Superfast Broadband — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:46 pm on 24th June 2015.

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Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn 2:46 pm, 24th June 2015

If I have the opportunity, I will come to some of the figures comparing the nations and areas within Wales, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, there are some poor performing areas in Wales, as there are in the rest of the United Kingdom. He is a close neighbour of mine and there are issues with the roll-out in his constituency, but I want to concentrate on the second-class service in peripheral areas, not only in broadband, but in mobile connectivity.

Broadband connectivity is essential for competition, enterprise and accessing public services. Limited and slow access to broadband in peripheral areas is against the Government’s policy of increasing online public service resources. They say we need that, but farmers in my area are always complaining that they have difficulty submitting their tax returns online, for example. The Government are encouraging them to do their tax online, but there are connectivity problems and I am sure that people are getting fined as a consequence of being late.

We have a great example. We heard about the Faroe Islands, but in the 20th century throughout the United Kingdom, in the whole of Great Britain and Ireland, the Post Office was able to deliver the same quality of phone line to every house, regardless of its location. The Minister will be pleased to hear that I am not advocating full renationalisation of all telecoms systems, but I am boldly making the point—[Interruption.] I know that the Minister is laughing at the first part of that, but he should not laugh at this: the market is letting areas of the United Kingdom down. That is why the debate is so important. We want to see the one nation that we all hear about—we are all agreed on it and we all use that terminology—but the United Kingdom is becoming two nations when it comes to telecommunications. The market is not working for parts of Britain.

The Minister has been in his post for some time, and I welcome him back to it, so he has heard the arguments, but I want to hear something different in his reply—I want to hear some answers. I do not want to hear him blame the devolved Administrations or local authority partnerships. I want to hear what the Government will do to close down black spots, which are not “not spots”; they are black spots, because they have little or no fast mobile or broadband coverage. Let us remember that peripheral areas pay more for their petrol, diesel, utilities, gas and electricity. They pay more for goods in many ways, and the wages are often lower than in other parts of the United Kingdom.

I was on the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change and, when talking about smart meters, I questioned the companies that have been delivering them on behalf of the Government. We have been discussing 95% coverage and, similarly, I can guess where the 5% of “not spots” will be from day one; they will be in peripheral areas. Smart meters are not in the Minister’s brief, but generally we should be starting pilot schemes in some of the rural and peripheral areas, then rolling out from there, rather than doing what the companies want and basing schemes on the number of people living in an area.

These are not left-wing or liberal views; they are the views of many ordinary constituents of mine, as well as of the Countryside Alliance, which has lobbied me, the National Farmers Union and the Farmers Union of Wales. The Minister should take note of not only what we are saying here on behalf of our constituents, but what such groups are saying collectively. They are making the case to improve commerce in their area.

The previous Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, talked tough with the mobile and broadband companies but failed to deliver. To be absolutely frank, he let them off the hook in the previous Parliament, and I do not see much improvement in speed and access. Goalposts are being moved by the Government. The former Economic Secretary was good at giving us updates in the House, but all he did was delay and push 2015 back to 2016 and then 2017. The mobile phone companies in particular are now repeating that mantra.

I realise that we are short of time, but slow speeds need to be improved quickly. To help Guto Bebb with some of the figures, parts of Wales are behind, with an average of 60% superfast broadband, including the large conurbations. Northern Ireland does exceptionally well, with 94% superfast broadband, so it can be delivered to peripheral areas where there is political will, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has proved that. England has 80% superfast broadband and Scotland has some 64%. We need to ensure superfast broadband throughout the UK quickly. I want to see BT and the Welsh Government working with the UK Government and the European Union to ensure that we have the funds to make that happen.

Many of the cabinets and exchanges in my constituency have the facility and the infrastructure, but we are talking about the last mile—although when it comes to rural areas, it is not one mile but many, and that is the problem. Many commercial companies do not see the value in rolling out from the cabinets and exchanges to households and businesses in my constituency. I speak for many people in peripheral and rural areas when I say that we need superfast broadband as a matter of urgency. We want the 21st-century access to goods that everyone else in the large towns and cities of the United Kingdom has.