Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill - Third Reading – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 28th January 2021.

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Baroness Barran:

Moved by Baroness Barran

That the Bill do now pass.

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

My Lords, as noble Lords will be aware, this piece of legislation, though short in length, has taken many months to reach this stage and has sparked impassioned debate from all sides of this House. It is a Bill that will benefit huge numbers of people, and I appreciate the dedication with which your Lordships have scrutinised it. Our debate and your Lordships’ questioning have exposed important global issues, particularly in relation to human rights, and no one watching the passage of this Bill could doubt the rigour of your Lordships’ scrutiny.

I am particularly grateful for the openness and co-operation shown by Members on the Front Benches opposite: the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson, Lord Livermore, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox. I must of course mention the noble Lord, Lord Alton, from whom I have learned much in our conversations during the passage of the Bill. He has shone a light on some terrible human rights abuses. I also thank his co-signatories: my noble friend Lord Forsyth, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis.

I will take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, on his appointment to your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Committee. I thank him for his generous advice behind the scenes and his friendly challenge in the Chamber. I will miss seeing him opposite me, virtually or physically, but look forward to working with his successor.

I am pleased with the shape in which the Bill leaves the House. Once it comes into force, it will ensure that those living in apartments and blocks of flats are supported in accessing fast, reliable and resilient connectivity. I do not need to remind your Lordships how important that is.

Finally, I take the opportunity to thank the Bill team and officials across government who have worked tirelessly and very patiently with this Minister to deliver this important piece of policy. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her kind words. We have enjoyed working with her over this period. The Bill has been an exemplary one in terms of making sure that the House is able to do its job and that the processes necessary to make it fit for legislation once it leaves Parliament are carried out in the best way. That can be done only if there is a spirit of mutual support and trust, and we certainly had that.

I actually took this Bill over at a relatively late stage. Most of the heavy lifting was done initially by my noble friend Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, and the show was kept on the road by Dan Stevens, our legislative assistant, whose skills and expertise I have drawn on mercilessly. I join the Minister in thanking members of the Bill team, who made themselves very much available and answered our detailed questions in the private meetings that we had.

This is a small but important Bill. As the Minister said, it will affect a lot of people; it will make their lives better and give them access to what has become a utility necessary for modern living. It has been scrutinised carefully in this House, and I am confident that it will play a part in helping to achieve a gigabit-enabled economy across the whole country—something that we need as soon as possible. There remains a lot to do, as we picked up today, but it is good to hear that the consultations on the remaining issues are taking place, particularly on the rollout of 5G and the development of fibre to the home. I urge the department to up its game on this and on a number of other issues that we talked about, and I will be watching from the sidelines.

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

My Lords, I doubt very much whether the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, could ever possibly watch from the sidelines—but that is an aside.

After an unusually long gap between Report and Third Reading, we are sending the Bill back to the Commons in much better shape than when it arrived. It is still, however, a modest Bill with much to be modest about, to coin a phrase. We on these Benches have never thought that it was adequate in itself to deliver the ambition of one-gigabit-per-second broadband capability by 2025, and of course the goalposts themselves have now been moved by the Government. However, we now have the consultation on changes to the Electronic Communications Code, which is a step forward. I do hope that the Government will see the wisdom of retaining the review mechanism of the code in Clause 3, which the House inserted on Report, which can assess after that what other measures might be needed. We on these Benches will continue to press the Government on their electoral promises.

We also stressed during the passage of the Bill that we would like to see broadband treated as a utility, as with gas, water and electricity, with all the necessary and equivalent rights of entry. The last year could not have demonstrated more graphically the essential nature of good broadband to all our lives, alongside, if not ahead of, all those other utilities. We on these Benches advocate strongly for the universal service obligation to be raised to 25 or 30 megabits per second—that is, superfast levels—which should be treated as the minimum for these rural areas.

That said, I thank the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, together with her Bill team, as ever, for their very good nature. I also thank her for her kind words, good nature and patience with us all throughout the Bill and for her willingness to listen, even if she did not always accept our arguments. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for his collaboration and co-operation during the course of the Bill, which showed how we always achieve better results by cross-party working.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for raising some extremely important questions with reference to human rights abuses and modern slavery. His campaigning has clearly changed the Government’s approach and, despite what the Minister has said, it might become even more relevant in the context of the Telecommunications (Security) Bill, which, as we have heard, will come to this House shortly. Of course, the acid test will come next Tuesday on the Trade Bill ping-pong. This is of great significance in terms of the relationship between human rights and trade as a whole. Like him and many other noble Lords, I urge the Government to reconsider their position ahead of that vote.

Lastly, I thank Sarah Pughe in our whips’ office for her valuable help, and my noble friends Lord Fox and Lady Northover, who have contributed so knowledgeably throughout on different aspects of the Bill that they have given me a very easy run when leading on it.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Crossbench

My Lords, it is a privilege to make the concluding speech for the Cross Benches on this Bill today. I place on record our thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, and the Bill team, who have been so ready to engage with our concerns, albeit to limited avail in the end.

It was the late Robin Cook who, as Foreign Secretary, first set out a framework for the UK to have an ethical foreign policy in 1997. Given where the UK is now—debating sanctions only an hour ago against Russia in defence of human rights and democracy, standing up for the rights of people in Hong Kong and shortly to be in the process of discussing the National Security and Investment Bill—I think he would have been pleased with the progress made in the intervening period, not least with our efforts to prevent Chinese commercial enterprises, under the control of that country’s national security laws, from participating in egregious human rights violations and cashing in their profits in this country.

I first spoke to my amendment preventing firms that are a security threat operating our critical national infrastructure on 19 May 2020 in Committee on this Bill. In the intervening eight months and numerous debates, it was never my intention—and I think I speak for all other noble Lords who have led this charge; the noble Lords, Lord Alton, Lord Forsyth and Lord Adonis, joined by the Front-Bench speakers of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party—to prevent the necessary tools needed to roll out broadband to those who need it. Our concerns were well grounded and have, regrettably, come to pass as more information on the treatment of Chinese Uighurs comes to light.

It is also the co-operation between the House of Lords and the other place, so ably led by my noble friend Lord Alton, on these numerous amendments that has allowed us to help the Government to think through where the balance lies in relation to commerce and complicity in human rights abuses that has helped us reach this place today with our amendments. It is now for the other place to decide where that balance lies. I wish the Bill well.

Bill passed.