Amendment 7

Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 29th June 2020.

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Votes in this debate

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara:

Moved by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

7: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—“Review of this Act’s impact on the Electronic Communications Code(1) Within six months of months of the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must commission a review of the impact of this Act on the Electronic Communications Code (“the code”) contained in Schedule 3A to the Communications Act 2003.(2) A review under subsection (1) must include assessments of whether the code—(a) is sufficient to support access to 1 gigabit per second broadband in every premises in the United Kingdom by 2025, and(b) should be amended to—(i) introduce rights of access to telecommunications operators akin to those available to suppliers of(a) electricity,(b) gas, and(c) water,(ii) provide additional development rights for operators to support the provision of telecommunications infrastructure,(iii) encourage telecommunications operators to undertake infrastructure works alongside other works being carried out in a locality, where this is practicable.(3) In undertaking the review, the Secretary of State must consult—(a) telecommunications operators,(b) organisations that represent tenants and telecommunications consumers,(c) persons appearing to the Secretary of State to represent owners of interests in land who are likely to be affected by amendments to the code, and(d) any other persons the Secretary of State deems appropriate.(4) A review under subsection (1) must be published within 12 months of the day on which it was commissioned.(5) The review must make a recommendation on whether the Government should introduce legislation to amend the code in accordance with its findings under subsection (2)(b).(6) A Minister of the Crown must lay the review before Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require the Secretary of State to commission a review of the impact of this Act on the Electronic Communications Code. This review, which would assess the code’s suitability to support universal access to gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, could make recommendations for future amendments to the code.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, this amendment, which I am pleased to move, is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, whom I thank. It builds on a very good debate in Committee, which was mainly framed around the existing USO of 10 megabits per second, and the problems that this causes, in terms of how people respond to it in trying to make it feel better than it is, and the reality of living in a household with a 10 megabit per second supply where other users are taking up the bandwidth, making it feel very much slower. To sum up the discussion, the feeling around the House was that the target was the problem. It was a bit unambitious, not least because the experiences gained over the last few months during the pandemic have shown that the whole country needs a step change in broadband capacity, which would of course be signalled if the Government had accepted our amendments to the Digital Economy Act, which called for a USO of 1 gigabit.

However, we are all now roughly in the same place. All sides realise that we must aim for the very high-speed, gigabit-enabled capacity. The question which follows is: how best do we achieve this? This very narrowly constructed Bill does not make amendments of the type that we would like to run on this topic very easy to get in scope, so what we have before us is a classic approach, which I think the Minister when she responds will easily see through. But I hope that the amendment has sufficient in it to attract her interest about how we might make progress together in achieving the future that we both want.

This amendment requires the Secretary of State to commission a review of the impact of this Bill on the Electronic Communications Code within six months of Royal Assent. That review would assess the code’s suitability to support universal access to gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 and to make recommendations for future amendments to other legislation, if that were required, and to this code. We want to ensure that the Government act as if the USO was 1 gigabit enabled broadband across the whole country and work back from that target date of 2025 to draw up a comprehensive plan for the legislation that would be required to achieve that.

We understand that this is a tough call, but it goes with the grain of what we should be doing as a country. We have not specified in the amendment that in future the Government should regard access to fast and affordable broadband as a utility. We believe that, but we know that will not go well with them. We have not required the Government to introduce access rights for operators similar to those in place in respect of electricity, gas and other utilities, as we argued in Committee. They may be going that way anyway, because a consultation has just been opened on this issue. We have not listed a whole host of other issues that contribute to the future connectivity of the UK— wayleaves, mast rentals, use of existing street furniture and better planning of changes to allow better cabling in roads and pathways. We have not put that in, but it is part of the solution. We expect and trust the Government to recognise what is required and to get on with it.

Everyone, including the Minister, knows that more legislation is needed. This amendment might prompt the Government to think about that ahead of time and bring it forward at the appropriate moment. I hope that the Government accept this amendment in the spirit in which it is moved, and I look forward to hearing the noble Baroness respond. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords)

This amendment would serve a necessary purpose: the delivery of 1 gigabit per second broadband to every home by 2025. It is an ambition stated by the current Prime Minister, but what is the hesitation? The lack of bold leadership and ambition to get this done is of concern. Amendment 7 builds on an amendment tabled by Liberal Democrat colleagues in Committee but is significantly wider in its scope.

A review of the impact of the Act would require consideration of the suitability of other parts of the Electronic Communications Code in facilitating the Government’s aim of universal access to high-speed broadband. It is clear from some of the stories and examples raised during this Bill’s passage that for a variety of reasons there are significant obstacles to meeting the Government’s target. As such, I hope the Minister will recognise that Amendment 7 is designed to be helpful and to bring us closer to the destination that we all agree on.

The country has a mountain to climb after the serious damage sustained to the economy during and after this health pandemic. Millions of lives will be affected by the implications of unemployment and a contracting public sector. The UK, ill prepared for the onset of the virus and constantly playing catch-up during it, has to try to regain momentum in delivering a fair and balanced economy to benefit the majority of its citizens. The recovery programme that must be implemented after the pandemic will be utterly dependent on how we connect ourselves and the wider world. As it is expected that working from home will continue for some and develop and reproduce, we need good and reliable internet speeds across the country to support this. The universality of the service, so that it is available to all irrespective of location, is also an important point, raised previously by my noble friend Lord Adonis.

The mix of cybersecurity-focused big business, a critical mass of small enterprises and GCHQ-recognised academic excellence, promoted by the Welsh Government’s strategy, is presently located in my home city of Newport.

There must be an evaluation of the impact, over at least a six-month period, to aid the recovery of the economy after Covid, and residents of houses in multiple occupation should not be treated less favourably in any aspect that inhibits the rollout of this vital public service. While steps to improve rollout of new infra- structure to multiple-occupancy dwellings is welcome, I ask the Minister what plans the Government have to deal with issues in rural areas. I therefore speak in favour of the amendment.

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

My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is extremely clear and should be welcomed by the Government. It is to ensure that the code is fit for the purpose of delivering the Government’s own manifesto commitment—and that personally expressed by the Prime Minister—of 1 gigabit per second-capable broadband to every home by 2025.

However, in the Minister’s letter to me about comparative rights of entry for different utilities—I thank her for it—she describes it as the Government’s ambition to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business “as soon as possible”; that is my emphasis. All of us, whether at Second Reading or in Committee, have described the importance of delivering what we must now call ultrafast broadband by any appropriate technology by 2025, particularly in the light of the demonstration through the Covid-19 lockdown of our increasing dependence for remote working, education and many other aspects of life on good broad- band connectivity, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, described.

It is clear that the Electronic Communications Code needs regular review to ensure that this vital objective is met and that operators have all the rights of entry they need. It is all the more important given that, as all of us know, previous pledges and commitments have not been met—and, this year, we can hardly celebrate the arrival of a universal service obligation of a miserable 10 megabits per second.

I am glad that we have started a genuine debate around whether we can describe broadband as a utility and what the appropriate rights of entry are. The amendment is by no means prescriptive on the point, but it should definitely be a matter of consideration on review, particularly given that, unlike with electricity, gas and so on, the rights of broadband operators are only ever temporary in the code at the moment. The amendment would be an extremely valuable addition to the Bill.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 7:45 pm, 29th June 2020

My Lords, I am glad to follow my colleague, my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones. This amendment is largely built on Amendment 21 from Committee. During the response to that amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, described the Bill as

“one discrete instrument in the Government’s overall strategy for speeding up the deployment of gigabit broadband.”—[Official Report, 2/6/20; col. 1331.]

What are the other discrete elements of this strategy? What other legislative elements are there? My understanding is that this is the only legislative element currently available—leaving aside the security Bill, which is entirely different and not focused on the delivery of gigabit speeds—which is why I, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and others seek to use this as an opportunity for the Government to reaffirm their commitment to one gigabit by 2025. As my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones asked, is 2025 still serious, when the Minister is now using the language of “as soon as possible”, which of course means many things to many people?

This amendment calls for a review of the impact of this Act on the Electronic Communications Code, focusing in particular on progress towards that one-gigabit target by 2025 and looking at whether we should grant rights of access to telecom operators akin to those enjoyed by other utilities. The review would also make recommendations for future amendments and legislation.

As I said in Committee, there is an urgent need to inject some adrenaline into the Bill, as we have seen in other areas, in delivering the 2025 target. Proposed new subsection (1) of the new clause envisioned by this amendment causes Her Majesty’s Government to review the impact of this Bill on the delivery of one-gigabit broadband to every home and business by 2025. As my noble friend pointed out, this is not an unreasonable target, given that it is the Prime Minister’s stated aim and therefore the stated aim of Her Majesty’s Government. We feel that this will be helpful to the department and the Government.

The second proposed new subsection backs this up by requiring the Government to look at what is needed to deliver sufficient support. As my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones just pointed out, there has been significant dialogue around the meaning of “utility”. I too appreciate the response from the Minister and the department. The gist of that response is that there is no single definition of what a utility has or is. I am sure that they are right, because the needs of electricity are different from the needs of water. The industries and their histories are different. Therefore, one would not expect a consistent picture, given how British law is constructed.

However, there is one overriding similarity: the complete assumption that every dwelling and business should have access to electricity, water and so on. These utilities come with a sense of assurance, a halo of necessity, and the legislation around them delivers on that. For all the assurances we have had from the Minister and the Government, this and previous Bills do not give that similar assurance for telecoms infra- structure enjoyed by those other things we call utilities. That is why this amendment is important; it promotes the cause of telecoms infrastructure as a modern-day necessity. If we ever needed evidence of that, this crisis has delivered it. Every day we see in the House of Lords the huge variation and poverty of connection that even your Lordships enjoy, never mind people across the rest of this country. That is why it is important and why the spirit of treating it like a utility is central to this amendment.

Subsection (3) calls for widespread consultation and sensible measures to ensure that both tenants and landowners are listened to. The Minister talked about maintaining the balance between landowners, tenants and property owners; subsection (3) allows that balance to be continued. Subsections (4), (5) and (6) ensure that the review is laid before Parliament within a year and looks at the scope of the code.

At its core, I really do not see why this is objectionable to the Minister or the Government. Indeed, as I have said, it is helpful in that it codifies the Prime Minister’s words into something tangible. That is why we on these Benches and Liberal Democrat Peers attending virtually will support the amendment if it goes to a vote.

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

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords for tabling this amendment, which I note is a revised version of the amendment tabled in Committee. I very much appreciate the spirit of this amendment, as set out by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. It is designed to be supportive of gigabit broadband deployment and to ensure that the legislative and regulatory environments support that deployment.

As we have discussed on several occasions this afternoon, this Bill has been introduced to address a specific issue. It is not, and has never been intended as, a panacea for the rollout of gigabit connectivity; it is one element of a multifaceted approach to improving the nation’s connectivity. In a moment I will try to set out some more elements of that approach.

I remind noble Lords that we are also bringing forward legislation to ensure that gigabit connectivity is provided to all new-build developments; working to improve the street works regime so that it works better for broadband deployment; and investing £5 billion in areas the market alone is unlikely to reach—which the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, quite rightly highlighted.

This measure was designed from the outset to be a precision instrument that supports the 10 million people living in apartment blocks in the UK to access better broadband. It is on this point—the idea of better broadband—that I feel I should begin. We are confident that Part 4A orders will be used by operators predominantly to deliver gigabit-capable connections, as we discussed in Committee, but the Bill does not mention gigabit-capable networks. For that matter, it does not mention broadband, 5G or any type of connection. As noble Lords know, 1 gigabit connectivity is not tech-neutral; not all forms of broadband can deliver 1 gigabit per second of connectivity. For example, copper-based superfast connections would not be able to do that.

The Electronic Communications Code, of which the Bill will form a constituent part, does not mention broadband; nor does it mention any connection speed or anything about the technology installed. The Bill and the code are technology-neutral; I believe there was some confusion on this in Committee. To put that another way: the code deals with the how, where and when of deployment, not about what is installed. I am making this point again because technological neutrality is important, as it allows a consumer to get the connectivity they need from the operator they want at the best price.

None of this is to detract from noble Lords’ appetite to ensure that the Government are on track to deliver gigabit-capable connections, which is entirely understandable and reasonable. Many noble Lords will know that there are already ways in which some or all of the amendment’s effects can be achieved without the need for the amendment. I will give three examples.

First, Ofcom publishes its annual Connected Nations report, which it updates two further times each year. It provides a clear assessment of the progress that the country is making in providing connectivity, both fixed and mobile. I hope your Lordships would agree that the regulator, which is independent of government, is well placed to provide information on the progress of gigabit-capable broadband.

Secondly, the Government continue to answer questions and provide clarity on any aspects of its work in this area, in both this House and the other place. Noble Lords are familiar with asking questions and I endeavour, as always, to answer them.

Thirdly, in this House and in the other place there are established means of scrutiny through Select Committees. Indeed, the DCMS Select Committee in the other place has already launched an inquiry into the Government’s gigabit broadband ambitions. That committee has made it clear that it will

“focus on how realistic the ambition is, what is needed to achieve it, and what the Government’s target will mean for businesses and consumers.”

I hope that that goes to the heart of the spirit of the amendment.

The amendment also asks us to reconsider giving telecoms operators similar rights to access land as those enjoyed by gas, water and electricity operators. This is entirely understandable: the coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the increased need for fast, reliable and resilient networks. Indeed, the argument was well made in Committee and I have had further conversations on the issue since then.

It is important to be specific when talking about operators’ access to land. The Electronic Communications Code provides a degree of operational flexibility to telecoms operators. The amendment talks of rights of access “akin” to those of gas, water and electricity. I would be interested to understand precisely where noble Lords think telecoms operators might be disadvantaged. Indeed, the Bill gives them a simple way to apply for rights to gain access to land where there is an unresponsive landlord. It is already giving them more.

That said, I will concede that the rights of telecoms operators are not identical to those of gas, water or electricity operators, but nor do they need to be; they are comparable in many important ways. The code gives operators a framework that incentivises them and landowners to reach a duly negotiated agreement. If, for whatever reason, an agreement is unable to be reached, it allows an application to be made with the court to have rights imposed. Also, Schedule 4 to the Communications Act 2003 makes provision for them to compulsorily purchase land. I hope noble Lords agree that these are quite significant powers. To be clear, there are differences, but I think we would all recognise that certain rights of entry and access are to be expected due to the nature of the gas, water and electricity networks, not least given the potential threat to life that even a minor fault could cause.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked why we had gone back on our assertion in the future telecoms infrastructure review about giving operators similar powers to utilities. I wonder whether some of the issues around that come from that statement in the infrastructure review.

As I tried to point out in Committee, the consultation for the Bill explored the possibility of giving telecoms operators a warrant of entry through the magistrates’ court, similar to the process for operators of other utilities. However, the responses to the consultation made it clear that warrants of entry were not suited to the problem faced by telecoms operators here; they are used largely for single access, for example to remove existing equipment. That is why we consulted on this and the judiciary agreed that it should instead be either the Upper Tribunal Lands Chamber or First-tier Tribunal granting interim rights codes to operators. I hope that I have alighted on the right issue that has given rise to this element of the debate.

Finally, on additional development rights, this is a planning matter and an issue for neither this Bill nor the Electronic Communications Code. However, I am sure that many noble Lords will know that telecoms operators are afforded significantly more flexibility in how they install their infrastructure, including—under permitted development rights—exemptions from a number of requirements to request planning permission. My department continues to work closely with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. For example, in August 2019 we launched jointly a consultation regarding potential reform of permitted development rights to support mobile network deployment in particular. That consultation closed in November and a response will be published in due course.

The Bill and the Electronic Communications Code of which it will be part are not, nor were they ever, envisaged to be mechanisms to promote a single type of connectivity or speed. However, it is reasonable to assume, given the current market, that improved access to gigabit broadband will be a result.

I hope that I have been able to address the points made by noble Lords and have been clear why the Government cannot accept this amendment, and I ask the noble Lord to withdraw it.

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 8:00 pm, 29th June 2020

I have received a request from the noble Lord, Lord Fox, to ask a short question for elucidation.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The issue of 2025 was raised by both of us, so could the Minister clarify that?

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

It is still the Government’s intention to deliver gigabit-capable connections to every home and business in the UK as soon as possible. We seek to do that by 2025. The noble Lord will remember that we talked in Committee about the impact of Covid on the rollout; I think that I clarified that we know that there is a short-term impact and we are doing everything we can to try to work through it—but, obviously, none of us can predict the future.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I am grateful to those noble Lords who contributed to this short debate. I am particularly grateful to the Minister, who has spent a lot of time going back through some of the discussions that we had on this issue in Committee, and indeed further back than that, to come up with a comprehensive response, which I recognise and welcome. However, the argument that I was trying to make through the amendment—indeed, it carries on from discussions in Committee—was precisely illustrated by what she had to say in her response. The attempt to do this for every property in the country by 2025 must, by its very definition, range across departments other than DCMS, so it would be extraordinary if there was no central planning document at the very least, or legislative background at the highest end, to allow that to work through in the way that we do.

Those of us who have been around the block in government or close to government for many a year recognise that cross-departmental issues—the wicked issues, as they are often called—are always the ones that bring people down. Here we are, trying to suggest to the Government that we recognise that this is what they need; they may not like it and they may find that it causes more difficulties than it solves in the initial stages, but by goodness they will need it by the end of the process—and, as we get closer to 2025, they will definitely wish that they had taken this advice at this time.

To take an example, just on the simple question of reporting and accountability to Parliament, it was said in Committee and repeated today that the combination of Ofcom reports, Oral Questions, debates and Select Committee reports would be tantamount to a regular review carried out by the Government. But it would not. Ofcom is a regulator with separate focuses and functions. Oral Questions are random and not always coherent, and Ministers are expert at making sure that we get the least information for the maximum effort on our part. Debates, Select Committees and special reports are what they are. They are random and they come forward in response to particular and different pressures. They are not in any sense a replacement for a coherent approach in the way that we have talked about in this arrangement.

Having said that, the record of what the Government are currently doing is not to be decried. They are moving on new build and thinking about street works. There is money in the back pocket—£5 billion for hard to reach properties—and there are other lessons to be learned. There will be difficulties—these things are always difficult—but at least there is progress. What we are offering is a coherence and a shape and the legislative back-up to do that. I do think that the Government could have taken our advice and accepted the amendment. But, in the interim, even though it is late, I would like to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 279, Noes 227.

Division number 2 Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill - Report — Amendment 7

Aye: 279 Members of the House of Lords

No: 227 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Amendment 7 agreed.