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House of Commons Hansard
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Communications Infrastructure and Flooding: North West
09 February 2016
Volume 605

[Andrew Percy in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered communications infrastructure and flooding in the North West.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I think it is the first occasion on which I have done so, and I am sure it will be a delight.

As many people will have seen, before and after Christmas, many towns, villages and communities in the north-west witnessed some of the worst flooding for years, which inflicted a great deal of pain on the people of Rochdale, Littleborough and Milnrow. I want to begin by paying a few tributes and saying that I have never been more proud to represent the people of Rochdale than after I witnessed their reaction to the floods. I pay tribute to the many individuals who worked tirelessly to help those affected and to the council for its quick action in getting out on to the streets and ensuring that people had access to emergency funds of £500 and other grants. We also saw a fantastic response from various businesses, voluntary groups and community-spirited individuals. The people of Rochdale came together as a community to help one another, and it was a particularly moving moment in the wake of such destruction.

However, the people of Rochdale have been let down by some larger companies dragging their feet. The response from telecommunication companies in getting vital phone and broadband lines restored to hundreds of people and small businesses in Rochdale has not been so positive. It is hard enough for people who have been affected by the devastation of the floods, but that has simply compounded their misery. Without vital communications lines, many small businesses have lost thousands of pounds-worth of custom, which can easily make the difference between staying afloat and going under. I have received reports of businesses being unable to take card payments, receive any phone calls or access the internet. Those are vital services that so many people rely on and cannot do without in their everyday lives.

We too often refer to figures in debates—x number of people have been affected by this, or y number of people have received that—but the floods’ effects were not about figures or statistics; they hit individuals, and it was they who had to deal with the problems. We sometimes dehumanise the human and personal grievances in such cases. So I will use a personal example to explain the deeply concerning effect of the communications failure on my constituents. I also point out that I had to receive the information by text, because this person’s internet was still not up and running consistently.

Emma King runs a small business of her own called Lola Ashleigh Florist, on Oldham Road in Rochdale. On 31 December, after returning from Christmas, a few days after the floods, she was serving a customer and tried to process a £100 payment for a bouquet. When the customer tried to pay by card, there was a problem with the card machine, which was not taking payment. Luckily, the customer showed some Rochdalian spirit and kindly agreed to make the payment once the card reader was back up and running. Although that meant not receiving the payment, Emma believed it was a better option than letting her customer down and losing custom. She thought that there would be a quick solution to the problem.

Emma made contact with her phone line provider, Axis for Business, to inquire what was going on. The company informed her that a note on the system said that there were widespread problems, although Emma had received no warning of that—not an email, a letter or even a phone call. Axis told her that it could provide no further information, as the responsibility for repairs lay with Openreach, but she was assured that the problems were likely to be resolved in a couple of days. It was new year’s eve and Emma, like others, would be closed for a couple of days, so she accepted that and went on with her business as best she could.

New year passed and Emma returned to work on 3 January—still no phone lines and no card reader. She got on her mobile phone to Axis and was informed that there would be no solution until 5 January. That date passed with no resolution and no new information. Emma was left stranded, with no fix in sight and with no way of taking card payments or receiving calls from potential customers. In addition, the local banks were closed due to the flooding and, because she runs her small business on her own, she was unable to drive to the bank in the next town, Bury. Emma had money going out, cash building up and no money going into the bank. Her ability to trade and run a business was being constrained. The only information she was receiving was via Axis—Openreach believed that the problem would now be fixed by 11 January.

Emma was not alone. Many independent businesses throughout Rochdale were facing similar problems. They were given different dates for when the problem would be sorted out. They, too, were having to turn away custom because people could not pay by card. To put the problem into perspective, in November alone there were 127.5 million contactless card transactions in the UK. That shows the size of the problem. In 2016, it is vital for small businesses to have 24/7 access to card payment facilities. Periods when they cannot accept such payments can be fatal for them.

The problem persisted, however, with everyone being given little or no information. Emma tried to contact Openreach, but found it near impossible. She was told that Openreach would not even talk to individuals, who must contact their line provider. I see no reason why Openreach should be totally unaccountable to the people it serves.

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Does my hon. Friend share my opinion that it is surprising that what is supposedly a communications company is so bad at communicating with the customers it should be seeking to serve? The experience in Lancaster during and after the floods is probably similar to that of his constituents in Rochdale. Cunningham Jewellers in Lancaster was flooded, but continued to trade throughout. However, because the card reader was not working and the staff had no idea when it would be working, they were forced to have cash-only payments. As the House can appreciate, for a jewellers that is a significant amount of cash in the run-up to Christmas.

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My hon. Friend’s intervention illustrates that the problem exists not only in Rochdale, but throughout the north-west.

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Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the time being taken to fix the damage to communications infrastructure throughout the community? In my constituency, for example, Westhead Lathom St James Primary School and the village of Westhead have been left without telephones since Boxing day, when the exchange box was damaged by flooding. In recent days the school wrote to me to say that it was unable to communicate with parents and that people are being placed in danger. Neither Openreach nor any of the communications companies can simply walk away.

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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point—as she points out, it is not only businesses that are being affected but schools and individuals, such as people who need to use the phone to communicate with Careline. There is real danger attached to the inadequacies of BT Openreach and its failure to improve the situation.

I have outlined how little communication Axis was providing, but I find the next bit particularly ridiculous: the only written communication Emma ever received was the phone bill—I kid you not. She had no information on the floods, when service would resume or what compensation she might receive; she was asked only to cough up for a service that she was not receiving at all.

Dissatisfied with the situation, Emma decided that since the telecom providers were not fulfilling their duty, at a cost to herself, she would have to redirect the phone line to her mobile and connect her chip and PIN machine to the internet via her mobile. She was repeatedly told by Axis that that was not possible, but it was—another communications blunder. That solution provided some relief, but connections were intermittent at best.

Ironically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) pointed out, there seems to have been a severe communications deficit on the part of the providers. The only communication Emma got was when she made expensive phone calls to her providers. At an already extremely difficult time, why should the burden be on the small business to find out information? The negligence of the companies has put many small shops at risk. One might conclude that the telecommunications companies need a lesson in communications, and fast.

Emma and her florist business were not the only ones suffering. A renowned hairdressers in Rochdale faced similar problems: phone lines down and an inability to take card payments or to elicit any information from the providers. Only this past Friday I had another constituent, Christina Hammersley, at my surgery. She also runs a florist, on Whitworth Road, and receives a lot of work via the internet, but she says that the problems persist. She is extremely concerned that she will not be able to process orders for Valentine’s day, one of her busiest days of the year. She, too, has faced extra costs to get temporary solutions.

Such businesses are heavily reliant on receiving phone calls for business and on taking card payments. Businesses such as florists and hairdressers, due to the nature of the service that they provide, take large payments, which are more often than not paid for by card. The problems have had a clear and tangible effect on their business and yet, to my understanding, no compensation has been given. Even worse, BT has said that all faults have been repaired, and the regional director told me only last week that all problems would be fixed the following day, but that has not been the case. I am repeatedly hearing reports of continuing issues and problems with telecommunications access.

Even Rochdale Council has faced problems contacting those responsible for the phone and broadband lines and getting them fixed. Council officers raised issues with Openreach, but got the same limited information that was being provided to individuals and small businesses. Only when the council went to the regional director of BT did progress begin to happen. Regular updates were then provided. If local government struggles to get hold of adequate information and problems resolved, what hope do individuals and small businesses have?

Running a business alone is tough, and people effectively have to take on multiple roles on their own. Never mind the risks to their economic wellbeing, the last thing they need is to have to lobby their phone and broadband providers to get the basic services for which they are already paying. That is scandalous, and something needs to happen.

I arranged for the debate because the response from the telecommunications companies has not been good enough. We must shine a light on this shocking issue to ensure that it does not happen again. After the flood, Manchester city centre was back up and running in a matter of days. It might have seen less of the floods, but the fact that vital services for businesses in Rochdale are still not back to 100% more than a month after the flood is simply not good enough. There is clearly an accountability deficit.

The deeply concerning and personal story that I have referred to shows that we must do better to protect small businesses. We need to realise the importance to people of phone and broadband lines, which are essential services, and the reaction to problems with them must take into account that importance. We must also improve the communications between provider and recipient. Openreach should communicate directly with those affected. It should not be possible for providers to absolve themselves of their duties by making lines of communication so complex and long.

It is also unacceptable that it takes so long for action to occur. I was interested to see that Ofcom says in section 13 of its “Strategic Review of Digital Communications” that when networks fail to put things right in an adequate amount of time, that raises questions that the service providers need to answer to ensure that that does not happen again. I must ask the Minister: what will the Government and Ofcom do to ensure that the problems are addressed?

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I call Minister Vaizey to respond.

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Thank you for that warm welcome, Mr Percy. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I know that your constituency has been affected by flooding, so no doubt you will be taking a personal interest.

I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) for securing the debate. He is a doughty champion on behalf of his constituents on numerous issues and I hope he will not think it too frivolous of me to note on Shrove Tuesday that Rochdale is also the home of the world’s largest pancake, which was made in 1994. This year, therefore, is the 22nd anniversary of that, but Rochdale also has a fantastic Member of Parliament who quite rightly brings this issue to the House’s attention. I also thank the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) for their contributions.

As Members know well, December was a record-breaking month for rainfall in many parts of the UK and exceptional amounts of rain fell on to already saturated ground. It was an horrific time for a great many people and those of us who were lucky enough not to be affected nevertheless saw what was happening on our televisions. Many Ministers went to see for themselves what was happening.

Rivers broke records when, on Boxing day, the River Calder in Yorkshire and the River Aire in Leeds reached their highest levels ever recorded. It goes without saying that the Government will stay squarely behind the residents and businesses affected by the floods. The hon. Member for Rochdale rightly focused his remarks on the effect of damage on his small businesses. Our task is to do everything we can to help the towns and communities to recover from the devastating floods.

Before I turn to the specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman, it is worth saying that we are investing nearly £200 million to help communities to recover from both Storm Desmond and Storm Eva. The first payments were made to councils in flooded areas within six days of the first floods and £48 million has already been paid out to 37 authorities in the affected areas. We have also made it clear that anyone displaced from their home or business premises will not have to pay council tax or business rates for as long as they are out of their properties. The fund includes £50 million for affected residents and businesses, £4 million in match funding for charities, and £40 million to repair roads, bridges and other key areas. We are also building 1,500 new flood defence schemes, which will better protect 300,000 more homes, with an extra £2.3 billion of capital investment to help our most at-risk communities.

In December, my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary announced that there will be a national flood resilience review, the purpose of which will be to assess how the country can be better protected from future flooding and increasingly extreme weather events and, importantly for this debate, the effects of such flooding. We are due to publish the review this summer with a view to work beginning in autumn to implement short-term measures and to review longer-term strategy. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s remarks will be taken into account in the review.

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The Minister will be well aware that not only the north-west but York suffered badly from flooding and we lost telecommunications for a number of days across the city. What can he do to bring the telecommunications industry to account to deliver a flood resilience scheme that can match the country’s need?

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My hon. Friend is quite right to bring me to account and ensure that I return to the subject matter in hand, but I wanted to mention the review because it will take telecoms resilience into account. I will go on to talk about that in more detail in a minute, but it is important to note that that work is in addition to that of the ministerial recovery group, which was established to ensure that local areas continue to receive co-ordinated support as they rebuild after the winter’s flooding.

Let me turn to what happened with telecoms infrastructure as a result of the floods. It is the case that it was affected badly in places, so my hon. Friend’s point was well made. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Rochdale pointed out, telecoms is essential to all our small businesses as well as to us all in our lives, so any disruption has a major impact on our ability to go about our lives and run our businesses. It is interesting to note that the main disruption was caused not by the telecoms network being taken out, but by power failures in the region. However, flooding did affect two key infrastructure sites: one was at the BT exchange in York and the other was at a Vodafone site—actually it was at a Cable & Wireless site, which is owned by Vodafone—in Leeds. The flooding in York on 27 December affected about 50,000 fixed-line and 46,000 broadband customers and there were knock-on impacts on mobile operators whose networks went through the exchange. BT brought the system back online within 24 hours and it worked with the fire service to protect the exchange, because Storm Frank was on its way.

The flooding at the Vodafone site, which also happened on 27 December, disrupted 999 services for a matter of hours as well as some emergency services communications. I stress that I was in touch with both companies throughout the incidents and the national alert for telecoms was invoked several times. That process brings together representatives from the UK’s major communications providers with Government bodies to ensure that everyone across the industry and Government has the latest information on what is happening.

In relation to Rochdale, there were four separate incidents that involved damaged cables. Two were quite complex, technical cable repairs that involved several thousand connections. The other two were located under carriageways, one of which was not damage caused by flooding per se but damage to a BT cable caused by other contractors. Obviously, it takes time to locate the exact point of the cable break and such repairs require permission from the local council to dig up the carriageways and various permits from councils in connection with access to manhole covers, putting traffic-light controls in place and so on.

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For the record, Rochdale Council was excellent in meeting those requirements and it acted as soon as it was contacted by BT Openreach. However, BT Openreach was lax in calling for the authority to take action.

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I note what the hon. Gentleman says and I will respond to him imminently.

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I remind the Minister that the debate is about communications in the north-west, and although it is important that we discuss what happened in Leeds and York, they are not in the north-west but in Yorkshire. To draw him back to the north-west, will he say something about the issues the fire brigade faced with communications? When mobile telephone networks went down, people found it difficult to contact the fire brigade. Cumbria fire and rescue also had a problem with its internal Airwave communications system, so will he comment on that?

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I thank the hon. Lady for bringing me back geographically to the subject of the debate. First, I am pleased to hear what the hon. Member for Rochdale said about Rochdale Council. I am glad that it acted promptly when contacted by Openreach and I hope that Openreach has noted that it is incumbent on it to contact the council as soon as possible. Some councils perhaps do not respond as quickly as they should, but it is good to hear that Rochdale acted immediately, particularly given the urgency of the situation.

The Airwave network is robust and resilient, but sometimes if a major cable is taken out, that can affect the backhaul, the mobile communications and mobile masts, so we need to look at that in the flood resilience review. I am sorry that I strayed towards the north-east, but those were the two most prominent examples of a major exchange being taken out by flooding and I wanted to reassure hon. Members that Ministers and the operators were alive to repairing the situation. We were also obviously aware of the concern when the emergency services network was affected, but I am pleased to say from my own experience of sitting on that committee over the Christmas recess that the co-ordination between the telecoms operators, the emergency services and local authorities seemed to be very robust.

Let me return to the specific subject of what has happened to the constituents of the hon. Member for Rochdale. I take this opportunity to extend my sympathy to them. We know that events such as flooding fundamentally affect the way a small business running on tight margins operates, and the people running those businesses are quite entitled to expect a speedy service to get them back on track.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the excellent work of Rochdale Council. I am pleased that Openreach stayed in touch with the council on these matters. The council may have operated speedily, but it will also have been aware of the need to repair the cable and to keep the highways and carriageways running. Even when we have the excellent co-operation that happened between Rochdale Council and Openreach, such repairs can be technically and logistically complex.

I am not minimising at all what the hon. Gentleman says. We can learn lessons from what has happened, and particularly from the terrible disruption to the two small businesses that he highlighted in his remarks. As with any disruption on that scale, we will work with the industry to understand what happened and what measures we can put in place to ensure that the response to such events continues to improve.

It was mentioned that Openreach would not talk to individuals. Openreach is a wholesale provider of telecoms services to retail providers, including BT and other well-known retailers. I am certainly not here to defend either Openreach or, indeed, telecoms retailers’ customer services. What I am robust in defending, however, are broadband roll-out programmes.

I know, as a constituency MP and the go-to person for my colleagues’ frustrations, how woeful the customer service can be; it is sometimes utterly Kafkaesque. Why operators often cannot sort out their customer service in the most simple and straightforward fashion possible is baffling. I hope that Openreach and retail providers will take note of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, because he brought to the House real case studies of people who frankly found themselves banging their heads against a brick wall when they wanted quick, robust service to get their business up and running.

Be that as it may, I turn to some better news: as of Thursday last week, 135 businesses in Rochdale had applied for financial support under the business support scheme, of which 107, as I understand it, have received payments totalling more than £53,000. The Government are committed to supporting those affected by the floods and to ensuring that the country is better protected from future flooding. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing these matters to the House’s attention, and I am always available to any hon. Member who experiences frustrations with either Openreach or a retail telecoms provider.

I hope that customer service will improve. The outgoing chief executive of Openreach was effective and brought some much-needed changes to the organisation, but we now have a new chief executive. I hope he and his team will read this debate, take some lessons from it and perhaps even engage directly with the hon. Gentleman, so that they can hear at first hand how the systems and real people interact.

Question put and agreed to.