I beg to move,
That this House
notes variations in the effectiveness of roll-out of fixed and mobile superfast broadband in different parts of the UK;
and calls on the Government to host anot-spot summit to consider ways to tackle this issue.
Hon. Members reading the Order Paper could be forgiven for thinking that this debate is about the roll-out of superfast broadband across the UK, but it is about much more than that. It is about making sure that the farmer in my constituency who needs to communicate with DEFRA can do so without driving miles to a nearby town. It is about making sure that he can grow his business and employ more people. It is about the disabled woman in a hamlet in my constituency who must currently choose between paying £20 a month for a dire mobile connection or face the isolation of living effectively without access to much of the modern world. It is also about the school in the heart of urban Boston teaching some of the most vulnerable young people, and doing so sharing a single 4G connection because their existing broadband connection is not good enough.
Broadband makes a profound difference today to businesses, to shopping, to entertainment, to education, to healthcare and to everything that goes with life in the 21st century. The £1.2 billion of public money invested so far could not have gone on a better cause, and we should remember that the coverage obligations imposed on a single 4G licence amount to a further £2 billion of public subsidy. But at its heart today’s debate is about making sure that we do not allow the digital divide to widen and deepen. A one-nation Government must deliver the same digital opportunities for all of us.
I will come on to the universal service later.
The possibilities that the web offers to level the playing field between rural and even deprived urban areas and the best connected will alleviate the pressure on roads and on almost every public service that we offer. Although we are in the middle of a roll-out programme that has been among the fastest in the world, there remains a widening and deepening digital divide in Britain.
I warmly welcome not just this debate, but my hon. Friend’s words about the importance of this issue. He stressed, and I want to put on the record, the concerns that many of us have, even in the centre of this capital city, here in central London, where there are major problems with superfast broadband, and the importance of ensuring that we have as much competition as possible to put BT and Virgin Media on their mettle to make sure that we get the improvements for which my hon. Friend is so passionately making the case.
I stress to my right hon. Friend that this is a debate not about rural broadband, but about national broadband roll-out. It is likely that by the end of 2017, 95% or 96% of British premises will be connected, but the one in 25 or one in 24 premises that will not be connected are not evenly spread across the country. Without serious investment in helping to connect the final 5%, we risk isolating not only individuals but entire communities, and splitting the super-connected and those for whom the 21st-century economy is another country.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing this debate. Does he, like Mark Field, recognise that central London and Westminster, with its enormous economy, is seriously compromised by slow broadband speeds? If anyone from BT is watching this debate, is it not extraordinary that a local authority has to ask the population if they want superfast broadband in order to be able to make representations for such investment? Is it not obvious that, as the hon. Gentleman says, individuals, businesses and the economy deserve superfast broadband speeds?
Indeed, and I suspect that people from BT will be watching this debate closely. It is right that connecting the whole UK on an even footing offers opportunities greater than those from the roll-out of the railways or the motorway network.
I recognise that my hon. Friend represents a very rural constituency, like Sherwood. Does he recognise the frustration of my constituents and his when they hear discussion about the difference between superfast broadband and broadband, when my constituents are on dial-up and can get only a very small document downloaded in an hour?
Absolutely, and I am keen to emphasise throughout this debate the huge range of connections, where we have people on a gigabit for the same price, effectively, as people on dial-up. Today’s debate calls on the Government to hold a “not spot” summit, although at times Members could be forgiven for thinking that Prime Minister’s questions, Business questions, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions and Treasury questions are all “not spot” summits.
I thank my hon. Friend for holding this debate. In Devon and Somerset we find that BT is getting to those easier to reach areas and leaving the “not spots” and harder to reach areas behind. May we urge the Minister, through the debate, to put more pressure on BT to get out to those hard to reach areas, instead of taking the lowest hanging fruit, as it is doing at present?
Indeed. At its heart, the debate is about getting the best possible value for money for taxpayer subsidy and making sure that the commercial roll-out goes as far as it can.
Given the importance of value for money, does my hon. Friend accept that in London, where four of the 12 constituencies with the worst roll-out are located, it is particularly important that the summit has proper data on unused fibre capacity and on upload speeds, both of which are critical to maximising the value obtained from the network?
Transparency is critical. On that point, 17% of the UK still does not even have the option of a superfast broadband connection, and 8% of the country cannot receive the 10 megabits connections that Ofcom says are required for mainstream services, and 500,000 still lack even basic broadband.
My hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech. I would like to mention one of the many communities in my constituency that are divided by this. In Ightham, half the village can access some rural broadband from BT, but to the other half BT is promising things that it will simply never deliver, because it has realised that the economics do not add up. In the meantime, companies such as Gigaclear seem to be rolling out broadband perfectly happily to villages such as Plaxtol and Golden Green. Will he please urge the Minister to encourage more competition, and therefore greater roll-out?
I would be delighted to do that, and I welcome the mention of what I think will be the first of several small villages to be mentioned in this debate—
Several hon. Members rose—
Perhaps I could just finish my sentence before giving way.
There is a universal service obligation coming at 2 megabits a second, and there are moves to raise it to 5 megabits in the autumn, and that still falls below what Ofcom says is the typical need. As BT’s roll-out continues, many of the villages that I am sure will be mentioned later will find that their connections are improved. However, the communities that stand to benefit most are those that economically are the hardest to roll out to, so it is vital that whatever Government subsidy is available is pushed as far and as fast as possible.
I concur with those colleagues who have mentioned the issues in central London. Obviously, all Members across the House welcome the push to ensure that more of the country has broadband and superfast broadband, but I am concerned that there are still a significant number of “not spots” in our capital city. Will my hon. Friend please ensure that his “not spots” include those in central London. I am speaking in particular about constituents in Kensington. I urge him to look again at the relationship in London with BT—
In the time remaining I want to look at three crucial issues, all of which are aimed at providing maximum value for taxpayers’ money and, crucially, promoting maximum competition so that the free market drives the roll-out as far as possible. The first issue is transparency. It is a source of huge concern to all our constituents who do not have superfast broadband that it is often impossible to find out when, if ever, they might get it. Councils are often unwilling to reveal that, for reasons of commercial confidentiality, despite assurances from Ministers and BT that they can do so.
I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend, who has surely come to recognise that he will not get to the end of his speech until every single Member in the Chamber has mentioned one village in their constituency. Does he accept that even when BT does reach out, as in the case of Beaulieu in New Forest East, in the next-door village of Boldre the “not spot” remains? I have mentioned two villages, and each has been treated very differently.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman proceeds with his speech, I must inform Dr Lewis, and the rest of the House, that regrettably he is wrong. The hon. Gentleman will get to the end of his speech without taking interventions from every Member in the Chamber. That would simply be unfair, because 41 hon. Members have indicated to me that they wish to make a speech. I will impose an initial time limit of four minutes, but it is likely to be reduced to three minutes later in the debate, because there is another important debate to follow. If hon. Members think that the Chair will not notice if they make long interventions on the opening speaker, they are also wrong. I am watching very carefully, and if anyone thinks that they can make a long intervention now and then be called to make a speech later, I am afraid that they will have to think again.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think I need all the help I can get with these interventions.
Hon. Members should accept that it is not possible to produce a 100% accurate map of everywhere that superfast broadband will go. There are areas where commercial roll-out, Government-subsidised roll-out and decent mobile network speeds will not make it. I call on the Government to ensure that there is much greater transparency on where those areas are and that that is a central outcome of the summit which I hope will result from this debate. It is not enough for mobile networks to provide maps relied on by businesses that imply comprehensive coverage when in fact people have to stand in the middle of the road or hang out of the window. It is not enough for my constituents to struggle to determine when BT’s roll-out will get to them. I would rather give them bad news than no news so that communities can start to work out what they can do for themselves.
Twenty-five per cent. of all businesses in England are based in rural areas—a greater proportion than that of the population—and yet companies such as Agenda Security Services in my constituency have had to invest tens of thousands of pounds to get any kind of usable service while their counterparts in cities have no such disadvantage.
Absolutely; the contrast is the most painful thing.
I would hope that greater transparency might come from BT, but it may come across all networks only with much tougher regulation. That transparency would also allow companies and councils to make a better case for putting state aid into areas where it is not currently permitted.
If I can just get on to my second point, I am sure my hon. Friend will be able to have another go.
The second issue is the role of BT within the current roll-out. I am sure many Members will say that BT is, in effect, a monopoly and that its Openreach division should be split off, and accuse the company of creaming off Government subsidies and spending them on sports rights while failing to provide a consistent service across the country. In my constituency and across Lincolnshire, BT’s roll-out is ahead of schedule and under budget. Moreover, with take-up ahead of expectations, unexpectedly large revenues are being ploughed back into extending the network further than we had expected. None the less, rival networks will say that Openreach could raise more money and invest more widely as a separate company.
I absolutely sympathise with those problems.
It is unfashionable for Members of Parliament to admit that there are things they do not know, but as someone who covered broadband’s roll-out as a journalist for 10 years or so, I admit that I do not know whether the roll-out would be better if BT were to be split up as a company. I am certain, though, that regulation needs to be simpler and more rigorous however the company ends up, because we must promote more competition. I am also certain that Ofcom’s assessment of what is best must be absolutely robust so that whatever decision is reached is not a matter of perpetual debate. I urge the regulator to consider all possible options now.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of greater competition. Whatever the future for BT, does he not agree that it is extraordinary that so far all the public subsidies for superfast broadband roll-out have been handed to a single company? How can that promote competition?
The money that has been handed to BT occurred after a tendering process. We should not forget that.
Some argue that splitting up BT would delay this vital roll-out unnecessarily. I would say that we should not put our principles before a vital national infrastructure project, and that if any delay would harm businesses and families, Ofcom should assess what the impact of breaking up BT might be in the short term.
It is all very well to talk about competition, but we are discussing a form of social exclusion. I speak as somebody who has the dubious distinction of having a constituency that is ranked 592nd out of 650 on broadband access. In North Ayrshire and Arran, 32% of data zones have no access to superfast broadband—including Arran, parts of Dalry, Largs and Cumbrae, West Kilbride and Seamill—and there is a higher than average number of “not spots”. It is all very well to talk about competition, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must remember that we are discussing the social exclusion of those who have no access?
I agree that access to broadband is an issue of social inclusion. However, I remember as a journalist visiting the highlands and islands of Scotland to see BT’s publicly subsidised roll-out, so those areas have benefited.
In the spirit of promotion, I am grateful to my right hon. and gallant and learned Friend for giving way. Setting aside philosophical ideas about competition and splitting up BT, does he agree that most of our constituents—this is certainly true of mine in North Dorset—are just keen to get the damned thing delivered as quickly and as cost effectively as possible, to allow them to grow their businesses? Would it not be sensible to park the governance discussion until a later date and to focus today on the delivery?
I humbly disagree with my hon. Friend. Although it is right to focus on the roll-out of our current plan, we are in the process of making a plan for the final 5%. That is why this is the right time to have this debate and for the Government to focus on “not spots”.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is being very generous. Does he accept that, even though this is a publicly subsidised roll-out to try to counteract market failure, far too often BT approaches it from a purely commercial point of view and that it is simply used as another way to extend the profitable parts of the market?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the diligence and energy with which he has pursued this topic into this debate and I apologise for missing the start of it. As he may be aware, my Committee is still interested in taking evidence on the universal service obligation and in receiving submissions from constituents and from colleagues across the House. The work will begin fully next month.
May I share with my hon. Friend a thought on BT? It is not just a question of whether the relationship of BT to Openreach is supporting competition. It is also a question of whether Openreach is itself being starved of capital because it is located within BT with its new, emerging consumer and retail orientation. If it at least had its own balance sheet it might be able to borrow at very low rates and therefore support capital roll-out with it.
Order. Even the hon. Gentleman, who makes extremely good arguments, must make them quicker and briefer than that. We will never get through this debate if people keep making long interventions. It simply is not fair.
I agree with my hon. Friend that that is the counter-argument to keeping BT together.
Finally, the issue of a universal service obligation, which I mentioned briefly earlier, must be addressed in a more meaningful way. The current 2 megabits per second must be raised, but to raise that dribble to a mere trickle of 5 megabits per second is not enough when 10 megabits should be regarded as the minimum. We must accept that some parts of the country will exceed the minimum by much more than others and therefore set the minimum as high as is practically possible. I for one would like Ofcom to consider whether the current definition of superfast broadband could be that minimum, in line with the aspirations of various Governments around the world, especially when taking into consideration fixed broadband and mobile signal. That will be especially important, as a host of niche schemes come forward across the country, to connect the final 5%.
Additional mobile spectrum may be the answer, but according to Ofcom it will not be available for use until 2022, which will not provide much hope for many of our constituents. 4G will not reach 98% of the UK population until 2017, leaving millions currently with no manageable broadband connection, wireless or fixed.
The solutions to the final 5% will be many and varied, and I am sure that more companies will join those that have already used church towers, tractors and their own trenches to build a new network where it was previously thought impossible. Satellite must play a part, as will many of the exciting new projects in the Government innovation fund.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Many hon. Members have talked about the problems experienced in urban and suburban areas. Villages such as Northney in my constituency are both rural and coastal. Can he assure me that in his work and engagement with Ministers those communities will not be forgotten?
To conclude, if the Government are to achieve their manifesto commitment to near-universal superfast broadband by the end of the next Parliament, as well as ultrafast broadband at nearly all UK premises as soon as is practicable, a brave regulator, much greater transparency and serious Government investment must be forthcoming. Some 12% of our GDP is generated through the internet, which puts the UK significantly ahead of other countries. That status will only be maintained if we do everything we can to further narrow the digital divide, and I hope the Government will agree that the “not spot” summit for which the motion calls will be a positive and constructive part of that vital process.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I shall announce formally what I indicated earlier: I have to impose a time limit of four minutes on Back-Bench speeches.
It is a pleasure to follow Matt Warman. This is not the first occasion on which he has initiated a debate on this subject. It is good to see the Minister. He is a great survivor, and has been in the same role since 2010. Not only is he knowledgeable but he is responsible for many things. He cannot blame the previous Government, but he can blame himself for some of the issues that I am about to raise.
I represent a rural and periphery constituency—an island community. Although the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness said that this is not just about rural areas, they do suffer the most. There is a double whammy for periphery communities. If people live far from large towns and cities they have to pay more for their utilities—they are not on the gas mains, for example, and mobile phone coverage is poor by comparison. Too often, rural and periphery areas are in the slow lane, so we need Government subsidies to help address that. A lot of money has been allocated, but in many areas the 95% threshold in the Government agreement with BT is simply not good enough. I have long supported universal coverage. We should start from 100%, and if there are issues, we should tackle them, rather than set a low bar of 95%, as that 5% is predominantly in rural and periphery areas.
In the recess, I went out with BT engineers to see for myself what the issues were in my predominantly rural area. I saw some of the problems that they had to consider when they rolled out broadband and moved from copper to fibre. Yes, it is a big task for them, but they have received a lot of money to do it. I suggest that the Minister should consider going for universal coverage.
There are a number of players in the field—it is not just about whether it is private or public—including the regulator, the UK Government, BT and service providers. They keep blaming one another, and the Minister and the Department should get a grip on that and place responsibility where it lies. The Welsh Government have taken a lead in Wales with a roll-out programme that brings together UK Government money—the European Union has helped with state aid—the Welsh Government and BT. I can confirm that the result in Wales is slightly better than in most parts of England. The Minister should look at best practice in devolved Administrations. In my constituency, 80% of cabinets are live, so 80% of households can access broadband, but other areas—the 5% I have mentioned—are hard to reach.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to my declaration of interest as a property owner on the island of Ynys Môn. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an island such as Anglesey would be a perfect place to roll out mobile broadband, given that Holy Island, which is just off the coast, is relatively flat with some high points? Have the Welsh Government considered using the European money to roll out mobile broadband to get to those hard-to-reach properties?
It is good that I get the extra minute, and the hon. Gentleman has also covered a couple of pages of my speech. I am happy to defend and fight for his interests and those of his parents on the island.
The serious point is that we want the £129 million clawback to be used properly. The Welsh Government have offered grants of £1,000 to the 5% of difficult areas, £900 of which the Welsh Government provide from that pot of money and £100 of which comes from the customers and community groups that want the wireless connection. I urge the Minister, who is a very reasonable person, to look at such things rather than have a summit because, with the greatest of respect, summits are about talking and what my constituents want is action.
My constituents do not want to be in the slow lane. They do not want to be on the periphery when it comes to 21st-century technologies. I would have liked to see pilots in rural areas. Smart metering for gas and electricity is the next big issue for the country, but the providers are already saying that they cannot reach 100% of households. I want my constituents and constituents in other rural and peripheral areas to be first-class citizens in this country. They must have not only the same rights and responsibilities, but the same services. Rural areas need to compete with large towns, so we need 21st-century infrastructure. Those who say that the market can deliver should look at the mobile phone coverage in my area. It is very poor and patchy, and the market is not delivering. We want all the main players to work together to ensure that rural and peripheral areas get 100% attention and 100% broadband and mobile coverage.
I thank the Minister for everything he has done and is doing to promote the need for broadband in our constituencies. There is general agreement across the House that superfast broadband can no longer be regarded as a luxury, but is becoming increasingly essential for public services, individuals and businesses. There is a danger that a digital divide is opening up for the households that will not be able to access superfast broadband under the proposals.
It is an achievement that such a large number of additional premises have been connected to superfast broadband and that so many will be by 2017. I recognise the Government’s subsidy and support for that, as well as the work of the Minister. He tells me that some 19,000 premises in my constituency will receive superfast broadband by 2017 owing to the public funding. However, that means that some 6,500 premises in my constituency will not be able to access superfast broadband. That is not 5% or even 10% of premises in my constituency, but 15% or one in seven.
The hon. Lady makes her point well, but she will forgive me for being concerned about rural areas, since I have a rural constituency of some 250 square miles.
I wish to raise two issues. First, the time has come for us to address seriously how the digital divide will be closed. There is an existing programme and I recognise that it is steadily increasing the number of premises that can access superfast broadband, but it is clear from the Government’s figures that there will be a gap. As hon. Members have said, what our constituents want to know is how that gap will be closed.
Here is a clear case of market failure. The market says that it does not have the resources to supply the remaining percentage of difficult-to-reach households. There is a case for ensuring that public subsidy is directed at securing access for those areas that are hardest to reach, and that will undoubtedly involve a mix of technologies. I doubt that satellite technology will provide sufficient access speeds for the future, but we need to hear how the Government will ensure that rural areas are not permanently disadvantaged. Some households in my constituency can barely access broadband at all—they have the lowest possible speeds—let alone access superfast broadband. They need to hear now about future plans, recognising that their neighbours have successfully achieved that superfast access.
I believe there is a lack of competition in this area and that a shake-up of the market is needed. It is not satisfactory that 75% of new superfast broadband customers on the Openreach network are BT or BT subsidiary customers. Openreach has seen a decline in investment in that area, particularly with the copper wires that are still necessary because we do not have fibre-to-the-premises connection. The customer service provided by Openreach is simply unacceptable. One of my constituents had a delay of up to 20 months when receiving a phone line from BT, and 2,500 Sky broadband customers in my constituency who rely on Openreach have reported a fault. We know that Sky provides about one third of that service in my constituency, which means that 7,500 constituents have been affected by poor customer service. That is a constant report from my constituency.
Some 82% of my constituents wait for more than 12 days if they want to switch from BT to Sky, and there is evidence that investment by BT has been going not to the essential infrastructure necessary for Openreach but towards the acquisition of sporting rights for BT Sport on which more money has been spent. We should not be willing to accept that situation, and the merger between BT and EE is likely to make things worse because Openreach will be a smaller entity within the overall size of the group and will not be focused on such issues.
We would not accept such a lack of competition in the energy sector, yet there are fewer providers in the telecom sector for broadband than in the energy sector. The electricity market was referred to the CMA; it is now time for a similar referral for broadband to ensure that we increase investment in the area, that we have a disruption to encourage new entrants to the market, and that we future-proof new technology so that we close the digital divide.
I congratulate Matt Warman on securing this debate. I am aware of his continued interest in this area, and it is an interest that I share as I have more than 35 years of experience in the IT industry.
The technology required to facilitate the universal roll-out of high-speed broadband across the UK already exists. If a village in rural Sweden can have superfast broadband, so can any village in the United Kingdom if money is invested to provide it. If superfast broadband coverage on the Isle of Wight can reach 90%, so it can on any other island in the United Kingdom. Existing technology will no doubt continue to develop and improve, and it can provide homes or businesses in the UK with superfast broadband if there is the will and funding to provide it.
That is easy for me to say, but we have a precedent. Throughout the 20th century the UK Government have had to meet the rapidly changing technological challenges of the time, whether the establishment of a reliable telegram service, or the affordable installation of telephones in family homes. Our youngest constituents would be perplexed by the idea that providing multiple premises with a shared telephone landline was once the pinnacle of our technological achievements.
The economic, business and social advantages of superfast broadband are self-evident. Indeed, lack of connectivity stifles business growth and can accelerate emigration, particularly in fragile rural communities. I am aware, for example, that the rural communities of Durness and Tongue in Sutherland are to get fibre-optic broadband.
It is welcome that these small centres of population will have access to quality broadband services, but the same cannot be said for the small crofting communities in between the two villages—a distance of about 20 miles. One of those missing the opportunity of high-speed broadband is the internationally renowned ceramics artist, Lotte Glob. Her business, which is based in Laid on the shores of Loch Eriboll, is severely restricted by her lack of access to superfast broadband. I have no doubt that each and every Member, if they were inclined to, could identify such businesses in their constituencies. Lotte’s is just one of many.
It is not only rural communities that are affected, however. Many urban areas are plagued by difficult economic conditions and the associated problem of emigration. Increased connectivity can be an important tool in reversing this trend. Inverclyde has a relatively low availability of superfast broadband of at least 24 megabits compared with other constituencies. It is important to appreciate the gap in service provision between urban and rural areas, but we must also recognise that it is too simplistic to characterise the issue as primarily affecting only rural communities.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite the fact that his constituency and mine are neighbours in the central belt, there are areas such as Bridge of Weir and Houston that might as well be on the dark side of the moon when it comes to broadband speeds, and that the superfast broadband roll-out provides an ideal opportunity to end the postcode lottery on broadband speeds?
I would, and I could add to that list Kilmacolm and Inverkip since we are playing that game.
Businesses in Inverclyde and across the UK will attest to the competitive advantage that super high-speed broadband gives them. Their ability to research, advertise, communicate and sell is enhanced by having access to the fastest possible connection, as well as a customer base that has good broadband speeds. To underline the importance of broadband services, we need only to listen to the Federation of Small Businesses, which believes that access to fast, reliable broadband is now essential for a modern business and should be considered alongside other utilities such as gas, water and electricity. FSB research also found that 99% of small firms rate the internet as “highly important” to their business, with 51% of FSB members already offering services online and a further 15% planning to do so in the future.
I look forward to seeing more detail about the UK Government’s commitment to a universal service obligation for broadband, in addition to more information about what is considered an appropriate speed requirement for a legally binding obligation. It is surprising that the current USO commits only to internet speeds appropriate to dial-up modems. The FSB indicated that in 2014 there were still about 45,000 businesses operating on dial-up internet speeds, which is simply unacceptable with the current technology we have at our disposal.
Matt Warman mentioned the investment of public funds in the highlands and islands. What he perhaps did not mention was that funding actually coming from the Scottish Government, the Highlands and Islands Enterprise and councils to help to develop broadband. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is making the difference for the highlands and islands?
It is certainly a great enhancement to the process we are trying to force through.
The Scottish Government are helping to meet this demand through the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme, which is divided into the highlands and islands project and the rest of Scotland project. Significant progress has already been made towards the goal of 95% coverage of superfast broadband in Scotland by 2017. The Scottish Government are undoubtedly making great strides in rolling out superfast broadband across the country, particularly when our challenging geography and spread of population is considered, yet even if we meet our target of 95% of premises with superfast broadband by the end of 2017, there will still be a small but significant number of people without access until 2020.
I therefore commend Scottish Government’s measures being implemented to ensure that we eradicate all “not spots” from our network. The rural broadband scheme is just one example. Its £9 million of additional funding will reach out to harder-to-reach areas that might not otherwise benefit from the wider programme.
Whether it is grandparents Skyping with their grandchildren, students researching for exams, gamers burning the midnight oil or businesses trading with customers and clients, the experience is more positive and beneficial on a faster secure connection. Therefore, as we make the final push towards universal coverage, it is vital that we accelerate the rate of implementation and ensure that none of our constituents is left behind.
I thank my hon. Friend Matt Warman for helping to set up the all-party group on broadband and digital communication, which we chair together. He rightly said that neither of us was an expert in the field of technology, but along with colleagues in this House and the other place we are passionate about getting broadband rolled out across the country. It is important to remember that the group was set up in response to the incredible feedback we received during the election from people absolutely sick to death of not being able to get broadband. Somebody said to me in Somerset: “We have broadband apartheid”. It was possibly over the top, but I understood what they meant.
I wish to speak about the problems in my constituency and in Somerset more widely. In fact, three of us from Somerset are here, as my hon. Friends the Members for Wells (James Heappey) and for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) are also in their places. [Interruption.] Of course, I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wells.
I apologise. It was mentioned before that my hon. Friend here, but I thought he had gone. So four out of five Somerset Members are here.
One of the big problems in Somerset is that we have tied ourselves up with Devon in Connecting Devon and Somerset. The Minister has been extremely helpful, but we are one of the few parts of Britain that does not have a phase 2 plan. The county councils—not the MPs—not only did not sign the agreement but leaked to the BBC the fact that they were not going to sign it before they told us, which left us in a difficult position. One problem now is that the Minister and his team are trying to arrange procurement through Europe so that we are not left behind. I believe the only other area of Britain that has not got 95% roll-out tied up is Scotland—I am sure one of its Members will correct me if I am wrong.
Places such as Exmoor will have to rely on wireless technology, as might places such as the Mendips and the Blackdowns, but that will not help when surrounding areas, in Somerton and Frome—get that in—and elsewhere, are missing out because we cannot guarantee the same roll-out across the whole area. In Exmoor, they will have to put up 50 masts, which is an enormous number for a national park to give permission for. Is it not better to work with BT—exasperated as some of us are with it—to get superfast cable out? It is not satisfactory just to go for satellite, as my right hon. Friend Nick Herbert said, or wireless. It is not the same. As my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness said, the technology is not up to it.
We are in a difficult position, because unless we roll out broadband across the United Kingdom, including in places in Scotland such as Inverclyde and elsewhere, people are going to get more and more disillusioned. In areas such as ours, where people depend on broadband if they want to work from home, we cannot get it. It is still quicker in parts of Somerset to send a letter than an email. In parts of Exmoor, people cannot get television without a Sky box. Does anyone want to put all their eggs into Mr Murdoch’s basket? The answer is no. So the situation is difficult right across the area.
The Minister has an extremely good team in the Department—I know because I have met them—helping with procurement in Somerset. Chris Thompson, who heads that team, is first rate. We need to take this further. The time allocated for this debate is not adequate—three or four minutes per speech is not enough to get the message across. Could we continue the debate at another time, either through the Backbench Business Committee or in Government time?
Will the Minister announce that his team will help the areas in difficulty? He now helpfully sends out his monthly bulletin, which is extremely good and gratefully received, but places such as Devon and Somerset are stuck, partly owing to the incompetence of councillors—I will not mention names, unfortunately, but he knows who I am talking about—and partly because people are not prepared to take this seriously. I therefore urge him to announce today that his team will help these places. We have heard from places such as Inverclyde. There is no difference between Inverclyde and Somerset and Devon. We are all in the same boat, and it is going down, and we have certainly lost the paddle.
I, too, would like to congratulate Matt Warman on securing and opening the debate. The question I want to address is why, as we are hearing from the debate across the Chamber, this roll-out is proving so disappointing. [Interruption.] The Minister says it is not, but one simply has to listen to the contributions made from Members from rural and urban areas to realise that there is deep disappointment about what is happening.
I think that the essential problem—the Minister knows my view—is that Ministers have lost sight of the lesson that competition needs to be at the heart of telecommunications policy. We have heard lip service paid to competition since 2010, but have seen no serious attempt to drive forward competition in telecommunications —and now we are paying the price, as seen in the complaints aired in this debate.
Earlier this month, there was a very interesting leading article in The Financial Times, pointing to the willingness of the Conservative party
“to cosy up to corporate champions and established business interests.”
It continued by saying—Conservative Members should listen—that the Conservatives’
“penchant for protecting corporate interests is not healthy. With productivity still the UK’s biggest economic challenge, their instinct should be to promote competition. Politicians of the Thatcher generation must be astonished that the lesson still needs to be learnt.”
I think The Financial Times is absolutely right.
I simply refer the hon. Gentleman to the many examples of the effectiveness of competition in telecommunications policy—perhaps most strikingly in the design of the 3G spectrum auction in 2000. That auction was structured to make absolutely sure that there was a new entrant, and one of the licences was taken up by a company that had not previously been in the market. I think we would all agree that over the last 12 years that new entrant has had a dramatic impact on reducing prices, improving quality, extending coverage and promoting innovation. There is no shortage of examples of the beneficial impacts of competition.
As I said in my intervention, it remains astonishing to me—I raised the issue with Ministers at the time—that no effort was made to ensure that there was at least some diversity of provision in the publicly funded roll-out of superfast broadband. Instead, all the money has gone to BT. The consequence today is that BT has Ministers over a barrel. Ministers have no levers whatever to address the problems we are hearing about from Members of all parties—and they are getting progressively worse—relating to our disappointing position on superfast broadband roll-out.
I make no criticism of BT, which has simply done what any effective company would do when presented with a gift horse—it has accepted it. It is now recognised that BT was overpaid for the infrastructure it provided, so it has to start paying back some of the handout it received. Usage of the infrastructure has been a good deal higher than predicted, so BT is paying back some of the windfall it has enjoyed, but I believe only half of it. As with the 3G spectrum auction, this exercise should have been structured to make sure that there was at least some diversity of provision. Other companies bid; BT beats all of them every time. We therefore have nobody else with which to compare BT’s performance, no alternative approaches to consider and no levers at all through which the Minister could try to promote better services in the future.
In a few minutes, the Minister will do his duty and assure us that everything is fine with the roll-out of superfast broadband, but the reality, as this debate is making clear, is otherwise. What Ministers need to do even at this very late stage is to relearn the lessons embraced by their Conservative predecessors and to find ways to inject some competition into this market—a market that, as we are rightly being reminded, is very important for the productivity and prosperity of Britain.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Warman.
I shall try to keep my comments brief, because many Members are present. I am sure that that is because we all share the same frustration at the slow roll-out and the lack of availability of fast broadband, especially in rural areas. I use the word “fast” rather than the word “superfast” because in chunks of rural Hampshire we aspire not to superfast broadband, but just to something that is usable. Town and country appear to have split, and not even neatly, into the haves and the have-nots, with the digital divide most keenly felt in villages where downloading from Netflix is merely a romantic dream and the mundane tasks of tax returns and communicating with the Rural Payments Agency , or even just shopping online, are at best painfully slow and at worst impossible.
My hon. Friend is highlighting all the important aspects of being connected to the internet, and of broadband, to individuals. Will she also acknowledge that the rural economy is worth £400 billion, and that it is therefore especially important for rural areas to be connected to broadband?
My hon. Friend has made an excellent point, which I shall deal with later in my speech.
At this point, I could lapse into a great long list of villages in my constituency where broadband is slow and unreliable, but let me first point out that this is Hampshire. It is not Inverclyde, or rural Somerset, but a county that is the largest in the south-east and has a population of nearly 2 million. At its closest point, my constituency is just 65 miles from Westminster—not, of course, that that appears to be a guarantee of good service: as we heard from Stephen Timms, London suffers as well. Earlier this year, the villagers of Barton Stacey were celebrating the upgrade of the nearby exchange at Sutton Scotney because they finally had access to a speed of 0.5 megabits. That is the harsh reality for people in such villages. Anything is better than nothing, but it still is not good enough to enable someone to do their homework.
Let me briefly turn to the positives. The National Audit Office has reported that phase 1 of the roll-out is progressing well, but the Minister’s own figures indicate that, by the end of 2017, 13% of my constituency will still be waiting. The superconnected cities vouchers were a great initiative, but rural businesses tell me of their frustration that they were not eligible although they had started from a worse position.
Across the Test valley, planning policy has for years been to convert redundant farm buildings into commercial premises. We have countless attractive barn conversions where entrepreneurs are employing people and contributing to the national and rural economies, but are being hampered from competing in a digital world. Their perfectly reasonable question is, “If this is crucial for urban businesses, why is it less important for the rural ones?”
Of course, the problem is not limited to businesses. Home owners moving into new developments often find that fast broadband is not only not available, but not even scheduled to be available. New developments appear to have been simply forgotten as part of the process. One constituent in Stanbridge Lakes was recently quoted a figure of £27,000 to be connected, an amount way beyond the means of any ordinary person.
I urge the Minister to make superfast broadband a requirement for developers as part of the planning process, and potentially as part of the section 106 process. In 2015, no one would dream of building a development with no access to electricity, water or adequate drainage, but it seems to be perfectly possible to build large housing developments with no access to the fibre network. According to information from Hampshire county council, Hampshire will not, in fact, have 95% coverage by the end of 2017. It will be September 2018 before wave 2 of this complex engineering project reaches that target—across the county, that is; rural constituencies such as mine aspire to a target of 87%. I know that there are satellite solutions—of course there are—but, according to my constituent from David Hepworth, from Up Somborne,
“good reviews of satellite broadband seem rather hard to find”.
Householders, local authorities and businesses all feel that they are over the proverbial barrel. The only game in town is BT, whose reputation in villages such as Sherfield English, Lockerley, West Tytherley and East Dean is poor. The service is slow and patchy, phone lines are notoriously unreliable, and there is a lack of capacity. Contractors even routinely disconnect one household in order to add a line to another: that has happened four times to one of my constituents, Ian Forfar. A resident of Lockerley has had her phone number unilaterally changed by BT with no warning, and Mrs Sara Gruzelier of West Dean has told me that BT seemed perfectly happy to send her husband and Brigadier Hargreaves (retired)—with a combined age of 150—up a ladder to do its job for it.
What my constituents want is some reassurance from the Minister that he will look at the timescales for roll-out, make sure promised deadlines are met and that alternative technologies are in place for the 13% who suffer from that digital divide, and work with DCLG and local authorities on new developments. None of this is unreasonable, but for rural areas of Romsey and Southampton North it seems a long way from Openreach and more like “out of reach”.
Like other Members, I welcome this debate. Setting percentage targets for the UK as a whole can mask huge variations within regions, as we have heard from many hon. Members. That is why a debate and ongoing scrutiny by Members are required.
This was further demonstrated by the fact that, just as the UK Government have set a 95% UK target for connectivity to superfast broadband, the Scottish Government have done likewise for Scotland. However, the reality is that for this to happen in Scotland the Scottish Government and local authorities have had to invest more money than has been provided from Broadband Delivery UK. That is not how I would foresee the funding proportions working. Going forward, I hope there will be further UK moneys for the 5% gap. This also shows that future strategies on broadband and mobile coverage need to focus on difficult-to-reach areas from the outset so they can set true budget requirements. That needs to be considered for 4G.
My constituency has a large rural element, and there is undoubtedly a lack of broadband access in some of the rural areas. I also represent Kilmarnock, which is one of the bigger towns in Scotland, and worryingly there is an area in Kilmarnock that still has broadband connectivity that is, to quote a resident, “worse than dial-up”.
My constituency has superfast broadband connectivity of 61%, far below that of many other urban constituencies in the UK, and certainly falling short of the UK average of 79%. Does my hon. Friend agree that roll-out seems to be inconsistent, with some constituencies appearing to receive a higher priority than others?
I agree, and we have heard that from other Members today, too. My constituency has a similar connectivity rate.
There is an area of Kilmarnock that is not going to have superfast connectivity. That is because BT has decided it is not economic. This follows on from inadequate investment in infrastructure previously by BT. I call on BT to reconsider that.
Returning to rural considerations, an early engagement I had as an MP was attending a BT Openreach consultation event in a local village. What struck me was that the majority of the people who attended went away disappointed because they lived in the rural locality and so would not be included. This is typical of the difference between expectation and reality in terms of broadband.
It is a fact that HMRC and agricultural claims have to be done online, and welfare requirements and job applications will have to be done online in the future, too. We also know that more people want to work from home. This again illustrates the fact that we need better rural connectivity.
I would contrast this slightly with the UK Government’s £150 million investment to have connected cities. That is welcome, but it exacerbates fears for those areas still missing out and left in the final 5% sweep-up. There are concerns about how long that is going to take.
The Industrial Communities Alliance publications “Whose Recovery” and, more recently, “Growth Beyond the Big Cities” illustrate perfectly that only certain regions of the UK have had any form of sustained recovery and, importantly, city growth often does nothing for the wider rural hinterland, both in terms of wider job growth and access to city jobs because there are issues to do with connectivity to the cities. We must ensure that in future rural areas do not have the same connectivity issues online.
I stay approximately 25 miles from Glasgow city centre, yet my constituency is one of the 10% most affected in terms of households with broadband access of less than 2 megabits per second; and currently only 69% of households have access to superfast broadband. These statistics illustrate the contrast within my constituency and neighbouring constituencies. A more detailed analysis is required of below the UK general target of 95% coverage for superfast, and we need to understand that some households are missing out. My constituency is also in the bottom 10% with regards to unemployment statistics. The wider rural area has open-cast coal legacy issues, and unfortunately the UK Government are washing hands of that.
I call for additional UK broadband funding to allow digital access for all. That would be a good way forward. It is counter-intuitive to have connectivity issues where there is higher unemployment and in some cases general remoteness. That point will be echoed in other constituencies. A “not spot” summit should look at how that marries with unemployment and at where there is the greatest need for future investment.
The Scottish Government have made their commitment clear and are doing all they can, and in my constituency have been supported by the local authority. I call on the UK Government to develop a strategy, to provide the necessary funding for those who will currently miss out on superfast broadband, and to provide timescales for that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Warman on securing this debate and on all his hard and well-informed work on this subject. I also congratulate the Minister on indulging my fairly regular correspondence on these matters and replying promptly and thoroughly every time.
I also welcome the work of the Connecting Devon and Somerset programme, which for all its faults has accelerated its work over the summer, and ever more homes are now coming online not only in my constituency but across those counties. I am encouraged by the Minister’s comment in his letter to me last week suggesting that phase one will reach 82% coverage in my constituency, but that clearly means there is a great deal left to do in phases two and three, and I wish to make some points on those phases.
First, there is a belief that there is an inherent flaw in the fibre-to-the-cabinet model that is being rolled out. Across the Wells constituency, and I suspect in similar constituencies across the country, as cabinets go live there are large numbers of properties—indeed, whole villages—that do not benefit from the upgrade of the cabinet because the run of copper from the cabinet to the villages or houses is too long. I encourage BT and the programmes across the country, particularly Connecting Devon and Somerset, urgently to embrace the fibre-to-the-remote-node solution so that fibre can be taken much further into those villages and premises can benefit.
I very much agree. It has been suggested to me by people whose analysis I have come to trust that the fibre-to-the-cabinet model suits BT and it is therefore rather convenient that Openreach should be pursuing that model. It seems to me that if Openreach were not a part of the BT group and was completely independent it may be free to pursue other models and technologies that might work just as well for other service providers and therefore, crucially, deliver more competition in those communities.
There is an urgent need for transparency. According to statistics provided by Ofcom, the Wells constituency is ranked 593rd out of the 650 constituencies represented in this House for broadband coverage of 24 megabits per second or better. The statistics show that coverage in my constituency is 43%, but in the course of my correspondence with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport the Department has suggested that the constituency has 62% coverage. That lack of clarity and certainty over the state of the roll-out is very worrying as we go cabinet by cabinet, village by village and indeed house by house to ensure that every single premises, be it domestic or commercial, is connected. I cannot believe that the only way to get a snapshot of the coverage in our constituencies is to provide the electoral roll to the programme so that it can examine every single house. There must be a better way of giving us the data we require.
We are talking today about “not spots”, and my concern is that they relate not simply to broadband but to mobile coverage, too. As the industry moves towards bundling, whereby the providers of television, mobile, broadband and landline services will provide bundled packages, the difference between the haves and the have-nots will become ever more stark. We therefore need to future-proof the solution that we are delivering, and to ensure that, across the country, superfast broadband and genuinely decent mobile coverage—ideally with 3G as its benchmark—are achieved sooner rather than later. I very much welcome the fact that the aim of this debate is to call for a “not spot” summit. I simply ask that we do not hold that summit until all of us are equipped with the data we need to contribute to it properly on behalf of our constituents.
The main problems that fill my inbox on a daily basis are complaints about BT, so it is fitting that my office manager has texted me today to inform me that our internet connection has gone down. So, BT, if you are listening—that needs to be fixed. Given that BT is a telecommunications company, communications with its customers seem to be a particular problem. For superfast broadband roll-out in Scotland, it has been given £286 million collectively from the Scottish Government, Scottish local authorities, the EU and the UK Government. It is therefore unacceptable for BT to push back installation dates for business by three months from the original date. It is also unacceptable for someone to have to take two days off work to wait for an engineer who fails to turn up. A survey of my constituents has shown that only 33% were contacted to tell them of delays or cancellations relating to their appointments. That is unacceptable.
Furthermore, given the levels of public investment in the programme, it is also unacceptable for BT-employed contractors to be sent from Glasgow to north-east Scotland to do a 10-minute job. For those unfamiliar with the geography of Scotland, that is roughly a six-hour round trip. My constituents have found it extremely difficult to complain to BT about their issues. They contact the company, only to find that they have to contact Openreach, which then bounces them back to BT. For many customers, BT Openreach is one and the same company, and this grey area makes it even more difficult for BT to be held to account.
Rural areas will achieve their full potential only with the arrival of superfast broadband. BT continues to roll it out to rural areas, but significant issues remain, as James Heappey mentioned. There might be fibre to the cabinet, but the use of copper wires means that anyone living more than 2 miles from the cabinet is unlikely to receive superfast broadband. The situation is made even more frustrating by BT’s odd choice of locations for the fibre cabinets. For example, in the village of Marykirk in my constituency, the cabinet is three quarters of a mile from the village centre, at the bottom of a flooded field.
Rural areas such as those in my constituency need BT to provide a consistent and reliable service. We also need to be able to hold BT to account for the service it delivers. That is why we must give serious consideration to Ofcom’s review and the proposal to split BT and Openreach. For rural areas to survive and thrive, we need a reliable, fast internet infrastructure capable of sustaining 21st century jobs and lifestyles.
I can start on a slightly happier note than some did. It was not in the first week of May this year that my family’s lives were changed significantly, but in the first week of March. Previously, the internet in our small village had not been at all reliable at peak times, or when it rained, as it occasionally does in north Oxfordshire. Then, overnight, my husband stopped commuting and joined the army of those who work at home, I found that I could answer emails in seconds, and the children found to their amazement that they could watch reruns of “Top Gear”, on a variety of devices, in every room of the house. For me, the advent of superfast broadband will for ever be associated with Jeremy Clarkson. Quite simply, reliable fast internet changed all our lives.
I am sure that the Minister is as proud as I am of our local branch of Broadband Delivery UK. I was able to meet representatives of the branch during the recent recess. Better Broadband for Oxfordshire is committed to doing just what its name implies. To date, it has delivered on target, on time and under budget for the two years it has been in existence, and it is ranked fourth in the country for delivery. It can surely be no coincidence that the Minister represents the neighbouring constituency to my own. Better Broadband for Oxfordshire is funded from a variety of interested groups, including our local enterprise partnership, BDUK and our district councils. Despite all this excellent work, however, much of my casework still concerns the lack of broadband.
One issue is that commercial providers of broadband declare an interest in providing services for a particular area. If they are successful, those declarations remain valid for three years, and the service might not be provided until the end of that period. That is a long time for a village or an industrial estate to wait. Better Broadband for Oxfordshire has in some cases needed to challenge those delays, and has on occasion needed to take over the delivery of the service. However, a better solution could be to shorten the period allowed for delivery, and to insist that the service is provided in a timely fashion.
Another big issue in Oxfordshire is attenuation. Much of our network is still reliant on old copper lines, and copper replacement will need to take place if we are truly to realise the potential of broadband, but that will require enormous investment. The older lines are a particular problem in rural areas, especially for farmers. As much farming is conducted online as it is in the cowshed these days. Those of us who have tried to download Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs manuals, or even to fill in a tax return, over a less-than-perfect connection know how frustrating that can be. If a provider can be found to install fibre-optic cables to remote farms, that has to be paid for. There is some confusion over whether an EU subsidy of, I believe, about £3,000 is available to assist farmers in paying for that installation. The National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association take slightly different views on whether the subsidy can be claimed by those who also claim the single farm payment. I would be grateful for clarification on that point. It is important that the Government do not assume that all Government business can be conducted online before we have achieved more universality of service. I hope that, following the “not spot” summit, I shall be able to go back to my constituents in north Oxfordshire with concrete ideas and timetables for the future.
I should like to thank Matt Warman for securing this debate on what is perhaps the most important economic issue for rural constituencies. My inbox, like that of my hon. Friend Stuart Blair Donaldson, seems to be bursting almost daily with messages from vast swathes of people in rural areas who cannot connect to the internet at anything better than dial-up speeds.
All broadband policy, under successive UK Governments, has focused on covering a certain percentage of population rather than a percentage of the geographical land mass. That is fine if you live in London, Glasgow or Manchester, because that is where the numbers are, but it is completely useless if you live in my constituency. My main message over the medium to long term is that this House needs to change that focus. We need to change tack. We need to focus on geographical roll-out instead of having this fixation with speed in populated areas.
My constituency is rural, running 100 miles from east to west and with 200 miles of coastline. Our biggest town is 80 miles from our second largest town. In between, thousands, if not tens of thousands, of my constituents live more than 2 miles from a superfast broadband exchange cabinet. That is the key to rural digital connectivity, as was alluded to by James Heappey. People in my constituency are in line to receive superfast broadband only if they live within
2 miles of a fibre-optic exchange, and people often need to be within 1 mile of that exchange to get workable speeds. This will leave thousands of my constituents with no prospect of any kind of workable speeds. It is rural communities, with low-wage economies, dispersed public services and many infrastructure challenges, that need the help the most.
My constituency has more small businesses per head of population than anywhere else in Scotland, which is an incredible statistic given the digital disadvantages we suffer. Rural businesses are the driving force in my constituency. They are our biggest employers and it is essential that they are given the tools they need to grow. Let us consider our farmers, for example. Ours is a farming region, and our farmers, already squeezed by milk prices and other pressures, are being asked increasingly to rely on an almost non-existent connection. They have to deal with common agricultural policy applications, VAT and pay-as-you-earn returns, and applications for livestock passports and for animal registrations. All those jobs should take minutes with superfast broadband, but in reality they take hours and days with little better than dial-up speeds. That drains not only valuable commercial time, but huge amounts of what I would describe as rural gold-dust enthusiasm. They face all that before they attempt to diversify, which, amazingly, they are doing fantastically well despite being lumbered with a digital ball and chain.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you can never fully appreciate how encroaching on modern life digital exclusion can be unless you experience it for yourself. For that reason, I suggest that the “not-spot summit” be held in my constituency. People could come to Dumfries and Galloway to meet the young people who cannot get connected to the internet and to talk to our older people. They will be happy to explain how isolating it can be not to be able to see the photographs of the new baby or the grandchild’s first day back at school. People could come to meet our business leaders and ask them how they can expand their customer base or even stay still with these non-existent speeds. When it comes to booking a hotel room, people could ask our hoteliers how this affects them.
In another generation this place felt it proper to enact a universal obligation for telephone lines. This generation says it is now time to do the same for superfast broadband.
I know that many of my constituents will have been very pleased to hear about the targets for broadband roll-out for phases 1 and 2, but although they are a loyal and robust bunch I do not think they will be placing any bets on seeing those targets met in Somerset. The people of Somerton and Frome are not only noble in reason, but infinite in their many faculties. Their fingers are right now poised over innumerable mice, waiting to start an avalanche of innovative businesses and new ventures, but they cannot do so because, depending on whom you believe, my constituency rejoices in being either the 10th or the 14th-worst connected constituency in the country. BT and Connecting Devon and Somerset have so far completely refused at the fence of phase 2.
The Government’s recognition of the importance of rural broadband and the possible consideration of a universal service obligation are therefore both extremely welcome, particularly alongside the planned wider physical infrastructure investment in the south-west, but we have seen some extraordinary anomalies so far. In the planned upgrade of Wincanton, for example, much of the town will see improved connectivity but the business park—the economic heart of the town—has been overlooked. That is one example of many, and I have spoken to a number of business that feel they may even need to move their operations outside Somerset in order to remain viable—moving from Somerset is, of course, a dreadful prospect for anyone to contemplate.
This dismal digital disconnectivity does not only affect businesses, but contributes to the exodus of young people from Somerton and Frome. I have highlighted before the fact that three quarters of our young people leave Somerset after their education. How can we persuade them to stay in the west country and make it somewhere to achieve their dreams unless we provide the tools they need to render those dreams in their full digital glory? The negative effects of inadequate broadband can only grow exponentially worse. In the past few years we have seen the bursting forward of the so-called sharing economy, and there are community projects in my constituency that are totally dependent on online co-ordination and organisation. I am thinking of tremendous organisations such as Frome’s excellent and very famous Electric Car Club, which harness the natural generosity and the entrepreneurial spirit of Somerset. It is arguably sad but true that nothing has greater potential to stimulate today’s rural economy than rural broadband, and it will be dire for our local economy if our entrepreneurial zeal remains stuck in the 1990s while our neighbours disappear into the 21st-century horizon.
Properly managed, a comprehensive broadband roll-out can, with one leap, act literally as a fibrous ligament binding together businesses, charities, communities and people, not only to other parts of Britain, but to each other and the rest of the world. Therefore, I very much welcome the motion, as a “not-spot” summit would certainly be an invaluable step forward. In combination with the physical infrastructure investment that the Government are providing, those fibrous ligaments will soon grow flesh and can bit by bit become muscular tendons, perfectly placed to propel the rural economy into the future.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important issue. As has been said, this is not just about superfast broadband, because too many people in Britain have no access to any broadband—even slow broadband is a much sought-after luxury in the rural parts of my constituency. Believe me, I know about this. I can speak from personal experience. In 2007, I moved 3 miles up the road into a house with the most breathtaking views, right in the heart of rural Burnley. Prudently, I thought it wise to check with BT before moving about access to broadband, and I was assured that there would be no problem. However, when I moved in and tried to get a connection I was told that I was too far from the exchange after all. Eventually I managed to secure broadband via a satellite, but that was expensive and never totally satisfactory; strong winds would regularly require the dish to be realigned, incurring yet more expense, and the speeds were low and never sufficient to give wireless access, so only one person could use the internet at any one time. Downloading the smallest of files was a time-consuming nightmare. I did not even have the option of using 4G to access emails, because it is a fact that I got a better mobile phone signal in the middle of the Serengeti than I ever had in my home.
I only live in rural Burnley, 5 miles from the town centre, not on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere—welcome to 21st-century Britain! Now, a full eight years later, I have finally got a fully functioning broadband service from BT. It is not superfast, but it works. Alas, many of my constituents still have no broadband service at all, and as recently as last week BT confirmed that there are no plans to provide 100% coverage in my constituency in the foreseeable future. So much in our lives now requires us to be able to get online. Whether for someone struggling to run a business from home or an old person trying to order online groceries, this current state of affairs is frankly not good enough. In the current dotcom economy those without online access are second-class citizens. How can we expect Britain to compete with other countries when our broadband coverage is so poor? Not only is the coverage patchy, but a recent Guardian money investigation highlighted the fact that we are being overcharged for the privilege. Over the past four years, British home phone and broadband customers have seen prices rise by between 25% and 30%. Prices are as much as 50% higher than standard prices in Europe. We have seen a number of mergers and acquisitions resulting in reduced competition and higher prices. There are strong similarities with the energy sector where loyal customers are exploited. There is even greater reluctance to change internet supplier than to change electricity supplier because of the fear of losing connectivity.
I welcome and support the motion and look forward to seeing a Government action plan that will address this issue and give a 100% coverage to Britain in the 21st century.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. The House will be aware that most speeches have not taken four minutes. That is perfectly fine as there have been interventions. A debate is supposed to have interventions as they are what makes it lively and worth while, but after the next speaker, I will have to reduce the time limit to three minutes. The last speaker with four minutes is Mr Richard Drax.
I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to slip in here so that I get the extra minute. May I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and also thank my hon. Friend Matt Warman for securing this timely debate? I pay tribute to the Minister, who has listened to me and to colleagues from all parts of the House for many months. I am afraid that my message now is that he will have to go on listening for many months more until we all get the broadband that we so desperately need. In general, I agree with nearly everything that has been said and the concerns that have been expressed.
I wish to focus briefly on a tiny museum in a very beautiful part of my constituency called Kimmeridge—I am sure that some Members have been there. At the moment, the staff communicate by using smoke signals, a Coca-Cola can and some string or flags. In fact, they have to use anything they have to hand, as the lack of communication is so serious. Steven Etches, who has been a plumber all his life and who is now in his mid-50s, is one of the world’s most renowned collectors of fossils. He has dedicated those fossils to a special museum, which won lottery funding of some £2.5 million. In addition to that remarkable achievement, he has also won an MBE—and rightly so. He was promised that, in 2017, a wonderful state-of-the-art museum would be built. It would attract people into South Dorset, educate both grown-ups and children about what used to stomp across our cliffs—no, not the Liberal Democrats—millions of years ago and help us learn all about our history. It was to be properly provided with internet broadband. Unfortunately, he has now learned that that is not the case, and the building work currently under way has been plagued with problems. John Woodward is the project director. He says the project has no broadband and virtually no mobile signal. The contractors who are used to dealing with suppliers and architects by telephone and email have been cut off. Consequently, the entire design team has been forced, at extreme expense and time, to come down to Kimmeridge to ensure that things are going to plan. This is what is happening in 21st-century Kimmeridge in South Dorset.
Mr Woodward tells me that BT appears to be totally unable to upgrade the village landlines, and indeed, recently, the entire village was cut off. The museum has asked BT for nine telephone lines, but Mr Woodward is not hopeful. He says that BT can provide temporary lines by pairing with existing ones, but for permanent lines it would have “to do something”. In the end, the fossil museum, local farmers, businesses and private individuals will be piggybacking on the new VoIP—voice-over internet protocol technology—to be installed by French oil firm, Perenco. That will give a signal of 30 megabits and will cost £99 a month. BT was quoting somewhere around £100,000. Without private enterprise, this particular scheme would not have met its deadline. Something has to happen. Something can happen with a little imagination, competition and flair. Let us get off our backsides and jolly well connect up the country.
Like many other hon. Members, I have been contacted by many businesses in rural areas in my constituency regarding the availability of superfast broadband—or rather the lack of it. It is a serious issue in my constituency, which is why I wanted to speak in this debate.
Telecommunications is a reserved matter. However, the UK Government have not done enough in supporting rural areas with the development of modern technologies, and that threatens to send the message that large geographical chunks of my constituency are closed for business, which is absolutely not the case. The Government will argue that increases in spending on broadband development projects have seen Scotland receive a rise in funding, and that is true. However, the rise is not significant enough and the Scottish Government have stepped in to match that funding. They have doubled its value to try to deliver the upgrades that are required.
I do not want the hon. Gentleman to give the wrong impression to the House. When he says that telecoms is a reserved matter, it is the case that the Scottish Government are in charge of the roll-out of superfast broadband in Scotland. He said that the Scottish Government stepped in to top up the money. Every project area in England, Scotland and Wales has provided match funding. It is not as if the Scottish Government came to the rescue; that was always the deal.
The Minister is responsible for the funding for it.
Despite these efforts, much of Scotland’s rural zones are left in digital darkness, and that frustrates those in my constituency and in many others. The fact that the Scottish Government, a devolved Administration with no responsibility for telecommunications, have had to play such a role in this situation is not acceptable. The roll-out is inadequate for the businesses that I represent. According to Ofcom’s 2014 figures, superfast broadband services were accessible by 75% of the people in the UK. Broken down, that figure was as high as 77% for England, and as low as 61% for Scotland. At the bottom of the scale was Wales with just 55%. There is a clear disparity across the United Kingdom that must be addressed.
In Stirling, a diverse constituency of urban and rural areas, only 57% of people have access to superfast broadband. A constituency that can benefit from a wealth of business opportunities, has a rich cultural and historical heritage and has the potential to expand its tourism industry needs broadband. As technology moves on, we must invest. Stirling, which is a constituency with so much potential, is currently 543rd out of the 650 UK parliamentary constituencies for superfast broadband access, so Members can see why this is such a big issue in my part of the world. Indeed, 2014 figures show that 8% of the Stirling constituency only has access to slow connections—defined by access speeds lower than 2 megabits per second. I hope the Minister will agree that we must make progress on this matter.
It is also important to recognise the efforts of Stirling Council, which joined other local authorities across Scotland in investing in the digital broadband Scotland project. Last year, with all-party support, the council invested £600,000, and it should be congratulated for so doing.
Ofcom currently safeguards the existing universal service obligations for postal and telecommunications services. A similar obligation for broadband providers was announced by the Chancellor, and I welcome that. However, it is important to note that businesses—the majority of which will rely on high bandwidth in order to expand their online presence—will benefit only to a limited degree unless the megabit limit is as high as we can achieve. I do not think that 5 megabits will be high enough and it should be revised upwards.
In conclusion, the UK Government have much to consider in their approach to the investment in broadband. I look forward to following the ongoing debate.
I represent a new town and want to make one simple point, which I will definitely make within my three minutes. We have significant areas of new build property in Telford, so this is not just a rural issue. People come to Telford to buy the dream, but they get their value-for-money new build housing and suddenly discover when they arrive that they have been sold a pup. When I moved to Telford in 2013, I just assumed that broadband and mobile coverage would be a given—a normal expectation of everyday life—yet in parts of Telford, in modern fast-growing areas such as Lightmoor, Lawley and Trench Lock, that investment in basic infrastructure was not there. Similarly, in the Ironbridge gorge, a world heritage centre that is a mecca for tourism and leisure, there is no mobile coverage at all. Businesses and residents alike struggle with the daily frustrations that that creates.
In 2012, the Labour-controlled local council turned down Government funding to tackle the problem, saying that
“in an ideal world we would like to invest in broadband but we do not live in an ideal world”.
So the council said, “ No thank you, Government. We do not want the money and do not want to invest in broadband.” Online community champions such as Telford Live and Lightmoor Life, along with the Shropshire Star, campaigned for change and, fortunately, three years on, Telford and Wrekin Council has changed its mind—we are now in an ideal world—and a deal with BT and Broadband Delivery UK has been signed. I am looking forward to 2017, when it will all be absolutely fine, but it could have happened a lot earlier if we had had a co-operative council—and I do not mean that in the sense that Labour would mean it.
Let us remember that new homes need infrastructure. They cannot be built in a void, as though they have just landed from Mars. Basic infrastructure in the 21st century means fast broadband and mobile coverage. Connecting Telford, as well as many other constituencies across the country, is vital for business, jobs and growth. I thank the Minister for his patience. I know that it has been very frustrating for him to have to listen to all these gripes, but I am so glad that he is in the Chamber to do so.
I, too, thank Matt Warman for securing this debate. Access to high-speed internet has become something that most people who live in cities take for granted. It is so intrinsic to everyday life that it has almost become an assumed utility, but that is not the case for everyone. For those without access to it, it is a luxury enjoyed by others while they are progressively denied effective internet services and media.
The people of Wales have been promised that 96% of households will have access to superfast broadband by 2016, although the term superfast is interpreted differently by the Welsh Government and means speeds of 24 megabits a second rather than the European definition of 30 megabits a second. All but 1% of that target will be delivered through the Superfast Cymru scheme, which is jointly funded by the Welsh Government, the UK Government and the European Union. The issue of whether the target will be met by 2016 is one matter, but equally important, if not more so, is what will happen to the remaining 4%. Neither the Welsh Government nor the company contracted to deliver the programme—BT, of which we have heard a lot—is prepared to disclose which areas will fall within or outside the 96%, but clearly installing superfast broadband in a cabinet in the middle of Cardiff will reach far more people than doing so in a cabinet in rural Meirionnydd. Until we are informed otherwise, we must expect that the 4% who fall outside the Welsh Government’s targets will be in rural communities.
Access to high-speed internet, as we have heard, is crucial for the rural economy. Businesses in rural areas do not have the high-density footfall of big cities, nor can they rely on passing trade.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the compressed work and leisure time people face in the modern economy means that there is an opportunity for rural areas to offer wide leisure portfolios and pastimes, such as those that are available in the areas we represent? However, for people to set up businesses in those areas they need infrastructure, and we should be pushing ahead with getting broadband into rural areas so that we can use our natural capital as an economic advantage.
We have heard already that tourism and agriculture, our principal rural industries, are highly dependent on effective internet services for marketing and their statutory data returns. There is a real issue with isolation and loneliness, and poor internet speed is doubly damaging in rural areas given the equally poor, if not non-existent, mobile data signal. Just 17% of Gwynedd is covered by the 3G data signal compared with a UK average of 84%, and most of that area is in the university town rather than my constituency. We have no 4G whatsoever—it is easy to remember that statistic. Our businesses are crying out for high-speed internet access and the Welsh Government are failing them. Given the importance of growing the private sector to meet the task of growing the Welsh economy, given the rural nature of the Welsh economy compared with that of the rest of the UK and given in particular the importance of high-speed internet to the rural economy, what will the UK Government do to ensure that the remaining 4% are not left without superfast broadband?
Poor broadband provision is putting rural businesses at a disadvantage and might stop businesses investing in rural Wales, as we heard previously about Somerset. That is why Plaid Cymru considers digital infrastructure equally important to the Welsh economy as transport infrastructure. If we want all corners of these islands to be prosperous and to break the long-standing dependence on the south-east of England, we must create the conditions for economic growth in all parts of the UK. For years now, Plaid Cymru MPs have been campaigning for a rebalancing of power and wealth across the UK and although that has been traditionally associated with transport infrastructure investment and empowering national Governments with fiscal responsibility, it also means investment in digital infrastructure. For example, a Plaid Cymru Welsh Government in 2016 would deliver full superfast broadband at the EU definition of 30 megabits a second to 100% of Wales. If we are serious about growing the economy throughout the UK, we must do that.
It is a great pleasure to make a short contribution to the debate and I commend my hon. Friend Matt Warman for his tireless work on this issue during his five months in Parliament.
From Wiltshire, I can report good progress in the roll-out of superfast broadband but, as we have heard from Members across the House this afternoon, good progress is not good enough for the minority who have not secured a date or any sense of when they will be likely to receive superfast broadband. In Wiltshire, we have moved forward significantly with a postcode checker, an improved website, better communications and clawback from the programme to deliver for the remaining 5% to 8%.
People in the remaining 5% to 8% want to know what they can hope to secure, when they can hope to secure it and how it will be delivered. We need clarity on the options, because although the Government have done considerable work to pilot different modes of delivery for the remaining 5%, there is uneasiness about how it will work out practically, how it can be accessed and how it might relate to a potential phase 3, if the local authority puts together the money for that extra push after 2017. Clarity is required if people are going to be satisfied.
BT Openreach’s relationship with other internet service providers, other than the rest of BT, needs serious scrutiny. Its role in the superior access given to other components of BT rather than to other ISPs is not clear. It is very difficult to get a clear answer about where such protocols exist, how they exist and whether ISPs other than BT can get BT Openreach to act with the same sense of urgency.
Does my hon. Friend agree that an additional challenge is to ask the Government to review those parts of the country included in the commercial roll-out and to include some of them back in the BDUK project for phases 2 and 3?
That is a sensible point, and I know the Minister will respond to it in a few moments.
I want to finish by addressing the progress in Wiltshire and south Wiltshire on the infrastructure project for mobile telephony. I thank the Minister for what he has done to catalyse the development of that across four sites in my constituency. There has been good dialogue with local parishes and positive outcomes to deal with “not spots” and make sure that there is mobile coverage in parts where people never thought they would receive it.
I urge the Minister to examine how the process for the remaining 5% will work, and how more clarity about that process can be achieved—whether parishes or local authorities will be involved, or whether individuals can access grants for the range of options that exist. One of the biggest frustrations has been that other commercial providers have been circling, desperate to provide where BT or the local authority in partnership with BDUK will be unable to do so, but they do not have that information early enough. As many have said, it is essential that we get this right if the rural economy is to be strong and is to be able to develop. If there can be clarity over that last 5%, this will go down as an effective project by this Government.
I want to be somewhat novel for an Opposition Member and thank the Minister, not only for attending but for seeming to listen. In my short experience in the House, that is not always the case, so my thanks are genuine.
I suspect that the Minister has heard it all before and that he feels a little complacent because he has, he thinks, almost delivered. It was always going to be hard to deliver broadband right across the country; there were always going to be some problems at the edges. However, from the start of the deployment project in 2010 to the end of this Parliament, when we may get the full roll-out of superfast broadband, it will have taken 10 years. World war two took six years, during which we organised the Normandy invasion and invented nuclear weapons. Ten years is too long. I respect the Minister’s hard work, but I think that that is a reasonable criticism.
Ten years is too long because the demand for bandwidth never diminishes. Once we have superfast, we will need ultrafast. The demands of the economy are constantly changing, partly because of where people are. My constituency, sadly, is 572nd in the list of constituencies regarding broadband roll-out, but I know that in the next 10 to 15 years its population will rise by 25,000, so the problem will reset itself. We have a mix of areas—rural, coastal, urban, hills—but above all we have fast-growing local businesses, and they are being held back. If the population increases and broadband has moved on to the next stage, ultrafast, there will be an issue about how we get it.
Which spider lies at the centre of the web of problems that have led to the process taking 10 years? The answer is BT Openreach. We can argue about the issues and about what BT has done right and what it has done wrong, but it always comes back to the fact that we had a monopoly supplier. We have to address that. I am not being specific about what the issue is or how we deal with it, but if we do not address the fact of Openreach, we will never move on and be able to solve the ultrafast broadband problem when it arises, as it will.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Warman on securing this debate, which is hugely important for all Members of the House. It has been a very interesting debate, with Members demonstrating time after time how important the broadband connection is to them and their constituents. As we move towards the “not spot” summit, which I sincerely hope will happen because it will tackle an issue pertinent to all our constituents, I hope that the Minister will have in his mind two issues that I want to raise.
The first concerns the inability of rural businesses to get broadband even when they are relatively near to—within one or two miles of—a fibre-enabled cabinet. I was visited by someone from a new business on Broadhead Road in Edgworth in my constituency which had just secured United Utilities as a client. United Utilities is the only FTSE 100 business in the north-west, and a relatively small start-up contracting with a FTSE 100 company is a fantastic success story. Part of the business is laying ground infrastructure, such as drains, pipes and water mains, and United Utilities asked my constituent to do a 15-minute turnaround on some plans. Despite the fact that he is relatively near a fibre cabinet, it took him over an hour even to download the plans when they were went to him, let alone comment on them, amend them and send them back, and that is putting his business at serious risk.
Another constituent works for a crowdfunding business, which is entirely online. Crowdfunding is becoming such an important way of financing businesses in our country that we have to find a way to make sure that they can grow and succeed throughout the north of England. On Dean Lane in Water, my constituent is unable to work from home despite being within a mile of a fibre-enabled box.
There has been a lot of criticism of Openreach today, but at this point I would like to praise Openreach and Superfast Lancashire because they are coming to do a roadshow in each of those locations in my constituency. They are looking at a nodal approach—I do not claim to know what that means—to see what can be done about connecting those two individuals. I hope that the “not spot” summit will ensure that the same approach is taken all over the country.
I could not agree more. My hon. Friend and I have worked very well on cross-border issues in Edenfield in my constituency which borders Ramsbottom in his constituency.
My final point is about the universal service. An Opposition Member made the point that in the 1990s we thought it was so important that people had universal access to a landline that we put it in legislation when we privatised British Telecom. We did more than that; we provided a social tariff, saying that those people on low incomes or receiving benefits could secure a landline at a lower rate because we believed that it was so important. Now, when we are considering universal service for broadband, is the time to ensure that there is a social tariff for those on low incomes to access broadband. That is not so that people can sit at home surfing the internet, booking holidays or watching catch-up TV; it is for their children. Most schools in my constituency now both set homework and ask for it to be submitted online, and £15 a month for line rental plus possibly another £10 to £15 a month for a broadband connection is too expensive for many households. We will entrench intergenerational deprivation, both digital and actual, if we do not find a way to enable those on low incomes to get connected.
I congratulate Matt Warman on securing the debate. I agree with Richard Arkless that this issue is critical to the development of our local economy throughout the UK, whether we live and work in urban communities or rural communities. Like many of the Members who have spoken today, I represent a rural constituency that has been left behind in the broadband roll-out. A number of my constituents are experiencing digital exclusion and the social and financial implications that that entails.
Does the hon. Lady accept that her constituency and mine are the worst two in Northern Ireland for broadband coverage, in terms of availability or speed? Does she accept also that part of the problem is the monopoly that BT has and its emphasis on getting line rental rather than looking at innovative ways of ensuring that broadband is more widely available?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He, like me, has heard stories from constituents in both the residential and the business sector who are unable to access broadband. For example, in a major town in my constituency is a business centre. It has a box in its business complex which accommodates 60 businesses, but the box is not enabled. That has a significant impact on the location of local investment and urgently needs to be addressed. In other cases, owing to the topography of the Mourne mountains, many young people cannot do their homework as they do not have access to broadband. They are forced to travel some 8 or 9 miles to a local library to do that simple task. That is totally unfair.
Let us look at the statistics. Of the £1.7 billion to provide superfast broadband throughout the UK, £11.6 million for phase 1 and phase 2 was allocated to Northern Ireland. Phase 1 aims to provide superfast broadband to 90% of premises. Phase 2 will seek to further extend coverage to 95%. At present my constituency has about 63%, and by June 2017 it will have 64%. Yet again, it is ordinary businesses in the agricultural sector, which is now expected to do everything by digital means, and the business community and ordinary residences that will be affected. It is believed that the format for broadband supports the majority in the wider community, rather than the minority—those isolated, inaccessible businesses in rural communities that make up our local employment base.
I urge the Minister to announce tonight that he, with BT, is going to deal with the issue, as Sammy Wilson said, and not only hold the “not spot” summit but take immediate action to ensure better access to broadband. Our local economy, our local financial and business sectors and the wider retail economy, as well as ordinary citizens in their homes, depend on that for their future economic survival.
I join others in the Chamber in thanking my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Boston and Skegness
(Matt Warman) for bringing this debate to the Floor of the House. I welcome the Government’s laudable aim to transform broadband access across the country, and much has been done. The Minister was kind enough to write to me to provide me with figures that show that by June 2017, 40,135 premises in my constituency will have access to superfast broadband, but 8,712 premises will not have access. I fear that villages such as Harrington and Langton will continue to have to sellotape their dongles to their living room windows in a vain attempt to connect with the outside world.
We have heard a lot today about the impact that that can have on businesses and I will not repeat that. Instead, I will offer an example of a solution. A local company, Millhouse Manufacturers, in the village of Kirkby on Bain has 25 employees and is a real success, but it needed to upgrade its broadband access from 2 megabits per second in order to continue to grow and flourish. BT quoted the company a total of £120,000 to dig a trench two miles from the nearest exchange. For a small business, that is unaffordable, but I am proud to say that this little business in a village in rural Lincolnshire found a solution. For the sake of brevity, I will not explain the technicalities, but basically it put a pole in a field, courtesy of a local farmer. That means that it will get 100 megabits per second, rather than the 2 mbps that it was receiving before.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is all well and good for BT to provide fibre to the box, but it is the last mile or two which require a much more imaginative approach to the distribution technologies. Will she join me in persuading the Government to be much more technology-agnostic in that final mile or two to the home or business?
It is as though my hon. Friend has been reading my speech over my shoulder.
That was a very innovative solution, but it cost £3,000. Even though it was not as bad as the BT quote, it still cost £3,000, which is not affordable for many people. I hope the Minister can offer some assistance and tell us whether money can be found in the overall scheme to help fund such innovative solutions, particularly as suggested by the Chancellor in the spring Budget.
I am conscious of the time, but one other point that has not been raised is the impact on villages that are close to others that have already had superfast broadband fibre fitted. In the past two weeks two parish councils, Scamblesby and Maltby le Marsh, have contacted me. They are some 17 miles apart but they both report that when villages near them have had the fibre fitted, their broadband coverage has fallen. Mr Baildon tells me that until four weeks ago, his village had 1.5 megabits, but since a village nearby has had fibre fitted, reception has dropped to 0.34 megabits. Will the Minister please look into this, as it seems rather a coincidence?
Finally, may I end with news of my own summit, not just on “not spots” but on everything else? In a few weeks’ time I am launching in my constituency the constituency commission for Louth and Horncastle, in which I am asking everyone who lives and works in my constituency for their views on what is working, what is not working, and ideas for the future. It does not take a magician to guess that I shall be knocking on the
Minister’s door in a couple of months with the evidence and asking him how we can help the 8,712 premises that will not have access to superfast broadband.
There has been a consensus across the House that the economic and social benefits of reliable broadband are undeniable. I spent the summer touring village halls around my constituency for “chats with Cat”, and that subject certainly came up in the rural parts of my constituency. I have spoken in this place before about Broadband for the Rural North—a group of people in my constituency who decided that they were not prepared to wait for BT to deliver superfast broadband, so they dug the trenches and laid the cables themselves, and now they have eye-watering speeds of up to 1,000 megabits per second—yes, 1,000. Calling that superfast broadband would be an understatement.
It is clear from my rural communities and my recent meetings with the local branch of the National Farmers Union that our communities need reliable internet access in order to access Government services, including applications for the basic payments scheme. However, it is not just our rural communities that are missing out on access to good broadband. I have received a great number of complaints from residents of the Highgrove estate in Lancaster. They certainly do not consider that they live rurally—indeed, it is about a half-hour’s walk from where they are to the centre of Lancaster. They have been complaining to BT that they were not receiving the superfast broadband, whereas neighbouring housing estates were. Their frustrations continued when they felt that BT was ignoring them.
The issues relate specifically to cabinet 76 at the corner of Caspian Way and Lindbergh Avenue. The cabinet is within the commercial roll-out of broadband and in an area where there is the possibility of competition, known as a “grey area”, according to my recent letter from the Minister. Because of this potential commercial competition, it is outside the scope of the publicly funded project. However, my constituents, many of whom work in our local NHS hospital down the road and at Lancaster University, need decent reliable fast internet to download X-rays, for example, or to stream academic conferences. They find that the lack of internet is frustrating their work and they are unable to take opportunities such as working from home. In the words of one resident who is an orthopaedic consultant, “My parents live in a village in India and they have high speed broadband, yet I have to campaign for it here.”
If the UK is to continue its role in the world, we must make sure that our broadband can compete internationally. A petition signed by 71 households from the Highgrove estate should be landing on the Minister’s desk any day now. They are calling on the Government to act in their bid for superfast broadband. I hope that he will consider their petition.
I, too, would like to thank my hon. Friend Matt Warman for securing this debate.
I will keep my comments fairly short, because I think my voice might expire before my three minutes is up. I reiterate the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury (John Glen), for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), for Wells (James Heappey) and for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and by the hon. Members for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) and for East Lothian (George Kerevan): whether we are talking about broadband width, rural farmers, the nodule—whatever it happens to be—it affects us all, and it affects us all in the same way.
The word “superfast” is lovely, but parts of my constituency would be glad just to have broadband. We have been told that 90% of the UK will have superfast broadband by 2016. Indeed, Better Broadband for Suffolk hit 80% in August this year and received an extra £3.9 million as a result of the uptake, for which I thank the Minister, because that kind of incentive is most welcome. However, we have suffered a little slippage, as the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee highlighted in its report of February 2015, and are currently ranked 513 out of 650 in the country.
We live in a digital age, unless we live in Bacton, Buxhall, Pakenham, Old Newton, Botesdale, Stowmarket or Bury. Suffolk is now a net contributor to the Treasury, but businesses are looking to move out of my constituency because they cannot grow. If we are serious about using technology optimally, we must not accept 90%, or even 95%. I am afraid that we must hold the Minister’s feet to the fire—and BT’s and anyone else’s—in order to get to 100%. Broadband is going to be the fourth utility, and the Minister is going to deliver it.
My hon. Friend is obviously right to hold the Minister’s toes to the fire, but does she agree that there is now a golden opportunity for local government also to play a part, given the announcement about business rates? It will be able to plough some of that into investing still further in broadband provision for the commercial community in her constituency and elsewhere. That will help while also taking some of the pressure off the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about using what resources we have in a much more intelligent way.
We need to ensure that at the planning stage there is communication between deliverers and providers and that we lay service ducts for broadband as housing and commercial developments are built, a point that several Members have alluded to. The Government are demanding digital platforms for most services, including tourism and education, so we need these things to be happening.
The word “rural” has been repeated in this Chamber time and again today. We should not be disfranchised simply because we have the pleasure of living in England’s beautiful counties. It is right and proper that our cities should have high-speed broadband, but it is not right that we should not.
I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why we are delivering superfast broadband to 16,000 homes and businesses in her constituency. I am sure that she will want to pause and acknowledge that important contribution that we have made.
I will indeed. I thank the Minister most kindly for it. However, I also point out that there are still many houses and businesses in my constituency that would be grateful if that largesse reached them too.
Broadband is also needed to deliver medical facilities in a 21st century fashion. A leading medical practice in the constituency has just started trialling the delivery of healthcare online. If we are to save money across the board, we need to take these technologies forward.
Furthermore, the mobile technology in my constituency is also not good. I am lucky enough to have some of the best “not spots” in the country, so we are championing greater coverage down in Suffolk. The A143 has some of the worst connectivity in the country. I recently surveyed my constituents, much as my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins is doing with hers, and found that 30% feel their connectivity is either poor or very poor. When someone is without broadband or mobile coverage and then BT fails, it really is grim.
As we look at planning reforms, particularly to extend mobile coverage, I hope that my hon. Friend will support me if we make it easier for mobile phone companies to put up masts in rural areas.
I, too, congratulate Matt Warman on securing what has turned out to be a truly superfast debate. I rise to speak about many of the issues that have been covered by other Members. There is a lot of common purpose in the Chamber about the need to connect those people in the 5%—in the highlands and islands it is even more than 5%—who are struggling to get by without the kind of connectivity that is taken for granted in other urban areas.
We have heard from my party colleagues about what the Scottish Government and councils in Scotland have been doing to take forward additional work to ensure that we reach those places that have not been covered by the commercial proposition. In fact, only a few weeks ago I was delighted to be on the shores of Loch Ness for the launch of superfast broadband there. That would never have taken place under the commercial schemes, so the Scottish Government and the other agencies involved, including the UK Government, should be congratulated on that.
I must also point out that the UK Government need to do more strategically to ensure that that is taken forward. There are opportunities in digital learning, telehealth, business and leisure in rural communities that can only be taken up with what is important infrastructure. I know that the Minister is keen to listen and work with good ideas. I also urge him to look at some of the Community Broadband Scotland projects, such as the one in Badenoch, where Badenoch Broadband is looking to deliver more than 30 megabits per second. There are models to follow in Scotland.
I echo what Cat Smith said about technology and the advances that can be made. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that the technology we are deploying today will be sufficient in the coming decades, or even in a couple of years’ time. We should be looking at a robust universal service obligation, and we should also be looking not only at 3G and 4G, but at 5G and the opportunities for new technology to roll out further connectivity for rural areas. The Minister could take this opportunity to make a commitment that when it comes to licensing for the 5G spectrum, he can include a universal service obligation that covers rural areas, such as those that have been represented today by other hon. Members and Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey.
I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend Matt Warman on securing this debate. In the digital donkey derby we have heard from Patricia Gibson, whose constituency is ranked 563rd for connectivity, and from my hon. Friend James Heappey, whose constituency is ranked 562nd. Well, my constituency is ranked 561st, which means we are very grateful for the 43% of premises that are connected to superfast broadband. However, the remaining premises—BDUK says that it is 70% and Ofcom’s digital survey says that it is 43%—still need to be connected. I support calls for transparency, so that we can get the real figures and understand why there are those different percentages.
I echo the calls for a universal service obligation, because that will deliver real change to my constituents in rural areas. It, along with the nodes that have been mentioned, may allow people to connect who have hitherto been unable to do so, even though fibre has gone to the cabinet, because they are more than 2 miles from the cabinet. A lady in Wrenbury, 2 miles from the cabinet, emailed to say that her business was suffering as a result of a poor connection, with speeds regularly falling below 1 megabit per second.
I have already started the process that my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins mentioned by surveying my constituents. Eighty-five per cent. of those who responded to the survey have not been connected to superfast broadband, which may reflect the 43% figure in the Ofcom infrastructure report. Nearly 70% of constituents have not heard from Connecting Cheshire or BT about when work will take place to connect them to superfast broadband. Regrettably, Connecting Cheshire is not updating its website, so someone who goes to check the figures is informed that they will be connected by March 2015. That has not been helpful to businesses or residential customers in my constituency. Eighty per cent. of respondents are having connection problems, and nearly 65% of them have not had their connection problems resolved. More than 90% of respondents have highlighted low connection speeds as their biggest issue.
I urge the Minister to consider the universal service obligation to impose 10 megabits per second, for which many organisation are campaigning, including the Countryside Alliance and the Country Land and Business Association—and, indeed, several Members of Parliament who are desperate to see such a figure in their constituencies.
I echo the thanks to my hon. Friend Matt Warman for his relentless work on this topic.
When one thinks about cutting-edge digital technology, the rolling hills and dry stone walls of the Yorkshire Dales might not be the first image that comes to mind, but I assure the House that this is an issue of vital importance to my constituents. We have heard a lot about farmers today. We know them as the proud stewards of our landscape who are working out in the fields with their hands to provide the food we require, but they are also cutting-edge innovators reliant on the latest in farming techniques and seed technology, and increasingly compelled by the Government to interact online with agencies such as the Rural Payments Agency. If they cannot access the internet, they are forced to use the services of a farm agent, who adds incremental costs to their business. They desperately need good broadband.
Talking of rural areas, the situation is the same in my constituency. My hon. Friend Jake Berry referred to education. With regard to educating our next generation of farmers, without access to broadband people find homework and sourcing things on the internet very hard to achieve. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a problem?
I completely echo those sentiments. I had a similar conversation with villagers in Moulton in my constituency who were worried about young families leaving the village because they were unable to get access to the internet for their children to do their homework. They took it on themselves to install a community broadband scheme, at a great cost of over £1,000 for the village as a whole and a few hundred pounds for households, so desperate were they to correct the problem and ensure that young families stayed there.
There are many rural businesses in the Yorkshire Dales, including bed and breakfasts, pubs, and small hotels. When we go on holiday, perhaps the first thing we look at on Expedia or elsewhere is whether the place will have internet and wi-fi access. When I speak to pub landlords in my area, their desperate cry to me is that they need such access to attract customers.
I very much support the motion and hope that the “not spots” summit can be organised quickly. I urge those in charge to consider two areas for discussion that I hope can provide some relief. The first is the use of satellite broadband vouchers. Satellite is not a perfect technology—it has latency issues—but in rural areas such as mine it can provide a panacea to those requiring a basic level of broadband. Those who want it complain to me that the up-front cost can be prohibitively high, often hundreds of pounds. Although meaningful, that cost needs to be put into perspective with the current costs of some of the BDUK schemes, which can run into thousands. In some areas, satellite can be a cost-effective solution for those in need.
I apologise to the House if I am banging on about local government today. Does my hon. Friend agree that if satellite is to be successful in a lot of our very pretty villages with listed buildings, conservation areas and so on, we will be looking to our planning authorities to show a degree of leniency instead of stopping the charge towards satellite by saying, “This is a very important building and you can’t have a satellite dish there”? We cannot have this held up for those reasons.
I fully support those comments and those made by the Minister earlier. We must adapt the planning laws to ensure that mobile masts and satellite can deliver this vital service across rural areas, and I think that many of the rural communities in my constituency are aware of that.
The second topic for the summit could be transparency of BT’s roll-out. Satellite is one solution, but there are many areas where fibre will not work—the last 5% where it will be technically impossible or prohibitively expensive. In those areas, the Government are admirably backing the innovation fund to come up with new technologies. In my constituency, many of the alternative technology providers complain to me that they are unsure about BT’s future roll-out plan, and that uncertainty prohibits them from making the investments required to bring some kind of broadband to rural communities. This has been noticed by Select Committees as well. It would be wonderful if the summit considered what could be done to alleviate this blockage.
I commend the Government for their efforts thus far. Five years ago, only 50% of homes in my constituency had access to superfast broadband; today the figure is over 80%. That is terrific progress, but we must do more. This Government are committed to being a one-nation Government bringing opportunity to every part of this country, but if we are truly to build an inclusive society and economy that spreads opportunity to our great rural areas as well as our cities, we must ensure that broadband is there to turn those aspirations into reality. I join colleagues in urging that the summit happen as soon as possible with continued efforts to bring broadband to every part of the country.
I too congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Warman on bringing forward this incredibly important debate.
I have asked only one question of the Prime Minister so far, and it was about “not spots” in my constituency. The Minister will be interested to hear that I received a very exciting reply saying that there would be three new mobile masts in my constituency to tackle “not spots”. In reality, unfortunately, the installation of those masts through the mobile infrastructure project—MIP—has been mixed, to say the least.
I am going to join in the chorus of the village people and mention three villages. In Assington Green, near Cavendish, people were very excited about the new mast, but it has died, it is finished, and it is not going to happen. It did not reach the deadline date, and we do not even know why; communication has been extremely poor. The Minister’s staff have been very helpful when I have emailed them questions about the masts, but there is no updating process and nothing to let us know what is happening. The second mast in Hitcham is a much better story, and I thank the Minister for that. The scheme was approved today, and Hitcham is likely to have a new mast by March.
The third mast was to be in Boxford, a village in which I have an interest because my children go to the local school. It is another beautiful village but a genuine “not spot”. The loss of this mast is very disappointing, because there was huge public support for it. At the very last minute, the owner of the land—a farmer—where the mast was going to be based withdrew because of very strong opposition from a small number of his neighbours. People in Boxford found that for commercial reasons there was not going to be a mast. They needed that intervention from us and were very grateful for it, so what prospect is there of it happening? Given the possibility of such last-minute interventions, is there any kind of flexibility in the timing of the MIP? Unlike the copper wires in our villages, the Minister does not have the problem of distance from the Cabinet. Will he use that influence to try to persuade the Chancellor to keep money going for next year, because if we have the time we can build the public support to get these masts built?
Finally, I hope the Minister will confirm that he will hold the summit. As well as inviting BT, will he invite small providers, such as County Broadband, which serves Suffolk and Essex and of which I am a customer—it provides a fantastic service—so that they can be on the same level? What role does the Minister see small providers playing in delivering innovative solutions to the problem of spreading broadband in our villages?
I, too, commend my hon. Friend Matt Warman for securing this debate, which I am pleased to support as a vice-chair of the all-party group on broadband and digital communication.
I will, of course, focus on my own patch of Taunton Deane. We have the Connecting Devon and Somerset superfast broadband programme, which has been mentioned so eloquently by other fine Somerset speakers. I give credit to the Minister and the Government: this £90 million project is the largest broadband roll-out in the country. Things are going pretty well to get to the 90%, but—there is always a “but”—Devon and Somerset are the only two counties in the UK without a 95% minimum phase 2 broadband contract in place.
I held my own mini-summit on Friday night up in the Blackdown hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty. I am afraid the event drew together a whole room of disgruntled people from Bishopswood, Otterford, Churchinford, Churchstanton and Pitminster—I sound like Clement Freud on “Just a Minute”—who were all concerned about when the second phase of the contract will be signed to get them from 90% to 95%. They fear they are going to be left out.
Representatives from Connecting Devon and Somerset appeared at the meeting, put on a good show and said they were in negotiation with 15 people who might bid for the contracts, but they will not do so until the new year, which means, realistically, that the work will not even begin until June. That will be a year after the contract negotiations with BT collapsed, and there is still no indication as to whether many of the people affected will be included. I would be really grateful if the Minister would comment on that and on how he sees the situation progressing.
I know that time is short, but I would like to pass on a few more comments that were made at my summit in the Blackdowns. I ask the Minister whether value for money could be considered on a slightly different basis. Perhaps investing in broadband could be looked at in terms of how much rural businesses give, meaning that it would become not a numbers game in terms of people, but a business game. The more businesses that are connected, the more the economy will get going, which is something this Government support.
I thank my hon. Friend for that useful comment. I was going to continue feeding in a few more comments from my mini-summit. Many have already mentioned this, but can we be clearer about which communities are outside the scope of the current roll-out? That would at least allow residents and businesses to take decisions on whether they wish to pursue other options such as satellite broadband connection.
Above all, attendees wanted assurances that rural properties will continue to be connected by whatever means—poles, wireless, satellite, fibre, fibre to the remote node or anything else the Minister might come up with. Community fibre partnerships might be relevant, although that would mean that people would themselves have to pay. There are rumours that the Minister might send vouchers wafting their way, but they are not terribly keen on them, for various reasons. Similarly, when the clouds come down and the rain rushes on to the Blackdowns, satellite does not work terribly well, but perhaps we should consider it as a temporary measure.
Kent has been very keen on vouchers and was only recently allowed into the broadband voucher scheme, but we fear that funds are running out. Does my hon. Friend agree that extending funding for broadband vouchers should be a priority for the forthcoming spending review?
That is an interesting point. People in the Blackdowns were quite negative about vouchers, but perhaps they should consider them more closely. I believe that people can receive £3,000 as an up-front contribution towards a satellite dish and to help with installation, but they have to pay for it monthly. Perhaps we should be a little more magnanimous in the Blackdowns and look more closely at that. The overall consensus was that fibre optic is still the best option for whoever wins the contract for the remoter parts of Taunton Deane.
In conclusion, let us have fibre to all premises and new houses in future; let us look very carefully at the Ofcom review of connectivity; let us fight for rural connection and our urban “not spots”; and let us do it all through this summit.
Having spoken in February’s debate held by my hon. Friend Jesse Norman, which itself built on several other debates in the last Parliament, I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister must feel that this debate is somewhat like the film “Groundhog Day”, albeit with some new and very welcome characters. Rather like the protagonist in that film, he is doomed to repeat the same debate over and over again until we get it right.
I welcome the Government’s support and commitment. Almost 30% of the properties in my rural Newark constituency have gained access or the ability to access broadband as a result of public subsidy. That is not what failure looks like. None the less, 20% of properties remain unconnected, which will be the subject of the summit proposed by my hon. Friend Matt Warman, if the Minister takes him up on it.
Nottinghamshire is on the cusp of another significant stride forward, for which I need the Minister’s help. I apologise to the rest of the House that this is specific to my own county. Further to the initial superfast extension programme funding, Nottinghamshire County Council and Broadband Delivery UK agreed to allocate an additional £1.3 million to Bassetlaw and Newark in my constituency. However, it remains to be contracted as we do not yet have the BDUK state aid assurance for the change request. Once we have that assurance—I look to the Minister for help with that—I understand that the contract can be exchanged very quickly, and once he makes that crucial intervention, the Minister will be feted in the villages of Nottinghamshire like a latter-day Robin Hood, or perhaps, in the Minister’s bearded days, Friar Tuck.
The word “summit” seems to be overused, but I, too, have held one and have two brief observations to make. The first relates to something that has not been discussed yet, namely demand. The present value-for-money test as to whether a community can get broadband depends on an opaque view of how many residents will take it up. It does not actually look at the reality. We have polled residents in some of my constituency villages, some of which have said that up to 75% of constituents will take it up. I believe them, because they are an engaged and thoughtful lot. That would have tipped the formula in favour of investment, but it was not taken into account.
Conversely, as my hon. Friend Jake Berry has rightly said, we need to address low take-up. On average, the figure is 18% to 20%. It is absurd for us to debate this level of public subsidy and investment if take-up is 10% or 15% in some parts of our country, particularly in deprived areas such as the city of Nottingham a few miles from my constituency. We should campaign as hard for higher take-up in deprived areas in particular as we are for subsidy and investment in more prosperous ones.
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend Matt Warman on securing this debate.
The variations stated in the motion exist in my constituency. Earlier this year, I was thrilled to learn from a survey conducted by uSwitch that Sandy Lane in Cannock was the street with the fastest broadband in the whole country. If people are looking for fast broadband, they know where to come—move to Cannock! I add a word of caution, however: although that is excellent news, it is unfortunately not the case that our broadband and mobile coverage is good for all residents and businesses across my constituency.
I was recently contacted by a resident of Fair Oaks in Birches Valley. Their property is served by the Rugeley exchange and a street cabinet, both of which have been upgraded to deliver fibre broadband. However, given the way in which the technology has been deployed, the property is too far from the enabled street cabinet for a cable to be connected—an issue raised by my hon. Friend James Heappey. That leaves a number of rural properties in the valley with no immediate hope of superfast broadband. They only have a hope if and when the next phase of upgrades takes place, and if their location is factored into plans.
The House can imagine my surprise when I went on to the Superfast Staffordshire website. It stated that the valley was enabled for superfast broadband, which was “available to order”. Well, it is not, nor is that included in future plans. We must ensure that such properties do not miss out. I noted from the website that Keys business park is not connected and that the time frames for connection have not been confirmed. Bluechipworld Sales and Marketing Ltd is a fascinating business in that business park, and I visited it only a couple of weeks ago. It designs and manufactures high-tech devices from its sites in Cannock and China. Its designers are employed and based in the UK—in Cannock—and, importantly, that gives young people career opportunities.
My hon. Friend’s point about a high-tech company in her constituency creating employment is similar to the one that I made in relation to my constituency. Perhaps the Minister will say what vouchers could be made available for business customers, not just individuals, who want to bring high-tech engineering companies to our constituencies.
My hon. Friend makes a good point.
Broadband speeds are important for that technology business, because it can take four to six hours to transmit its designs to China. We rightly talk about productivity, and I am sure that hon. Members will agree that this is an example of why we desperately need to roll out superfast broadband quickly, efficiently and universally.
I welcome the motion, and I hope that residents and businesses across Cannock Chase, including in Birches Valley and Keys business park, will enjoy the broadband speeds that those on Sandy Lane in Cannock experience.
I, too, congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on holding this debate and the hon. Members who have pushed for it. I applaud the many informed and moving contributions that we have heard, particularly from my hon. Friend Albert Owen, my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms, and my hon. Friends the Members for Burnley (Julie Cooper) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith).
Well, it has been a long time. Before entering Parliament in 2010 I spent 20 years as an electrical engineer building telecoms networks around the world. I confess to having had a geeky worry that my technical knowledge would suffer as part of the privilege of being elected to the House. The Government have been so ineffectual, however, that my technical understanding remains as relevant as ever. Ministers should be ashamed of that, because it is their failure.
The UK has the sixth largest economy in the world, and is a developed nation with aspirations to lead the digital world. It is a country where Government services are “digital by default”, yet we have heard from many speakers in all parts of the House about the dire state of our digital infrastructure. I am not going to repeat all the terrible tales that we have heard: 1.8 million homes that cannot get broadband; dial-up speeds; businesses unable to do business. The economic benefits of better digital infrastructure—or, in some cases, of any kind of digital infrastructure—have been emphasised. The UK’s productivity problem was mentioned, and it is one of the biggest challenges that our economy faces. We have the second worst productivity in the G7. Ministers contribute to the problem, with a lack of productivity when it comes to providing the digital infrastructure that this country needs. The Government’s own broadband impact study states:
“It is now widely accepted that the availability and adoption of affordable broadband plays an important role in increasing productivity”.
The Minister laughs, but this is serious for many of his MPs. Better infrastructure increases productivity by
“supporting the development of new, more efficient, business models, enabling business process re-engineering to improve the efficiency and management of labour intensive jobs, and enabling increased international trade and collaborative innovation”.
Many Members on both sides of the House have given examples of that. As the new Leader of the Opposition and the new shadow Chancellor told conference this year, at the heart of our forward-looking narrative will be plans for investing in the future, including “investment in fast broadband to support new high technology jobs”.
It is possible, as the last Labour Government demonstrated, to have a telecoms network that includes competition if there is a strong regulator and a Government who are committed to ensuring that competition delivers services for consumers. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.
The internet provides social benefits, as we have heard. Online shopping is often cheaper, and the internet opens up access to public and private services. It is not right that some people cannot access Government services for which they pay or, even worse, that they are penalised for not being able to access them online, whether they are farmers or people on benefits trying to sign on and do their job hunting online. The internet opens up a world of free education and is a window on the globe. It is absolutely ludicrous that the Government have not been able to provide what has become the fourth utility.
The Government attack the right to strike for working people, but they have effectively withdrawn their labour when it comes to superfast broadband. Underneath the polite tone of the motion, Members in all parts of the House know that anger is growing among their constituents, especially in rural areas. The truth is that it will take more than a summit to reverse a failure by the Government to deliver on their promises, which lacked ambition to begin with. When the Labour Government left office they left fully funded plans for basic broadband—[Interruption];I am sorry, it is the truth—to be delivered in two years and superfast broadband to be delivered to 90% by 2017. The remaining 10% would be covered by mobile broadband.
Now we are falling further and further behind our competitors. Australia is aiming for 100 megabits for 93% of premises by 2021, and South Korea will have 1 gigabit by 2017, yet we do not have a target this decade for getting everyone online.
Instead, we have had five years of ad hoc funding announcements and vanity projects whenever the Chancellor has wanted to sweeten the latest round of punishing austerity—a series of disconnected policy initiatives that were never very ambitious, but that have suffered from delays nevertheless.
The crown jewel in all those projects—the £790-million rural superfast broadband programme—was handed entirely to one company because of a badly designed, monopoly-favouring procurement programme that has been panned by every Committee to have considered it in this House and the other place and criticised by anyone who has taken a passing interest in it. That is the fault not of BT, but of Ministers.
What we need from the Government is a vision for a market-led, future-proof, universal digital infrastructure. Ultimately, that means fibre going to premises and real investment. It will not come along on its own. Ministers need to set out a vision for our digital infrastructure. They need to tell us how we will get there and ensure that it happens. Instead, all we have is complacency and chutzpah. Demand in this debate has outstripped supply, as is the case with broadband in the UK. I urge hon. Members to remember the importance of digital skills and digital inclusion, as well as digital infrastructure. There are still 5 million households that have no access to the internet and 1 million more who do not feel confident using it.
The Government have no coherent strategy. There is a lack of vision and a staggering level of incompetence in implementation. There has been a super-slow crawl-out, rather than a roll-out, to just 2 million premises so far, with constant delays.
I am afraid that there is no time.
The Minister says that we are the best in Europe, but he chooses which countries to compare us with. We are 10th out of all the countries in Europe. As we have heard, there is better coverage in the Serengeti than in some parts of the UK.
We will not oppose the motion, but the Labour party does not believe that a summit can overcome the five years of complacency and incompetence from this Government or can fulfil Britain’s broadband potential.
It gives me great pleasure to respond to this important Back-Bench debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Warman on securing it.
I congratulate Chi Onwurah on becoming the Opposition spokesman. I have always regarded her as, in effect, the shadow spokesman on this matter. Rather like the new leader of the Labour party and shadow Chancellor, I have left some very unhelpful quotations over the past five years in which I have praised her knowledge and expertise. I obviously resile from them all now that she is the official Opposition spokesman.
I was asked earlier whether this debate felt like groundhog day. I have to say that I have welcomed every single speech from those on the Government Benches—they have been brilliant, original and effective, and have displayed yet again the huge range of talent that exists on our Benches in representing our constituents and putting their issues on the agenda. The point when I thought it was groundhog day was when the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central gave her speech. It is 2015 and the Labour party is still talking about a policy that it came up with in 2009. That policy was uncosted, required a tax that did not exist and contained no plans, yet it would have brought only 2 megabits to the country. Quite rightly, when the first Conservative Secretary of State came in, those plans were torn up because we knew that the country wanted 24 megabits. It wanted superfast broadband, which is what we have delivered.
While we have heard a lot of fine speeches from Government Members, I have to mark out the speech by Stephen Timms for sheer brass neck. It is astonishing that he talks about BT’s failure, when it was his Government that presided over the digital region project in south Yorkshire, which went bust, resulting in £50 million of taxpayers’ money being written off. The only superfast broadband project that started under his Government was the one in Cornwall, which relied on European money and involved BT. Cornwall is now one of the best connected regions in Europe.
The right hon. Gentleman accused me, because I happened to say that I might be mildly sceptical about the break-up of BT, of cosying up to corporate interests. Of course, those who are calling for the break-up of BT include such small businesses run out of a back bedroom as Sky, Vodafone and TalkTalk. It is absolutely astonishing.
The right hon. Gentleman cannot say that BT has me over a barrel when it has just paid back £129 million seven years early, thanks to the contracts we negotiated.
Let us look at those contracts. We said that we would deliver superfast broadband to 90% of homes and businesses in the country by the end of 2015. That is exactly what we will do. Three contracts have finished and 38 are ahead of schedule. I remind hon. Members that the reason BT bid for the contracts and that Virgin, for example, did not was that the state aid conditions required open access. Therefore, only companies that were prepared to see their networks used by their competitors were going to bid for the contracts. That is why BT was the only bidder in town.
Many of my hon. Friends have talked about Connecting Devon and Somerset, which did not sign a phase 2 contract with BT. I have sat in a room with hon. Friends and listened to officials from Devon and Somerset telling me that BT was not delivering. I now hear from my hon. Friends that BT is delivering.
As I have said, we have got £129 million back, thanks to the contracts. We are now going further. We have said that we will get to 95% of homes and businesses by the end of 2017. I am confident that we will deliver that as well. New technology and competition will help. Virgin has announced £3 billion of investment to compete with BT’s roll-out. It will get to 3 million to 4 million homes. Sky and TalkTalk are building a network in York to see how it can roll out fibre to premises.
That is a good example of how councils have to partner with telecoms providers, because they have to help with the planning. It is important that we keep the costs down. I hear people complain about the lack of broadband in central London, but Kensington and Chelsea refused to give planning permission to a single green box of BT’s for two years because it did not like the design. Councils have to get with it. As my hon. Friend James Cartlidge said, when we want to put up a mobile mast, we can suddenly find that the landowner has withdrawn their permission because of local objections. If we are going to build this infrastructure, there has to be a bit of give and take. Councils and local communities have to accept that the infrastructure has to be built. We might need to have taller masts and some structures in rural settings.
Now that BT has announced the roll-out of its G.fast technology, I am confident that 10 million homes will get speeds of 300 megabits or more over the next five years. We have the fastest roll-out and take-up of 4G in the world. We inherited a stalled auction programme from the last Labour Government that we had to resurrect and we are now back on track.
It was appalling to hear the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central say that we should have a policy like Australia’s, which is massively over budget and involved a huge legal battle over many years effectively to nationalise the main telecoms operator. That pretty much cost the last Labour Government in Australia the election. We will not go down that road—that is for sure.
My hon. Friends are, of course, interested in the remaining 5%. I have written to all hon. Members setting out where broadband has got to in their constituencies in the last quarter, how many homes are being connected and, importantly, how many homes are not being connected. I am prepared to sit down with all my hon. Friends and visit their constituencies over the next six months to discuss areas that are not getting broadband, so that we can work together to deliver it.
No, I am giving way to the hon. Gentleman on the Back Benches.
As my hon. Friends will be aware, I should have singled out Albert Owen because a Labour Government in Wales are responsible for rolling out superfast broadband and—guess what?—according to the Labour party, superfast broadband is brilliant in Wales but terrible in England. I was interested to hear that Steven Paterson could not make up his mind whether he wanted to condemn or support the roll-out of superfast broadband in Scotland by the Scottish Government and the SNP. I take all such critiques with a great pinch of salt.
I am all for targets but let us have some delivery. Australia has an ambitious target and zero delivery. We have a realistic target that we have hit time and again, and we will continue to do so. We have passed superfast broadband to more than 3 million homes and businesses, and when the next figures come out it will be close to 4 million. We must also deal with the last 5%, and by the end of this year we will set out our plans.
It is no secret that we are looking at a universal service obligation, and we will not be tied to some piddling European target of 5 megabits. No, when we look at a universal service obligation we will look at a British universal service obligation to deliver the kind of British broadband speeds that British citizens and businesses require. Over the last four years we have delivered that to more than 3 million homes and businesses, and we are fast approaching 4 million. We are hitting our targets time and again. We may not be able to beat the Australians at Twickenham, but when it comes to broadband we beat them hands down!
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. I do not think that many debates secured by that Committee will have included contributions by Members from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England, and this debate has shown that superfast broadband is genuinely a national problem that needs a national solution.
My hon. Friend Jake Berry suggested a social tariff to emphasise how much this problem affects those who have the least money to spend on subscriptions, and my hon. Friend James Cartlidge said that small providers will play a crucial role in the future. My hon. Friend
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes variations in the effectiveness of roll-out of fixed and mobile superfast broadband in different parts of the UK; and calls on the Government to host a not-spot summit to consider ways to tackle this issue.