes into account the fact that landlords are not always responsive or eager to meet their tenants’ needs, but it is not a hammer blow. Its ambition is laudable, and we will not vote against it, but it will not achieve any of the multiple and contradictory aims that the Minister and the Prime Minister have talked about. It has a number of failings and needs to be significantly improved through scrutiny. First, it does not go far enough. The sector has welcomed the Bill, but not with any great enthusiasm. The trade body techUK says that the Bill
“does not go far enough,” and that,
“from new builds to street works,” many issues
“have not been tackled by the Government’s Bill.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that, given other well-known leasehold issues, such as rising ground rents and other charges levied by distant landlords, access should not result in extra service charges and that there might be a need to assess and reform the legal relationship between leaseholders and freeholders?
I welcome my hon. Friend to the House and to this debate, and I thank her for that excellent contribution. I was coming to that point, but let me make it now and agree with her. The need for this Bill is a reflection of the broken leasehold system, which Labour has significant plans to reform and change, but which the Government apparently have no intention of doing anything about, despite the misery in which many leaseholders find themselves as a consequence of the actions of freeholders.
I do not expect the Minister to be able to address the leasehold issue—although I hope he will say something about it—but he can address the issue of full-fibre broadband. He must be aware that BT said in its response to the Bill that the Government need to go further. BT said that, with the right fiscal, regulatory and legislative enablers, it would be prepared to commit funding to Openreach to fit 15 million homes with fibre by 2025. That would account for 50% of the 30 million that need to be reached, but that raises two questions. First, where would the other 50% come from? I hope the Minister can share with us his plan—it would be good to see one. Secondly, without the enablers that BT refers to, how many homes does the Minister expect to be reached by BT? We need a plan from the Government before we can have any confidence in their vague promises.
We recognise, as I think the Minister acknowledged, that the internet is now an essential utility for modern life. However, the Government’s “Future Telecoms Infra- structure Review” talked of bringing telecoms operators’ powers into line with other utilities. Does this Bill do that? It is not clear. Electricity and gas operators are empowered under the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954 to gain entry to a property at all reasonable times, should the landlord or occupier damage the maintenance of a connection. Where water companies are under an obligation to provide water to a property, they are entitled to enter any premises for the purposes of determining whether or how to exercise their powers, and the same powers are extended to sewerage providers.
However, this Bill gives no statutory right of access to telecoms companies and places no obligation on landlords to facilitate access. I am not saying the Bill should do that, but I am trying to understand how the Government are treating telecoms. It would be nice to have a sense that the Government understand the difference between telecoms and other utilities. Other utilities are permitted to force entry to ensure there is no threat to life or safety. Although I believe online harms are a real danger, I do not believe they are the same thing.
For other utilities, such as energy, there is competition only in the retail layer, not the infrastructure layer. I will come back to that point but, given the Government claim to be encouraging infrastructure competition, it will create complexities that need to be explored. From what I can see, although the Minister talks a lot about exploring things, those complexities have not been considered so far.
Given the confusion on what kind of utility telecoms are, it is not surprising that doubts remain on whether this bespoke process will actually work or have any impact at all. What constitutes a meaningful response from a landlord? Can they just acknowledge the request? There is a question on whether the tribunals will have the right resources and expertise. The Country Landowners Association has observed that there is an existing code of practice. Why is that not working? What assessment has or will be made of the effective impact of these processes and costs on businesses? I understand there has been no impact assessment, and I expect to hear when one will be made.
We have heard that the Bill is a hammer blow. The Government promise to accelerate broadband roll-out but, as we have also heard and as I am sure many Members are aware, mobile is an important part of that and the Bill does not mention it. Some 96% of urban areas can get 4G reception from all four operators, compared with only 62% of rural areas; 5% of the UK landmass gets no mobile coverage whatsoever. Rural mobile coverage is set to increase due to an industry project recently announced by Ofcom, and 5G has finally launched in the UK, so we expect to see network roll-out from the mobile operators.
Mobile UK, the industry body, has called on the Government to ensure that mobile and fixed-line broadband services receive equal focus and attention. Does the Minister have any plans to support mobile network roll-out, or is that to be left to the market?
The hon. Lady is raising an important point about mobile, which has huge potential. We have the technology to bring broadband into the home, but the big issue is the size of the data packages. Families find mobile prohibitive because it uses up their data allowance within a matter of days. Should not the Government work with the mobile companies to ensure these products are far better suited for family use?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and affordability is a consequence of the level of competition, of the profits that mobile operators are making and of network capacity. The Government can address all those things, but they are apparently choosing not to do so.
The Government claim to be supporting infrastructure competition, and the “Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review” says that infrastructure competition is most effective at delivering investment. Where is the support for infrastructure competition in this Bill? What requirement is there on landlords and internet service providers to support infrastructure access for more than one telecoms operator? Residents will not be able to choose their supplier, leaving them liable to be fleeced by a single provider.
This is particularly important because of the wasted decade we have seen, which has allowed the re-monopolisation of the broadband network to take place. The last Labour Government delivered infrastructure competition in first generation broadband. It survives to this day, which is why people can get decent broadband from providers such as TalkTalk, Plusnet and Sky, as well as BT, but the Conservative Government gave BT hundreds of millions of pounds of public money, to establish, in effect, a monopoly on second generation superfast broadband. The Government were warned at the time, and not only by me, that that would entrench BT’s monopoly, but Ministers refused even to use the word “fibre”, as if by ignoring it, they could make demand for it go away. Other countries require shared access to building infrastructure. Have the Government examined case studies in other countries, such as France, which has a much higher proportion of MDUs than we have and much better infrastructure access competition? Speaking of MDUs, the definition in the Bill seems to imply that the situation is the same for a two-flat house conversion as for a block of flats with 100 apartments in it. Is that really appropriate?
The Minister mentioned new build. In 2008, I ran Ofcom’s consultation on fibre access for new build, and since then we seem to have made absolutely zero progress. What recommendations or guidance for new build apartments, and what other policies, is he proposing to ensure that new build houses have fibre access? As has been suggested, the huge question overshadowing this is the relationship between leaseholders and freeholders. Leasehold is broken. Labour has promised to end it, but, unfortunately this Government appear to have no meaningful proposals.
In conclusion, telecoms companies need to be able to deploy infrastructure quickly and effectively. Absentee and bad landlords can deprive residents of decent broadband by not co-operating, but telecoms companies should not be able to fleece residents or crowd out smaller competitors, and savings must be passed on to consumers. There is much the Government could be doing to deliver the infrastructure we need. We support the aims of this Bill but fear that the measures are not properly thought through and will not make a significant difference. We need a proper plan to overcome 10 wasted years.
When, last week, I said that Big Ben was the only telecoms infrastructure the Government could plan for, the Minister told me off, saying that, “as an engineer”, I should know that Big Ben “is not telecoms infrastructure”. He clearly does not know his telecoms infrastructure, as bells and beacons were our earliest forms of telecoms, which is, in essence, communicating at a distance, as the Spanish Armada found out. They were supported by public investment—[Laughter.] The Minister laughs, but he knows that we want to make sure that we have public investment to support the telecoms infrastructure, which provides a public good. It is sad that although the Government are happy to leave our infrastructure stuck in the past, they refuse to learn lessons from it. Under the Conservative party, one wasted decade may become two, and the British people will be the biggest losers.
Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you. I am going to try to be simultaneously positive and brief in my deliberations in this debate on telecommunications infrastructure. I hope to be able to contribute my views on this issue and address the House for the first time as the Member for Totnes.
May I first congratulate my colleagues across the House whose maiden speeches have preceded mine? They have done little to calm my nerves, but they have highlighted the breadth of new knowledge, experience and talent that has been brought to this place. I wish my hon. Friend Christian Wakeford good luck in making his maiden speech later this afternoon. I also wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, Dr Sarah Wollaston. She took many views across this House, but she always treated me with courtesy, respect and decency. She served the constituents of Totnes for nine years, with diligence and hard work, and I wish her well.
My constituency of Totnes is a landscape of vivacious variety and beauty. From the rolling moorlands of Dartmoor to the meanderings of the rivers Avon and Dart, and with a coastline that stretches from Bantham to Brixham, it is unquestionably the most beautiful constituency—a fact that has only been underlined by the visits in recent months by my right hon. Friends the Members for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) and for Braintree (James Cleverly), along with countless others. Quite what I have done to deserve such visits, I am unsure.
I am proud to be the representative of the hill farmers of Dartmoor, the fishermen of Brixham, the superior gin distillers of Dartmouth and Salcombe, and the independent small business owners of Kingsbridge and the booming town of Totnes, confirming that this is a constituency rich in history, innovation, individuality and character, as well as natural beauty. From its landscape to the vibrant economic hubs of our towns and villages, there is no other place in this country quite like it.
In fact, I can boast of the world-famous Brixham fish market, which allows connoisseurs of fine fish—fine British fish, I hasten to add—to purchase from the comfort of their own home using cloud-based technology. How about that? We also have numerous community partnership groups—such as Pete’s Dragons or Young Devon—whose work provides hope, comfort, opportunity and support to those most in need. Of course, for those of a military mindset, we are home to Britannia Royal Naval College, the epicentre of our naval officer training course and, perhaps just as importantly, the site where the first significant encounter between Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh took place.
We have many successes, of which we are proud, but we also have underlying issues, which I hope to be able to address as the representative for Totnes. The closure of Dartmouth’s cottage hospital in 2017 has left a community fearing for its future health provisions. With a health and wellbeing centre scheduled to be built in the coming months, there are still calls for beds, X-ray units and a minor injuries unit. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk will forgive me if I am somewhat persistent on the matter.
Towns such as Dartmouth, and towns in other rural constituencies, can easily be cut off without properly resourced frontline services and transport links. In fact, connectivity—both transport and digital—in Devon and the south-west lags far behind that in the rest of the country. I know that I speak for all my colleagues in the south-west when I say that those are two issues on which we will be working together.
The Second Reading of this Bill gives a clear sign of the Government’s commitment to providing improved digital connectivity across this country. I welcome this action and look forward to working on this Bill and future Bills that will improve connectivity for my urban and rural communities. Our road and rail infrastructure leaves much to be desired: any Member of this House who has travelled up and down the A303, A30 or A38 will understand the need for action. Major infrastructure projects all too often find themselves being talked about rather than implemented. I hope that this new outward-looking Britain will take an energetic approach to our transport networks.
The Australian bushfires that so grimly greeted the start of 2020 are yet another acute wake-up call for us to engage on the issue of climate change. Our hosting of this year’s COP26 in Glasgow is an opportunity for Britain to lead the world in combating climate change and stave off ecological disaster. Global Britain can be the champion of a green future. In my constituency, I hope to inform that debate by the creation of my own climate change expert group. I look forward to that engagement with my constituents.
I could, like every Member of this House, wax lyrical about my constituency for many hours, but I shall not. Conscious of the time, I shall move on to what my constituents might expect of me. Given that one of my predecessors was a communist spy and another a mystic, I feel it is only acceptable for me to outline what sort of politician I might be. To do so, my explanation to the House can begin only by thanking the right hon. Lord Hague of Richmond, Baroness Helic of Millbank and Chloe Dalton, with whom I have worked on a range of different subjects over the past 12 years. Their guidance, advice and friendship are part of the reason I am here today, and I am grateful to them for their persistent patience, kindness and generosity. It was while working for them in 2012 that I saw the creation of the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. By 2014 more than 150 countries had signed up to our commitment to tackle this issue—to tackle the culture of impunity and bring perpetrators to justice. This year we have a renewed opportunity to reinvigorate our leadership on this initiative and to drive forward action into progress and deliverance.
Last year I played a small role in helping to shut down the UK’s domestic trade in ivory—many Members of this place were active and engaged in helping to close that trade. Together, this House took the right course, by closing the UK’s market, implementing some of the toughest legislation in the world and encouraging others to follow. I am proud of the work that I have done with many Members of this House and the other place to introduce and implement this policy and that of preventing sexual violence in conflict, showing that the UK can take global leads on many issues.
Away from Westminster, I have had the benefit of working for two shipping companies, in Singapore and the United Kingdom. While those firms very nicely indulged my love of politics, they also taught me some of the finer points of international trade, business and negotiation—skills that I hope to be able to use in this House. They also highlighted the UK’s shipping sector, which is an often overlooked jewel in the crown of British business and enterprise.
As Members may have recognised, the direction of my speech is about seizing opportunity, expanding on what we have as a nation and restoring what we have lost. This country has taken a momentous step. I understand the fears and concerns about not knowing every element of our future, but we must reflect on the things that we do well and the areas in which we can grow. To do so is to recognise that the answer to globalisation is localisation, which, if achieved, can help restore faith in politics and in this place. If we can get this right, we can promote our regions and deliver the opportunity to which the Prime Minister so frequently refers. I hope to use my experience from shipping, politics and charity to guide me through Westminster waters in the coming months and years, doubtlessly with the help of my Whip—whether she is holding my hand or leading me is to be decided.
I am eager to play my part in the fisheries and agriculture Bill, to seize the opportunity to expand in our fishing and farming sectors and to take back control of our waters and own the agricultural destiny that we have before us.
The south-west has often been overlooked by successive Governments of all persuasions—whether Labour, Conservative or coalition. It is now more important than ever to ensure that we see through our promises by tackling climate change, implementing major infrastructure projects and creating a field of opportunity by reducing business rates, encouraging innovation and cultivating entrepreneurialism in every region of this country.
Mr Deputy Speaker, may I thank you for your patience and this House for its kindness in hearing my maiden speech, and may I offer my sincere gratitude to all those who have supported me both in this House and beyond over the past five months? Those of us who have the privilege to sit in this historic Chamber know that knocking on doors across constituencies enables us to see the very best of our communities and country, from the constituent who decided to vote for me depending on my like or dislike of Marmite, to the enthusiastic member of the public who greeted me and the Prime Minister as her “little teddy bears”—we have all been there. This House now has the duty and expectation to restore our people’s faith in this Parliament, honour our promises, and tackle the burning issues of the day for the good of the country and to demonstrate our global ability.
I congratulate Anthony Mangnall on his very fine maiden speech. I have heard winching described in many different ways, but never before as “significant encountering”. That is one to add to the lexicon. I was very encouraged by some of the things that he decided to highlight as issues of great passion for him, not least the ban on the ivory trade and sexual violence in war. Those are issues that will draw support from across the whole House, and we on the SNP Benches certainly look forward to working with him if he chooses to highlight them in his time here in Parliament.
Digital connectivity is critical to opening up economic opportunity in every part of Scotland. As tele- communications is a reserved matter, the Bill will have effect in Scotland. It is therefore vital, given the Scottish Government’s commitment to digital infrastructure through the Reaching 100% programme, that barriers to commercial deployment are addressed whenever possible. The SNP welcomes these proposals, which will unlock build opportunities for a number of telecoms operators in Scotland who are being prevented by access issues from fulfilling their customers’ demands. The R100 contract provider could also benefit from this legislation reducing the cost of delivery in multi-dwelling units that fall within the scope of the programme.
Scottish Government officials have taken advice from the Scottish Government legal directorate, and at present this Bill does not impact on devolved areas so will not require the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament. However, the SNP will continue to monitor developments around the Bill, and Ministers in Scotland stand ready to engage with the UK Government and provide advice accordingly.
I also want to highlight issues surrounding new builds. Because of the failure of commercial broadband suppliers and developers to engage, new developments are being built without fibre broadband. In the Queen’s Speech of
I know that you will be disappointed, Mr Deputy Speaker, if I conclude this exciting speech at this juncture. I know that you are begging for more, but I feel I should draw to a close. It is, incidentally, my first speech back in Parliament since my re-election, and what a pleasure it is to see you back in the Chair.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I could get used to that. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall, who delivered a rather marvellous maiden speech. Although I hate to disappoint my colleagues, mine will not be as riveting—but neither will it be as long. I congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on regaining your position in the Chair.
I start by saying how proud I am and how humbling it is to be here delivering this, my maiden speech, on the highly important topic of the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill. I know what you are thinking, Mr Deputy Speaker. Many of my new colleagues have previously said that they know what you are thinking, but I actually do. You, along with right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House, are thinking, “Why would you choose to do your maiden speech during the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill?” Indeed, as a new Member, I am asking myself the same question. The answer is that, like Chi Onwurah, I have experience working in the telecommunications sector.
I spent several years working in the sector—I reassure colleagues that I was not working for Openreach—and I know that the number of appointments that network operators miss because they cannot access properties creates several disadvantages. First, there was the financial cost to operators of sending an engineer out to a property only for them to be unable to deliver the service. That cost was ultimately passed on to the end-user. Secondly, there is an opportunity cost to not being able to deliver on one job: it meant that engineers could not go and deliver a service at another location, which leads to people waiting longer for an installation than specified under the service level agreements. Finally, the end-users themselves only want one simple thing: a telephony and broadband service. If a network operator is unable to go to their location, they are going without the one basic service that they require. It is right that the Government are committed to delivering gigabit broadband to every single house and business in the country by 2025, and this Bill goes some way to delivering that.
While I am discussing telecommunications infrastructure, it would be remiss of me not actually to discuss infrastructure, and one cannot discuss infrastructure without building a few walls. I hope that my colleagues know where I am going with this. After many years of Labour neglect in the north and our northern towns, the Conservatives have now been able to build our very own blue wall in the north; after those many years of Labour neglect, our northern counterparts from “Game of Thrones” remind us that “the north remembers”.
It is customary in one’s maiden speech to take Members on a virtual tour of their constituency. Mr Deputy Speaker, you have probably heard in maiden speeches many times—indeed, you have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes—that everyone seems to have the most picturesque landscapes and the most vibrant towns. I do not want to break with convention. However, I also want to be on your good side, Mr Deputy Speaker. I therefore admit that your constituency clearly has the most picturesque landscape and most vibrant towns, with Bury South obviously coming a very close second.
The constituency of Bury South is rather ironically named; it does not actually contain any single part of the town of Bury. Instead, it is actually the south of the borough of Bury. Bury South is situated to the north of Greater Manchester, although to many it will remain a key part of the county palatine that I know Mr Speaker holds dear: the county of Lancashire. The constituency is made up of the townships of Radcliffe, Whitefield and Prestwich, and the villages of Ainsworth and Simister—places that many people believe to have been left behind. Given the choice in a referendum, as my predecessor mentioned in his maiden speech back in 1997, they would arguably vote for their own Bur-exit and more localisation of powers, along with the creation of town and parish councils.
Radcliffe was previously famous for its paper mills. Like many industrial towns, it has unfortunately seen the decline of the manufacturing industry, and is in need of a new high school and the regeneration of its town centre—two issues that I will be championing in this House and have already been speaking to Ministers about. Prestwich is famous for its municipal park, Heaton Park, which I am sure many hon. Members will have heard of. It is home to several music festivals and large congregations; and although I profess to have attended many, I can confirm to my constituents that not a single one was Parklife.
Prestwich is also home to one of the largest, most vibrant and thriving Jewish communities in the country, and I thank the community from the bottom of my heart for the generosity and kindness they have shown me, before the election and since. This is a community that had real fear in the run-up to the election. Members should not let anyone—either in this House or in any other place—try to convince them otherwise. The best example I have seen of the fear of the community was on the day after polling day, when a Jewish lady approached me in the street as I was heading back to my car, with tears running down her face and the simple message, “Thank you. Thanks to you and the Conservatives, we no longer have to leave the country.” I will hold that meeting with me until the end of my days, because it was a powerful message that resonated with me at the time and will continue to do so.
It has been highlighted to me that I am the first non-Jewish Member of Parliament for Bury South. Certainly, the Financial Times referred to it—but obviously there are other newspaper publications available. I was described as Christian, which quite clearly is neither Jewish nor Muslim—something so obvious I do not quite think it needed writing down, but they chose to do so anyway.
It is also customary to pay tribute to one’s predecessor. I find myself in a much easier position than most when replacing a former Labour Member—and a former Labour Minister, no less—because I received an endorsement from my predecessor, Ivan Lewis. Not only did he endorse me, but on polling day he actually donned a blue rosette and knocked on doors for me. That certainly makes paying tribute to one’s predecessor much, much easier. I have also been very fortunate to get to know Ivan Lewis quite well over the past few months—even more so through meeting him for coffee regularly in the constituency to discuss some of the issues that, while he was not quite able to see them through, we are working on closely to bring to fruition. I would like to pay tribute to the work he has done over 22 years in this place and truly to wish him the best with all his future endeavours.
My predecessor and I share very many similar passions, one being social mobility and one being education and improving our towns. I would like to take a moment to share those passions. One passion that we did not share was football, because unfortunately he did rather side with our noisy neighbours in Manchester—something he likes to remind me about, especially when they defeat us.
Many have asked why I decided to come to this place. As a former insurance broker, I was already hated, so, with not really having a passion for selling houses, I thought, why not go into politics and become a Member of Parliament? So that was the clear direction of travel. All jokes aside, I am a strong believer in social mobility, as a compassionate Conservative, and I believe the best way to achieve social mobility is through education. I declare an interest because, having a very young daughter, I obviously want the very best education for her, but in doing so I also want the best education for every child in this country, and even more so from early years through to further and higher education.
I stood on a platform of policies to regenerate our towns of Radcliffe and Prestwich and to protect our green belt at Simister and Elton Reservoir, on which at the moment there is a fear that thousands of houses will be built. I also fought a campaign based on ensuring that our streets are safe for our residents and not for the criminals, and that our police have the resources that they need to tackle crime. So I was certainly pleased to hear the Queen’s Speech reaffirm the commitment to putting more police on the street and deploying them where they are needed. I also fought campaigns to deliver the new high school for Radcliffe to make sure that every child in my constituency could go to a good-quality and local school; and to tackle the issues of congestion on Bury New Road in Prestwich, which has been described as one of the most congested roads in the north-west of England.
This moment, while filled with pride, is one that too many of my colleagues have also described as rather bittersweet, because unfortunately neither my father nor my older brother Mark could be here. They were lost far too soon, but they have given me a passion to support cancer care, road safety, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation. I am driven each and every day by whether my father would be proud of me. Hopefully today I can say he would be.
I conclude by summing up my approach to this place for the next five years, and hopefully longer: it is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), who delivered excellent, engaging and thought-provoking speeches. I congratulate them both on joining us as fully initiated Members of this place. I quoted from Harry Potter in my maiden speech, and I am delighted to be joined on these green Benches by a fellow geek—my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South, who quoted “Game of Thrones”.
It is great to see someone at the Dispatch Box with such knowledge and experience of digital infrastructure. There is no fear of this modern Conservative party being represented at the Dispatch Box by a fibre-optic Fagin like Peter Mannion in “The Thick of It”. I am pleased that this excellent Bill is being spearheaded by the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Matt Warman.
It may seem strange to talk about the year 1855 when discussing future-proofing our broadband, but this quote from the pastor Henry Melvill resonated with me:
“a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men”.
I am not sure whether Mr Melvill had a Tardis, but he certainly predicted the future, with fibre cabling now literally connecting millions of our citizens.
As I said in my maiden speech, we work best when we work together. As a modern, tech-savvy society, we work best when we are connected, but connectivity can be very bitty around our country. That is why one of my local priorities is improving access to decent broadband and 4G. At the moment, 4.8% of my local properties do not have access to decent broadband, which is more than double the national average. I am delighted to see the Government taking this seriously through the rural gigabit connectivity programme, local full-fibre networks programme and various other schemes. I look forward to working with the Minister on those schemes, to ensure that Bishop Auckland benefits from them in the fullest possible way.
I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend’s wonderful speech, but does she agree that it is vital for the Government to work with universities such as the University of Suffolk in Ipswich to bring forward degree apprenticeships focusing on the kind of research needed to provide the first-class digital infra- structure that her constituency needs to thrive?
I do agree, but I would also make a pitch for other great universities, such as the University of Durham, to be involved in that research. Improving that research to ensure that we get the most cost-effective and efficient infrastructure is really important.
In Teesdale particularly, access to decent broadband is a key consideration for many when moving property. My party has highlighted its commitment to this country becoming the best place in the world to do business online, and I wholeheartedly support that. To achieve that aim, we must do all within our power to ensure that the correct infrastructure is in place, so that local residents are not left time and again with buffer face. Infrastructure is crucial.
I fully support the Bill, because it will help Bishop Auckland constituents and our country in two key ways. First, it will help those living in rented properties. For renters in multiple-dwelling buildings, there is currently no guarantee of access for operators to upgrade digital infrastructure. While there are, of course, good, supportive landlords out there who understand that decent broadband is crucial, the current legislative framework means that, through inactivity, building owners can prevent tenants from accessing decent broadband. With almost 6% of Bishop Auckland residents living in flats, this is not good enough. That is why I am chuffed to support the Bill, which allows telecom companies to gain temporary access rights to a property to install broadband connections where the landlord has failed to respond to multiple requests for access. This is a great, positive step to ensure that renters are protected, and it ties into our wider commitment to improving renters’ lives. I look forward to learning more about the plans of my right hon. Friend and blue-collar champion, the Minister for Housing, who has a great Instagram feed, full of pictures of her in hard hats on building sites.
That leads on nicely to the second theme of the Bill. It will also ensure that new homes are built with fast and reliable broadband in mind. The Bill amends legislation so that new homes must have the infrastructure in place to support gigabit-capable connections, and it will also create a requirement for developers to work with broadband companies to install those connections. That is another excellent step forward in improving our digital infrastructure.
This Government are committed to ensuring that both homeowners and renters are able to access good, high-speed, reliable broadband. In a modern world of flexible and virtual working, it has never been more important for people to have good broadband in their home. When the laptop screen is closed and the working day is done, I find that quality of life is always improved by being able to stream “The Crown” on Netflix without buffering. I will finish with a quote from “The Crown”:
“History was not made by those who did nothing.”
This Bill certainly does something—something good—and I am delighted to speak in support of it.
It is a great pleasure to speak on the Second Reading of the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill as the shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It has been quite a thrilling afternoon, with a couple of fine maiden speeches. Anthony Mangnall, who is no longer in his place, gave a warm and passionate maiden speech. I would certainly be very happy to work with him cross-party on climate change, and especially on violence against women and girls. There was a fine speech from Christian Wakeford, who was personal and passionate. I can certainly work closely with him on revitalising our high streets, and as Members of Parliament who represent our whole communities, we share a passion for ensuring that people of faith and no faith feel very welcome and secure in the places where they live. We have had very good interventions, too. I thank Dehenna Davison for her comment about the need for a better deal for renters.
We have heard today—all our constituents know it to be true—that reliable, fast internet is a crucial part of modern life. Even 10 years ago, a global BBC survey found that four out of five people believe that access to the internet is a human right. If that is the case, it is sadly a right that many in the UK do not enjoy fully. According to Ofcom, there are still nearly 700,000 people in our country without a decent broadband connection. The Government’s universal service obligation requires providers to offer a very minimal service as a baseline, but this is simply not fast enough to take advantage of all the benefits the internet brings. When it comes to the speed and quality of broadband, the figures make for even more grim reading.
My hon. Friend Chi Onwurah, the shadow Minister for digital—I pay tribute to her many years of experience in this field; she probably knows more about this than anyone in this building—was right to bring up the achievements of the previous Labour Government in this area; to be frank, this Tory Government’s record is shameful. She highlighted the communications revolution that we oversaw in office, with first-generation broadband reaching 50% of all households in only a decade. Under the Conservatives in the past decade, full fibre has reached less than 10% of homes. We must strive for full fibre because of the possibilities that it brings.
This is about modernising our country. As the number of internet devices rises, so must internet speeds, allowing us all to enjoy the benefits of connectivity. We must also support business and opportunity. Increasingly, the world’s marketplace is going online, and the sad truth is that we are being left behind. In Ofcom’s 2017 international communications market report, the UK was ranked 19th out of 19 countries for fibre-to-the-premises connections, and if the Minister will forgive me for repeating the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central—this does need repeating—the OECD ranks us 35th out of 37 countries for the proportion of fibre broadband coverage. For the fifth richest economy in the world and a country with a proud technological heritage—home to the inventor of the world wide web—this simply is not good enough.
As we heard in the maiden speeches, it is our towns and rural areas—from Batley and Cleckheaton in my constituency to the west coast of Cumbria—that suffer most from this neglect. According to 2016 research from the Oxford Internet Institute, there is a 30% gap in internet usage between the south-east, where the figure for internet use is close to 90%, and the north of England, where the figure is closer to 60%. What does this mean in an age when the internet is now where we go to relax, communicate with people, get around, and apply for jobs and benefits? It means in practice that many are locked out of modern society, unable to reap the benefits of the digital age.
What are the Government doing about this? We have heard a lot about levelling up, but since the Prime Minister came to office less than a year ago, he has had not one, not two, but three different positions on broadband connectivity. It is clear that we cannot take this Government at their word, so let us judge them on their deeds—on the provisions in the Bill.
The Bill is designed to enable people who live in flats and apartment blocks to receive gigabit-capable connections when their landlord repeatedly fails to respond to telecommunications operators’ requests for permission to install their infrastructure. We are told by network builders that more than three quarters of multi-dwelling units are missing out on fibre broadband as a result of the negligence of building owners. The Bill provides a bespoke process through which telecoms network operators can gain access to buildings to deploy, upgrade or maintain fixed-line broadband connections in cases where a tenant has requested electronic communication services but the landlord has repeatedly failed to respond to requests for access.
We will not vote against this Bill. Telecom companies need to be able to deploy infrastructure quickly and effectively. Absentee and bad landlords should not be allowed to deprive customers and consumers of decent broadband by not co-operating. We do, however, have concerns. Telecom companies should not be allowed to fleece residents by locking them into dependence on a single provider, nor should they be allowed to crowd out smaller competitors, but what guarantees—I am sure the Minister will respond to this question when he is on his feet—can the Minister provide that this will not happen? If the Bill does make rolling out fibre broadband cheaper and easier, the savings must be passed on to the consumer, not pocketed by the shareholders. Does the Minister agree? Will this be ensured?
Considered more widely, none of the Government’s proposals will provide the step change—the hammer blow—in internet connection that this country requires or that the Prime Minister has promised. The sum of £5 billion quoted in the Conservative manifesto is less than one sixth of the cost needed to roll out full fibre to every home, which the National Infrastructure Commission estimates at £33 billion.
Even if the investment is raised to the level needed, a real concern is that the money spent by Government on fibre roll-out is simply a massive subsidy for existing private operators. The Government put in investment, but keep none of its fruits. We will wait and see whether the Chancellor loosens the purse strings further in the upcoming Budget, but unfortunately, given the track record of the Conservative party, I am not holding my breath.
I thank the Labour party for its support, however grudging. It is important to say what this Government have done over the last 10 years, however Tracy Brabin describes them; they have fostered the largest digital economy in the G20. That success does not happen by accident; it happens through effective regulation that supports investment from the private sector. We need a proper plan, she said, and we have got one. What the Opposition have is a plan to nationalise BT at a cost of £100 billion—or at least I think that is what they have, because when she was asked that question, I did not hear a full-throated endorsement of the Labour manifesto position. Perhaps she is just positioning herself for her future leader. None the less, I enjoyed her reference to the Spanish Armada and I look forward to an historical tour de force that covers bells and a whole host of telecommunications infrastructure as we work through the passage of this Bill in Committee.
The hon. Lady raised a number of points. We consulted extensively in ending up with this solution. We will, of course, continue to be flexible where we can be to make sure that it evolves if it needs to. It is, as the hon. Lady said, a bespoke process that is dedicated to the telecoms industry. She is right that it would be silly to suggest that this should be treated in exactly the same way as other infrastructure, but we need to bear in mind the fact that digital infrastructure will become progressively more vital, as well as the question of how we line up the appropriate regimes.
When it comes to the infrastructure for broadband and its delivery, we are at the mercy of very few suppliers or providers. Unfortunately, although they put money into their pockets, they sometimes do not deliver at all to rural communities. That is our problem in Northern Ireland: there is money there, but the providers cannot deliver.
The hon. Gentleman is right that effective competition is absolutely essential to rolling out broadband in the best possible way. I have seen for myself in Dundrum and Belfast a whole host of really excellent work in Northern Ireland, demonstrating not only that it can be done but that it can be done at an even more efficient price than in some parts of the rest of the United Kingdom. Good work is going on that promotes competition. The role of the Government is, of course, to make sure we get maximum value for money across the whole of the United Kingdom.
I pay tribute to both the new Members who spoke for the first time. My hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall asked us to reimagine what a significant encounter might look like, but, more seriously, elsewhere demonstrated the depth of knowledge and breadth of expertise that he brings to this place. His constituents are lucky to have him, even though he is neither a communist spy nor a mystic—to our knowledge. Just as the Bill represents a significant upgrade for broadband in this country, my hon. Friend is an upgrade on communist spies and mystics, so we pay tribute to him.
I also welcome my hon. Friend Christian Wakeford. He was initially somewhat disparaging about the Bill, and I was worried. But he showed genuine expertise on the topic as well as on antisemitism, one of the most challenging issues of our age. I also pay tribute to his courageous predecessor. I know from his funny and down-to-earth speech that he will be a worthy Member of this place.
Finally, my hon. Friend Dehenna Davison said that she had seen two new Members becoming initiated into full involvement in this place; I should say that full involvement comes when one colleague like her says something nice about me while another—who I shall not name—heckles to say that she is probably wrong. Welcome to politics. My hon. Friend is of course right to say that the Bill introduces things that will make a real and meaningful difference—not just in urban constituencies, but across the country. People are living in multi-dwelling units and blocks of flats in all our constituencies.
I am also, of course, happy to discuss some of the other issues that various Members raised in this debate. Some of those will come out in Committee. I was grateful to receive applications from a number of Members to serve on the Bill Committee—we will try to ensure that they do not regret it. It will be an important piece of legislation and I am grateful to them for their expertise in this debate and beyond.
To conclude, I am sure that we can continue to work together across the House to bring this important Bill into law as soon as possible, and on the other legislation that forms the building blocks of a comprehensive plan to deliver gigabit-capable networks across this country.
We are bringing this Bill forward first because it allows us to crack on with a plan that we would otherwise have to deliver by waiting for a single, larger piece of legislation. The Bill allows us to address some aspects of a broader challenge, and we will get on with the rest of the plan as soon as possible.
I was pleased to hear the third or fourth reference, I think, to a plan. Will he share with us when he will publish the plan for gigabit-capable broadband delivery?
We will, of course, be talking much more extensively and consulting on various aspects of the plan, which the hon. Lady will see emerge in good time. We are genuinely keen to be collaborative on many aspects of the Bill, because it is good to see cross-party support for a Bill that we all acknowledge is important. We hope to be able to do the vast majority of any legislation with cross-party support, because that is the right thing to do.
Government Members care passionately about this issue, and I am sure that the same spirit will continue as the Bill makes its passage through the House. This is a real contribution to the agenda of levelling up across the country and bringing digital infrastructure to every school, home and classroom in a way that allows all our constituents to benefit from the infrastructure that they deserve, and from a digital revolution that this Government will foster.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.