Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:37 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Shadow PC Spokesperson (Energy & Natural Resources), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice) 4:37 pm, 13th September 2016

While there is much to welcome in the Bill, and I am glad to read many of the details, I would like to take this opportunity to raise a number of issues—some more briefly than others, given the contributions already made so fluently by many Members.

As regards the broadband universal service obligation, there is an opportunity here to discuss how we now reach the final 5%—the hardest-to-reach families, homes, farms and businesses. As an aside, I should say that I speak on behalf of a community of almost 5,000 people—Blaenau Ffestiniog—whose last bank is deserting the high street this month. HSBC blithely assured me that internet banking would seamlessly replace an over-the-counter service. In all honesty, that is a cynical cover for cost-cutting, and ostensibly assumes that the relative norm of urban connectivity is available to all, when the reality for Blaenau is unreliability and low speeds.

We have already heard that public money for broadband roll-out was intended to reach those areas that commercial providers would ignore if left to their own devices. We need to ensure that lessons are learned, that that aim is finally realised and that the issue is resolved.

As I said, I deeply welcome the concept of the universal service obligation, but I am concerned that the final 5%, which of course includes the counties of rural Wales, such as Ceredigion, Sir Gâr, Powys, Pembrokeshire and Gwynedd, have actually been relatively ill served by Superfast Cymru. I seek an assurance that the Secretary of State will map out those properties affected by the £3,400 barrier in the guidelines—when that price is reached they would not necessarily be included in the universal service obligation—and that a minimum speed of at least 10 megabits per second specifically for those homes and businesses is included later in the Bill so that the universal service obligation really is just that.

I now turn to the issue of wider connectivity. I am sure that the Government must recognise that mobile devices are a vital part of modern life wherever one lives and works. The 2014 deal with mobile companies, trading national roaming for a commitment to 90% coverage by 2017, served rural businesses and communities particularly badly. Plaid Cymru would wish to examine the demand for a multi-operator mobile virtual network similar to that of Manx Telecom—Chellinsh Vannin—which would offer access to all mobile networks in Wales on a roaming basis as a means of overcoming chronic not-spot localities. Surely the Minister and the Secretary of State must agree that the time is now for legislation on a universal coverage target for mobile, with a minimum level of 3G provision to be achieved within an identified timetable.

I would have liked to say something about online pornography, but many Members have spoken eloquently about that already. I merely add my support to the points made about the powers of the age verifier and the need to ensure that it has the necessary teeth to put the powers into effect.

Another issue that a number of Members have touched on is the need for social network providers to show a greater sense of corporate responsibility. I feel quite strongly about this. Today we have heard about some of the victims of online abuse. Back in March, I raised this matter in collaboration with the Digital Trust with regard to the Criminal Offences (Misuse of Digital Technologies and Services) (Consolidation) Bill. That Bill identified a series of responsibilities to ensure that all providers of online services adhere to a code of professional standards, including advice on what victims could expect from such providers in future in relation to quality service standards and levels of care. The Digital Economy Bill could look at the expectations placed on providers in terms of regulation, a code of practice, and their obligation to undertake safety impact assessments. It is a pity that we have yet to see that, and I would like to see it later on.

My final point—I suspect that I will be unique in bringing this up—concerns the concept, “digital by default”. I would like to take this opportunity to put on record the significance of ensuring respect for Welsh-users’ statutory right to equality of service. This should be explicitly enshrined as a matter of principle in digital government. “Digital by default” must mean “digidol yn ddiofyn”: not something to request, but clearly available and welcoming to use. The linguist András Kornai has estimated that of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, some 2,500 are considered to be endangered. Digital language use increasingly touches every area of communications, from social media to digital government. If a language is not on the web, it can be said to no longer exist. Kornai estimates that the digital divide will whittle down the number of languages to 5% of those currently in use. The move to digital communications is likely to cause an immense die-off of 6,000 and more languages the world over.

Written Welsh language use is expanding on social media, but I beg the Government to ensure that high status and essential communications in Welsh are made as accessible as possible in their own services as they move online. Targeting facilities, as mentioned by the Secretary of State, might play a leading part in this. Given the issues arising from legacy IT systems and designing bilingual digital platforms, I urgently request that the Minister commit to ensuring interactive and user-friendly Government digital services for Welsh speakers. I would welcome the opportunity to speak further on this.