Helen Whately contributions to the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Act 2018


Mon 10th July 2017 Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill (Commons Chamber)
2nd reading: House of Commons
36 interactions (2,851 words)

Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Helen Whately Excerpts
Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
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10 Jul 2017, 5:56 p.m.

May I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker? It is a pleasure to see you in your rightful place. I wish to take this opportunity to welcome my shadow Communities and Local Government team: my hon. Friends the Members for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), who has today agreed to act as my PPS.

The Opposition cautiously welcome the Government’s apparent commitment to provide financial relief for all new investment in full-fibre internet for five years. In the course of my speech, I shall set out why I say “cautiously”. Until the intervention from the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), the Minister had waxed lyrical for twenty minutes before coming to business rate relief, which is the subject of this very short Bill.

The Opposition welcome the opportunity finally to discuss a crucial piece of infrastructure policy—a policy that will have a huge impact on the potential investment opportunities for all our communities over the coming decades. It is rather ironic that we are talking about IT connections on a day when pretty much all the parliamentary internet connection is down. I have it on good assurance that the parliamentary information and communications technology officers are busily trying to reconnect MPs to the internet and their email accounts.

All Members will know that the policy in the Bill will affect every part of the country—north or south; England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; urban or rural—so we have to get this right. I am sure Members will feel that acutely today as we and our staff struggle with the collapse of internet connection across the Westminster estate which I just mentioned.

We were expecting a larger, more substantial Bill, not least considering the scope of investment and certainty needed not only for full-fibre infrastructure but on business rates more widely. However, it appears that the Government have been in permanent listening mode for quite some time now, which would explain their decision to acquiesce in the concerns of independent and large internet providers who at the end of last year faced an excessive fourfold increase in their rateable values.

The UK’s main providers and the Broadband Commission have estimated that UK 5G infrastructure will outstrip the economic benefits of fibre broadband, which most of the country currently uses, by 2026, when it will be outdated. By 2026, therefore, the UK will reach a tipping point where the direct economic benefits of new 5G optical fibre internet will beat the conventional fibre broadband. Various estimates point to a boost to the UK economy of between £5 billion to £7 billion just six years from roll-out, with 5G broadband delivering economic growth almost twice as quickly as conventional fibre broadband used today. Much as with our railways and road links, the quicker the connection, the faster businesses will grow, particularly in an age when online sales, social media and direct online contact with buyers and sellers are becoming the norm.

A study by O2 has revealed that national 5G infrastructure will also add an extra £3 billion a year through secondary supply chain impacts, boosting overall UK productivity by a total of £10 billion, which, as I have already said, makes good, sound economic sense. With improved connectivity comes greater economic growth, more jobs and improved links between business hubs and individuals alike. Although today’s Bill will be welcomed by larger providers in the sector as it will relieve some of the burden that they face from increased business rates—£60 million is on offer, which is a big giveaway to them—I worry that it will do not as much as it should for the independent providers, and it will not come close to mitigating the fourfold increase that all providers have faced. Perhaps the Minister can give us some assurances when he winds up the debate. Providers are not the only ones who need assurances; consumers do, too, and they need to know that those costs will not be passed on to them.

Additionally, I am slightly disappointed that this Bill contains only partial measures, instead of the more detailed and wide-ranging set of proposals that were outlined in the Local Government Finance Bill, of which these measures were originally a part. I mention that Bill, which had successfully passed through Committee, as it included proposals on local business rate retention for local authorities as well as the legislation for business rate relief for new full-fibre broadband, which we are now discussing today. However, those fuller measures seem to have disappeared since the general election.

Since that election, I have asked the Secretary of State on three separate occasions about the progress that has been made on delivering business rate retention for local authorities. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), has something to say on that. He can intervene on me now or respond in his closing remarks. I ask him again: what is happening to retention and why has business rate relief for new 5G connectivity now been separated into this smaller, separate Bill?

As I have said, I have written to the Secretary of State about this matter and I await his response, although I hope that, by this stage, the Department will do less listening and more acting on this issue of business rate retention. In the spirit of the cross-party co-operation that the Prime Minister is now asking for, and in respect of the exchange of ideas and genuine dialogue between the Opposition and the Government, I suggest that perhaps we can work together on a shared future for local government finance. The local government sector deserves more than a policy and a financial black hole with which it is currently faced with the exclusion of the Local Government Finance Bill from the Queen’s Speech. At the same time, the Government are still announcing their intention to remove the revenue support grant. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that when he closes the debate.

The Secretary of State and I visited the LGA conference last week—admittedly we received slightly different receptions. I am sure that he was reminded again and again by representatives from councils of all political colours of the financial certainty that local authorities desperately need—specifically at a time when they have already absorbed budgets cuts of 40%. However, like me, they have received no updates and no certainty. While we are talking about an element of the business rate in this Bill, perhaps we can remind the Secretary of State that local authorities need to have that clarity and certainty for future financial planning. They need some idea from this Government of where the wider business rate policy is going.

I will repeat what I said during my speech to the Local Government Association: “The Secretary of State told local government that they faced a looming crisis in confidence. He’s wrong. It is this Government who are facing a looming crisis in confidence.” The lack of clarity on business rates and the botched business rates revaluations have left thousands of businesses facing cliff-edge increases in their rates. In addition, the Government’s support package and promises to review the revaluation process go nowhere near far enough.

It is clear that business rates are this Department’s ticking time bomb, which threatens to destroy high streets and town centres across the country. Labour advocates introducing statutory annual revaluations to stop businesses facing periodic and unmanageable hikes, and guarantees a fair and transparent appeals process. We will reform business rates, scrap quarterly reporting and end the scourge of late payments, because it is Labour which is the party of business. [Interruption.] Members can heckle, but the facts speak clearly: this Government have let down business and they have let down local government.

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con)
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10 Jul 2017, 6:07 p.m.

Will the hon. Gentleman just remind us of the Labour party’s policy on corporation tax rates?

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne
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10 Jul 2017, 6:08 p.m.

Absolutely. Labour would have increased corporation tax to pay for better public services, but our rates would still have been among the lowest in the G20. It is a question of priorities. We can put money where people want it—in a better NHS, in better local government and in better education—or we can have poorly funded public services and tax giveaways to those at the very top. For all its rhetoric about ending austerity, it seems quite clear that the Conservative party has not changed one iota. There was a further omission to this Bill—

Break in Debate

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne
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10 Jul 2017, 6:09 p.m.

I will not give way, because we are talking about infrastructure.

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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10 Jul 2017, 6:09 p.m.

rose—

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne
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10 Jul 2017, 6:09 p.m.

No, I have given way once to the hon. Lady, I will not do so again.

There is a further omission in this Bill—the exclusion of any real and meaningful legislative commitments on growing rural broadband. I am worried that there appears to be absolutely no mention in the body of the Bill or the explanatory notes of growing and expanding the UK’s superfast broadband in our rural areas, although the Minister touched on it and I think there is some consensus about its desirability.

Let me give a short anecdote. Last year, I was privileged to be in a delegation to Zambia for the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly. In the middle of Africa, in the middle of nowhere, on a visit to a health scheme near the Zambezi river, I received an almost-perfect 4G connection to my mobile phone. There are parts of my constituency where I do not get such a perfect 4G connection. We need to look at our internet connections, broadband connections and mobile telephone connections in this country so that we have the very best to support business, consumers and individuals.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, many families living in rural areas struggle to get anything close to fast broadband, let alone 5G, which is what we are discussing today. Many others struggle to get anything above 2 megabits per second, making most average use of day-to-day internet functions incredibly frustrating. The impact on rural businesses is steep, with the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs warning before the 2015 general election that rural communities are being overlooked for potential investment by businesses looking to expand and develop because certain regions have very poor digital connectivity. The then Chair of the Committee, the former Member for Thirsk and Malton, said:

“There is a risk in the current approach that improving service for those who already have it will leave even further behind those who have little or none.”

Rather than taking responsibility for this ever-growing chasm in our technology and identifying specific areas that desperately need investment, the Government have chosen to rely solely on the market to encourage improvements in any given area.

Break in Debate

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne
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10 Jul 2017, 6:13 p.m.

rose—

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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10 Jul 2017, 6:13 p.m.

rose—

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne
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Will the hon. Lady to let me answer the Minister’s intervention before I take another?

I am grateful to hear that from the Minister, and we will hold the Government to account to ensure that that intervention takes place. As he knows, we are all here to ensure that improvements happen, and if he has given a commitment from the Dispatch Box that he will use his ministerial position to ensure that the market is not a free-for-all and that the Government will ensure those improvements in rural areas, for rural businesses and consumers, the Opposition will support him.

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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10 Jul 2017, 6:15 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to one of the Back Benchers he mentions. Yes, many of us are campaigning on behalf of our constituents for better broadband, but on behalf of many of my constituents I appreciate that 20% of properties have been connected to superfast broadband thanks to the Government’s intervention. I expect up to 100% to be connected thanks to further Government intervention through the universal service obligation, as the Minister mentioned earlier. I look forward to being very grateful to the Government for all the work they are doing for my constituents.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne
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10 Jul 2017, 6:15 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention, because, of course, it was not just the Government who did that. I do not know whether she was a remainer or a leaver, but it would be remiss of the House, whatever our views on Brexit, not to acknowledge the involvement of the European Commission in funding some of the roll-out of this infrastructure and technology. It has come not just from the Government but from others, and we can see the European flag stickers on boxes, cabinets and infrastructure up and down the country.

Break in Debate

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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10 Jul 2017, 7:05 p.m.

I think that is rather churlish of my hon. Friend, given how complimentary I have been about him. I hope that one day I will reach the level of popularity and name recognition in my constituency that Commander Peake has reached in the world.

Small business is becoming increasingly important in rural areas. Some 25% of small businesses—nearly half a million—are located in rural areas, where they provide lots of employment and create wealth. The Bill points to a wider issue with which the House will have to grapple over the next few years—the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) mentioned it—and that is the appropriateness of the business rate system. We are applying a tax first devised in 1572 to a 21st-century economy, much of which exists somewhere in the cloud. The Bill acknowledges at its core the disproportionate impact of business rates on competition in this sector. Those of us who have rural constituencies—indeed, anybody whose constituency contains a high street—understand the disproportionality of business rates for retail businesses, particularly now that more and more people buy things online, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset said. If we are to keep our high streets vibrant, keep our businesses working and maintain the competitiveness of the rural economy against the huge businesses that these days operate from nowhere, I question whether taxing property—frankly, taxing investment and expansion—remains an appropriate way to gather the revenue that we need.

There will come a point, over the next couple of decades, when we have to consider shifting taxation on corporations away from property and profit, and towards turnover. If we taxed the turnover of the large multinationals —the Googles and the Amazons—we would collect more from them than we currently do, but in a fair way. Small shops on the high streets in North West Hampshire compete with corporations that transact in this country, dispatch goods from a second country and book the profits in a third country. We have to think about the asymmetric nature of the taxation of those organisations if we want to create a level playing field for competition.

I welcome the Bill. I welcome the move towards the designation of broadband as a utility and the recognition of the distortive effect of business rates on commerce. I hope that over the next five years or so, many companies will take advantage of the rate relief window. I suspect that at the end of that period it will be somehow extended, and I hope that any such extension will become permanent. I hope that businesses will take advantage of the window and come to North West Hampshire to plaster my entire constituency with broadband fibre, to the cabinet and to the premises, with my pleasure and approval.

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con)
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10 Jul 2017, 7:09 p.m.

Like several Members here, I have the pleasure of representing a beautiful and very rural constituency. In fact, 42% of my constituency is part of an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is a lovely constituency in which to walk, have picnics and spend time. It is fabulous for farming, but less good for connectivity.

Over the two-and-a-bit years for which I have been the Member of Parliament for Faversham and Mid Kent, I have received letters—and occasionally emails, if people have managed to get online—from constituents in many villages including Headcorn, Kingswood, Doddington, Eastling, Selling and Sheldwich. Those are all lovely villages, but they struggle with connectivity, and residents have had difficulty getting fast broadband.

In several of those villages, it can be difficult even to get a mobile phone signal. A couple of months ago, during the general election campaign, I was in Headcorn, and I thought I might tweet a picture from Headcorn station. Not only did I not have 4G on my mobile phone, but I did not have any mobile phone signal at all. I could not even make an old-fashioned mobile telephone call or send a text message. There are parts of my constituency, such as that patch of Headcorn, where unless people happen to be with the one operator serving it a little, it is impossible even to make a mobile phone call.

My constituency wants to have better broadband and better mobile phone connections, and that is why I welcome the commitment this Government have been and are making to connectivity across this country. As I mentioned in an intervention, thanks to the Government’s programme of rolling out high-speed broadband, 8,432 properties have now got a high-speed broadband connection that would not have had one without the programme. By September 2018, I am expecting about 2,000 more properties to be on high-speed broadband thanks to the programme. That amounts to 25% of the properties in my constituency being connected thanks to this Government’s work and commitment to high-speed broadband, and it will get Faversham and Mid Kent up to about 90% of properties being on high-speed broadband.

We are still some way off the 100% level that I would like, so I very much welcome the universal service obligation that is coming into force. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) in campaigning very hard to put that into law. I also welcome the commitment made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Minister from the Dispatch Box that the financial cap will be high enough to make sure that 100% of properties in constituencies such as mine receive access to broadband of at least 10 megabits per second. That is not the high speed that we hope will be delivered by the Bill, but for those who have no or incredibly slow broadband at the moment, 10 megabits per second will make a great difference.

All of us who represent rural constituencies know the difference between the haves and the have-nots on broadband, but having high-speed broadband is genuinely life changing. It enables us to do things that we now consider everyday functions of life, and whether it is sending emails, booking tickets or flights online, choosing hotels or B&Bs, comparing offers on travel insurance or car insurance, or shopping for groceries, there is so much that those of us with high-speed broadband take for granted. However, in my constituency, some people still do not even have such access.

Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire) (Con)
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10 Jul 2017, 7:12 p.m.

Will my hon. Friend not add watching BBC Parliament so that all her constituents in Faversham and Mid Kent can see her excellent speech?

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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10 Jul 2017, 7:13 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend very much, although I doubt whether even one of my constituents is watching my speech. I will not hold my breath while waiting for confirmation.

We know that children, including mine, often get set homework tasks requiring them to look up things on the internet. If a child lives in a rural village or at the end of a track and they cannot get online, they are disadvantaged. There is also the very basic thing of staying in touch with distant relatives, who often live all around the world. I remember when I was a child that the cost of making an international call was enormous. During my gap year as an 18-year-old, I made two phone calls to my parents in nine months, because it cost such a huge amount to phone home, but people can now make video calls basically for nothing so families around the world can stay in touch. As older people go online—many people in their 70s, 80s and 90s are very active internet users—I hope that the internet will be one way in which we can tackle the challenge of loneliness. For someone to make a FaceTime call to their grandma or grandpa is a great way for them to keep in touch, and that is often much easier if it is very difficult to go to see them.

There is also the question of the use of the internet for work, where it can make a huge difference for rural areas, as it does for the economy in general. It enables people to work from home—I have two caseworkers who do most of their work supporting me and my constituents from home, which enables them to juggle that work and their family commitments—and I know that a huge number of people in my constituency now run businesses from home, including many quite significant rural businesses. There is a fabulous business called Bombus around the corner from where I live just outside Faversham, which makes amazing products out of maps. If any hon. Members want interesting products based on maps of their constituencies, I recommend that they contact Bombus to get all sorts of books, paper goods and lampshades. On the other side of my constituency, near Maidstone, a business enabling people to compare utility prices has about 100 employees in a really rural spot. There is no way in which that business could exist without good broadband, so it is very important for the rural economy.

We have got to this point very quickly. About 12 years ago I worked at AOL Time Warner launching digital products, such as the UK’s first video on-demand service for downloading films. Back then, just over 10 years ago, people had to plan ahead: if they wanted to watch a film, they had to start downloading it and then go away, perhaps to cook something for supper, and come back a couple of hours later when enough of it had downloaded to enable them to watch it, if they were lucky, although it may well have stopped downloading halfway through. We probably launched the product a little ahead of what the technology could do. Now, however, my children sit down in front of the television on a Sunday morning, when I am trying to catch up on some sleep, turn on the iPlayer and watch something immediately, with none of that delay. That change has turned watching television into a completely different experience.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to this area, but I very much ask them to press on with making sure that we get high-speed broadband to 100% of properties across constituencies such as mine. I also ask them to make sure that the new technologies enabled by the Bill such as 5G and full-fibre broadband—I will now turn to the Bill— benefit those not only in more urban areas of the country, but in rural areas. I would ask that as far as possible that should not be a simple sequential process, with the people of Headcorn being able, if they are lucky, to make a phone call and then getting 3G, 4G and eventually 5G sometime in the distant future. I am very keen for some leapfrogging so that those in more rural areas can catch up thanks to new forms of technology.

It is particularly important for the Bill to go ahead, with investment in these new technologies, in the challenging economic climate and the challenging economic times in which we live. I am very mindful of the ageing population in this country. We have talked a lot during the past couple of weeks about the cost of the public sector and the desire to increase the pay of people working in the public sector. We know that as a country we face a productivity challenge in that we are not nearly as productive as we need to be for people to have a good or a better standard of living, and we face global competition. I am pretty realistic in saying that—unfortunately, unlike the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who wishes to raise business rates and thinks, erroneously, that that will increase revenue to spend on public services—history tells us that, as we very well know, increasing business rates results in a fall in revenue.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne
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10 Jul 2017, 7:19 p.m.

rose—

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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10 Jul 2017, 7:19 p.m.

As the hon. Gentleman gave way to me, I will give way to him.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne
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I merely wish to correct the record: at no stage have either I or the Labour party said that we want to increase business rates. We want a small increase in corporation tax, which would still result in our having one of the lowest rates of corporation tax in the world.

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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10 Jul 2017, 7:19 p.m.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s putting the record straight, because I made an error in my notes. Instead of business rates, I meant to say corporation tax. We disagreed about this point earlier. My point about corporation tax stands. Unfortunately, raising corporation tax results in a reduction in revenue for the Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) pointed out.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con)
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10 Jul 2017, 7:20 p.m.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Was she as shocked as I was to hear the shadow Secretary of State refer to a “small” increase in corporation tax, because the rate Labour would move it to would be almost a 50% increase on the 17% rate that we will have?

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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10 Jul 2017, 7:20 p.m.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This point really is significant because as corporation tax rates come down below 20%, businesses behave differently. Businesses are more likely to locate in this country, to invest in their businesses in this country and to create jobs, which is what my constituents and, I am sure, the constituents of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish want. That also generates the revenue that is paid in taxes to fund public services.

Jim McMahon Portrait Jim McMahon (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab/Co-op)
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10 Jul 2017, 7:21 p.m.

On the subject of large increases, given that the hon. Lady would be outraged by a 50% increase, she must be absolutely distraught at the business rates revaluation, which has seen some business rates go up by 200%.

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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10 Jul 2017, 7:22 p.m.

In some respects, the hon. Gentleman and I may agree, although not on the specifics of his point. As other hon. Members have said, the business rates system does need a further look. For instance, I am unhappy with the way business rates tend to penalise high street shops in some of my smaller towns. The largest employer in my constituency is a brewer, and pubs have struggled with some of the increases in business rates. However, I recognise the efforts that the Chancellor made following lobbying by me and other Members of Parliament to help pubs with the changes to business rates. There is no question but that there is further work to be done on business rates, and that has been acknowledged by the Government.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait Michael Tomlinson
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10 Jul 2017, 7:22 p.m.

May I take my hon. Friend back to corporation tax? She is absolutely right that the reduction in the rate has seen an increase in tax take. Surely the important thing is to look not at the tax rate, but at the tax take—how much tax is actually raised. The final point she made about jobs is crucial. We see record levels of employment across all our constituencies, which is to be welcomed. That has happened because businesses want to expand and take on more people.

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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10 Jul 2017, 7:22 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will return to the content of the Bill in a moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am spending a little time on corporation tax because the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish spent some time talking about it. It is important that Government Members make it clear that we are absolutely committed to raising revenue for public services. The last thing we want to see is tax changes that gain the right headlines but have the wrong effect on the bottom line from the Government’s point of view. We are absolutely committed to making sure that we can raise revenue for public services, about which we care very much, but we recognise that, to do so, we must have a tax environment that is supportive to businesses, because they are what provides the jobs and the economic growth.

On economic growth and people working harder to keep up their standard of living, as an economy, we need to be more productive and technology is the crucial enabler in that. That is exactly what the Bill will support. For instance, 5G as a technology is and will be a great enabler of the internet of things. Every second around the world, 127 devices are newly connected to the internet. That rate will surely increase, so the demand for connectivity and the ability to carry large volumes of data will only go up.

It is vital that we are at the forefront of that. In fact, 5G is forecast to boost economic value by $4 trillion to $11 trillion globally by 2020. That is a huge increase in economic value, so it is vital that we as a country take our share of that economic growth. In practice, it will mean developments that allow us to have smart household appliances, driverless cars and, one day, driverless lorries, which for my constituents, who are very unhappy about lorries being parked up in laybys a lot, will be an interesting prospect.

Amanda Milling Portrait Amanda Milling
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My hon. Friend and I both have residents and businesses that face the plight of HGV fly-parking. I know that she, too, is very passionate about this. Does she agree that, as technology advances, we should look at different ways of doing business?

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing)
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10 Jul 2017, 7:25 p.m.

Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) will find an ingenious way of relating the intervention by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) precisely to the Bill. I can see a way of doing it and I am sure she will succeed.

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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10 Jul 2017, 7:27 p.m.

I could see the frown on your face, Madam Deputy Speaker. It might seem like a stretch to go from talking about telecommunications to lorry fly-parking, but as 5G is an enabler of the internet of things and, potentially, of driverless cars and driverless lorries, it might mean that lorry drivers no longer have to take long breaks to sleep. The reason lorries are parked in the laybys of our roads is that the drivers are sleeping because they have to have a compulsory rest before they can keep driving, but we could have lorries without a driver, so the subjects genuinely connect.

To return to what I was planning to talk about, another important potential application of 5G is in healthcare, with wearable devices. For instance, people’s heart rate and blood pressure could be tracked. That is very much part of the future of healthcare and preventive healthcare to help us all to look after ourselves. As somebody who is very committed to the NHS and to making sure we have a sustainable NHS and a healthier population, I am keen that we enable such developments in healthcare.

Those are just a handful of examples of what we hope 5G will enable. We hope to be at the forefront of this technology by investing in it.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait Michael Tomlinson
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10 Jul 2017, 7:28 p.m.

My hon. Friend is being very generous with her time, but before she moves away from 5G, I invite her to reflect on this point. It is important not to leave behind those communities that are yet to clock on to 3G and 4G. I am sure that, in her constituency, as in mine, there are areas where people simply cannot access 3G or 4G. Although 5G is to be welcomed, will she join me in calling on the Government to ensure that those areas are not left behind?

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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10 Jul 2017, 7:28 p.m.

I completely agree. As in his constituency, there are parts of my constituency that do not have 4G, 3G or even enough mobile signal to make a phone call. I am very keen for the Government to intervene to ensure that there is comprehensive mobile phone reception across rural areas. I also hope that we can have a catch-up for those areas, so that they can canter quickly through 3G and 4G and then go straight to 5G.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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While we are on the subject of notspots and blackout areas, does my hon. Friend agree that there are priority areas such as along railway lines? Many of my constituents commute every day and it is so frustrating not even being able to get a phone signal on the railway line. The Bill will enable extra infrastructure, so that we have connected commuters, which is key in the 21st century.

Helen Whately Portrait Helen Whately
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10 Jul 2017, 7:29 p.m.

My hon. Friend has made an important point about the Bill’s focus on the infrastructure along routes such as rail lines and motorways, where it will be of particular benefit. My constituency, like hers, contains commuters who would like to be able to do more work on the train, and the Bill will make that possible.

Full-fibre broadband should bring an end to a problem about which I often hear from BT engineers: the challenge of the “last mile”, the old copper wires that are so dated, some of them more than 100 years old. Although that technology has served us very well for many years, it is probably time to move on, so that people can get proper high-speed broadband, especially those who live further away from the cabinet and the traditional infrastructure.

It is right for the Government to support the development of new infrastructure by providing incentives in the form of appropriate conditions for substantial private investment in that infrastructure, which will multiply by many times the investment that they are making with the use of taxpayer funds. The combination of the £400 million digital infrastructure fund and the £60 million business rates relief for which the Bill provides should be wearable for the Government, while also resulting in much more investment in the country’s digital infrastructure, which we badly need.

I want to ensure that we reach out to and communicate with younger voters. I say to them, “You may not be watching the Parliament channel on your internet connection, but take note of what is being said.” This is an example of the Government’s looking ahead to the sort of economy that we need for the future: looking towards investing in the infrastructure that we need, so that we will be able to compete globally, have a modern economy, have innovation and have the kind of jobs and the kind of economy that will give younger workers opportunities for decades to come, and give us the economic growth that we need in order to fund a high standard of living and the public services about which we care so much.

Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con)
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10 Jul 2017, 7:32 p.m.

Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), although he is no longer in the Chamber—and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately)—for being so kind about the work that I have done on broadband. When my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset said that I would not speak in the debate, I was going to leap to my feet like some sort of digital gazelle, but I thought I would keep the House waiting. We have heard several extensive speeches about the many benefits of Government investment in digital infrastructure, but my speech will be somewhat briefer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said that some of her constituents were not able to do something as old-fashioned as making a mobile telephone call. Mobile telephone calls are, in our modern world, pretty old-fashioned, but we should not forget that not many years ago they were simply impossible in this place. Since then, we have not only been through the period of the invention of mobile phones; we have been through a period during which all our constituents railed against the installation of mobile phone masts. Now we have come full circle, and they rail against the absence of mobile phone masts. The digital revolution has thoroughly revolved.

I want to make some brief points about the Bill. It seems obvious to me that, although adopting this approach to encouraging digital infrastructure investment means that the Government are forgoing a certain amount of revenue from business rates, their fostering of digital innovation and infrastructure investment will ensure that the amount they get back through the broader benefits of economic growth is many times greater than the amount that the business rates themselves cost the state and the taxpayer. That strikes me as a definition of the way in which the Government should be using public money, pump-priming economic growth to allow the development of an economy that works in the digital way that, as we have heard, our children will expect, and that all modern businesses already expect.

I commend the Government for taking that approach. It is also commendable that, by giving the relief a five-year term—which my right hon. Friend the Minister hinted could even be extended—they are giving firms an incentive to invest in installing fibre now, even if they do not turn it on, so to speak, for a number of years. I hope that we will secure the economies of scale of broader investment while continuing to benefit from business rate relief on that investment. That can only be a good thing, and it also addresses some of the concerns raised by the industry before the introduction of the Bill.

We should bear in mind that the growth in demand for fibre will only increase. When I was a journalist writing about the launch of the iPlayer—the BBC cunningly launched it in Christmas Day, because it knew that demand would be rather more limited—the BBC did not think for one moment that it would itself be broadcasting in 4K come 2016-17. Still less did it think that we would, as a matter of course, live in households in which half a dozen people wanted to download the 4K streams that broadcasters now routinely provide.

It is no small irony that, by all accounts, when Bazalgette built the London sewers he offered quadruple the capacity that was required in Victorian London. Now we see that that quadruple capacity has been more than exhausted by a growing population, and we should take the same approach when it comes to investing in our digital infrastructure. To point out that a prominent Bazalgette is still involved in the life of our digital nation is not in any way to draw a comparison between sewage and the modern digital output with which he is concerned. The huge benefits provided by the man who brought us “Big Brother” and a host of other programmes are not to be described in that way in the slightest degree. All we can say is that this is clearly a family that has contributed a huge amount to the life of our nation, at every level of our infrastructure.

In this day and age, there is never an excuse for underestimating the amount of digital capacity that we will require. Although 4K may appear to be perfectly adequate for our purposes today, we will look back on it in a number of years and see that it is paltry in comparison with what we will be using on a routine basis, whether that involves virtual reality, driverless cars, or all the technologies that will eradicate the digital scourge of fly-parking mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling).

We should not only encourage the Government to proceed with the Bill as quickly as possible, but encourage any Government to ensure that this sort of rate relief applies to investment in digital infrastructure, whether mobile or fixed, thus ensuring—following the launch of the iPlayer not so very long ago—that the internet of things that is now coming upon us will be fully served. That will be thanks to the investment of Governments such as this.