I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Everyone in the House knows the importance of being connected, whether through traditional means or, increasingly, through digital connections. Whether the issue is the next generation of broadband technology, better mobile phone coverage or preparing for the next generation of 5G, the Bill is all about improved connectivity. Whether we are talking about fixed networks in the ground or the next generation of mobile and wireless connectivity, what people care about is how well connected they are—good download and upload speeds, reliability, latency, and how quickly they get reconnected when there is a problem. It is a problem that we can all identify with, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I say what a great pleasure it is to see you in the Chair for the first time from the Dispatch Box, Dame Rosie?
Our task is to prepare for a world of considerably greater demand for digital connectivity. Just as Moore’s law states that the cost of computing halves each year, Nielsen’s law has seen the doubling of data demands every two years. World-class connectivity is important for people to function in the modern world, whether at work or at play. It will continue to transform our public services and bring efficiencies there, too, and it is important for all sectors in our economy. The challenge is always to stay a step ahead of need. We need the digital infrastructure that can support that, providing ubiquitous coverage so that no one is left out, and sufficient capacity to ensure that data can flow at volume and with speed and reliability to meet the demands of modern life.
All these connections rely on Britain laying more fibre-optic cable. Whether fibre all the way to the premise—to each home and business—or the fibre that underpins the mobile network, all modern connectivity runs off fibre. Around five years ago, the nation took a strategic decision to roll out high-speed broadband based largely on a part-fibre, part-copper network. Superfast broadband delivered in that way is today available to 93% of UK homes and businesses. We rank first among the big European states for superfast connections, and we are on track to reach 95% by the end of this year.
In mentioning that, may I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey)? He did so much—he never lets me forget how much—to deliver the first-rate, high-quality superfast broadband connectivity to homes and businesses around the country that now allows us to say that 93% of people have access to, but do not necessarily take up, superfast broadband.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for being so quick to take an intervention. May I suggest that he is being a little Panglossian and positive in his approach? As constituency MPs, we receive quite a number of complaints, and yet the grin on his face suggests quite the opposite.
That was me talking about what we have done so far—just wait until I talk about what we need to do in the future. I strongly agree with the hon. Lady that we need to do much more, which is what the bulk of my speech is all about. Indeed, it is what the Bill is all about. If she holds the view she espouses, I look forward to her marching through the Division Lobby later in support.
Precisely on the point raised by the hon. Lady, of course 7% of premises do not yet have access to superfast connections, so we are introducing the new broadband universal service obligation so that, by 2020, everyone has access to a minimum level of service. That will provide a vital safety net and ensure that nobody is left behind as the country takes these strides towards better connectivity.
Yet even this is not enough. Demand marches on. People’s needs and expectations have risen further, and will continue to rise. Yes, we need to celebrate what we have done so far, but we must also deliver deeper connectivity, now and in the future, to support a competitive market and to ensure that we get this infrastructure in the ground. We must work now to deliver the next generation of technologies, 5G and fibre over the decades ahead. This Bill is part of a suite of actions we are taking to boost Britain’s fibre. We will break down barriers to better broadband for business and get quicker connectivity for consumers.
First, in the Digital Economy Act 2017 we reformed the electronic communications code, which regulates agreements between people who provide sites and the digital communication operators. That new code will make it easier for electronic communications infrastructure to be deployed, maintained and upgraded. We are currently finalising the regulations needed to support the new code, which we plan to commence later this year when the work has been completed.
Secondly, with the separation of Openreach from BT we will see a more competitive market, with an Openreach that serves all customers well, rather than just focusing on BT. That decision has been largely welcomed by BT’s competitors and is the result of intense negotiations between Ofcom and BT. It is the right outcome and will ensure that Openreach delivers not just for its customers but for the whole country.
Thirdly, we are supporting the fibre roll-out through a £400 million digital infrastructure investment fund to help competitors in the market to reach scale and to deliver. The fund will improve access to commercial finance for alternative developers for full fibre infrastructure, helping them to accelerate roll-out plans and compete with the larger players.
Will that assist those areas, of which there seem to be a great number in my constituency, where one part of, say, a market town or a small village has had its box upgraded by BT but users who are a few yards further away from the box, requiring longer reaches of copper wire, cannot get a decent service?
It may well help, but the universal service obligation is the thing that will really help those people, because it means everybody will have a right to a high-speed broadband connection. Some of those connections will be delivered by the next-generation full fibre connectivity and some of them by the existing technology, but our whole package of measures to deliver better broadband and quicker connectivity will ensure that we reach those people who, frustratingly, can be just a few yards further away from a box—or, indeed, who see the fibre go down in the road in front of their premises—but who do not have a connection.
I welcome the Bill, which is essential for moving the country forward and making our businesses as strong as possible, but even in the centre of Taunton Deane and the county town of Taunton there are areas where people still cannot get fast broadband. Will the Minister tell them how quickly they might be able to take advantage of this new service?
The universal service obligation is in law to ensure that everybody can access the service by 2020, but that is an end date, a deadline. As I said earlier, we have now reached 93% of premises. Crucially, that is 93% of premises having access to broadband—they still have to take it up. In fact, everybody who takes up the service in a subsidised area puts more money into the pot so that we can give more people access to superfast broadband.
Just 42% of the country had superfast broadband in 2010, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage took up the reins of delivering it, but now 93% have access to it. We are on track to get to 95% at the end of the year, and then 100% of premises will have access to high-speed broadband by 2020. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) can see, we are rolling that out. Crucially, that is delivering today’s technology—it delivers the needs of an average household today—but we also need to make sure we are ahead of the curve on the next generation of technology.
The idea of the digital investment fund is that it supports the commercial finance of alternative developers so we get more players into the market, rather than just having BT and Virgin, the two big players. The Government’s investment will be at least matched on the same terms by private sector investments so we expect it to capitalise more private investment and bring more than £1 billion of investment overall into full-fibre broadband, getting the really high speeds that some people need and want now, but many, many more will need and want in the future as these demands increase.
I want to refer back to the Minister’s remarks on the universal service obligation, which of course he is right to hail as a revolution in provision. The USO will be subject to a cost cap, so I wonder whether he will tell us when our constituents are likely to know what that cap is going to be and therefore whether he will be burnishing his credentials as a hero of rural Britain or not.
I know when to take a compliment as a threat. The truth is that this all depends on the technology. It may cost an awful lot to dig a trench and get a piece of fibre all the way to some places a long way from the existing network. However, new technologies are coming on stream, especially fixed wireless technologies, where a signal is beamed from one place to another. As a last resort, there are satellite technologies, which are good but not as reliable, that mean everyone can get connected. The aim is to get decent broadband speeds to every premises that wants them, making sure that as much of that as is feasibly possible is covered by a fixed network, but using technologies to get to the hardest to reach.
I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that 100% of properties will have access to this by 2020, but will he confirm what speeds they will have access to? At the moment, there is a range of 2 megabits per second for the universal service and 24 megabits per second and more for the superfast service. What range of speeds is he talking about when he refers to 100%?
We have said 10 megabits per second as a minimum, and that is Ofcom’s analysis of the needs of the average household today; this is about making sure there is a service everybody can use. As we ask people to pay their taxes, get their passports or do their rural payments service applications online, it is a perfectly reasonable request back to us in government that people should have a decent level of broadband. If people want the really tip-top level, they may have to pay more for it, and that is not unreasonable either. We are saying that there must be a decent level of high-speed broadband. At the moment, we have said 10 megabits per second as a minimum, but we have also said that that has to be reviewed in an upwards direction in due course.
I speak as someone whose constituency is one big roadworks, where a company called Gigaclear delivers fibre to premises, which is welcomed by people in even quite remote communities.
Will the Minister help us with concerns we might have about his discussions with the Valuation Office Agency, which, in my experience, seems not to understand the way the world is? At the click of a VOA bureaucrat’s mouse, the finances of a local unitary authority such as West Berkshire Council can be radically altered in terms of how networks are business rated.
I can tell my right hon. Friend two things. The first is that we are committed to a business rates review to look at these sorts of things for fibre currently in the ground; I am sure the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who are here on the Bench, will have heard what he has said.
The second thing is that at the heart of this Bill is making sure that new fibre that goes into the ground will have no such rates at all for the next five years, which is why we are here legislating today; we are making sure that companies such as the one he mentioned can get on and deliver this fibre, digging it in the ground as efficiently and cheaply as is reasonably possible, and we reduce the tax on that.
The fourth reason why fibre is important is for implementing our 5G strategy, including exploring commercial options to improve mobile coverage on our roads and rail networks, because we want mobile phone coverage where people live, work and travel. We are working with Ofcom to make sure that UK regulations on spectrum and infrastructure are 5G ready. We are working across Government with the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government to make sure that we get right the rules on putting the infrastructure in place. We are also supporting 5G pilots, the first of which we will roll out next year, making Britain a global leader in 5G. All 5G roll-out is supported by fibre—there cannot be a 5G mast without the fibre that connects it to the network.
Fifthly, our £200 million local full-fibre networks programme is about supporting local bodies to stimulate the market for fibre connectivity in their areas. Fibre cannot be delivered by some sort of entirely nationalised, top-down, taxpayer-funded system; it has to be done in collaboration with the private sector. The local full-fibre networks programme is being delivered in support of local bodies to encourage the market to provide more fibre connectivity. For example, public sector anchor tenancies will bring together public sector broadband demand in an area to create an anchor customer, thereby making sure that investors know there is enough revenue to reduce the risk of building a new network. Such networks will connect directly into public sector buildings such as schools and hospitals. At the same time, they will improve connectivity for those who work in our vital public services and bring fibre closer to more homes and businesses, allowing them to be connected, too. The first wave of projects will begin later in the year. This is a great example of the public and private sectors working together to improve connectivity for all.
Sixthly, our business broadband fibre connection vouchers are incredibly exciting for people like me who are frustrated at the poor quality of broadband being delivered to businesses. In the previous Parliament, we had a really effective voucher scheme for superfast broadband for businesses. The new vouchers will be trialled by the end of the year and will be for full-fibre connections for businesses. The scheme will be rolled out more widely in 2018 to help businesses to get the best fibre broadband, because we know that so many jobs and so much business growth depends on it.
The Bill takes a further step. Business rates are an important source of revenue for local services, but have long been cited as a barrier to investment by the telecoms sector. There has been consternation—as articulated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon)—at how the rates have been calculated. There was a perception of a disparity or lack of fairness between the rates paid by some operators, such as BT and Virgin Media, and smaller alternative networks such as CityFibre and Gigaclear. The rating methodology is of course a matter for the independent VOA, which has been working on this issue with the sector, but it is complex work and we do not have a moment to waste.
We recognise the urgent need to go the extra mile, so in last year’s autumn statement my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a 100% rate relief for all new fibre networks for five years from April 2017, with any relief backdated to that date. We will fund and fuel a full-fibre future, and we have introduced this Bill early in the Parliament to bring forward the legislative changes required to make that happen. The Bill will introduce new rules into each provision for business rates to allow us to vary the rates bill for telecommunication infrastructure, which will be set so that no rates are paid on new fibre for five years from the April just gone.
Does the Minister think the five-year period for business rates relief will be sufficient to incentivise the market players to get on and roll out fibre broadband? Will he try to ensure that as they do that we get coverage throughout the country and they do not just start in the easy-to-reach areas first?
First, there is no doubt that the five-year business rates holiday shows that we are reducing the cost of getting fibre into the ground. Secondly, it is time limited, so my message to alternative providers, as well as the big players, is to get on with it and make use of the relief while it is available. Thirdly, it gives us time for the business rates review and the VOA to look at the complexities over a reasonable period and come forward with a long-term, sustainable scheme. Sixthly—fourthly? I cannot remember which point I was up to, but I am sure that Hansard will make this bit sound really eloquent. I have completely lost my train of thought!
The final thing I was going to say is that the five-year business rates holiday will also give us the opportunity to decide, towards its end, whether five years has been long enough and whether we want to extend it. The fact that it is a five-year period demonstrates that providers should get on with it. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) that it will be no shorter than five years, and I am grateful for her intervention because it allowed me to get completely confused with my own points.
In total, our efforts are part of measures worth £1.1 billion to support the market-led roll-out of fibre broadband and ensure that we are at the front of the 5G queue. There is still a lot more work to be done, and we will consult shortly on the technical details of implementation. The relief will reduce the costs of deployment, thereby incentivising the market to deliver where it otherwise would not have. I hope that, in the spirit of cross-party collaboration, the Bill will get the support of Government and Opposition Members, as it will benefit people right across the United Kingdom. We want to see a country in which people are better connected and everyone can get online and reach their full potential, and to make sure that nobody is left behind. The Bill provides a step on that journey, and I commend it to the House.
May I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker? It is a pleasure to see you in your rightful place. I wish to take this opportunity to welcome my shadow Communities and Local Government team: my hon. Friends the Members for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), who has today agreed to act as my PPS.
The Opposition cautiously welcome the Government’s apparent commitment to provide financial relief for all new investment in full-fibre internet for five years. In the course of my speech, I shall set out why I say “cautiously”. Until the intervention from the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), the Minister had waxed lyrical for twenty minutes before coming to business rate relief, which is the subject of this very short Bill.
The Opposition welcome the opportunity finally to discuss a crucial piece of infrastructure policy—a policy that will have a huge impact on the potential investment opportunities for all our communities over the coming decades. It is rather ironic that we are talking about IT connections on a day when pretty much all the parliamentary internet connection is down. I have it on good assurance that the parliamentary information and communications technology officers are busily trying to reconnect MPs to the internet and their email accounts.
All Members will know that the policy in the Bill will affect every part of the country—north or south; England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; urban or rural—so we have to get this right. I am sure Members will feel that acutely today as we and our staff struggle with the collapse of internet connection across the Westminster estate which I just mentioned.
We were expecting a larger, more substantial Bill, not least considering the scope of investment and certainty needed not only for full-fibre infrastructure but on business rates more widely. However, it appears that the Government have been in permanent listening mode for quite some time now, which would explain their decision to acquiesce in the concerns of independent and large internet providers who at the end of last year faced an excessive fourfold increase in their rateable values.
The UK’s main providers and the Broadband Commission have estimated that UK 5G infrastructure will outstrip the economic benefits of fibre broadband, which most of the country currently uses, by 2026, when it will be outdated. By 2026, therefore, the UK will reach a tipping point where the direct economic benefits of new 5G optical fibre internet will beat the conventional fibre broadband. Various estimates point to a boost to the UK economy of between £5 billion to £7 billion just six years from roll-out, with 5G broadband delivering economic growth almost twice as quickly as conventional fibre broadband used today. Much as with our railways and road links, the quicker the connection, the faster businesses will grow, particularly in an age when online sales, social media and direct online contact with buyers and sellers are becoming the norm.
A study by O2 has revealed that national 5G infrastructure will also add an extra £3 billion a year through secondary supply chain impacts, boosting overall UK productivity by a total of £10 billion, which, as I have already said, makes good, sound economic sense. With improved connectivity comes greater economic growth, more jobs and improved links between business hubs and individuals alike. Although today’s Bill will be welcomed by larger providers in the sector as it will relieve some of the burden that they face from increased business rates—£60 million is on offer, which is a big giveaway to them—I worry that it will do not as much as it should for the independent providers, and it will not come close to mitigating the fourfold increase that all providers have faced. Perhaps the Minister can give us some assurances when he winds up the debate. Providers are not the only ones who need assurances; consumers do, too, and they need to know that those costs will not be passed on to them.
Additionally, I am slightly disappointed that this Bill contains only partial measures, instead of the more detailed and wide-ranging set of proposals that were outlined in the Local Government Finance Bill, of which these measures were originally a part. I mention that Bill, which had successfully passed through Committee, as it included proposals on local business rate retention for local authorities as well as the legislation for business rate relief for new full-fibre broadband, which we are now discussing today. However, those fuller measures seem to have disappeared since the general election.
Since that election, I have asked the Secretary of State on three separate occasions about the progress that has been made on delivering business rate retention for local authorities. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), has something to say on that. He can intervene on me now or respond in his closing remarks. I ask him again: what is happening to retention and why has business rate relief for new 5G connectivity now been separated into this smaller, separate Bill?
As I have said, I have written to the Secretary of State about this matter and I await his response, although I hope that, by this stage, the Department will do less listening and more acting on this issue of business rate retention. In the spirit of the cross-party co-operation that the Prime Minister is now asking for, and in respect of the exchange of ideas and genuine dialogue between the Opposition and the Government, I suggest that perhaps we can work together on a shared future for local government finance. The local government sector deserves more than a policy and a financial black hole with which it is currently faced with the exclusion of the Local Government Finance Bill from the Queen’s Speech. At the same time, the Government are still announcing their intention to remove the revenue support grant. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that when he closes the debate.
The Secretary of State and I visited the LGA conference last week—admittedly we received slightly different receptions. I am sure that he was reminded again and again by representatives from councils of all political colours of the financial certainty that local authorities desperately need—specifically at a time when they have already absorbed budgets cuts of 40%. However, like me, they have received no updates and no certainty. While we are talking about an element of the business rate in this Bill, perhaps we can remind the Secretary of State that local authorities need to have that clarity and certainty for future financial planning. They need some idea from this Government of where the wider business rate policy is going.
I will repeat what I said during my speech to the Local Government Association: “The Secretary of State told local government that they faced a looming crisis in confidence. He’s wrong. It is this Government who are facing a looming crisis in confidence.” The lack of clarity on business rates and the botched business rates revaluations have left thousands of businesses facing cliff-edge increases in their rates. In addition, the Government’s support package and promises to review the revaluation process go nowhere near far enough.
It is clear that business rates are this Department’s ticking time bomb, which threatens to destroy high streets and town centres across the country. Labour advocates introducing statutory annual revaluations to stop businesses facing periodic and unmanageable hikes, and guarantees a fair and transparent appeals process. We will reform business rates, scrap quarterly reporting and end the scourge of late payments, because it is Labour which is the party of business. [Interruption.] Members can heckle, but the facts speak clearly: this Government have let down business and they have let down local government.
Absolutely. Labour would have increased corporation tax to pay for better public services, but our rates would still have been among the lowest in the G20. It is a question of priorities. We can put money where people want it—in a better NHS, in better local government and in better education—or we can have poorly funded public services and tax giveaways to those at the very top. For all its rhetoric about ending austerity, it seems quite clear that the Conservative party has not changed one iota. There was a further omission to this Bill—
As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), it is a question of priorities. We can give tax cuts to big business, or we can invest in public services. The point is that we made a very clear choice—[Interruption.] We have differences of opinion on this. The hon. Gentleman feels that having the lowest corporation tax is a good thing, but I think that having a corporation tax that is among the lowest in the world with a better funded public—[Interruption.] It is not an anti-business rant. I am talking about being both pro-business and pro-public services. That is the choice, because our public services are on their knees. If this is the cross-party co-operation that the Prime Minister wants, I am afraid it will be a long time coming.
No, I have given way once to the hon. Lady, I will not do so again.
There is a further omission in this Bill—the exclusion of any real and meaningful legislative commitments on growing rural broadband. I am worried that there appears to be absolutely no mention in the body of the Bill or the explanatory notes of growing and expanding the UK’s superfast broadband in our rural areas, although the Minister touched on it and I think there is some consensus about its desirability.
Let me give a short anecdote. Last year, I was privileged to be in a delegation to Zambia for the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly. In the middle of Africa, in the middle of nowhere, on a visit to a health scheme near the Zambezi river, I received an almost-perfect 4G connection to my mobile phone. There are parts of my constituency where I do not get such a perfect 4G connection. We need to look at our internet connections, broadband connections and mobile telephone connections in this country so that we have the very best to support business, consumers and individuals.
As I am sure the Minister is aware, many families living in rural areas struggle to get anything close to fast broadband, let alone 5G, which is what we are discussing today. Many others struggle to get anything above 2 megabits per second, making most average use of day-to-day internet functions incredibly frustrating. The impact on rural businesses is steep, with the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs warning before the 2015 general election that rural communities are being overlooked for potential investment by businesses looking to expand and develop because certain regions have very poor digital connectivity. The then Chair of the Committee, the former Member for Thirsk and Malton, said:
“There is a risk in the current approach that improving service for those who already have it will leave even further behind those who have little or none.”
Rather than taking responsibility for this ever-growing chasm in our technology and identifying specific areas that desperately need investment, the Government have chosen to rely solely on the market to encourage improvements in any given area.
Well—[Interruption.] Exactly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton says, the Minister should share that with his Back Benchers. In all parts of the House, there is growing dissatisfaction with some rural broadband connectivity, its impact not just on consumers but on businesses, and the slow pace of improvement. It is clear that the Government ought perhaps to use their powers to ensure that those improvements happen, because it is a massive frustration for those communities and businesses—I see him nodding his head in agreement.
Will the hon. Lady to let me answer the Minister’s intervention before I take another?
I am grateful to hear that from the Minister, and we will hold the Government to account to ensure that that intervention takes place. As he knows, we are all here to ensure that improvements happen, and if he has given a commitment from the Dispatch Box that he will use his ministerial position to ensure that the market is not a free-for-all and that the Government will ensure those improvements in rural areas, for rural businesses and consumers, the Opposition will support him.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to one of the Back Benchers he mentions. Yes, many of us are campaigning on behalf of our constituents for better broadband, but on behalf of many of my constituents I appreciate that 20% of properties have been connected to superfast broadband thanks to the Government’s intervention. I expect up to 100% to be connected thanks to further Government intervention through the universal service obligation, as the Minister mentioned earlier. I look forward to being very grateful to the Government for all the work they are doing for my constituents.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention, because, of course, it was not just the Government who did that. I do not know whether she was a remainer or a leaver, but it would be remiss of the House, whatever our views on Brexit, not to acknowledge the involvement of the European Commission in funding some of the roll-out of this infrastructure and technology. It has come not just from the Government but from others, and we can see the European flag stickers on boxes, cabinets and infrastructure up and down the country.
The hon. Gentleman has to recognise that there is also a downside to EU involvement. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) struggled for a long time with EU state aid rules and the roll-out of broadband and, certainly for small businesses, had to come up with a slightly Heath Robinson-esque scheme of vouchers to get around the rules. If anything, they hampered roll-out rather than assisting.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am not saying that everything was perfect with that scheme, or with the European Community and European Union. I was merely pointing out in response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) that it would be remiss of us to suggest that all the funding came from central Government when it came from a variety of sources, including the European Commission, to which all those stickers are a testament.
As I have said and as the Minister has acknowledged, our rural areas need a long-term investment strategy, not just short-term subsidy, helpful though that is. I look forward to holding the Minister to account while he is in this post to ensure that he makes good on his word. The short-term subsidy will help, but we need to ensure that investment continues apace beyond the five-year deadline of this business rate relief and we need continually to update our internet connections with the latest technology.
The Opposition’s focus is to encourage investment in all communities by excluding new investment in plant and machinery from future business rates valuation, which will free up medium and large businesses to invest in any area of the country. The country needs fresh ideas to meet the emerging challenges of the new century, yet what we have seen today, in a stripped-down Bill, is the lack of a comprehensive and compelling legislative framework that supports all businesses and local authorities on business rates.
I desperately plead for the co-operation the Prime Minister has asked for. I hope that it is genuine and heartfelt, and that she looks for ideas from the Opposition, which we are more than happy to provide to the Government—ideas to improve our infrastructure in cities and in rural areas, to update our connectivity, not just physically but through the cloud and other technologies, and to use emerging technologies to benefit British business, which will be crucial if we are to keep a competitive advantage in the uncertain years ahead. As we remove ourselves from the EU and strike a new set of trade deals across the world, we must keep that competitive edge. I agree with the Minister that new and emerging technology and infrastructure is part of the mechanism to drive Britain’s economy in the face of the new challenges that lie ahead.
We will not divide the House tonight. We will look to strengthen the Bill in Committee and we will continue to challenge the Government on their wider local government finance policy until we get the answers and certainty that local government so desperately needs. Technology and infrastructure are vital to building Britain’s capacity to grow and develop in a changing world in which we look to new and emerging markets. It is incumbent on whichever party is in government in future to work constructively with others to ensure that Britain’s infrastructure is kept as up-to-date and as state-of-the-art as possible.
In that respect, we cautiously welcome the Bill. We will seek to strengthen it in Committee, but let us work together on some measures for future local government finance because, as the local government Minister knows, local government needs that certainty.
I am grateful for the chance to speak under your chairmanship for the second time, Madam Deputy Speaker. I refer hon. Members to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate. I thought it might be narrowly-focused, but I have judged, from the interventions on the Minister, that this is clearly going to be yet another talk-fest about the quality of broadband in individual Members’ constituencies. That means I will have to stay for the whole debate to ensure that hon. Members are not too rude about me. I know that they are unswerving in their support of the Minister, but they always liked to have a go at me when I did his job.
It was quite good to hear the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), as he spent very little time actually talking about broadband, which shows how well the job has been done. He finessed his speech to talk widely about the important issue of business rates, but only mentioned broadband briefly. I understand why and respect his reasons because, under the stewardship of the Minister, we have of course seen the most successful rural broadband programme ever devised anywhere in the world. There was meant to be a cheer there. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I will give hon. Members their cue points as I go through my speech.
This incredibly successful programme has delivered superfast broadband to 4.5 million premises for a few hundred million pounds. Most of that money, if not all of it, will come back to the Government because the way in which the contracts were constructed means that the money starts to be paid back once take-up passes a certain threshold. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately). She talked about the 20% of premises in her constituency that have superfast broadband. It is very important that we see our cup as half full. The Opposition Chief Whip spends his time thinking his cup is half full at the moment—[Interruption.] Oh, he is the Deputy Chief Whip; well, for me, he is really the Chief Whip. I digress. We hear from people who do not have broadband and are waiting for superfast broadband, and it is absolutely understandable that they are irritated. Those voices obviously grow louder as superfast broadband spreads, and as more people have access to this fantastic technology.
I got involved in the debate about business rates for broadband many years ago. In fact, when I was in opposition, I used to tease the then telecoms Minister, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). I came up with an Opposition policy to reduce or eliminate business rates on telecoms infrastructure because every provider I went to told me that business rates were a big impediment to investment. I challenged the then Minister, asking him what on earth he was going to do about that, because the Valuation Office Agency was in charge of the business rates and it was the Minister’s job to take the agency by the scruff of the neck and sort the situation out. Of course, when I got into office, I realised that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. The Valuation Office Agency is independent. It decides the level of business rates and it certainly sees off any Minister who tries to alter its independence or affect its judgment—quite right too.
The other row we had was about the fact that BT apparently gets a better deal on its business rates compared with some of the smaller providers. My understanding is that that is because of a long-standing court case brought by BT. BT also has much more infrastructure in the ground, so it is able to cut a wholesale deal with the Valuation Office Agency, but it is much more difficult for small providers that are getting under way. It is one of those unfortunate things. The point that I am trying to make, in my own rambling fashion, is that the impact of business rates on investment in broadband infrastructure is real. It is one of the factors that people take into account when they are trying to build infrastructure. The Bill is a very welcome measure to address that problem.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not know if you have actually read the Bill, but it is the most boring and technical Bill that I have ever read. There are only six clauses. I saw six officials sitting in the Box and wondered whether each had been given a clause, because the chance of making it to the end of drafting even one clause is almost impossible. I do not know whether any of my hon. Friends suffer from insomnia under the stress of doing this job. If so, I strongly recommend that they take the Bill home; they will be sound asleep by halfway through clause 1. However, I understand the thrust of the Bill, which aims to encourage new investment in broadband infrastructure by suspending the levying of business rates. That is the best way to do it, and the Government have calculated that something like £60 million of savings could be made.
I echo what the Minister said at the Dispatch Box. I hope that all new infrastructure providers—people have mentioned companies such as Gigaclear and CityFibre—will take advantage of this. The Bill is aimed squarely at them to remove a financial barrier to further investment. The Government are trying to move to the next phase of broadband roll-out. The key task of the previous Parliament was to get workable broadband with speeds of about 24 megabits to as many people as possible. That has pretty much been completed. I understand that, under the universal service obligation, people in the last 5% of premises might get lower, but still workable, speeds. We are starting to build the future-proofed infrastructure to deliver fast and reliable broadband at speeds of above 30 megabits. Those are the kinds of broadband speeds that we will be able to dial up as more people make use of the technology. We all know—this does not need to be rehearsed—how much technology and data are now used, and the kind of bandwidth needed for the average home with two teenagers and parents watching 4K content, let alone for somewhere with business needs.
Planning is a much bigger impediment than business rates. A lot of people forget that. They think it is easy to build this infrastructure, but it is not at all. One comes across far too many cases of councils not being co-ordinated. There are cases of broadband providers having to go to five different council departments to get permission for way leaves, to dig up the highway and all the other permissions they need to build this infrastructure. We really need to get to grips with this in some shape or fashion.
In the spirit of co-operation that the Prime Minister announced this morning, let me suggest that the Labour Front Benchers talk to the Mayor of London. There must be an opportunity for him to set up a broadband taskforce to get all the London boroughs to co-ordinate their planning. I have heard of councils—it does not really matter what political colour they are—not granting way leaves to providers who wanted to provide broadband for social housing in London. I have heard of councils that did not want the green boxes on their pavements because they did not like the design. I have come across councils that refused to let broadband providers go ahead with future work, because they did not clear up after their previous work. Now, I understand councils’ irritation, but they are still holding things back. It is an incredibly dull point, but there must be an opportunity to co-ordinate the planning functions of the London boroughs, as well as of councils across the country.
May I disagree vigorously with my right hon. Friend by saying that it is not a boring point? It is actually very important that these companies clear up after themselves, because it causes reputational damage when they try to deliver superfast broadband and leave a mess behind. That does cause concern to residents, and it has caused concern in my constituency. He may say that it is a bit of a dull point, but it is important for companies to get things right so that they can be encouraged to do more in future.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. In fact, although I welcome Virgin Media’s investment in cable in Didcot, the company has irritated quite a few of my constituents on the Ladygrove estate, so he is right that companies should clear up after themselves. I suppose I did not make myself entirely clear; my point was that, while councils should hold companies to account, their retribution should not be, “You can’t do any more work,” because they would be punishing constituents for companies’ past transgression.
Clearly, the Government want to encourage full fibre—fibre to the premises. It is true that we are falling behind some other countries. Spain, for example, is well advanced, but that is an historical advantage, because the infrastructure was put in 30 years ago, with extraordinary foresight. One also has to remember the topography of the built environment, because the more apartment blocks—as opposed to spread-out domestic homes—there are, the easier it is to deliver broadband quickly.
One should also not necessarily be seduced by statistics. Members might see, for example, that France is ahead of us in terms of fibre to the premises, but that fibre is in the same place as fibre to the cabinet, so very few people take it up, and a lot of people would say that it is wasted investment. The incremental approach taken in the UK so far—of getting universal coverage for superfast broadband and then moving on to fibre to the premises—is the right approach, because it keeps pace with customer demand. That is what has to happen.
The good news about fibre to the premises is that the cost of investment is coming down rapidly. TalkTalk has conducted trials in York, and what has happened is telling. The company has got the cost of connecting each home down to a few hundred pounds—£200, £300 or £400, I think. Also, people now talk about the impact on the community—about whether their house is in the green zone, which is where the fibre to the premises is, and people want to be there. Interestingly, customers do not actually care whether they can access 1 gigabit; what they get by having fibre to the premises is an absolutely 100% reliable service, whereas even those of us who have signed up to superfast broadband know that the service can drop out.
This is a very important and welcome Bill. I would simply ask the Minister when he sums up—I do not know whether it will be the Secretary of State or my right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital—to talk a little about whether the Government have considered how this relief impacts on mobile infrastructure. The roll-out of 4G in this country has been very successful, and we should not forget that it has all been done through private investment. When we rail against the mobile operators, we have to remember that they pay us—the taxpayers—by paying in to the Treasury coffers for spectrum, and they then build out their networks, effectively with their own capital. However, they come across the most bizarre planning issues all the time, and although the Minister talked about the electronic communications code, which will help to make mobile planning easier, we could perhaps hear about whether the Bill will apply to the fibre that goes from the masts back to the cabinets, or whether it could be amended so that mobile masts were free from whatever business rates these companies pay.
I would also like to hear how the Bill will encourage the roll-out of 5G, which will potentially transform everything. What we need are small cells dotted throughout the urban environment. The company Arqiva is already trialling a 5G network with its own spectrum. Again, we potentially need a rethink on planning to make it much easier for mobile companies to roll out these small cells. Given the dense coverage companies need, requiring them to get planning permission for these small cells will be a real hindrance to the fast roll-out of 5G.
As I made my remarks, I could tell that I had the full attention of the House. I noticed one or two yawns and a few slightly irritated looks as people thought, “When is this guy going to finish so that I can make my speech about our rotten broadband and get it in my brilliant local paper?” Well, the time is now, because I have finished.
On behalf of my Plaid Cymru colleagues, may I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your election as a Deputy Speaker? We are looking forward to working with you and serving under your guidance for the duration of this Parliament.
I will keep my contribution short, because, to all intents and purposes from a Welsh perspective, this is an enabling Bill. We broadly welcome the provisions outlined in it, which provide powers for Welsh Ministers to award business rates relief to properties used to facilitate the transmission of broadband and mobile communications. This is at least one step in the right direction for my constituents, who have seen little digital dividend from the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on broadband and mobile signal to date.
I do, however, have some concerns about the UK Government’s strategy of incentivising only the most advanced technology. As I understand the Bill, the plan in England is to provide 100% business rate relief for technology that supports 5G and ultrafast broadband. As we heard in an earlier intervention, that has a budget of around £60 million, which equates to Barnett consequentials for Wales of around £3 million, and that will just go into the general Welsh Government pot. If I have one message for today’s debate, it is that it is vital that the Labour Welsh Government ring-fence that cash so that that money is not spent on pet projects.
Some 40% of my constituents are unable to access high-speed internet, and an even greater proportion are unable to get a 3G or 4G mobile phone signal in their homes. It is clear that we have a selective connectivity problem in Carmarthenshire. There is no doubt that that is holding back Carmarthenshire and the Welsh economy. We have no hope of making progress in developing our economy unless we can get to the bottom of the telecommunication infrastructure problems we face. If we were able to do so, I am confident that we would have a bright economic future in Carmarthenshire and in Wales, due to the incredible natural assets we have as a county and a country.
I am fortunate enough to have been born and raised in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, and I have no hesitation in saying that. We have a range of incredible leisure activities. One of the things that I think we will see in the modern workplace is that work and leisure time will become compressed, with people looking to set up their businesses where their leisure activities lie. Those who like horse riding, cycling, mountaineering, canoeing or surfing will find all those incredible leisure activities in abundance in Carmarthenshire, and I am confident that if we were able to deal with the basic telecommunication infrastructure problems we face, we would be able to put forward a very attractive economic package for investors and people looking to set up their businesses in our beautiful county.
While I urge the Welsh Government to use the powers and the Barnett consequentials awarded to them through the Bill to incentivise connectivity improvements in Wales, I call on Welsh Ministers to take an alternative approach to that put forward by the UK Government. It is vital that future investment, at a bare minimum, should enable rural Wales to reach a level playing field, before we start subsidising the most advanced technologies. The connectivity inequality in our nation needs to be eradicated, not entrenched, but I am afraid that we have seen the Government and providers concentrating investment over recent years on easy hits—on the large cities and the large towns in my country—while the more rural areas have been deliberately left behind.
The Welsh Government, via this Bill, must now use these powers and consequentials wisely. Rather than only incentivising the most advanced telecommunications technology, it is time that something drastic was done to incentivise the building of telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas such as the communities that I am very fortunate to serve in Carmarthenshire.
I suppose I should apologise to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) because the last time I was called to speak in a debate with no time limit, the subject was the local government finance settlement in 2016; I think that his scars have only just about healed. I was starting to take it a bit personally: every time I got called to speak, a new time limit was suddenly imposed, usually shorter than that which had gone before. My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), has suggested that one is imposed pre-emptively on my getting up to speak, but I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will resist his cri de coeur.
I am not going to talk with the authority of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), because he speaks with great experience about these matters, but I want to make some points. First, I very much welcome this Bill, particularly the fact that it appears to be the result of a collaboration between three important Government Departments—the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Treasury. That sort of joined-up working of three Departments coming together to identify a problem and create a solution is to be welcomed, and it signposts a very-likely-successful governmental modus operandi for the five years of a Conservative Government that we have ahead of us.
I find myself almost reaching for the smelling salts and some form of remedial medication in agreeing with the Labour Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), although I would probably approach this in a slightly different way. I welcome the proposals in the Bill to help speed up and underscore the importance of the delivery of broadband. In relation to local government, particularly in small shire districts that are always seeking to be more efficient, I hope—indeed, I know—that my hon. Friend the DCLG Minister will be taking the reduction in the funding stream of non-domestic rates to a local authority into consideration as he evolves the new funding settlement for our local councils, which do so much good work to deliver these services. I thought that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish made that point well, and I am sure it will have been heard on both sides of the House. The delivery of broadband and the delivery of those local council services are important, very often, to exactly the same constituents who need both.
I hope that this Bill and the proposed financial incentive, if that is the correct word, will act as a spur to existing providers to deliver on the notspots that are very prevalent, particularly, though not exclusively, in our rural areas, where the economic case for delivery is either non-existent or marginal, or where, as a result of further economic investigation, it has fallen outwith the confines and constraints of the initial contract usually agreed between a county council—in the case of Dorset, as with so many—and British Telecom.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage spoke with huge authority and experience, and I do not demur from anything that he said. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital talked about the evolving technologies that mean that this will not just be about wire, copper, fibre and so on, as fixed wireless and satellite are playing a part. This has been a long-running debate. I look to my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman)—he does not look to me, but I look to him—who has done so much to promote the delivery of rural broadband: so much, in fact, that he has been rewarded by being made a PPS in the Department, which means that he can no longer speak on the subject. This is clearly the route to promotion: talk with authority and knowledge on a subject and then get zipped up and silenced for many years to come. Perhaps that is why I got moved from DEFRA to the Home Office—I do not know.
This subject has knocked around in public and political debate and in the media for a long time, so it is worth while, with your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, pausing for a few moments to remind ourselves of the most enormous strides made in broadband provision for all our constituents and constituencies, urban and rural. Yesterday afternoon, I ordered something online—I am going to tease the House by not saying what the object was—to be delivered to my house tomorrow morning. The sketch writers, and indeed anybody else, may wish to run some sort of book on what it was. All I will say is that it is not something I would have guessed one could have ordered online even three or four years ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) is looking even more perplexed than usual. I was struck by the huge change that this technology has made, and this Bill helps to underpin its delivery.
From a rural point of view—and what could be more rural than North Dorset?—it is worth re-amplifying the benefits that are derived from fast and superfast broadband and that will be further helped by the contents of this Bill. It was a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), who was right to point out, as I do, the huge unlocking of tourism potential in the promotion of hotel rooms, rooms in pubs, visitor attractions and the like, and in interactive tourist information centres in areas where local authorities may have withdrawn from face-to-face, over-the-counter visitor services. It will be absolutely crucial for the farmer in my constituency who is trying to buy or sell stock or make their submission to the Rural Payments Agency to have fast, reliable broadband of a speed and a regularity of service that no longer drops off just as they reach that crucial moment of hitting “send” or loading up that large map.
The issue is also crucial for small and medium-sized businesses. I am thinking of two in my constituency, both of which happen to be based in a small market town called Sturminster Newton: one is Crowdcomms and the other is Harts. Crowdcomms provides online and interactive platforms for large international conferences. It has offices based in Seattle, Sydney, and Sturminster Newton—it is there because the town has 4G.
Harts of Sturminster is one of those wonderful shops, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I know you will cherish and love as I do. It is the sort of shop that you walk into and do not say, “Do you sell?”, but merely ask, “Where can I find?”, because it sells absolutely everything, from powdered egg, to blackout curtains, to knicker elastic and sock gaiters—it is all there. You require none of those things, Madam Deputy Speaker. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage says that he now knows what I was ordering, but he would be wrong on all counts.
The shop makes its largest sales from its cookware department online. This is in a small market town that, until a few years ago, had as its main centre of industry the largest calf and livestock—particularly cattle—market in the whole of the south-west. Broadband is transforming local rural economies, creating good-quality, high-tech jobs. It also helps—we forget this at our peril—with the delivery of a whole raft of other things in rural social life, including for small villages that are geographically disconnected and not particularly well served by rural public transport.
We now have faster broadband service provision than has hitherto been the case, which helps with promoting charitable and fundraising events. I remember the frustration on my wife’s face as she tried to download posters for events she was organising for the St Gregory’s parents, teachers and friends association, but that has been transformed by the faster speed. Everybody in North Dorset now knows—as does everybody who reads the Official Report—that St Gregory’s summer sizzler event will take place in Marnhull this Friday. Everybody is invited. It is a huge fundraising event for our local school, the promotion of which is better enabled by broadband.
I know more about my hon. Friend’s life now than I did five minutes ago. The entire House still wants him to reveal what he ordered online last week that he could not have ordered four years ago. That is a terrible omission from the tour of his domestic online arrangements.
I am going to tantalise the House still further by telling my right hon. Friend that it was inflatable and made of rubber. Before you rule me out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will explain that it is a small, two-man dingy for my elder daughter and me to do a little bit of rowing and mackerel fishing during our summer holidays. Right hon. and hon. Friends may be pleased, disappointed, depressed or made despondent by that explanation.
My hon. Friend says that she is relieved that it was something so entirely innocent and innocuous.
Fast broadband, which allows us to watch telly and order online, will of course help address rural isolation, which is particularly significant in an area such as mine. FaceTime and other mechanisms will help keep families together by keeping those intergenerational conversations going when geography means that a weekly visit may not always be appropriate, feasible or affordable.
Towns such as Sturminster are not unique. Glastonbury, which I think is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), has lost all of it banks—[Interruption.] I am sorry: Glastonbury is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey).
My hon. Friend mentions banks on the high street. Several branches in my constituency have shut and one of the arguments I hear is that people can use online banking, which is the very reason we need to ensure that we have excellent broadband facilities.
My hon. Friend makes my point far better than I could. She is absolutely right. The town of Sturminster has lost two banks in the past year and will lose its third bank at the end of this year. Private and business customers are told that internet banking is available. That is fine, so long as the speeds and the service are reliable enough to allow them to remember why they logged on and which financial transaction they wanted to undertake. That situation is not unique to my part of the world.
I did not use the word “relieved”; I said that I was reassured. Does my hon. Friend agree that rural areas such as Sturminster need a good broadband speed to enable people to access banking services that no longer exist on the high street? That will enable small businesses in particular, including those that are part of the gig economy, to operate in a business environment that does not leave them at a competitive disadvantage compared with those parts of the country that already have good broadband coverage.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Who among us has not visited an agricultural show or small business that cannot afford the necessary infrastructure for the interconnected pieces that allow people to pay by credit card or contactless? However, by plugging a whizzy device into an iPhone—my right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage know all about this, but it baffles me—my credit card can be charged for whatever service I have purchased, thereby helping small and medium-sized businesses. That also helps particularly, though not exclusively, those people who make and sell things from home and do not have commercial premises from which to trade.
The Bill is helpful for all those reasons. It will also help the next generation. Television and other advertisements always focus on getting faster film, the latest cartoon, watching sport and so on, all of which is welcome and laudable. There is also, however, potential for huge learning opportunities for our young people through the delivery of education in a 21st-century setting. That will, I hope, boost and bolster our productivity, and it can all be assisted by superfast and reliable broadband.
Over the past seven years, the Government have made the most enormous strides. We have occasionally beaten up our Ministers and others, saying “I’ve got this village or that hamlet that isn’t covered.” As I said at the start of my speech, this issue is not reserved solely to the rural setting; it is also an issue on the edge of Tech City here in London and elsewhere. However, if we pause and look at the data, we will see that, notwithstanding some of the problems we have had, we are striding ahead of many of our European friends, who are also our economic and commercial competitors, in providing access to broadband. We should not always beat ourselves up. At a time when we are all being fed the negative and “the anti”, this is something about which the Government should be duly proud, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage has said.
The Bill is a fundamental and very important next step. We hope and believe that it will assist better and faster delivery in our rural areas in North Dorset and across the county of Dorset. It has my full support. The Ministers promoting it have my admiration and encouragement, and I look forward to seeing it make speedy progress through this House.
It is a pleasure and an honour to follow my comrade and hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare).
On my first day in this House, I was told by an older Member that if I wanted to keep something secret I should make a speech about it in the House of Commons. And so it was that on 13 September last year I gave a speech on the subject of this Bill and called for 100% rate relief of new fibre networks. I even went so far as to draft an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill, not to give that rate relief but to require the valuation office to produce an annual report on the impact of the rating system on competition in the telecoms sector. Various players in the industry had presented me with the ridiculous conundrum that it was cheaper for them to rent fibre from BT than to pay the rates bill on putting in new fibre themselves. In their view, that entrenched the near monopoly of BT and gave it an enormous structural advantage, which was basically choking off competition.
I spoke on Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill, drafted an amendment and had a fruitful conversation with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital, who is no longer in his place, who persuaded me that, given some of the other amendments I had tabled, I should leave my proposal to the Government to mull over for some months and that they would give it some serious thought. Imagine my pleasure and surprise, first when it appeared in last year’s autumn statement, and now, even more so, that it has appeared in this Bill. It will provide an enormous boost to competition in the sector. There is no doubt that the asymmetric deal on business rates between BT and new entrants is choking off new investment in large parts of the country. Smaller companies have very little incentive to compete directly with BT; they have to look for areas of the country that are currently unserved or un-commercial in order to try to make their networks pay. As a result, innovation is hard to come by.
BT has been helpful to me and my constituents, as I know it has been to several other Members, and I hope it will take the Bill in the spirit in which it is intended. Those of us who believe in a market economy think that competition is good. We think that it will be better not only for the consumer, but for BT, because it will drive the company to greater innovation, efficiency and, we hope, profit.
The Bill represents a welcome move towards seeing broadband and telecommunications as utilities. Over the past few months, steps have been taken in legislation towards that position. The building regulations have been changed to make the provision of broadband compulsory in new developments. Broadband will, I hope, be provided as a universal service over the next few years, and now non-domestic rates are being lifted on parts of the network. Broadband is increasingly being treated—as water, gas and electricity are—as a vital utility, which is what it is becoming. I am pleased about that development, and I hope that broadband will continue to be viewed increasingly as a utility.
In a constituency such as mine, broadband is incredibly important for a successful, vibrant countryside. If the countryside is to compete with its urban neighbours, it needs to be connected to the world. These days, that social and economic connection takes the form not of roads, dual carriageways or motorways, but of superfast broadband. My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), is peppered with enterprises that do most of their business online. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that on Saturday I attended the Amport fête and came across a brand new and very pleasing business called Test Valley Gin, a new brand of gin that is taking the market by storm. Kate Griffin, the inventor of this gin, is having some success. The 36 bottles she produces each week are selling like hot cakes, many of them online on a website called theginstall.co.uk.
I have to confess that I was so taken with the small sample that I tried—I was driving—that I bought a bottle. Perhaps I will bring one in. I did wonder whether the House of Commons authorities might start serving Test Valley Gin in the bars. It is an excellent drink, infused with a secret recipe of local herbs and spices, and I can recommend it.
I had the great pleasure of being in my hon. Friend’s constituency yesterday, although I beg his forgiveness for not seeking his permission. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that I went purely for a cricket match, and I did not think that I was obligated to seek his permission to play cricket in his wonderful constituency. He is making an important point. Broadband is increasingly important in all our constituencies, and I believe it is as important as road and rail. It is a part of our infrastructure that our constituents just cannot do without.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is very welcome to visit my constituency at any time. In fact, I am surprised that he has only been once recently, and he should come more often. My door is always open.
Ensuring that villages are connected to the world is becoming vital to maintaining rural life. Rural residents find it increasingly ridiculous that they can see broadcast-quality footage of Tim Peake in the international space station but they cannot go online and post complimentary comments on my Facebook page, as my constituents increasingly seem to do.
I think that is rather churlish of my hon. Friend, given how complimentary I have been about him. I hope that one day I will reach the level of popularity and name recognition in my constituency that Commander Peake has reached in the world.
Small business is becoming increasingly important in rural areas. Some 25% of small businesses—nearly half a million—are located in rural areas, where they provide lots of employment and create wealth. The Bill points to a wider issue with which the House will have to grapple over the next few years—the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) mentioned it—and that is the appropriateness of the business rate system. We are applying a tax first devised in 1572 to a 21st-century economy, much of which exists somewhere in the cloud. The Bill acknowledges at its core the disproportionate impact of business rates on competition in this sector. Those of us who have rural constituencies—indeed, anybody whose constituency contains a high street—understand the disproportionality of business rates for retail businesses, particularly now that more and more people buy things online, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset said. If we are to keep our high streets vibrant, keep our businesses working and maintain the competitiveness of the rural economy against the huge businesses that these days operate from nowhere, I question whether taxing property—frankly, taxing investment and expansion—remains an appropriate way to gather the revenue that we need.
There will come a point, over the next couple of decades, when we have to consider shifting taxation on corporations away from property and profit, and towards turnover. If we taxed the turnover of the large multinationals —the Googles and the Amazons—we would collect more from them than we currently do, but in a fair way. Small shops on the high streets in North West Hampshire compete with corporations that transact in this country, dispatch goods from a second country and book the profits in a third country. We have to think about the asymmetric nature of the taxation of those organisations if we want to create a level playing field for competition.
I welcome the Bill. I welcome the move towards the designation of broadband as a utility and the recognition of the distortive effect of business rates on commerce. I hope that over the next five years or so, many companies will take advantage of the rate relief window. I suspect that at the end of that period it will be somehow extended, and I hope that any such extension will become permanent. I hope that businesses will take advantage of the window and come to North West Hampshire to plaster my entire constituency with broadband fibre, to the cabinet and to the premises, with my pleasure and approval.
Like several Members here, I have the pleasure of representing a beautiful and very rural constituency. In fact, 42% of my constituency is part of an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is a lovely constituency in which to walk, have picnics and spend time. It is fabulous for farming, but less good for connectivity.
Over the two-and-a-bit years for which I have been the Member of Parliament for Faversham and Mid Kent, I have received letters—and occasionally emails, if people have managed to get online—from constituents in many villages including Headcorn, Kingswood, Doddington, Eastling, Selling and Sheldwich. Those are all lovely villages, but they struggle with connectivity, and residents have had difficulty getting fast broadband.
In several of those villages, it can be difficult even to get a mobile phone signal. A couple of months ago, during the general election campaign, I was in Headcorn, and I thought I might tweet a picture from Headcorn station. Not only did I not have 4G on my mobile phone, but I did not have any mobile phone signal at all. I could not even make an old-fashioned mobile telephone call or send a text message. There are parts of my constituency, such as that patch of Headcorn, where unless people happen to be with the one operator serving it a little, it is impossible even to make a mobile phone call.
My constituency wants to have better broadband and better mobile phone connections, and that is why I welcome the commitment this Government have been and are making to connectivity across this country. As I mentioned in an intervention, thanks to the Government’s programme of rolling out high-speed broadband, 8,432 properties have now got a high-speed broadband connection that would not have had one without the programme. By September 2018, I am expecting about 2,000 more properties to be on high-speed broadband thanks to the programme. That amounts to 25% of the properties in my constituency being connected thanks to this Government’s work and commitment to high-speed broadband, and it will get Faversham and Mid Kent up to about 90% of properties being on high-speed broadband.
We are still some way off the 100% level that I would like, so I very much welcome the universal service obligation that is coming into force. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) in campaigning very hard to put that into law. I also welcome the commitment made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Minister from the Dispatch Box that the financial cap will be high enough to make sure that 100% of properties in constituencies such as mine receive access to broadband of at least 10 megabits per second. That is not the high speed that we hope will be delivered by the Bill, but for those who have no or incredibly slow broadband at the moment, 10 megabits per second will make a great difference.
All of us who represent rural constituencies know the difference between the haves and the have-nots on broadband, but having high-speed broadband is genuinely life changing. It enables us to do things that we now consider everyday functions of life, and whether it is sending emails, booking tickets or flights online, choosing hotels or B&Bs, comparing offers on travel insurance or car insurance, or shopping for groceries, there is so much that those of us with high-speed broadband take for granted. However, in my constituency, some people still do not even have such access.
I thank my hon. Friend very much, although I doubt whether even one of my constituents is watching my speech. I will not hold my breath while waiting for confirmation.
We know that children, including mine, often get set homework tasks requiring them to look up things on the internet. If a child lives in a rural village or at the end of a track and they cannot get online, they are disadvantaged. There is also the very basic thing of staying in touch with distant relatives, who often live all around the world. I remember when I was a child that the cost of making an international call was enormous. During my gap year as an 18-year-old, I made two phone calls to my parents in nine months, because it cost such a huge amount to phone home, but people can now make video calls basically for nothing so families around the world can stay in touch. As older people go online—many people in their 70s, 80s and 90s are very active internet users—I hope that the internet will be one way in which we can tackle the challenge of loneliness. For someone to make a FaceTime call to their grandma or grandpa is a great way for them to keep in touch, and that is often much easier if it is very difficult to go to see them.
There is also the question of the use of the internet for work, where it can make a huge difference for rural areas, as it does for the economy in general. It enables people to work from home—I have two caseworkers who do most of their work supporting me and my constituents from home, which enables them to juggle that work and their family commitments—and I know that a huge number of people in my constituency now run businesses from home, including many quite significant rural businesses. There is a fabulous business called Bombus around the corner from where I live just outside Faversham, which makes amazing products out of maps. If any hon. Members want interesting products based on maps of their constituencies, I recommend that they contact Bombus to get all sorts of books, paper goods and lampshades. On the other side of my constituency, near Maidstone, a business enabling people to compare utility prices has about 100 employees in a really rural spot. There is no way in which that business could exist without good broadband, so it is very important for the rural economy.
We have got to this point very quickly. About 12 years ago I worked at AOL Time Warner launching digital products, such as the UK’s first video on-demand service for downloading films. Back then, just over 10 years ago, people had to plan ahead: if they wanted to watch a film, they had to start downloading it and then go away, perhaps to cook something for supper, and come back a couple of hours later when enough of it had downloaded to enable them to watch it, if they were lucky, although it may well have stopped downloading halfway through. We probably launched the product a little ahead of what the technology could do. Now, however, my children sit down in front of the television on a Sunday morning, when I am trying to catch up on some sleep, turn on the iPlayer and watch something immediately, with none of that delay. That change has turned watching television into a completely different experience.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to this area, but I very much ask them to press on with making sure that we get high-speed broadband to 100% of properties across constituencies such as mine. I also ask them to make sure that the new technologies enabled by the Bill such as 5G and full-fibre broadband—I will now turn to the Bill— benefit those not only in more urban areas of the country, but in rural areas. I would ask that as far as possible that should not be a simple sequential process, with the people of Headcorn being able, if they are lucky, to make a phone call and then getting 3G, 4G and eventually 5G sometime in the distant future. I am very keen for some leapfrogging so that those in more rural areas can catch up thanks to new forms of technology.
It is particularly important for the Bill to go ahead, with investment in these new technologies, in the challenging economic climate and the challenging economic times in which we live. I am very mindful of the ageing population in this country. We have talked a lot during the past couple of weeks about the cost of the public sector and the desire to increase the pay of people working in the public sector. We know that as a country we face a productivity challenge in that we are not nearly as productive as we need to be for people to have a good or a better standard of living, and we face global competition. I am pretty realistic in saying that—unfortunately, unlike the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who wishes to raise business rates and thinks, erroneously, that that will increase revenue to spend on public services—history tells us that, as we very well know, increasing business rates results in a fall in revenue.
I merely wish to correct the record: at no stage have either I or the Labour party said that we want to increase business rates. We want a small increase in corporation tax, which would still result in our having one of the lowest rates of corporation tax in the world.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s putting the record straight, because I made an error in my notes. Instead of business rates, I meant to say corporation tax. We disagreed about this point earlier. My point about corporation tax stands. Unfortunately, raising corporation tax results in a reduction in revenue for the Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) pointed out.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Was she as shocked as I was to hear the shadow Secretary of State refer to a “small” increase in corporation tax, because the rate Labour would move it to would be almost a 50% increase on the 17% rate that we will have?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This point really is significant because as corporation tax rates come down below 20%, businesses behave differently. Businesses are more likely to locate in this country, to invest in their businesses in this country and to create jobs, which is what my constituents and, I am sure, the constituents of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish want. That also generates the revenue that is paid in taxes to fund public services.
In some respects, the hon. Gentleman and I may agree, although not on the specifics of his point. As other hon. Members have said, the business rates system does need a further look. For instance, I am unhappy with the way business rates tend to penalise high street shops in some of my smaller towns. The largest employer in my constituency is a brewer, and pubs have struggled with some of the increases in business rates. However, I recognise the efforts that the Chancellor made following lobbying by me and other Members of Parliament to help pubs with the changes to business rates. There is no question but that there is further work to be done on business rates, and that has been acknowledged by the Government.
May I take my hon. Friend back to corporation tax? She is absolutely right that the reduction in the rate has seen an increase in tax take. Surely the important thing is to look not at the tax rate, but at the tax take—how much tax is actually raised. The final point she made about jobs is crucial. We see record levels of employment across all our constituencies, which is to be welcomed. That has happened because businesses want to expand and take on more people.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will return to the content of the Bill in a moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am spending a little time on corporation tax because the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish spent some time talking about it. It is important that Government Members make it clear that we are absolutely committed to raising revenue for public services. The last thing we want to see is tax changes that gain the right headlines but have the wrong effect on the bottom line from the Government’s point of view. We are absolutely committed to making sure that we can raise revenue for public services, about which we care very much, but we recognise that, to do so, we must have a tax environment that is supportive to businesses, because they are what provides the jobs and the economic growth.
On economic growth and people working harder to keep up their standard of living, as an economy, we need to be more productive and technology is the crucial enabler in that. That is exactly what the Bill will support. For instance, 5G as a technology is and will be a great enabler of the internet of things. Every second around the world, 127 devices are newly connected to the internet. That rate will surely increase, so the demand for connectivity and the ability to carry large volumes of data will only go up.
It is vital that we are at the forefront of that. In fact, 5G is forecast to boost economic value by $4 trillion to $11 trillion globally by 2020. That is a huge increase in economic value, so it is vital that we as a country take our share of that economic growth. In practice, it will mean developments that allow us to have smart household appliances, driverless cars and, one day, driverless lorries, which for my constituents, who are very unhappy about lorries being parked up in laybys a lot, will be an interesting prospect.
Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) will find an ingenious way of relating the intervention by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) precisely to the Bill. I can see a way of doing it and I am sure she will succeed.
I could see the frown on your face, Madam Deputy Speaker. It might seem like a stretch to go from talking about telecommunications to lorry fly-parking, but as 5G is an enabler of the internet of things and, potentially, of driverless cars and driverless lorries, it might mean that lorry drivers no longer have to take long breaks to sleep. The reason lorries are parked in the laybys of our roads is that the drivers are sleeping because they have to have a compulsory rest before they can keep driving, but we could have lorries without a driver, so the subjects genuinely connect.
To return to what I was planning to talk about, another important potential application of 5G is in healthcare, with wearable devices. For instance, people’s heart rate and blood pressure could be tracked. That is very much part of the future of healthcare and preventive healthcare to help us all to look after ourselves. As somebody who is very committed to the NHS and to making sure we have a sustainable NHS and a healthier population, I am keen that we enable such developments in healthcare.
Those are just a handful of examples of what we hope 5G will enable. We hope to be at the forefront of this technology by investing in it.
My hon. Friend is being very generous with her time, but before she moves away from 5G, I invite her to reflect on this point. It is important not to leave behind those communities that are yet to clock on to 3G and 4G. I am sure that, in her constituency, as in mine, there are areas where people simply cannot access 3G or 4G. Although 5G is to be welcomed, will she join me in calling on the Government to ensure that those areas are not left behind?
I completely agree. As in his constituency, there are parts of my constituency that do not have 4G, 3G or even enough mobile signal to make a phone call. I am very keen for the Government to intervene to ensure that there is comprehensive mobile phone reception across rural areas. I also hope that we can have a catch-up for those areas, so that they can canter quickly through 3G and 4G and then go straight to 5G.
While we are on the subject of notspots and blackout areas, does my hon. Friend agree that there are priority areas such as along railway lines? Many of my constituents commute every day and it is so frustrating not even being able to get a phone signal on the railway line. The Bill will enable extra infrastructure, so that we have connected commuters, which is key in the 21st century.
My hon. Friend has made an important point about the Bill’s focus on the infrastructure along routes such as rail lines and motorways, where it will be of particular benefit. My constituency, like hers, contains commuters who would like to be able to do more work on the train, and the Bill will make that possible.
Full-fibre broadband should bring an end to a problem about which I often hear from BT engineers: the challenge of the “last mile”, the old copper wires that are so dated, some of them more than 100 years old. Although that technology has served us very well for many years, it is probably time to move on, so that people can get proper high-speed broadband, especially those who live further away from the cabinet and the traditional infrastructure.
It is right for the Government to support the development of new infrastructure by providing incentives in the form of appropriate conditions for substantial private investment in that infrastructure, which will multiply by many times the investment that they are making with the use of taxpayer funds. The combination of the £400 million digital infrastructure fund and the £60 million business rates relief for which the Bill provides should be wearable for the Government, while also resulting in much more investment in the country’s digital infrastructure, which we badly need.
I want to ensure that we reach out to and communicate with younger voters. I say to them, “You may not be watching the Parliament channel on your internet connection, but take note of what is being said.” This is an example of the Government’s looking ahead to the sort of economy that we need for the future: looking towards investing in the infrastructure that we need, so that we will be able to compete globally, have a modern economy, have innovation and have the kind of jobs and the kind of economy that will give younger workers opportunities for decades to come, and give us the economic growth that we need in order to fund a high standard of living and the public services about which we care so much.
Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), although he is no longer in the Chamber—and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately)—for being so kind about the work that I have done on broadband. When my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset said that I would not speak in the debate, I was going to leap to my feet like some sort of digital gazelle, but I thought I would keep the House waiting. We have heard several extensive speeches about the many benefits of Government investment in digital infrastructure, but my speech will be somewhat briefer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said that some of her constituents were not able to do something as old-fashioned as making a mobile telephone call. Mobile telephone calls are, in our modern world, pretty old-fashioned, but we should not forget that not many years ago they were simply impossible in this place. Since then, we have not only been through the period of the invention of mobile phones; we have been through a period during which all our constituents railed against the installation of mobile phone masts. Now we have come full circle, and they rail against the absence of mobile phone masts. The digital revolution has thoroughly revolved.
I want to make some brief points about the Bill. It seems obvious to me that, although adopting this approach to encouraging digital infrastructure investment means that the Government are forgoing a certain amount of revenue from business rates, their fostering of digital innovation and infrastructure investment will ensure that the amount they get back through the broader benefits of economic growth is many times greater than the amount that the business rates themselves cost the state and the taxpayer. That strikes me as a definition of the way in which the Government should be using public money, pump-priming economic growth to allow the development of an economy that works in the digital way that, as we have heard, our children will expect, and that all modern businesses already expect.
I commend the Government for taking that approach. It is also commendable that, by giving the relief a five-year term—which my right hon. Friend the Minister hinted could even be extended—they are giving firms an incentive to invest in installing fibre now, even if they do not turn it on, so to speak, for a number of years. I hope that we will secure the economies of scale of broader investment while continuing to benefit from business rate relief on that investment. That can only be a good thing, and it also addresses some of the concerns raised by the industry before the introduction of the Bill.
We should bear in mind that the growth in demand for fibre will only increase. When I was a journalist writing about the launch of the iPlayer—the BBC cunningly launched it in Christmas Day, because it knew that demand would be rather more limited—the BBC did not think for one moment that it would itself be broadcasting in 4K come 2016-17. Still less did it think that we would, as a matter of course, live in households in which half a dozen people wanted to download the 4K streams that broadcasters now routinely provide.
It is no small irony that, by all accounts, when Bazalgette built the London sewers he offered quadruple the capacity that was required in Victorian London. Now we see that that quadruple capacity has been more than exhausted by a growing population, and we should take the same approach when it comes to investing in our digital infrastructure. To point out that a prominent Bazalgette is still involved in the life of our digital nation is not in any way to draw a comparison between sewage and the modern digital output with which he is concerned. The huge benefits provided by the man who brought us “Big Brother” and a host of other programmes are not to be described in that way in the slightest degree. All we can say is that this is clearly a family that has contributed a huge amount to the life of our nation, at every level of our infrastructure.
In this day and age, there is never an excuse for underestimating the amount of digital capacity that we will require. Although 4K may appear to be perfectly adequate for our purposes today, we will look back on it in a number of years and see that it is paltry in comparison with what we will be using on a routine basis, whether that involves virtual reality, driverless cars, or all the technologies that will eradicate the digital scourge of fly-parking mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling).
We should not only encourage the Government to proceed with the Bill as quickly as possible, but encourage any Government to ensure that this sort of rate relief applies to investment in digital infrastructure, whether mobile or fixed, thus ensuring—following the launch of the iPlayer not so very long ago—that the internet of things that is now coming upon us will be fully served. That will be thanks to the investment of Governments such as this.
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), who is a real expert in this field, as he has demonstrated tonight. I have to admit that I am a technology dinosaur; when it comes to communications, if I have a choice between email, text or telephone, I will choose an actual conversation every single time. It takes an awful lot less time to pick up the phone and have a conversation one to one than to compose lengthy emails that often can take hours to construct by virtue of the need to check the content and tone, or to correspond via text messages; at present I have about eight text messages building up, and I will no doubt forget to respond to all of them.
I welcome this Bill, which provides business rate relief for new fibre infrastructure. Its measures form part of a wider package that rightly encourages investment in our country’s digital infrastructure and that helps ensure that Britain remains a digital world leader. The Bill will help homes and businesses across the country have faster, more affordable and more reliable broadband connectivity.
We have heard this evening from many Members who represent constituencies very different from mine. Many of their areas are very rural, and we have heard from them about issues of the connectivity of mobile and broadband in rural areas. My constituency is not like that: I have mainly towns and one large village—Cannock, Hednesford, Rugeley and Norton Canes. There is limited rural space in my constituency; my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) is one of my near-neighbours, and I see her nodding, as she recognises what my constituency is like.
I also have a forest in my constituency. If someone is driving through the forest of Cannock Chase and I, as a passenger, am having a phone conversation, the chances are that the phone call will cut off; I must add that I am on wireless, not Bluetooth. This is an issue in the more rural parts of my constituency. The measures in the Bill that make broadband and mobile access much better will be welcomed by people and businesses across the country, including in my constituency.
My hon. Friend is right, and I will come on to some specific issues later in my speech.
My office is on Market Street in the heart of Hednesford, yet when I am there, more often than not I cannot make telephone calls because I do not have any mobile phone reception. When I am travelling between my office and my home as well, invariably the mobile phone reception falls.
Why is broadband and mobile access so important? As Members have said, it is key to family and our daily lives. We can keep in contact with our friends across the world through Facebook and social media. We have talked about the closure of high street bank branches across the country because people are increasingly doing their banking online, but they need excellent online access to be able to do that. I am not sure that any Members have mentioned being able to switch energy suppliers. We talk about people trying to get better rates for their gas and electricity, and that is often best done by looking at online portals. If people do not have good internet access, the range of deals they can get is restricted.
We have talked about watching television, too. Personally, I just switch the TV on; that goes back to my being a bit of a dinosaur. Many people, however, use iPlayer and on-demand services. My mother, for instance, has never used a computer, but a few years ago we got her iPlayer and she is absolutely reliant on it for communicating with people and watching television, but she has to have excellent broadband access to do that.
I want to raise some specific issues in terms of broadband access and the roll-out of full fibre connectivity. A number of my constituents live on a new housing development called Chasewater Grange, and they complain of painfully slow broadband speeds. It is a new Taylor Wimpey development on the edge of Norton Canes. There are about 130 houses. Despite being billed as a superb collection of high-quality homes, with a mix of house types to suite a range of tastes, including three and four-bedroom homes, all with easy access to local amenities—which I fully support; they are fantastic, and it is a fantastic development—the one thing the local residents do not enjoy is fast and reliable broadband access.
On building a new housing scheme, developers install gas, electricity and water as a matter of course, but we are now in a time when broadband is the fourth utility. The provision of superfast broadband should be treated in the same way as the other utilities. The problem is not unique to Chasewater Grange. I have done quite a lot of research on this issue over previous days, and I have been reading endless reports of residents of new developments up and down the country facing similar issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) is not in his place at present, but he made the point that this problem has been recognised, and last year an agreement was reached between the Government, Openreach and the Home Builders Federation to ensure that superfast and ultrafast broadband connectivity would be either provided free or co-funded by Openreach to new developments. This has been extended to all developments with more than 30 homes, and connection will be free. We rightly place emphasis on building new homes; we often talk about the issue in the Chamber. So I am pleased that there is recognition that broadband connectivity is as important as the other utilities. Homebuyers expect this.
The issue is particularly important in my constituency, because thousands of new homes are being built all the time. When I drive around the constituency, I never cease to be amazed by the number of new developments. In the Pye Green valley and in Brereton, where I live, homes are being built all the time, and we must make sure they have access to both the main utilities and also broadband.
The moves made by Openreach and the Home Builders Federation are good news, but they are not going to resolve the issues faced by the residents of Chasewater Grange. I was very pleased to learn last week that that community has made some progress in securing funding from both Openreach and Taylor Wimpey to complete the work to install the fibre-based broadband. However, the residents of Chasewater Grange still face a funding shortfall, and they are communicating at present with Superfast Staffordshire. I hope they succeed in securing some assistance to be able to bridge the gap and ensure that this fibre broadband is connected.
I hope that as a result the residents of Chasewater Grange will soon be able to enjoy the benefits of fast and reliable broadband, and be able to do their banking online, and that the teenagers will be able to do their homework online—I am sure that we would all agree that it is important that they can complete their assignments. I also hope that those residents who want to work from home will be able to do so. The issues relating to broadband speeds are not confined to Chasewater Grange. I know of homes on Sweetbriar Way, for example, that have been waiting years for this connectivity. I also have a small number of rural properties in my constituency, and they are still waiting, too.
I want to turn to a more positive aspect of fast broadband access. The redevelopment of the Rugeley B power station site will present opportunities to tap into existing superfast broadband infrastructure. The power station sits right alongside the west coast main line, which has the superfast broadband network running up the line. Similarly, the canal network in the area has that infrastructure. The power station site benefits from the railway line and the canals; it also has national grid infrastructure. I have described it before in the House as a connectivity crossover, and we need to make the most of it. It presents an ideal opportunity to attract high-tech businesses and advanced manufacturing that can make the most of the infrastructure.
The power station site is huge, and there will also be some homes on it. I have talked about the need to bring broadband infrastructure to the door in new housing developments. The superfast broadband line is very close to this development, and we need to make the most of it—not only for today but for future generations. There is a real opportunity to ensure that the regeneration of this power station site attracts the businesses that will create highly skilled, highly paid jobs for those future generations. As I have said before—and will probably say again to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones)—we need to have ambitious, bold and visionary plans for Rugeley.
There is another site in my constituency that has excellent digital infrastructure, and again, we need to make the most of it. It is the Cannock campus of the South Staffordshire College. It was very disappointing to hear recently that it is to shut owing to falling numbers, because it had received a multi-million pound investment a few years ago, part of which provided it with excellent digital infrastructure. We need to make the most of this site as we look at plans for its future. We need to tap into that digital infrastructure.
I am sure that many other Members want to speak in this important debate, but I want to come back to the Bill that we are discussing tonight. It is part of a wide range of reforms that the Government are undertaking to ensure that we have excellent digital infrastructure across our country. I welcome the Bill. I welcome the fact that it will enable my constituency and others to have faster, more reliable broadband and to enjoy all the benefits that the internet and emails offer us.
As always, it is a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling). It is also a pleasure to take part in the debate. Before I get into the detail of my speech, I should like to thank the Minister for Digital, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), who is no longer in his place, for giving me a comprehensive response to what I thought was a simple, straightforward intervention earlier. I asked him about the five-year limit and the deadline for the business rate relief, which was an important point. If the Bill can incentivise companies to really get behind investment in our digital infrastructure, that will be a good thing. It will have far-reaching benefits.
The Bill made me think of a couple of things. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase described herself as a “technology dinosaur”, but I would describe myself as a technophobe. The challenges with the internet connection that we have faced here in Parliament in recent weeks have been frustrating, to say the least. All I will say is that it is very handy to have a staff member on your team who is a good bit younger than you are. I have found that they know everything about the internet, and they have been a huge help to me.
I am also reminded of the time, probably 20 to 25 years ago, when we first started to see the internet appear—I use the word “appear” because that is how it felt—and we had our first internet connection. It was a big thing to have the internet at home. I seem to recall that there was no such thing as wireless internet. There was a wire that led from downstairs to upstairs, and we had to plug it in and unplug it. It was impossible for more than one person at a time to be on a computer. How things have changed!
I am also reminded of the first mobile phone that we had. I could not fit it into my quite large handbag. It was almost the size of a brick, and I used to walk around with it. It had an aerial and a handset with a curly cable attached. Again, how things have progressed! Who would have imagined that we would be here this evening talking about 5G—
I bow to the hon. Gentleman’s judgment on that one. Sadly, I did not have much chance to use the “brick”; I seem to my recall that my husband used it more than I did. However, I do have my own iPhone these days, so things have changed. Today, we can stream films into our homes and download music. I have something that I call the boogie box. I can have it in the kitchen or move it around the house, and it picks up the music from my iPhone. It is just amazing what we can do and how technology has changed our lives. It has also changed business and so many other things.
The Bill is relatively short, but it is very important. It gives effect to one of the commitments on digital communications that were made in last year’s autumn statement. It is also important because it aims to give targeted support to the roll-out of full-fibre broadband connections and 5G mobile communications. Often, when we talk about infrastructure in this place, we are talking about roads, railways or bridges. We are talking about very visible and tangible pieces of infrastructure. That infrastructure obviously matters to the local area, as well as regionally or nationally, but occasionally something that seems small can have a much more far-reaching impact.
This Bill is about a piece of infrastructure that is far less visible. We see the green broadband boxes as we drive round our constituencies, but we cannot see the full-fibre broadband. We will know it is there, however, because we will be able to access it. Although the technology is not visible, the Bill will enable full-fibre broadband to reach across England and Wales to the benefit of residents and businesses across the country and across my constituency.
Many hon. Members have given examples this evening of where broadband makes a difference in their constituencies—an individual household, a small retail business, a large manufacturer in a business park or someone working in the gig economy. Small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of the local economy in my constituency. Whether in the shops of Aldridge village centre or in one of our many and varied business parks, businesses are creating jobs, driving the investment that is reducing unemployment, and developing skills for today and for the future. Such businesses may use the internet to sell their goods, to order components or materials, or to run their customer service. The internet is now an integral part of business.
Access to the internet is as important as electricity. If the lights go out and the power goes off, a manufacturing business will not be able to produce its goods. In the same way, if a business is reliant on the internet, it can grind to a halt without it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Before entering this place, I worked in the optical industry, and our business relied on the internet day in, day out for processing orders and for sending stock back to Europe. The minute the internet went down we could do nothing at all, which shows how crucial connectivity is.
The Bill is vital, because under current broadband, superfast broadband and mobile coverage we still get some so-called notspots. We have rightly heard many contributions from hon. Members representing rural constituencies. My constituency does not fall into that category, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase that rural constituencies are not the only ones that are affected. We have notspots in my constituency, and I even find that I have to move around in my own home from time to time to get a mobile connection. Were it not for the wi-fi connection, I would struggle on many a day. I hope that the days of having to lean out of the kitchen window or move to a certain spot in the living room to get some mobile signal will soon be a thing of the past.
We have heard a lot about businesses and individuals tonight, but this Bill is not just about them. I am thinking of my constituency’s many voluntary organisations and charities, many of which provide lifelines to local residents. They too rely on having a good internet connection. Through their webpages, they allow people to get information 24 hours a day. Through the internet, we are able to reach much further than we could in the past.
I want to follow up on something said by some other hon. Members about demographics and age. Access to the internet has the potential to cut across all parts of society. If an older person has good internet access, they can keep in touch with their family through Facebook or FaceTime—things that we did not have a few years ago. If someone has grandchildren living on the other side of the country, or even on the other side of town, and wants to connect with them on a more frequent basis much more cheaply than by using the telephone, that can be facilitated through a good internet connection.
When I go into a school, as all hon. Members do, and have a debate either with primary school children or, more often than not, older secondary school children, the very valid question, “What do the Government do for us as young people?” often comes up. Sitting here today has made me realise that this Bill is an example of something that the Government are doing that will help young people. The younger generation are probably more tech and phone-savvy than all of us here put together—I can certainly speak for myself on that.
My hon. Friend will agree that the age disparity between young and old can be bridged through the internet and through proper broadband and mobile connections, particularly in rural constituencies and especially those in Scotland. Although some powers have been devolved—unfortunately no SNP Members are here tonight to speak on such an important issue—I hope that my hon. Friend and the Minister will recognise the important role that Westminster can play in all the nations of the UK by giving funding and offering direction for broadband and mobile.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) for making that valuable point. I am sure that I will be corrected if I am wrong, but although this Bill relates to England and Wales only, Barnett formula consequentials will apply, so my new hon. Friend from Scotland made a valid point.
The Bill is about looking to the future. It is about developing infrastructure, so that we can take our country forwards. As we seek to develop new relationships and partnerships in a post-Brexit world, the Bill will make connectivity around the world so much easier and better.
Turning briefly to business rates, the Bill will enable 100% business rates relief for new full-fibre infrastructure for a period of five years. I hope that that will provide an incentive and encourage the telecommunications industry to get on with the job of delivering what we in this House want to see. Together with the universal service obligation, I hope that rates relief will make a significant difference to our constituents. I hope that we will make a big contribution towards closing the digital divide that we have heard so much about and that we will get higher-quality, more reliable connectivity in households and businesses. That is what I want in my constituency and what other Members want for theirs. In closing, I am supporting a Government who are investing in our country, in our infrastructure and in the livelihoods and futures of not just today’s generation but tomorrow’s as well, so I will support the Bill this evening.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), who addressed the substance of this important Bill with her customary attention to detail and her personal reflections on the progress that the internet has made. The change it has made to all our lives has been enormously valuable.
I will address the core of the Bill first, before explaining why it is so important. It is excellent that the Bill will provide for 100% business rates relief for full fibre infrastructure for a five-year period from 1 April 2017, and it is important that that is backdated so that it truly supports telecommunications companies that invest in their fibre network. It is also important that the Government will cover the full costs of that relief. As a former councillor, I know the impact that Government reliefs can have on local government, and it is important to note that the Government have said here that, because of the measure’s importance, they will meet the full cost of the relief.
I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Aldridge-Brownhills and for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) for mentioning the impact on Scotland. The Bill, of course, has territorial extent to England and Wales, but the Barnett formula applies, so it is important that we recognise how it affects the whole United Kingdom.
As we have heard, constituencies vary across the UK, from tightly packed urban settings to sparser rural settings. Superfast broadband, based on part-fibre, part-copper technology as today, is now available to 93% of premises, which is good progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills spoke about the progress of the internet, and I recall having a dial-up modem that would beep away before connecting at perhaps 28 kilobits per second—FaceTime or Skype would have been inconceivable in those days. We have made huge progress, and 93% of premises being able to access the part-copper, part-fibre service is good news, but the proposed relief provides—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—£60 million-worth of support to telecoms companies that invest in their fibre network by installing new fibre lines.
Virgin Media is now part of Liberty Global, which, to deviate slightly, shows the importance of having a competitive corporation tax regime. As has already been noted, a competitive corporation tax regime means a company such as Liberty has invested in Britain and bought Virgin Media, and is now taking it forward. I would have thought that the Bill will boost Virgin Media’s £3 billion “project lightning” network expansion, as well as plans by Openreach, a subsidiary of BT, to increase its investment in fibre optic. The Bill will also help smaller alternative players, which my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) said were priced out of the market in the past due to the impact of business rates and other competitive and regulatory pressures.
I welcome the Government’s aim, through this and other measures, to provide superfast broadband speeds of 24 megabits per second, or more, for at least 95% of the United Kingdom, which is progress beyond what we have achieved to date, but we should go further. That is why I am pleased that the Digital Economy Act 2017 provides for every household to have a legal right to request a fast broadband connection.
I do not apologise for reinforcing the important point, in case Opposition Members say it has already been made, that 95% coverage still means that 5% of our constituents are left out, so will my hon. Friend join me in pressing the Government to ensure that the service is truly universal? Although we welcome the measures set out in the Bill, we are still speaking up for our constituents, the remaining 5%, who are waiting.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes an important and cogent point. He is right to champion the interests of all the United Kingdom, which is why the universal service obligation is so important. The obligation, I am sure the Minister will agree, is only the first step towards ensuring that Britain is the most competitive country and is the place where businesses based elsewhere in the world want to do business. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills also noted, that is even more important in a post-Brexit world. We must ensure that we are absolutely match fit and ready to go in the next century, which is why it is important that every household has a legal right to request a fast broadband connection.
As has become customary in our Wednesday exchanges, I will reference points raised by my constituents. This is not a maiden speech, but Hazeley Lea, a lovely part of my constituency, gets less than half a megabit per second, which is totally unacceptable. Worse, residents say that they have too much downtime because the current connection—part-copper, part-fibre—is unreliable. It is not just homes, individuals and families but diversified rural businesses that are affected. One constituent says:
“Just yesterday, I saw a third visit this week by Openreach to my immediate neighbour. I took the opportunity to talk to the engineer on site who confirmed there was a major problem perhaps with old underground cabling to the area simply giving up. He also confirmed that none of the line managers are likely to take this further because of the costs to BT to supply new cabling.”
That demonstrates that what the Government are trying to do is right. Not only are they addressing the old underground cabling that is simply giving up—the cabling was introduced many, many years ago for technologies that are now old-fashioned, as my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) said—but they are tackling the costs that apply to businesses through business rates and other regulatory matters. The costs, particularly business rates, have been prohibitive in helping businesses to invest.
I was on a British-American Parliamentary Group visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the weather was almost as good as it has been here recently. Importantly, I found out that a £70 million grant had got local people—the Chattanooga area has a population of just over 500,000—not 24 megabits per second, which is the UK Government’s measure of success in this phase of superfast broadband, but 1 gigabit per second through providing fibre to the premises, not just fibre to the cabinet. That is what the Government are trying to do, and it is the way forward.
Coming back across the pond to Stratfield Saye, the seat of the Duke of Wellington, the exchange there is a problem because, at present, the broadband connection given to my constituents, and undoubtedly to the Duke of Wellington, comes from Mortimer across the county boundary in Berkshire, instead of from Bramley in my constituency and the county of Hampshire. Naturally, Bramley is much closer to Stratfield Saye than Mortimer will ever be. Indeed, the length of cabling required from the exchange to the home would be cut in half if the connection were provided from Bramley. That shows the lack of flexibility in the system. We need to ensure that there is the right technology in the right places to serve people in the 21st century, not the convenience of telecommunications operators from the 20th century.
Some people in Bramley are nearer Chineham in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), but none the less they are connected by cables from Bramley. Those cables are actually steel, not copper, because apparently when the cables were installed by BT, then state-owned—I do not know whether the Labour party plans to renationalise BT, too—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) says it is a possibility, so perhaps he would like to clarify the matter at the Dispatch Box. The point I was making was that BT simply said, “It is all right, we don’t have to face any competition. We’ll just shove some steel cabling in there and it doesn’t matter what happens to local people.” Of course when we were talking about telephone and analogue technology, that was fine, but we are in this new digital age now and we need to make sure people have the right technology to their doorstep. That is why we must tackle this head-on.
I do not want to be totally critical of BT, as it has done a lot of good work in enabling a lot of cabinets and coming up with flexibility in the way those things are delivered. For example, in the parish of Ellisfield in my constituency BT came up with a match funding scheme that said, “If the community can raise some of the money, we will put in the other half.” That is a very innovative scheme for a community so rural that it made this commercially unviable to deliver. But therein lies the problem: no one should be penalised for accessing what is now a utility, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) rightly said—people should be able to expect this. Charging people £558 per dwelling not only is on the cusp of what BT might ordinarily provide as a commercial arrangement, but it was penalising residents in rural areas for living where they do.
May I take my hon. Friend from Hampshire to Dorset and endorse what he is saying? He is advocating greater flexibility within BT and saying that although some good work is being done, more could and should be done. Does he agree that we need flexibility across the piece, not just in Hampshire and his beautiful constituency, so that where difficult rural issues arise, sensible solutions are found?
My hon. Friend makes an important further contribution to this debate and is right in what he says. Let me take him back to the further remarks from my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire, who pointed out that Brexit provides an opportunity, because EU state aid legislation got in the way of allowing local communities to come up with solutions. When I was a local councillor, we introduced CITI—the communications improvement and technology infrastructure fund—which was a new way of providing match funding from the borough council, but it was then ruled out of order because it was deemed “state aid”. Not only had we, through careful management, kept council tax down and not increased it, by using the excellent initiatives from this Government on match funding and helping local councils keep council tax down, but the money that we had saved and that we wanted to put to good use for the residents of Basingstoke and Deane in north Hampshire could not be used because of state aid rules. So we must tackle these things and we must deliver those solutions for local people.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the important points he is making about the combination of local government and local IT companies. We have a similar situation in west Oxfordshire, where we have a number of excellent companies. Does he agree that through good local governance and providing freedom for local companies, with sensibly managed local finance, we can find the solution to the internet shortages—the notspots we have been talking about?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. He is right: this is all part of the competitive nature that we need to try to ensure is supported. We need to provide local solutions to local problems. Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure you are aware that Hampshire County Council has been working to go beyond 96% connectivity—[Interruption.] If you were not aware before, you are now. That could be met if we allowed local firms to meet that 4% shortfall. If we allowed local firms to bid for further funding from the state, unhindered by EU state aid rules—indeed, instead, further supported by these business rates initiatives—we would close that 4% gap without a shadow of a doubt.
Let me turn from BT, which has had a great benefit from the current business rate arrangements, to Virgin Media, which should benefit from this. I outlined that earlier, but it is important to talk a little more about it to outline the importance of the issue to a British company based in my constituency; it has its corporate headquarters in Hook. It has run a competition, through its own commercial judgment, to supercharge local communities. Although the company has not yet supercharged Hook, which is where it is based—I hope it is listening and will do so shortly—it has agreed to supercharge Hartley Wintney and Phoenix Green, just down the road. That means that those places will have ultrafast fibre to the premises very shortly, which is good news because residents there will get a head start on what the Government aspire for the whole of the country to receive. Those residents will receive fibre to the premises, which means they will be eligible to get the 1 gigabit per second telecommunications connectivity that is critical for the future.
Businesses will benefit as well—this is not confined to households. In Yateley in my constituency, Samsung has its European quality control centre. If we want those technical businesses to be based in constituencies such as mine, we need to ensure they have the connectivity to match. Samsung being the technical giant that it is, it needs that more than perhaps anyone else. It is therefore brilliant news to hear that these business rates initiatives will be introduced.
This is not just about the giants; it is also about the smaller businesses. Fleet, the biggest town in my constituency, has a business called CV-Library. It was set up in 2000, in the dotcom boom era. Although that was a very different internet era, that remains an internet business and it is very successful. It was set up by a young carpet fitter who was looking for work and it is now the UK’s third biggest jobs board. Of course it has thrived on the great number of new jobs created under the economic management of this Government, and it is one of the top 500 most visited websites in the UK. So we are talking about a well reputed website.
That small business has come a long way, with Resume-Library allowing it to operate in the United States, and it is now thriving as an international business. Again, as with Samsung, if we want such businesses to be based outside the main towns and cities—outside London and across the country, ensuring that we create an economy of the nations and regions, not just of London —we need connectivity that serves businesses such as CV-Library and allows them to thrive and to connect with the world, as CV-Library has done with Resume-Library and will, I am sure, do in future. Incidentally, it was the first jobs website to allow people to apply for jobs on a mobile phone. I shall come back to that important point in a moment.
One resident in Bramley told me that he found it
“incredible that we are surrounded by much better services and yet it appears that we are unable to access these.”
People such as that resident from Bramley are used to going on their mobile phone and connecting to 4G, yet in their house they cannot connect to a decent fixed-broadband service. He also said:
“I have been told by BT that it is not possible to switch exchanges”
from one to another
“as this is ‘too difficult’”.
In the mobile age, when people can go about their daily business while they walk to work, it is not acceptable for something to be simply too difficult for a monopoly provider. We must do better, and the Government are.
It is important that the 100% business rates relief is focused on encouraging the full-fibre initiative and getting that to the premises. Indeed, the digital infrastructure investment fund has also been designed as an incentive. Traditionally, it has been difficult to finance digital infrastructure investment in Britain because the industry has been relatively young. The lack of certainty about future demand has made investment difficult to secure. I hope that the digital infrastructure investment fund, along with business rates initiatives such as the one in the Bill, will ignite interest, so that private finance will invest in this important sector. Digital infrastructure is a critical part of our infrastructure, like roads and rail, so I hope that the private interest we really need will be drawn in. As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) mentioned, the drawing in of private finance will make the market more competitive and allow local solutions to rise up and meet local people’s needs.
Full-fibre networks are so much more resilient than the traditional copper-wire networks. I referred to my constituent in Hazeley Lea who told me that the copper cabling was failing. That is a problem not only for Hazeley Lea and North East Hampshire, but for the whole country, because the internet is delivered to most homes in Britain by underground copper cables. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills referred to the green cabinets that people see springing up, and from which bushes are cut away so that they can be enabled for fibre, but the final part of the service is still delivered by copper. The wires can be degraded by distance, as has been the case for my constituents in Stratfield Saye and Hazeley Lea; indeed, the constituents in Bramley who live near Chineham have the problem of the long distance from the exchange in Bramley.
Full-fibre networks seek to run the fibre connections straight to the doors of homes or businesses. I make one plea to the Government, because there is still no capability in planning legislation and the national planning policy framework for local councils to mandate fibre to the premises, which would solve the problem referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. They can request it, but the only requirement they can make is that there be a telephone connection to a home. I have been told that, if it is done at scale, particularly on larger developments, the cost difference is marginal, if existent at all. The Government could easily remove that difficulty for councils to mandate fibre, and it would be transformational in the new homes that the Government aspire to build throughout the whole United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that copper wires can be degraded by age and distance, but volume of traffic is also a problem. Does he agree that when, on a Saturday night, for example, a popular programme is on or more people want to be streaming or gaming, the whole system slows down and grinds to a halt? That is also part of the degradation process.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that copper’s capacity is insufficient for today’s challenges. We must make sure that we deal with not only today’s challenges but tomorrow’s, so we must ensure that there is more fibre than we even need today. We do not want to end up, perhaps in five or 10 years—not a million miles away—with the fibre we install today not being good enough for the challenges of tomorrow.
In turning to the challenges of tomorrow, it is important to consider mobile communication, which is enabled by the fibre broadband that links the mobile masts. Fibre provides the connectivity, via the masts, to users who perhaps want to do their banking on their phones, as several Members have said. Deploying mobile infrastructure remains challenging at times, particularly in remote locations or among difficult topography. It is important for us to consider the viability of such initiatives as we move from 4G to 5G, and as we do so, perhaps we could find a remedy for those communities that have not even moved to 3G or 4G. We must ensure that those initiatives are viable, so that no one is left behind. Mobile telecommunications can be an excellent way of providing mobile broadband—fast broadband—to rural communities, instead of running fibre to those rural homes. It could be that part of the solution, part of dealing with the final 4%, is to ensure that fibre is run to mobile masts, which are then accessible to those rural communities.
Reducing operating costs is critical to ensure that the potential economic viability of these sites is considered properly. I am sure that the Government will consider that in the deliberation that they will doubtless have in the time ahead. Targeted business rates relief to enable fibre cabling to be rolled out to those hard-to-reach areas would be particularly helpful in notspots that have been badly served by telecoms to date and could be much better served by telecoms in future.
It is important to prioritise sites such as railways and motorways, as mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). They demonstrated that to have connected commuters, which was the term used by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, we need fibre to be run alongside railways.
Order. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will have to sit down for a second. We cannot both be on our feet. I have given a lot of leeway, but I do not want to get too involved in 4G, 5G, and telecommunications being passed down motorways and railways, as they have absolutely nothing to do with what we are discussing. I know that you have been asked to filibuster, but do not worry because we have so many more speakers to come and you might deprive them. Come on, Mr Jayawardena.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you are very, very kind, but I shall be bringing my remarks to a close very shortly.
It is important to recognise that new fibre, which will be rolled out under business rates relief, allows for better mobile connectivity in those hard-to-reach areas.
Mr Deputy Speaker, as ever, you make an excellent suggestion. I will speak to the hon. Gentleman in due course.
As we allow fibre to be rolled out, using this relief, to areas that have not been accessible in the past, it is important to reflect on the way in which people are changing their behaviour. People are moving to mobile. We need to ensure that accessibility to the mobile network—the fibre network—is possible. That is why it is critical that we work with companies such as Network Rail to roll out fibre on its land as well as across other people’s land.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, all of this is in stark contrast to the way in which we used to work. It is important that people are helped along this journey. If we want to roll out more fibre, we need to ensure that there is proven demand for it, otherwise it is simply not commercially viable. We need to reduce the operating costs, which we are doing through business rates relief for the roll-out of new fibre. It is good to see the new digital training opportunities that have been created as part of the digital strategy. The new digital skills partnership is seeing Government, business, charities and voluntary organisations come together, which is really positive news. I should declare an interest, so I refer Members to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. A plan by Lloyds Banking Group to give face-to-face digital skills training to 2.5 million people, charities and small businesses by 2020 is a good example of that partnership. Google has pledged to provide five hours of digital skills as part of its commitment, too. The idea has been adopted by business.
The strategy and these plans demonstrate that the Government take businesses and people seriously in rolling out fibre broadband across the country. This is part of the cuts to business rates that benefit all rate payers and will be worth almost £9 billion over the next five years, and it is part of the Government’s focus on ensuring that we create an economy that serves the whole country—all the nations and regions. It is about ensuring that the Government are committed to the long-term reform of this country.
Who would have thought that Alibaba and Amazon would be the big retailers of today, not the greengrocer on the high street? Who would have thought that we would have been speaking to people across the world on FaceTime instead of flying across the world to see them? Who would have thought that people would be able to watch this speech on their mobile phone rather than read it, dare I say, in Hansard? I am sure that many will.
Order. I have a slight problem. I did not expect to have to bring in a time limit—[Interruption.] Seriously. I do not want to have to introduce a time limit, but we have the summing up in about an hour and there are still five speakers to come, so can we aim at around 12 minutes? If this continues, two speakers will drop off the end, and I certainly would not want that to happen when Members have been sitting here all day. I want to help Members.
Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker. Thank you very much for that kind reminder.
This Bill matters. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), the former Minister, mentioned, it is not necessarily the most thrilling Bill. It is relatively short, with six clauses; as a former lawyer, I can appreciate that brevity is often harder than writing something very long, so I admire the draftsmen’s ability in putting together something so succinct. The Bill should have strong support not just from the Government but from all parties, as has already been suggested by Opposition speakers.
My constituents in Hitchin and Harpenden, only 30 to 40 miles from central London, face patchy broadband coverage in many areas. I appreciate the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage—it is often harder to get broadband in spread out villages and rural areas than in tower blocks and urban areas. It is physically harder; I appreciate that, but the village of Kimpton, slap-bang in the middle of my constituency, has pretty terrible broadband.
Let me give the House some statistics to back my point up. In Kimpton, no residence or business receives superfast broadband. We are in the bottom 7% in the country for average download speed and in the bottom 0.5% for connections of more than 30 megabits per second. There is still a job to do and, with due deference as a new Member of the House, I say to the Government that we still have a job to do connecting up rural areas in our country. We should not forget that.
As my hon. Friend knows, my 92-year-old aunt lives in Kimpton, and he is speaking eloquently on her behalf. Does he agree that it is most important, particularly in rural areas, that older people living in the community should have access that keeps them engaged with their friends and family?
I agree. It is important for people to be connected to friends and family; the converse situation is one of loneliness in many respects. We live in a society that is increasingly atomised, so it is helpful to ensure that older members of society have full digital connectivity. That is another reason why the Bill is important.
At a recent meeting of a local business club in my constituency, a business owner whose business is situated in a rural area just north of Harpenden told me that it takes three days to back up her server, such is the slow download speed. Business rates relief for the installation of full-fibre broadband infrastructure will provide a huge incentive for operators to invest in the broadband network with the latest technology—a point made admirably by several of my hon. Friends, not least my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena).
It is important to consider why, in the broader sense, it is important to have world-leading digital infrastructure. Why are we all here? I shall offer a few observations. We are effectively going through a new industrial revolution. Technology, powered largely by the internet, is driving a global future. This country needs to be at the heart of that, and rolling out full-fibre broadband is central to the challenge. The Bill will make it easier, enabling small businesses in rural areas such as mine to access the superfast broadband they need. As the Minister said, the Bill will break down barriers to business, which everybody wants—at least on our side of the House.
The Bill shows that the Government can, in limited ways and when the time is right, provide innovative solutions to help to solve some of the biggest problems choking up areas of the economy. We need strongly to support the free market and free enterprise with little Government intervention, unless necessary. The Bill and the Government’s actions are bold. We need to be bold enough to use the tools of government to allow the private sector to work more efficiently and incentivise it to provide better results for our constituents, who send us to this place on their behalf, after all.
Business rates relief is welcome, as many hon. Members have said, but I urge the Government to ensure that we do not lose sight of our manifesto commitment to a full review of business rates, and to produce a system that is more fit for purpose. In certain ways, the current system has shown itself to be capricious, cumbersome and, in some senses, frankly unfair.
When discussing a Bill on digital infrastructure, it is appropriate to point out the fundamental asymmetry and unfairness for bricks-and-mortar businesses paying the levy in comparison to the digital technology-based businesses with which they often compete on a day-to-day basis. We all know businesses on our high streets that have this problem. It is important for the House to recognise that many international taxation treaties inhibit the United Kingdom from taking unilateral action on the taxation of global technology businesses because their nature is, indeed, global rather than domestic. Everybody can appreciate the difficulties with that. I urge the Government to look for more international agreement on the issue so that we can start to address the balance of the business rates paid by physical, bricks-and-mortar businesses compared with those paid by their digital cousins and friends.
In staying true to the detail and narrow nature of the Bill, it is incumbent on me briefly to talk about 5G mobile broadband, following on from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire. Now, this may seem like a dull topic, but I assure Members that it is not—it can be very dull. The reason is that 5G, like 4G or 3G, is something we take for granted; it is just there. We do not think enough about where it comes from or the work that goes into it. However, 5G will be the enabler for so much technological development in this country.
O2 estimated in a report that 5G infrastructure will be just as pivotal as broadband to the wider economy over the next five to 10 years and will greatly boost British productivity, which all Members of this House should wish to see. The benefits are manifold, from telecare health apps, to smarter cities, to more seamless public services. Those are some of the many benefits that 5G mobile broadband can help to bring about, and I urge Members to support the Bill, which provides some of the digital plumbing that will enable us to bring tangible benefits to our constituents.
To take up a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire about 3G and 4G, it is important to note that some areas, especially rural areas, are still not on 3G or 4G—
No, it is not that. I am trying to be helpful. I am bothered about time. I would like us to discuss broadband infrastructure to houses, rather than 3G, 4G and 5G, which is mobile phones. If we were having a debate on mobile telecommunications, it would be brilliant, but we are not. I have allowed a bit of freedom, but I do not want the debate to concentrate on that issue. The hon. Member for North East Hampshire should know better than to lead you on into discussing something I have told him off for.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Forgive me, but this is my very first point of order, and I am sure you will indulge me as a relatively new Member of Parliament. However, in clause 1, there is reference to mobile phone telecommunication as well as—
Don’t worry—I can help you. I am very bothered about the length of time and the number of speakers I am trying to get in, so if we can concentrate on the bolts of what it is about, it will be much easier to get everybody in to speak. The last thing I want to do is not get you in to speak, seeing as you have sat here all day. So I think it is better if I can help the House move along in the area I think we need to discuss. To go back and talk about 3G over 4G is not relevant to today’s debate.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.
In closing, I should say that the Bill is a significant step forward. It helps our country to lead the world in a new industrial revolution based on digital technology. It also shows that this Government, and indeed any Government using their powers effectively, can make truly positive impacts on people’s lives when acting in the right way—in this case, to enable superfast broadband to reach more people more quickly.
It is a great pleasure to follow the many distinguished speakers in this debate, who have made so many excellent points—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami), who so eloquently laid out many of the issues that many of us face in our own constituencies.
I have a few brief points to make, but if I may I shall start with a little trip down memory lane. I have recently purchased a new iPhone. In doing so, I remembered the first iPhone I ever bought, which connected to a thing called EDGE—it did not have 3G. Of course, those days are long behind us, and with my new device, I can do a great many tasks I just could not have thought of in those days.
I say that because today is my baby son Henry’s first birthday, and I apologise to him in advance, if he ever watches this speech, that I am here, rather than speaking to him. But all is not lost, because, owing to the wonderful invention of mobile phones and the internet, I can take part in the happy day. I can, for example, see him and speak to him on Skype. For his part, he wonders why on earth his father’s voice is coming out of a small box my wife is holding in front of him.
I can also see photographs and videos of him opening presents. These presents were, of course, ordered from a well-known, very large internet company—and a gigantic number of them there are, too. His everyday necessities are ordered through the internet; there is no longer a requirement to go to the shop. Indeed, it is possible, although I do not have this system myself, to link up the house so that I could turn the lights up and down in his room if I wished. I could check on his welfare through a webcam that I could view on my mobile phone. The most extraordinary, and perhaps slightly disturbing, thing is that there is a teddy bear in his room—a company called CloudPets produces these—and, using an app on this iPhone, I can go online and record a message so that when he plays with the teddy bear and presses the button on it he can hear my voice. This is lovely, of course, on his first birthday.
However, the internet is not just something to amuse, and perhaps confuse or even slightly frighten, infants; it is of everyday importance for us all. As many hon. Members have rightly said, these days the internet needs to be seen, as it certainly is by the people of Witney and west Oxfordshire, as another essential utility. We all know that we are able to get about by road and by train, and that we are connected to water, electricity and, in some cases, gas. We expect those things now. Once, not so many years ago, the internet was seen as a bit of a luxury that people might want in order to go online and look at websites, but it was not something that they had to do. Now it very much is, because so many services take place online that it is increasingly hard to use them if we wish to telephone. Utility companies, for example, increasingly encourage us to go online, perhaps to pay a bill or change a tariff, rather than ring to speak to a person. It is therefore absolutely critical that everybody has immediate access to these services.
I would like, if I may, to clarify some of the terminology that we have discussed in the course of this debate. We all fall very quickly into the habit of referring to fast broadband, superfast broadband and ultrafast broadband —or full broadband, as it were. Superfast broadband—I appreciate that the House is aware of this, but it is worth dwelling on for a moment—uses fibre-optic cable to get to the cabinet but then, from cabinet to house, only copper. That is an old system that does not carry the data required these days due to attenuation—the breakdown of signal over distance and the physical effect of the current going through the copper. The signal slows down so that even if there is fibre-optic cable running to the cabinet, by the time it gets to the house the user does not necessarily receive anything like superfast coverage. That is why, although I entirely bow to the expertise of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and thank him, on behalf of constituents, for all the work that he did, there is still a job to do, as I think we would all accept. Superfast broadband is being rolled out across the entire country, but still, in some places, 5% to 10% of people do not have it, never mind anything else. We increasingly need fibre-optic cable running to the property, which enables full-speed broadband all the way.
In my professional life before I was elected, I saw exactly why that is. I know that other hon. Members will feel exactly the same. As a barrister, I would be away at court; the papers are often sent through to barristers at the last minute. They would sometimes be very big bundles, and our clerks would wish to email them to us to save us having to go into chambers to pick them up before going home. If I had been in court in, say, London, and I wanted to go to chambers in Winchester or Oxford before I went home, I would wish to avoid that step. I would have to go to my home in Bladon, a village in Oxfordshire, to look at the email to see whether the papers had been sent to me, but there was not enough broadband speed to download them, so I would have to get into the car, drive into chambers, pick up the physical bundles, and then drive back. All the while, I was wasting time, wasting money, downgrading my productivity, and adding to the traffic and pollution on the roads, all of which was unnecessary. When people write to me, as they frequently do, to say that it is impossible for them to carry out their business, I entirely understand their point, because I have suffered that very same frustration.
West Oxfordshire is full of businesses that operate from home. Before this debate, I had a look through my emails to see how many villages had written to me. Over the course of the brief time I have been a Member of Parliament, I have been contacted by constituents from the Wortons, Spelsbury, Kencot, Lechlade, Bladon, Bampton, Bruern, Filkins, Stanton Harcourt, Chastleton, New Yatt, Sandford St Martin, Fawler, Minster Lovell, Taynton, Langford and Standlake. That is 17 or 18 places in all.
I shall concentrate on the example of Chastleton. A gentleman from the parish meeting wrote to me—I am sure you will be pleased to hear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that he made his point succinctly—to say that Chastleton is lucky to get a speed of 1.5 megabits per second and that that has implications. First, businesses simply cannot work from home or find it very difficult to do so. Secondly, as I have alluded to from my own experience, it affects traffic flow because people have to either collect items in person or go to their workplace in Oxford, thereby adding to congestion on the A40, which hon. Members will know is a subject that I mention frequently. Thirdly, on education, children who are required to do their homework online simply cannot do so in many cases.
If anything, my correspondent has missed out one of the real drawbacks of the absence of a proper broadband connection, which is its effect on elderly care. My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) has referred accurately to an atomised society. When we go away to work, in many cases we leave elderly relatives without immediate access to family. It is absolutely crucial that people are able to make contact with loved ones quickly and easily, and to access the necessary services, including online medical advice and transport-booking facilities.
I remember my father going abroad on business trips. He would telephone during the week and we would wait while the signal bounced off the satellite, went around the world and came back again. We are a long way from those days. When I went to work in New Zealand some years ago, I was able to have a video conference with my loved ones at home and it was set up very quickly. That is all well and good. Those powers exist, but only if people have an adequate internet signal, which is clearly necessary for businesses, the elderly, family and care.
I know that many hon. Members represent rural areas where this issue is the chief concern. However, the situation is much the same in cities. The speeds experienced by many householders in Westminster and Lambeth are not much better than those in the rural areas we represent, so let us not think that the issue affects only those of us who have lots of small villages in our area. It affects cities as well. In fact, a lady who lives on Buttercross Lane in my biggest town, Witney, wrote to me to make a point about developers, which has also been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), who is no longer in her place. My correspondent was frustrated that the cabinet is very close but the developers are not required to connect the rest of the properties. That issue clearly causes immense and understandable frustration for my constituent and many others.
The digital economy has contributed about 7% of national output over the past year and has grown three times faster than other areas of the economy, so it is of enormous significance to the economy, particularly in areas such as mine, where so many people work from home, are self-employed and run small businesses. I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for small and micro businesses. The issue is very close to my heart.
There have been many bank closures in Carterton. As other hon. Members have said, we are told that that is because people are increasingly using those services online. That is all well and good, provided that they have the ability to do so. Although someone in Carterton might have a strong signal—not everybody does—that is not necessarily the case in the surrounding villages. They need one if they are to pay council tax or do internet shopping.
When I was younger, if I wanted a particular book I had to order it from the local bookshop. It might be sourced from the other side of the world and take months to arrive. Some of the romance of that has been lost, because we can now order almost anything we want and it will appear in a matter of days or, at most, weeks. That is one of the wonders of the internet age. The same is true of music. Music lovers may remember that once upon a time, if we wanted to listen to a hard-to-find song or album, it was sometimes possible to track it down, but it might have to be ordered from abroad. Now, the many well-known streaming services make it possible to listen to whatever we like immediately, as long as we have a good enough internet service.
Decent, high-speed, ultrafast broadband is absolutely crucial for day-to-day necessities and for business. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), who is not in his place, has given us an inkling of what is required in rural economies. In years gone by, the biggest contributor, directly and indirectly, to the economy of Witney and west Oxfordshire was something called the Cotswold Lion. The Cotswold Lion is actually a sheep, and in the not-too-distant past—only 50 or so years ago—the blankets and gloves made from its fleece were the mainstay of Witney’s economy. Now, we are looking to unlock tourism. It is essential that those who provide accommodation in bed and breakfasts, and in the great many houses that are available on short lets, can get those properties online.
On Saturday I attended the Witney carnival. At many such events all over west Oxfordshire, people sell things such as art or food products at small stalls. All such businesses are made possible and successful by access to good, fast broadband. Without it, they simply will not work. I apologise for saying it again, as I have done on many occasions in this House, but broadband is not a luxury; it is absolutely essential in this day and age. I entirely agree with west Oxfordshire residents who write to me to point out that they have a slow connection and they ought to have a fast one. They are absolutely right. It is essential in their personal lives and their businesses.
Broadband is entirely necessary for all of industry, in business premises, in home businesses and in the tourism sector. As I have said, a great deal of work has been done. I thank the Government for the work that was done before I came into Parliament and for their continuing efforts to roll out fast broadband across my constituency and beyond, but we must complete the job. I applaud the introduction of a legal right to superfast broadband. Coverage in Witney is about 90%, but we need to work towards 100%. I welcome the package of measures that the Government are introducing, which include the universal service obligation and £400 million towards the digital infrastructure investment fund.
As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), I particularly encourage private investment. I am grateful to BT for being proactive in my constituency and trying to connect as many people as possible. With sound money, good local governance, strong local councils and wise investment in flexible, agile and cost-effective local companies—there are several such companies in my constituency—we can provide this full solution.
I will briefly touch on the two clauses in the Bill that I consider to be most relevant. The first of them quite rightly puts business rates relief for broadband alongside the existing relief for small businesses, charitable organisations and rural businesses. Clause 6 promises that the effect will be more or less immediate, and I applaud that.
My final point—I do not want to test your patience, Mr Deputy Speaker—concerns 5G. I welcome the fact that broadband and mobile telephony will be combined over the coming years. As we seek to bridge the digital divide, we really must fix notspots. I applaud everything that the Government have done towards that, and I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading.
I am very grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your guidance and for your earlier ruling, which has given me the opportunity to speak for 10 minutes, rather than the nine, eight or seven minutes I might otherwise have had.
My meaning is the exact opposite. I am very grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), for whom I feel great sympathy. I am sure that many of my hon. Friends as well as Opposition Members have been in a similar situation when trying to communicate with members of their family on birthdays, important anniversaries and the like. He and I, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—he has arrived in the Chamber at the appropriate moment to hear me say this—were members of the same chambers and therefore in exactly the same situation when trying to download papers attached to an email to make sure that they arrived in court on time.
I warmly welcome the Bill. As we have heard so many hon. Members say, the importance of broadband cannot be overstated. It is as important as road and rail, and is a vital part of our infrastructure. Although I am pleased with the progress the Government are making, I will dwell on one or two brief points about where improvements still need to be made.
I start with words of congratulation, because it is right to acknowledge where the Government are moving in the right direction, and to be able to stand up and say that 93% coverage for superfast broadband is indeed an achievement. I applaud the ambition to achieve 95% coverage by the end of 2017, and I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Government are on target for that. However, it is frustrating for the 5% who are still left without it. That point has been repeated this evening, but I make no apologies for repeating it again. Many of us who have spoken represent constituents who are in exactly that position, and I know that a number of my constituents are not consoled by the fact that 95% of the rest of the population have access to superfast broadband while they do not.
I need not dwell on specific internet speeds; suffice it to say that the 1,000 megabits per second lauded in relation to the Bill is to be warmly welcomed, but that figure would be staggering to my many constituents who are struggling with 0.5 to 1 megabits per second and really cannot imagine a speed as vast as 1,000 megabits per second. However, I will, if I may, dwell on two or three brief constituency examples that constituents have raised with me. I must declare an interest in that, in the village of Lytchett Matravers, I am affected by many of the same issues.
The first example involves a constituent who wrote to me expressing great concern about broadband speeds of between 0.5 and 1 megabits per second. As has been said, we use the internet for more and more things these days, including education. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) mentioned researching points for educational purposes, but it goes further than that because many of our children are asked to do homework based on the internet and purely on the internet; in fact, they have to access the internet to download the homework to do that evening. One constituent wrote to me saying that they have to ration the amount of homework that their family can do, with the children taking it in turns to get on to the computer and complete their homework, because speeds of 0.5 to 1 megabits per second simply do not allow two children to do their homework at one and the same time. The additional point was made that updating software—with Microsoft, people do not get a wonderful DVD or disc to put into the computer these days; they actually have to download it from the internet—simply cannot be done if the speeds are not fast enough.
The second example I was recently given by a constituent involves a rural business. Again, the constituent lives about 100 metres from a different network that is much faster and would allow the business to function properly. As it is, he is struggling on less than 1 megabit per second and has to go to his place of work to download his work. The speeds where he lives simply will not allow it. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) mentioned an example in his constituency in which BT was flexible, but in this case BT has not been flexible enough and will not allow my constituent to change from one exchange to another, despite the distance of merely 50 metres or so.
I am conscious of the time, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I want to make one or two final points about postcodes, if I may. I know that the Minister is soon to jump up to the Dispatch Box, but I want him to take this point on board. Quite often the data are arranged by postcode and the percentages are calculated on that basis. However, some roads have the same postcode but different exchanges. I can think of one example in Dorset where it is claimed people have the potential to access superfast broadband on the basis of the postcode alone, but that is not the case because the one postcode has two separate exchanges.
I warmly welcome the measures in the Bill. It will not solve all the problems overnight. When my constituents look at the full-fibre speeds, with fibre to the door rather than just to the cabinet, of course they applaud them, but they want them and they want them soon. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for indulging me and for giving me a full 10 minutes, and I sit down in advance of reaching those 10 minutes.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak for longer.
It is a pleasure to speak on this Bill tonight, because when I campaigned in the by-election back in December broadband was one of the major issues. Indeed, trying to deliver broadband throughout my constituency is part of the five-point plan on which many hon. Friends helped me campaign back in those winter months.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) that broadband is essential. That is a relatively new thing. I am not that old, but when I look back to my childhood, I remember there being one BBC computer in a corner of the school that we went to use a class at a time. Only when I got to university did we really start to use the internet and have the ability to send emails. At that stage, we were sending emails only to other people within the university—in my case mostly to the man who is now my husband.
Now, we cannot conceive of how we could possibly live without the internet, whether we are young or old. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) said, people need it to be able to do homework. The children of my constituents and my own children have been given homework on Sumdog and other maths applications that they are supposed to do online, but they simply cannot do it with broadband speeds of less than 2 megabits per second. That is affecting the educational opportunities of the children in our most rural constituencies.
Young people in general are having difficulties. When they turn on the television and turn on Sky broadband, for example, they are told they can watch downloads, TV on demand or downloaded films, but they cannot because those things are not available to people who live in many of the rural areas I represent, where download speeds of less than 2 megabits per second are very common.
It is perhaps for business people that the lack of broadband represents the greatest problem. It is a particular problem for small businesses and, in rural areas, for farmers, who have to complete their single farm payments online. Reloading and reloading and reloading that page becomes very wearisome. We are now being asked to complete tax returns online—in fact, we will be asked to do so four times a year. VAT returns are also done online. All this becomes more and more wearisome when we have to do it online and we simply cannot do it. When businesses want to advertise for new employees they do it online and when people apply for those jobs they do it online. All those things cannot be achieved because we do not have access to what is now, in effect, a utility. In many parts of my constituency, it is not possible for families to do their shopping online. They write to me complaining, “We live in the most rural area in the country, and we cannot order our shopping.”
This is, perhaps, of even greater concern to the elderly. Jo Cox founded the Commission on Loneliness to help people in our community, such as the elderly, who are cut off from society. That may be more prevalent in rural communities than it is in cities. The internet offers elderly people living in such communities the opportunity to be connected to their families through Skype and other methods of communication. It also offers opportunities for telemedicine. At a time when we face challenges in relation to social care and the elderly, telemedicine and the use of the internet to monitor the condition of and check on the wellbeing of an elderly person can enable us to improve our social care offering to people in rural communities, and communities everywhere; but if we do not have the necessary internet resources, we cannot do that.
I welcome the Government’s 93% superfast broadband coverage—we have made great strides in increasing the number of people who have access to this wonder—but for those who do not have access to it, the position has become increasingly frustrating. Some people living in Wellingore wrote to me saying, “We can see the cabinet, but we do not have access to it, because we are on a different exchange, and by the time the signal reaches us from that cabinet, it is so slow as to be virtually useless.” Those people are being supported through the community fibre partnership, and I hope that in time they will be able to benefit from good broadband. The situation is similar in Swaton. A constituent wrote to me saying that they were full of excitement at the sight of the superfast broadband sign with the little box in the corner. It is right outside their house, but they are not connected to it; they are connected to one down the road.
People in Sudbrook—here I must declare an interest, in that Sudbrook happens to be the nearest village to where I live—were originally told that they would have broadband by this September. Unfortunately, however, they have now been told that that will not necessarily happen because of the railway line, although the railway line is not new but has been there for a long time. Their broadband seems to have been indefinitely postponed. It beggars belief that in this day and age something as simple as a branch line should prevent the upgrade of a broadband network.
Overall, I think that the Bill, which will abolish business rates on fibre broadband for five years, will encourage the placement of new fibre lines, and I hope very much that that will happen in the rural components of my constituency. I hope that, in focusing this benefit, the Minister is minded to ensure that providing broadband for people in rural communities who are currently suffering from a lack of access to that vital utility is given a higher priority than increasing broadband speeds from very, very fast to even faster in our cities and town centres.
It is a pleasure to be the last Back Bencher to be called in the debate, which has been incredibly interesting, although I think that, at times, the connection between the clauses in the Bill and the contents of speeches was well and truly lost. There was a suggestion that constituents of ours would have been able to watch the debate online. If that is the case, given certain parts of it, I find myself feeling sympathy for the 93% of the public who have such access. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), who is no longer present, said that innovation would permit constituents to watch the entirety of his speech online. Conservative Members speculated on whether that same innovation would allow the battery in his phone to last quite as long. Perhaps there is still some way to go.
None the less, this has been an interesting debate, and I am delighted to be able to use the last few minutes to further it. Despite great work by my local authority, East Sussex County Council, and indeed by the Government, too many of my constituents do not have a connection to fast broadband. My constituents’ age profile is high, and in order to balance our local economy we must encourage more working-age people to come to live and work in East Sussex. It is not too far from London, but, from a commuting perspective, particularly given our travails with Southern rail, it is too far to be attractive to many such younger working-age people. My constituency is fortunate in that 75% of it is designated as an area of outstanding beauty, so in that sense it draws people to want to come there to set up their own businesses, but they will not do so without the connectivity of superfast broadband.
My hon. Friend describes a constituency that is different from mine, but in many ways we have similar issues. In Gloucester, we struggle with the black spots that often arise in urban environments. Most of the city is well-covered but there are certain black spots where people cannot access broadband that enables them to work from home. That is similar to the problem that he describes.
My hon. Friend is right: urban areas, as well as rural ones, will not continue to regenerate without this problem being fixed.
I welcome the introduction of the Bill and the granting of business rate relief as a result for a five-year period on fibre and 5G installations. That should act as the further incentive that we in my constituency need to provide a fix.
I also welcome the previous Bill’s introduction of the new universal service obligation, which, again, should give the last 7% faster broadband. As has been said, this type of connectivity infrastructure is, in the modern age, akin for our constituents to the delivery of a new road or railway in the past. It is vital for the entire economy that we do not leave these constituents behind.
As well as recognising the investment from the Government via this Bill, and previous funding initiatives, I commend Conservative-run East Sussex County Council and Labour-run Brighton and Hove Borough Council for working together to help businesses and properties across East Sussex to access faster broadband. Through their e-Sussex project, my county has allocated £34 million in funding for areas that are too expensive for the market to upgrade itself. Every exchange in East Sussex will be included, and the current project will cover an area of 660 square miles and over 66,500 premises. It will install over 400 new fibre telecoms cabinets and other structures and will lay over 1,000 km of fibre—the distance between Brighton and Berlin.
The first e-Sussex contract is achieving excellent results in bringing better, more reliable fibre broadband to many areas that would not otherwise benefit from upgraded services. However, there remain properties that are hard to reach—for example, where a property is too far from the upgraded cabinet to benefit from any speed uplift. “Hard to reach” generally means too expensive for the public purse to fund. East Sussex has therefore signed a second contract with BT for further investment, so that an additional 5,000 homes and businesses in East Sussex will be able to access high-speed fibre broadband.
There has been much talk today of political parties coming together over a common interest. Perhaps that local example is a positive illustration of the power of working together.
Have my hon. Friend’s council and the council in Brighton introduced in their planning requirements an absolute requirement on all developers to provide superfast broadband? This is an area where many of our councils around the country could do more, and I would be interested to learn of his experience.
I do not believe those councils have, but my hon. Friend touches on another issue. I am referring to East Sussex County Council and Brighton and Hove Borough Council, but outside of Brighton but within East Sussex it is the district councils that would have the planning condition powers to which he refers. Therefore, I doubt that those councils have done so, but this is perhaps a good example. of where districts can work better together with their county cousins.
This might seem like great news for East Sussex, but I am afraid we are starting from a very low base in terms of where we are operating from. The recent report by the consumer organisation Which? found that Rother District Council’s geographical area, which covers the bulk of the 200 square miles of my constituency, is in the bottom 10 of all districts and boroughs in the entire British Isles for average broadband speeds. Rother joins the highlands, the Shetlands and the Orkney Isles in the bottom 10 performing areas. In contrast, the residents of Tamworth, which tops the list for speeds with an average of 30 megabits per second, are much more fortunate. The average speed for Rother is less than 10 megabits per second.
Bearing in mind that 10 megabits per second is deemed to be the minimum acceptable standard by Ofcom, I very much welcome the Minister’s commitment that 100% of my constituents will receive 10 megabits per second by 2020. The Which? report suggests that the increased performance for the Rother District Council area will be vital if the Government are to meet their 100% target. May I therefore put in a blatant invitation to the Minister to meet me to discuss what help could be offered to my constituents in Rother, in addition to the provisions in the Bill and the universal service obligation, to enable me to assist the Government in meeting their target?
In conclusion, I welcome the Bill as part of a package of proactive measures from this Government to deliver faster broadband. I should also mention—notwithstanding the fact that I just said, “in conclusion”—that I welcome the further reforms to the business rate mechanism. I do not wish to wander too far from the topic, but I can think of many examples of business rates having an impact on businesses in which services are being offered. We should not forget, for example, that Members of Parliament are subject to business rates, as I found out to my personal cost when I exceeded my IPSA budget for my staff office. I therefore absolutely welcome the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) that business rates should be linked to turnover, rather than to premises. That would certainly help my constituency. As a further meander, Mr Speaker—
You are very kind, Mr Speaker. That is helpful, although I think part of what you said was perhaps inaccurate.
The other point I wanted to mention was corporation tax. I hope Opposition Members will agree that my speech has been quite collaborative so far, but I take issue with some of them on this issue. Conservative Members have pointed out that corporation tax has been reduced, yet the overall yield—the amount that can be put into public services—has increased. For whatever reason, the Opposition want to increase corporation taxes, which would reduce the amount of money available for public services. That is of course illogical.
I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me of the Laffer curve, a term I have not heard since I was doing A-levels at Aylesbury College, where I was studying economics. He is absolutely right.
That brings me to another point about the Opposition. As well as supporting the Bill, it is important to support its aims, which are to increase business, to increase turnover and to increase the amount of money that we can put into public services. I am reminded of a recent visit to Bexhill business park, where the Government are creating funds for a new road. In return, it is hoped that investment will be generated for new businesses to set up there. It is interesting that many businesses from across Europe are looking to set up their headquarters in that business park. At a time when business confidence is perhaps a little uncertain owing to our position with regard to the European Union, it is absolutely essential to ensure that we have the lowest possible corporation tax base, so that those businesses can have every incentive to invest in this country, not just for the short term but for the long term. I am sure that they will be absolutely delighted that this Government have been returned to deliver just that.
In conclusion to my conclusion, I very much welcome the steps that this Government have taken to incentivise further broadband roll-out. I hope that they will help my constituents in Rother, which is, as I have said, in the bottom 10 districts—[Interruption.] I repeated that in case Scottish National party Members did not hear it the first time. I very much look forward to supporting the Bill as it spends its many days in Committee.
The Opposition welcome this Bill. It is vital that our homes and businesses have access to broadband and that broadband is faster, safer and more reliable than before, which is why we will be carefully scrutinising the Bill in Committee. As the Chancellor put it, this country was late to the 4G party, so we should do all we can to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of 5G communications and has full-fibre broadband to support it.
There was some doubt that this Bill would appear. The policy was originally announced in the Chancellor’s 2016 autumn statement and was due to be implemented as part of the Local Government Finance Bill, but it was then scuppered by the general election—like a lot of things. It was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, and there was some industry nervousness that it had been abandoned, but here we are in early July with a stand-alone Bill and I am glad that we are.
As we have heard, the Bill has a simple premise—at least I thought it was simple before I attended the start of this debate five hours ago. It will encourage firms to install new optical fibre by providing 100% business rates relief backdated to last April for a minimum period of five years. We understand that it will cost the Exchequer around £65 million by 2022. That is sure to be welcome news to the UK’s broadband companies, many of whom wrote to the Chancellor last February to complain that the current business rates regime is not fit for purpose and discourages inward investment in upgrades.
This legislation meets some of those concerns. The fact is that those business leaders were really talking about the whole business rates regime. This Bill deals with just one aspect when we actually need to be talking about the whole system, which many hon. Members from across the House have agreed with. There are many other changes to the system that could help to support businesses, and we outlined some of them in our manifesto, including switching from RPI to CPI indexation, exempting new investment in plant and machinery and ensuring that businesses have access to a proper appeals process. I appreciate that this is a stand-alone bill dealing with digital infrastructure, but I fear that it is no more than a sticking plaster for our moribund business rates system when we really need a total rethink.
This is a framework Bill, so it is short on detail. Conditions of eligibility will be outlined in future regulations, for example, which is why we need to scrutinise the Bill carefully. I do wonder which firms will benefit. The relief is expected to boost the big data providers through, for example, Virgin Media’s £3 billion “project lightning” and BT’s Openreach subsidiary, but it is unclear whether smaller firms will benefit initially. What impact does the Minister expect the reform to have on smaller providers? It would be a great shame if this Bill was merely for big business. Would it help smaller firms if the Bill’s provisions could be applied retrospectively to capture work on full-fibre networks that has already taken place?
Like many hon. Members, I am worried about how the Bill will benefit Britain’s rural communities, who have not done quite so well out of the broadband revolution so far. Many areas of the country, including urban areas, have been dogged by poor connectivity. I could not get broadband speeds for the past seven years in my area, but we were connected just last week because the housing company that built my house did not allow it to be cabled. However, many customers still do not get the advertised speeds that they are paying for. If they want a broadband upgrade, they pay for it, but they do not always receive what is advertised, so I commend the Which? report on broadband speeds. We pay our water rates, but if the utility company merely gave us a trickle out of the tap, we would be quick to complain. Many Members have said that broadband is the next utility, so why is that not included?
Businesses have suffered from not having the proper access to markets and customers that they should have. The public have suffered from being cut off from internet sites and entertainment sources, and their children are doubly penalised because so much modern education relies on online resources.
Discussion of digital exclusion has been sadly lacking in this debate. Services are increasingly going online. In fact, jobcentres have recently closed as people are encouraged to apply online for all their benefits and council services, yet many people do not have access. In my constituency in the borough of Wigan, 99% of people have access to fast broadband, but only 74% of them have the skills to use it. The cuts in the adult education budget are particularly penalising those people by preventing them from joining the digital economy that we all enjoy.
As I said at the outset, we support the Bill, which is an important step towards securing better broadband connectivity and access, but it is about more than just access. The Bill can work only if it is part of a broader picture that, on the one hand, fully incentivises business to invest in the future and, on the other, ensures that everyone, not just a select few, benefits from the reforms. More than just this Bill, that means education to ensure that everyone has the skills to take advantage of this great step forward.
We have had an interesting and, at times, wide-ranging debate on this important Bill. It is good to see such interest from Government Back Benchers, but it is slightly disappointing not to hear one speech from an Opposition Back Bencher on such a critical issue across the country.
The improvement of connectivity in the digital age helps individuals in their workplaces and homes, and can transform public services and the economy. Improved connectivity will bring significant economic rewards, with research suggesting that increased broadband speeds alone could add £17 billion to UK output by 2024, which has been recognised by all Members who have spoken today. I thank the many colleagues who made such passionate contributions today, which show that we all recognise the importance of investing in our telecommunications infrastructure.
The Bill will ensure that we help to close the digital divide and get higher quality, more reliable and resilient connectivity to more households and businesses. The Bill makes the technical changes needed to introduce 100% business rates relief for five years for newly installed fibre infrastructure. The importance we place on that relief is shown by how quickly we have introduced the Bill in the Session.
The Chancellor announced at autumn statement 2016 that we would provide relief on new fibre with effect from 1 April 2017. It is therefore vital that we move quickly to reassure the sector that the relief will follow. Investment decisions have been made on the back of the Chancellor’s commitment, and it is right that we proceed with the Bill to give us the powers to deliver the promised relief.
The Bill introduces support that forms part of a wider £1 billion package of measures that the Government are putting in place to support investment in digital infrastructure, and it forms an important part of the Government’s digital strategy. As such, the Bill will help to maintain the UK’s current high ranking as an internet e-commerce economy, as well as providing significant coverage of quick, reliable broadband connections to homes across the country.
I want to mention some of the contributions made in this debate, starting with that of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). He welcomed the Bill and also made the economic case for it. I felt he acknowledged that this Government are investing in the technology of the future. He intimated that the measures in the Bill will favour larger providers, but let me reassure him that, on the contrary, the Bill actually helps the smaller providers and opens up competition. It puts those smaller providers on a more level playing field, and that view was reiterated in several contributions.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned business rate retention, and we are absolutely clear that we want local government to keep more of the taxes that it raises locally. That commitment was in our manifesto and we are looking to follow through on it.
This is an important point, which I have raised in points of order and through other mechanisms in the past week or so. Will the Minister clarify that it is still the Government’s intention to proceed with the measures that were in the Local Government Finance Bill relating to the local retention of business rates, on the same timetable set out, with the changes to the revenue support grant?
As I said to the hon. Gentleman in my response to his comments, this Government are absolutely committed to allowing local government to keep more of the taxes it raises locally. That was in our manifesto. He made a very important point, not just then, but during his contribution, about local government wanting certainty, but he was using a little faux rage, given that during the time his party was in government, local government had no more than one year of certainty on how it would be funded. Local government currently has a four-year settlement and therefore greater certainty. That said, we are well aware that in the last year of that settlement we need to provide certainty to local government, and it is our intention to do just that.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned more regular revaluations. I can—
I am not going to give way; I am going to make some progress. On regular revaluations, I just want to tell the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to the aim of delivering more frequent revaluations. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) also made the important point about the detail of the measures in the Bill. As she knows, this is a framework and we are going to introduce further regulations to implement the Bill. I can assure her that those regulations will be put forward before the Committee stage, so that hon. Members can scrutinise them during the passage of the Bill.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have stood at this Dispatch Box on a number of occasions in the past week or so to discuss this important issue; I have asked you how we can get a statement from the Secretary of State or his Ministers. The last time, the Secretary of State did say that we could raise this in a debate. I have asked the question and we have still not got answers. How do we get that certainty for local government?
The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that if he does not at first succeed, he must try, try again. I am sure that is something his mother taught him when he was at school—when he was a young boy growing up. What I would say to him is, “Persist. Go to the Table Office. Think of the opportunities for different types of questions and, as we approach the summer recess, the relative urgency or emergency of what he seeks.”
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Let me move on to contributions made by other right hon. and hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) showed his significant knowledge in this area. He welcomed the Bill and, given that significant knowledge, it was good to see him confirm that he thought the Bill would help to incentivise the smaller providers and increase competition in the sector, a point reiterated by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse).
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage also mentioned the impact the Bill would have on our mobile infrastructure and 5G, as well as the need to look at the planning system to ensure that we have the mobile infrastructure we need. I am sure he will be aware that provisions were introduced last November as part of the Digital Economy Act 2017 to speed up the planning process for telecom infrastructure.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) welcomed the framework for England and Wales. As he acknowledged, the Bill’s framework will allow the devolved Government to take up—or not, as the case may be—the measures. He was right to point out that funding will be provided for Wales through Barnett consequentials.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) made an important point about the potential loss of income for local authorities during the Bill’s implementation. I can reassure him that if a network is on the local rating list, compensation for local government will be provided via a grant to cover the particular local authority’s share of the cost of providing the business rate relief.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire welcomed the Bill, which I understand fulfils a wish he had during the passage of the 2017 Act. He seemed extremely pleased that the Government have taken up the suggestion to provide this business rate relief.
My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) discussed the Bill’s importance in the context of social inclusion and the tackling of loneliness. She referred to rural small businesses that would benefit from the delivery of fibre broadband to their communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) recognised that the five-year rate relief period would provide a significant incentive to fibre broadband. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), she made the perceptive comment that this type of fibre broadband is becoming as important a part of the nation’s infrastructure as our road and rail network.
My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) made an important contribution. He has campaigned tirelessly on this issue and talked about the benefit for the Government, with our investment being returned many times over because of the increased economic activity that will be created.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) talked about the importance of having fibre connectivity on new housing estates, citing Chasewater Grange. She also mentioned the opportunity that the fibre roll-out could provide to new industrial developments, and did not forgo the opportunity to mention the Rugeley B power station site, which is extremely important to her and her constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire welcomed the Bill and mentioned how, in rural areas such as his, its provisions could well assist with tech jobs that hitherto may not have been deliverable in rural areas.
The Minister mentions rural areas; could he reference my constituency, Wealden? Broadband is imperative there, not only for the farmers who need to log their files and the teachers who need to do their Ofsted reports, but for the many business throughout the constituency’s three towns, Uckfield, Crowborough and Hailsham. We need connectivity in rural areas, and I hope the Minister can comment on that.
I concur with my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) made the same comments in regard to how these types of measures will help those in her constituency engaged in the agricultural industry and farming.
In conclusion, this Bill will help businesses and households with their broadband and support the economy. It is only one of several measures—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
This is one of several measures that we are taking on both broadband and business rates and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-domestic Rates) Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
(2) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 4; the Schedule; Clauses 5 and 6; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill.
Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading
(3) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
(4) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(5) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House, to any proceedings on Consideration or to other proceedings up to and including Third Reading.
(6) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Question agreed to.
Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-domestic Rates) Bill (Money)
Queen’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Question agreed to.
Order. If, inexplicably, some Members do not wish to hear the debate on the future of the King George Hospital in Ilford, I hope that they will leave the Chamber quickly and quietly, so that we can hear the oration from the constituency Member of Parliament, and his neighbour, to whom the matter is of great importance.