Virtual Committee (1st Day)
The proceedings were conducted in a Virtual Committee via video call.
My Lords, this Virtual Committee will now begin. I remind Members that these proceedings are subject to parliamentary privilege and that what we say is available to the public both in Hansard and to those listening and watching.
I shall begin by setting out how these proceedings will work. This Virtual Committee will operate as far as possible like a Grand Committee. A participants’ list for today’s proceedings has been published and is in my brief, which Members should have received. The brief also lists Members who have put their names to the amendments or have expressed an interest in speaking on each group. I will call Members to speak in the order listed.
Members’ microphones will be muted by the broadcasters, except when I call a Member to speak and whenever a Question is put, so interventions during speeches are not possible and uncalled speakers will not be heard. During the debate on each group, I will invite Members to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I will call Members to speak in order of request and will call the Minister to reply each time. Debate will take place only on the lead amendment for each group. The groupings are binding and it will not be possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments.
When I put the Question, all Members’ microphones will be open until I give the result. Members should be aware that any sound made at that point might be broadcast. If a Member intends to press an amendment or say “Not content”, it will greatly assist the Chair if they make that clear when speaking on the group. As in Grand Committee, it takes unanimity to amend the Bill, so if a single voice says “Not content”, an amendment is negatived, and if a single voice says “Content”, a clause stands part.
We will now begin, starting with the group beginning with Amendment 1. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. It will be helpful if anyone intending to say “Not Content” when the Question is put makes that clear in debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in this Committee; this Committee cannot divide.
Clause 1: Code rights in respect of land connected to leased premises
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 13, after “leased” insert “or tenanted”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would clarify that tenanted premises are included under the provisions of this bill.
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 3, 4 and 5, but at the same time I will make some general comments on the Bill. I should explain that my noble friend Lord Fox will be present and making his general comments in the second session but, for the Chair’s benefit, will not be present at the proceedings until then.
It is rare to have the opportunity to hear both Ministers’ speeches at Second Reading before delivering my own take on the Bill, so there may be some advantages in our new Committee procedure.
As to the subject matter of the Bill, the Covid-19 lockdown has shown how dependent we all are on good, fast, resilient broadband. Indeed, it is clear from the inability of many MPs and Peers to contribute to Virtual Proceedings how woeful broadband is in some areas. Moreover, recent international comparisons show that we are 81st when it comes to value for money in broadband service internationally, so we need to move forward quickly. In her Second Reading speech, the Minister said that only 12% of UK properties currently had access to full-fibre connections, but the status of the Government’s intentions regarding delivery of a one-gigabit-capable service is unclear. From what the Minister said at Second Reading, this will happen “as soon as possible”, but that hardly matches the Prime Minister’s pledge during his leadership campaign of 100% fibre to the home by 2025 or the Conservative manifesto commitment.
What is the target? What is the strategy now? Is it 1 Gbps by any appropriate technology by 2025? We need a firm date and a clear plan. What is the relationship to the rollout of 5G? Indeed, are changes to the current, extraordinarily low universal service obligation of 10 Mbps contemplated? Superfast, namely 30 Mbps, broadband availability reached 95% of UK properties as of February 2018. Surely the USO, albeit new, needs upgrading to 25 or 30 Mbps from the current 10 as quickly as possible. We currently have an impossibly low bar.
When it comes to infrastructure spending, we also need a target of GDP percentage spending. What actual investment are the Government making in 1G rollout? What do they expect the private sector to make? The Commons briefing paper on the Bill highlighted the fact that the May Government’s future telecoms infrastructure review estimated that the national rollout of full-fibre broadband would require a total investment in the region of £30 billion. This Government have allocated £5 billion to tackle the hardest-to-reach 20% of UK premises, but there are no details yet of how that funding will be used.
There are several existing funding programmes for full fibre, launched under the May Government, including two voucher schemes to subsidise full-fibre connections to rural premises and small and medium-sized businesses. What is the status of these? How are the Government avoiding unnecessary duplication in the rollout of full fibre to the home? How will Ofcom’s determination that there will be market competition in some areas, prospective competition in others and non-competition in yet others work? Is the division into three types of area now agreed as the settled way of doing this?
Private sector plans are extensive. Openreach has committed to deliver full fibre to 4 million premises by March 2021 for its Fibre First programme; Virgin Media plans to reach 4 million premises by the end of 2019-20 as part of its Project Lightning network expansion, which includes a mix of full-fibre and cable broadband; Hyperoptic plans to expand its network to cover 2 million homes by 2021; and CityFibre, in partnership with Vodafone, has plans to roll out full fibre to 1 million UK homes and businesses by 2021.
However, the Government clearly need to will the means by breaking down the barriers to installing these networks. Generally, let us not forget that the PM described Theresa May’s Government’s target to build a UK-wide full-fibre network by 2033 as “laughably unambitious” and we must hold him to that statement. Indeed, many would give that description to this Bill. The future telecoms infrastructure review made it clear that a wide package of legislative and regulatory reform is needed to support the industry to deliver full fibre at scale across the UK. The industry says that it can meet the Government’s 2025 target only if public policy and regulatory decisions are made quickly to support rapid investment and rollout.
The Bill will go some way to address the challenges currently faced by network builders in connecting people living in flats and apartment blocks if they cannot identify, or do not receive a response to requests for access from, the building owner. According to Openreach, 76% of these MDUs—multi-dwelling units—miss out on initial efforts to deploy fibre because of challenges in gaining access. Up to 10 million people live in these properties across the UK. Even in this respect, the Bill should go further to provide greater flexibility for network operators. It should allow operators—not just tenants—to trigger the provisions. The time limit of 18 months within which the new rights would apply should not be on the face of the Bill. There should be a more specific requirement on landlords to engage with operators under the new process which the Bill establishes.
Ultimately, however, even if we made these amendments, should not broadband operators be treated as a utility and the operators given the same rights of entry that others—such as electricity companies—have under the Electricity Act 1989? The deployment of new 5G networks as well as fixed fibre should also be a focus. Surely, the 1 gigabit per second commitment is technology-neutral, but in other respects the Bill is deficient. What about other forms of wayleave, in particular in rural areas and commercial property such as business parks?
Why do we not see legislation for a complete rollout strategy? For instance, legislation on gigabit broadband infrastructure for new-build properties was promised in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech. Broadband operators also cite skilled labour shortages. What is the plan to overcome these? Is Ofcom now satisfied that adequate protection is in place for consumers, particularly as to the cost of services during the transition from copper networks to VoIP services?
Despite criticism of the wayleave situation, are the Government simply going to rely on their street works toolkit—which provides practical guidance for managing street and road works—for the deployment of broadband infrastructure, rather than the digital champions in local authorities that the National Infrastructure Commission recommended? Are the Government and Ofcom generally satisfied that their reforms to allow Openreach’s ducts and poles have been effective? Why does the business rates exemption apply only to laying new fibre and not to upgrading—in other words, substituting full fibre for copper?
The Minister outlined the Government’s intentions regarding the timing and content of a telecoms security Bill. On these Benches, we agree that that will be the appropriate time and occasion to discuss amendments relating to high-risk vendors. This is a very modest Bill, which raises so many questions about the Government’s strategy and their ability to deliver it. These cannot be addressed by responses alone to the detailed amendments which have been laid. I hope that the Minister will attempt to respond.
On the substance of the amendments, I hope that they are to some extent self-explanatory, so I will be brief. Surely the current wording of the Bill with regard to lessees creates considerable uncertainty as to whether tenants who do not hold a lease are covered. Conventionally, lawyers describe the areas of law covering contracts for the occupation of land as landlord and tenant law. So it would have been entirely understandable if the reference had been to tenants throughout, but this way around, where “lessees” are intended to encompass tenants, does create uncertainty.
What is the position of a tenancy at will or a renewable tenancy, which are not covered by the documentation of a lease as such? There are considerable distinctions between a tenancy and a lease in general parlance. A lease will normally have some kind of capital value attached to it on assignment. A tenancy, under a rental agreement, will be very unlikely to have that. I hope that the Minister can give a full answer on the legal point, including any legal authority. This will be important for any future interpretation purposes if a Pepper v Hart situation arises, as I suspect it may.
The words I have just spoken apply to Amendments 1, 3 and 4. Amendment 5 is seemingly small, but it is important. Why does a lessee have to be in occupation? What if it is a second home or a sublet? Does that disqualify a lessee from being able to invoke the Electronic Communications Code? This gives rise to many questions. Why should a lessee have to be in occupation? I very much hope the Minister will be able to answer that question. I beg to move.
I spoke at Second Reading, so I do not need to follow the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in making a Second Reading speech. I agree with all the points he made; his amendments probe the Minister in all the right directions.
However, a new big Second Reading theme has emerged since that Second Reading debate, due to the coronavirus crisis and the pressure it is putting on private operators. There has been a good deal of media speculation in the last two weeks as to what might happen to Openreach, in particular whether BT will seek new partners to fund its rollout plans or possibly even sell off Openreach entirely. That would be a dramatic change in circumstance from the position before the crisis, when BT was keen to maintain its position with Openreach and the argument was much more about how one could get a commitment to rollout while Openreach was still linked to BT.
In her reply, can the Minister give us a sitrep on the position in respect of Openreach, what BT’s intentions are and what impact she believes it will have on the rollout schedule and plans in respect of superfast broadband? This has a big bearing on the subsequent amendments and those we might want to take forward on Report. I hope she can give us an update on those issues.
My Lords, I echo many of the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and thank him for tabling these amendments. Leasehold properties are a very grey and disaffected area of property rights. It is extremely important to state at the outset that my interest is primarily in putting leasehold properties, particularly in rural areas, on the same basis as any other property.
As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, Covid-19 has thrown a spotlight on the importance of connectivity and access to all forms of communication, particularly mobile signals, wi-fi and broadband. Without a shadow of a doubt, in north Yorkshire and other deeply rural parts of the country, many properties, not just leasehold properties—we lived in one for a couple of years in north Yorkshire—are very remote from the exchange and their connectivity remains woefully slow. I ask the Minister directly to ensure that leasehold properties will be put on the same basis as any other property, particularly in rural areas.
I support this group of amendments in a probing way—particularly Amendment 1, which will cover tenants. On Amendment 5, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, alluded to, leaseholders may not be in an occupation. What is the position under the Bill as it stands, without Amendment 5, if the occupant was retired?
With these few focused remarks, I take this opportunity to ensure that the Bill fulfils its purpose—to put these property rights on an equal basis with other rights—but also to ensure that in rural areas we have the maximum connectivity in every aspect, whether mobile signal, wi-fi or broadband, which is the Bill’s intent.
My Lords, I will make a number of overarching Second Reading points, if I may, before speaking directly to some of the amendments in this group.
The intention of the Bill is relatively clear: it is a focused, tight piece of legislation. May I ask my noble friend the Minister about the timetable for the other legislation that is required in this framework, not least to address the issue of high-risk vendors, which has understandably had a great deal of coverage?
I believe we have a tremendous opportunity in the United Kingdom with all the elements of the fourth industrial revolution: artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain—or, as I prefer to call it, distributed ledger technologies—and the internet of things. But as with previous revolutions, the truth of all of this is tied to the infrastructure which underpins it. The infrastructure for connectivity is far more significant than the infrastructure for moving people, not least now but increasingly as we go through the coming years. Can my noble friend say some more about the 2025 target, what the plan is to achieve it and whether it needs reassessing in the light of recent developments and the speed of technological change in this area?
As other noble Lords have commented, Covid-19 has brought so much into stark focus, and our connectivity takes nothing other than number one spot. WebEx, Microsoft Teams, Zoom—words that many noble Lords and others in the country barely came across before the lockdown, we now say more often than “good morning”, “good afternoon” and “good evening”. Other connectivity tools are also available.
What has been demonstrated is that we are woefully short of the capacity and the infrastructure to deliver, for example, the connection between families who have not seen each other for months on end. We are also short of the capacity to drive business. If we had greater connectivity, speed and, crucially, not just capacity but reliability, much of our business could operate very effectively in this new environment once that shift has been made.
Can I ask my noble friend the Minister what lessons have been learnt from the original Openreach contracting process and rollout, and how those lessons have been integrated into the current plans? I am quite happy for her to write to me on that issue—disgracefully, I did not give her prior notice of the question. There are a number of key points coming out of that process which can be beneficial moving forward.
The value of this Bill is demonstrated in the cross-party support it has received; I wish it swift passage. Regarding the amendments in this group, I can do little, as is often the case, other than echo the fine, eloquent words of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. Could my noble friend the Minister explain the thinking behind the Bill’s wording, which seems somewhat at odds with current landlord and tenant legislation? I will limit my remarks to that at this stage, and I look forward to hearing my noble friend the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I was advised that, in view of the fact that the Second Reading debate had been somewhat truncated, some flexibility would be allowed in consideration in Committee and that debate might flow over the boundaries of separate amendments. I have been greatly encouraged by the opening speech from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in that there was a virtual tidal wave of movement across the Bill. It is very much in that spirit that I seek to make a contribution.
Like my noble friend Lady McIntosh, I live in a rural area, but not one that is 200 miles or more from London—she knows the area well. In fact, it is 50 miles from London and 10 miles, as people constantly remind me, from London’s third international airport, yet you are lucky to get a download speed of 4 Mbps. There are various rural areas in particular across the country where there is a great gap to be filled.
It is hard not to like the Bill. It is a step in the right direction. We are all committed. I remember going to meetings where people protested against the health risks of mobile telephone masts. Now we have had a flutter—irresponsibly, in my view—regarding the damage that might come from 5G masts, but the fact is that the public demand is largely to get on with it. The more they hear talk of 5G and other loftier ambitions, they get angrier and angrier if they get only tiny and intermittent broadband connections. There is no doubt about that. The Bill adds to the momentum of rollout. I come down on the side of pressure being applied to persons or bodies that in any way appear to be obstructing provision.
I am a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. We considered the Bill. There was a very interesting debate, during which opinion changed as to whether the Secretary of State had sufficient powers to drive matters forward. I hope that the Secretary of State will take a liberal, with a small “l”, approach to the use of those powers, which the committee left in place. I am not sure whether the point at the heart of this first group of amendments is more arcane than real, having heard the Government’s explanation. I hope there will be a generous approach to it. I accept that there are more people who can specifically be encouraged to make requests under this legislation.
I have a similar bias of wanting to extend the beneficiaries of this when it comes to alternative dwellings, a subject of one of the later amendments. I cannot see a lot of difference between a block of flats and a retirement village. I had cases in my former constituency where redundant farm buildings were converted into small, bespoke businesses. There are other places, which I might call mini-malls, in rural areas where a number of buildings with different retail products have got together and provide a very useful amenity for people. They too have a right to expect the best of connections.
It is also important that we get equal treatment in major housing developments. I came across an astonishing situation in such a development in my former constituency where different builders did different sides. There could be a situation where people living on one side of a road had the apparatus for broadband connections while their neighbours on the other side of the road did not. That must be crazy. Is there anything we can do to overcome that kind of difference?
Although I am philosophically all in favour of competition, I feel some caution about proposals that would create competition in the field of this provision. I speak from somewhat bitter experience: that of my rural former constituency and the very rural part of it in which I still live. A bespoke company was granted rights to deal with this area, with its considerably sparse population, because the main players such as BT did not want to have to do it. I understand why. So, in December 2016, sales representatives come to the doorsteps in my small village to sign us up for a high level of broadband. Five years later, we are still waiting. Some work was done: our roads had to be closed, of course, and there was a fair amount of disruption while that was going on. The idea that someone else could come along, perhaps with a different means of connecting our properties, and cause more disruption is not merely a waste of money but not one of the Government’s aims.
A message has just come up on my screen saying that my internet connection is unstable. Whether it is telling me that I should complete my contribution, I do not know, but I have only a sentence or two more to go.
This is not just about the Secretary of State exercising his discretion. It is not just landowners and businesspeople who must be given some extra means of proceeding. There must be some pressure put behind the operators as well if we are to achieve our targets. The example that I described is not alone in the country. We must get on this. I appreciate the need to pay our balance off with interest. If we are to give the Secretary of State wider regulatory powers, I hope that they will be used in a way that will get us nearest and fastest to the goal that we all want.
My Lords, the benefit of making one or two Second Reading-style comments at the start of the debate on these amendments has been well proven by what has been said. A lot of context has been brought out, as has the theory underpinning some of the lines of argument. That is all to the good.
I want to make a couple of initial points. I take it as read, and I am sure that the Minister will confirm this when she responds, that we are all supportive of the speedy and complete rollout of a gigabit-capable economy. There is no question about our support in terms of previous chances because we have focused on or around this topic for a number of years now. Indeed, we have had a couple of Bills on it. It is on the record that, on our side of the House, we have tried hard to raise the unambitious USO target, as my old friend, my noble friend Lord Adonis, mentioned. We have also brought forward other measures—they were picked up on by other speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—which may have helped us to get a bit further down the line to where we are.
In the Digital Economy Act and subsequent legislation, we asked how to get everyone together on the path and moving toward a gigabit economy. The Government chose to go down the voluntary route. Of course that ended in tears, with very few respondents happy with where they are—so here we are again. I will not go into that in any detail. Having said that, times have changed. Other noble Lords have said it but I am sure that the Minister will agree that the internet’s role has changed as a result of Covid-19. It would have changed anyway but it has certainly been brought into focus because of the crisis. We certainly do not want a situation where individuals or families could be left behind because they have not been given access to gigabit-capable broadband.
Underneath the general points that have been made, there are probably a couple of major positions that we ought to focus on as we go through these amendments. Surely the default position should be that, like water, gas and electricity, gigabit-capable connections should be available to all premises. The acid test for us on this Bill is whether its measures advance that. The noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, said that there were points that we could agree did bring us forward, but I think the general feeling so far is that perhaps there is not a deep enough cut being taken from those issues.
My second point is: where are the other pieces of legislation that will back this up? Where are the points that address bringing forward access to all properties on the same terms as other utilities? Where are the measures that will help with works that have to be done on a village-wide or town-wide basis in order to get access to cables? When will we get some sense of the overarching position and the legislation for that?
We support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the one raised by my noble friend Lord Adonis. There needs to be broader support for legal occupiers to be able to initiate and unblock the process. I particularly liked a comment made in the middle of the debate about the future ownership of Openreach, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Throughout all this we are not in any sense saying that the owner of the property is diminished by any proposals to improve the quality of what is available in the premises. However, we clearly need it to be possible for all properties to be supplied with public utilities, and I think the internet has to be regarded as one. If this is not the case, it is up to the Minister to make very clear today why not. Can she address that point? Will she take back, perhaps for further consideration on Report, the wider concern—it was expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, in particular, but I think was raised by just about everybody—that the Bill actually has not tackled the essential question of who it is talking about when it deals with property rights?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, for his support and that of his colleagues for the Government’s work in this area; I thank all noble Lords in that regard. I also thank the noble Lords who tabled these amendments, which seek to clarify who is able to make a request for a service, and therefore begin a path for an order process.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and my noble friends Lady McIntosh and Lord Holmes raised questions about our 2025 manifesto target and the impact of Covid-19 on achieving that. As many noble Lords noted, the current pandemic has re-emphasised the importance of digital infrastructure in the UK, and we are fully committed and resolved to deliver on this. Obviously, Covid-19 is likely to have an impact on the pace of the rollout in the short term, but we cannot assume that we cannot recover that, make up ground and still meet our target. We are doing everything we can to assure this, including investing £5 billion in the hardest-to-reach areas such as the rural areas to which my noble friends Lord Haselhurst and Lady McIntosh referred.
Questions were also raised by several noble Lords, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Clement-Jones, about investment and competition. I cannot comment on the rumours about the status of Openreach, which is obviously something for the BT Group to announce or comment on, but our understanding from subsequent press reports is that the original Financial Times report was inaccurate. Officals will continue to engage with BT and Openreach, but it is ultimately a private company. [Inaudible.] They also raised a number of other questions, particularly in relation to the status of broadband connections as a utility—if I may, I will comment on those in a later group. Some specific and quite detailed questions were also raised which I will respond to in writing, including the question from my noble friend Lord Holmes as regards learning from previous Openreach rollout.
Turning to the specific amendments, I note that Amendment 6 is similar to an amendment tabled in the other place during the passage of the Bill there. I believe that the noble Lords who have tabled the amendment are seeking to ensure that tenants are covered by the Bill. If noble Lords are indeed seeking clarification on that point, I am able to confirm that as currently drafted, the provisions in this Bill can be used by people who rent their homes. This includes people with assured shorthold tenancy or assured tenancy agreements which, as many noble Lords will be aware, are the most common forms of tenancy agreement. These will include second homes and sub-lets as long as they meet the requirements in the Bill. I will confirm this in writing, but my understanding is that in relation to renewable tenancies—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—if they have the characteristics of a lease, they would not be affected by this Bill. [Inaudible.] They would not be covered by this Bill. I can cover the impact of that in a letter to noble Lords.
Our concern is that the amendments as tabled would have a significant effect on the Bill. They would significantly expand the scope of who is able to make a service request to include anyone who is the legal occupant of a property, tenancy, or a freeholder. For example, the amendment could bring into scope a tenant who rents their property from an individual who is illegally sub-letting the property or a short-term lodger in a single room in someone else’s home. I am sure noble Lords will agree that, while the Government are committed to providing widespread access to fast, reliable and resilient broadband, it is important to ensure that the ability to make fundamental changes regarding the rights over property begins with an individual who has a legitimate interest in the property. Furthermore, Amendment 6 would considerably increase the ambit of the Bill and make it very different from the model which was consulted on. The Bill as drafted already works in respect of tenants, so noble Lords will appreciate the unintended consequences of extending the definition to those who may begin a Part 4A process.
On Amendment 5 specifically, my initial impression was that the intention behind the amendment was merely to simplify the Bill’s terminology. However, having looked at it more closely, I realise that removing the two words “in occupation” could have unintended consequences both for the other provisions in the Bill and for the operation of the policy itself. If we were to accept the amendment, that would mean that a lessee not in occupation—for example, a leaseholder who has let their property under a tenancy agreement—could request a service for their tenant without their knowledge or agreement. As I am sure noble Lords agree, there is a potential for conflict here. It could also have consequences for the ability of the lessee in occupation to choose their internet service rather than having it imposed by whomever they lease the property from. This is an unintended consequence of the amendment that I am sure your Lordships would not wish to see.
The policy underpinning the Bill has been carefully crafted, aiming to balance the interests of landowners, tenants and operators. This goes to the heart of the Bill’s proportionate approach, which the amendment could inadvertently disturb as outlined above. The amendment would also impact on the clarity of the drafting of the wider Bill. Removing “in occupation” from this subparagraph could create a disjunct with the preceding one, which clearly states that the premises that are in scope of a Part 4A order are occupied under a lease. This disjunct could in turn potentially generate satellite litigation on the relationship between sub-paragraphs 1(a) and 1(b). The Bill as presently drafted has no such disjunct.
So, while I understand the intention to try to simplify the definitions in the Bill, if we were to accept the amendment then it could have a clear detrimental impact on the Bill and the policy underpinning it. The drafting as it stands was carefully considered by my officials and drafted so as to ensure that the policy delivered the outcome that we sought—namely, helping a lessee in occupation to gain the connectivity that they seek while balancing their interests against those of other interested parties. I am concerned that, if we were to accept the amendment, that careful balance would be disturbed.
I appreciate that I may not have addressed all the points that noble Lords raised but, as I mentioned at the outset of my remarks, I will cover any outstanding points in writing. With that, I hope I can ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, we are aware that there are some connection problems for the Minister, but we will continue as we are at the moment. I have been notified of three noble Lords who wish to speak now: the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I will call each in turn, and after each person the Minister will respond. I call the noble Lord, Lord Liddle.
My Lords, I am grateful for being allowed to intervene. Had I realised the procedure, I would have made some Second Reading remarks myself at an earlier point. I support the Bill. It is a modest measure that takes us nearer what I think should be the public objective of a universal service of high-speed broadband. It therefore has my general support.
There are two points from the Minister’s summing-up on which I would like to press her. The first concerns the question that my noble friend Lord Adonis asked about the future of BT Openreach. I am afraid I did not fully catch what the Minister said in reply because of connection problems, but I regard this as a subject of fundamental public interest. I would like to be assured that the Government will also regard it as such and will not just say, “This is a matter for BT to decide what it wants to do in terms of its own private interests and its shareholders’ interests”. I would like an assurance that this is regarded as a matter of great public interest.
My second point relates to the final section of the Minister’s legal bit at the end about who is and is not entitled under these arrangements to press for better connections. I shall look at this question in a very practical way. I am very concerned about young people, including students, living in short-term lets in multi-occupier buildings—for instance, in old council blocks where someone has bought a flat to rent it out and their main occupiers are students on short-term tenancies. I should like an assurance that this provision applies to young people and students whatever the basis of their living in that kind of accommodation. It is fundamental that young people have access to high-speed broadband. This has been brought home to me as chair of Lancaster University, where we are now doing our teaching online. Even when the Covid-19 crisis comes to an end, a much higher proportion of university teaching will be online, and this applies to many other vital spheres of life. There is a practical concern here. I ask the Minister to go back to the department, think about all the circumstances in which young people and students rent accommodation in blocks of flats and multi-occupier properties, and say whether they have an untrammelled right to ask for better provision and whether the process will be so rapid that a student on a short-term tenancy will want to see it through.
I thank the noble Lord for his additional questions and I apologise to your Lordships. There is a certain irony in my signal not being quite strong enough for this Committee stage.
In answer to the noble Lord’s question about Openreach, what I tried to say in response to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, when he put this point, is that any sale is a matter for the BT Group, but the department’s understanding, based on further articles in the press, is that the original Financial Times article was inaccurate. We continue to engage with BT and Openreach, but ultimately it is a private company, albeit subject to all the competition laws and wider legislation that might be relevant.
In relation to students, the noble Lord makes a very important point. I spent quite a lot of time recently talking to young people, including students, about the impact of Covid on their lives. The points he makes are definitely reiterated by them. As the noble Lord knows, students will live in a range of different types of accommodation with different arrangements. Where they are occupying accommodation such as an assured shorthold tenancy or an assured tenancy, they will be covered by the Bill.
The noble Lord’s wider point was about thinking through the practicalities, which is what my officials have spent much time doing. This was explored extensively in the other place. The balance we need to strike is between the three parties—the landlord, the tenant or leaseholder and the operator—and that is what this legislation seeks to do.
I thank my noble friend for her very comprehensive reply to the opening remarks on Amendments 1, 3, 4 and 5. She referred specifically to the hardest-to-reach properties and the sum of money that has been allocated. I repeat here a plea that I have made on many occasions, in the hope that it might be listened to sympathetically. By 2025, the 5% hardest to reach properties, which will inevitably be in rural areas, will, in all likelihood, still not have fast, high connectivity or even fibre broadband. Will the Government look sympathetically on a request to reverse the priorities, to ensure that the 5% hardest to reach will be dealt with first? A great number will indeed be leasehold properties, and many will be tenanted; and many will have residents who are hoping to run rural businesses, or people who are having to work from home at this time. I know that this will strike a particular chord with them.
Given that in areas such as North Yorkshire, the Lake District and Devon, or in any hilly area, you have to deal with the terrain and with the geography of being a substantial distance from the exchange, it seems unfair that these properties—I repeat that many will be leasehold properties—are being disadvantaged and discriminated against. They should be fast-tracked, to allow them greater access to all forms of telecommunication.
I am glad that the Minister has a sense of humour. Those of us in this Committee will regard her predicament of having a very weak connection as fully justifying the Bill. I do not know whether she is in a shared property that does not have fibre throughout, but we cannot properly conduct this Committee stage because even among ourselves we do not have a sufficiently strong internet signal, despite having weeks to prepare. This demonstrates why, as a country, we need to get going on this.
I did not pick up the first time round what the Minister said about BT, because of her dropped connection. When she repeated it in response to my noble friend Lord Liddle, she left me somewhat concerned. She said that the stories in the FT were “inaccurate”, but she would not say in what respect; she simply referred to other press comments. I see exactly what she is seeking to do: she is trying to keep clear of revealing to us private information, which the Government or the regulator will surely have, about what is going on in this context. However, I think she will understand that we do not really regard this situation as satisfactory.
As my noble friends Lord Liddle and Lord Stevenson rightly said, although Openreach is formally a private company, our whole understanding is that rolling out enhanced gigabyte connectivity crucially depends on Openreach. If we do not have confidence in its capacity to do this, the Committee will certainly not be satisfied that the Government have a strategy. To be fair, I do not think that the Government themselves would be satisfied with the situation either.
The Minister owes it to the Committee to tell us more than that the reports were inaccurate. She has to tell us in what respects they are inaccurate, maybe by pointing out particular press articles that have reported on the inaccuracy. The crucial, underlying issue is that if the future of Openreach is in doubt and it is sold, will the same rollout targets and investment commitments be made? If they will not, the Government certainly will not meet their 2025 targets, even if the Minister is right that the impact of the coronavirus crisis will be, as she put it, short term—though I should say in parenthesis that even if it is, given that there are only four and a half years between now and 2025, that could still be lethal to meeting the targets. If there is a big question mark over the future of Openreach, it is not clear that we or the Government can be confident that it will meet the targets even if there is not a coronavirus problem.
Will the Minister say more about the Openreach situation? In particular, since she said that some of the press comment was inaccurate and had been countered by other press comment, which I assume means other press comment that is accurate, could she please point out to the Committee which press comment is accurate and tell us what was actually said that is accurate about the situation in respect of BT and Openreach?
I thank the noble Lord for his further questions. To cover the point about Openreach, the noble Lord will be aware that on 15 May the Financial Times suggested that BT was considering the sale of a stake in Openreach to potential buyers, including Macquarie. Officials spoke to BT last week, which confirmed that this was inaccurate. Both Openreach and Macquarie sources have also publicly told the press that this is inaccurate. On his wider point, if the Government became aware that Openreach did not have the capacity to deliver on our target, we would obviously reconsider how best to meet it, but I am not in a position to be able to give any more detail here.
I will also correct something. I hope noble Lords did not understand me to say that potential delays in rollout from the impact of Covid-19 are only short term. At the moment, we understand some of the short-term impacts and we hope we will be able to absorb them, but given that none of us has a crystal ball on how this will all unwind, I wanted to clarify that for the record.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. As the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, implied, it was ironic that we were talking about fast, reliable, resilient broadband, in the Minister’s words, yet she is the one who has principally suffered from not having it in the course of the debate. I thank her anyway, and I look forward to the letter she will send, which might be a little bit clearer than the reception we had for her response.
I thank noble Lords for their support for the amendments. In particular, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, brought out some of the real issues associated with getting the wording wrong. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, that there is nothing wrong with Liberal with a large “L”. We might want to see the ECC interpreted with a large “L”, not just a small one.
I felt the Minister really did not start off on the right foot when talking about the actual aim—the Government’s objectives. I understand that there may be some delay as a result of Covid-19, but the target was set out in the Conservative manifesto. We have not really had a pledge on that. We have had “as soon as possible”—I think that that was in the Minister’s speech last time—but no pledge that that is the objective and that all the Government’s sinews are being strained to achieve it. That is what we want to see.
On the amendments, we are back to the question of access. As I said, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, got this right. It is about absolute access for various types of occupier. We should be treating this as a utility. We cannot be talking about this in 19th-century property terms. It is as if we were at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, when people were arguing about whether electricity should be installed in their houses. Broadband should take its place alongside gas, electricity and water as an essential utility and we should give suitable powers of access to do that.
I look forward to the letter from the Minister but to say that my amendments affect the clarity of the drafting of the wider Bill is almost laughable, because the drafting of the Bill is not clear. The use of the term “lessee”, which excludes quite a number of different types of occupation and tenancy—as has been pointed out—is not adequate. We do not just have a legal issue; we have a clear access fault line about how we treat broadband and its essential nature. We are going to have have-nots who are not able to benefit from the ECC and that will be greatly regretted, not least by those who are unable to access the kind of service that the Minister herself would like. I do not necessarily take on board the arguments about unintended consequences and occupation. One is being over-cautious in the way that the Bill has been put together, but that is a characteristic of the Bill as a whole. We will, no doubt, come back to this on Report. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
My Lords, we now come to the group consisting of Amendment 2. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “Not content” when the Question is put made that clear in debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in this Committee; this Committee cannot divide.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 17, at end insert—
“( ) the operator intends to provide an electronic telecommunications service that can deliver an average download speed of at least one gigabit per second.”
This amendment provides that the powers in the Bill can be used only in respect of an operator which,
“intends to provide an electronic telecommunications service that can deliver an average download speed of at least one gigabit per second”,
which leads on from the points made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and other noble Lords, about this being part of the nation’s intended rollout of fibre capacity, so that fibre and superfast broadband become a core public utility like the others. Exactly the same amendment was moved in the House of Commons Standing Committee by Chi Onwurah, but I make no apology for bringing it to this Committee, because of the Government’s response. I do not need to go through all the arguments as to why we need the one gigabit requirement. That is what we mean by full-fibre connectivity. The Government have accepted that; anything less will not provide the new level of public service utility that we all want.
The odd thing, though, is the Government’s reluctance to see this defined in the Bill. I had assumed that they accepted that it was the target but did not think it necessary to define it in the Bill. However, what the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Matt Warman, said in the House of Commons in his response to the Bill committee on 11 February leads me to have much bigger concerns than before. He said:
“We sympathise with the spirit of the amendment. There is currently little evidence that anyone seeks to install services that are not gigabit capable.”
However, he went on to say:
“If a group of residents or a telecoms operator sought to install a service that was not gigabit capable, although that is extremely unlikely, I do not think the Government should seek to withhold better broadband from a block of flats, for instance, simply because that is the only option available”.—[Official Report, Commons, Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill Committee, 11/2/20; col. 7.]
He made other statements in exactly the same spirit later.
This raises a fundamental issue, which I will press the Minister on. Are we or are we not talking about full-fibre connectivity with gigabit capability? That surely must be what we seek to achieve as the public utility standard across the country, not just in urban areas, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, so rightly said, in rural areas too. I do not think that Parliament would now regard this as satisfactory and something that should be left to private companies. They may come forward with other proposals and make other provision, but we in Parliament should be concerned about getting the full-fibre connectivity at the 1 Gbps standard.
Just to remind the Committee, Japan has currently reached 98% coverage with that standard, and South Korea 97% coverage. On the latest figures, the United Kingdom has reached only 11% coverage. In a former life, when I was the chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, this was one of the highest priorities for infrastructure catch-up that we identified as a country. The other, which is related, was our appalling level of 4G coverage; I imagine that the Minister would have had dropped connections as serious as those from her current internet connection.
Can I press the Minister to say why the Government will not accept this gigabit-per-second capability standard in the Bill? Does she stand by what Matt Warman said in the House of Commons: that it is because the Government do not want to put that requirement on private operators? If so, does she realise that it immediately gives rise to the question whether we can accept that the Government are sufficiently committed to meeting this full-fibre gigabit-per-second standard? If they are not, I suggest to her that the Government’s whole strategy will start to fall apart at the seams. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow my noble friend Lord Adonis, to whom I am grateful for tabling Amendment 2. The Government have talked a lot about improving broadband speeds across the nation—something which, in light of the current situation, has become more important than ever. Despite this, as my noble friend Lord Collins of Highbury noted at Second Reading, there has been a gradual but very definite downgrading of the Government’s ambitions.
When the Bill was first published back in January, it should have been an important step in realising the stated ambition of widely available gigabit-capable broadband. The Government have their new Commons majority—not that they needed it, because the issue of improving our telecommunications infrastructure is not contentious. Instead, not only was the legislation severely limited in its scope; it played it safe on the services to be provided under it. The Committee can imagine our disappointment, and the bewilderment of many who had expected so much more from the department.
The Labour Front Bench has signed this amendment, as we need greater clarity on the Government’s plan for high-speed broadband and other forms of telecommunications infrastructure in the months and years to come.
We are concerned that the UK continues to lag behind other countries in its rollout of super-high-speed broadband. I know that the Minister disputes the figures cited at Second Reading, but we are united in believing that the UK faces real economic costs if we do not get this right. We are not the only ones with concerns. In recent weeks we have been contacted by a range of stakeholders in the telecommunications industry who feel that this Bill fails to live up to expectations. They are concerned that the Government promised much in their manifesto but are now failing to provide them with the tools they need to deliver.
Of course, this is not only an issue of speed. It is a theme that will feature in debates on a number of groups of amendments before us this afternoon. However, Amendment 2 gives us the opportunity to talk about the speed aspect. Can the Minister provide any updates to the position outlined at Second Reading? Can she confirm whether, as a result of Covid-19 and its role in highlighting the importance of good broadband connection, the Government and Ofcom will take another look at the universal service obligation?
Finally, does she feel that the Bill, as drafted, matches the Government’s agenda for high-speed broadband? If so, could she tell us what we, and the operators themselves, have missed? If not, is she open to discussing how we can improve the legislation ahead of Report?
My Lords, I absolutely support what the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Livermore, said on this matter. A lot of what we are trying to achieve with our comments on the Bill—clearly there is a great deal of commonality here—is to get the Government to state very clearly what their objectives are and how they will achieve them. This is a very well-worded amendment designed to do just that, so that the operators must commit to a one-gigabit-capable broadband commitment. Amendment 21, when we come to it, has a very similar intention.
The problem is that we seem to be faced with a really slippery objective that we cannot quite get our hands on; the Government have not quite committed to it. We really need to see proper commitment from the Government to full access to the one-gigabit-capable broadband which they absolutely promised in their manifesto. At the moment, there seem to be an awful lot of get-out clauses. That is not satisfactory. We will keep arguing through this Bill for a proper commitment to the one-gigabit-capable broadband promised at the last general election.
My Lords, I will now respond to Amendment 2 and the points raised by noble Lords.
This amendment would limit the use of the powers contained in Part 4A only to operators installing gigabit-capable services. As the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, stressed, the spirit of this amendment is to test the Government’s commitment to providing gigabit-capable broadband. I am obviously disappointed that he found insufficient the remarks of my honourable friend the Minister for Digital Infrastructure in the other place.
The Government remain completely committed to bringing faster, gigabit-capable broadband to the whole country as soon as possible. Our ambition remains nationwide coverage by 2025. However, we do not believe that we should force consumers to take out specific services.
Clause 1, as currently drafted, supports our ambition. It provides a bespoke process in the courts that will allow an operator faced with a landowner of a premises within the scope of this Bill who repeatedly fails to respond to notices, and a tenant waiting for a service to be connected, to gain interim code rights for the purpose of connecting that building to their broadband service. To limit provision only to services
“that can deliver an average download speed of at least one gigabit per second”
runs the risk, particularly in the short term, of limiting access to better broadband, which, as all noble Lords have agreed, is extremely important.
This Bill, like the Electronic Communications Code, which it amends, is technology neutral and therefore speed neutral. It makes no distinction between the type of service being deployed but recognises the consumer’s right to choose the service they want from the provider they want. Of course, many consumers will want the speed, reliability and resilience offered by full-fibre or gigabit-capable connections, and it should not be the role of government to limit their ability to choose.
In a similar vein, although gigabit-capable services are being rolled out across the UK, they are not yet being deployed everywhere. In practice, the amendment would mean that households in areas yet to be reached by gigabit-capable networks would have to wait—maybe for a long period—even though a superfast or ultrafast service might already be available. Our experience and current practice suggest that an operator would be very unlikely to install outdated technology, and therefore such a delay would be unnecessary and extremely frustrating for consumers.
Finally, were this amendment to form part of the Bill, we consider that it would not have the effect intended by noble Lords. It amends paragraph 27A, which is an introductory provision and explains in very general terms what Part 4A of the code does. The amendment in itself does not amend any of the Bill’s substantive provisions, such as paragraph 27B of the code. Its drafting would not therefore operate within the rest of the Bill.
I understand what noble Lords are seeking to achieve in tabling the amendment. The Government absolutely share the aspiration of achieving gigabit-capable broadband across the whole country, but it is important that the Bill, and the Electronic Communications Code more widely, stay technology neutral for the sake of the consumer’s right to choose and to ensure that we do not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.
A number of noble Lords raised the question of the universal service obligation, which is the safety net that we legislated for and which went live on 20 March. It ensures that everyone across the UK has a clear and enforceable right to request high-speed broadband of at least 10 megabits a second from a designated provider and up to a reasonable cost threshold of £3,400. We keep the speed and quality parameters of the USO under review all the time to make sure that it keeps pace with consumers’ evolving needs, and our officials work closely with Ofcom regarding the implementation of the universal service obligation.
With that, I hope that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.
Before I make my concluding remarks, perhaps I may ask the Minister three further probing questions. I am obviously extremely grateful to her for her full response, but she raised three questions in my mind.
First, she raised some technical concerns about the amendment—in particular, that it amends not the code but only the introductory provisions. That raises an obvious question. If I return with this amendment on Report, properly drafted—indeed, I might invite the noble Baroness herself to provide a draft that the Government think is adequate—would the Government then be prepared to accept it? Indeed, if they proposed it themselves, they would not have to accept it.
That is important because there is an inconsistency in the noble Baroness’s argument in respect of the other two points. She said that it is unlikely that operators would want to install what she called “outdated technology”. I take that to mean technology that is not gigabit-capable. Not only is that unlikely but, if they were to do so on any large scale, of course the Government would then not meet their target, which is to have gigabit-capable coverage.
If the Government are committed to their target and believe that operators are unlikely anyway to want to take forward what she calls outdated technology, what is their objection to having this specification in the Bill? I do not understand what it is. I will give the Minister a moment further to consider her answer to that.
I was very concerned about a point she made about the Government being speed neutral. When Matt Warman spoke in the House of Commons, he did not use the phrase speed neutral but said the Government were technology neutral. I am sympathetic to technology neutral but totally unsympathetic—as I suspect colleagues in the Committee will be—to the idea that the Government are speed neutral. Speed neutral means that the Government may not actually be committed to having superfast broadband rolled out across the country in the first place. Indeed, if the Minister considers what she means by speed neutral and elucidates it a bit further for the Committee, it may be that we get to a position where we have underlying concerns about whether the Government are committed to their own target.
Can the Minister tell us what she means by speed neutral? Does she mean that the Government would be perfectly happy to have a national rollout of something less than gigabit-capable coverage? If she does not mean that and is committed, on behalf of the Government, to gigabit-capable coverage—which I think is what the Committee wants to see—why will the Government not accept an amendment of this kind, properly drafted, which does no more than hold them to their own public commitments?
With regard to the noble Lord’s first point about the technical amendment, he is of course right on one level. We—or, I am sure, the noble Lord himself or his team—could make technical amendments to make sure the Bill is coherent and consistent. We could address those points. However, the central issue is one of not delaying the implementation of the rollout and staying true to technology neutrality. I gather that speed neutral is a consequence of tech neutrality, so it would insert into the Electronic Communications Code a tech-specific provision that does not exist anywhere else in the code. The code is about regulating relationships between operators and landowners, not about technology. I will set out these points clearly for the Committee and the noble Lord in a letter.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for her last point about setting this out in a letter. It is very important to the Committee that the Government do so. I do not at all like this idea of speed neutrality, which implies that the Government’s target might not be worth the paper it is written on and that Parliament is about to grant the Government powers that in principle we support but whose purpose will not necessarily be met unless we can maintain the commitment to gigabit-capable coverage. I think the Minister understands that, because, while she said that speed neutrality is a consequence of technology neutrality, she has not said that the Government are not committed to gigabit-capable coverage across the country.
If the Government are committed to gigabit-capable coverage nationwide, it follows logically that it is not speed-neutral. The Committee is looking forward to hearing, in the Minister’s reply, how the Government will square that circle. What she says in that regard will have a big bearing on how we take this matter forward at Report, but on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendments 3 to 6 not moved.
My Lords, we move on to the group beginning with Amendment 7. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the Clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “not content” when the question is put made that clear in debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in Committee. This Committee cannot divide. I will open the next group, and then hand over to the noble Lord, Lord McNicol.
7: Clause 1, page 2, line 1, after “provide” insert “, or the operator itself believes there is a public interest in providing,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would afford an operator the right to initiate proceedings to gain access to a leasehold property in the event of that operator believing the provision of new infrastructure on that site would be in the public interest.
My Lords, in moving this amendment I will also speak to Amendment 9 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, which covers much of the same ground.
In the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, the Government said:
“We do not think it is acceptable for landlords to be able to deny their tenants a service if an operator is prepared to provide it. We want to bring telecoms operators in line with the gas, energy and water sectors by providing a ‘right to entry’, where a landlord is given notification of an operator’s intention to access a property”.
We are entitled to ask the Minister to explain what happened. Why has the Bill failed to live up to the very sensible remarks made in the review and some of the comments that have been made this afternoon?
Other noble Lords have mentioned the impact of Covid-19 and how it has radically changed the position regarding a gigabit-capable infrastructure. We have just been talking about whether that should become the USO position, which I would support. However, access to home schooling, home working and home shopping are now as important as clean water and energy. Why perpetuate the myth that gigabit-capable access is in some sense discretionary? No individual and no family should be left behind.
Secondly, operators are part of the solution and certainly not the problem, in terms of where we are trying to reach. The discussion about Openreach and the desire of operators to co-operate if the circumstances arise are all part of this issue; to achieve what we want we must support operators in the limited time we have left. If they are in an area installing fibre and have the personnel and equipment there, it must be more cost-effective for them, beneficial for all and in the public interest for all premises in that area to be dealt with.
This amendment would not remove any control from owners of properties, but it would open up the whole process. It seems from the comments we have already heard that there is support for the amendment. We need an operator to be able independently to initiate the process, so that those who want this service can get it. I cannot see that this is, in any sense, against the public interest. I beg to move.
I call the noble Lord, Lord Adonis.
My Lords, I strongly support what my noble friend Lord Stevenson has said. I do not understand the Government’s problem with giving operators this right. There is clearly a planning benefit, in terms of efficiency, in giving them the right to look at the problems area by area and to identify where additional provision needs to be made in order to promote a universal service. I just do not see why the Government want to deny us this amendment.
My Lords, I have put my name to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, who is correct in saying that the purport of our amendment, Amendment 8, is very similar. I was struck by the Minister’s implying that, if we are not careful, consumers will be forced to take a service. That is not the situation. What we want to do, as far as possible, is to facilitate the laying of fibre across 100% of the country. Consumers can well make up their own minds about whether to enter into a consumer contract. We need, as far as we can, to facilitate the operators in what they do. Just as with electricity—we have had several references to the utilities aspect—people should have access to this. I cannot understand why the Government are not making a distinction between laying the infrastructure and then entering into consumer contracts for the supply of internet services; the distinction is readily understood.
I accept that the Bill introduces a new process for operators to gain access in cases where a tenant has requested a service and the landlord is unresponsive. This will, of course, be helpful for deployment but it depends on a tenant requesting a service rather than supporting the proactive laying of cable ahead of individual customer requests. That means that operators’ teams may not be able to access buildings in areas where operators are currently building, or plan to build, so they will be less effective in supporting rapid deployment. That is what the Bill is ostensibly about: facilitating the deployment of fibre. The most efficient building process is when operators can access all premises in a given area, rather than having to return to them when a building team may have moved many miles away.
Operators say that if they were able to trigger this process without relying on a tenant request for service, they would be able to plan and execute deployment much more efficiently—in effect, proactively building in these MDUs at the point where their engineering teams are in place, rather than waiting for a tenant to request a service. Both these amendments are pure common sense; I hope that the Minister will accept them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords for tabling these amendments, which would allow telecommunications operators to apply to the courts for a Part 4A order without requiring a “lessee in occupation” in the property making a request for a service. I appreciate the intention behind the amendments, but we are concerned that both have the potential to undermine the balance between the rights of the landowner, the rights of the operator and the public interest.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred to our comments in the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review but we then consulted publicly on the policy in this Bill. What is here in the Bill reflects the outcome of that consultation. The Bill, like the rest of the Electronic Communications Code, was designed to create a fair and balanced framework to underpin the relationships between telecoms operators and landowners. We believe that it works because it is balanced and gives the interests of all sides careful consideration. We believe the Bill continues that balance. Where a landowner is unresponsive, for whatever reason, it is important to ensure that an interest other than that of the operator is being considered by granting an order which potentially impinges on an individual’s property rights.
This is the reason for the requirement that the lessee in occupation of the property actively requests that a telecommunications service be delivered. This is integral to the policy. This request is an unequivocal demonstration that the interests of parties other than the operator alone are reflected and goes to the heart of the Bill’s carefully crafted work, taking into account and balancing the respective interests of tenants, landowners and operators. Some network operators may well welcome the freedom of being able to judge for themselves what is and is not in the public interest and the ability to gain access to a property simply by proposing to make a service available. That freedom is what these amendments would give them. However, I hope noble Lords will agree that without any accompanying constraint on such a freedom, such a system could be capable of being abused, and that is a risk the Government are not willing to accept.
I am also mindful that these amendments would mark a significant shift from the policy that was consulted on, and that is something to be particularly cautious of when dealing with issues around property rights. With that in mind, I beg the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
This is a very interesting argument, which I do not really understand. It has come up on previous amendments and we need to bottom it out before we get to the end of today’s debates. As a precursor to what I am about to say, I do not think we would be having these discussions were it not for two things. First, memories are very short. One reason that we have Openreach is the increasing frustration that we felt over the years—not just us but the Government—at the inability of BT, a slow-moving giant, to respond to the needs of the country in developing gigabit-capable broadband. Indeed, in those days we were talking about simply getting to a USO figure of 10 megabits per second. That was the rationale for forcing BT, which did not wish to do it, to split off Openreach. It may well be that that is a continuing story and we will have more to go on. The idea was that Openreach would be faster and less constrained by the bureaucracy of BT and the problems affecting it, and able to satisfy the need to get our country up to the standards we wanted. That was the moving force.
It has been mentioned but it is important to bear in mind that last year we were at the bottom of the 80 or countries that contributed to an overall survey about how fast broadband was being been brought into countries. The good news is that we are no longer bottom; we are now third from bottom with 2.8% coverage. The top countries—Iceland, Belarus and Sweden—have more than 60% coverage of fibre to the home and the EU 28 average is 17.1%. We are miles away from getting anywhere near completing this in the time allotted. I do not get the idea that somehow we have to be balanced and fair and that there is a public interest in making sure that the rights of all concerned are equally balanced. The public interest is in getting fast broadband to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
We will do that by making sure that the process is more like utility provision than a discretionary arrangement for getting something as a result of choice. The idea that somehow bringing operators to the point where they see that it makes good economic sense to implement a process in an area they happen to be working in is somehow unbalancing the public interest is just bonkers. It is in the public interest if we increase the quality of connections available to people to connect to the fast internet if they wish to do so, and it is not taking any rights away from owners. The whole point is that this is a process that has started; it is not a decision to go ahead. The process allows people to petition the courts or others to make sure that they can get access when they wish to do so. It is not about giving away any rights. I hope the Minister will take those points away and think about them. I am certain we will want to come back to this on Report. In the interim, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
Amendment 8 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 9. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “not content” if the question is put made that clear in the debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in this Committee. This Committee cannot divide.
9: Clause 1, page 2, line 14, at end insert—
“(f) the operator does not, after 31 December 2022, use vendors defined by the National Cyber Security Centre as high-risk vendors.”Member’s explanatory statement
The amendment would establish a deadline for operators by which existing high risk vendors are not to be used if they are to be able to apply for an order under Part 4A.
I shall beg noble Lords’ indulgence for a few minutes. I did not have an opportunity to speak at Second Reading, as I was advised not to come to Parliament, but I was assured that this would be an opportunity for me to do so.
I welcome the Bill and its aims to improve access to faster broadband and provide greater choice for tenants and leaseholders. My interest in the Bill, as people will see from my amendment, is very specific; it is to do with what we as a country see as critical infrastructure and how we protect our strategic interests to keep our critical infrastructure safe as technology becomes more complex.
I served on the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy from 2013 to 2016, when Huawei first came on to our radar, and two significant changes happened in that period. We saw the invasion of a sovereign state on the edge of Europe—the Russian annexation of Crimea—and the installation of President Xi Jinping as head of the Chinese Communist Party, bringing a more assertive, and perhaps what some would describe as more aggressive, tone into China’s international relations. Both have had a profound impact on geopolitics and potentially on security.
China’s companies have long been on our radar in the West for theft of intellectual property, from both business enterprises and research institutions. While I accept that there has always been a level of industrial espionage, with leakages from more advanced economies into those that are new challengers in particular sectors, the international community has attempted to deal openly with China on this. President Obama sought, and attained, an assurance from President Xi that the Chinese Government would clamp down on intellectual property theft, but there is little evidence that much has changed.
The difference is that China is now actively using its economic clout to advance its strategic and geopolitical interests, many of which run counter to our interests, and indeed our freedoms, here in the UK. Huawei is the world’s largest telecommunications company, and there is no reason that it should not be a trusted partner if it were like any other global telecoms firm. The point is that it is not. It has a long history of transgressions, not only in the West but more broadly. Moreover, it is subject to Chinese state security and other intelligence-related laws. These were updated in 2017 and now require Huawei, like other Chinese companies, to hand over data flowing through it to the Chinese state. It is effectively an arm of the state for the purposes of data capture and exploitation. If that was not the intention of the law, as Huawei tells us, the Chinese Government have done nothing to repudiate or amend the law in the period since. In other words, it is the intention of the Chinese Government to control worldwide data that Huawei collects, if they wish to.
There are examples of how this works. The African Union built a new headquarters in Addis Ababa in 2012. An accountant noticed that there was a huge energy consumption surge between midnight and the early hours of the morning in the period between 2012 and 2017. It transpired that data on Huawei’s servers was being transmitted back to Shenzhen covertly in those hours, hence the server activity.
There are many other examples of Huawei’s cyberactivities. The Equifax consumer credit hack recently resulted in millions of US consumers’ data being stolen. Additionally, 12.3 million Britons had their credit card details stolen. That hack was linked to Huawei and the People’s Liberation Army. I find it instructive that when BT involved Huawei in its 21st Century Network plan in 2005, information about Huawei’s involvement was withheld from Ministers and came to light some time later—in a 2013 report of the Intelligence and Security Committee, at the time chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind. If the Minister is not aware of its contents, I suggest she apprise herself of it, because it is fairly sobering.
I turn to my specific amendments. I know the UK Government’s position is that we want to roll out increased speed and capacity in our networks to benefit our businesses and consumers. I agree with that. However, the internet of things is here and requires improved capacity. I also agree with that. But Huawei’s involvement in this, even limited to 35% of the non-critical part of the infrastructure, is not something I feel comfortable with. It is incumbent on us to take our strategic national security vulnerabilities seriously, as we are planning not for the next five to seven years but for the next 20 to 30. There are several reasons for this. One is that we should not be so reliant on others for our sensitive and critical needs. One has only to look at the impact of the US-China trade war, and the impact on supply chains exacerbated now by Covid-19, to know that deglobalisation is starting. We in the UK are erecting barriers to our trade with the EU, yet think nothing of allowing companies that are more or less arms of other states into our systems, instead of developing our own capacities as France is attempting to do.
Another reason to be wary is that alternatives do exist. The US is proceeding with Ericsson, South Korea is using Samsung, but most importantly our Five Eyes allies have all rejected the Huawei option and are assessing alternatives. There is no burning imperative to take the decision now, and I fear it was rushed through. We will have to either repeal or regret this decision, unless we come up with safeguards that satisfy our concerns. The demonstration effect of letting Huawei into our system will lull other countries into the view that it is a safe alternative.
The Government tell us that the 35% of market share of Huawei infrastructure will be non-core and non-sensitive, but they do not acknowledge that the crucial difference between 4G and 5G is that, due to the internet of things, 5G networks are largely software-defined, so updates pushed to the network by the manufacturer can radically change how they operate. If a network is run by an untrusted vendor, that vendor can change what the network can do quite easily using software updates. The Australians have stressed this point over and over—namely, that you cannot safeguard against intent. If a provider is bound by its state’s law to do something, it is not its capability that is relevant but its intent. It is a combination of capability, where 5G is more vulnerable, and the intent of a provider that has to do a state’s bidding by law.
The Government also tell us that GCHQ has advised the National Security Council, and that they are acting on the advice of the NSC. However, it was pointed out in a Commons debate by Bob Seely MP on 10 March that the GCHQ Huawei oversight board has voiced deep concerns. According to him, the board found that it could
“only provide limited assurance that all risks to UK national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks can be sufficiently mitigated … The Oversight Board advises that it will be difficult to appropriately risk-manage future products in the context of UK deployments, until the underlying defects in Huawei’s software engineering and … cyber security processes are remediated. At present, the Oversight Board has not yet seen anything to give it confidence in Huawei’s capacity to successfully complete the elements of its transformation programme”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/3/20; col. 201.]
As recently as February 2020, the US Government have claimed in a report that backdoors intended for law enforcement officials in carriers’ equipment, such as antennae and routers installed since 2009, can be accessed by certain vendors.
Amendments 9 and 14 are based very much on Labour and Conservative Party amendments as of 10 March in the other place, and are designed to remove high-risk vendors from the United Kingdom by 2022. Amendment 14 would require vendors who use Part 4A code rights to explain to the satisfaction of the regulator, which will probably be Ofcom, in a publicised plan how they will remove high-risk vendors should they form part of the network. BT has now extended the period that it will take to remove a high-risk vendor from its network to the end of 2022. It needs that period to disentangle itself from those partners. The amendments will ensure that even if high-risk vendors are allowed into the network in the early stages, as the Government propose, there is a clear plan for disentanglement from the outset.
I will conclude by explaining to the Committee why I have tabled these amendments. We all acknowledge that Virtual Proceedings are inadequate for proper scrutiny of legislation. My experience is that, even in normal proceedings, Ministers are sometimes not quite as well informed as they might be. On 27 January 2020, in response to the Statement on Huawei, I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes, for her assurances regarding Huawei’s participation in terms of its market share. She replied:
“I give her and the whole House the absolute assurance that high-risk vendors never have been and never will be involved in our most sensitive networks”.—[Official Report, 27/1/20; col. 1300.]
She clearly did not know from the Intelligence and Security Committee’s 2013 report that BT had involved Huawei from quite far back. Huawei is present on the ground in our networks. I am sure that she did not intend in any sense to mislead the House, but many of us who are concerned about these matters would be reassured by having these amendments in the Bill, although I accept that it is perhaps not the ideal vehicle for them—in fact, it is concerned with some things that I wholeheartedly support. If the Government accepted the amendment it would strengthen the Minister’s hand in giving a clear plan to the telecommunications sector regarding its obligations. It will reassure many in the country who have a clearer view of our security risks.
I should have said that I do not intend to press the amendment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, has made an extremely powerful speech. She has also been extremely ingenious in finding a way to bring this big geostrategic issue into the consideration of a Bill that has a very limited scope. However, given that it is to do with telecoms infrastructure and that one of the single biggest issues in upgrading our telecoms infrastructure is the degree to which we will be reliant on partnerships with Chinese companies, she is perfectly entitled to do so.
I assume that the clerks have ruled that the noble Baroness’s amendment is within the Bill’s scope, otherwise she would not be proposing it. Perhaps when she concludes at the end of this group, she can tell us that it has indeed been ruled within the scope of the Bill. If that is the case, I urge her to bring it back on Report, because, beyond the crisis, there is no more important issue facing Parliament than our relations with China. Indeed, the issue is related to the Covid crisis because the origins of the disease in Wuhan and the way the Chinese regime has dealt with it are central to the Covid-19 crisis. A critical issue that we are having to grapple with is how we get to the facts and the reforms to the international world health architecture that will be necessary which relate to the facts of the outbreak of this disease.
In turn, that relates to this issue because, if the Chinese state chooses to take retaliatory action in relation to our infrastructure pursuant to stances that we might take on health-related issues, it is absolutely relevant to a telecommunications Bill that we should seek to ensure that the Government do not expose the country to retaliatory action in that way.
The noble Baroness referred to the US-China trade war as pertinent, but noble Lords will have woken up this morning to the news that a US-Australia trade war is potentially about to start, with retaliatory tariffs being imposed on the Australians, apparently because Australia wants to see an independent international inquiry led by the United Nations into the outbreak of Covid-19. This retaliatory trade tariff situation is not arising in respect of telecoms in the case of Australia—but, notably, Australia excluded Huawei and Chinese state companies from the building of its most modern telecoms infrastructure. We are not doing so and, as the noble Baroness said, we are potentially very reliant on the Chinese.
Therefore we are looking to the Minister to explain to us how the latest crisis impacts on the Government’s thinking in respect of allowing Huawei to participate in what the Government have termed non-critical infrastructure, but which many of us think is critical infrastructure if it relates to the rollout of 5G and superfast broadband.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and I am extremely happy to be able to support Amendments 9 and 14, standing in the name of my good friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, and so ably moved by her this afternoon.
In tackling risks posed by high-risk vendors, she opens an extraordinarily important debate. Amendment 9 imposes a deadline on operators, and Amendment 14 puts in place a mechanism to ensure their removal should it be shown that they pose a national security concern. To pick up on a point the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, just made, I am delighted that the clerks have ruled the amendments to be within scope, and I hope that it will be possible, as I shall suggest in my later remarks, for us to build on them further on Report. However, in addition to supporting the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, I too am grateful to the Government for facilitating Second Reading speeches this afternoon.
These proceedings take me back to 1981, when in the House of Commons I served on the Standing Committee which considered the British Telecommunications Act 1981. It was a steep learning curve for me. Plessey was based in my Liverpool constituency, and it was inspiring to see British technology and companies at the very cutting edge. It is lamentable to see how far we have fallen back in manufacturing capacity. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is surely that we must become more resilient and less dependent in our supply chains, especially when so many authoritarian countries mock our liberal values. Even worse, it cannot be in the United Kingdom’s interests to have become so dependent on authoritarian regimes for the manufacture of technology which can be utilised by them for anti-democratic purposes, to undermine free societies, human rights and the rule of law.
That is why I hope to build on these two admirable amendments when we come to Report. I am grateful to have received through correspondence over the weekend the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, and the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Lord Adonis.
We should all do more to ensure that high-risk vendors credibly accused of egregious abuses of human rights, such as complicity in the modern slavery of Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China, will be excluded from being beneficiaries of the provisions of this legislation. In this context, I should mention that I am a vice-chairman of the APPG on Uighurs and human rights in Xinjiang and that, on 15 occasions since 2018, I have raised in your Lordships’ House the plight of the Uighurs: their incarceration, forced re-education and use as slave labour in various ways.
In January, in relation to Huawei and 5G, I asked the Government
“what assessment they have made in relation to their decision to award contracts to Huawei and other companies of the implications of the government of China’s National Intelligence Law requiring Chinese organisations and citizens to support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.”
I also asked the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, and the Government about
“Huawei’s compliance with the Modern Slavery Act”
“what consideration they have given to such compliance in regard to their decision to award contracts to Huawei”.
“The UK Government expressed its concerns about China’s systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang, including credible and growing reports of forced labour, during the recent UN Human Rights Council.”
That deftly dodged my question and the issue of what we are going to do about the use of slave labour in our supply chains. Profiteering on the broken backs of enslaved Uighurs is either a criminal offence under British law or it is not. Either it is a nice slogan and good public relations or we take it deadly seriously and refuse to profit from it.
Be in no doubt about what we know. As long ago as December 2018, I pointed to reports that
“suggest that up to 1 million Uighurs have been incarcerated without trial in a network of sinister re-education camps: these are bristling with barbed wire and watchtowers, with torture and brainwashing that demands renouncing god and embracing Communism.”—[Official Report, 19/12/18; col. 1804.]
The Government do not disagree with these descriptions.
On 18 March 2020, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, about the use of Uighur forced labour and what assessment the Government had made
“of reports that the government of China transferred Uighurs from detention centres to work in factories where products are produced for global brands; and what plans they have to take action against such companies under the provisions of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.”
“Recent reports indicating that Uyghurs are being used as a source of forced labour add to the growing body of evidence about the disturbing situation that Uyghurs and other minorities are facing in Xinjiang. Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires companies operating in the UK with a turnover of £36m or more to publish annual statements setting out what steps they have taken to prevent modern slavery in their organisation and supply chains. The Home Office keeps compliance under active review.”
In a Westminster Hall debate on 11 March, Nigel Adams, the Minister for Asia, said:
“We have also seen credible evidence to suggest that Uighurs are being used as a source of forced labour in Xinjiang and across China, and that if individuals refuse to participate, they and their families are threatened with extra-judicial detention.”
He went on to say:
“Our intelligence is that families are also obliged to host Chinese officials in their homes for extended periods, to demonstrate their loyalty to the Communist party. On the streets, Uighurs and other minorities are continuously watched by police, supported by extensive use of facial recognition technology and restrictions on movement.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/3/20; cols. 149-50WH.]
That was the Government, but in a report entitled Uyghurs for sale, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute outlined how Uighurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities are uprooted, wrenched from their villages, separated from their loved ones, and coercively transported under guard, across China, to work in factories. That report estimates that, between 2017 and 2019, around 80,000 Uighurs were transferred from detention centres in Xinjiang to factories throughout China. Far from their homes, devoid of family contact, incarcerated in segregated dormitories and subjected to propaganda and systematic attempts to destroy their culture, religion and identity, the labourers are kept under 24-hour surveillance. The report examines the direct and indirect supply chains of 83 leading global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, such as Apple, BMW, Huawei, Nike and others.
Are these companies directly complicit? One of the Australian institute’s researchers, Vicky Xu, says that the idea that Huawei is not working directly with local governments in Xinjiang is “just straight-up nonsense”. The 2018 announcement of one Huawei public security project in Xinjiang—as posted on a Chinese government website in Urumqi—quoted a Huawei director as saying:
“Together with the Public Security Bureau, Huawei will unlock a new era of smart policing and help build a safer, smarter society.”
This is not speculation, or evidence extrapolated from big data. This is straight from the horse’s mouth. We all know that safer, smarter policing is a euphemism that would make George Orwell roll in his grave. Huawei is making huge profits from Xinjiang’s unique techno-totalitarianism.
In December, our Government were alerted to the Australian report in a joint letter from parliamentarians from across both Houses, but again they sidestepped the issue. Their reply to us ignored the need for the Government to conduct the same human rights due diligence that they now demand of corporations. Where is that due diligence in the Bill? The more dependent we become on firms whose ties with the Chinese state extend as far as the construction of Xinjiang’s surveillance technology, the harder it will become to take a credible stance. The deeper our dependency becomes, the harder it is to stand up for our values. Huawei’s activities in Xinjiang should alert us to its true allegiances and values: its willingness to create mass surveillance technology and its devotion to, and dependency on, the Chinese Communist Party.
The most striking thing in the Government’s Statement to Parliament in January was the repeated admission of the risks involved, but where is that reflected in the Bill? And why take risks when alternatives are available? In January, like the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, I asked the Government to consider whether, in former times, the United Kingdom would have been willing to put its technology into the hands of the Kremlin, knowing what crimes were being committed in the gulags of Siberia, as in The Gulag Archipelago. The human rights-focused Helsinki process helped to bring an end to the Cold War and liberated the people suffering under the yoke of communist ideology. Today we need Helsinki with Chinese characteristics. We do not need to betray our values.
To mark Holocaust Memorial Day this year, I read Corrie ten Boom’s memoir, The Hiding Place. After sheltering Jews from the Nazi regime, Ms ten Boom was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. She describes her experience of doing forced labour for Siemens in the camps where her sister and many others died. The Holocaust saw state-sponsored mass enslavement on an appalling scale. Ironically, on the morning following Holocaust Memorial Day, the United Kingdom National Security Council committed to sign over up to 35% of our 5G infrastructure to Huawei, a company that the Government know actively partners with the Xinjiang Government to make the world’s most dystopian system of governance possible. Is what happened at Ravensbrück, or in The Gulag Archipelago, so very different from the plight of these 1 million Uighur Muslims, incarcerated and forced to work for nothing? It is surely our duty to ensure that legislation such as this does not further entrench what academics have described as the world’s worst incident of state-sanctioned slavery.
The United Kingdom Government have, admirably, expressed their ambition to lead the world in their anti-slavery commitment. When we come to Report, I hope that the Government will put flesh on the bones of that commitment and ensure that no deals are made with any company for which there are credible reports of slave labour. For now, I support the amendment standing in the noble Baroness’s name.
I thank noble Lords for the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I will speak to Amendments 9 and 14, but, as I did not speak at Second Reading and before I get to Amendment 9, it is important to set out some context.
I am pleased to see that both Houses are now focusing on business other than the current virus crisis. We have already been reminded today that our democracy is dependent on fast and reliable broadband, and we have seen the struggles that some of us have had with that. Therefore, fast and reliable broadband connectivity has become a national utility and something that people should expect as a right.
It is right that we pay tribute to all those who have kept that national utility going in the past few weeks, as we rely more and more on wi-fi, broadband and mobile connectivity. Although the people who have kept such critical national services going are perhaps not often referred to as key workers, I think that they should be included as such. They have connected loved-ones in hospitals, often at the worst possible time in anyone’s life, and provided online access to education—the subject of a wider debate. They have enabled online appointments for doctors working from home, which is a working pattern that is likely to continue, and family harmony—if anything is to be taken from the example of how much time my 12 year-old spends on his Xbox.
Therefore, the Prime Minister and the Government were right to make a clear commitment to gigabit connectivity nationwide by 2025, and it is important that Ministers stick with that target. I know from my time as Culture Secretary just how personally committed the Prime Minister is to this. Having that target of 2025 should concentrate minds both within government and outside in terms of those responsible for the rollout. I hope that there will be no let-up in making sure that the target is achieved.
Having better connectivity across the country is part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. It will also be part of necessary infrastructure spend, which will be very important in getting our economy moving after at least the first wave of the current crisis has passed and we can see how much work needs to be done to get our economy restarted.
This Bill is an important part of removing all barriers to faster broadband rollout. As we have heard, it is about accessing premises where leaseholders want better broadband. In a similar vein, I know that the department is working on removing other barriers to deployment. Another important step will be making sure that all new-build developments have broadband connectivity points installed right from the start so that people do not have to move into new homes or new business premises only to find that they cannot get better connectivity.
This is a short and focused Bill. That is why I argue today that Amendments 9 and 14, although very important—as we have heard, noble Lords feel very strongly about the issues under discussion—are not right for this Bill. I know that the Secretary of State made a commitment in the other place to bring forward a telecoms security Bill, but obviously he was speaking before the events of the last few weeks. The commitment was to bring forward such a Bill before the Summer Recess, although I think we all appreciate that the legislative timetable has been somewhat disrupted. However, we can see from the debates so far on these amendments that there is a real appetite both in this House and in the other place to have these discussions.
I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, that the decision to allow high-risk vendors to play a limited role in our national connectivity was not an easy one, and it certainly was not rushed through. It stemmed from years of looking at this situation, particularly the telecoms supply chain review conducted by my predecessor in the culture department, but I do think it was the right decision. I will talk about the Statement that I made in the House in January—not in March, as I think she said.
We need faster, better and resilient broadband. That is why having a number of key suppliers at this time is important, so that the infrastructure can be relied upon. It is also right, as I said in the Statement to the House on 28 January, that diversification of the suppliers’ market is important. We must not, as a country, find ourselves in this position again when we have to make difficult decisions about high-risk vendors. I understand the noble Baroness’s amendment but, as I say, the Government’s approach and the decision made at the National Security Council are right, not easy. I therefore hope that we will return to this important subject at a future date on a future Bill. Putting a hard deadline of the end of 2022 on it, although again understandable, also risks the wrong decisions being made and potentially a less resilient broadband network being rolled out across the country. That really will help no one in the longer term.
A full technical and security analysis was undertaken by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre. Its view and advice were central to the conclusions of the telecoms supply chain review and the decisions taken off the back of that. Just as a reminder, the UK Government’s approach is obviously to have a new telecoms security regime, which we will discuss in that future Bill, to diversify the supply chain. Although subject to the current crisis, of course, work should begin to start on that. It is very important that we work with our allies around the world on that supply chain to ensure that it is more diverse. However, we will put ourselves on the back foot if we ignore any key suppliers at the moment.
The third condition was the most important: we have to be clear about what makes a vendor high risk and have clear rules and guidance on how we mitigate the many cyber risks to our telecoms networks. We know that cyber risks come from a variety of sources. As I mentioned in that Statement, the most recent cybersecurity risks have come from Russia, and the Russians play no part in our telecoms infrastructure at all.
I said in the House back in January that
“high-risk vendors should be excluded from all safety-related and safety-critical networks in critical national infrastructure; excluded from security-critical network functions; limited to a minority presence in other network functions up to a cap of 35%; and be subjected to tight restrictions, including exclusions from sensitive geographic locations.”
I noted what the noble Baroness said about the answer that I gave to her back in January. I will certainly check the 2013 report again, but I also ask her to check the words that I used about the most sensitive networks. It is clear, as I also said in the Statement, that
“nothing in the review affects this country’s ability to share highly sensitive intelligence data over highly secure networks, both within the UK and with our partners, including the Five Eyes. GCHQ has categorically confirmed that how we construct our 5G and full-fibre public telecoms networks has nothing to do with how we share classified data. The UK’s technical security experts have agreed that the new controls on high-risk vendors are completely consistent with the UK’s security needs.”—[Official Report, 28/1/20; col. 1340.]
Given the current crisis, there will be time for a full-scale evaluation of the relationship between the UK and China. I should make it clear that companies such as Huawei could help their cause if they encouraged the Chinese Government to participate fully in any global inquiries, particularly into how the current coronavirus crisis was started.
We also need to be clear about the motivations of some who are objecting to the use of high-risk vendors and want to set dates. As we have heard in this debate but also in the other place, there are many different motivations. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has just set out a very powerful case in relation to human rights, and I hope that will be part of a future debate. There are of course issues of security and intelligence sharing, but there are also those who use this particular concern and debate to advance other geopolitical strategies: namely, the successful conclusion of a UK-US trade agreement. The US has strong feelings about Huawei’s involvement, as we have seen in recent developments. We need to be very clear, and the Government were very clear in January, that we were making a decision about the involvement of high-risk vendors on the basis of what was right for the UK.
I hope that the House will not want to see this amendment in the Bill, but it is clear that we must return to this issue in the Bill. It is right that we hold the Government to account over the diversification strategy so that, as I say, that we are not in this position in any further future telecom supply chain decisions that we might have to make.
My Lords, we have heard some passionate speeches today, but, truth be told, this infrastructure Bill is about much more mundane matters. It is all about rights for operators getting access to install fibre broadband in order to achieve faster broadband rollout, not vendors or their equipment, or indeed high-risk vendors or their equipment, so we on these Benches do not believe that this is the appropriate time or place to discuss these amendments. Quite apart from that, the amendment deals with 5G infrastructure content and leads to our strong view that this debate is not appropriate now but will be when the telecom security Bill comes forward.
I do not say this very often, but I agree with the Government’s view on this, as expressed by the letter of the noble Baroness, Lady Barran. That will be the right peg for the noble Baroness’s amendments, and we should debate the substance then. For that reason, I am not going to engage with the substance of many of the statements made by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, in moving these amendments or indeed those of the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
The background is that, despite earlier speculation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said, after some considerable consideration the Government made their Statement in January 2020 and said that Huawei would continue to play a limited role in delivering the 5G rollout. As she said, that decision took into account analysis and insight from several security bodies and experts in the UK, including GCHQ and the National Cyber Security Centre, and she explained the reasoning very clearly.
On these amendments specifically, there is of course a problem in the operators being given the right to install equipment from high-risk vendors now but ahead of a deadline set in future. Will that fibre have to be removed? What level of use by a telecoms operator and Huawei is sufficient—that its network supports connections from Huawei phones, or that it uses Huawei equipment in its 5G network but not in its fibre installation? What about a company that installs fibre under this legislation but then sells the infrastructure to another company? Why should operators be forced to develop plans to remove high-risk vendors on the advice of the NCSC when that advice is that the risk can be accepted up to a 35% network cap? Do companies now have to submit plans to reach 0% but without any expectation of that actually being implemented?
All this adds up to enormous uncertainty just at the point when we need the maximum rollout of fibre and 5G. That is why the Government are right in their approach—as I said, I do not say that very often—when they say that the issue of wayleads in the Bill should be kept separate from security considerations that will be covered by the telecoms security Bill.
For the information of the House, I do not underestimate the substantive arguments. I considered these matters very carefully myself some 10 years ago. I was a member of Huawei’s international advisory board, but I think that gives me a useful insight into these matters rather than any conflict in the current circumstances. I hope we can debate all these issues at a future date, but not in this Bill.
My Lords, Amendments 9 and 14 were tabled in the House of Commons, leading to a commitment that we will shortly consider a further Bill on telecommunications infrastructure security. Given the urgency with which the department claimed to be dealing with this matter, the retabling of these amendments provides us with an opportunity to see what, if any, progress has been made.
Let me be clear that the Labour Party supports the swift but safe rollout of 5G technology. Fully embracing this technology could fundamentally change how we live and work, creating countless opportunities for new forms of communication, entertainment, and so on.
Operators are very keen to get on with the job of rolling out 5G. As we have heard on a number of occasions, the previous lack of clarity over the role of high-risk vendors led to different companies taking different approaches. Some decided to press ahead, gambling on their mix of equipment, whereas others awaited more detailed guidance. The result is that, much like fixed broadband, we are not where any economy of our size should be. This has been compounded by the extraordinary conspiracy theories over the safety of 5G, which saw hardware targeted in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. I know the Minister strongly criticised these myths at Second Reading and I hope she will do so again today.
As I mentioned previously, we have been promised an additional Bill to deal with the issue of security and high-risk vendors. We welcome this announcement but would like more detail on the timescales involved and the proposed scope of the legislation. As my Commons colleagues pointed out during their consideration of this Bill, concerns around Huawei have arisen because the Government have failed to nurture this sector here in the UK. Our lack of expertise and capacity in this country has left operators reliant on know-how and technology from overseas, including from high-risk vendors.
We have been told that there is a plan in place to reduce the market share enjoyed by these vendors. However, this will not happen overnight, and it certainly cannot happen without a proper, robust strategy, coupled with meaningful investment. I hope, therefore, that the upcoming Bill will not be about only security, as vital as that is. It needs to give us opportunities to debate the bigger picture. If, when the Bill is published, the direction of travel is still not entirely clear, we will need to use that process to shed more light on how the Government intend to get to their end destination.
We want to work with the Government to make 5G happen both quickly and safely, and to improve other forms of digital connectivity. We want to work with operators to ensure users right across the UK can enjoy the very best services. I hope that these amendments, coupled with the others we are discussing this afternoon, can be the start of a productive dialogue about how we make that happen.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to the debate on this amendment and thank all noble Lords for their extraordinarily high-quality contributions. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, for her speech introducing the amendment.
As my noble friend Lady Morgan of Cotes explained, this is a matter of huge importance, in relation to both the security and resilience of our telecoms networks and the important and troubling human rights issues that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, covered in relation to the Uighurs. I fear that my comments now will not do justice to this issue, but I would like to put on record my recognition of his work in this area.
On the point that the noble Lord, Lord Livermore, just raised, I can reiterate that the Government continue to condemn those spreading myths about the links between 5G and Covid-19. There is no basis for those assertions.
Turning to the substance of this amendment, it is clearly an issue that the Government consider to be of paramount importance, as this House knows. The Government conducted a comprehensive review into the telecoms supply chain to ensure the security of our networks. The review set out that we will introduce one of the toughest regimes for telecoms security in the world, and I reiterate that high-risk vendors never have been and never will be in the most sensitive parts of our networks.
As my noble friend Lady Morgan said, this decision was taken with enormous care, given its importance. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said recently in the other place in relation to a similar amendment to the Bill, the Government will introduce legislation to establish this new regulatory framework as soon as possible.
This legislation will establish stronger national security powers to allow the Government to impose stringent controls on the presence of high-risk vendor equipment in the UK’s 5G and full-fibre networks. It will be a crucial step forward in implementing the conclusions of the Government’s review into the telecoms supply chain, which was underpinned by careful security analysis by our world-leading cybersecurity experts. It will implement a new and robust security framework that ensures the UK’s telecoms critical national infrastructure remains secure now and in the future, which I know is what is behind the amendment of the noble Baroness. Officials are working to develop that legislation as quickly as possible.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for agreeing with the Government that that piece of legislation will be the right opportunity to debate telecom security and high-risk vendors in detail. I hope that this gives your Lordships some reassurance that the Government remain absolutely committed to working with Parliament to ensure the security of our networks.
I understand that the intention of Amendment 9 is to impose a timetable for an effective ban on the use of equipment from high-risk vendors. However, our reflection is that, in practice, this amendment would not necessarily result in the removal of high-risk vendors from the network. Rather than incentivising operators to remove high-risk vendor equipment from their networks, operators could simply not make use of the powers in this Bill, thereby creating a barrier to many families living in blocks of flats who cannot access the benefits unlocked by new broadband services while having no practical impact on the presence of high-risk vendors in the UK’s telecom networks. That is clearly not something, listening to your Lordships today, that this House would like to see happen.
This Bill, in terms of its practical operation, is about access for fixed-line providers and not 5G services. Therefore, the impact of this amendment would not only be more limited in its practical implications than I believe the noble Baroness intends but could slow down the rollout of full-fibre networks and prevent the UK economy seeing the benefits that nationwide access to faster broadband networks could bring.
Amendment 14 is aimed at obliging telecoms operators who exercise Part 4A code rights to set out publicly plans to remove high-risk vendors from their networks to the satisfaction of a regulator. The Government have consistently made it clear that the security of our telecoms infrastructure is paramount. I know that the House shares this view. The amendment touches on details which will need clarification when we come to the telecoms security Bill, such as details around the information that plans should contain any sanctions and what would constitute satisfaction to a designated regulator. That is work to be done in the telecoms security Bill.
We have made evidence-based decisions in relation to high-risk vendors based on the world-class expertise of the National Cyber Security Centre. It has always been the Government’s position that operators should pay due regard to the NCSC’s advice on reducing their Huawei equipment to the recommended level as quickly as practicable. However, the Bill is neither the right place to put an obligation on operators to set out detailed plans, nor to designate an appropriate regulator to assess those plans. As I have made clear, the Government are committed to implementing a framework for telecoms security that is right for the UK’s specific security needs and takes into account the advice we have received from our cybersecurity experts.
This is an important debate which needs full consideration by Members in both Houses and the forthcoming legislation to implement the new telecoms security framework is the right vehicle to do that. The Government are committed to ensuring full consideration by Members in both Houses. On a personal note, I find it a real privilege to take part in a Committee with Members who have such expertise in the technology, security and human rights aspects. I know that my colleagues in the department will be keen to work with noble Lords as we progress with the security Bill and our ambitions to achieve faster broadband rollout. With that, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I shall make a brief comment and ask a question in response to what the noble Baroness has just said. She and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, both talked about assessments of telecoms and infrastructure security that have been made historically. Does she accept that relations with China are dynamic and appear to be particularly so at the moment, in dealing with the Covid epidemic and its fallout, which could have a significant bearing on future relations, not only with us but with the West. Are the Government cognisant of that?
Because I have not been following these things very closely, my question is this. Have the Government given a categorical undertaking to introduce a telecoms security Bill before the summer?
I think the noble Lord knows that the Government are absolutely cognisant of how international relations with multiple partners, including China, evolve. The current situation is obviously unprecedented. Forgive me, but I must ask the noble Lord to repeat his second question.
My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for the way she has responded to the debate, particularly her remarks about how important this question is. What she just said to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is particularly interesting. If there has been slippage in the legislative timetable, and I recognise the reasons for it, surely that makes it even more important that this paving Bill—that is what this is, effectively—is the right place to address these questions. If it is not, they will go off into the future and we know that the future can be the long grass.
It is the age-old argument about the right place and the right time but, given the Minister’s welcome remarks about the importance of this issue, may I ask her to do one thing between now and Report? I would be very grateful if she could assure the Committee that she will liaise with the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, at the Foreign Office and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, at the Home Office about our obligations, referred to in my remarks, under Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. These require any company with a turnover of more than £36 million to publish details of what steps they are taking to prevent modern slavery. Perhaps in that period there could also be a meeting with me, my noble friend Lady Falkner and the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, who was appointed by the Government. He could come in and talk further to the Minister about our obligations and why we really need to act now, rather than push the matter off into the future.
I shall answer that in two ways, if I may. Of course, I would be delighted to meet the noble Lord in conjunction with my noble friends Lord Ahmad and Lady Williams, and with the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, if she wishes to join. We can pick that up after the Committee. I assure the Committee that there is no loss of will or momentum on the Government’s side about the telecoms security Bill. Purely practical issues prevent me giving a firm date for its introduction.
My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for the manner in which she has dealt with this Bill. I will take up that offer of further conversations on it. In the meantime, I shall briefly address some of the issues raised by noble Lords.
I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for his support. Yes, these amendments are very close to those tabled in the House of Commons. They are certainly in scope of the Bill, and he will be reassured to know that Chi Onwurah supported them in the House of Commons in February and March, and in fact moved one of them.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, mentioned the new US-Australia trade war when he meant, I think, the China-Australia trade war. I say that just for the Hansard record. I think that is what he meant. I will leave it at that.
I was enormously grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his speech. He has great knowledge of human rights around the world. He is right to say that we have collaborated over a very long period on the situation of the Chinese Uighurs. It saddens me that that seems to have dropped off the agenda completely in the light of the Covid story. From what I read on the internet, those people have higher rates of infection and they were infected in their internment camps and so on. It is something we must continue to watch.
I come specifically to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes. I accept that the Bill is a less than ideal vehicle for the passage of these amendments, but I reiterate that they are not wrecking amendments of any sort. They are to strengthen the Government’s hand and to give predictability to providers about the necessary risks that face them as we go forward. She said that the manifesto target was part of the levelling-up agenda to improve connectivity, but I do not believe that United Kingdom citizens who have their personal details stolen or their financial details sold on the dark web and suffer losses would be grateful to the Government for having rolled out 5G perhaps 24 months sooner than if they had used an alternative provider. She and the Government may find themselves on the defensive when such things happen.
The noble Baroness also said that she believes that the decision is right in its assessment of risk, but future risk is always best approached tentatively, after careful evaluation. The most important thing is that the best way to evaluate risks is to have conversations with others who have been victims of the malpractice, particularly when the others are your trusted friends.
That brings me to the remark I find almost patronising on her part, when she warned us that those supporting the Bill in the House of Commons were perhaps part of an agenda to do a trade deal with the US—in other words, she was implying that those of us supporting the Bill here, particularly me, are being naive in our support for the discussions that took place in the Commons. I have pointed out that I do not think that one could accuse Mr Jeremy Corbyn, who added his signature to the Bill, of being desperately keen to do a trade deal with the US, or of being one of the usual suspects in terms of the European Union research group. I can reassure her that not only have I served on the National Security Council, but I first went to China 42 years ago, and I know it fairly well. So I am not walking into this with my eyes closed.
Let me also say, as I am looking at the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on the screen and having been reminded of his Huawei connection, that perhaps I needed to have declared that I serve as a vice president of the APPG on China, along with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who is the vice chairman, if I recall correctly. So I have been engaged in Parliament in a very positive way with China as well.
It is almost trivialising to suggest that the motivation of lawmakers trying to improve legislation in the House of Lords is somehow guided by groupthink, or by a desire to fall into a certain line. All lawmakers across the House are motivated by the desire to do the best by the country, and there is nothing more important when trying to do the best by a country than caring for its national security.
I come to the noble Lord, Lord Livermore, and his questioning of the telecoms security Bill that the Minister has reassured the House will come to us shortly. In response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, Mr Oliver Dowden gave repeated reassurances in the House, but only after some considerable pressure, that the Bill would be brought back before the summer.
I would actually be entirely content to deal with the context of the telecoms security Bill only when the House returns in full form, so that we can have the appropriate scrutiny of the Bill that we need in the proper manner. That Bill is of such critical importance to our national security that this virtual proceeding, and allowing Bills to go through on the basis of their being possibly uncontroversial, simply will not do. I say to the Minister that I would rather the Bill came back somewhat later than when the House is not ready to receive it in full, in the normal way.
Let me conclude by thanking the Minister for her very positive tone. I accept that she is eager to engage with those of us who have concerns and reservations, and I will go away and read her comments on these amendments more carefully, and will then consider my response and whether I will bring the amendments back on Report or not. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
Virtual proceeding suspended.
My Lords, the Virtual Committee will now resume. We come to Amendment 10. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “Not content” if the Question is put made that clear in the debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in this Committee, which cannot divide.
10: Clause 1, page 2, line 17, at end insert—
“(aa) form part of a building used as the premises for one or multiple businesses or organisations,(ab) form part of a purpose-built retirement development,(ac) form part of a new building completed after the period of one year after the passing of this Act, or”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would include office blocks, retirement developments and new builds in the scope of the bill.
My Lords, I will be extremely brief, because I believe Amendment 10 is fairly self-explanatory. It includes many of the other premises that operators would like to see included in the Bill. For instance, legislation on gigabit broadband infrastructure for new-build properties was promised in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech, yet we have seen no evidence of it.
What is the difference between blocks and, say, a purpose-built retirement development that needs access to full-fibre broadband? This has been brought home to us more than ever in the past few weeks. Take business premises, such as business parks. Those kinds of development are absolutely crying out for the kind of operator access provided for by this Bill.
The purpose of this—clearly a probing—amendment is to see how far the Government’s ambition stretches. I have criticised this Bill on the grounds of lack of ambition to date, but it would be nice to hear from the Minister that the Government’s ambitions stretch rather further. I beg to move.
I support my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones. This is a simple amendment, but if the Government are sincere in their ambition to roll out broadband to the widest possible number of people —in fact to everyone—it has to be grasped. It is all very well taking about a limited set of multi-occupancy buildings, but without this amendment that set is very limited. In brief, I support this amendment and look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation of why this was not in the Bill in the first place and perhaps an undertaking to solve that in time for Report.
I should say—by the way, my internet connection is unstable—that I did not mean to make a speech on this amendment nor indeed on the other one that bears my name. I was able to cover the issue in my earlier speech, which was more broad-ranging than on just that particular amendment. All I will add now that you have been good enough to call me, Deputy Chairman, is that the Secretary of State has been left with very wide regulatory powers. This was considered by the Delegated Powers Committee and quite deliberately left in a wide form. I therefore hope that this addition can be made in the fairly near future.
I will be brief as well—the Committee has heard enough from us already. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, this is a probing amendment to see where the Government’s ambitions point. There does not seem to be any logic in the current drafting and the amendment is a good way to try to extend it, but there are other ways. If the Government, either now or at later stages, accept amendments that mean that all legal occupiers of a property and the operators themselves can also initiate Part 4A orders, we will not need this amendment.
I will use this time to ask a question that was raised in the discussion on an earlier amendment, as I did not get the answer from the Minister at the time it was raised. She may not have that information to hand and, if she does not, I will be happy for her to write. I think that we are all conscious that not everything in this Bill will achieve the promised land of the gigabit-compliant internet that we are all looking for, so other things need to happen, but they will not be addressed in other places. Perhaps the Minister could give us a tour d’horizon of them, if necessary in writing. How and when will we get the legislation for all new homes to have open-access fibre connections? Will there be a harmonised UK-wide regime for permitting street works to lay fibre? How will we ensure that fibre-builders can make use of the utilities infrastructure—for gas, water and electricity—to facilitate access? We need to know that these things are happening if we are to be confident that the Bill will achieve what it aims to do, so can the Minister write to me about them?
I thank noble Lords for their brevity in outlining the purpose of this probing amendment. I shall try to be similarly brief in response.
I certainly welcome the intention behind this amendment—namely, to clarify which premises other than multiple-dwelling buildings such as blocks of flats might be in scope of the Bill and why. The decision initially to include only multiple-dwelling buildings is deliberate. It was informed by careful consideration of the evidence that was made available to us, not least through the consultation that was held before the Bill was drawn up and introduced. That evidence indicated that specifically this type of premises—multiple-dwelling buildings—most needed the sort of targeted intervention that is proposed in the Bill. We were not, by contrast, presented with compelling evidence for other types of property at this stage and certainly not enough to justify legislating at this point. However, we recognise that such evidence might emerge in time and we are mindful that office blocks or business parks, which the noble Lord, Lord Clement Jones, mentioned, could face similar issues. We continue to engage with providers and others about this.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked how far our ambition stretches: as far as the evidence suggests. This is why we have included a clear power in the Bill for the Secretary of State to make regulations, should they be needed, to widen the scope of the Bill and make it apply to other premises of a specified description. That will allow the Secretary of State to legislate in a flexible and proportionate way, led by the evidence. This approach will allow the Government to continue to engage with interested parties, as well as to consider and balance the evidence that becomes available to us. Crucially, it will also help to guard against any unintended consequences that could arise from widening the scope of the Bill too quickly, before there is sufficient evidence to support doing so.
The noble Lord raised a point about new-build developments. The Government have set out plans to ensure that new-build homes in England are built with gigabit broadband by amending the 2010 building regulations to require developers of new-builds to install the infrastructure necessary to make them gigabit-capable. As we set out in our consultation response published on 17 March this year, the Building Act 1984 contains the necessary primary powers that would mandate the installation of gigabit broadband in new build developments. To include the new-build developments in the Bill in the way proposed by this amendment is therefore unnecessary, and could hamper the simple and proportionate approach we have set out in the consultation response.
I should add that, as housing is a devolved matter, the Government are also working closely with the devolved Administrations on this. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that we have firm proposals in place to address the issues raised, and that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister for his response. I shall be brief. The Minister talked about the absence of overwhelming evidence and said that, if this evidence were to come to light, we would be treated to a statutory instrument in order to implement or extend this Bill. What in the Government’s view is overwhelming evidence? What actually constitutes evidence that people require this? It is quite clear that people living in the wider group of residences as set out by my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones want access, so what do they have to do to overwhelm the Government in order to bring forth one of their statutory instruments?
My Lords, we have tried to strike a balance in the Bill so far between the requirements and the desires of providers and of course the rights of those owning property. At the moment, the evidence suggests that there is a distinction between multiple residential dwellings––where the owner of the building is perhaps not as easily contactable or is not responding––and business parks, for instance, whose owners seem to be more alert to requests from providers and are therefore responding in a more timely fashion to requests. However, if the evidence suggests that they are not, then the secondary power proposed in the Bill will allow the Secretary of State to make provisions and bring forward some statutory instrument to extend the Bill in this way, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, says.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response to my noble friend Lord Fox, for which I am grateful. The fact is that the Government have actually got the wrong mindset on this. This is not some precious commodity to be supplicated for by a group of property tenants or lessees. This is absolutely a utility, as we have debated and discussed throughout the relatively short period of this Committee.
That shows the poverty of ambition behind the Bill and, in a sense, behind the 1-gigabit strategy put forward by the Government. We should allow 1 gigabit to be laid by operators in all those places. Small businesses, almost more than ordinary consumers, are in desperate need of good connectivity. As we have seen, online business is now absolutely crucial, yet many business parks do not have proper connectivity.
It really is a bit of a myth that evidence is needed of landlords being awkward or whatever. The Government should say, “Right, this is our ambition. This is where we need to make sure that fibre is laid. We need to treat it as a utility and give powers of entry similar to those under the Electricity Act.” I love the way that the words are phrased: “unintended consequences” appears to emerge from the mists in this Bill at every possible stage. We should not be cautious about this; we should be ambitious, and we need to get on with it.
I am going to ask the Minister a question and I hope that he will be able to answer it before I withdraw the amendment. He mentioned the 2010 building regulations under the Building Act 1984 and said that they had been passed. From what date? When will there be an obligation on landlords to engage with operators and so on? What is the effective date, and what properties are involved in this change in the building regulations? I entirely accept—I am delighted—that primary legislation is not needed in this request but a few further particulars would go quite a long way.
The Government are certainly very ambitious regarding the provision of sufficiently fast broadband for everybody. As mooted earlier in the proceedings, the current situation, with so many people working from home and relying on the internet to communicate with their loved ones, underlines its vital importance. We aim to lay the regulations as soon as possible, but I will be happy to write to noble Lords with further details of when they will come into effect.
I thank the Minister for that clarification. Therefore, as yet the regulations are not in place and, as yet, there is no new-build obligation. We very much look forward to the Minister’s letter setting that out. I hope that there will be a sense of urgency, because the regulations were promised last year in the Conservative Party manifesto, and of course there is a great expectation that the manifesto will be fulfilled.
I thank the Minister for some of his clarifications. I keep urging the Government to be more ambitious but, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 10 withdrawn.
My Lords, we now come to the group consisting of Amendment 11. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “Not content” when the Question is put made that clear in debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in this Committee; the Committee cannot divide.
11: Clause 1, page 2, leave out lines 22 and 23
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would remove the requirement for land to be held in common ownership with the target premises.
My Lords, again, I shall be extremely brief in the hope of eliciting a positive and ambitious reply from the Minister. This measure will inevitably be frustrating for operators because the current changes to the ECC allow access only where land is held in common ownership with the target premises. If we are not careful, in many cases that will be a barrier to the proper laying of cable.
To refer back to the Minister’s previous reply, I do not know what the evidence is but operators who have approached us on this question think that it is an important aspect. They may well need to access third-party land across multiple fields, for example, and it will help deployment, particularly in rural areas. That is where we are most mindful of the difficulties—where you cannot get a direct connection and you have to cross a field or other property which belongs to a third party and not the owner of the premises involved.
I would be very grateful to hear from the Minister just what the Government’s evidence has been and what the response to the consultation was, and why they have not managed to include this very sensible provision in the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for tabling and introducing this amendment. It is relatively straightforward, but it could have far-reaching consequences for operators.
As the noble Lord outlined, the Bill currently defines “connected land” as being in common ownership with the target premises. Operators who have contacted us have expressed concern that this will limit their ability to roll out new technology, particularly in rural areas, where infrastructure may have to cross multiple fields to reach the desired building. They believe that removing the common ownership provision will also help accelerate their deployment of high-speed services to small businesses and other commercial properties.
Given our previous debates on the economic benefits of improving connection speeds, we should ensure that this Bill facilitates such work. There was clearly a rationale for including this provision in the Bill, so I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify the position and its practical impact on the provision of new connections. Should she accept that the requirement may have unintended consequences on the ability of operators to roll out new infrastructure, I hope that officials can look again at the detail and engage with the sector to address its concerns.
I thank the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, for tabling this amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked for a positive and ambitious response—I think those were his words. I hope to give him a positive response, but I fear that it will be a practical one.
This amendment seeks to understand our thinking on the key concepts of connected land and common ownership, and the impact of this link on the speed and ease of the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband. As the noble Lord, Lord Livermore, outlined, the concepts of connected land and common ownership form a vital underpinning of the Bill.
It may be helpful to noble Lords if I give a slightly more technical explanation of the concept of connected land. In technical terms, let us consider land in respect of which an operator wishes to have code rights, which we will call Land A. In order for Land A to be “connected land”, it must satisfy both limbs of the definition set out in paragraph 27B(3) of the code. It is not enough that it is used for access to, or otherwise in connection with, the target premises—limb (b). Land A must also be in common ownership with the target premises—limb (a).
The concept of common ownership as drafted in the Bill therefore stands and falls with the need for Land A to be held or used for access to, or otherwise in connection with, the target premises, as contained in limb (b).The definition of “common ownership”—as set out in paragraph 27I(2) of the code, towards the end of Clause 1—will catch two pieces of land which have the same freeholder, or which are held under a lease of any sort by the same person. It will also catch two pieces of land where the same person owns an interest in each but at a different level; for example, where a person owns the freehold of one but is the lessee of the other. I am happy to give practical examples of that point if that would be useful to your Lordships.
The connection set out in paragraph 27B(3) of the code is a conjunctive test, so both limbs (a) and (b) are needed for the concept of “connected land” to work. Without that, the essence of the concept of connected land is removed, and it is completely integral. The amendment would remove the requirement for the land to be in common ownership, thus allowing operators to use this policy on any land that exists between their exchange and the target premises. In practice—this is the key reason why the Government do not support the amendment—it would give operators code rights to access land where a landlord was not responsive. A landlord who has no connection to the properties where the operator is going to make their installation could be opened up to potential Part 4A orders, which we believe is disproportionate.
There are other, technical points which could affect the powers in the Bill with the amendment as currently drafted. Paragraphs 27I(2) and (3) seek to define “common ownership” and “relevant interest”. This was designed to ensure that the Bill worked within the different ideas of land ownership in Scotland. The amendment would render those paragraphs ineffective and affect the efficacy of the Bill, particularly in Scotland.
While I recognise that operators are encountering significant problems gaining access rights in situations other than multiple dwelling buildings, this Bill is not the right vehicle for a change as profound as this. My officials have engaged with them, and representatives of landowners, on these points and we are considering what, if any, action could be taken to support delivery if evidence emerges that further interventions are necessary. With that reassurance, I hope that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for her anatomical explanation of the situation. Large lumps of Victorian and Georgian cityscapes have been converted into a multiplicity of dwellings and flats, many of which are going to find themselves unable, within the definitions of limbs (a) and (b) and the rules set out in the Bill, to request access. Is that correct? There is obviously complicated ownership in all such places: perhaps the need to go through one flat to get to another; there may be leaseholds and freeholds muddled up. However, the point of the Bill should be to get gigabit broadband capacity to as many people as possible, rather than rule out everybody except a very pure clay of candidates. Perhaps the Minister is grasping—albeit eloquently—at the wrong end of this stick.
I thank the noble Lord for pressing this point. I cannot comment on the specifics of different layouts. As he noted, this is a very complicated area. We have tried to listen to operators on the issue of unresponsive landowners more widely and they have highlighted difficulties where there are owners of third-party land which the operator needs to cross in order to deploy their equipment.
As I said, we are very concerned that the risk of a non-responsive landlord and the operator then getting code rights would be disproportionate and would unbalance the Bill. However, the noble Lord makes a fair point about the spirit of the Bill being to open up access. We certainly share that goal and I will take his points back and consider them further.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. For one nightmarish moment, when she started talking about connected land, limb A, limb B and so on, I thought that I was returning to a land law viva circa 1971, but this was all in aid of explaining that it is not possible to do anything as far as 27B(3) is concerned. For one delirious moment, I thought she was going to say that the definition meant that my objections had been covered, but of course that was not to be. I understand where she is coming from, but I suspect we are again back into the language of unintended consequences which has been so freely bandied about. I congratulate the Minister on her restraint in not using that phrase in response to this, because this is about landowners’ rights.
Given the extensive compensation rights set out in the ECC, which are amended as part of today’s Bill, it seems to me that the boot is on the wrong foot. If we are really talking about opening up, which the Minister mentioned was a function of this Bill, then surely it is important that we get this right. What I will take as an invitation from the Minister, and I think the operators should too, is that evidence may emerge. If operators can actually demonstrate that there are issues with this kind of connected land, which is not in common ownership and therefore does not fall within 27B(3), they should try to demonstrate that beyond peradventure at the earliest possible opportunity. The representations that my noble friend Lord Fox and I—and clearly, the noble Lord, Lord Livermore—have received suggest that this is a major issue which will slow down deployment.
Whatever the solution—again, the Minister seemed to give some encouragement that thought is being given to this—I very much hope that the Government will continue to think about this and come up with a satisfactory solution. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 12. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the Clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “not content” if the question is put made that clear in the debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in this Committee; this Committee cannot divide.
12: Clause 1, page 2, leave out line 31
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the ability of a landlord to exclude themselves from the scope of these provisions by acknowledging an access request in writing without addressing the substantive point.
My Lords, I move Amendment 12 and will speak to Amendment 13. Taken together, these amendments probe in a little more detail the way in which operators and property owners will be able to come to some sort of deal. While the Bill sets out to provide a mechanism under which, if necessary, the courts can supervise an arrangement so that access can be provided, the truth is that most operators would wish to have a voluntary arrangement through which they can deal face to face with the person responsible, in order to satisfy the potential user of the new equipment about what they are trying to do. In a sense, it is a slightly strange mixture.
The Bill seems incredibly one-sided in the way it approaches the rights of the owner of the property. We had this debate when considering previous amendments, and I am still a little uncertain as to why this should be. Throughout the discussion, the Minister has tried to make it clear that it is a balance between three competing interests: the rights of the owner of the property, those of the user and those of the operator. But I do wonder whether the balance is right in this respect.
The bar set by the Bill for a landlord to be engaging with the network builder—this is the dialogue that we are talking about—seems to be set a bit low. As I read it, the only requirement of the landlord is that they acknowledge the request notice in writing. That does not give any confirmation that the landlord will negotiate the terms of access to the property in good faith. Can the Minister say in more detail what the Government have in mind here? Could the landlord simply say, “Thank you for your letter—I will get back to you”, and the whole process stops at that point because there is no way of unlocking the arrangement?
In responding to the original consultation, the Government said that a substantive response from the landlord would be enough to take them out of the scope of the Bill, but the Bill as drafted does not require a substantive response. I agree that this might be a definitional issue but if so, why is no definition included in the Bill? This issue was discussed during the Commons stages of the Bill. Amendments that could have addressed it were discussed extensively but the Government rejected them, confirming their view that, by definition, in responding, a landlord ceases to be unresponsive. While I absolutely agree that there is an element of truth in that, it does not solve the problem, which is that if landlords want to play this long and get out of it without committing, it looks as though they can do so. It would sensible either to have no recommendation at all, as per the amendment, or some form of time-limited arrangement under which further action could be taken to resolve the issue. I beg to move.
My noble friend Lord Stevenson of Balmacara has tabled both the amendments in this group. I support my noble friend in his efforts to tease out information from the Government through these probing amendments, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. For my part, I want to be clear that, in both points under discussion here, by acknowledging the communication but not saying whether they agree or refuse, the granter has not stopped the process moving forward; my noble friend made that exact point in his contribution. All I am looking for is confirmation that that is not the case—that the process cannot be stopped by this becoming the default.
When speaking on an earlier group of amendments, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, made the point that broadband should be treated as an essential service—an essential utility just like water, gas and electricity, and that we have to be ambitious. I agree that this is a good Bill and that we are having a good discussion with some good amendments, but I am not sure whether we are meeting the challenge. I look forward to the response to this group from the Minister—whether the noble Baroness or the noble Lord. I remember that the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, when she was responding on the second group of amendments, made the point that we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. I agree with that quote from Voltaire in this context; it is spot on. But the point is that we have to be good. My fear is that is that we are being timid with some of this legislation, not good. I want to see the fire in the Government’s belly. I have not seen much fire today.
So, we are not pursuing perfection, but we have to be doing good. If we do not get this right, we will not do this issue justice and we will be back here again in a year or two’s time to take things further. I am looking for reassurance from the Government that there is fire in their belly, that they are getting on with things, and that this cannot stop the proposals in their tracks.
I agree with the two previous speakers. The Bill would mean that a landlord could be considered responsive simply by acknowledging the request notice in writing without taking the engagement further. In fact, it is pure territory for what I would call passive-aggressive obfuscation—a serious of meaningless letters going back and forth but leading, in the end, to absolutely nothing. It would mean, in the end, the operator being unable to meet the needs of the potential customer. Frankly, the operators have so many other options at the moment that they would simply walk away and go where it is easier to install, leaving yet another person disfranchised from the digital economy. We have heard from operators that they are identifying landlords who will potentially act in this way.
Again, this is a proving amendment; I thank the noble Lord for moving it. What constitutes a meaningful response that moves this forward? Put simply, a passive-aggressive, obfuscatory approach will mean that, in the end, a bad landlord or a landlord who really does not want to enfranchise their tenants will win.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for tabling the amendments, which would require a landlord to respond to the substantive point of the notice—that is, providing access. The amendments seek to examine our thinking on allowing a landlord to remove themselves from the scope of Part 4A simply by responding to the operator’s notice. The Government understand and appreciate the intention behind the amendments, but there is the potential for unintended consequences, if the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, will forgive me for saying so.
The Bill was created to address the specific problem of the repeatedly unresponsive landlord. That is what telecoms operators have told us is one of the biggest issues they face when it comes to rolling out networks. The Bill was not intended to offer a solution to instances where a landlord may take longer than the operator would like to agree to the terms proposed in their request notices. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, gave the example of the passive-aggressive landlord, but there could be absolutely fair instances where a landlord sends a holding response because they are seeking legal advice. The Bill gives flexibility for that, but its real focus is on incentivising landlords and operators to engage with each other in the first place. We believe that the Bill, as drafted, reflects that crucial distinction.
As was discussed in the debate on previous amendments, we are aware of the challenges that some operators face in reaching agreements with landlords. We have held numerous discussions with a wide range of stakeholders since the implementation of the reforms to the Electronic Communications Code in December 2017, and we continue to do so, but we do not think that this Bill is the appropriate vehicle for addressing the wider range of ongoing access issues. Any broader changes to the code would need to be carefully considered and consulted on, but if we saw sufficient evidence that there is a problem, we would of course consider what intervention to take.
I remind noble Lords that operators already have routes via the code to make an application to the court—for example, in England and Wales, to the Upper Tribunal—to have rights imposed in situations where they fail to reach a consensual agreement with the landowner.
The Bill, like the code itself, aims to provide a balance between the rights of the landowner and of the operator. I believe that the amendment would have the opposite effect of what it hopes to achieve. Rather than encouraging landowners to enter into negotiations, I suspect that it risks leading to landowners responding with a knee-jerk refusal. The Bill as drafted incentivises the landowner to respond to an operator by either agreeing to or refusing access, or otherwise acknowledging the notice in writing. Only if they fail to do so will the requirements for the operator to apply to the court crystallise. We hope that this strikes a balance, providing time for the landowner to consider the operator’s proposals carefully, while providing the operator with the certainty that, while they might not receive a simple yes or no, their request for access is nevertheless being considered. With that, I hope noble Lords are content, and I beg that this amendment be withdrawn.
My Lords, I will read carefully in Hansard what has been said and reflect on it. I am bound to say that, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, pointed out, we are back in the land of unintended consequences, which is not really an appropriate argument to use against what is essentially a probing amendment. We do not intend it to go forward into the Bill as it stands. Simply raising the spectre that it might have unintended consequences has not advanced the discussion.
The Minister’s main point was that the Bill’s intention, which I recognise, is to incentivise a situation in which discussions with the operators and others are brought up when people do not reply to requests for information. In a sense, what is in the Bill is an answer to people who have gone AWOL or died and are not able to answer their letters, rather than encouraging dialogue and leading to a conclusion, which is what we are all trying to get to if we are ever to get to the full gigabit-ready internet that we all look for. I do not think that is the answer, but having said that I will reflect on what has been said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
Amendments 13 and 14 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 15. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “not content” when the question is put made that clear in debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in Committee. This Committee cannot divide.
15: Clause 1, page 5, line 26, at end insert—
“(3) Any operator exercising Part 4A code rights is obliged to ensure that alternative operators can easily install the hardware needed to provide their own electronic communications service.(4) The definition of “easily” in sub-paragraph (3) is to be provided by Ofcom.”
The purpose of the amendment is to probe the Government’s thinking and provoke some debate on the issue of competition and open access in the provision of services on the back of the new infrastructure which the Bill makes possible. It is the same amendment that my colleague Chi Onwurah moved in the Standing Committee in the House of Commons. I draw colleagues’ attention to the very interesting debate in that Committee on 11 February 2020 at cols. 20-23. The interesting point about it is that the amendment itself is almost motherhood and apple pie. It is very weak. It is a declaration of what those of us with a history of engagement in telecoms competition issues think is the state of play anyway. The amendment says:
“Any operator exercising … code rights is obliged to ensure that alternative operators can easily install the hardware needed to provide their own electronic communications service … The definition of ‘easily’ … to be provided by Ofcom”,
The significant thing about that debate is that the Government opposed the amendment. Indeed, it was pushed to a Division in the House of Commons Standing Committee and there was a straight vote on it. Highly peculiarly, given the usual position of the parties on these issues, all the Conservatives voted against having any requirement for open access and competition in the Bill, even though Chi Onwurah’s amendment, as I read it, was a statement of existing government and Ofcom policy.
Reading the Minister’s response—this is Matt Warman, the Under-Secretary in the department of the noble Baroness, Lady Barran—left me more concerned than before. I would like to probe the noble Baroness further on two particular points that came out in his response. First, he made a straightforward anti-competition declaration about the policy intended to result from the Bill. In col. 22, he said:
“Far from improving competition in access to gigabit services, the amendment”—
this amendment I am now moving before your Lordships—
“may actually have the unintended consequence of doing the opposite. As the hon. Member knows, much of the cost of connecting premises is in the initial installation. The amendment could therefore seriously undermine the case for operators to make that initial installation, as they risk being undercut by second or third movers who would not have to bear the same costs.”—[Official Report, Commons, Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill Committee, 11/2/20; col. 22.]
That is a classic statement of the reason that operators, including Openreach, always give for not allowing others to be able to access their wayleaves and technology, but it is not one that the Government have supported in the past. Do the Government believe that allowing operators to ban competition and introduce anti-competitive requirements in contracts is justified as a means of getting this investment? That is a direct question for the Minister. I would like to know what the Government’s policy is. Do they support anti-competitive practices?
On the operation of the existing law, in col. 21 Matt Warman said:
“The Bill aims to support leaseholders to access the services they request from the providers they want”—
a straightforward statement of pro-competition policy.
“It already ensures that leaseholders are not per se locked in to services provided by a single provider; nothing in the Bill prevents a leaseholder with an existing gigabit-capable connection from one service requesting an alternative network to come in and request code rights as well.”—[Official Report, Commons, Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill Committee, 11/2/20; col. 21.]
Can the Minister point me to the provisions ensuring that
“leaseholders are not per se locked in to services provided by a single provider”?
How does that provision square with the Government’s resistance in the House of Commons to this amendment, on the grounds that anti-competitive practices were justified to support operators making investments in extending fibre to the home? I beg to move.
The case has been so well made by my noble friend Lord Adonis that I have very little to add. I thought, as he did, that the exchanges in the Commons were extraordinary. We need some better explanation of what has been going on there. This is an area where there may be some case for a bit of guidance being issued by the Minister, and not necessarily in regulatory form.
I have recently moved house and have had exactly the same problem of trying to take over an existing line from the previous owner and being told that I could not switch operators and had to stick with the same equipment, even though it is clearly not right for our type of use. I am sure that this a pro-competition and pro-choice amendment which the Minister will want to support—there is a bit of a get-out here which she may want to think about.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for introducing this, because it throws up a sort of paradox—although the noble Lord did not mention it—and I am interested to know the Government’s view on it. In certain categories of installation government money is going across either directly or through local authorities into investment in installation and hardware. Are the Government suggesting that state-subsidised and state-supported hardware would not be mandatorily interchangeable?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Griffiths and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, for tabling Amendments 15 and 16. As I have said several times in Committee, the aim of the Bill is to support lessees in occupation to access the services they request from the providers they want. As drafted, we believe the Bill already ensures that they are not locked into services provided by a single provider. Nothing in this Bill prevents a person with an existing gigabit-capable—or indeed any—connection from requesting another service from another network provider. Nothing in the Bill prevents such a provider from requesting code rights from a landlord. If the landlord repeatedly refuses to engage with that provider, then, as we discussed earlier, that provider could apply for a Part 4A order of their own to deliver the service.
I understand that operators may be concerned that certain of their competitors may install their digital infrastructure in such a way as to physically prevent others installing their own. However, we consider that this issue could be better dealt with through the terms of an agreement imposed by a Part 4A order. Those terms are to be specified in regulations made subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Noble Lords will be aware that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee recently considered the Bill and concluded that there was nothing in it to which it wished to draw the House’s attention. Noble Lords may also be aware that that particular regulation-making power is subject to a consultation requirement that is expressly set out in the Bill. This reflects our concern and commitment to get this crucial aspect of the Bill’s practical operation right. The Bill therefore already envisages that the views of interested parties will be invited before the regulations are made.
With each operator undertaking works in a slightly different manner and there being a number of differences between network infrastructures, it is exceptionally difficult to place into primary legislation a requirement for operators to undertake works in a specific way or in a way that cannot easily be circumvented, for example by an operator stating that it was not “reasonably practicable” to select and install apparatus. Furthermore, far from improving competition and access to gigabit services, the amendment may have the unintended consequence of doing the opposite.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, referred to the words of my honourable friend the Minister for Digital Infrastructure in the other place, when he said that much of the cost to operators of connecting premises is in the initial installation. The noble Lord challenged whether this was an anti-competitive statement, if I followed his comments accurately.
Perhaps I can give an example of where one of our concerns lies. A small operator could install at significant cost, and then a much larger operator have the financial muscle to undercut it. This could clearly have anti-competitive consequences, particularly as that larger operator would not then carry those initial costs. We are concerned that if we force network builders to deploy in a way that allows competitors easy access, it will benefit only the largest players in the market, whose size allows them to bear those costs. Part 3 of the code already clearly provides for operators to upgrade electronic communications apparatus, and to share the use of such apparatus with another operator.
We also have technical concerns about the drafting of the amendment, which I can cover if noble Lords would like or write to them about. The Government sympathise with some of the intention behind the amendment—namely, to allow operators to compete on comparable terms as the best course of action. However, I ask that the noble Lord withdraws his amendment.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister. As she says, there are drafting issues, but I am sure that if they were the only concern we would all be happy for the Government to do the drafting for us. There seems to be a contradiction in the Government’s position. May I ask the Minister to clarify it? Is she saying that under the Bill as drafted, and the terms of the agreement with the proposed Part 4A order, alternative operators will or will not have easy access to new infrastructure? To prevent people unfairly undercutting initial investors, it is important that they should not. It is not clear to me and that point seems to go to the heart of the Government’s argument. Are they arguing that operators will have easy access, so that what is proposed here is irrelevant; or that operators will not have easy access, which is intentional because if they did, there would be undercutting? Which of those is the Government’s position?
That is a very helpful response because it seems to indicate a possible way forward in a redrafted amendment that underpins fair access. In my proposed new sub-paragraph (3) to new paragraph 27F, instead of saying
“that alternative operators can easily install the hardware”
it should say that they can install their hardware on a fair basis. My sub-paragraph (4) would then be the definition of fair, to be provided by Ofcom. I do not want to press the Minister too far, but can she at least undertake at this stage to look at such an amendment, without making any commitments to come back on Report, and write to me about it?
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness but she opens herself to the argument that I am seeking simply to insert into the Bill what the Government have said they intend to do anyway, and I may come back to this point on Report. However, on that basis, accepting what the noble Baroness has just said about writing to me and acknowledging the contributions made by my noble friend Lord Stevenson and the noble Lord, Lord Fox, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 15 withdrawn.
Amendment 16 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 17. I remind noble Lords that anyone who wishes to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “not content” when the question is put makes that clear in the debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in this Committee. The Committee cannot divide.
17: Clause 1, page 6, line 1, leave out “, of no more than 18 months,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the 18-month time limit for the expiry of a Part 4A code right.
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 18. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, will come in on Amendment 19, which has a similar bent but a slightly different way of moving forward on the same issue.
These are probing amendments to ask why there is a need for a statutory limit on the expiry of Part 4A code rights. It has reached the stage where Part 4A code rights are clearly necessary, now and in the future, and not limited to 18 months, which might well be interrupted by all sorts of things, not necessarily excluding matters such as those we are currently experiencing. We are saying here that this stems from our having had representations from operators about the imposition of the 18-month time limit. While there may be one, no explanation has been given for why that period has been chosen and I look forward to hearing from the Minister what it was. The proposal has been included in the Bill without any consultation, which causes us concern. That is why we have tabled Amendment 18, which suggests that before any final decision is taken, there should be a wider consultation on this.
What we surely want to see is no roadblocks, uncertainties or hindrances, real or apparent, for those who might, wilfully or otherwise, wish to frustrate progress on getting access to above-ground fibre broadband for the home. If there is to be a sensible time limit, it ought to be practical and should not create costs. If there has not been consultation, there should be, so the amendment suggests that, instead of putting into primary legislation a figure that seems to have been plucked from the air, we should have a proper process that would arrive at something that people would understand and might support better. I beg to move.
Amendment 17 seeks to remove the 18-month time limit, while Amendment 19 seeks a mechanism that would extend it. Both amendments are guided by the same curiosity. In a sense, what was driving the Government’s objective in including the limit of 18 months? As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked, why was the period of 18 months chosen? Why not 20, 16 or 28? What was the economic analysis that arrived at 18 months? In consulting with operators, what was it that any operator said that encouraged the Government to put this clause in? I cannot imagine it was anything, so I can conclude only that it was about what grant is set. We are back on the same balance of the equation in terms of where the Bill balances itself between the granters and the operators, who are essentially the champions of the consumer in this process.
Can the Minister explain what it was that the granters, landlords and owners put to the Government that pushed them into putting in this 18-month time limit? As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, it will seriously compromise the investment prospects for operators, particularly in difficult or harder-to-reach areas––possibly places like where I come from in Herefordshire. Why would an operator invest huge sums of money without any security, knowing that in 18 months’ time that investment could be written down to zero? These amendments together are all part of the same spirit of inquiry. What was the Government’s thinking when this was included in the Bill?
I thank noble Lords for tabling Amendments 17 and 18. I will do my best to address the very valid points raised.
I will clarify the intention of the amendments. Amendment 17 seeks to examine the rationale for placing a maximum time period of 18 months for the interim code rights granted under a Part 4A order in the Bill. Amendment 18 would require the Government to consult on the maximum time period for which the interim code rights should last. I want to highlight, in response particularly to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, that the Government have already consulted on the principle that there should be a period during which code rights arising from this Bill should last.
In the original consultation for this policy in October 2018, we proposed that these rights should be enjoyed until an agreement was reached with a landowner. A number of responses to that consultation made compelling arguments that we should consider imposing a maximum time limit. This was to ensure that operators continued to engage with landowners to try to reach a permanent agreement, and to ensure that the important balance of rights was maintained. I hope noble Lords agree that an indefinite time period could risk being open to abuse, deliberate or otherwise, and importantly potentially leave both landowners and operators with great uncertainty.
It was never the intention that this process should replace the existing process under the code, by which an operator can apply to the court to have permanent code rights imposed. That process requires the judiciary to carefully consider the merits of the case before it, and to make a judgment on which rights should be imposed, and potentially any compensation or consideration to be paid. The process envisaged under a Part 4A order requires the judiciary––in this case, the First-tier Tribunal––to be satisfied that the evidential requirements laid out in the Bill have been met.
This leads us to the maximum 18-month time limit that we have settled on. Following consultation and subsequent stakeholder engagement with representatives of operators and landowners, they informed us that, in practice, when a landowner does not respond to requests for access, if an operator continues to make attempts to engage, the majority of landowners will eventually respond within approximately 12 months. Setting a slightly longer time period gives the operator a degree of flexibility. Another reason for the decision to set the time limit for the Part 4A interim code rights at 18 months was to provide certainty to consumers. Most consumer broadband contracts last for either 12, 18 or 24 months. Placing the time limit at 18 months, depending on the speed with which the operator can enter the property after a successful application, will allow consumers to enter into a standard contract for either 12 or 18 months, enjoy the special discounts offered by retail broadband providers for those taking out such fixed-term deals, and be confident that their service will be uninterrupted for its full duration.
I ask your Lordships to note that the Bill contains a clear power to make regulations to specify the period for which code rights arising from the making of a Part 4A order are to last. New paragraph 27G(3) of the code, as inserted by Clause 1 of this Bill, makes clear that the specified period is to be no more than 18 months, and it will be for the regulations made under that power to specify the period itself.
If operators, landowners or others are interested in letting us know their views on the duration of the period, they will be able to do so. In the meantime, the regulation-making power provides a clear limit—a backstop, if you will—on the exercise of that power, and it enables the Government to legislate in a proportionate way based on the evidence.
Amendment 19 seeks to introduce a process by which the interim rights conferred by a Part 4A order can be extended beyond the proposed maximum of 18 months if a landowner does not offer meaningful engagement. While I understand that noble Lords are trying to give more certainty for operators, our concern is that this could introduce confusion into the process.
As drafted, the Bill would grant operators a maximum of 18 months under which to exercise the interim rights conferred by the courts, which means that both operators and landowners have certainty. However, by seeking to introduce a process by which these rights could be extended, in the case of a lack of meaningful engagement from a landowner, that certainty is removed. It cuts across new paragraph 27G(1) and (3) of the code which, as drafted, sets out unequivocally under what circumstances the rights conferred will end, and how long these rights are for.
This effect of the amendment could result in the specified period being extended indefinitely, and risk disrupting the balance between the rights of landowners and operators that the code, and in turn the Bill, seeks to maintain. We are also unclear as to what is meant by a “process”. This would need careful thought, and almost certainly a period of consultation, potentially impacting the implementation of these provisions, which are much needed.
I hope this demonstrates that we have thought carefully and listened hard to all stakeholders about how long interim code rights should be imposed for, and that it was our consultation in the first place that informed our current position. With that reassurance, I hope that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for her answer; I felt the language was revealing. Perhaps I am confused and the legislation has confused me, but the way in which she described the process was as if she was trying to calm down someone who did not want this to happen, rather than encourage someone who did. “No more than”, “a maximum of”—this is language that I would use if I were trying to pacify someone who did not want this to happen, which perhaps is what is happening. She mentioned that there had been a number of responses that led to the 18-month period being adopted. Perhaps she could indicate, without revealing exactly who those responses were from, which sector they came from—was it the operators, or was it landowners and potential granters of this technology?
I think that to use legislative nit-picking, if the Minister will excuse the phrase, to unseat probing amendments such as Amendment 19 is a little below the belt. The idea is not to complete a work of drafting genius; it is to get the Government to commit time to produce something that instils some flexibility into the Bill and provides an opportunity to extend things when they need to be extended and puts the courts and due process, if noble Lords will excuse the phrase, in place in order for that to happen.
I thank the noble Lord for his remarks. Just to clarify, I am sorry if the language sounded pacifying. The noble Lord will remember that in an earlier amendment I talked about the spirit of the Bill being about incentivising communication between landowners and operators. The aim of this is to bring clarity and certainty to all involved, including consumers.
In the consultation we had responses from landowners and local authorities. The noble Lord will not be surprised to know that some who responded thought this was too short a period and some that it was too long, so this feels like a bit of a Goldilocks moment. There is a balance to be struck between the flexibility that the noble Lord rightly points to and clarity and certainty. Based on the consultation responses that we received, we hope that we have achieved that balance.
I am very grateful to all those who have contributed, particularly the Minister, whose detailed explanation deserves further consideration and I will read it very carefully in Hansard. I am also delighted to have escaped at least one amendment that did not get criticised for having unexpected consequences, so I must have got something right on that one.
This is very difficult to get right and I appreciate the difficult issues that have been raised. I will reflect on what has been said. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 17 withdrawn.
Amendments 18 and 19 not moved.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.