Moved by Lord Clement-Jones
10: Clause 1, page 2, line 17, at end insert—“(aa) form part of a building used as the premises for one or multiple businesses or organisations,(ab) form part of a purpose-built retirement development,(ac) form part of a new building completed after the period of one year after the passing of this Act, or”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would include office blocks, retirement developments and new builds in the scope of the bill.
My Lords, I will be extremely brief, because I believe Amendment 10 is fairly self-explanatory. It includes many of the other premises that operators would like to see included in the Bill. For instance, legislation on gigabit broadband infrastructure for new-build properties was promised in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech, yet we have seen no evidence of it.
What is the difference between blocks and, say, a purpose-built retirement development that needs access to full-fibre broadband? This has been brought home to us more than ever in the past few weeks. Take business premises, such as business parks. Those kinds of development are absolutely crying out for the kind of operator access provided for by this Bill.
The purpose of this—clearly a probing—amendment is to see how far the Government’s ambition stretches. I have criticised this Bill on the grounds of lack of ambition to date, but it would be nice to hear from the Minister that the Government’s ambitions stretch rather further. I beg to move.
I support my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones. This is a simple amendment, but if the Government are sincere in their ambition to roll out broadband to the widest possible number of people —in fact to everyone—it has to be grasped. It is all very well taking about a limited set of multi-occupancy buildings, but without this amendment that set is very limited. In brief, I support this amendment and look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation of why this was not in the Bill in the first place and perhaps an undertaking to solve that in time for Report.
I should say—by the way, my internet connection is unstable—that I did not mean to make a speech on this amendment nor indeed on the other one that bears my name. I was able to cover the issue in my earlier speech, which was more broad-ranging than on just that particular amendment. All I will add now that you have been good enough to call me, Deputy Chairman, is that the Secretary of State has been left with very wide regulatory powers. This was considered by the Delegated Powers Committee and quite deliberately left in a wide form. I therefore hope that this addition can be made in the fairly near future.
I will be brief as well—the Committee has heard enough from us already. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, this is a probing amendment to see where the Government’s ambitions point. There does not seem to be any logic in the current drafting and the amendment is a good way to try to extend it, but there are other ways. If the Government, either now or at later stages, accept amendments that mean that all legal occupiers of a property and the operators themselves can also initiate Part 4A orders, we will not need this amendment.
I will use this time to ask a question that was raised in the discussion on an earlier amendment, as I did not get the answer from the Minister at the time it was raised. She may not have that information to hand and, if she does not, I will be happy for her to write. I think that we are all conscious that not everything in this Bill will achieve the promised land of the gigabit-compliant internet that we are all looking for, so other things need to happen, but they will not be addressed in other places. Perhaps the Minister could give us a tour d’horizon of them, if necessary in writing. How and when will we get the legislation for all new homes to have open-access fibre connections? Will there be a harmonised UK-wide regime for permitting street works to lay fibre? How will we ensure that fibre-builders can make use of the utilities infrastructure—for gas, water and electricity—to facilitate access? We need to know that these things are happening if we are to be confident that the Bill will achieve what it aims to do, so can the Minister write to me about them?
I thank noble Lords for their brevity in outlining the purpose of this probing amendment. I shall try to be similarly brief in response.
I certainly welcome the intention behind this amendment—namely, to clarify which premises other than multiple-dwelling buildings such as blocks of flats might be in scope of the Bill and why. The decision initially to include only multiple-dwelling buildings is deliberate. It was informed by careful consideration of the evidence that was made available to us, not least through the consultation that was held before the Bill was drawn up and introduced. That evidence indicated that specifically this type of premises—multiple-dwelling buildings—most needed the sort of targeted intervention that is proposed in the Bill. We were not, by contrast, presented with compelling evidence for other types of property at this stage and certainly not enough to justify legislating at this point. However, we recognise that such evidence might emerge in time and we are mindful that office blocks or business parks, which the noble Lord, Lord Clement Jones, mentioned, could face similar issues. We continue to engage with providers and others about this.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked how far our ambition stretches: as far as the evidence suggests. This is why we have included a clear power in the Bill for the Secretary of State to make regulations, should they be needed, to widen the scope of the Bill and make it apply to other premises of a specified description. That will allow the Secretary of State to legislate in a flexible and proportionate way, led by the evidence. This approach will allow the Government to continue to engage with interested parties, as well as to consider and balance the evidence that becomes available to us. Crucially, it will also help to guard against any unintended consequences that could arise from widening the scope of the Bill too quickly, before there is sufficient evidence to support doing so.
The noble Lord raised a point about new-build developments. The Government have set out plans to ensure that new-build homes in England are built with gigabit broadband by amending the 2010 building regulations to require developers of new-builds to install the infrastructure necessary to make them gigabit-capable. As we set out in our consultation response published on
I should add that, as housing is a devolved matter, the Government are also working closely with the devolved Administrations on this. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that we have firm proposals in place to address the issues raised, and that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister for his response. I shall be brief. The Minister talked about the absence of overwhelming evidence and said that, if this evidence were to come to light, we would be treated to a statutory instrument in order to implement or extend this Bill. What in the Government’s view is overwhelming evidence? What actually constitutes evidence that people require this? It is quite clear that people living in the wider group of residences as set out by my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones want access, so what do they have to do to overwhelm the Government in order to bring forth one of their statutory instruments?
My Lords, we have tried to strike a balance in the Bill so far between the requirements and the desires of providers and of course the rights of those owning property. At the moment, the evidence suggests that there is a distinction between multiple residential dwellings––where the owner of the building is perhaps not as easily contactable or is not responding––and business parks, for instance, whose owners seem to be more alert to requests from providers and are therefore responding in a more timely fashion to requests. However, if the evidence suggests that they are not, then the secondary power proposed in the Bill will allow the Secretary of State to make provisions and bring forward some statutory instrument to extend the Bill in this way, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, says.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response to my noble friend Lord Fox, for which I am grateful. The fact is that the Government have actually got the wrong mindset on this. This is not some precious commodity to be supplicated for by a group of property tenants or lessees. This is absolutely a utility, as we have debated and discussed throughout the relatively short period of this Committee.
That shows the poverty of ambition behind the Bill and, in a sense, behind the 1-gigabit strategy put forward by the Government. We should allow 1 gigabit to be laid by operators in all those places. Small businesses, almost more than ordinary consumers, are in desperate need of good connectivity. As we have seen, online business is now absolutely crucial, yet many business parks do not have proper connectivity.
It really is a bit of a myth that evidence is needed of landlords being awkward or whatever. The Government should say, “Right, this is our ambition. This is where we need to make sure that fibre is laid. We need to treat it as a utility and give powers of entry similar to those under the Electricity Act.” I love the way that the words are phrased: “unintended consequences” appears to emerge from the mists in this Bill at every possible stage. We should not be cautious about this; we should be ambitious, and we need to get on with it.
I am going to ask the Minister a question and I hope that he will be able to answer it before I withdraw the amendment. He mentioned the 2010 building regulations under the Building Act 1984 and said that they had been passed. From what date? When will there be an obligation on landlords to engage with operators and so on? What is the effective date, and what properties are involved in this change in the building regulations? I entirely accept—I am delighted—that primary legislation is not needed in this request but a few further particulars would go quite a long way.
The Government are certainly very ambitious regarding the provision of sufficiently fast broadband for everybody. As mooted earlier in the proceedings, the current situation, with so many people working from home and relying on the internet to communicate with their loved ones, underlines its vital importance. We aim to lay the regulations as soon as possible, but I will be happy to write to noble Lords with further details of when they will come into effect.
I thank the Minister for that clarification. Therefore, as yet the regulations are not in place and, as yet, there is no new-build obligation. We very much look forward to the Minister’s letter setting that out. I hope that there will be a sense of urgency, because the regulations were promised last year in the Conservative Party manifesto, and of course there is a great expectation that the manifesto will be fulfilled.
I thank the Minister for some of his clarifications. I keep urging the Government to be more ambitious but, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 10 withdrawn.
My Lords, we now come to the group consisting of Amendment 11. 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; the Committee cannot divide.