Broadband in Wales — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:53 pm on 6th July 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Albert Owen Albert Owen Labour, Ynys Môn 2:53 pm, 6th July 2016

I am not going to take credit for it, otherwise I would be as guilty as the Minister of saying that I influence things on my own. It was the idea of the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Chi Onwurah, and it was in our 2015 manifesto, that we would have a universal service obligation. The Government said it was a silly idea and that they would concentrate on getting even faster service in some areas and then other areas could catch up later, but I am pleased to say that we are now at the same place. It is very good that we are, but I want to ask some questions about that.

The Minister made a speech and quite rightly stuck to his words that we would have a Bill in June or July. He is as good as his word. A draft Bill has come out, and we have had a consultation. It talks about 10 megabits per second, which he rubbished earlier as being too slow. That was what the consultation said, but he was not encouraging that; he wanted twice, three times or four times that. How is that going to be delivered in Wales? What kind of roll-out programme does he envisage? It is true we have not had the Bill yet and have not debated it at different levels, but I would like to know.

For 95% of Wales, the Welsh Government are rolling coverage out in a contractual arrangement with BT, which seems to be working, albeit not as fast as we want it to. It is patchy in England, with different levels of roll-out and take-up in different counties. Is the Minister clear in his mind that there will be the same delivery plan as for the local authorities in England, or will the Welsh Government roll it out? It would be interesting to know that, because my constituents in areas that are now far behind feel that they could catch up.

I again offer the Minister my island constituency to be a pilot for the scheme. We could plug the 5% gap and then roll out that ideal Anglesey model to the rest of the United Kingdom. Hard-to-reach areas, semi-rural, rural and urban areas could be connected up. We could be the pioneers, as we were with comprehensive education, which the Minister will be aware of. The isle of Anglesey was the first county in the whole United Kingdom to have comprehensive education, and I would like to see it as the pioneer of the digital economy with a universal service obligation across the island.

I make that serious point because I want to work with the Government and the Minister to ensure the Bill goes through smoothly, that we get the planning issues sorted and that we get the outdated telecommunications stuff up to date, which will be in the regulations of the Bill and the enhanced electronic communications code, so that we have seamless roll-out of a universal service obligation. I am sure the technology is there, and it may be that the minimum is 10 megabits per second and we will have extra capacity on stream very soon.

In pilot schemes in other areas of the United Kingdom, speeds of thousands of megabits are being talked about. We do not want to be that far behind and playing catch-up for the future. I hope the Minister will say how he intends to roll the scheme out and how it is going to be paid for. That is interesting—will the Welsh Government be making a contribution, or will it come from local authorities? We are unclear how that is going to work. Hopefully we will be able to get some European money during the Brexit negotiation period for areas that currently benefit from it. My constituents and industries in rural Wales want those certainties.

There are areas in my constituency that are without bus services, are seeing post office and bank closures and now have slow, almost non-existent broadband. That is not right in the United Kingdom. I am sure the Minister is a one nation Conservative and will want to see all parts of the United Kingdom benefit from this technology. I want that, and I know that colleagues who are here want to see rural areas become first-class areas. That is why I support what the hon. Member for Ceredigion says.

I know the Minister wants to achieve that and wants the notoriety of rolling it out. He has longevity in his job already; I am sure he is going to be the longest-serving Digital Economy Minister of all time. In doing that he will be doing a good service not just to his Government but to the country and the area I represent. We need assurances from the Government that they will work with the Welsh Government, BT Openreach and other providers to ensure we get 21st-century digital communications in rural areas of Wales, which deserve it. I hope the Minister is listening and that when he gets to his feet and congratulates the Wales football team he will be able to give us some answers as well.