Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 28th June 2021.
T3. Mr Lynch asked the Minister for the Economy whether he will meet with officials from Fermanagh and Omagh District Council to re-examine the scope of Project Stratum, given that, when he talks to people across different sectors in his constituency, particularly in Fermanagh, including farmers, businesspeople, students and families, who have poor access to broadband, it is clear that that scheme will not fully address the issue, with the council finding out recently that 2,392 premises had been removed from its scope. (AQT 1483/17-22)
I thank the Member for his question. First and foremost, we must appreciate the level of roll-out and support that the broadband scheme will deliver. It should be noted that it was my party, through confidence and supply, that got Project Stratum off the ground. The continuing roll-out of the programme is a good news story for Northern Ireland. I understand that there will be teething problems and that there may be other, bigger problems as the roll-out continues. I give the Member a commitment that I will meet whomever he wishes me to meet. If he writes to me to request a meeting, I will certainly consider that. If there are any gaps in provision in the area that he represents, I will be only too happy to see what we can do to roll out a more comprehensive scheme. That will always come with a caveat about the business case, but, if addresses are being knocked off the scheme, it is not the scheme that we thought that it was. We will need to look at that carefully to see exactly what has gone awry in that area.
I thank the Minister for his answer and for giving an undertaking to meet officials on the matter. The Audit Office reported that the Department could claim back £14 million from BT in relation to previous broadband schemes. Does the Minister agree that any clawback of public money should be directed towards improving broadband in rural areas such as Fermanagh?
I thank the Member for his question. Yes. We need to make sure that that utility — that is what it has become — is rolled out to as many people as it can be, so that they can enjoy the facilities that people enjoy in other parts of the country, with the advantages that a good broadband connection can bring to a household, not least for businesses, while people stay at home to work, but also for homework and young people, who, let us face it, could probably buy and sell us on the internet. They are more expert than anyone — certainly, I suspect, more than anyone here. It is good that we will be able to get as many people as possible hooked up to decent broadband as quickly as we can. For some people and some communities, it could be a game changer between working at home and having to travel to work. I will be keen to promote flexible and blended systems of working into the future, to ensure a good work-life balance but also to increase productivity.