Digital Economy Bill [ Lords]

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 7:57 pm on 6th April 2010.

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Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West 7:57 pm, 6th April 2010

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments; funnily enough, that is where my speech is going.

Part of my job in the industry related to the people who maintained the ducts and put cables down them. When the law was changed around the time of privatisation, cable companies were allowed to dig up our streets. They destroyed our pipes, ducts, pavements and roads, especially in my constituency-Old Drumchapel and Blairdardie were a nightmare afterwards-but did not reinstate everything as it was. I have a great fear that the Conservative party wants to give free access to the ducts, as well as to water, the sewers and electricity pylons, but I do not believe that that access can be free. Not just anyone can be allowed to interfere with the infrastructure of our water and electricity-or any form of our utility and communications networks-without someone overseeing the process.

I would not have a problem with Ofcom, Ofgem or Ofwat carrying out such oversight but, in this instance, the company that has carried out the role is BT. It must be more open by allowing other companies to use its facilities and equipment, and I think that it is going down that road, but I do not believe in a free and open market in the way that the hon. Gentleman does that would allow companies to come along with cowboys who would destroy our infrastructure. I can tell him from first-hand experience that that was exactly what happened, and I had to pick up the mess and talk to the customers who blamed BT for it, although it was not the company's fault.

The points that Mr. Hunt made about BT showed that he had no idea about how to maintain an infrastructure of such size. Whether one is dealing with ducts, pylons, or water and sewerage, there must be someone who knows exactly how they are maintained. If companies are then allowed to carry out work, they must do so according to that person's rules.

We hope to roll out 2 megabits per second broadband to everyone, which is quite ambitious, as other countries' provision does not go as high as that. However, that means absolutely nothing if it is not possible to achieve that speed. The Bill does not address in any way, shape or form the great problem of bit rates for uploading and downloading. Broadband equipment is sold that will allow someone to get 8 megabits per second, but that is a maximum figure. If Ministers were to guarantee the people of this country a minimum of 2 megabits per second, I would say, "Wow! That would be some feat." However, saying that everyone will get 2 megabits per second means absolutely nothing if the majority of people end up with only 1 megabit or even 0.5 megabits per second.

The companies that sell on broadband need to be brought into line. There is talk of speeds of 100 megabits per second, and then we will talk about 200, but that will mean nothing if it is impossible to achieve that speed. The Bill should set out a "minimum of" figure, rather than a maximum. The maximum figure means nothing if everyone in an area is using broadband at the same time, because they all suffer and are no better off than when they used the modems in their computers. I fully support Ministers in what they are trying to achieve, but we should be a bit more on top of the companies in question.

My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary knows how I feel about the 50p levy. People in my city of Glasgow can get broadband, but the uptake is between 30 and 40 per cent., which is well below the British average of 60 per cent. I do not know how take-up can be encouraged when a 50p levy is being introduced on the poorest people who will not have broadband or any thoughts of getting it, but will be stuck with paying an extra £6 a year. That will drive people on to cheap pay-as-you-go mobiles, which is the way in which most poor people in my constituency communicate. People using those mobiles will be asked to pay nothing, or at least very little, so we must look at the proposal again.

As has been said, I spoke about file sharing at a conference in Washington. If it is any consolation to hon. Members, there might be the same problem there as here, as there was no consensus on whether file sharing should be allowed. I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East and others who feel that the Bill should be thrown out that we need to start somewhere-doing nothing is not an option. It is not the Elton Johns and Paul McCartneys of this world but the small people we have never heard of-the Joe Bloggs of the music world-who need some kind of protection as they try to make their living. They cannot have people stealing their endeavours and taking away their hard-earned rights to money that could make a difference to them and their families.

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