Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport

Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill

Selaine Saxby Excerpts
Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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I thank the Minister for her intervention on this. Does she agree with me, as chair of the all-party group on broadband and digital communication, that the industry is desperately concerned that this review amendment will wreck the intentions of the Bill, and in constituencies like mine in North Devon will simply slow down the roll-out of this vital infrastructure further?

Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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I agree and I thank my hon. Friend for making the point. It seems sensible and benign, but it would significantly delay roll-out and create a great deal of uncertainty.

I understand why Members in the other place tabled this amendment. Its aims are noble, but it is impractical and unnecessary and would have a disastrous effect on investment in telecoms infrastructure, leading to a slow-down in getting great connectivity to the places that most need it, particularly rural constituencies. The Government and Ofcom already produce regular reports on coverage targets and competition, and to that extent the amendment is unnecessary and would duplicate effort.

On the subject of coverage and targets, we are making great progress. We have listened at length to the concerns in both Houses and among stakeholders, and we of course understand that there are tensions between landowners and operators that must be resolved, albeit a lot of progress has been made since 2017. This Bill tries to resolve some of the challenges, particularly by introducing more collaborative negotiations and a greater use of alternative dispute resolutions.

The prospect of another full-scale review of the code framework would have the opposite effect, exacerbating existing tensions by prolonging that debate about valuation. The result would be a cooling effect on the market, with landowners and operators reluctant to conclude agreements until the review was completed. That would seriously delay the delivery of digital services, including gigabit-capable connections and 5G coverage, which so many of our constituents tell us they need and which hon. Members hold me to account for every day because those things are important to economic growth and social wellbeing in their constituencies, particularly rural ones. I urge hon. Members not to stitch further delays into the process through the uncertainty created by a review. For these reasons, although amendment 17 is well-intentioned, it is disproportionate and unhelpful, and I hope the House will disagree to it.

I am nearly at the end of my speech, but I want to thank all Members who have contributed to debates on this Bill, especially the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and her predecessor the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). Parliamentary scrutiny here and in the other place has provided the Government with much food for thought, allowing us to refine and improve the legislation, and I am pleased that Members on both sides of the House support the objectives of this much-needed Bill in recognition of the importance of digital connectivity to the people and communities we serve and the security of the products that will be increasingly present in their lives.

Stephanie Peacock Portrait Stephanie Peacock (Barnsley East) (Lab)
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Labour has always broadly welcomed the principles of this Bill and has supported amendments, whether Government or Opposition-led, that strike a sensible balance. That remains the case today, and as such I welcome the Government amendments before us. I will instead focus my remarks on amendment 17 on a review of the electronic communications code.

Labour stands firmly behind the aim of improving roll-out. Digital connectivity is a necessity, not a luxury in this day and age. In order to participate in society—from banking to shopping, to education and using public services—access to the digital world is crucial for people of all ages and in every corner of the country. As such, it is vital that we facilitate the building, maintaining and upgrading of digital infrastructure that allows for this connectivity.

The last Labour Government delivered on this belief, ensuring the creation of infrastructure that brought first-generation broadband to around 13 million households by 2009, but unfortunately over the last 12 years roll-out simply has not gone as far or as fast as we would like. Both broadband and 5G roll-out have been woefully slow, and the Government have repeatedly reduced their targets. We therefore support the aim of part 2 of this Bill, to speed up roll-out to the levels needed. The amendment that calls for a review of the electronic communication code is proposed with the firm intention of boosting rather than jeopardising roll-out. It would ensure that a balanced evidence base is built surrounding the changes made to regulation in the last five years so that concerns held by both landowners and operators can be addressed objectively and in the public interest.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby
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Will the hon. Member explain why the entire industry has asked me to speak this evening to say that the amendment would slow down the roll-out and do literally nothing to speed it up?

Stephanie Peacock Portrait Stephanie Peacock
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I understand that there are concerns in the industry, but there are also concerns on the other side of the argument among landowners. Indeed, in the consultation for the legislation, the most contentious parts of the 2017 regulations were considered, and that is why we are considering the amendment.

Indeed, the electronic communications code, as hon. Members will be aware, is the legislation that underpins the use of land for mobile telecommunications infrastructure. It was reformed in 2017 and further changes are being made to it through the Bill. After a period of initial adjustment, many operators now cite the 2017 ECC reform as a welcome set of changes that has in time helped them to act quicker and invest more in the roll-out.

Those who host masts, however, have seen their rents decrease by 63% on average as a result of those same changes and report that they have only caused them further problems, reducing their agency and disincentivising their involvement in facilitating the roll-out. That is a particular concern for smaller landowners—the likes of churches, sports clubs and community groups—whose rental income has been cut at a time when they are already suffering as a result of the cost of living, but whose land and involvement is vital for connecting hard-to-reach areas, some of which do not have 3G yet, let alone 5G.

Ultimately, roll-out is dependent both on those who build and operate masts and on the willingness of site owners to host them. Where we rely on both to succeed, the needs of both must be taken into account, striking the right balance so that roll-out is not impeded at either end. At the moment, however, the objective information on whether the ECC strikes the right balance is simply not available. Will the Minister share any objective evidence held by the Department on the impact that changes to the ECC have had and will have on roll-out, particularly as its consultation, as I mentioned, did not include the most controversial elements of the code. A review would help fill the evidence gap. Put simply, it would seek to measure in a balanced way whether the ECC is increasing roll-out as it was intended to.

To be clear, the amendment would not prevent the measures in the Bill from coming into force. It is designed to ensure that all the provisions that we hope make improvements to roll-out can still be enacted as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. Compliance would still be expected from both providers and landowners. The amendment has no agenda for reversing any hard-fought changes in particular. It is a neutral amendment that seeks to put an end to years of constant disputes between providers and landowners and bring focus back to roll-out. The review would make recommendations only in areas that show clear evidential need for change and are currently stopping targets for connectivity from being met. If instead we choose to ignore the ways in which the ECC has been controversial, such disputes will only continue.

I take this opportunity to put on record Labour’s thanks to all those who host digital infrastructure on their land or buildings and are helping to connect their neighbours and communities to our modern world. It is clear that hosting masts can be difficult at times, but we must remember how vital it is for our country’s future that we get the widest possible connectivity. We want more groups to step forward to host infrastructure, not less.

Ultimately, Labour wants to see a fair settlement that supports small landowners in hosting digital infrastructure but allows providers to maximise roll-out. The amendment, which received cross-party support in the other place, provides an opportunity to ensure that the ECC is compatible with those aims and is supported by balanced evidence. All sides should be able to get behind that. We must be united behind the goal of boosting connectivity for those who need it so that our country can get on with harnessing the power of technology for good.