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Related amendments

Part of Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 11th February 2020.

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Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 11:00 am, 11th February 2020

At its heart, the Bill is about making it faster and cheaper for digital infrastructure providers to seek rights to install their services in leasehold properties. The Bill is also concerned with not permitting consistently unresponsive landlords to stand in the way of receiving the connectivity that households need. The Government have tabled three amendments that respond to helpful suggestions, first made by the senior judiciary of both the first-tier and upper tribunals. Our amendments also respond to the welcome interventions made by hon. Members on Second Reading—I am glad to see some of those Members here today.

Without these amendments, applications would commence in the upper tribunal in England and Wales and the Lands Tribunal for Scotland, and would be dealt with in the county court in Northern Ireland. Commencing cases in the upper tribunal is a reasonable route, because it aligns the new process with the electronic communications code. The process still works in principle, but we should also ensure that it works as well as possible in the real world to deliver the faster, cheaper outcomes that we seek. We continue to be mindful that, with up to an estimated 2,650 cases per year in England and Wales, we need to hear cases at the most appropriate level.

Presently, the upper tribunal hears cases and makes determinations in respect of disputes concerning the interpretation. As such, the Government need to continue to work with that tribunal and its equivalents elsewhere. The need to ensure that the upper tribunal has the capacity to deal with the part 4A applications was raised on Second Reading. The matter has also been the subject of discussion between my officials and their counterparts at the Ministry of Justice, as well as senior members of the judiciary from the relevant chambers of the first-tier and upper tribunals.

The number of part 4A cases is estimated to be significant. The upper tribunal, with just two judges, would not have the bandwidth to deal with that volume of cases, regardless of the fact that the applications are expected to be relatively straightforward. While the process as drafted continues to work in principle, therefore, in practice we agree with the representations that we have heard that placing an additional burden on the upper tribunal would not necessarily provide us with the resources that we need. We are grateful to senior members of the judiciary from the first-tier and upper tribunals with whom my officials met.

In the light of those considerations, the amendments provide for applications for part 4A orders to commence in the first-tier tribunal in England and Wales and the sheriff court in Scotland. I hope that Committee members agree with that important change. In comparison with the small number of judges that I mentioned, 15 salaried judges and an additional 125 fee-paid judges sit in five courts across England, and 142 sheriffs preside over 39 courts in Scotland, so the change significantly increases the resources available and addresses some of the concerns expressed, sensibly, by hon. Members from both sides of the House on Second Reading. I am glad that we have found a sensible way forward that increases the resources available. It is a sensible and pragmatic move that has a significant effect but does not alter the principle of the Bill.

New clause 1 proposes that a report be made to make it clear that we have the necessary resources. As I said, we are confident that applications for part 4A orders will, in due course, be heard on the papers—without the need for an oral hearing—and our intention is for the process to be as low in burden as possible. Of course, we will monitor the resourcing of the first-tier tribunal to ensure that it has the capacity to dispense with those cases. Ultimately, that information can be obtained in a number of ways, such as by tabling parliamentary questions or through the fact that the proceedings are public.

Again, we sympathise with the intentions of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, but it is clear from the amendments tabled in my name that we are already addressing the substance of what she asks. Ultimately, the information that she seeks is already widely available in equivalent cases and will continue to be in future, so introducing an additional administrative burden would neither provide more information nor be a sensible use of resources. I hope that she will withdraw the new clause in that spirit.