New Clause 2 - Review of the changes to the Electronic Communications code

Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 22nd March 2022.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must conduct a full economic review of the effect of Schedule 1 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 (The Electronic Communications Code).

(2) The Secretary of State must prepare and publish a report on this review within two months of the passage of this Act and must lay a copy of the report before Parliament.”—

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to outline the economic impact of the 2017 introduction of the Electronic Communications Code.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to conduct a full economic review of the effect of the electronic communications code since 2017, and to publish a report on that review’s findings. When the code was introduced in 2017, the Government promised that they would publish a review of its impact by 2022, but I am afraid to say that we are still waiting. The Committee should note that this is not a new request; we are merely holding the Government to account on promises that were made in 2017.

The review should look into issues including, but not limited to, the impact of the legislation on investment into mobile networks, the number of new sites provided, the speed of infrastructure deployment, changes in rent to site providers, and the total legal costs that have been borne by the judiciary as a result of litigation. The Department’s vague responses to parliamentary questions show that it is unsure of how much money has been saved by rent reductions since 2017. That suggests, in turn, that the Department is also unaware of how much of that money has been reinvested back into the development of telecommunications infrastructure, which was the express purpose of the legislation.

The impact assessment for the previous legislation is clearly overdue, and the testimonies that we heard on Tuesday last week suggested that a review needs to take place sooner rather than later. The Minister was keen to suggest that only a small number of rent reductions were of more than 90%, but testimonies from witnesses last Tuesday suggested otherwise. The Minister also said that the number of legal cases was decreasing, but there have been over 300 since the introduction of the code, compared with just a handful prior to its introduction. Once again, we are hearing mixed messages from the Government while the message from those on the ground who have been adversely affected by the rent reductions is crystal clear.

The simple truth is that we are currently unable to make a clear and objective assessment of the effectiveness of the electronic communications code because its impact has not been reviewed. A review was promised, as I will continue to reiterate, when the legislation was first introduced; I accept that it was not this Minister who made that commitment, but it was this Government. Such a review would give us a better understanding of where we were in 2017, of where we are now in 2022, and of what we need to do to improve the situation in the future, as we increase our reliance on digital connectivity.

Technological progress and innovation will define the success of the United Kingdom in the 21st century, and any progress will be underpinned by how quickly and effectively we are able to roll out digital infrastructure projects such as 5G and gigabit-capable broadband. It is firmly in the national interest to get a better understanding of whether the changes we have made so far have been effective, and what lessons can be learned to ensure that our country thrives in the technological and digital spheres in the years ahead.

For the reasons that I have outlined, I hope that colleagues on both sides of the Committee will support the new clause and ensure simply that the Government are held to account on commitments made when the 2017 code was published.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), Minister of State

I thank the hon. Gentleman for tabling the new clause and, again, I appreciate the intention behind it. It would require the Government to carry out a review of the 2017 legislation that updated the electronic communications code, which is the overarching legislation that the Bill amends and that we have been discussing in Committee.

I appreciate that the intention behind the new clause is to better understand the impact of the 2017 changes to the code but, unfortunately, such a review clause would have unintended consequences. We are particularly concerned that there might be a chilling effect on the market while the review is carried out, which would lead to delays not just in implementing the measures in the Bill, but in wider deployment. When the 2017 code came into force with reduced rents, a lot of cases went through the courts because operators were still on higher rents as long as negotiations were ongoing. We do not want to see a similar challenge in this case.

If a review takes place, stakeholders will likely delay entering into agreements to enable the deployment of infrastructure. Only when the review has concluded and it is clear whether further changes are to be made to the code will parties be prepared to make investment or financial commitments. That will have a profound effect on our connectivity ambitions, despite our desire to move as quickly as possible to level up the country with world-leading connectivity. It will also have an adverse impact on consumers and businesses, many of whom want to access higher speeds and the latest technologies such as 5G.

The Bill focuses on a few issues that prevented the 2017 changes from having their full impact, such as speeding up deployment while protecting the rights of landowners and site providers. Wider changes to the code will halt all progress made and will risk bringing deployment to a standstill. That would leave many homes and communities without the upgrades to connectivity that they badly need, which I am sure the hon. Member will agree would not be the desired outcome.

Let me clarify what was said in 2017 about reviewing the changes to the code. In the impact assessment that accompanied the reforms, the Government said that they would review the policy by June 2022. They did not say that they would carry out a full economic review of the impact of the reforms on the rental agreements. We have reviewed the policy. Officials have held regular meetings with stakeholders since the 2017 reforms came into force, including facilitating workshops between stakeholders to encourage more collaborative working. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, held a series of roundtable meetings with stakeholders from both the operator and the site provider communities so that he could understand the situation better.

Since I have been in post, I have been testing some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Ogmore in Parliament to ensure that we are beyond some of the initial challenges that we all accept existed when the code changes were made. Regular engagement and the issues highlighted directly informed last year’s consultation, which preceded this Bill, and led to the provisions in the Bill that are needed to realise the benefits of the 2017 reforms. I hope that this gives the hon. Member reassurance that we have reviewed the policy as a whole, and I ask that he withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I have listened to the Minister and I accept that there are challenges with any review, but the only way in which we learn is by reviewing what we have done previously. There are some nicks in the system that are still not rectified. There is no reason why a Government review would mean that the industry would need to stop rolling out fibre broadband, improving broadband more generally, 5G roll-out or anything else. The process could be done with industry to ensure there is an efficient and effective way of reviewing, so that we can learn from what has happened and improve moving forward. I am keen to push the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 7 Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill — New Clause 2 - Review of the changes to the Electronic Communications code

Aye: 4 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.