Amendment 1

Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill - Virtual Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 2:35 pm on 19th May 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Lord Clement-Jones:

Moved by Lord Clement-Jones

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 13, after “leased” insert “or tenanted”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would clarify that tenanted premises are included under the provisions of this bill.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Digital)

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 3, 4 and 5, but at the same time I will make some general comments on the Bill. I should explain that my noble friend Lord Fox will be present and making his general comments in the second session but, for the Chair’s benefit, will not be present at the proceedings until then.

It is rare to have the opportunity to hear both Ministers’ speeches at Second Reading before delivering my own take on the Bill, so there may be some advantages in our new Committee procedure.

As to the subject matter of the Bill, the Covid-19 lockdown has shown how dependent we all are on good, fast, resilient broadband. Indeed, it is clear from the inability of many MPs and Peers to contribute to Virtual Proceedings how woeful broadband is in some areas. Moreover, recent international comparisons show that we are 81st when it comes to value for money in broadband service internationally, so we need to move forward quickly. In her Second Reading speech, the Minister said that only 12% of UK properties currently had access to full-fibre connections, but the status of the Government’s intentions regarding delivery of a one-gigabit-capable service is unclear. From what the Minister said at Second Reading, this will happen “as soon as possible”, but that hardly matches the Prime Minister’s pledge during his leadership campaign of 100% fibre to the home by 2025 or the Conservative manifesto commitment.

What is the target? What is the strategy now? Is it 1 Gbps by any appropriate technology by 2025? We need a firm date and a clear plan. What is the relationship to the rollout of 5G? Indeed, are changes to the current, extraordinarily low universal service obligation of 10 Mbps contemplated? Superfast, namely 30 Mbps, broadband availability reached 95% of UK properties as of February 2018. Surely the USO, albeit new, needs upgrading to 25 or 30 Mbps from the current 10 as quickly as possible. We currently have an impossibly low bar.

When it comes to infrastructure spending, we also need a target of GDP percentage spending. What actual investment are the Government making in 1G rollout? What do they expect the private sector to make? The Commons briefing paper on the Bill highlighted the fact that the May Government’s future telecoms infrastructure review estimated that the national rollout of full-fibre broadband would require a total investment in the region of £30 billion. This Government have allocated £5 billion to tackle the hardest-to-reach 20% of UK premises, but there are no details yet of how that funding will be used.

There are several existing funding programmes for full fibre, launched under the May Government, including two voucher schemes to subsidise full-fibre connections to rural premises and small and medium-sized businesses. What is the status of these? How are the Government avoiding unnecessary duplication in the rollout of full fibre to the home? How will Ofcom’s determination that there will be market competition in some areas, prospective competition in others and non-competition in yet others work? Is the division into three types of area now agreed as the settled way of doing this?

Private sector plans are extensive. Openreach has committed to deliver full fibre to 4 million premises by March 2021 for its Fibre First programme; Virgin Media plans to reach 4 million premises by the end of 2019-20 as part of its Project Lightning network expansion, which includes a mix of full-fibre and cable broadband; Hyperoptic plans to expand its network to cover 2 million homes by 2021; and CityFibre, in partnership with Vodafone, has plans to roll out full fibre to 1 million UK homes and businesses by 2021.

However, the Government clearly need to will the means by breaking down the barriers to installing these networks. Generally, let us not forget that the PM described Theresa May’s Government’s target to build a UK-wide full-fibre network by 2033 as “laughably unambitious” and we must hold him to that statement. Indeed, many would give that description to this Bill. The future telecoms infrastructure review made it clear that a wide package of legislative and regulatory reform is needed to support the industry to deliver full fibre at scale across the UK. The industry says that it can meet the Government’s 2025 target only if public policy and regulatory decisions are made quickly to support rapid investment and rollout.

The Bill will go some way to address the challenges currently faced by network builders in connecting people living in flats and apartment blocks if they cannot identify, or do not receive a response to requests for access from, the building owner. According to Openreach, 76% of these MDUs—multi-dwelling units—miss out on initial efforts to deploy fibre because of challenges in gaining access. Up to 10 million people live in these properties across the UK. Even in this respect, the Bill should go further to provide greater flexibility for network operators. It should allow operators—not just tenants—to trigger the provisions. The time limit of 18 months within which the new rights would apply should not be on the face of the Bill. There should be a more specific requirement on landlords to engage with operators under the new process which the Bill establishes.

Ultimately, however, even if we made these amendments, should not broadband operators be treated as a utility and the operators given the same rights of entry that others—such as electricity companies—have under the Electricity Act 1989? The deployment of new 5G networks as well as fixed fibre should also be a focus. Surely, the 1 gigabit per second commitment is technology-neutral, but in other respects the Bill is deficient. What about other forms of wayleave, in particular in rural areas and commercial property such as business parks?

Why do we not see legislation for a complete rollout strategy? For instance, legislation on gigabit broadband infrastructure for new-build properties was promised in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech. Broadband operators also cite skilled labour shortages. What is the plan to overcome these? Is Ofcom now satisfied that adequate protection is in place for consumers, particularly as to the cost of services during the transition from copper networks to VoIP services?

Despite criticism of the wayleave situation, are the Government simply going to rely on their street works toolkit—which provides practical guidance for managing street and road works—for the deployment of broadband infrastructure, rather than the digital champions in local authorities that the National Infrastructure Commission recommended? Are the Government and Ofcom generally satisfied that their reforms to allow Openreach’s ducts and poles have been effective? Why does the business rates exemption apply only to laying new fibre and not to upgrading—in other words, substituting full fibre for copper?

The Minister outlined the Government’s intentions regarding the timing and content of a telecoms security Bill. On these Benches, we agree that that will be the appropriate time and occasion to discuss amendments relating to high-risk vendors. This is a very modest Bill, which raises so many questions about the Government’s strategy and their ability to deliver it. These cannot be addressed by responses alone to the detailed amendments which have been laid. I hope that the Minister will attempt to respond.

On the substance of the amendments, I hope that they are to some extent self-explanatory, so I will be brief. Surely the current wording of the Bill with regard to lessees creates considerable uncertainty as to whether tenants who do not hold a lease are covered. Conventionally, lawyers describe the areas of law covering contracts for the occupation of land as landlord and tenant law. So it would have been entirely understandable if the reference had been to tenants throughout, but this way around, where “lessees” are intended to encompass tenants, does create uncertainty.

What is the position of a tenancy at will or a renewable tenancy, which are not covered by the documentation of a lease as such? There are considerable distinctions between a tenancy and a lease in general parlance. A lease will normally have some kind of capital value attached to it on assignment. A tenancy, under a rental agreement, will be very unlikely to have that. I hope that the Minister can give a full answer on the legal point, including any legal authority. This will be important for any future interpretation purposes if a Pepper v Hart situation arises, as I suspect it may.

The words I have just spoken apply to Amendments 1, 3 and 4. Amendment 5 is seemingly small, but it is important. Why does a lessee have to be in occupation? What if it is a second home or a sublet? Does that disqualify a lessee from being able to invoke the Electronic Communications Code? This gives rise to many questions. Why should a lessee have to be in occupation? I very much hope the Minister will be able to answer that question. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 2:45 pm, 19th May 2020

The next speaker on my list is the noble Lord, Lord Fox, but as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, pointed out, he is joining the debate after the interval. I therefore call the noble Lord, Lord Adonis.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

I spoke at Second Reading, so I do not need to follow the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in making a Second Reading speech. I agree with all the points he made; his amendments probe the Minister in all the right directions.

However, a new big Second Reading theme has emerged since that Second Reading debate, due to the coronavirus crisis and the pressure it is putting on private operators. There has been a good deal of media speculation in the last two weeks as to what might happen to Openreach, in particular whether BT will seek new partners to fund its rollout plans or possibly even sell off Openreach entirely. That would be a dramatic change in circumstance from the position before the crisis, when BT was keen to maintain its position with Openreach and the argument was much more about how one could get a commitment to rollout while Openreach was still linked to BT.

In her reply, can the Minister give us a sitrep on the position in respect of Openreach, what BT’s intentions are and what impact she believes it will have on the rollout schedule and plans in respect of superfast broadband? This has a big bearing on the subsequent amendments and those we might want to take forward on Report. I hope she can give us an update on those issues.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I echo many of the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and thank him for tabling these amendments. Leasehold properties are a very grey and disaffected area of property rights. It is extremely important to state at the outset that my interest is primarily in putting leasehold properties, particularly in rural areas, on the same basis as any other property.

As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, Covid-19 has thrown a spotlight on the importance of connectivity and access to all forms of communication, particularly mobile signals, wi-fi and broadband. Without a shadow of a doubt, in north Yorkshire and other deeply rural parts of the country, many properties, not just leasehold properties—we lived in one for a couple of years in north Yorkshire—are very remote from the exchange and their connectivity remains woefully slow. I ask the Minister directly to ensure that leasehold properties will be put on the same basis as any other property, particularly in rural areas.

I support this group of amendments in a probing way—particularly Amendment 1, which will cover tenants. On Amendment 5, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, alluded to, leaseholders may not be in an occupation. What is the position under the Bill as it stands, without Amendment 5, if the occupant was retired?

With these few focused remarks, I take this opportunity to ensure that the Bill fulfils its purpose—to put these property rights on an equal basis with other rights—but also to ensure that in rural areas we have the maximum connectivity in every aspect, whether mobile signal, wi-fi or broadband, which is the Bill’s intent.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative

My Lords, I will make a number of overarching Second Reading points, if I may, before speaking directly to some of the amendments in this group.

The intention of the Bill is relatively clear: it is a focused, tight piece of legislation. May I ask my noble friend the Minister about the timetable for the other legislation that is required in this framework, not least to address the issue of high-risk vendors, which has understandably had a great deal of coverage?

I believe we have a tremendous opportunity in the United Kingdom with all the elements of the fourth industrial revolution: artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain—or, as I prefer to call it, distributed ledger technologies—and the internet of things. But as with previous revolutions, the truth of all of this is tied to the infrastructure which underpins it. The infrastructure for connectivity is far more significant than the infrastructure for moving people, not least now but increasingly as we go through the coming years. Can my noble friend say some more about the 2025 target, what the plan is to achieve it and whether it needs reassessing in the light of recent developments and the speed of technological change in this area?

As other noble Lords have commented, Covid-19 has brought so much into stark focus, and our connectivity takes nothing other than number one spot. WebEx, Microsoft Teams, Zoom—words that many noble Lords and others in the country barely came across before the lockdown, we now say more often than “good morning”, “good afternoon” and “good evening”. Other connectivity tools are also available.

What has been demonstrated is that we are woefully short of the capacity and the infrastructure to deliver, for example, the connection between families who have not seen each other for months on end. We are also short of the capacity to drive business. If we had greater connectivity, speed and, crucially, not just capacity but reliability, much of our business could operate very effectively in this new environment once that shift has been made.

Can I ask my noble friend the Minister what lessons have been learnt from the original Openreach contracting process and rollout, and how those lessons have been integrated into the current plans? I am quite happy for her to write to me on that issue—disgracefully, I did not give her prior notice of the question. There are a number of key points coming out of that process which can be beneficial moving forward.

The value of this Bill is demonstrated in the cross-party support it has received; I wish it swift passage. Regarding the amendments in this group, I can do little, as is often the case, other than echo the fine, eloquent words of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. Could my noble friend the Minister explain the thinking behind the Bill’s wording, which seems somewhat at odds with current landlord and tenant legislation? I will limit my remarks to that at this stage, and I look forward to hearing my noble friend the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord Haselhurst Lord Haselhurst Conservative

My Lords, I was advised that, in view of the fact that the Second Reading debate had been somewhat truncated, some flexibility would be allowed in consideration in Committee and that debate might flow over the boundaries of separate amendments. I have been greatly encouraged by the opening speech from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in that there was a virtual tidal wave of movement across the Bill. It is very much in that spirit that I seek to make a contribution.

Like my noble friend Lady McIntosh, I live in a rural area, but not one that is 200 miles or more from London—she knows the area well. In fact, it is 50 miles from London and 10 miles, as people constantly remind me, from London’s third international airport, yet you are lucky to get a download speed of 4 Mbps. There are various rural areas in particular across the country where there is a great gap to be filled.

It is hard not to like the Bill. It is a step in the right direction. We are all committed. I remember going to meetings where people protested against the health risks of mobile telephone masts. Now we have had a flutter—irresponsibly, in my view—regarding the damage that might come from 5G masts, but the fact is that the public demand is largely to get on with it. The more they hear talk of 5G and other loftier ambitions, they get angrier and angrier if they get only tiny and intermittent broadband connections. There is no doubt about that. The Bill adds to the momentum of rollout. I come down on the side of pressure being applied to persons or bodies that in any way appear to be obstructing provision.

I am a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. We considered the Bill. There was a very interesting debate, during which opinion changed as to whether the Secretary of State had sufficient powers to drive matters forward. I hope that the Secretary of State will take a liberal, with a small “l”, approach to the use of those powers, which the committee left in place. I am not sure whether the point at the heart of this first group of amendments is more arcane than real, having heard the Government’s explanation. I hope there will be a generous approach to it. I accept that there are more people who can specifically be encouraged to make requests under this legislation.

I have a similar bias of wanting to extend the beneficiaries of this when it comes to alternative dwellings, a subject of one of the later amendments. I cannot see a lot of difference between a block of flats and a retirement village. I had cases in my former constituency where redundant farm buildings were converted into small, bespoke businesses. There are other places, which I might call mini-malls, in rural areas where a number of buildings with different retail products have got together and provide a very useful amenity for people. They too have a right to expect the best of connections.

It is also important that we get equal treatment in major housing developments. I came across an astonishing situation in such a development in my former constituency where different builders did different sides. There could be a situation where people living on one side of a road had the apparatus for broadband connections while their neighbours on the other side of the road did not. That must be crazy. Is there anything we can do to overcome that kind of difference?

Although I am philosophically all in favour of competition, I feel some caution about proposals that would create competition in the field of this provision. I speak from somewhat bitter experience: that of my rural former constituency and the very rural part of it in which I still live. A bespoke company was granted rights to deal with this area, with its considerably sparse population, because the main players such as BT did not want to have to do it. I understand why. So, in December 2016, sales representatives come to the doorsteps in my small village to sign us up for a high level of broadband. Five years later, we are still waiting. Some work was done: our roads had to be closed, of course, and there was a fair amount of disruption while that was going on. The idea that someone else could come along, perhaps with a different means of connecting our properties, and cause more disruption is not merely a waste of money but not one of the Government’s aims.

A message has just come up on my screen saying that my internet connection is unstable. Whether it is telling me that I should complete my contribution, I do not know, but I have only a sentence or two more to go.

This is not just about the Secretary of State exercising his discretion. It is not just landowners and businesspeople who must be given some extra means of proceeding. There must be some pressure put behind the operators as well if we are to achieve our targets. The example that I described is not alone in the country. We must get on this. I appreciate the need to pay our balance off with interest. If we are to give the Secretary of State wider regulatory powers, I hope that they will be used in a way that will get us nearest and fastest to the goal that we all want.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:00 pm, 19th May 2020

My Lords, the benefit of making one or two Second Reading-style comments at the start of the debate on these amendments has been well proven by what has been said. A lot of context has been brought out, as has the theory underpinning some of the lines of argument. That is all to the good.

I want to make a couple of initial points. I take it as read, and I am sure that the Minister will confirm this when she responds, that we are all supportive of the speedy and complete rollout of a gigabit-capable economy. There is no question about our support in terms of previous chances because we have focused on or around this topic for a number of years now. Indeed, we have had a couple of Bills on it. It is on the record that, on our side of the House, we have tried hard to raise the unambitious USO target, as my old friend, my noble friend Lord Adonis, mentioned. We have also brought forward other measures—they were picked up on by other speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—which may have helped us to get a bit further down the line to where we are.

In the Digital Economy Act and subsequent legislation, we asked how to get everyone together on the path and moving toward a gigabit economy. The Government chose to go down the voluntary route. Of course that ended in tears, with very few respondents happy with where they are—so here we are again. I will not go into that in any detail. Having said that, times have changed. Other noble Lords have said it but I am sure that the Minister will agree that the internet’s role has changed as a result of Covid-19. It would have changed anyway but it has certainly been brought into focus because of the crisis. We certainly do not want a situation where individuals or families could be left behind because they have not been given access to gigabit-capable broadband.

Underneath the general points that have been made, there are probably a couple of major positions that we ought to focus on as we go through these amendments. Surely the default position should be that, like water, gas and electricity, gigabit-capable connections should be available to all premises. The acid test for us on this Bill is whether its measures advance that. The noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, said that there were points that we could agree did bring us forward, but I think the general feeling so far is that perhaps there is not a deep enough cut being taken from those issues.

My second point is: where are the other pieces of legislation that will back this up? Where are the points that address bringing forward access to all properties on the same terms as other utilities? Where are the measures that will help with works that have to be done on a village-wide or town-wide basis in order to get access to cables? When will we get some sense of the overarching position and the legislation for that?

We support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the one raised by my noble friend Lord Adonis. There needs to be broader support for legal occupiers to be able to initiate and unblock the process. I particularly liked a comment made in the middle of the debate about the future ownership of Openreach, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Throughout all this we are not in any sense saying that the owner of the property is diminished by any proposals to improve the quality of what is available in the premises. However, we clearly need it to be possible for all properties to be supplied with public utilities, and I think the internet has to be regarded as one. If this is not the case, it is up to the Minister to make very clear today why not. Can she address that point? Will she take back, perhaps for further consideration on Report, the wider concern—it was expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, in particular, but I think was raised by just about everybody—that the Bill actually has not tackled the essential question of who it is talking about when it deals with property rights?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, for his support and that of his colleagues for the Government’s work in this area; I thank all noble Lords in that regard. I also thank the noble Lords who tabled these amendments, which seek to clarify who is able to make a request for a service, and therefore begin a path for an order process.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and my noble friends Lady McIntosh and Lord Holmes raised questions about our 2025 manifesto target and the impact of Covid-19 on achieving that. As many noble Lords noted, the current pandemic has re-emphasised the importance of digital infrastructure in the UK, and we are fully committed and resolved to deliver on this. Obviously, Covid-19 is likely to have an impact on the pace of the rollout in the short term, but we cannot assume that we cannot recover that, make up ground and still meet our target. We are doing everything we can to assure this, including investing £5 billion in the hardest-to-reach areas such as the rural areas to which my noble friends Lord Haselhurst and Lady McIntosh referred.

Questions were also raised by several noble Lords, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Clement-Jones, about investment and competition. I cannot comment on the rumours about the status of Openreach, which is obviously something for the BT Group to announce or comment on, but our understanding from subsequent press reports is that the original Financial Times report was inaccurate. Officals will continue to engage with BT and Openreach, but it is ultimately a private company. [Inaudible.] They also raised a number of other questions, particularly in relation to the status of broadband connections as a utility—if I may, I will comment on those in a later group. Some specific and quite detailed questions were also raised which I will respond to in writing, including the question from my noble friend Lord Holmes as regards learning from previous Openreach rollout.

Turning to the specific amendments, I note that Amendment 6 is similar to an amendment tabled in the other place during the passage of the Bill there. I believe that the noble Lords who have tabled the amendment are seeking to ensure that tenants are covered by the Bill. If noble Lords are indeed seeking clarification on that point, I am able to confirm that as currently drafted, the provisions in this Bill can be used by people who rent their homes. This includes people with assured shorthold tenancy or assured tenancy agreements which, as many noble Lords will be aware, are the most common forms of tenancy agreement. These will include second homes and sub-lets as long as they meet the requirements in the Bill. I will confirm this in writing, but my understanding is that in relation to renewable tenancies—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—if they have the characteristics of a lease, they would not be affected by this Bill. [Inaudible.] They would not be covered by this Bill. I can cover the impact of that in a letter to noble Lords.

Our concern is that the amendments as tabled would have a significant effect on the Bill. They would significantly expand the scope of who is able to make a service request to include anyone who is the legal occupant of a property, tenancy, or a freeholder. For example, the amendment could bring into scope a tenant who rents their property from an individual who is illegally sub-letting the property or a short-term lodger in a single room in someone else’s home. I am sure noble Lords will agree that, while the Government are committed to providing widespread access to fast, reliable and resilient broadband, it is important to ensure that the ability to make fundamental changes regarding the rights over property begins with an individual who has a legitimate interest in the property. Furthermore, Amendment 6 would considerably increase the ambit of the Bill and make it very different from the model which was consulted on. The Bill as drafted already works in respect of tenants, so noble Lords will appreciate the unintended consequences of extending the definition to those who may begin a Part 4A process.

On Amendment 5 specifically, my initial impression was that the intention behind the amendment was merely to simplify the Bill’s terminology. However, having looked at it more closely, I realise that removing the two words “in occupation” could have unintended consequences both for the other provisions in the Bill and for the operation of the policy itself. If we were to accept the amendment, that would mean that a lessee not in occupation—for example, a leaseholder who has let their property under a tenancy agreement—could request a service for their tenant without their knowledge or agreement. As I am sure noble Lords agree, there is a potential for conflict here. It could also have consequences for the ability of the lessee in occupation to choose their internet service rather than having it imposed by whomever they lease the property from. This is an unintended consequence of the amendment that I am sure your Lordships would not wish to see.

The policy underpinning the Bill has been carefully crafted, aiming to balance the interests of landowners, tenants and operators. This goes to the heart of the Bill’s proportionate approach, which the amendment could inadvertently disturb as outlined above. The amendment would also impact on the clarity of the drafting of the wider Bill. Removing “in occupation” from this subparagraph could create a disjunct with the preceding one, which clearly states that the premises that are in scope of a Part 4A order are occupied under a lease. This disjunct could in turn potentially generate satellite litigation on the relationship between sub-paragraphs 1(a) and 1(b). The Bill as presently drafted has no such disjunct.

So, while I understand the intention to try to simplify the definitions in the Bill, if we were to accept the amendment then it could have a clear detrimental impact on the Bill and the policy underpinning it. The drafting as it stands was carefully considered by my officials and drafted so as to ensure that the policy delivered the outcome that we sought—namely, helping a lessee in occupation to gain the connectivity that they seek while balancing their interests against those of other interested parties. I am concerned that, if we were to accept the amendment, that careful balance would be disturbed.

I appreciate that I may not have addressed all the points that noble Lords raised but, as I mentioned at the outset of my remarks, I will cover any outstanding points in writing. With that, I hope I can ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 3:15 pm, 19th May 2020

My Lords, we are aware that there are some connection problems for the Minister, but we will continue as we are at the moment. I have been notified of three noble Lords who wish to speak now: the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I will call each in turn, and after each person the Minister will respond. I call the noble Lord, Lord Liddle.

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour

My Lords, I am grateful for being allowed to intervene. Had I realised the procedure, I would have made some Second Reading remarks myself at an earlier point. I support the Bill. It is a modest measure that takes us nearer what I think should be the public objective of a universal service of high-speed broadband. It therefore has my general support.

There are two points from the Minister’s summing-up on which I would like to press her. The first concerns the question that my noble friend Lord Adonis asked about the future of BT Openreach. I am afraid I did not fully catch what the Minister said in reply because of connection problems, but I regard this as a subject of fundamental public interest. I would like to be assured that the Government will also regard it as such and will not just say, “This is a matter for BT to decide what it wants to do in terms of its own private interests and its shareholders’ interests”. I would like an assurance that this is regarded as a matter of great public interest.

My second point relates to the final section of the Minister’s legal bit at the end about who is and is not entitled under these arrangements to press for better connections. I shall look at this question in a very practical way. I am very concerned about young people, including students, living in short-term lets in multi-occupier buildings—for instance, in old council blocks where someone has bought a flat to rent it out and their main occupiers are students on short-term tenancies. I should like an assurance that this provision applies to young people and students whatever the basis of their living in that kind of accommodation. It is fundamental that young people have access to high-speed broadband. This has been brought home to me as chair of Lancaster University, where we are now doing our teaching online. Even when the Covid-19 crisis comes to an end, a much higher proportion of university teaching will be online, and this applies to many other vital spheres of life. There is a practical concern here. I ask the Minister to go back to the department, think about all the circumstances in which young people and students rent accommodation in blocks of flats and multi-occupier properties, and say whether they have an untrammelled right to ask for better provision and whether the process will be so rapid that a student on a short-term tenancy will want to see it through.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank the noble Lord for his additional questions and I apologise to your Lordships. There is a certain irony in my signal not being quite strong enough for this Committee stage.

In answer to the noble Lord’s question about Openreach, what I tried to say in response to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, when he put this point, is that any sale is a matter for the BT Group, but the department’s understanding, based on further articles in the press, is that the original Financial Times article was inaccurate. We continue to engage with BT and Openreach, but ultimately it is a private company, albeit subject to all the competition laws and wider legislation that might be relevant.

In relation to students, the noble Lord makes a very important point. I spent quite a lot of time recently talking to young people, including students, about the impact of Covid on their lives. The points he makes are definitely reiterated by them. As the noble Lord knows, students will live in a range of different types of accommodation with different arrangements. Where they are occupying accommodation such as an assured shorthold tenancy or an assured tenancy, they will be covered by the Bill.

The noble Lord’s wider point was about thinking through the practicalities, which is what my officials have spent much time doing. This was explored extensively in the other place. The balance we need to strike is between the three parties—the landlord, the tenant or leaseholder and the operator—and that is what this legislation seeks to do.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

I thank my noble friend for her very comprehensive reply to the opening remarks on Amendments 1, 3, 4 and 5. She referred specifically to the hardest-to-reach properties and the sum of money that has been allocated. I repeat here a plea that I have made on many occasions, in the hope that it might be listened to sympathetically. By 2025, the 5% hardest to reach properties, which will inevitably be in rural areas, will, in all likelihood, still not have fast, high connectivity or even fibre broadband. Will the Government look sympathetically on a request to reverse the priorities, to ensure that the 5% hardest to reach will be dealt with first? A great number will indeed be leasehold properties, and many will be tenanted; and many will have residents who are hoping to run rural businesses, or people who are having to work from home at this time. I know that this will strike a particular chord with them.

Given that in areas such as North Yorkshire, the Lake District and Devon, or in any hilly area, you have to deal with the terrain and with the geography of being a substantial distance from the exchange, it seems unfair that these properties—I repeat that many will be leasehold properties—are being disadvantaged and discriminated against. They should be fast-tracked, to allow them greater access to all forms of telecommunication.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My noble friend makes an important point. It is something we keep constantly under review and I will take her comments back to my colleagues in the department, so that they are aware of her remarks.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

I am glad that the Minister has a sense of humour. Those of us in this Committee will regard her predicament of having a very weak connection as fully justifying the Bill. I do not know whether she is in a shared property that does not have fibre throughout, but we cannot properly conduct this Committee stage because even among ourselves we do not have a sufficiently strong internet signal, despite having weeks to prepare. This demonstrates why, as a country, we need to get going on this.

I did not pick up the first time round what the Minister said about BT, because of her dropped connection. When she repeated it in response to my noble friend Lord Liddle, she left me somewhat concerned. She said that the stories in the FT were “inaccurate”, but she would not say in what respect; she simply referred to other press comments. I see exactly what she is seeking to do: she is trying to keep clear of revealing to us private information, which the Government or the regulator will surely have, about what is going on in this context. However, I think she will understand that we do not really regard this situation as satisfactory.

As my noble friends Lord Liddle and Lord Stevenson rightly said, although Openreach is formally a private company, our whole understanding is that rolling out enhanced gigabyte connectivity crucially depends on Openreach. If we do not have confidence in its capacity to do this, the Committee will certainly not be satisfied that the Government have a strategy. To be fair, I do not think that the Government themselves would be satisfied with the situation either.

The Minister owes it to the Committee to tell us more than that the reports were inaccurate. She has to tell us in what respects they are inaccurate, maybe by pointing out particular press articles that have reported on the inaccuracy. The crucial, underlying issue is that if the future of Openreach is in doubt and it is sold, will the same rollout targets and investment commitments be made? If they will not, the Government certainly will not meet their 2025 targets, even if the Minister is right that the impact of the coronavirus crisis will be, as she put it, short term—though I should say in parenthesis that even if it is, given that there are only four and a half years between now and 2025, that could still be lethal to meeting the targets. If there is a big question mark over the future of Openreach, it is not clear that we or the Government can be confident that it will meet the targets even if there is not a coronavirus problem.

Will the Minister say more about the Openreach situation? In particular, since she said that some of the press comment was inaccurate and had been countered by other press comment, which I assume means other press comment that is accurate, could she please point out to the Committee which press comment is accurate and tell us what was actually said that is accurate about the situation in respect of BT and Openreach?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 3:30 pm, 19th May 2020

I thank the noble Lord for his further questions. To cover the point about Openreach, the noble Lord will be aware that on 15 May the Financial Times suggested that BT was considering the sale of a stake in Openreach to potential buyers, including Macquarie. Officials spoke to BT last week, which confirmed that this was inaccurate. Both Openreach and Macquarie sources have also publicly told the press that this is inaccurate. On his wider point, if the Government became aware that Openreach did not have the capacity to deliver on our target, we would obviously reconsider how best to meet it, but I am not in a position to be able to give any more detail here.

I will also correct something. I hope noble Lords did not understand me to say that potential delays in rollout from the impact of Covid-19 are only short term. At the moment, we understand some of the short-term impacts and we hope we will be able to absorb them, but given that none of us has a crystal ball on how this will all unwind, I wanted to clarify that for the record.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Digital)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. As the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, implied, it was ironic that we were talking about fast, reliable, resilient broadband, in the Minister’s words, yet she is the one who has principally suffered from not having it in the course of the debate. I thank her anyway, and I look forward to the letter she will send, which might be a little bit clearer than the reception we had for her response.

I thank noble Lords for their support for the amendments. In particular, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, brought out some of the real issues associated with getting the wording wrong. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, that there is nothing wrong with Liberal with a large “L”. We might want to see the ECC interpreted with a large “L”, not just a small one.

I felt the Minister really did not start off on the right foot when talking about the actual aim—the Government’s objectives. I understand that there may be some delay as a result of Covid-19, but the target was set out in the Conservative manifesto. We have not really had a pledge on that. We have had “as soon as possible”—I think that that was in the Minister’s speech last time—but no pledge that that is the objective and that all the Government’s sinews are being strained to achieve it. That is what we want to see.

On the amendments, we are back to the question of access. As I said, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, got this right. It is about absolute access for various types of occupier. We should be treating this as a utility. We cannot be talking about this in 19th-century property terms. It is as if we were at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, when people were arguing about whether electricity should be installed in their houses. Broadband should take its place alongside gas, electricity and water as an essential utility and we should give suitable powers of access to do that.

I look forward to the letter from the Minister but to say that my amendments affect the clarity of the drafting of the wider Bill is almost laughable, because the drafting of the Bill is not clear. The use of the term “lessee”, which excludes quite a number of different types of occupation and tenancy—as has been pointed out—is not adequate. We do not just have a legal issue; we have a clear access fault line about how we treat broadband and its essential nature. We are going to have have-nots who are not able to benefit from the ECC and that will be greatly regretted, not least by those who are unable to access the kind of service that the Minister herself would like. I do not necessarily take on board the arguments about unintended consequences and occupation. One is being over-cautious in the way that the Bill has been put together, but that is a characteristic of the Bill as a whole. We will, no doubt, come back to this on Report. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, we now come to the group consisting of Amendment 2. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “Not content” when the Question is put made that clear in debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in this Committee; this Committee cannot divide.