Virtual Committee (2nd 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 will begin by setting out how these proceedings will work. This Virtual Committee will operate like a Grand Committee as far as possible. 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 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 on the lead amendment in each group only. The groupings are binding and it will not be possible to de-group an amendment for separate debate. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. Whenever 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 may be broadcast. If a Member intends to press an amendment or say “Not content”, it will greatly assist the Chair if they make this 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”, the amendment is negatived; if a single voice says “Content”, a clause stands part.
Clause 1: Code rights in respect of land connected to leased premises
20: Clause 1, page 6, line 12, after “any” insert “direct”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would probe the type of damage for which compensation will be paid under this sub-paragraph.
My Lords, I will be extremely brief. I hope that the Minister will understand entirely the reason for this probing amendment. It arises from the way in which the compensation clause—new paragraph 27H—is worded. It seems to give enormous licence to award compensation under the terms of the Electronic Communications Code where a court has made a Part 4A order. That has been imposed, of course, but new paragraph 27H(2) states that:
“The court may, on the application of the required grantor, order the operator to pay compensation to the required grantor for any loss or damage that has been sustained or will be sustained by the required grantor as a result of the exercise by the operator of the Part 4A code right.”
I am concerned that these compensation requirements are drawn so widely so they could be a disincentive to an operator to lay fibre to a home or MDU as envisaged by this new section of the Electronic Communications Code.
What kind of compensation is contemplated in these circumstances? I have inserted “direct” because in law it is perfectly respectable to claim damages for foreseeable loss. That could mean economic loss—for instance, where a Part 4A agreement has been imposed and somebody loses two days’ worth of business or finds that they have to close unexpectedly a particular facility that is part of the building to which the order relates. Then there is ancillary land, where the landlord has some other kind of business next door to the MDU and it is necessary for the fibre to cross it or be laid across it by the operator, meaning closure and so on. What is contemplated? It seems extraordinarily wide-ranging. Of course, it provides for arbitration and agreement to be reached, but I want very much to hear from the Minister exactly what is contemplated by this clause. As I say, it is so widely drawn that it could be seen as a disincentive to the operators, which we all wish to see move pretty swiftly to ensure that the Government’s target for full fibre rollout is met. I beg to move.
I thank my noble friend Lord Clement- Jones for setting out this amendment so effectively. He promised to be brief; I will be even briefer. Is this not symptomatic of the whole Bill, where the balance is against things happening rather than for making things happen? What was in the Government’s mind when they wrote this clause and put this Bill together? Is this an enabling Bill or a sort of grudging Bill that somehow lets a few things happen but ends up stopping a lot of other things? Why did the Government take this kind of attitude, which is symptomatic of the whole Bill?
Am I coming through loud and clear? I suddenly have the Throne as my picture on the screen. Should I be worried?
We would prefer the Throne, actually.
As long as everyone has the Throne, that is fine.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, made the correct argument for the Bill: having the right balance between the providers and those who lose out in terms of infringements to their property. His point about direct compensation seems sensible.
There is a further concern on this issue: on an owner not being prepared to allow a telecoms company to access their land, in many cases, part of the reason why they might play hardball in terms of compensation is that they are not the ones primarily affected by the loss. The people primarily affected by the failure to lay the cable will be their tenants. That is a real issue in this case. We should not allow owners to disadvantage their tenants because they cannot get what they regard as a satisfactory level of compensation out of a provider.
I hope that the Minister will be able to allay our concerns and tell us that this is not just an open invitation to owners who are not going to benefit from the fibre being laid to those premises, because all the benefit will accrue to tenants, to try to get the best compensation they can. Going through a compensation route not only might mean the fibre is not laid at all but could lead to delays. The Bill does not seek only to enhance fibre coverage but to do so swiftly. Anything that encourages delays and haggles over compensation, where there is good reason for owners to expect that they might be able to extract more than they are offered, is very much against the public interest.
I follow a couple of points made by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I am chairman of the residents’ association of a block of flats in Camden, London, and I mentioned all this to a meeting of the residents. Of course, on these occasions one gets a lot of relevant feedback and a lot of feed- back that is not relevant, but there is quite a lot of concern about whether HMG have had the time, or will make available the time, to check with the National Organisation of Residents Associations or to understand the nature of a typical tenant on a lease of, let us say, 99 or 125 years. There is a ground landlord, a managing agent, a leaseholder and an attempt to liaise between the tenants, all of whom may have broadly the same interest, but they are—to say the least—very confused indeed when it comes to compensation and how things get held up. It is a bit of a nightmare.
Can the Minister give an assurance that, although we are at this stage of the Bill, the Government can give Parliament a more comprehensive account of the feedback they have got and the degree to which they have buy-in from these various interests?
My Lords, we support this attempt to probe the Government on the practical implications of the compensation provisions laid out in new paragraph 27H. Not qualifying the types of losses or damages that are subject to compensation seems a curious choice when amendments to simplify processes are frequently resisted on the basis that, while often cumbersome, legislation needs to set clear parameters for the processes it establishes. This is not a concern that has been raised directly with us, but it seems a recipe for potential bad blood between lessees and operators. While there will inevitably be some scrapes along the way, we need to ensure as harmonious a relationship as possible.
I hope the Minister will be able to point to provisions elsewhere in the parent Act, or to established precedents, to assure us and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that this has been fully considered and is not likely to become an issue once the new measures are operational.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, for tabling this amendment. As your Lordships have heard, this amendment seeks to test our thinking on the types of damage for which compensation will be paid and for which operators will be held liable and—as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned— to establish whether this could lead to any delays in implementation on the part of operators.
This amendment would mean that the courts would be able to award compensation only in situations in which a landowner is able to demonstrate a direct loss. I understand that the amendment aims to limit the scope, and in turn the extent, of compensation that may be paid by an operator in respect of loss or damage sustained by them. I understand that intention and the concerns that underlie it. However, I do not think that those concerns are founded in this case, and I will try to set out the reasons for that.
The noble Lord, Lord Livermore, asked me to point to where in the underlying legislation this language about any loss or damage comes from. The Electronic Communications Code uses exactly the language we have replicated in this Bill. New paragraph 27H—to which the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, referred—mirrors the language of the code exactly. In response to his question about types of compensation, disputes under the code are heard by the courts and are a matter for their discretion to respond to. The courts hearing compensation claims made under the code are absolute experts in these matters and have a wealth of experience in reaching decisions about compensation.
Our concern is that it would therefore be counter- productive to bring in the notion of “direct loss”, which, as I have said, can be found nowhere else in the legal regime relating to adjudications on the code and would limit the discretion of the courts in determining loss or damage. Doing so may—and, in our opinion, almost certainly would—lead to confusion and inconsistency in how those same courts would determine all other code disputes. It would make the level of discretion available to judges lower for adjudications under new Part 4A than for all other adjudications under the code.
Furthermore, the addition to the Bill of “direct loss or damage” might also increase litigation, with both landowners and operators employing lawyers to make their case as to whether loss or damage was direct or indirect. I am sure that your Lordships can more than foresee that the addition of “direct loss”, and the increase in legal wrangling that that could bring, could potentially put a landowner at a considerable disadvantage in the court when competing against a large multinational corporation with considerably deeper pockets.
Furthermore, the landowner who has been subject to a Part 4A order over their property would then be treated differently from every other landowner in the code, which may be considered unfair. These issues would likely have a negative implication for the cost, duration and complexity of Part 4A proceedings—as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—and undermine the key policy driver of a low-cost and uncomplicated process to address the issues faced by operators.
The noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, asked about the balance of different interests. That is something we have worked very hard to assure in this Bill, although—as many of the amendments in Committee have high- lighted—these are often delicate balances that we are trying to strike.
We believe that it is important to trust in the expertise of the courts to determine the compensation due when damage occurs, and to ensure that new Part 4A is and remains consistent with the rest of the Electronic Communications Code. With that reassurance and clarification, I hope that the noble Lords will agree to withdraw their amendment.
No noble Lord has asked to speak after the Minister, so I now call the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones.
I thank the Minister for that reply. It was a reply of some ingenuity, pulling together quite a number of different negative arguments against the amendment. I will briefly go through why I do not think that it holds a great deal of water.
I am grateful to my noble friend for pointing out that this remains a grudging Bill as opposed to an enabling Bill. It certainly feels very much like that to those of us who have been working on this and hoping that there was going to be a great deal more opening up of operators’ ability to lay fibre than purely the MDUs, the subject of this Bill. I am also grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Lea, for pointing out that it is important that tenants and lessees get the benefit from these new powers, not the landowners in that sense. I entirely agree that it would be quite possible for the lessor—the landlord—to have entirely different interests from the tenants, and it is tenants and lessees who we want to see get the benefit of fibre and the ability to have proper communications. This has been the frustration of operators. The reason for these new powers is precisely that landlords have been holding up progress in this respect. As the noble Lord, Lord Livermore, said, there is a danger of bad blood being created not just between the operator and the landlord—hence the reasons for orders under new Part 4A—but between tenants and lessees and the landlord.
The Minister’s main argument was that the language in new paragraph 27H mirrors the remainder of the Electronic Communications Code, but just because the rest of the code is written in a very pro-landlord way should not mean that these important powers should not be written in a different way. The argument is that it mirrors the language and that courts are experienced in dealing with it, but these are new provisions. Any lawyer will say that if there is a limitation on the definition of damage and the compensation that is available, it is much more helpful than having to decide at large the damage that has been suffered. The Minister’s case is that more lawyers will be required. Perish the thought!—I am lawyer. Her belief that more lawyers would be required with the new definition using the word “direct” is not entirely correct, I am afraid to say, because lawyers dealing with things such as indirect damage are going to dance on the heads of many more pins than they would if this wording were added.
I believe that the balance is wrong, not just in this clause but across this amendment to the code. I hope we do not all live to regret it by finding that operators are unwilling to go forward because of the threat of compensation hanging over their heads to the detriment of tenants and lessees, as the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Lea, said. Clearly I am not going to make much further progress today, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 20 withdrawn.
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2 agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 21. 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.
21: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Review of this Act's impact on 1 gigabit broadband accessibility
(1) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a review of the impact of this Act on the Government’s progress towards achieving access to 1 gigabit per second broadband in every premises in the United Kingdom by 2025.(2) The review must make a recommendation as to whether the Government should bring forward further legislation to achieve access to 1 gigabit per second broadband in every premises in the United Kingdom by 2025 in light of the findings of the review.(3) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a further review in the same terms as subsection (1) every 12 months after the initial review has been laid.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Government to review the impact of this Bill in achieving access to 1 gigabit per second broadband in every premises in the UK by 2025.
My Lords, given the peculiar nature of this debate, I have not made a Second Reading speech. Much of what I wanted to say at Second Reading coincides with what I wish to say on Amendment 21, so I decided to save your Lordships from a double helping. I propose to make a couple of short Second Reading-type comments, and then I will turn to Amendment 21 and refer to Amendment 22.
Before ever the Bill reached our end, like other noble Lords I received a letter from the Minister. It spelled out that the Bill has a specific and relatively narrow purpose and we should not be tempted to open it out. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, introduced amendments that sought to open things out. I do not propose to repeat their arguments here although, looking at the speakers’ list, there may be some who do. However, since that first day in Committee, the Government seem to have changed their position on technology. Can the Minister update us on what security reviews are now under way within Her Majesty’s Government? When will your Lordships’ House be presented with the result of those security reviews? To that end, when will the telecoms security Bill be introduced?
On the first day in Committee there were a number of speeches from all sides of the House about the need for an industrial strategy, and I associate myself with them. Her Majesty’s Government have considerable leverage, given their huge investment in this endeavour, and they should use that leverage to help develop indigenous capability and capacity in a similar way to how my right honourable friend Sir Edward Davey, when he was Energy Secretary, leveraged the development of offshore wind technology to create an industry, particularly in the north of England. We should ensure that operators and tier-one suppliers develop significant UK-based technology and manufacturing. It seems that there are talks along these lines going on within government, so can the Minister clarify who the Government are speaking with about telecoms technology and industrial strategy and how this will be presented to Parliament?
In short, we need a Bill that brings back all these issues—security, human rights, which were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and industrial strategy—because for the UK to get the connectivity it deserves and needs, the decision must be made now and quickly. This is not a matter of mild curiosity for Members; it is vital information for security providers. They need to know where they are before they can get on with connecting the United Kingdom.
Turning to the Bill, the Minister understated its smallness in her preliminary letter. The Bill is not just narrow; it lets the country down. As all of us are sitting in our home offices, we are benefiting from relatively good network access. It seems a bit ironic that the narrowness of Her Majesty’s Government’s ambition will deny others the access that we currently enjoy.
My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and I originally submitted an amendment that sought to tackle the paucity of the Bill’s ambition. Before Clause 1, we sought to insert a new clause that would set out a much wider objective for connectivity. Your Lordships will be disappointed but probably not surprised that it was ruled out of scope, but to illustrate what could have been, here are some of the details.
First, we wished to set out that it should be the objective of the Government to provide access to one gigabit per second broadband in every premises in the UK by 2025. We understand that this is a tough call, but it seems to be at least one of the Prime Minister’s goals. Secondly, we would have added that it should also be the objective of the Government to build on the changes to the code rights introduced by the Bill. The aim of that would be to regard access to fast and affordable broadband as a utility, and we would have introduced access rights for operators similar to those in place in respect of electricity as outlined in the Electricity Act 1989. My noble friend Lord Clement- Jones alluded to this. By amending the electronic communications code set out in Schedule 3A to the Communications Act 2003, this Bill could have served as one part of the Government’s strategy in achieving their stated objectives.
A whole host of other issues that contribute to the future connectivity of the UK are completely ignored by this Bill: wayleaves, mast rentals, use of existing street furniture and better shared use of existing ducts. On our previous day in Committee, the Minister seemed to revel in the Bill’s narrowness. On reflection, does she recognise that the Bill is only a tiny part of what needs to be done?
Instead of the all-encompassing new clause that my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and I dreamed of, Amendment 21 would inject some adrenaline into this otherwise lifeless Bill. Subsection (1) of the new clause envisioned by the amendment would cause Her Majesty’s Government to map the impact of this small Bill to the delivery of one gigabit per second broadband in every home by 2025—as I said, this is not an unreasonable target, given that the Prime Minister himself has proclaimed it. Such a review will surely find the Bill wanting in many aspects. Therefore, the second proposed new subsection backs up the first by requiring the Government to produce the actual legislation they need to achieve this ambitious target. Proposed new subsection (3) would allow Parliament to review progress annually. This cannot be objectionable to the Minister. Everyone on this Committee knows that more legislation is needed; the Minister knows that, too—this amendment helps serve that up.
Amendment 22 would simply ensure that future amendment to the Bill required the affirmative process. I am sure that the Minister will agree that a negative process is not appropriate here; it needs to be affirmative.
We all know that connectivity is vital in today’s world to enfranchise and enable all UK citizens—indeed, the Prime Minister has said this on many occasions—yet the Bill is mysteriously cautious. Finally, I enjoin the Minister to test whether the Bill is reasonable. I suggest substituting “broadband” or “connectivity” in the Bill with “electrical connection”. If the Minister were to do this, it would be immediately clear that the Bill’s equivocation, qualification and lack of ambition do not add up to the Government’s stated goal for the United Kingdom. I beg to move.
My Lords, I too wish to make a Second Reading point which I would have made if I had had a chance to speak at Second Reading. I am speaking on the proposed new clause because I want to query the meaning of
“achieving access to 1 gigabit per second broadband”
and explain why it is meaningless without a guarantee of minimum speeds.
Most of us probably already have superfast broadband, defined as download speeds of at least 24 megabits per second, but has any colleague ever had that? If one logs on at 3 am, one might get close to that, but in the main it is bogus. That is nothing to do with the Government except that we let ISPs get away with claims that their system delivers “up to 24 megabits per second”.
The Government’s commitment is to build “gigabit-capable broadband” nationwide by 2025. That is a sensible change from the May Government’s terminology of “full fibre”, as it will permit 5G and wireless technology rather than trying to run cables to extremely remote locations. However, I, and I suspect millions of others, do not want or need to download a high-definition, overlong two-hour film—as many seem to be these days, as modern directors are incapable of sensible editing—in 20 seconds. That is not important. I suggest that we need better connectivity for our Zoom and Teams conferences, and reliable speeds for the exchange of business information and PowerPoint slides. Of course, some specialist companies will need to send gigabit video files, but the main users, or abusers, of that will be kids downloading films and games. Therefore, I come back to the point that most of us will never get one gigabit constantly, since the airwave or cable space will be taken up with rubbish films being downloaded by children.
The correct solution would be a differential charge for the amount of material downloaded. I endorse that, but I believe that it is strongly opposed by powerful internet activists who demand any amount of material at the same price as for those who send only a few emails. I ask the Minister to deliver a minimum guaranteed floor by the internet service providers. I do not care what it is, but I want consistency. I for one am fed up being ripped off with “up to” speeds. I do not necessarily want one gigabit; I will happily pay for 100 megabits, 250 megabits or 500 megabits, but I want that speed all the time, 24/7, and not just for two minutes of the day at 3 am.
A commitment to a guaranteed minimum speed is far more important than access to a theoretical speed which most of us will never need and those who do will never get, since millions of unnecessary films will block up the system. Therefore, although it is not in the Bill, I would love to hear my noble friend the Minister say that she will introduce a measure to compel internet service providers to deliver a minimum speed, no matter how low that might be so long as it is guaranteed 24/7.
I do not follow the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, in seeking to make moral, let alone ageist, judgments on different users of internet services, but I completely follow him in his point about the need for a universal service obligation that is both universal and an obligation. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, spoke about the parallel with electricity, but the more relevant parallel may be with the development of the postal service, which was done nearly two centuries ago. The principle of access on an equal basis to the most remote parts of Britain was at the centre of the postal service that Anthony Trollope and others developed in the mid-19th century. Irrespective of what people chose to put in the envelopes, the principle was that you would get a delivery at least once a day everywhere for the same price.
The bit that the Government keep ducking is turning this into a universal service obligation; they keep talking about targets for increased rollout. The steps being taken in this Bill are welcome because they will make it possible to get more gigabit coverage to more people quickly. But there is no definition of a universal service obligation, and if it is not in this Bill, then sometime soon Parliament will have to grapple with the issue of a universal service obligation that provides coverage at around the 1 gigabit level to all premises in the United Kingdom. We would then map out how to do that in exactly the same way as we have done with utilities in the past.
However, the bit that I do not think anyone can question is that this is now a utility-type service that people require. We need only to look at the most advanced nations in the world that are doing best with their internet services, led by South Korea and many east Asian countries. Some time ago, they regarded high-capacity networks of this kind as universal services and put an obligation on someone—whether the state or private providers—that they had to meet. We are still behind the curve. We cannot claim that we are building world-class networks while we refuse to define a universal service obligation. This Bill provides a good opportunity for the Government to do so, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reasons why we should yet again kick the can down the road.
My Lords, I echo some of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. However, my anxiety about this whole process is that for years, the Government have been talking about bringing fast, competitive broadband into the United Kingdom, yet we are still quite some distance behind our major competitors. Being forced to use our current virtual proceedings has revealed inconsistency in the quality of service throughout the UK. When watching some of our colleagues on Zoom or even on Microsoft Teams, it is obvious that the quality of the service varies dramatically from one part of the country to another. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, pointed out that time of day also has a major impact on the speed of the system.
As more people work from home during the current crisis, it is likely that some will continue to do so, and that might be a growing pattern. If we are to have a competitive economy operating in all parts of our United Kingdom, that is all the more reason to ensure that we have a service that is fit for purpose. Governments have come out with these statements time and again, but as is often the case with much of our fundamental infrastructure, particularly as it applies to industrial strategy, we are a day late and a dollar short. This is not a new phenomenon. I do not understand why, sometimes, this country comes up with fantastic inventions but we fail to exploit them. The Whittle jet engine was a fantastic invention, but other people really made money out of it. Someone from the UK devised the World Wide Web, and yet we all know that someone else is exploiting it and making money out of it. We seem to be unable to take an idea and convert it into a meaningful and effective industrial strategy, and sometimes that can be very depressing.
If we do not set a reasonable target and require Her Majesty’s Government to come back and test how effective it has been, in two or three years’ time we will end up making the same claims in the same speeches, and many of our competitors in other parts of the world will have moved on. The Minister and the Government have nothing to lose in setting a reasonable target on which they have to come back to us. After all, the Health Secretary said today in the other place that he is happy to have his efforts judged by the statistics people. Some measurement of progress has to be made and if it is not, we need more Executive action or, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, has said, further and better legislation.
3 15 pm
I can see no reason why we cannot adopt, if not the precise wording of the amendment, at least its substance, and I am sure that the Minister could bring something back for us at a later stage. Everyone accepts that economic inequalities exist between the north and the south—let us face it, the last election was fought on that basis, and promises were made. This is one of the mechanisms that could help to deliver on those promises, but that will happen only if the promised progress is measured and we can therefore make corrections as we go along. I do not see any possible negative impact, and I believe that the amendment as tabled is worthy of support.
My Lords, I fully support Amendment 21, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, replies to this short debate, he can signal his support. If not, I hope he can reassure us that the measures in the proposed new clause will be undertaken in other ways. I will be most disappointed if all he says is that they are not necessary. I echo the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, in this respect.
As we know, the Bill is about enabling the UK to deliver on a major infrastructure project. As was said earlier, broadband has to be seen as an essential utility in the same way as gas, electricity, water and the postal service, to which my noble friend Lord Adonis referred. We must ensure that we have a world-beating service. We should remember what happened to the Pony Express.
One of the barriers to delivering gigabit capability is easy access to multi-dwelling buildings such as blocks of flats: a tenant wants the capacity but the owner does not respond to requests for access rights. So, I support the Government in delivering this and dealing with a real barrier to the target they have set—but is it enough? This new clause would enable us to decide and, if they are found wanting, to take action. It requires the Government to lay before Parliament a review of the Act’s impact within six months. Importantly, the review must make a recommendation to the Government on whether they should bring forward further legislation to achieve their stated aim, which we all support in the light of the findings of the review they conducted.
Finally, the new clause provides for further reviews every 12 months after the initial review. As the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said, it seeks to inject some adrenalin into the Bill. Broadband connectivity and faster broadband speeds are vital to our country and to our economy. This new clause would enable Parliament and the Government to confirm that work is on track and where it is not, for that to be highlighted and appropriate action to be taken.
My Lords, I will speak briefly in opposition to the amendment. I can see why the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, tabled it, because targets are quite important to ensure that the Government do what they set out to do. However, the narrow timeframes given in the amendment are not practicable and will not tell us any more than we will know through other means.
I go straight to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, about the Prime Minister commissioning the National Cyber Security Centre to review new US laws that will impact on Huawei’s ability to use US technology. We know that the Prime Minister is looking again at this matter through this review. I am delighted to hear that, as the Committee would expect me to be given what I said earlier on my own amendments. It is quite right: it is better to change your mind and to get better information later, rather than too late to be able to effect the changes you might need to put in place.
However, the amendment is redundant for another reason: six months’ time is way too narrow because it takes us to the end of this year, when we know that the bandwidth of Parliament and government will be intensely focused on Covid-19 and its impacts. Distracting additional pieces of legislation or reports would probably not garner the bandwidth they need for us to see whether the Government are achieving what they set out to achieve. Six months is way too short.
As for annual reviews, the correct place to know whether the Government are reaching their objectives is Ofcom’s annual reporting on this matter. Anyone who saw Ofcom’s last report of December 2019 got a very clear picture of where there has been success for fibre broadband, some limited success for ultrafast broadband and great open holes in rural coverage. We all know from what the regulator is telling us is that there are real issues about rural coverage that have their own particular hurdles, such as masts, local communities, planning permissions and all those things. All that information is readily available through the regulator. I cannot see why we would wish to put another layer of reporting on top of what the regulator is already doing.
I again emphasise that I am very much in favour of the Government’s objectives. I have my other concerns, which I might well come back to on Report, but for the moment the amendment is redundant in a very fast-moving situation.
Everything that I intended to say has already been eloquently put on to the agenda by those who have spoken in favour of the amendment, so I will be brief. I reinforce that what has happened over the past three months has, in many ways, drawn attention to the inadequacies of the system that we are operating, not just as individuals but in how companies have tried to survive in this very difficult environment. The more that we can ensure that we review progress the better it will be, in whatever form. I take the point entirely about reporting from Ofcom, but the emphasis has to be on requiring the Government to address the key issues. I do not intend to go back to the Second Reading issues about the industrial strategy, but the rebalancing of our economy and the regeneration and recovery programme will be highly dependent on connectivity, with acceptable speeds right across the country in ways that ensure that they are reliable. That point has not actually been reinforced.
A review is crucial if we are not to repeat what has sadly happened over the past 30 or, in many cases, 40 years in efforts to ensure that modern technology is used effectively and is available and accessible to everyone: promising a great deal and delivering far less. The great pity of the December election, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, is that we could have addressed the challenge of really ambitious investment but instead got caught up on pricing policy. Today, in this short debate and with this very narrowly focused Bill, it is time to say that we need to review anything that moves us on to being able to deliver what has been commonplace in other countries for a very long time, as was rightly said by my noble friend Lord Adonis.
My Lords, as other noble Lords have said, this country is falling well behind our international partners regarding access to fast, reliable, gigabit-capable connectivity. As we know, the speed, resilience and reliability of our networks are the drivers of our economic growth. Making sure through a review, as detailed in Amendment 21, that this and any future legislation that might be necessary are effective is critical and makes economic sense.
To help our economic growth, policy interventions in this area have to work. A review would allow an assessment of how the legislation works in practice. It would allow for tenants, landlords and operators to feed back on the practical application of the legislation and suggest whether further legislative intervention or guidance are needed. It would also give us a chance to assess landlords’ responses. I am sure that landlords have the Bill on their radar. However, many will not. A review will help to assess how responsive landlords have been as a result of the legislation. For example, have they changed the implementation of broadband infrastructure policies for their buildings? Have they constructively engaged with tenants? A review would allow for best practice from landlords and operators to be shared across the sector.
Finally, I echo many noble Lords in asking how the Government, if Amendment 21 is not agreeable to them, intend to review the effectiveness of the legislation and learn from its practical application in the field to help to achieve their target.
The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, cannot be heard, so we pass on to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport. We will come back to the noble Lord after that. Oh, she also cannot be heard. The noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, will not speak in the debate so we should go on to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle—
I beg your pardon —I was trying to unmute myself. It was not working just then but it is now. It was a little technical hitch.
My Lords, no one can fail to recognise the importance of faster broadband, and it will be a vital area of review after this health crisis has passed. A fast, reliable signal is important for young people who need to study and do their schoolwork at home, for our higher education students who need to access online courses, and indeed for people, including politicians, now working at home in these extraordinary circumstances.
One thing is certain: when this pandemic diminishes—let us hope that it will be sooner rather than later and that, with the easing of lockdown, a second wave will not engulf the country—it will be impossible to overstate the importance of broadband access. Indeed, when this Bill was first envisaged and consultations took place with the telecommunications industry, no one could have dreamed how the country, including this Chamber, would be transformed into a home-working economy. The speed of the transformation has been incredible and, although spontaneity is absent from your Lordships’ House during questioning and debate, there must surely be good reasons for the House authorities and the usual channels to look at lessons learned from this virtual Parliament and to explore ways in which we can utilise this technology more readily in the future.
Those gigabit-capable connections of 1,000 megabits per second and above will be a catalyst for entrepreneurs in areas such as cybersecurity, big data and artificial intelligence. Wales has all the ingredients for a strong cybersecurity sector that can not only survive the current and forthcoming economic challenges but support its recovery. We have an internationally recognised mix of cybersecurity-focused big business, a critical mass of small enterprises and GCHQ-recognised academic excellence, promoted by Welsh government strategy—and I am pleased to inform your Lordships that much of that mix of business is located in my home city of Newport.
The National Cyber Security Centre had planned to host its annual conference, CYBERUK, at the Newport International Convention Centre in May. It will be rescheduled post-Covid and will attract around 2,000 attendees to the city from across the world, thus providing a great opportunity to display the excellent cybersecurity sector in Wales and its cyber innovation ecosystem success stories.
It is therefore crucial that there is an evaluation of this legislation’s impact on 1 gigabit broadband accessibility over at least a six-month period to ensure that the potential of this sector to aid recovery after the pandemic is assured. There should be ongoing reviews to ensure that it is not only the issue of accessing houses of multiple occupation that prevents the further rollout of services. Further legislation should be recommended to ensure that the sector can achieve its greatest potential for individuals, businesses and public services alike. As my noble friend Lord Kennedy said, this proposed new clause confirms that the Government are on track.
My Lords, I did not participate in the previous debates on this Bill because my broadband system was not fully connected. It was difficult to see or to print out the Hansard reports of the previous sessions.
I wish to speak to Amendment 22 and largely support what the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Clement-Jones, have said. The amendment would enable the court to make an order requiring a landlord to allow an operator to provide an electronic communication service to a leased premises. Such a service has become very important in the current Covid-19 climate, when many of us are housebound.
It is very disturbing to hear that BT might sell off Openreach. If that is true, all the timetables and budgets will have to be revised, and it will have huge consequences for the people who need broadband for their business and for individuals in their homes. Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, everyone is homebound and working from home. To participate in this debate, I have had to print out a copy of the Bill and the Hansard reports of the previous debates. In my home, I use Virgin’s services. My daughter uses BT internet. Both systems have strengths and weaknesses but are largely reliable.
My Virgin system is excellent and rarely fails, but when it fails it is a big problem. Some months ago, the Virgin fibre service had an unfortunate accident. Someone had slashed through the fibre cables, which, as I understand it, are deep in the ground. It took some weeks before the engineers, who worked day and night, traced the location of the fibre that had been cut and had to be reconnected. On the telephone—the only way of contacting Virgin—we were told that the system would soon be back in service, and finally the service was restored.
As I said earlier, there was a weakness, but users have been given no compensation for the system failure. There was no email service through which Virgin could be contacted. The only way of doing so was by telephone, and it took many hours to be connected, as thousands of users were trying to reach Virgin. As I said, to date, no compensation has been received. The problem with BT internet is that it is provided through open copper wires, which can be cut down due to falling trees or other accidents. As a result, delays are inevitable.
Although the debate has centred around blocks of flats and tenants who are unable to get internet, there is little or no mention of citizens in urban areas who have low incomes and are unable to pay the charges for the service. The Covid crisis has made many people jobless, as they are on zero-hours contracts. Some time ago one often used to hear mention of IT and broadband poverty.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, will he please clarify whether BT is going to sell off Openreach? Secondly, if Openreach is sold, is there a plan to ensure that the Openreach buyer will be able to continue the services seamlessly and on the same budget and timeframe? Thirdly, will the Government provide free services to those who are unable to pay for broadband and other services?
There have been some excellent speeches in this debate and I fully support the amendment moved so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Fox. We are debating matters of fundamental political importance, and I disagree with the suggestion of the noble Baroness who said that this can all be left to regulators. The fact is that in these areas far too much has been left to regulators. These are questions of politics and whether Ministers are really driving progress. That is why I think that regular reports to Parliament are a very good idea.
When listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, and the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, I have felt that the Bill has been presented to us as a sort of trifling or very minor measure, but in fact it is on a huge subject. In the Conservative manifesto, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, will confirm in his concluding remarks, the Government made a very bold commitment to full fibre and gigabit-capable broadband for every home and business by 2025. It would be good if the Minister could reaffirm that that is indeed the Government’s commitment. The case for it has grown: we saw in the general election the cry from the left-behind areas of the country. They put their trust in Mr Johnson because he said that he would look after them. It is absolutely essential to the fostering of new enterprise in, for instance, west Cumbria, where I live, that we have top-class, gigabit-capable broadband. The question is: will we get it? It is a big political question and the Government have to satisfy us that they will deliver on those promises.
The Covid crisis has made the question of access to broadband also a fundamental question of equality. I am struck by a lot of the research into the damage to children’s opportunities being done by schools being closed. Some of the greatest damage is where families do not have access to broadband and where schools are not providing teaching online, yet those inequalities could be addressed by a vigorous Government who were prepared to make sure that the infrastructure was available to everybody.
I support this legislation, which gives the service providers due rights over landlords. I am worried that it is not enough. The noble Baroness, Lady Barran, descended into lots of verbiage—if I might put it so crudely—about the balance of powers in this Bill, which makes me think that, actually, it does not really give the service providers what they need to aggressively provide a more universal service. We cannot put obligations on providers to provide a universal service unless they have the muscle to be able to do it.
In the Conservative manifesto, not only was £5 billion of public funding promised to promote these digital objectives, but
“a raft of legislative changes to accelerate progress”
will be introduced. I suppose this Bill is one of those legislative changes. We know we have got the telecoms security Bill coming later this year, and we know that there is a furious debate going on in government about what it should say. How much are those debates about the telecoms security Bill going to delay the 2025 objective? The Government should be straight with the electorate about the trade-offs here. We need an indication in the Bill of how far it is going towards this raft of legislative changes to produce great progress, what other legislative changes are going to be proposed, and on what timescale. If this is a trifling measure, what is the big measure that is going to produce the results?
I very much support this amendment and look forward to the Minister’s reply, because I want to see clear commitment to action that will be reported on to Parliament on a regular basis.
My Lords, as we have heard, Amendment 21 would introduce a review requirement relating to progress on the Government’s stated target of achieving universal access to gigabit broadband by 2025. I hope the Minister will be able to make a clear commitment to progress reports, either from his department or from Ofcom. While we do get estimates of statistics from the latter, there must be some mechanism for understanding how the Government aim to address any shortcomings.
Furthermore, the view of the committee this afternoon seems very clear that more needs to be done, and we are certainly sympathetic to the idea of an amendment such as that suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Fox. Amendment 22 seeks to upgrade one of the delegated powers in the Bill to the affirmative procedure. The 12th report of our Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee did not flag this power as problematic, but it would nevertheless be helpful if the Minister could outline the process that these regulations will be subject to prior to their publication and entry into force.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this lively and wide-ranging debate. A number of issues of a Second Reading type were raised, which is quite understandable given the practical restrictions on noble Lords being present at Second Reading. I will attempt to address those briefly before turning to the amendments, but I am sure that my noble friend Lady Barran will be happy to write with further details if they are still needed afterwards.
On security, I am afraid I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Fox, a specific date for the introduction of the telecoms security Bill any more than we could earlier in Committee. However, I can certainly reassure him that we understand the importance of that issue, and of turning to it in a timely manner. However, on security issues more broadly, the National Cyber Security Centre is considering what the impact of the additional sanctions placed on Huawei by the United States Government might be. Moreover, in the first Committee sitting, my noble friend Lady Barran committed to meeting certain noble Lords with Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office specifically with regard to this issue of high-risk vendors and human rights, and I am sure that she would be very happy for the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and others to join if they wished.
The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, asked about Openreach. I can tell him that officials from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have spoken to BT, which has categorically denied that it is in talks to sell Openreach.
My noble friend Lord Empey raised the issue of rural connectivity, as a number of other noble Lords rightly touched on. The Government recognise that rural communities require good digital connectivity in order to thrive, as has been particularly highlighted by the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves. We are committed to ensuring that no part of the United Kingdom is left behind, and we are investing record amounts to improve digital connectivity for the least-connected parts of the country.
Furthermore, the Budget committed the £5 billion, which I am glad that a number of noble Lords have noticed, to support the deployment of gigabit-capable broadband in the most difficult-to-reach 20% of the country, so that all areas of the United Kingdom are able to benefit from it. This £5 billion will deliver benefits to each of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom—I am glad that we have had noble Lords speaking from each of those four nations in this debate—and it will particularly benefit rural areas. We are striving to have our £5 billion delivery programme up and running as soon as possible, and we are engaging closely with the industry on this, along with local authorities and the devolved Administrations, so that we can design the programme to get the best possible value for money for taxpayers.
Turning to the amendments, I will speak first to Amendment 21, and I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Clement-Jones, for tabling it. In essence, it asks why we are not using this Bill to further the Government’s gigabit-broadband strategy—a point that a number of noble Lords returned to in their speeches. Given the Government’s commitment to the nationwide implementation of gigabit-capable broadband, which I am happy to restate, we certainly appreciate the sentiment behind this amendment.
Nevertheless, the Bill has been introduced to address a specific issue. As set out in my noble friend’s letter that preceded the Bill—which the noble Lord, Lord Fox, recalled—this Bill is not intended to be a more wide-ranging measure or some sort of panacea to address gigabit connectivity more broadly. As noble Lords have rightly noted, the Government have a manifesto commitment to bring full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK. We are taking a broad range of actions to fulfil that commitment, including not just introducing this Bill, but investing £5 billion to deliver faster broadband in the hardest-to-reach areas.
This Bill, however, has been introduced to provide a targeted response to a specific problem, responding to a clear base of evidence that we have seen from the industry. It is not a trifling matter, as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, rightly says, but just one discrete instrument in the Government’s overall strategy for speeding up the deployment of gigabit broadband. Operators have told us that unresponsive landowners are presenting an obstacle to the provision of broadband in multiple-dwelling properties, and the evidence they have provided has helped to formulate this legislation to address that problem.
The Government continue to engage with operators as well as with landowners, local authorities and many others on other barriers to deployment, so that we can formulate policy based on clear evidence just as this Bill has been. We are talking to operators all the time about what they need from the Government to speed up broadband deployment, and as soon as evidence becomes available that makes it clear that the existing legislative framework is proving a barrier to deployment, or is not addressing it, we will of course consider making the changes that are needed to support the nationwide delivery of gigabit broadband. I hope that that gives noble Lords, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Lord Liddle, and others the reassurance that they were seeking about the broader work that the Government are doing.
My noble friend Lord Blencathra asked about guaranteeing minimum speeds rather than focusing on maximum or potential ones. I am pleased to say that the Government have legislated to introduce a universal service obligation for broadband, which came into effect in March this year. That gives everyone in the country the right to request decent broadband of at least 10 megabits per second up to a reasonable cost threshold. Of course, we appreciate that reliability is just as important as speed. Similarly, it is essential that networks are resilient and that they work when we most need them, such as right now, so the universal service obligation is closely monitored. But it is not the Government’s aim to provide the bare minimum. We want every home and business to have access to gigabit-capable connections as soon as possible.
The technology that makes our digital infrastructure possible is still rapidly evolving and the “up to” limits that my noble friend mentioned in his contribution are a symptom of the current generation of broadband, where things such as how close one’s house or office is to the exchange and the number of people connected at any one time determine the experience that people have online. My noble friend said that he doubted that he would ever get a gigabit speed because of traffic and people downloading films and so on. It might reassure him to know that this area is developing quickly. Only last week, researchers in Australia recorded a new world record internet speed of over 44 terabits per second over a regular fibre line, while scientists in Japan, albeit in lab conditions for now, were able to transmit data at 1 petabit, which is 1 billion megabits per second. To put that in layman’s terms and in perspective, that speed would be sufficient for every individual in the UK simultaneously to stream three movies in full HD and still leave 100 million megabits of capacity for other things. So gigabit-capable connections are more reliable, more resilient and faster. That is why the Government are so keen to ensure that every home and business is able to access them and enjoy the many benefits that the internet has to offer.
There are ways in which the effect of Amendment 21 can be achieved without adding it to the Bill. I have two examples. First, Ofcom publishes its Connected Nations report three times a year, which provides a clear assessment of the progress that the country is making in providing connectivity, both fixed and mobile. These reports provide detailed analysis and show not only areas connected to gigabit-capable networks but also those yet to be connected. I hope noble Lords will agree that the independent regulator is well placed to provide information on the progress of gigabit-capable broadband through these regular reports.
Secondly, the Government continue to answer questions in your Lordships’ House and the other place to provide clarity on any aspect of their work in this area. My noble friend and other DCMS Ministers are always happy to provide updates on the Government’s delivery of their manifesto commitment, on which I am glad to see a number of noble Lords rightly holding our feet to the fire, and to be held accountable in this way.
Furthermore, in both Houses of Parliament there are established means of scrutiny through the Select Committees. Indeed, the DCMS Select Committee in the other place has already launched an inquiry into the Government’s gigabit broadband commitment. I hope noble Lords will agree that the amendment is not needed on the grounds of accountability. But there is another reason why the amendment is problematic. It would create an inconsistency with the Electronic Communications Code. By focusing on one gigabit, the amendment would not take the technology-neutral approach that we have taken in the Bill and which is taken in the code. Indeed, it would elevate one form of connectivity above others, as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, pointed out, which, as my noble friend mentioned previously in Committee, has never been the Government’s intention. The Electronic Communications Code is about where, when and how installations take place, leaving the question of what type of connectivity to the individual in question, be that the landowner or someone taking out a retail contract.
Amendment 22 would ensure that any regulations made under paragraph 27C(8) of the code, as amended by the Bill, are subject to the affirmative rather than the negative procedure, as currently provided. The power in question provides for the Secretary of State to specify other conditions that the operator must satisfy before giving the required granter a final notice. It might be helpful to provide some indication of the conditions that might in future be considered for specification so that noble Lords have an idea of how that power could be exercised. Currently, an operator seeking to ascertain the identity of a landowner may conduct a search of the Land Registry, speak to the leaseholder directly or search the internet for details of the individual organisation that owns a property, for example via Companies House. Any of those may be used currently on a voluntary basis by an operator. However, it may in time become the case that these inquiries are better suited to being requirements. That is the sort of thing that might be considered.
Naturally, the Government thought carefully about to which procedure the regulation-making powers in this Bill should be subject. Our view remains that the negative procedure is the most proportionate level of scrutiny for this power. The nature of the power concerns procedural requirements for the serving of notices. All the other regulation-making powers in the Bill are of a similar nature and therefore subject to the same negative procedure, with one exception, the power relating to the terms of an agreement imposed by a Part 4A order, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.
As noble Lords will be aware, our approach has been scrutinised by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which did not identify anything in the Bill to which it wished to draw the attention of your Lordships’ House. I was pleased to see that my noble friend Lord Haselhurst, one of the members of that committee, was with us earlier in this Committee’s proceedings, and of course my noble friend Lord Blencathra, its chairman, is with us today. I am grateful to them and the rest of the committee for their scrutiny of the Bill. Given all that, we remain satisfied that the negative resolution procedure continues to be sufficient for the regulation-making power in question. I hope the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, will agree and feel able to withdraw the amendment.
I want to return to comments made by the Minister in his concluding remarks, which were very comprehensive and tried to answer many of the questions posed by noble Lords. I worry, however, that anyone neutral listening to this debate would take the view that there is already a gap between where Ministers wish to go with the Bill and where those who have been participating in the Second Reading and Committee of the Bill are, which will need to be resolved as we get further down the track. It is worth pointing out that this comes from all sides of the House; it is not a partisan position.
I put it to the Ministers that the gap they are trying to bridge will not be achieved by the Bill. Unless and until they are prepared to put forward very firm commitments about how they will take forward the issues that have been raised, there will be trouble with the Bill as it reaches its later stages. To take one example, the Minister said that the department was regularly in discussion with operators about what they would like to see happen. That is very interesting. I am sure that most Members of the Committee taking part in this debate have had similar correspondence. Everything I have seen in relation to the Bill has been a complaint by the operators that their particular issues about how to involve themselves in this debate have not been listened to by Ministers and that the Bill is a pale imitation of what they thought they were being promised during the discussions that they had. So there is a difficulty.
I want to pick up on two other points. Ofcom may be doing a very good job as the current regulator in this area and reporting well to the wider public as well as to the Government, but that does not answer the main point, which is that we were promised in the recent election a completely different set of arrangements for our internet for the future than we are currently offered. My noble friend Lord Adonis said that we cannot claim to be world beating if we aspire only to 10 megabits per second, and others have said that the Covid-19 experience shows us that we have to rethink entirely what we do for our communities in internet provision. It is more than a utility; it is almost as vital as the air that we breathe to survive in today’s society. If we do not get it right now, we are missing a tremendous opportunity to get ourselves at least back on to the ladder of progressive activity in relation to this. As others have said, we are a long way down the list and we will need a lot of effort if we are to get further on.
The question of whether or not we trust what the Government are doing will not be resolved by answering questions in Parliament or by Statements being made from time to time, when the Government choose to do so. We want to be confident that the Government are taking the opportunity that lies before us now to push forward this arrangement in a way which will satisfy all aspects of society. It will not be done simply by occasional reports, because we just do not know; we need definite information. That is the point I want to leave with Ministers: unless we can get some movement between now and Report, we will want to come back with a much tougher amendment that will push this Government where we think they ought to go.
I certainly agree with what the noble Lord said about the importance of a fast and reliable broadband connection. As we have all rightly noted, and as the current situation underlines, it is an increasingly important part of modern life, both for recreation and for business. But I do not fully recognise the characterisation that he gave of the Bill.
As we have said from the outset, this is a discrete measure responding to the evidence presented to us from industry and others about one of the obstacles— only one—which stands in the way of fast broadband provision. We are attempting through this Bill to tackle that large, primary obstacle raised by industry. There are other specific challenges, but it would not be practical or as quick to put those into the Bill. It is because we want to proceed at pace, and remove those obstacles, that we are introducing this Bill in its discrete form.
I am sure that the noble Lord and his friends, in both Houses, will find plenty of opportunities to continue to hold the Government’s feet to the fire. But I hope we will be able to reassure him then, as we are trying to now, that we certainly understand the importance of this and want to proceed as swiftly as we can.
As no further Members have indicated that they wish to speak, I call the noble Lord, Lord Fox.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response, which I will come to in a minute. I also thank all noble Lords for their response to the debate; it has been an interesting one, which has very much given evidence of the fact that we need a much wider Bill and a much wider level of discussion across the piece, whether we agree or otherwise.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for introducing at the beginning the lies and sleights of advertising. To be clear, if someone is offering 1 gigabit and you are getting only 750 megabits down the line, that is a lot better than what I am getting now. To some extent, the bigger the target, the closer we get to what we need.
There is another issue, to do with empowerment, which none of us talked about: upload speeds. Noble Lords did talk about issues in rural areas, however. We heard voices from west Cumbria, Wales and Northern Ireland—and here I will of course play my Herefordshire card. For businesses to be empowered, and to plug into the recovery of our economy, they need to be able to upload, because that is how they sell things to other people and make money.
As the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett, Lord Bhatia and Lord Liddle, said, this is about equality and fairness. As a Parliament, we must stand up for the people who have the very worst delivery. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, introduced the idea of the USO, and the Minister responded. We have a USO of 10 megabits, but compare that to the postal service. We have only a first and second-class postal system, but a fifth-class stamp would be needed to reproduce the levels of service in some parts of the areas I have just described. So I say yes to a USO, but it has to be a USO that really delivers.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, also introduced some industrial nostalgia, which I sign up to. But in this context, I add Plessey, GEC and Marconi. Where are they when we need them? The answer is that we did not have an industrial strategy when we needed it. We have to recover ground on some of those issues.
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, seemed to sign up to the Government’s target of 2025 but then pushed out for six months, on the basis that it was too soon. The longer she leaves it, the more it becomes a self-defeating exercise, because 2025 is coming over the hill. We talked about rural, but it is not just rural. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and others raised the issue of multioccupancy and the large proportion of the urban poor who need access to get the equality referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Bhatia.
I have one response to the Minister’s overall Second Reading comments. I am pleased that he reaffirmed 2025 and talked about the £5 billion investment programme. That underlines the Government’s leverage in this area, which should be used to the overall advantage of the United Kingdom and not sold off to the cheapest bidders. We have to look at that.
In his response to Amendment 21, the Minister said that it addressed a specific issue. It is so narrow in its ambition that it actually addresses a specific issue within a specific issue. The point made forcefully and helpfully by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson—for which I thank him—is that the operators are not dancing down the street in response to this measure. They are all saying that it misses a trick; it misses an opportunity. Between now and Report, if the Government have a chance to go back and talk to those operators and listen, as they say they are doing, they will hear that there is a lot more to do. The Minister seems to be hiding behind Ofcom. It is the Government’s job to lead—to direct and point the direction of this policy. This point was made forcefully and ably by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. My argument is not with Ofcom: it is with the Government’s lack of leadership. To push Ofcom in front of the Government is to use it as something of a human shield, whereas it is the Government who have to push this and deliver it. I am sure Ofcom would be fully able to support that.
My final point is about inconsistencies. This seems incredibly well confected. Well done to the Government, because my amendment says “access”. It does not say that there has to be a pipe and it does not say that there cannot be 5G. “Access” is a technology-neutral word. If the Minister has a problem with that and wants to use a word that the department feels is more consistent with existing legislation, I am sure we are all big enough to take that on. On Amendment 22, does it seem so scary for the Government to switch to the affirmative approach? I shall leave that where it lies.
In conclusion, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, for introducing the idea of the Government’s planned “raft” of legislation. At best, this is a plank, and these amendments seek to varnish it a bit. We need a lot more evidence of the Government’s legislative determination to deliver on their goal. We will look closely at the Government’s response on Report. Listening to other Members and the outside world, I think it is clear that the Government have got the tone of the Bill wrong. That said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 21 withdrawn.
Clause 3 agreed.
Schedule: Related amendments
Amendment 22 not moved.
That concludes the Virtual Committee’s proceedings on the Bill. The Virtual Proceeding will now adjourn until a convenient point after 5.30 pm for the draft Northern Ireland Banknote (Designation of Authorised Bank) Regulations.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.