Broadband in Wales — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:26 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 3:26 pm, 6th July 2016

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate for the Opposition. I congratulate Mr Williams on securing this debate on an increasingly important topic. Like Calum Kerr, I also congratulate him on the tone and content of his opening remarks, which were an excellent introduction to the subject and to the situation of many of his constituents, as well as many UK citizens in other rural areas. His opening comments were complimentary to the Minister; it would be churlish to suggest that that was in any way connected with the fact that his party was in government, if not in power, when many of the important decisions that are driving our current lamentable situation were taken.

I fear that I have already changed the tone of the debate from one of mutual agreement to one of division, so let me go back to something on which we can all agree—that we wish the Welsh football team every success this evening. Indeed, if the team can defy the odds and march through to the finals of the European championships, and then triumph, perhaps it is not too much to hope that the Minister will defy expectations today and give us some satisfactory answers as to why so many people in Wales—and England and Scotland, for that matter—cannot get a decent internet connection, which I assume the Minister can do on the smartphone that he is looking at so intently. It seems that anything can happen in these extraordinary times, but I must say that concrete answers from the Minister would be an extraordinary conclusion.

We face a period of uncertainty—I am talking about Brexit rather than the football now. As we start to think about our plans for negotiating to leave the European Union, which have already been mentioned—although, astonishingly, I understand that the Government have not thought about them until now—it is time for us to get serious about our infrastructure and productivity and make sure that we have an economy that works for everyone. The economic benefits of better digital infrastructure are well known. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk and I share a background in telecommunications, I believe, and we can both be proud to call ourselves technology champions.

I think everyone would agree that the UK’s productivity problem has been one of the biggest challenges for our economy in recent years. We have the second-worst productivity performance in the G7. The Government’s own broadband impact study states that

“it is now widely accepted that the availability and adoption of affordable broadband plays an important role in increasing productivity”.

It is the Government’s policy to increase productivity, and they recognise the role broadband plays in that. I hope that they recognise the importance of productivity to the Welsh rural economy, as well as throughout the United Kingdom.

Why do we find ourselves in a situation now where so many people cannot get a decent broadband connection? As well as the economic benefits, there are significant social benefits. I mean not simply online gaming but online shopping and new applications in mental healthcare that are supported through digital infrastructure to enable better engagement and improve citizens’ wellbeing. It is unacceptable that some people cannot access those services.

Some people cannot access mandatory Government services and, worse, are penalised for not being to access online services such as a mandatory job search. The internet opens up a world of education, social engagement and potential economic productivity—it is a window on the globe. All people across the United Kingdom should be able to expect that as a right, yet nearly 6 million people in the UK do not have access to decent broadband, and 130,000 businesses are struggling to make do with a connection of less than 10 megabits per second.

Wales is actually doing better than the rest of the UK for rural and business broadband—as well as in football. In Scotland, 50% of mid-sized businesses do not have access to superfast broadband, while in Wales the figure is “only” 38%. In England, 64% of rural premises are without superfast broadband, while in Wales merely—again, I use that word relatively—half of rural residents cannot access superfast connection speeds, which the European Union has said should be a universal minimum in just four years.

No doubt the Minister will tell us again of an unadulterated success, which is how he characterises the current broadband situation. As my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) have mentioned, Wales lags far behind the other nations in mobile coverage. Only 20% of Wales is covered by all mobile providers, compared with 50% in England. I find that entirely unacceptable.