Clause 66 - Unresponsive occupiers

Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:15 pm ar 17 Mawrth 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Llafur, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments 2 to 4.

That the schedule be the schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), Minister of State

I am afraid I have to tell the Committee that this does not get any more inspiring.

The clause creates a bespoke process for telecoms operators to seek access to certain types of land where a person repeatedly fails to respond to requests for access to install apparatus under or over land for the purposes of providing an electronic communications service. The clause sets out that process by inserting into the electronic communications code new part 4ZA, which makes provision for a court to impose an agreement where the operator needs that person, “the landowner”, to confer or be bound by code rights. Part 4ZA will apply in situations where an operator intends to provide an electronic communications service and to achieve that must install electronic communications apparatus under or over, but not on, relevant land. “Relevant land” is defined as land that is not covered by buildings, and that is neither a garden, a park nor a recreational area. The provision also takes a power for the Secretary of State to specify through regulations further types of land that may be “relevant land”, but may only do so following consultation.

The provisions will require an operator to have given two warning notices, followed by a final notice. Those three notices all follow an initial request notice, giving a total of four. The Bill sets out that there must be a period of 14 days between the giving of each notice. For the landowner to fall out of scope of proposed new part 4ZA, all that is required of them is to respond to any of these notices in writing, before the operator applies to the court under part 4ZA. If any response is received, the operator will no longer be able to apply for a part 4ZA order and must either negotiate for a code agreement or apply for rights to be imposed by the courts in the normal way.

If granted, a part 4ZA order will impose an agreement between a landowner and an operator, conferring the rights requested in the initial notice. The terms of that agreement are to be specified in regulations. It may reassure the Committee that those regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure. Furthermore, before the regulations are made, the Bill expressly obliges the Secretary of State to consult with a range of parties.

Importantly, the provisions impose a six-year maximum time limit on the period for which rights conferred under a part 4ZA order may last. I emphasise that detail, because it forms an important part of the Bill’s safeguards for landowners’ property rights. This clause provides a much needed process that will play a large part in ensuring that homes and businesses benefit from the national gigabit broadband upgrade and are not left behind.

I will now turn to the amendments tabled in relation to clause 66, all of which are technical amendments. Amendments 2 and 3 have been tabled in order to make a minor clarification to the text of the electronic communications code, to avoid any possible unintended interpretation of the legislation. Amendments 2 and 3 clarify that the right mentioned in paragraph 26(8) and paragraph 27G(4) of the electronic communications code to require the removal of apparatus applies in relation to apparatus placed under or over land. By inserting the words “under or over” into paragraph 26(8) and paragraph 27G(4) of the code, these amendments clarify that part 6 of the code may be used by a landowner to require the operator to remove apparatus installed “under or over”, as well as on, the land.

Without amendments 2 and 3, paragraph 26(8) and 27G(4) as currently worded may be interpreted to mean that while equipment installed on land under the “interim rights” or “unresponsive occupier” process could be removed via the part 6 process, equipment installed under or over land under these processes might not. That is not the policy intention, and as such this amendment is being introduced to clarify the policy position.

Amendment 4 makes a minor amendment to remove a provision which has been found to have no effect. The provision in question—paragraph 3(9) of the schedule to clause 66 in the Bill—was intended to ensure that part 5 of the code does not apply to the process created by clause 66 in the Bill. Part 5 of the code sets out that code rights may persist even after the agreement which underpins them expires. It was never intended that part 5 should apply to rights gained through part 4ZA, due to the importance of the time limits I have mentioned. The Bill provision that this amendment removes was intended to ensure that part 5 did not apply to rights gained through part 4ZA. However, we are satisfied a different part in the code already ensures this. As such, paragraph 3(9) in the schedule of the Bill has no real effect and ought to be removed.

In practical terms, there is no legal or policy change effected through this amendment, beyond increasing the clarity of legislation. This amendment simply removes a provision which had no effect in the first place, and thus tidies the legislation. I hope that everyone will accept that that is beneficial.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I want to make clear the Opposition’s support for clause 66. From all my conversations with industry, it is quite clear that where there is an unresponsive landowner, it is extremely complicated to then meet the public’s demands. If the Bill is about improving digital activity for all our constituents, particularly in some of the most rural and hard to reach communities—I find it hard to believe that includes my own constituency, but it does—then this is an important and welcome change.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

Despite the very thorough explanation that the Minister gave of what is a technical clause, I understand what the difference is between something being placed over or under land, but I am not sure what the difference is between something placed over or on land. There must be a technical reason why it is there; does she know the answer to that?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), Minister of State

I think it being on land is a much more intrusive process. For instance, we could be talking about a cable that happens to be going over somebody’s land, and therefore to do something to it would not require a great deal of intrusion. Similarly, if it was the matter of being able to dig at the side of a road, it is technically access land, but only underneath the surface of the land—I hope this makes sense. It is much less intrusive process. I think it is a process that could be objected to far less by a landowner; they are not being asked if somebody can drive over their land, put something unattractive on it or inconvenience them in any way. We are talking about underground works and cabling works that objectively would have no real impact on their land.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 66 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.