Superfast Broadband — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:20 pm on 24th June 2015.

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Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion 3:20 pm, 24th June 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate Matt Warman on initiating this very important debate. You will be relieved to hear, Mr Pritchard, that my carefully crafted, 10-minute speech will be jettisoned and my comments compacted into two or three minutes, I hope.

First, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the great progress that has been made. An additional 2.5 million homes and businesses were linked up to superfast broadband as of May. However, there has been much talk of the last 5% and peripheral areas, and I want to talk about the peripheral area that I represent. My comments will be very much in the spirit of those from Albert Owen, who talked about his experiences there.

Ceredigion ranks 646th out of the 650 constituencies for internet speed. Superfast broadband is available to 12% of my constituency, ranking it 639th out of the 650. When we reflect on phase 3 of the roll-out, I would like to know from the Minister what timetable we are now operating, because like other hon. Members, I have many impatient businesses and householders in my constituency. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which I have to say after the great speech earlier is now in the incredibly safe hands of Neil Parish—I say that as a former coalition Member, but I genuinely mean it—said in February that it wanted a timescale for the final roll-out of phase 3, and we anticipate a response from the Minister on that. I would also be interested to find out the outcome of the research and trials that have been taking place as part of phase 3. This is about the necessity of those new technologies to get to the scattered communities that make up the bulk of my constituency.

The critical issue for me is businesses and the development of a rural economy. Reliable internet access has been identified by 94% of small businesses as essential. Ofcom recently called for lower prices for high-speed business lines, which will be welcome news to many of my constituents —at least, the few of them who can access high speed—but of course the technology needs to be available in the first place. Many of my local businesses genuinely struggle. Two weeks ago, the Gomer Press, a historic printing firm and a growing business in Llandysul in the south of Ceredigion, approached me with its genuine concerns that the speeds that it is receiving with BT are harming its business, as it struggles to receive the files that are necessary in order to undertake the printing work required of it.

Simon Hoare talked about tourism. That is a growing sector in west Wales. I commend to the Minister the Conrah hotel in my constituency, which is a good, four-star hotel. If he comes to west Wales, he should come to that hotel. Its owner, Mr Hughes, tells me that although his broadband is provided by BT, the service is so shockingly bad that most of his clientele are reluctant to come back because of the inadequate broadband. We are letting down key businesses in rural, peripheral areas—key businesses that have a huge impact.

Let me reflect on some other issues. Our constituents are increasingly required to undertake business online. A constituent wrote to me last week about the new Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency regulations for a digital counterpart driving licence. How can that be possible in an area where people will not be able to access the digital component? Other hon. Members have mentioned the members of the farming community who come to us with genuine concerns that they cannot undertake what is required of them, such as the reporting of cattle movements to the British Cattle Movement Service, online completion of single farm payment forms and the checking of market prices. Those are just some of the problems that farmers face. In addition, small businesses have to undertake electronic verification of VAT returns. One constituent was required to register his tax returns and he was fined because he was unable to do so. We managed to get the money back for him. He was told that he could register a paper submission. But when the note came back, the farmer was also told that next time he should go down to the local library, where there would be a broadband connection, to register his tax returns. I would challenge any Member of the House to go to one of the marts in my constituency and tell a farmer to go and register his tax returns online—they would get a spirited response.

This is a matter of necessity and of urgency. I am following your stipulation about time, Mr Pritchard, but we need some immediate action on the matter.