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Shared Rural Network

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:27 pm on 28th October 2019.

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Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy) 4:27 pm, 28th October 2019

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. May I start by welcoming her professed enthusiasm for pulling this country out of the cyber slow lane? However, having read her statement, I am afraid to say that, on close examination, it would appear that our Teletext Tories will have to do rather better than this.

Let me start, for the benefit of hon. Members, with the points on which we agree. It is surely right that we dramatically step up the efforts to pull the country into the 21st century. We were a leader once. Now the networks that we have, like the targets that we have set, are well behind the best in the world; so while today’s progress is, I suppose, welcome, it is really half of a half-measure, when what was needed was a bold 10-year national switchover plan to deliver ubiquitous gigabit per second access to every corner of the country.

At our most generous, we welcome the commitment to 95% for 4G coverage, because it is better than the 91% that we have today, but I am afraid that still leaves a 4,681 square mile area of the country where coverage will be non-existent or not good enough. As Members know, that is an area twice the size of Norfolk and much bigger than our largest county, North Yorkshire. Nor, it would appear, will progress be as rapid as was promised. In its manifesto, the Conservative party promised 95% coverage by 2022. Now the Secretary of State says it is 2025, and the industry briefing issued this morning says that will not be achieved until 2026.

Nor is the proposal as well financed as is needed. Ofcom says that the cost of sorting out all the notspots in the country is between £3 billion and £6 billion, yet just £1 billion has been announced, half from industry and half from Government. At best, it is half of a half-measure. Nor, it seems, is the deal with the industry actually done. As the Secretary of State made clear in the rapid canter through the final paragraphs of her statement,

“the Government’s support does not make a legally binding arrangement or contract and does not create any expectation that Government will act in that way.”

That is known as the small print; in this House, we call it, at best, a running commentary on what she is doing in the office this week. It is a running commentary on half of a half measure that is four years late and leaves an area of the country twice the size of Norfolk without the coverage it needs. Members will therefore forgive us for not applauding this announcement from the rooftops.

However, to take this announcement seriously for a moment, which is more than the Chancellor obviously has, I suppose we should trouble the Secretary of State with some questions on her running commentary on half of a half measure. Her Majesty’s Government have already backtracked on their commitment to full fibre roll-out by 2025. Can she reassure the House that this measure, such as it is, will not be diluted any further? Will she bless us with some interim targets? Perhaps they could be knocked together. If so, are we likely to see them any time soon? She told us today that the paperwork is not going to be signed until 2020, but she says that Ofcom has announced that it is moving ahead with a consultation on the spectrum auction, without coverage obligations. Why is Ofcom proceeding with that, given that the Secretary of State is commending this different approach to us this afternoon? Under the plans will consumers be able to access a choice of all four network operators in the 95% area that she has sketched out? Finally, I suppose the Secretary of State should be asked to tell us whether she agrees with Ofcom that £3 billion to £6 billion is going to be needed to eliminate all notspots in the country. If she does agree, will she explain why she is not bringing that proposal to us this afternoon?

Today our network ranks not as the first, second or third best in the world, but as the 26th. Some 80% of our constituencies do not enjoy 4G coverage from all big four operators. I know the Secretary of State has done her very best today to dress this up, but we should call it what it is: too little, too late, for a country that deserves far better. [Interruption.]