Superfast Broadband — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:09 pm on 24th June 2015.

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Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Labour, Workington 3:09 pm, 24th June 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

I am here today—I am sure it is the same for many other hon. Members—because access to decent broadband is extremely important both to individuals and to businesses in my constituency. As has already been said, more and more business transactions are now taking place online. In rural areas such as my constituency in Cumbria, banks are closing branches, making broadband more important as a way for people to be able access banking. Children and students are also encouraged to use online learning resources, which can be difficult. There is talk about getting access to doctors through Skype in Cumbria, but of course we cannot do that without decent broadband. I could go on.

Connecting Cumbria is managing the roll-out of superfast broadband in Cumbria. It has delivered phase 1 successfully, but we are moving on to phase 2 and, I hope, phase 3. The difficult geography of Cumbria makes that extremely challenging. I hope that the Government will continue to treat roll-out in rural areas as a priority for funding. The mere fact that outlying areas are considered hard to reach should not mean that they are left behind.

I declare a personal interest, as I live in a rural part of Cumbria with a diabolical broadband speed. I often struggle to open emails, and give up. The problem is not just speed but consistency. It is hugely frustrating when a broadband connection keeps dropping in and out. I avoid doing my banking online at home, because I worry about the security issues if the connection drops out when I am logged in at my bank. Most days I have to jog up and down the stairs a few times, because the router is upstairs and I have to switch it on and off to try to get connected. It drives me mad.

I fully understand the frustrations of the constituents with similar problems who have got in touch with me about broadband—very many of them, despite the fact that I have not been an MP very long. A particular bugbear is the fact that many services and companies are switching to online access only. Will the Minister consider whether rural communities’ access to reliable broadband can be assessed before the decision is made to switch a service to online access only?

I have some recent relevant personal experience with the Rural Payments Agency. Last year we completed our forms on paper, but this year my husband and I were told we had to do it online. We had the most ridiculous Saturday afternoon trying to do that. Not only did it mean battling with the poor internet speed but, as my hon. Friend Albert Owen, mentioned, our mobile signal is not good, and we were told to input a text code into the system. I was running around the garden with the phone trying to get the code, so I could shout it to my husband before the five minutes were up and he could input it. That is absurd. It is a ridiculous way to carry on.

I welcome the roll-out of superfast broadband, which is incredibly important to my constituency. Rural areas, as well as the more urban ones that have been described today, must not be disadvantaged. The Government must not assume that there is decent access when they make services online only. As the roll-out continues, will they please take connectivity into account?