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Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill

Volume 823: debated on Wednesday 29 June 2022

Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)

Amendment 43

Moved by

43: After Clause 72, insert the following new Clause—

“Local authority nominated persons

Within three months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a statement outlining the steps Her Majesty's Government intends to take to ensure local authorities—(a) publish the contact details of an officer designated with responsibility for matters pertaining to the exercising of code rights, and(b) publish relevant updates to the information provided under paragraph (a) in a timely manner.”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment is to probe whether the Government is taking any steps to ensure local authorities make the contact details of relevant officers publicly available, in order to assist telecommunications operators and other interested parties.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Merron, I am moving Amendment 43. This amendment is designed to probe the Government and work out whether they are taking any steps to ensure that local authorities make the contact details of relevant officers publicly available so that telecommunications operators and other interested parties can make relevant inquiries. What stimulated this is the simple fact that telecoms operators have said to us that they regularly encounter difficulties identifying the responsible officer in local authorities. That experience is not universal—some local authorities are very good at making contact details available—but where problems are faced, infrastructure rollout is slowed down considerably. DCMS has acknowledged that different authorities deal with digital infrastructure matters in different ways. This amendment is our way of asking the Minister what steps the Government might consider to ensure greater consistency.

This is a planning issue in a way; it is one of those things that perennially comes up. It is true to say that local authorities have faced severe financial pressures, meaning that some roles have been cut to part time or merged with others, and with this in mind, we think that the department could usefully look at specific support for roles that champion digital connectivity. If we want to get it right digitally, we must have the right planning infrastructure in place to ensure that the digital infrastructure can follow. I have had some experience of planning issues at different times in my political life, and the idea of having a named person or a named post is one way of addressing that issue.

Amendment 46 deals with the new Subsidy Control Act and whether the Government will establish a streamlined subsidy scheme covering telecommunications infrastructure. Once the appropriate guidance has been brought forward, that Act will police how virtually all public subsidies are awarded, including any money that may be paid by local or regional authorities to facilitate the rollout of infrastructure.

Although the new regime will not require pre-notification of subsidies, individual authorities having to create their own schemes and judge them against the Act’s subsidy principles could require significant time and expertise while bringing legal risk, so what are the Government’s plans for this? Will they establish a streamlined scheme to support infrastructure rollout, or will we see an inconsistent, piecemeal approach across the country? We know that the Government do not like inconsistency; we heard that from the Minister earlier. I am looking to be convinced here. I beg to move.

Incredibly briefly, I will speak to Amendment 46, which I have signed. The Government’s aim, Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition’s aim, and our aim is to speed up the rollout of infrastructure. This amendment as crafted by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, which I was pleased to sign, is a very simple measure to help in that objective. If the Government have not already thought of it, they should embrace it. Whether it requires primary legislation or otherwise, an undertaking from the Dispatch Box that this will be done would be a very good way of speeding up infrastructure implementation.

My Lords, this was a brief debate. I turn first to Amendment 43. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, for raising this important subject.

The Government are committed to delivering policy which helps rollout for everyone, and support the entire telecommunications sector in delivering connectivity. Ensuring that local authorities are ready to facilitate rollout as quickly as possible is a key part of this. It will benefit people across the UK in receiving the best possible service and ensure that all operators are able to compete to provide that service.

Local authorities should have autonomy to serve their communities in the way that they see fit. The difficulties faced by urban communities are likely to be very different from those faced in the highlands, for example. The Government believe that local authorities are best placed to decide how to lead and foster digital rollout in their local area.

Mandating local authorities to designate a particular officer responsible for digital connectivity would be too prescriptive. However, we recognise the considerable benefits of having a dedicated lead on digital infrastructure in local and regional authorities, which is why we strongly recommend this approach in our digital connectivity portal, DCMS’s official guidance for local authorities concerning connectivity. The portal provides a huge amount of practical information for local authorities—for instance, on debunking myths around 5G, making assets available for hosting equipment, and the application of the Electronic Communications Code and planning regulations. The digital connectivity portal is a vital enabler for local authorities to facilitate digital infrastructure deployment.

In May last year, the then Minister for Digital Infrastructure also wrote to all chief executives of local authorities to encourage them to appoint a digital champion and to engage with DCMS. I understand that as many as 80 authorities have responded and officials have been able to offer support to them. We have also provided £4 million of funding for the Digital Connectivity Infrastructure Accelerator programme, designed to foster increased collaboration between local authorities and the telecommunications industry. Local authorities can take advantage of these tools and funds to take the steps most appropriate in their area to encourage and facilitate rollout. I hope that gives reassurance on how seriously the Government take local authority engagement, and that the amendments will not be pressed.

If I might anticipate a possible comeback, it sounds like we very much agree with the noble Lord, so to be consistent about my inconsistency, we are not going further and mandating this because the Government seek to balance the national objective of accelerating digital infrastructure rollout with the need to allow local authorities to make the best choices for their communities. Each local authority will have a different approach to its specific local challenges. We feel that further imposition of rules from central government in these spaces risks disrupting environments that are already encouraging investment in infrastructure rollout.

Amendment 46 asks whether the Government intend to introduce a streamlined subsidy scheme for telecommunications infrastructure to reduce administrative burdens on public authorities. To provide some context, the new Subsidy Control Act, which has not yet fully come into force, gives the Government the ability to create streamlined subsidy schemes for all public authorities to use. The streamlined schemes are intended to provide a way of granting subsidies quickly, with little administrative burden, while also providing legal certainty to both the public authority awarding the subsidy and the beneficiary of the subsidy. The Government intend that these should facilitate the award of low-risk and uncontentious subsidies in areas of policy that are strategically important to the United Kingdom. Streamlined subsidy schemes will be considered for categories of subsidy where they will add clarity for public authorities and make the assessment of compliance simpler.

Although the Government currently have no plans to create a streamlined subsidy scheme for the installation of telecommunications infrastructure, we remain committed to delivering and supporting the rollout of such infrastructure as soon as possible. BDUK’s Project Gigabit is delivering gigabit-capable broadband across the UK, working closely with public authorities, including the devolved Administrations and local authorities, to help refine procurement boundaries, validate the market’s local investment plans and stimulate demand for gigabit vouchers.

The work we have undertaken so far has shown that the model is effective at responding to changing market conditions by refining or combining procurement boundaries to reach efficient scale and secure value for money for public subsidy. DCMS will continue to engage and consider how to support public authorities as best as possible to reduce administrative burdens, including on any considerations on subsidy control or future streamlined subsidy schemes.

I hope that explains why the Government consider that a streamlined subsidy scheme for telecoms infrastructure is not needed at this time. However, this will be kept under review. I ask noble Lords not to press their amendments.

My Lords, local government is always a question of discretion and flexibility versus providing a more rigorous approach to getting local authorities to deliver and perform. I accept the parameters of the argument. There is some merit in central government doing more to encourage local authorities to appoint a specific officer to help manage the rollout of digital. I think we are fairly in agreement on that point; 80 authorities out of 360-odd is not a lot but it is progress. Perhaps the Government could, or should, reinvigorate their drive to get authorities to come up with an identified official, particularly for the planning authorities.

I was very interested in what the Minister had to say about the second amendment. It seems that there is the emergence of a plan. I will read very carefully what the noble Lord had to say in Hansard and we will reflect further, but for now, I am more than happy to withdraw our probing amendment.

Amendment 43 withdrawn.

Amendment 44 not moved.

Clauses 73 and 74 agreed.

Amendment 45

Moved by

45: After Clause 74, insert the following new Clause—

“Review of 2017 revisions to the electronic communications code

(1) Within the period of three months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must undertake a review of the effect of Schedule 1 to the Digital Economy Act 2017 (the electronic communications code).(2) The review under subsection (1) must, in addition to any other matters the Secretary of State deems appropriate, include consideration of—(a) the extent to which the 2017 revisions have secured progress towards Her Majesty's Government's targets relating to telecommunications infrastructure,(b) the impact of the 2017 revisions on rents under tenancies conferring code rights, and(c) the case for re-evaluating the value of rents under tenancies conferring code rights.(3) Upon completion of the review under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must lay a copy of the findings before Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to undertake a review of the 2017 revisions to the electronic communications code, with a particular emphasis on the effect(s) of the substantially lower rents paid by operators to landowners hosting telecommunications infrastructure.

My Lords, when the Electronic Communications Code was revised in 2017, the department committed to keeping track of developments and assessing the impact of those changes. I was grateful to the Minister for holding a meeting about the Bill prior to Second Reading, but when I queried the status of that review the response was that the Government had never explicitly committed to making its findings public. This leads me to Amendment 45.

Amendment 45 would require the Secretary of State to undertake a review and lay the findings before Parliament. This could be a new exercise or a matter of pulling together existing information. The amendment calls for a particular focus on issues around rents, but it also includes a request for a judgment on the extent to which the 2017 revisions have accelerated the rollout. This is a theme touched on by the other amendments in this group. I am sure the Government feel that they have a good story to tell, so I invite the Minister to accept the invitation to tell it.

Amendment 48 brings together a number of topics which were lightly touched on earlier today and calls for a comprehensive strategy for resolving issues around landowner rights, competition within the sector and so on. We believe that the department has a number of working groups which are supposed to deal with these issues. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us when those working groups last met and when they are next due to meet. There is clearly work to be done to speed up the rollout of telecoms infrastructure and to ensure fairness in the system, which has also been a theme throughout the debate today.

We hope that the Government can clearly signpost how they are addressing the various issues raised in these amendments. If not, they are very likely to be revisited on Report. I beg to move.

I shall speak to Amendments 47, 49 and 50, and I support the amendments in this group to which the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, has just spoken: Amendments 45 and 48.

As regards Amendment 47, as I said at Second Reading, we all seem to be trapped in a time loop on telecoms, with continual consultations and changes to the ECC and continual retreat by the Government on their 1 gigabit per second broadband rollout pledge. In the Explanatory Notes, we were at 85% by 2025; this now seems to have shifted to 2026. There has been much government bravado in this area, but it is clear that the much-trumpeted £5 billion announced last year for project gigabit, to bring gigabit coverage to the hardest-to-reach areas, has not yet been fully allocated and that barely a penny has been spent.

Then, we have all the access and evaluation amendments to the Electronic Communications Code and the Digital Economy Act 2017. Changes to the ECC were meant to do the trick; then, the Electronic Communications and Wireless Telegraphy (Amendment) (European Electronic Communications Code and EU Exit) Regulations were heralded as enabling a stronger emphasis on incentivising investment in very high capacity networks, promoting the efficient use of spectrum, ensuring effective consumer protection and engagement and supporting the Government’s digital ambitions and plans to deliver nationwide gigabit-capable connectivity.

Then we had the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review. We had the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Act—engraved on all our hearts, I am sure. We argued about the definition of tenants, rights of requiring installation and rights of entry, and had some success. Sadly, we were not able to insert a clause that would have required a review of the Government’s progress on rollout. Now we know why. Even while that Bill was going through in 2021, we had Access to Land: Consultation on Changes to the Electronic Communications Code. We knew then, from the representations made, that the operators were calling for other changes not included in the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Act or the consultation. From the schedule the Minister has sent us, we know that he has been an extremely busy bee with yet further discussions and consultations.

I will quote from a couple of recent Financial Times pieces demonstrating that, with all these changes, the Government are still not achieving their objectives. The first is headed: “Broadband market inequalities test Westminster’s hopes of levelling up: Disparity in access to fast internet sets back rural and poorer areas, data analysis shows”. It starts:

“The UK has nearly 5mn houses with more than three choices of ultrafast fibre-optic broadband, while 10mn homes do not have a single option, according to analysis that points to the inequality in internet infrastructure across Britain.

While some parts of the country are benefiting from high internet speeds, others have been left behind, according to research conducted by data group Point Topic with the Financial Times, leading to disparities in people’s ability to work, communicate and play.”

A more recent FT piece from the same correspondent, Anna Gross, is headed: “UK ‘altnets’ risk digging themselves into a hole: Overbuilding poses threat to business model of fibre broadband groups challenging the big incumbents”. It starts:

“Underneath the UK’s streets, a billion-pound race is taking place. In many towns and cities, at least three companies are digging to lay broadband fibre cables all targeting the same households, with some areas predicted to have six or seven such lines by the end of the decade.

But only some of them will cross the finishing line … When the dust settles, will there be just two network operators—with Openreach and Virgin Media O2 dominating the landscape—or is there space for a sparky challenger with significant market share stolen from the incumbents?”

Are we now in a wild west for the laying of fibre-optic cable? Will this be like the energy market, with great numbers of companies going bust?

By contrast, INCA, the Independent Networks Cooperative Association, reports in its latest update:

“The ‘AltNets’ have more than doubled their footprint year on year since 2019”—

I think my noble friend Lord Fox quoted these figures—

“now reaching 5.5m premises and expected to reach 11.5m premises by the end of this year. Investment remains buoyant with an additional £5.7bn committed during 2021 bringing total estimated investment in the independent sector to £17.7bn for the period to 2025.”

We have two very different stories there. What contingencies have the Government made? Who will pick up the tab if the former scenario is correct—the poor old consumer? In any event, will rural communities get any service in the end?

What of rural broadband rollout? It appears that DCMS is currently assessing policy options on the means of best addressing the shortfall. I was interested to hear the very pointed question that the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, asked about what working groups were examining some of these issues, following a call for evidence on improving broadband for very hard-to-reach areas. What is the department actually doing? Can we expect more changes to the ECC?

As regards Amendment 49, in the ECC the policy justification for the 2017 reforms was that rent savings by operators would be reinvested in networks, with the then Minister saying that the Government would hold operators’ feet to the fire to ensure that they delivered, noting that to

“have real impact, savings must be invested in expanding network infrastructure”.—[Official Report, 31/1/17; col. 1157.]

and saying that the revised code secured real investment. This was supported by confirmation, in the impact assessment accompanying the reforms to the ECC in 2017, that the Government would review the impact of the policy by June 2022. But this has not been met, despite the Government’s future infrastructure review confirming that they were already considering undertaking a formal review of the code reforms to assess their impact in 2019. The Government’s decision to introduce new legislation proves that the 2017 reforms have not actually achieved their aims.

Instead of leading to faster and easier deployment, as we have heard today, changes to the rights given to operators under the code have stopped the market working as it should and led to delays in digital rollout, as well as eroding private property rights. This has resulted in small businesses facing demands for rent reductions of over 90%; a spike in mobile network operators bringing protracted litigation; failure by mobile operators to reinvest their savings in mobile infrastructure; and delayed 5G access for up to 9 million people, at a cost of over £6 billion to the UK economy. The Government’s legislation and their subsidies now show they know the reforms have failed. That is why they are passing new legislation to revise the code, as well as announcing £500 million in new subsidies for operators through the shared rural network.

In Committee in the other place, the Minister, Julia Lopez, claimed:

“If a review takes place, stakeholders will likely delay entering into agreements to enable the deployment of infrastructure. Only when the review has concluded and it is clear whether further changes are to be made to the code will parties be prepared to make investment or financial commitments”.—[Official Report, Commons, Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill Committee, 22/3/22; col. 122.]

In addition to there being no evidence for this claim, this extraordinary line of reasoning would allow the Government to escape scrutiny and commitments in a wide variety of policy areas, were it applied more broadly. To maintain public faith in policy-making, it is vital that there is an accessible evidence base on which decisions are made. The Government’s decisions in this Bill do not meet the standard.

Moreover, I know that Ministers are sceptical about the Centre for Economics and Business Research’s report. The noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, has said that it oversimplifies the issue, but I do not believe that the Government have properly addressed some of the issues raised in it. The CEBR is an extremely reputable organisation and although the research was commissioned by Protect and Connect, the Government need to engage in that respect.

Amendment 49 would insert a new clause obliging the Government to commission an independent review of the impact of the legislation and prior reforms within 18 months. The review would assess the legislation’s impact on the rate of additional investment in mobile networks and infrastructure deployment, the costs borne by property owners and the wider benefit or costs of the legislation. It would also oblige the Government to publish a response to the review within 12 weeks of its publication and lay that before Parliament, to ensure parliamentary accountability for the Government’s action and to allow debate.

Finally, Amendment 50 would insert a new clause placing obligations on operators to report certain information to Ofcom each year. Operators would have to report on such information as their overall investment in mobile networks, the rent paid to site providers, the number of new mobile sites built within the UK, and upgrades and renewals.

It is the final group in Committee, so where in all this—as my noble friend Lord Fox and I have been asking each time we debate these issues—are the interests of the consumer, especially the rural consumer? How are they being promoted, especially now that market review is only once every five years? That is why we need these reviews in these amendments. We tried in the last Bill to make the Government justify their strategy. Now it is clear that changes to the ECC are not fit for purpose and we will try again to make the Government come clean on their strategy.

My Lords, before I comment on this group, I have it on good authority that tomorrow is my noble friend the Minister’s birthday, so allow me to be the first to wish him a very happy day. I hope that his evening tomorrow is more enjoyable than this evening.

I want to focus my comments on Amendments 45 and 50. Amendment 45 would, as we have already heard, require the economic impact assessment to be carried out. I understand that it was promised by Ministers in 2017, although I know that my noble friend disputes this, or, rather, has a slight variation on what was promised. Amendment 50 would require reporting by the mobile network operators to achieve much-needed transparency.

By the time I went to add my name to Amendment 50, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, it was already fully subscribed, but I will happily add my name to it if he brings it back on Report. As my noble friend the Minister may recall from Second Reading, my concern on behalf of site owners is that they were told that a reduction in rental income would be reinvested by the mobile network operators in delivering the rollout. It seems that there remains a lack of confidence on the part of the site owners—we have heard of this already tonight—because they have insufficient evidence to demonstrate how the new code is working. They are expected to engage in negotiations with commercial entities on trust, while fearing that their loss is someone else’s financial gain. Amendment 50 seems the least the Government could agree to when faced with that situation.

I was torn regarding Amendment 45, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, on the economic impact assessment, because I am concerned that carrying out a full economic impact assessment could delay rollout. However, I also know that not doing so is fuelling that distrust and sense of unfairness on the part of the site owners. As we have already heard today, the benefit of rollout relies on the willingness of site owners to participate. When we rely on people to succeed, they deserve to be heard and listened to.

My noble friend the Minister said on Second Reading that it is too soon to carry out a full economic impact assessment. I was going to ask whether the Government have any plans to do one at all and, if so, whether he could tell us when, but I was very interested to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, said about the conversation she had with him before the Bill was introduced. Unfortunately, it was a briefing I was not at. In light of that, if the Government have already done sufficient work to allow them to produce in public an economic impact assessment without delaying anything, that sounds like a sensible way forward. I will be very interested to hear how my noble friend responds to what the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, said.

I clarify that, specifically, I do not support Amendment 48, which the noble Baroness introduced. As I understand it from the Member’s explanatory statement, it seems to enshrine what I might call the Openreach monopoly in multi-dwelling units. It would therefore limit competition in the way that we discussed earlier, even though we were not able to get into a full debate because my noble friend Lord Vaizey was not in the Chamber to move his amendments—noble Lords will know what I am talking about. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, I support this group. I was initially rather astonished by the Minister’s lame response at Second Reading that the Government will not make public their investigation into the effect of the Digital Economy Act 2017. Investigating the subject further, I read the respected Centre for Economics and Business Research document on the matter. It says that the Government’s electronic communications changes have not delivered a faster 5G rollout, and that it is slower than the pre-2017 status quo. But for the 2017 reforms, it says, 8.2 million more people would have 5G coverage by now than can currently access it. The CEBR says that the proposed changes to the ECC will cost UK GDP £3.5 billion by 2022. Adoption of an alternative code based on Law Society proposals would reverse the losses imposed by the 2017 reforms—so the Government might not want to do this review after all. Could the Minister comment on the CEBR findings?

Amendment 45 particularly appeals, because the review would have to be done quicker than that under Amendment 49, and it is more detailed in subsection (2). Subsections (2)(a), (b) and (c) mention

“the extent to which the 2017 revisions have secured progress towards Her Majesty’s Government’s targets relating to telecommunications infrastructure … the impact of the 2017 revisions on rents under tenancies conferring code rights, and … the case for re-evaluating the value of rents under tenancies conferring code rights.”

I also give my support to Amendment 50.

My Lords, if there is an abiding theme in this group, it is transparent reporting and then using the data within those reports to make sensible decisions.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s special day tomorrow, I am guessing that he is quite a lot younger than me, so he might be able to remember his childhood. I can remember a game that we used to play, of running down hills with our eyes closed. This was tremendous fun, until it stopped—and it usually stopped when you fell over or hit something. The argument advanced by the Government is, “We mustn’t do a review. We can’t have data because it’ll upset the market”—in other words, we cannot open our eyes because it will stop us running down the hill fast enough. That is the nature of what we are doing. In order to make sure that we do not fall over and that we are running in the right direction, we need to have our eyes open. In their different ways, these amendments seek to open our eyes to the effect that the Bill and all of this public and private investment will have on the objective that we all share: putting fibre in every home in this country. Without information, and without transparency in that information, we will not know how fast we are going and in which direction.

I care little about whether the Government accept the words in these amendments, but I do care about a Government who have enough sense to get the information, publish it and then act on it.

My Lords, I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Stowell for her early birthday wishes. Finishing Committee a day ahead of schedule is a delightful early present. There are still to hours to go before tomorrow, and I hope that we will rise before noble Lords have to sing “Happy Birthday”.

Amendments 45, 47 and 49 seek to impose duties on the Government to assess and report on various impacts of the 2017 code reforms and, indeed, of this Bill once brought into force. I certainly appreciate the spirit of these amendments, which are designed to ensure that the Government are held to account; the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, referred to the conversations we had right at the beginning of our discussions on the Bill. Noble Lords will know that there are already ways in which some or all of the effects of these amendments can be achieved. For instance, Ofcom publishes its annual Connected Nations report, which it updates a further two times a year; this provides a clear assessment of the progress in both fixed and mobile connectivity. I hope that noble Lords will agree that the independent regulator is well placed to provide information on the progress of gigabit-capable broadband. Moreover, the Government continue to answer questions and provide clarity on all aspects of their work in this area, both in your Lordships’ House and in another place.

Amendment 45, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and the noble Lords, Lord Bassam of Brighton and Lord Blunkett, seeks an assessment of the legislation passed in 2017 to update the code, and particularly the impact of changes to the valuation regime. When the 2017 reforms were introduced, we recognised that the market would need time to adapt and settle. We have engaged with interested parties since the reforms came into force to identify any emerging issues. In our view, there is not yet enough evidence for a properly robust and comprehensive analysis to be made of the impacts that the 2017 reforms have had, of which the valuation framework was only one aspect. That is particularly the case given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused major shifts both in the demands on telecommunications operators and on their ways of working. However, in light of the feedback we have received through our engagement and our public consultation, the Government believe that the changes we are making in the Bill are needed to ensure that the 2017 reforms have their intended effect. That is not to say that we think the 2017 reforms failed—much progress has been made; we simply think that more can and must be done to maximise their impact. Making these changes now through the Bill will help to meet the Government’s 2025 connectivity target for at least 85% of homes and businesses to have access to gigabit broadband.

The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, asked how often our engagement has taken place. The access to land workshops is one part of it; there are in fact three separate groups which have been going for over a year. They met this month and will meet again in July, so we are undertaking that engagement on a regular basis.

Amendment 47, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Clement-Jones, asks the Government to review and report on the impact of Part 2 of the Bill against our gigabit delivery targets. Again, I appreciate that noble Lords will be keen to ensure, as they should, that the Government are on track with their commitments. DCMS currently carries out monitoring, and regular updates are published on a quarterly basis by Building Digital UK. That monitoring and reporting will naturally capture and reflect any accelerations that occur after this Bill comes into force.

The most recent Project Gigabit quarterly update highlighted the progress we are making. This includes reaching a milestone of over 100,000 broadband vouchers issued, worth more than £185 million, with 65,000 claimed to date to support households and businesses with the additional costs of securing gigabit-capable connections; launching two new regional procurements in Norfolk and Suffolk and two local supplier procurements in Cornwall, bringing our total live procurements to 10 and extending gigabit-capable connectivity to up to around 380,000 premises; completing over 20 market engagement exercises across the UK further to inform our future procurement pipeline; and launching as an executive agency of DCMS and publishing our first corporate plan setting out our key strategic objectives for 2022-23 and how Building Digital UK will drive the expansion of gigabit connectivity to all parts of the country.

Briefly, if it is going so well, why are the Government changing everything? The Minister has just told us how well it is going, and now they are changing everything.

From our engagement, to which I have referred, we believe it is going well and progress has been made, but our engagement with stakeholders suggests that the reforms that we are putting forward through this Bill are needed. We are extending that progress following consultation.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. As he knows, certainty is absolutely crucial for business. What is always created when new legislation supersedes old legislation is uncertainty. What confidence can the Minister possibly have that the impact of this Bill will be beneficial to rollout?

With such an accelerating market, thanks to the pro-investment environment that the Government are creating, it is quite challenging to quantify the extent to which progress is attributable to any single piece of legislation in a market that reflects so many factors. That is one reason why we think it would be of limited value.

My noble friend Lord Northbrook asked me to comment on the Centre for Economics and Business Research report on the 2017 reforms. We believe that the CEBR report does not provide a sufficiently rounded picture in its assessment of how the 2017 reforms have affected the pace of telecommunications delivery. The Government, as I have said, acknowledged in 2017 that reductions in payments could make landowners less keen to enter into agreements to host apparatus on their land. We expected an initial slowdown following the implementation of the 2017 reforms while the market adapted to them, but our understanding, informed by our conversations and consultation, is that both new and renewal agreements are now being successfully concluded. For instance, we were informed in January this year that, since 2017, 900 agreements had been renewed and that 83.5% of those agreements were concluded consensually, to give noble Lords some data.

By extension, is the Minister expecting a slowdown again as the market gets used to these changes? Clearly, the Government expected a slowdown when they made the last set of changes; are they anticipating a similar slowdown this time?

These changes build on the changes of 2017, so we do not expect there to be such an impact, because there is not such a change for the market.

We think it is too simplistic to attribute the changes in the market since 2017 solely to the valuation framework. The reforms in 2017 also made it easier for operators to share equipment, which will have reduced the demand for new mast sites to be built. Of course, we all hope that there will not be disruptive effects of a pandemic, as we have seen in the years since 2017.

Amendment 49, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, asks the Government to conduct an implementation review of the Act after it is brought into force. However, we believe including such a requirement in the legislation is not necessary. The Government will of course monitor the effect of this legislation to understand how it is working in practice. Requiring an assessment at a specific time and which is focused on such specific elements would fetter the Government’s ability to judge when a meaningful review of progress can most sensibly be completed and what information it should include. I am happy to reassure my noble friend Lady Stowell that of course we want to monitor the effect of this legislation and to see and understand how it is working in practice.

Amendment 50, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, seeks to impose duties on telecommunications operators to provide a variety of annual data to Ofcom. It must be remembered that imposing reporting obligations on the industry necessarily diverts resources away from delivering the very targets that the Government have challenged them to deliver and on which noble Lords are rightly pressing us for progress. Any such obligations must therefore be proportionate.

The Communications Act 2003 already gives Ofcom substantial powers to collect and publish data. Procedures are therefore in place to monitor the progress that is being made and to ensure that details of this progress are published. For example, licence obligations for the shared rural network require mobile network operators to report on coverage and the number of new sites built through the programme. Operators also provide Ofcom with information on the geographic availability of coverage to enable consumers to make informed decisions. This is all data that is, or will be, published in Ofcom’s Connected Nations report.

The amendment refers to a number of specific reporting requirements, but I will focus now on those relating to the valuation regime. In general, we believe that any obligation to publish details of amounts paid to site providers would be inappropriate. The point has been made repeatedly that we expect agreements between operators and site providers to be reached on a consensual basis wherever possible. Those negotiations will reflect site-specific considerations. Publishing data on average rents paid has the potential to undermine effective negotiations, setting expectations that may be entirely unrealistic given the different circumstances that will inevitably arise. That is why we think it would be unhelpful to introduce an obligation of this nature into the Bill.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, for their Amendment 48, which would require the Government to publish a rollout strategy. We agree that the issues highlighted in this amendment are of vital importance to national connectivity, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss some of our ongoing strategic work in these areas.

Telecommunications infrastructure may be divided into two types, wireless and fixed, and I shall begin with the former. The Government are currently developing a wireless infrastructure strategy, which will set out a long-term vision to support the development, deployment and adoption of 5G and future wireless networks, and lay out the Government’s aims for the availability of wireless connectivity. This will entail setting a new ambition for the deployment of 5G to ensure that the UK can reap its full benefits. In the spirit of public consultation, development of this strategy included a call for evidence, and we aim to publish the strategy itself later this year. That is not all we are doing on wireless connectivity, and I would be very happy to speak to noble Lords in further detail about it if they would like me to do so.

I turn to the Government’s work on fixed infrastructure. As many noble Lords will know, the 2018 Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review set out the Government’s strategy to deliver nationwide gigabit-capable broadband as quickly as possible. The review creates a regulatory environment that stimulates competition and investment in the market while busting the barriers to deployment and investing in areas that the market will not reach without subsidy. This strategy has facilitated growth in the number of UK premises that now have access to gigabit-capable broadband, from 8% in July 2019 to more than 68% today.

Aside from this, we are pursuing several other methods to encourage the rollout of fixed infrastructure, which were published in our barrier busting update last year. I hope that gives noble Lords some flavour of the work we are doing and confidence that the Government are taking this work very seriously.

We believe that a further strategy on top of those I have outlined this evening would simply serve to muddle our work, and I hope that the noble Baroness will be content on that basis to withdraw her amendment, and that other noble Lords will not press theirs.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and assure him that I will not be speaking so long as to take him into his birthday—I am sure that is a great disappointment.

This has been a very helpful debate. I have listened closely to the Minister’s response and will of course be going through Hansard to consider how we might deal with these matters on Report. I am sure the Minister has heard what noble Lords said about the need for transparency and for reporting, not for reporting’s sake and not for transparency’s sake, but to actually support what we are seeking to do through the Bill.

I understand the point the Minister made about the tension between reporting and getting on with the job, but I do not feel that one needs to be at the expense of the other. In fact, they support each other. That is what we need to consider. Having said that, I will not press these amendments at this stage. I thank the Minister and wish him a happy birthday for tomorrow. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 45 withdrawn.

Amendments 46 to 50 not moved.

Clauses 75 to 79 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.

House adjourned at 10.22 pm.