Superfast Broadband — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:56 pm on 24th June 2015.

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Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 2:56 pm, 24th June 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend Matt Warman for securing the debate.

Lincolnshire is a hilly part of the world, but it is probably not quite as hilly as Devon. In the Blackdown hills, which are part of my constituency, we have huge problems in getting broadband. We talk about 95% broadband being delivered to the country, but we are bordering on 50% in my constituency and most of the Blackdown hills are not getting any broadband at all, with many villages being left out.

There is also a lack of transparency. The confidentiality clause in the last contract let by Devon and Somerset has led to huge problems. In the new contract that Devon and Somerset are being asked to sign, BT is asking for an extra £35 million and three more years to deliver the broadband, most of which should have been delivered by 2016. What sort of deal is that, I ask the Minister? It is no sort of deal whatever. We are being held to ransom for the simple reason that the waiving of the state aid rules only lasts to the end of this month, in a few days’ time. BT is holding a gun to the head of Devon and Somerset and saying, “If you don’t sign, you’ll be outside of the state aid rules. What will happen then?” That is absolutely wrong.

BT is a very good company, but it is dominant in the marketplace. It is delivering good broadband in many parts of the country, but in others it is simply not delivering. What are we doing as a Government—what is the Minister doing—to stop that happening? I have every confidence in the Minister, who I have had many meetings with, but I want action—not warm words—to ensure that BT delivers.

All our constituents are being put at a disadvantage, and many farms and businesses will probably not get broadband until 2020 or beyond. In the 2020 election campaign, do hon. Members from any party in the House want to go around the villages that do not have any broadband and face the consequences? That is the reality, because all the time BT is rolling the programme further back—not further forward—and that is the real issue. I want a clear indication from the Minister that, if we are to have a dominant BT in the marketplace—which I have no problem with—I expect the Government and Ministers to ensure that a deal that can be signed is brought to Devon and Somerset.

The other issue for the Government is that Devon and Somerset have had some £100 million of taxpayers’ money from council and Government taxes for this; if BT does not deliver, the Government cannot deliver the 95% target by 2020, because of the size of the scheme—it is as simple as that. If Devon and Somerset are prepared to sign another contract with BT, I ask again that BT honour its commitments, deliver the broadband it has already said it will and put in the contributions it said it would make—we have yet to see the colour of BT’s money, which does not bode well.

My final point is that Dartmoor and Exmoor have a new arrangement with a company that is delivering the scheme by wi-fi; that seems to be getting under way very quickly. BT has said it has looked at new technologies, but is still rolling out fibre-optic cables and cabinets. If a place is a long way from the cabinet, broadband costs a fortune and may not even be put in. Why is BT not using new technologies? I would like the Minister to answer that.