Broadband in Wales — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion 2:30 pm, 6th July 2016

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered broadband in Wales.

It is good to see the Minister here fresh from Colchester. He has had a busy day; he was in this Chamber first thing this morning. It is also good to see the shadow Minister, Chi Onwurah, in her place. We were looking forward to a contribution from Paul Flynn in his elevated role as shadow Secretary of State, but it is genuinely good to see the hon. Lady here in his stead.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter in the House. Today is a very important day in this House, not least given the events in the main Chamber. It is also a very important day for Wales, with the football this evening. We have the best of Wales—and, I am sure, of Scotland—in this Chamber to debate this important issue.

As many hon. Members know, the issue of broadband and internet connectivity is a recurring problem. Not a week goes by without concerned constituents contacting us. It is not unique to my constituency. Despite genuine improvements—some would say vast improvements—and the Government’s genuine attempts to meet their targets, there is a feeling that we are falling behind in many rural communities and in Wales more widely.

I welcome the Government’s intention to introduce a broadband universal service obligation and their ambition to give people the legal right to a 10 megabits per second connection, no matter where they live, by the end of this Parliament. The Prime Minister said:

“Access to the Internet shouldn’t be a luxury;
it should be a right—absolutely fundamental to life in 21st century Britain.”

I could not agree more, and I am glad that that was put into the tentative stages of legislation with the introduction of the Digital Economy Bill yesterday. I look forward to that principle being put into law, but targets have come and gone before, and the proof of the pudding will be in the proverbial eating.

I also welcome the Government’s recent target to connect 97% of premises by the end of 2019. The many communities that are currently underserved with bad or non-existent broadband connections are enthusiastically waiting to hear whether that target will be met, and whether they will benefit or will be among the 3% left out. My constituents are certainly hoping for good news. I will hear of the challenge in the contents of my inbox—or, more precisely, given the subject matter, in the representations I get from constituents who use more old-fashioned means of communicating their disquiet.

There is a feeling—I think this will be endorsed by other hon. Members—that the peripheral parts of the United Kingdom are often left out and forgotten. The principles of entitlement do not always seem to extend to all parts of the United Kingdom. That is the basis of many of our concerns. None the less, it is welcome that successive Governments have talked about the importance of connectivity and have recognised that it cannot simply be left to the market to decide where we have access. Although in urban areas it is possible to rely on commercial businesses to fill the demand for high-speed broadband, the internet has become a necessity for everyone, including individuals trying to fill out Government forms online and business people such as farmers trying to do their taxes and apply for funding, some of which is an existential need. I have previously cited the example of the farmer in southern Ceredigion who had no broadband at all. He was forced to send a paper tax return to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and got fined for doing so. We managed to get the fine back for him, but he was told that next year he should pop down to the local library to submit his return online. There are not many libraries left in rural Ceredigion, and those that there are do not have sufficiently safe, secure or reliable broadband connections. That is the reality for many of our constituents.

We need only look at the comments made by figures in the technology industry and note our own experiences as constituency MPs to see how hugely the internet has changed our lives and how far we have to go to ensure that everyone has adequate access. The chief executive of Cisco, Phil Smith, said of Wales:

“I’m very surprised that broadband hasn’t got to the level of penetration it should. To be honest, it’s like saying you don’t have a road now, or you don’t have water. Companies, countries and individuals can’t survive without broadband;
it’s not some optional nice thing to have;
this is the way business is done.”

In Wales, where our physical infrastructure is challenging, broadband is even more necessary. Its importance cannot be overstated. That view is shared by organisations as diverse as the Countryside Alliance, the Federation of Small Businesses, Ofcom, the National Union of Farmers and the Farmers’ Union of Wales.

There have been improvements and substantial investment to improve the number of individuals and businesses able to access fast broadband speeds. Millions have been spent on improving the low figure of 55% superfast broadband coverage in Wales in 2014. Although we have failed to meet the aim of 96% coverage, I welcome the increase to 87%. The availability of superfast in rural areas of Wales increased to 50% last year thanks to the Superfast Cymru programme; yet, as a Member with a rural seat, I cannot help but be concerned that rural areas are still losing out most. Improvements are a good thing, but many of the 11% of premises in Wales that cannot receive the proposed USO broadband speed of 10 megabits per second are in my area. How can we improve the situation to ensure that those areas are not left behind? Surely areas that not only have some of the lowest speeds but contain some of the highest percentages of those without a connection altogether need to be prioritised.

The FUW noted recently, after its Meirionnydd branch visited a farm in Machynlleth—for those who are not geographers, Machynlleth is a town settled between the three historic counties of Montgomeryshire, Ceredigion and Meirionnydd—that the highest proportion of those with no broadband access are farm businesses. For farmers who have attempted to diversify their businesses by letting self-catering cottages and converting buildings into offices for use by others, connectivity is critical, yet many are at a significant disadvantage. Those who have children at home—increasingly, more online homework is required—are struggling. As I said earlier, almost all of them have to keep up with changing agricultural rules and apply for services online. It can be costly, if not impossible. More and more services are going online, so digital inclusion is vital.

According to Ofcom, in June 2015, more than 67% of my constituents had slow internet connections of less than 10 megabits per second, and almost 20% had connections of less than 2 megabits per second. That situation was replicated in other rural constituencies throughout Wales. Carmarthen East and Dinefwr—it is good to see Jonathan Edwards here—Montgomeryshire, and Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire join Ceredigion in the top 10 constituencies with the slowest broadband connections anywhere in the United Kingdom.

The issue of inadequate broadband connections affects not simply an isolated house here or there—the stereotypical cottage in a valley with roses around the front door. Whole communities lack adequate, or even usable, internet connections. For years, these issues have been plaguing Llangrannog in my constituency, which is a significant tourist community; the sizeable community of Llanfair Clydogau near Lampeter; and Synod Inn, down our main road between Aberystwyth and Cardigan—the most significant road in our constituency. There has been little progress. In Llanfair Clydogau, I am specifically dealing with broadband casework on behalf of not just individuals who write with concerns, but an entire community.

At this point, I want to place on record my appreciation for BT’s parliamentary unit, who I think were in the Members’ Dining Room earlier today. I was not there, but Clova Fyfe and her team in particular have been assiduous in responding to the individual concerns of Members of Parliament, and I genuinely thank the unit for that.