Rural Communities in Scotland: Broadband — [Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 22nd November 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk 9:30 am, 22nd November 2017

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the roll-out of broadband to rural communities in Scotland.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. One of the biggest issues raised with me as Member of Parliament for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk is the poor or non-existent broadband service that many of my constituents have to endure. In my maiden speech in the House of Commons in June, I committed to pursuing better broadband for all my constituents. I am therefore pleased to have secured today’s debate on a topic that affects so many people in the Scottish borders.

We bank, shop, make travel plans, watch TV and speak to relatives on the other side of the world on the internet, so a reliable superfast broadband connection is essential. Superfast broadband is not a luxury. I view it as a fundamental service to which everyone should be entitled to have access. Having superfast broadband is comparable to being connected to the mains electricity, water or gas supply. It is also essential to allowing businesses to operate and to advertise, and to allowing farming businesses to manage essential paperwork. The model of how people do business has changed. Yes, the large employers and multinationals are still based in our bigger towns and cities, but increasingly a large part of our country’s economic activity is undertaken by micro- businesses outwith the urban environment—people working from home and people working in their attic or garden shed. More importantly for the purposes of this discussion, this economic activity is happening in some of the most remote parts of our country.

In my area of the Scottish borders, successful businesses operate at the end of farm tracks at the top of the Ettrick valley, in the Lammermuirs above Duns, or in the foothills of the Cheviots, south of Kelso. The opportunity to set up a business in a rural area should not be limited for lack of a good broadband service. The attractiveness of moving to rural Scotland, either to live or to set up a business, should not be diminished because of inadequate broadband connectivity.

My constituency is in the bottom 30 constituencies for average broadband speeds. I suspect that we will hear from hon. Members representing other constituencies towards the bottom of that list too. According to figures from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, 45% of my constituents receive slow internet speeds. The House of Commons Library briefing paper for this debate states that Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk ranks 621st out of the 650 constituencies in the United Kingdom for superfast broadband availability. Indeed, two council wards in my constituency—Mid Berwickshire, and Jedburgh and District—have superfast availability below 50%, which puts them in the bottom 10% of wards for that in Great Britain.

That is backed up by a broadband survey that I recently carried out across the Scottish borders. Hundreds of responses were sent in—I had never seen such numbers before. Of those who responded, 71% said that their broadband speeds were slower than 10 megabits per second, and 80% said that they were unhappy with their broadband service. More than half of respondents said that they used their broadband connection for business, and only a handful of these respondents said that they were happy with their service. In this day and age, that is just not acceptable.

Who is responsible? It is of course true that legislative competence for broadband is reserved to the UK Parliament. Indeed, when official figures show that Scotland is lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom for broadband roll-out, the Scottish National party Members and their colleagues in the Scottish Parliament like to jump up and down and blame the UK Government, but they do not like to remind us that the Scottish Government have the task of delivering superfast broadband in Scotland and implementing UK Government targets to improve broadband.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

The hon. Gentleman is surely aware of the Ofcom report entitled “Connected Nations 2016”, which highlighted the fact that superfast broadband coverage in Scotland saw the largest increase in the UK over the previous 12 months.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. Of course, we are playing catch-up in Scotland, because of the dither and delay from the SNP Government and Digital Scotland. I will come to the Ofcom report shortly.

Photo of Ross Thomson Ross Thomson Conservative, Aberdeen South

The slow roll-out of superfast broadband by the Scottish Government has left my constituency with one of the slowest speeds of any urban area in the UK. For example, Blacktop in my constituency achieves only 1.5 megabits per second, which is about one 20th of what the average UK home achieves. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as Aberdeen is Europe’s energy capital, that is simply not good enough?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. Of course, the SNP Government have let down not just urban Scotland, but rural Scotland. Both parts of Scotland—urban and rural communities—have been let down by the Scottish Government’s failures to meet their obligations to deliver superfast broadband.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy)

With regard to the previous intervention and the complaint about slow download speeds in urban areas, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK Government should have accepted an SNP amendment for the universal service obligation that would have covered upload and download speeds?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

I will come to the USO shortly, and the hon. Gentleman might agree with some of the points I make, but first I want to make some progress.

Unlike what has happened in England and Wales, the Scottish Government have decided not to devolve further to local authorities the delivery of broadband. Instead, they have set up two delivery programmes, with the bulk of Scotland being covered by Digital Scotland. That means that the focus has inevitably been on the central belt and connecting the easier-to-reach cities and towns in order to meet the targets. That is yet another example of the central belt bias of the SNP Government in Edinburgh and of the centralising tendencies of the nationalists

I would like to look a bit more closely at how Digital Scotland has been performing and how it has been serving my constituents in the borders and people in other parts of Scotland. The problem that I come up against time and again is the lack of consistent information from Digital Scotland and the Scottish Government. Let me give colleagues just one example.

Colin from Foulden in Berwickshire first contacted me a few months ago, when trying to find out when improved broadband would be coming to his property. He moved into his house five years ago. Before finalising the purchase of it, he checked the broadband speeds on the BT website to find out when superfast broadband would be available. The website stated that for his landline and postcode, superfast broadband would be “coming soon”. Since then, he has been waiting patiently for his upgrade.

After Colin contacted me, I wrote to Digital Scotland, the Scottish Minister and my right hon. Friend the Minister in this debate to raise my constituent’s concerns. I received an email from the Scottish Minister in charge of broadband delivery, Fergus Ewing MSP, who said that fibre roll-out was planned for my constituent’s area. A month later, I received an email from Digital Scotland, also saying that there were plans to roll out fibre broadband. After I pushed for a more accurate date, I was told that my query had been passed to the policy team in Digital Scotland, who a month later responded that there were in fact no plans to upgrade my constituent’s broadband. Colin told me:

“I am left with the impression that nobody really knows what is going on.”

Sadly, across my constituency and, I suspect, many other constituencies, there are many people in Colin’s position. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister would agree that that is just wrong and cannot be allowed to continue.

The Scottish Government and Digital Scotland have dithered and delayed too long. Most superfast projects in the United Kingdom have already begun their phase 2 procurement. Digital Scotland has delayed the procurement process and is considerably behind other parts of the United Kingdom.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Far be it from me, coming from Northern Ireland, to get into an argument between the Conservatives and the SNP, but does he agree with me—indeed, he has made this point—that it does not matter which Government are responsible if they say they are going to deliver; the delivery problem is on the ground, with the infrastructure? The organisations that are meant to be delivering are not delivering for the people on the ground. That needs to change, and Government need to change it.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The constituents we represent do not really care about the infrastructure and who is responsible for delivery; they just want better broadband servers connected to their homes and communities.

I urge the United Kingdom Government to consider alternative models for broadband roll-out across Scotland. The time has come for the Scottish Government to be stripped of their responsibilities for future broadband delivery projects and for the job to be given to local councils in Scotland instead.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Further to the point made by Ross Thomson about coverage in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, coverage across that city and the shire has reached 95% and 81% respectively. Without direct intervention by the SNP Scottish Government, coverage would have been only 72% and 25% respectively. That clearly shows the benefits and progress of Scottish Government-led broadband investment.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

I thank the hon. Lady for that point, but the fact is that Scotland is lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom in superfast broadband delivery. That is a failure of Digital Scotland and a failure of the Scottish Government—I suspect they have been distracted by priorities other than the delivery of broadband for the communities that we represent.

Photo of Colin Clark Colin Clark Conservative, Gordon

In reply to the previous intervention, my constituency of Gordon, which is clearly a big part of Aberdeenshire, is 613th for broadband in Scotland. That is disappointing for constituents and disastrous for business. My hon. Friend mentioned alternatives. Point-to-point technology, already used by wind farms in isolated communities, is often cheaper than delivering fibre. Does he agree that that should play a bigger part in the solution?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will come on to the alternatives and self-help options, which many communities have to consider because of the failures, particularly of Openreach, to deliver to some of the harder-to-reach communities.

Photo of Alister Jack Alister Jack Conservative, Dumfries and Galloway

Returning to a point my hon. Friend made a moment ago, my constituency of Dumfries and Galloway is in the bottom 30 of constituencies in the UK. We have done a broadband survey and had over 300 responses. When we speak to people directly, it is undoubtedly the case that they think the Scottish Government are focusing on the central belt, and they want the UK Government to put the money directly into Dumfries and Galloway, not to go through an organisation that is concentrating on population rather than square miles.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which supports the point that I am making about the role local councils should have. Local councils, whether it is Dumfries and Galloway, Scottish Borders or Aberdeenshire, have a much better understanding of how to deliver better superfast broadband to the communities they serve. I strongly believe that central Government, particularly the nationalist Government in Edinburgh, are so focused on other priorities and the central belt that they are failing rural Scotland and many of the constituencies that we represent.

Photo of Kirstene Hair Kirstene Hair Conservative, Angus

The constituency of Ian Blackford—the SNP Westminster leader—has the slowest average download speed in Scotland. Given that, it is particularly surprising that he does not seem to see fit to attend this debate.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

It is telling that only three nationalist Members are here this morning. That shows what their priorities are. While we are standing up for our constituents, who want better broadband, the nationalists are perhaps focused on other things.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Media)

On the point that Kirstene Hair made, I will not embarrass myself or my party by asking where the Secretary of State is, because we would not expect him to attend such a debate. Can I take the hon. Gentleman back a few minutes? We all have localised problems with broadband and BT roll-out, but will he confirm that he said that he wants the Scottish Government stripped of their powers over broadband roll-out?

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman continues, I realise that this subject is generating quite a bit of passion on both sides, but there is too much chuntering and calling out. If we listen in an orderly manner, I am sure everybody will get the opportunity to have their say.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

I am more than happy to confirm the point. The Scottish Government and Digital Scotland have failed. That is also the view of many of my constituents. The Scottish Government have had their chance and it is time for—

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a spokesman for his party. I realise he is very exercised about what Mr Lamont is saying in his speech, but he really should not be making comments from a sedentary position.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

Thank you, Mr Howarth. Having spent 10 years in the Scottish Parliament, I am well used to listening to the SNP shouting from the sidelines, but not actually delivering anything for Scotland. Thankfully, we now have 13 Scottish Conservative and Unionist Members of Parliament, who are actually here to do a job, namely getting a better deal for our constituents, whether it be on broadband or any other policy area, unlike my nationalist friends, who are determined to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom and ignore every other policy area in this place.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

I want to make some progress.

I have been critical of Digital Scotland and the Scottish Government for their failures to deliver for Scotland a broadband network fit for the current age. However, BT and Openreach are not without blame. Following negotiations and demands from Ofcom, Openreach is now a legally separate entity, but it is still wholly owned by BT’s parent holding company, BT Group plc. The situation we find ourselves in, with the digital divide between urban and rural, has been created by historical decisions made by BT. Had BT invested in our network in the way that I believe it should have, we would not be facing these challenges today. It has picked off the low-hanging fruit in broadband roll-out, focusing more on cities and commercially viable areas. I suggest that it has ignored the harder-to-get residents and communities because it knew it would cost too much. Too many communities have been forced to look at self-help options to find solutions for their poor broadband connections when Openreach has refused to help. My constituents are innovative and smart, but many have struggled with the bureaucracy of the schemes and the cost involved.

Ofcom’s December 2016 report, “Connected Nations”, which has been referred to, describes the urban-rural divide well. While 89% of premises in the United Kingdom can receive superfast broadband, there are 1.4 million premises that cannot get download speeds greater than 10 megabits per second. Those are disproportionately in rural areas, and the problem is particularly bad in Scotland.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I have no reservation about interfering in an argument between the Tories and the SNP. Does the hon. Gentleman see any connection between these rural broadband figures, particularly in the highlands, and the way in which Highland and Islands Enterprise, which was originally closely involved in the roll-out of broadband, has slowly been denuded of all its funding and powers and was recently under threat from the Scottish Government?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

The hon. Lady makes an important point, which demonstrates yet again the centralising tendencies of the nationalist Government in Edinburgh and their focus on the central belt, rather than devolving powers to the communities that we all represent.

The “Connected Nations” report highlights that only 46% of premises in rural Scotland can access superfast broadband, compared with 62% of rural premises in England. It is those premises that will benefit from the universal service obligation. I fully support the universal service obligation contained in the Digital Economy Act 2017, but I would argue that the minimum speed should be higher than 10 megabits per second, as originally suggested. I know that the Minister is considering a proposal by BT to deliver the USO outside the 2017 Act, which BT says it will be able to deliver quicker. However, I believe that BT has had its chance to deliver and has failed. The 2016 report from the British Infrastructure Group highlighted that in 2009 BT promised that 2.5 million homes would be connected to ultrafast fibre to premises services by 2012, which was 25% of the country, yet by September 2015 BT had managed to reach around 0.7% of homes.

Lastly on BT, residents in many rural communities feel angry—frankly, I share their anger—when Openreach tells them that it is not commercially viable to invest in their broadband connections, and yet they read in the press about BT splashing out £1.2 billion on the rights to televise the champions league. No, BT and Openreach have had their chance and they have failed to deliver for rural Scotland.

I suspect we will hear similar experiences from other Members, so I will draw my remarks to a conclusion. Ofcom’s “Connected Nations” report describes the situation well when it states:

“Fast, reliable communications enable businesses to generate prosperity and employment, and our countries to compete. They empower every citizen to take a full part in society and benefit from life’s opportunities. Communications also save lives, bind families and friends together, and keep us entertained.”

We need to act to bridge the broadband gap between urban and rural Scotland—the broadband haves and the broadband have-nots.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Media)

As the hon. Gentleman is bringing his remarks to a close, could I return to the question I asked a couple of moments ago, which he did not answer? He said that he wanted the Scottish Government stripped of its powers. Is that what he was saying?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

I have been absolutely clear. The UK Government have tasked the Scottish Government to deliver superfast broadband in Scotland. The SNP Scottish Government have failed. These powers should be taken away and given to local authorities—Scottish Borders Council, Moray Council, Dumfries and Galloway Council; rural councils that understand what the local communities need—not this central-belt biased SNP Government in Edinburgh that is determined to have a second independence referendum while everything else gets ignored.

I ask the Minister to consider addressing the following points in his remarks. First, to confirm the point I made earlier to the nationalist Members, will the UK Government look at ensuring that local authorities in Scotland have a much greater role in the delivery of broadband, rather than the centralised model currently adopted by the SNP Scottish Government? Secondly, will the Government consider a higher level of universal service obligation to ensure that rural communities are future-proofed as digital technology continues to evolve? Lastly, I look forward to welcoming the Minister to my constituency in the near future so that he can hear at first hand the very challenging experiences that many of my constituents in the Scottish Borders have to deal with in terms of access to broadband.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian 9:52 am, 22nd November 2017

As always, it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

I congratulate my constituency neighbour, John Lamont, on securing this debate. He has spoken eloquently about the importance to his constituency and Scotland of the roll-out of broadband. Unfortunately, I believe some others—possibly people who have superfast broadband—trivialise this matter.

Let me say, however, that no one should downplay the force of the statistics for Scotland as a whole and the figures for my constituency of East Lothian. Fewer than half of our rural communities—46%—have access to superfast speeds. Some 37% of premises in rural areas are unable to receive download speeds greater than 10 megabits per second. Closer to home, 80% of rural constituents in my area said that they were dissatisfied with their internet, and the median download speed in East Lothian—the constituency that lies just south of the central belt—is just 14.1 megabits per second. Those figures should rightly be viewed as a catalyst for change and although I welcome the UK and Scottish Governments’ commitment to the roll-out of superfast broadband, I think those on all sides can agree that an enormous amount of work still needs to be done.

Another notable figure that struck me and came to my attention during the campaign is that 12% of my constituents work from home. That is not only above the Scottish average, but well above the constituency average for the whole of the UK. There are in fact only 34 constituencies in the UK where there are more home workers than in East Lothian. Herein lies the problem: business owners who work from home in rural areas, dependent on broadband, are resigned to travelling to cafés and coffee shops just to email or download information. That is a situation that I know many business owners across East Lothian regrettably recognise.

In East Lothian we have Lothian Broadband Networks Ltd, which started as a community company that offered access to the internet in areas not served by BT Openreach. These social entrepreneurs used innovative technology to beam access from transmitters to individual houses, via dishes, to allow people to access the internet. They form part of the third sector that competes with BT Openreach and Virgin Media. Many of those third parties are members of INCA, the Independent Networks Co-operative Association, and in its response to Ofcom’s wholesale local access market review it pointed out that current policy appears to highlight a mysterious absence of these third parties in solving the problems that face whole communities.

Photo of Bill Grant Bill Grant Conservative, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

Like many constituencies in Scotland, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock has very poor coverage of broadband. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are many fragile communities in Scotland with falling school rolls, poor transport, shops closing and pubs closing, and that an efficient level of broadband is essential to secure the future of those fragile rural communities?

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian

I wholeheartedly agree. Broadband is now an essential; it is not a luxury. It is one of the things that matrix together our communities, particularly those that are facing other challenges such as school closures, community cuts and local authority cuts.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

The Scottish National party Government in Scotland have set themselves a target of 95% of homes with superfast broadband by the end of this year, and the other 5% by 2021. While I and the Liberal Democrats welcome that 95% target, we would say that the remaining 5% is perhaps the 5% that was the most difficult for the very reasons that the hon. Gentleman is outlining. Perhaps the priority was wrong, and that 5% should have been looked at earlier.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian

I will come back to that point later, but I agree with the sentiments behind it.

In its response to Ofcom’s wholesale local access market review, INCA talked about copper switch-off, which is coming and has to come. It needs to be considered along with the rural local loop unbundling. It needs to be addressed, and the suggestion at the moment that BT is possibly released from its LLU obligations and its sub loop unbundling obligations might not solve the problem, but might inadvertently stifle the competition to challenge this and to address the 5% that seems to be being missed.

All of these challenges will not be solved by silo thinking, with one discussion about households, one about business and one about wireless. The answer must come from joined-up thinking. Whether working from home or operating from private premises, people in rural areas of East Lothian demand solutions that provide access to fast, reliable broadband.

Behind these figures there is the real-life impact of digital exclusion, which I wish to address as I come to the end of my speech. I worry that participation and digital inequality could be two of the defining features of the near future. We must start to see connectivity more as a household utility than as a luxury. Our future generations will be fully engaged in a digitised economy, so we must ensure that they are fully prepared and no one is left behind. Location or income inequality cannot be a barrier to digital inclusion; indeed, universal credit—what would a debate be without mention of universal credit?—requires access.

I wholeheartedly agree with the aspiration of the Scottish Government to build a “world-class digital nation” by 2021—four years away—but I believe we have a long way to go to achieve that, in a very short space of time. The infrastructural weaknesses in rural connectivity will have long-term effects, and the answers are there. With the success of all sectors—the communities, the local authorities, BT Openreach, the third party sector and the leading companies such as Lothian Broadband in East Lothian—that is achievable, but we need to move from silo thinking to joined-up thinking.

Rural connectivity should be transformative for all the communities across Scotland. I reiterate my support for this Government’s commitment to provide superfast broadband, but that must move from being a commitment to a reality. The roll-out cannot be capped at certain areas. It must not cut off communities in East Lothian and in other rural parts of Scotland. Digital inclusion is not an indulgence, but a necessity.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Six people have indicated that they want to speak and we have roughly 30 minutes left. If you do the maths, we ought to get everybody in without imposing a time limit, but if necessary I will impose one. I call Kirstene Hair.

Photo of Kirstene Hair Kirstene Hair Conservative, Angus 10:01 am, 22nd November 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend John Lamont for providing the opportunity for me to speak in this important debate.

Since I was elected in June, my casework has been dominated by yet another Scottish National party Government failure: the delivery of broadband in my constituency and, indeed, across Scotland. Scotland lags behind the UK on roll-out and Angus is even further behind that poor Scottish average. Rural communities such as mine make a huge contribution to Scotland’s economy, but they are again being left behind by the Scottish Government’s focus on the central belt.

Complaints continually flow into my inbox from constituents about their access not even to superfast broadband, but to a basic internet connection. That connection would enable them simply to operate emails, pay bills or—fundamentally in a constituency with a higher-than-average unemployment rate—apply for jobs. Do not get me wrong: in my constituency there are schemes where residents have grouped together after losing faith in the Scottish Government to deliver. However, the expense simply cannot be afforded by most. A hospitality business was quoted £85,000 to get a connection because it is not included in the current roll-out. Frankly, that is simply not good enough.

Photo of Kirstene Hair Kirstene Hair Conservative, Angus

I want to make some progress.

Of course, the situation does not stop SNP representatives from muddying the waters further by talking about superfast availability that realistically only exists on paper. It is incredibly disappointing that SNP Members of the Scottish Parliament misrepresent the situation to their constituents by talking about how more than 90% of premises have access to superfast broadband, when we are all perfectly aware that long copper lines prevent households and businesses that are further away from enabled cabinets getting those speeds. That further adds to the frustration of my residents, some of whom are now at their wits’ end.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy)

Is the hon. Lady blaming the SNP Government for the historical BT infrastructure of long copper wire in the networks?

Photo of Kirstene Hair Kirstene Hair Conservative, Angus

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; it was a prime example of the SNP Government trying to push the blame on to somebody else.

I understand that leopards do not change their spots—again, that was a prime example—so, of course, Members opposite will blame the UK Government and anyone else, just as they did with the botched common agricultural policy payments and the failed centralisation of police and fire services. This is a problem purely of the SNP’s making, but time and again we have seen the Scottish Government fire up their PR machine, which churns out all-singing, all-dancing press releases with the aim of pulling the wool over the eyes of Scots.

Photo of Kirstene Hair Kirstene Hair Conservative, Angus

I am going to make some progress. What is abundantly clear is that when we scratch the surface—

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. Kirstene Hair has indicated that, for the time being at least, she is not going to give way, so Deidre Brock should not just keep interrupting on the basis that she hopes she will.

Photo of Kirstene Hair Kirstene Hair Conservative, Angus

What is abundantly clear is that when we scratch the surface there is often no regard for the practicalities, and then, when the Scottish Government cannot deliver—yes, you guessed it—the blame lies at someone else’s door. They want all the powers but none of the responsibility.

This issue is not just about Government in Edinburgh. It is having a real impact on the day-to-day lives of those living without proper connectivity. Increasingly, businesses in my constituency tell me that it is becoming more and more difficult to keep up with day-to-day work and to compete both nationally and internationally —never mind thinking of investing in new technologies, which would greatly enhance their output—all because the connectivity levels cannot support it. This issue is seriously hampering the growth of our economy. My largest town of Arbroath has more than 20,000 residents, so it is hardly rural, but it has speeds of less than 10 megabits per second.

Photo of Paul Masterton Paul Masterton Conservative, East Renfrewshire

As a central belt MP, I feel slightly guilty about having a significantly higher accessibility rate than most, but even in my constituency there are individuals and businesses who are some minutes’ drive away from Glasgow, in communities in Eaglesham and Uplawmoor, who have no access to sensible broadband. Does that issue not affect connectivity and business future-proofing as we go forward?

Photo of Kirstene Hair Kirstene Hair Conservative, Angus

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. With Scotland’s economy growing at a slower rate than the rest of the UK, it is fundamental that we have basic infrastructure in place.

Angus has one of the lowest download speeds in the UK and one of the lowest rates of superfast broadband across our UK. Angus is simply being failed by the Scottish Government. Imagine a business trading across the world that can barely get an internet connection for their office. So many other countries have higher speeds and levels of connectivity than Scotland, so what do the Government in Edinburgh do for people? The answer is, nothing. Actually, I tell a small lie: they will happily explain that it is nothing to do with them—that is, until a cabinet is connected to fibre, and then a Minister and his team will race out to get a photo opportunity and shout about how they are delivering for Scotland.

I wish the Scottish Government would listen to one of their own—Winnie Ewing, who once said:

“Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on”.

I ask them to stop the games and the grievance and get on with delivering vital broadband services for Angus and Scotland, so that my constituents can get the services they need and deserve.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy) 10:07 am, 22nd November 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. As the phrase goes, there are supposed to be three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. I think we can add to that the parallel universe of John Lamont. His Tory grievances know no bounds, and we have heard the same things from Government Members. This is the week that he tried to politicise Poppyscotland, so the Tory grievances really do know no bounds.

The hon. Gentleman talked about stripping the Scottish Government of their powers and giving them to local authorities. I hope that he is aware that local authorities have been involved in the roll-out. I know from my time as a councillor that East Ayrshire Council was involved in discussions with Digital Scotland and the Scottish Government and put money in to achieve a target of higher than 95% in my area.

The hon. Gentleman blithely ignores the fact that the UK Government’s target of 95% superfast coverage for the UK was based on a pan-UK approach, which allowed the UK Government to set a target that was skewed towards England, where there is a greater population. Were it not for the Scottish Government’s investment, we would not even be close to the 95% target.

Broadband Delivery UK allocated £100m for broadband in Scotland, but the Scottish Government and other local authorities have had to add £185m—additional funding of 185%—to get to a 95% target for Scotland. To achieve the 95% target in England, additional funding of only 108% was required, which shows the disparity in approaches and the level of commitment to it in Scotland.

Scotland’s landmass is the equivalent of 60% of England’s landmass, so clearly the funding allocation should have been done on that basis alone, which would have meant a much higher funding allocation initially of close to £338 million, instead of the £100 million that was received from the UK Government. With more densely populated areas elsewhere in the UK, commercial roll-out was always going to be more attractive and hit those areas first. Scotland’s challenging geography has resulted in the requirement for 400 kilometres of subsea cables.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Scottish Government are clearing up the mess made by the UK Government and the absolute lack of ambition to connect Scotland that has been shown over several years?

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy)

I wholeheartedly agree. This may surprise people but the Tory grievances know no bounds, as I said, and they do not know where the responsibility lies.

I hope the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk is aware of the issue with Scotland’s historical infrastructure. Scotland has a much higher proportion of exchange-only lines, which has resulted in different solutions having to be implemented, and those were back-ended as well. That accounts for some of the initial slowness of roll-out.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is also well aware that rural Scotland suffers in mobile coverage, due to the licensing system in the UK and—again—a UK Government strategy that has overlooked rural Scotland. If we had good 4G coverage, at least that would mitigate the problems with broadband access in rural areas, but of course it is the rural areas of Scotland that are also subject to the notspots. The blame for that lies firmly with the UK Government.

It could all have been so different. The 3G auction in 2000 raised £22 billion for the Treasury, but that money was squandered. The 4G auction in 2013 raised nearly £2.5 billion. That money could have been invested in broadband and telecoms, but it was not, which again is a failure of UK Government policy. We could have had a new and complete fibre infrastructure rollout instead of relying on 100-year-old copper to deliver our broadband services. There could have been a much better strategy, instead of the piecemeal approach that we now have.

It is the same with the universal service obligation. At least the hon. Gentleman was willing to admit that it should be a 30 megabits per second USO to meet customer demands and expectations, and at least the Scottish Government have shown ambition and are committed to delivering that by 2021.

I cannot pretend that there have not been issues with the rollout of broadband. One issue has been managing expectations, as everybody wants broadband and wants it now. I agree that the Digital Scotland website, which allows postcode checking as well as live interaction and live updates, could have been rolled out in a much better way, to allow people to have a better understanding of when they are likely to get broadband. Also, individual delays in the rollout have not always been reported accurately; the updates could be much better.

BT has not covered itself in glory either. Many of my constituents have been frustrated by the lack of progress, and I held a public meeting on broadband, to get stakeholders in front of the public and allow interaction with them. That event was well-received and gave people a better understanding of the problems. As an MP, I have personally intervened at times to seek resolution for different cabinet upgrades. I fight on behalf of my constituents as well, and I recognise that there have been some problems along the way.

Overall, however, there is definitely a good story to tell. If the Scottish Government and local authorities had not invested as much money, the consequences do not bear thinking about. We are also at the mercy of the commercial rollout. Commercial companies are not even obliged to tell us if they have achieved 100% rollout where they said they were going to do so, and under state aid rules public funds cannot be invested in those areas.

Additionally, pillar two money has been used to support the rollout of rural broadband in Scotland. The UK Government have not committed to providing the same levels of funding post-Brexit, so I hope that the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk will bring that issue up with the UK Government. However, I note that he has refused to work with the SNP on the common agricultural policy convergence issue, which is also associated with the pillar two funding and overall European funding.

As has already been touched on, it is natural to leave the hardest areas until last, but I agree that that approach could perhaps be reviewed for future programmes, because it means that the same areas are always left behind. Again, the initial targets and initial allocations of money skewed the 95% target away from Scotland, leaving it to play catch-up.

It is also worth pointing out that of the 20 wards in the UK with the slowest broadband speeds, only one is in Scotland. Seven of the 10 slowest UK wards are in Wales, which has also suffered the same fate of having a devolved Administration that is overlooked by the UK Government. Also, in my time here in Parliament, many Tory MPs from the rest of the UK have complained about rural broadband access in their constituencies, so there is no point pretending that this is just a Scottish matter.

In conclusion, only the Scottish Government have committed to 100% superfast broadband by 2021. There might be some more frustrations along the way, but I am confident that only one Government will deliver on that superfast commitment for their country.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire 10:14 am, 22nd November 2017

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

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend John Lamont on securing this debate. Anyone who has followed me in my short time in this House will know that broadband and connectivity are key interests of mine and subjects that are as close to my heart as they are to the hearts of my constituents.

We live in an increasingly digital world. Digital pervades every aspect of our lives today: in communication, through email, Facebook and Twitter; in banking, business and bitcoin; in farming, as farmers fulfil their CAP obligations; in retail, as retailers try to reach domestic and international customers; and in benefits, welfare and healthcare, all of which are moving online. You name it—now, pretty much every public and private service has a digital footprint. Therefore, access to broadband, specifically superfast broadband, is vital for the businesses and individuals in rural Scotland, including those in my constituency.

In an increasingly digital world, access to superfast broadband is crucial for rural areas in Scotland to flourish economically. The UK Government have invested £122 million in the broadband roll-out in Scotland. Despite that, Scotland is lagging behind the rest of the UK in the superfast broadband roll-out, which will surely harm Scotland’s rural economy.

To be clear, because there has been some confusion about this matter in the past, responsibility for broadband policy lies with the UK Government; however, in Scotland the delivery of the roll-out is the responsibility of the Scottish Government. From a policy perspective, the UK Government have embarked on a programme to roll out superfast broadband across the UK. They have also put in place the universal service obligation, giving every household the right to request a broadband connection at a minimum level, up to a reasonable cost threshold. That is the policy that Holyrood has received hundreds of millions of pounds to deliver. By the end of 2016, however, 17% of Scottish households lacked access to superfast broadband, as opposed to just 11% of households across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy)

On the allocation of funding, does the hon. Gentleman accept my point that that £100 million or £120 million from the UK Government was nowhere near enough to achieve a 95% roll-out target in Scotland?

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that issue, because he mentioned that Scotland’s landmass is only 60% of the landmass of England, and said that the funding should be distributed proportionately. Surely, however, that would result in our having less money, not more, so I was a little confused by what he said.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

I will make some more progress and then the hon. Member can come in.

It is true that superfast broadband availability in Scotland has improved from 73% to 83% since 2015, but it still lags behind the rest of the UK. Also, that improvement has largely been achieved by focusing on urban areas around the central belt of Scotland. The slow roll-out of broadband in rural Scotland reflects a Scottish Government who are intent on centralising power and leaving behind areas outside the central belt.

That is particularly true of my constituency of Ochil and South Perthshire. Ochil and South Perthshire enjoys only 69.1% of superfast broadband availability, compared with 83% in Scotland and 89% across the UK. Scotland also has lower than average download speeds than the rest of the United Kingdom.

The UK Government define superfast broadband as 24 megabits per second, yet the average download speed in my constituency is only 19 Mbps. That puts Ochil and South Perthshire in the worst 4% of broadband coverage in the whole of the UK. In 2017, that is unacceptable.

I accept that measures have been taken by both by the UK Government and by Holyrood to step up progress. In Scotland, the roll-out is part of the Digital Scotland programme, which includes the “Reaching 100” scheme to try to deliver superfast broadband to 100% of the premises in Scotland by 2021. The UK Government have named a number of pilot areas for ultrafast broadband, including Aberdeenshire.

I also welcome some of the draft proposals put forward by the Minister in the UK Government to ensure that some of the future rounds of broadband funding are given directly to local authorities and communities. That is not stripping Scotland of powers but empowering local communities and local councils, which is what devolution was intended to do.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband is delivering more than £400 million of investment, to deliver 95% future broadband access by 2017. But the USO commitment of the UK Government will not deliver broadband at superfast speeds for 100% of the country, unlike the Scottish Government. Does he not welcome that?

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

As I have said already, I welcome some of the measures introduced by the Scottish Government and the UK Government. However, in Ochil and South Perthshire I have two Scottish Government Secretaries, and yet my constituency is still in the worst 4% of broadband coverage in the whole of the UK. So, if the Scottish Government are so good, where were their national issues being applied in my constituency? Where are they for my constituents in Glendevon, in Cleish and in St Fillans? Two Cabinet Secretaries—Scottish National party Cabinet Secretaries—are not delivering, just as they are not delivering for the rest of Scotland.

Although I welcome a lot of the initiatives that have been brought forward—

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

No. If the hon. Gentleman had come in on time for the debate, I would take an intervention from him, but otherwise he can stay quiet.

Neither Cabinet Secretary has changed the 69% broadband coverage in Ochil and South Perthshire—[Interruption.]

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. It is not acceptable for Members to shout across the Chamber. Carry on, Mr Graham.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

Thank you, Mr Howarth. In Prime Minister’s questions a few weeks ago, I called on the UK Government and Holyrood to work together to address the slow roll-out of broadband in Scotland and in my constituency, and to reflect on some of the challenges my constituents face on a daily basis. I was shouted down. I hope that this time, instead of howling me down, SNP Members here and in Holyrood might heed my words and work together to deliver for the people of Ochil and South Perthshire.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative, Moray 10:20 am, 22nd November 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Lamont on securing this important debate on broadband roll-out in Scotland. As the debate title mentions Scotland, I am sure all right hon. and hon. Members will join me in congratulating Forres in my constituency, which has been named as having the most beautiful high street in Scotland just this week.

Broadband connections are a hugely important issue to me as a constituency MP. It is the issue I have the most correspondence on, whether that is by letter, email or visits to my constituency surgeries. The mainstay of many rural communities, such as the one I represent, is our small businesses. They are often single-person operations, and they provide the glue that keeps rural communities such as those in Moray sustainable. That sustainability is being undermined by the lack of adequate broadband, without which it is simply not possible to trade in this day and age. It is not just small businesses; a significant and successful asset management company operates in my constituency. It has customers scattered across the globe and offices based in London, the United States and Asia. It is a home-grown company and proud of it, but the continued lack of adequate broadband is understandably causing it anxiety. The financial services industry in the UK is not just restricted to London and Edinburgh. It generates employment and revenue across the country, and our broadband coverage should reflect that.

The complaints come from all parts of Moray, with notable notspots including communities such as Rafford and Glenlivet and coastal communities such as Spey Bay. People watching in those communities will be puzzled by the SNP’s objections that local authorities should have more control over the roll-out of broadband in their areas. I was confused to see the glee—I wrote that word down—of SNP Members when my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk said that the Scottish Government should be stripped of these powers. It is almost as though they do not believe in true devolution from this Parliament to the Scottish Parliament and onwards. [Interruption.] Excuse me: I tell SNP Members that devolution does not stop in Edinburgh. Edinburgh is as far away from Moray as London often seems to be. We want more powers going down to our local authorities, rather than being held by a centralised SNP Government.

Photo of Ross Thomson Ross Thomson Conservative, Aberdeen South

Like me and other hon. Friends, my hon. Friend served as a local councillor. Does he agree that there has been a tendency in the recent past for the Scottish Government to take powers away from our communities? Whether it is decisions about council tax, fire and police or planning, all the tendencies of the Scottish Government are to take powers to the centre and never to give them back.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative, Moray

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. The SNP Government are only interested in the central belt of Scotland. They are only interested in holding powers in Edinburgh and not in further devolution. I am proud that the Scottish Conservative party and the UK Government are keen to see further devolution.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative, Moray

I am afraid I have to make progress to allow the hon. Gentleman adequate time to sum up the debate.

The Library briefing for this debate shows that the urban and rural parts of Moray are being let down by the Scottish Government. In Speyside Glenlivet, 52% of connections receive speeds of less than 10 megabits per second. That is an extremely rural ward, yet in Elgin City North, 51% of connections are less than 10 megabits per second. That is not acceptable. In Heldon and Laich, almost 7% of connections receive speeds less than 2 megabits per second. The SNP should be stripped of the powers because it is not delivering for Scotland. It is time to go direct to the local authorities and deliver true devolution.

I will quickly mention alternatives to the broadband roll-out. I recently met WiFi Scotland, an extremely successful small start-up company based in Elgin and run by Rob Cowan and Angus Munro. It provides wireless broadband services to the Orton and Rothes valley and is looking to expand into Mulben and Boharm. I recently facilitated a meeting for those two gentleman with Moray Council to ensure that we can streamline the planning process to allow them to develop the technology further.

I know that you would like me to conclude, Mr Howarth, so I will simply say that Moray is a great place to live and work—we even have award-winning high streets—but much of that work is in spite of, rather than because of our connectivity. Moray and Scotland deserves better than we are currently getting from the SNP Government. I welcome the announcements from the UK Government to give more power to local authorities.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Before I call the next speaker, I remind him that I will call the first Front-Bench spokesman at 10.30 am.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan 10:25 am, 22nd November 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Lamont on securing this important debate. He and I share a passion for ensuring that rural communities such as his, mine in Banff and Buchan and those represented in the Chamber are not left behind in the roll-out of superfast broadband. I welcome the comments from Martin Whitfield on the increasingly essential nature of broadband access. It is no longer a “nice to have”; it is becoming a more and more essential part of everyday life.

Rural broadband is a major priority for the Scottish Conservatives, as it should be. As of 2016, only 83% of Scottish premises had access to superfast broadband. Admittedly that was an increase from 73% the previous year, but it compared with the UK average of 89%. Only one Scottish constituency is in the top 100 for access to superfast broadband speeds, while 23, including my own constituency, are in the bottom 100. What makes the situation particularly frustrating for Scottish Conservative Members of Parliament is that despite the SNP’s claims to the contrary, improving the situation is the responsibility of the Scottish Government in Holyrood. While broadband is a reserved matter and broadband roll-out is a UK-wide policy funded by the UK Government, in Scotland the Scottish Government are responsible for leading the delivery of the roll-out. The House of Commons briefing paper—it is number CBP06643, if anyone is interested—of 9 March 2017 makes that very clear. It states unambiguously that:

“Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) is responsible for managing the Government’s broadband funding. Individual projects are the responsibility of local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as set out in BDUK’s delivery model.”

Incidentally, I found it interesting that, as far as I could tell, nobody from the SNP appeared to be present at yesterday’s Parliament and internet conference—I apologise if they were and I did not notice—which was hosted in part by the Minister. It had a significant session in the afternoon specifically on connectivity. With their constant grievance that the internet is reserved, I would have thought that SNP Members would have been all over it, putting pressure on the Minister. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, certainly did not seem to think that the matter was reserved last year when she pledged that the Scottish Government would

“ensure that 100 per cent of homes and businesses across Scotland have access to superfast (30Mbps) broadband by 2021.”

That is an interesting promise to make if the matter is indeed reserved and thus out of her hands.

I am told that Banff and Buchan has an average download speed of about 6 megabits per second. Having conducted similar surveys to some of my colleagues, I have never heard of anyone who actually has anything like 6 megabits per second. They either have reasonably good coverage if they are reasonably close to a cabinet, with a speed somewhere between 10 and 24 megabits, or they have next to nothing. If I understand the arithmetic, it suggests that far more people have less than 2 megabits per second than have more than 10 megabits.

Many of my constituents can only dream of speeds as high as 6 megabits, never mind the USO of 10 megabits. My hometown of Turriff, which is the third largest town in the constituency, only recently got fibre to cabinet. In my case, being less than a kilometre from the cabinet brings me up to 10 megabits per second on average, but most of my constituents in the rural areas struggle to get speeds of even close to 2 megabits per second, assuming that they can get online at all. It is also worth noting that while the Scottish Government expect 95% of premises to have access to superfast broadband by the end of 2017, in Aberdeenshire, which takes in my constituency, Gordon and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, it is predicted that around 11% will still not have access to superfast by that time.

The world is becoming more and more connected. If our communities and premises are not adequately connected, communities will fall further and further behind the rest of the country—indeed, the world, as has already been mentioned. An increasing number of important services, including Government and local government services, are moving online, sometimes exclusively, and with each such service the situation for my constituents gets worse.

Relatively recently, we talked about something called the internet of things. That is rapidly becoming more like the internet of everyone and everything, but sadly not for everyone: only for those with a decent connection. There is simply too much acceptance of the problem.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Media) 10:30 am, 22nd November 2017

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I cannot imagine you expected such a feisty start to your morning.

What we have seen this morning is probably best described as a missed opportunity to discuss sensibly and rationally what is happening across Scotland, particularly in our rural communities, as Conservative Members from Scotland decided they would rather score cheap political points. Every one of us has localised problems around broadband roll-out; when they let the cat out of the bag, what came out loud and clear this morning, from the hon. Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and for Moray (Douglas Ross), is that the issue is actually about power stripping and taking powers away from the democratically elected Scottish Government.

I am not saying the Tories are predictable—although perhaps I am. We heard so much about the SNP’s evil centralisation that is taking place, so I took a quick look at the reality and what the figures actually say. By December 2018, access to fibre broadband in Aberdeen city will 97.5%, in Aberdeenshire it will be 91%, in Angus 94%, in Dumfries and Galloway 97%, in the Scottish Borders 95%, and in Fife 99%.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Media)

I will make some progress and come back to the hon. Gentleman.

If Scottish Conservatives want to talk about grievance and pick an issue with which to bash the Scottish Government, one would think they might find a far better way to deliver it.

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

Is it not quite something to hear about centralisation from the party that abstained on the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill, the biggest shift of power from the Government in Edinburgh to ordinary people?

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Media)

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely excellent point, which goes to the contradiction at the heart of the Scottish Conservatives.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative, Moray

The hon. Gentleman says we are building up grievances. Will he explain that to my constituents who come to my surgeries explaining their frustrations with broadband roll-out? Will he also clarify for Hansard and for this House that the SNP does not want to give powers to local authorities in Scotland? That, too, is devolution, and I am surprised that SNP Members are so opposed to it.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Media)

I advise the hon. Gentleman to look at the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill. If that is not about devolving power to local communities, I do not know what is. We all have a mailbag full of broadband connection problems, but the fashion in which the Scottish Conservatives have behaved is unhelpful and unconstructive and does not reflect the reality.

In many ways I am delighted that digital communication is being debated here today, because it gives me the opportunity to enlighten the House as to exactly what is happening in Scotland and what the Scottish Government are doing in their Digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, which will have extended fibre access to 800,000 premises by March 2018, meaning that 95% of Scottish homes and businesses will be connected to superfast broadband. I am sure the whole House, with some honourable exceptions, will welcome that and applaud what the Scottish Government are doing.

This debate allows me to inform hon. Members of the enormously ambitious plans that the Scottish Government have—the R100 plans—that will see every home and business connected to superfast broadband with a USO of 30 megabits per second by 2021.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

Can the hon. Gentleman clarify whether the Scottish Government have been empowered to deliver the devolution of powers that he seeks?

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Media)

In terms of devolving to local authorities?

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

The hon. Gentleman seeks devolution of power from the Scottish Government to local councils. My understanding is that central Government still have to legislate on that. Is that his understanding?

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Media)

That is precisely my understanding. It is not in the Scottish Government’s power. I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman.

Unlike the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government are absolutely committed to a universal service obligation of 30 megabits per second. Compare that with the 10 megabit per second USO currently on offer from the UK Government.

As I say, we all have problems. My mailbag is absolutely full almost on a daily basis with problems with broadband. That does not mean that we are getting it wrong; it means, as my hon. Friend Alan Brown said, that we cannot keep up with demand. People rightly demand to be connected. In my constituency of Argyll and Bute, we are losing population. I have said from day one in my two and a half years in this House that digital connectivity is the key to regenerating rural Scotland. I applaud the Scottish Government’s ambition in rolling out superfast broadband at 30 megabits per second throughout rural Scotland.

I believe a bright digital future awaits those not only in Argyll and Bute, but across rural Scotland. Opposition naysayers will have humble pie to eat in a couple of years’ time when it arrives.

Martin Whitfield made a useful and thoughtful contribution highlighting the problems and challenges that exist in his constituency. It is a tale I am not unfamiliar with. I echo his call, as I have in the past, to end the silo thinking. There must be a joined-up approach, because digital exclusion will be a serious problem if we do not get this right.

Kirstene Hair made a remarkable contribution and blamed the SNP for the historical copper wiring in the BT network. What can one say? My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun rightly highlighted the historical failure of the UK Government to sufficiently invest in Scotland. He also highlighted the problems facing roll-out in rural Scotland.

The hon. Member for Moray repeated the power stripping narrative of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. If he thinks the Scottish Government should be stripped of their powers, does he think the UK Government should be stripped of their powers and that those powers should be devolved to English local authorities?

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative, Moray

Unbelievable. The spokesperson for the third biggest party does not even realise that in England it is local authorities that deliver. It is because of their failure in Scotland that we should replicate what is happening in England and devolve further to local authorities. I cannot believe the SNP would object to that.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Media)

I absolutely do object to it. The Scottish Government, as we have seen, are doing an excellent job in rolling out across Scotland. The Scottish Government are delivering for Scotland.

I have less than two minutes left, so I will be quick and sum up. I firmly believe the Scottish Government are doing their best for Scotland. If the Tories would have us believe that they are the saviours of Scottish rural broadband, can the Minister explain why, since 2014, the UK Government have contributed only a derisory £21 million to support the expansion of Scottish fibre broadband—a figure that is less than that awarded to the counties of Devon and Somerset. Knowing full well that the Scottish Government were planning a USO of 30 megabits roll-out programme, why did the UK Government not even have the courtesy to inform the Scottish Government of their own plans to roll out 10 megabits per second, leaving the Scottish Government to find out from the pages of the press? And why did it take 10 letters over 18 months from the Scottish Government to the DCMS before the Minister finally met Minister Fergus Ewing, a meeting that took place just two weeks ago?

Finally, when GigaPlus Argyll, the community broadband company on Mull in my constituency, was left high and dry when its contractors went into administration, why were my emails and phone calls totally ignored? They were not even acknowledged by BDUK when I was trying to secure an urgent meeting to salvage something from the wreckage to try to save that project. Why, when I made an appointment to see the Minister himself about the crisis in GigaPlus Argyll, did he not turn up, with not so much as an apology or an offer to reschedule? Scotland is doing a great job in rolling out digital broadband, and I commend the work that the Scottish Government are doing.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy) 10:40 am, 22nd November 2017

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth; thank you for preserving a modicum of order this morning as tempers rose. I congratulate John Lamont on securing the debate. He is right that in the 21st century, broadband is not a luxury but an economic necessity. He eloquently argued that it is integral not simply to the way that we live, but the way that we want to work. His timing is well chosen, because of course later this afternoon the Chancellor will have to stand up in the Chamber and try to explain to us all why a Conservative Government, and previously a Conservative-led coalition, have presided over a slower recovery after the financial crash than that following the great Wall Street crash of 1929.

As we rally behind a better future, growing the digital economy is clearly one of our most important opportunities. There are about 1.6 million people working in the digital economy today, but on average they are paid about 40% more than the national average. If we want to raise productivity growth rates and give our country a pay rise, we have to accelerate the roll-out of the digital infrastructure. I am sure he will not tell us this, but I very much hope that the Minister has been massively successful with his right hon. Friend the Chancellor and that there will be plenty of good news about broadband this afternoon.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Although the Government are pushing for flexible working time for parents of young children, the lack of decent broadband is grossly affecting people’s ability to work from home. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we need a UK-wide project—in other words, across Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and all of England—to end the isolation of rural communities and to increase jobs among small and medium-sized businesses and enterprises that need that rural broadband connection?

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

I completely agree, and some hon. Members are luckier than others in the resources that they have been given to deliver that vision. Over the coming years, we will be extremely interested to see what Northern Ireland has secured and delivered with the £1 billion that it was offered to prop the Government up and keep them in power.

We have heard a shocking litany of complaints today from the hon. Members for Angus (Kirstene Hair), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham), for Moray (Douglas Ross) and for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) about the very high levels of dissatisfaction among their constituents and the very poor levels of service. I know that those complaints will have made a big impression on the Minister. The call made by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk for devolution of further power to councils raises an interesting point. My understanding is that the Scottish Government are not empowered to deliver that at the moment; it requires central Government to legislate. Perhaps the Minister will have more to say on that when he winds up; he may correct me, if I have grasped the wrong end of the stick. The challenge was brilliantly summarised by my hon. Friend Martin Whitfield, who described not only how superfast broadband is essential to the way that we want to live today, but how people are now scurrying between the wi-fi of various cafés to run their businesses. That is surely not the basis of the economic rebound that we want to see in the years to come.

I want to touch on three points in the debate, and they are about infrastructure, take-up and the way that we approach this policy problem. The bad tempers that we have heard this morning really illustrate that a new approach will be needed if we are to deliver for the people of Scotland over the coming years. On infrastructure, the state of affairs was well summarised. It is quite clear that broadband access is worse in Scotland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Earlier this year, Which? found that the worst three local authorities for broadband access are all in rural Scotland. The present consensus that a lack of broadband access is harming economic growth is particularly troubling. Last week, the National Housing Federation reported that

“Rural connectivity to broadband...limits the number of people willing to start and run businesses from rural areas.”

That was at the heart of the argument presented by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk today. It is a real worry, and I hope that the Minister will explain to us what the Government are going to do about it.

The poor state of infrastructure, though, is only half the story. Often, these debates centre on theoretical access, which is quite different from the access that people actually receive. The headlines that I saw said that 83% of properties in Scotland can access superfast broadband, but it is much poorer in rural areas, where 46% can access superfast broadband. Furthermore, when people are asked, as they have been by Which?, about the kind of service that they actually receive, the estimates are that two thirds of rural connections receive an average speed of below 10 megabits per second, which is of course much lower than the Government’s universal service obligation. I understand the presentational issues that all Governments have to conjure with, but we have to ask ourselves whether we are doing the debate any service by continuing to talk about theoretical access speeds when we know that problems between the cabinet and the home mean that the rates actually received are far less effective than those advertised.

My second point is on the take-up of broadband services, which is much lower in Scotland than elsewhere in the country. There is a question about whether that is something to do with awareness and can be remedied by Government here in Westminster or, indeed, in Scotland. The broad point that should emerge from today’s debate is that there is no single actor in this policy environment that will make all the difference; a very different kind of collaboration will be required in the years to come. We need to create a policy environment in which, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian said, players can join in delivering these kinds of services. In some parts of Scotland, it will be much more effective for co-operative organisations to get stuck in and deliver the service in completely new ways. Many say to us that there is just not an encouraging policy environment for that at the moment.

My final point is about the poor level of collaboration between the Conservative Government here in Westminster and the Scottish National party Government in Scotland. We saw something of the character of that relationship this morning. It is not good for delivering progress and an awful lot more energy needs to be put into collaborating. It is just not appropriate for the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, Mr Ewing, to have to take the extraordinary step of using a Scottish parliamentary answer to demand action on broadband from the UK Government. If that is how relationships are now being conducted, I am afraid that both sides have something to answer for.

Labour has sought to strengthen universal service obligations. Indeed, our amendments for a universal service obligation of 30 megabits per second passed in the Lords; it was unfortunate that the Government overturned them in the Commons. We think that a universal service obligation of 30 megabits per second should be delivered by 2022. That was the position set out in our manifesto, and we hope that the Chancellor has heeded that advice and will deliver something akin to it this afternoon.

Let me conclude by echoing the excellent words of my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian, who said that new inequalities must not be allowed to emerge in the digital economy. This is an area of economic progress that is simply too important for anyone to be left behind; our country simply cannot afford it. We look forward to what the Minister will tell us about remedying the problems that have been eloquently described and set out by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk this morning.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport 10:49 am, 22nd November 2017

This has been a robust debate and I want to answer the points that were made very clearly. The debate was initiated by my hon. Friend John Lamont, and I am delighted that he and the other new Scottish Conservative MPs have done so much over the last few months to put Scottish broadband right under the spotlight. It deserves that attention, because it deserves to be better. I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency very soon, as he asked. I will address all the questions that he raised.

I also agree with much of what Liam Byrne said, not least that digital is vital for the future economy, and I agree with my hon. Friend Paul Masterton that inequalities must not be allowed to emerge. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill called for accurate descriptions of speeds actually available, and I look forward to progress on that front coming very soon.

My hon. Friend Kirstene Hair argued very strongly that broadband is no longer a “nice to have” but a modern necessity. She explained why it is so important, and how disappointed she and her constituents are that delivery of superfast broadband in Scotland has not been good enough. We need to see an improvement. I wanted to set that out today.

In Scotland, around two-thirds of premises have access to superfast broadband through commercial roll-out by BT, Virgin and others, but one-third cannot get it through that commercial roll-out, so after 2010 we introduced a subsidised superfast broadband programme in Scotland, as we did across the rest of the UK. We gave £100 million of UK taxpayers’ money to the Scottish Government to deliver that programme. Today, more than 92% of premises in Scotland now have access. That is good news, but it is well short of the Scottish Government’s target of 95% by the end of the year. Unfortunately, Scotland’s roll-out of superfast broadband is behind the pace of the rest of the UK, where access is now more than 94% and on track to hit 95% by the end of the year. It is also behind Wales, where we also gave funding after 2010, and where the Welsh Government have not bungled the delivery like the SNP Government have in Scotland.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy)

Will the Minister explain how the allocation of £100 million came about? That £100 million is roughly one-third of what is needed to achieve the 95% target, whereas the £520 million allocation to England is a half. How did that funding formula come about?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport

The Scottish Government got more than their fair share because they had a higher proportion needing supported rather than commercial access.

Until now, the Scottish Government have been happy to take the credit when things have gone right, but pass the buck when things have gone wrong—we saw more attempts at that this morning—so I am going to set out what has been going on. In 2014, we gave the Scottish Government more than £20 million for phase 2 of their superfast roll-out. Three years later, they have not only failed to sign that contract, but have not even opened the procurement yet. The Scottish Government are three years behind the fastest English local authorities in contracting for their roll-out.

In fact, Scotland is behind every single English local authority, behind the Welsh Government, behind Northern Ireland in getting going on phase 2 of its broadband roll-out. My own county of Suffolk, for example, has not only contracted phase 2; it has already contracted phase 3. There is a similar story in most other parts of the country—but not in Scotland. Worse, the Scottish Government project will not have contracts signed until the end of next year, which will be after the roll-out of phase 1 has finished, so they risk broadband delivery companies downing tools after completing phase 1 of the project, before phase 2 is ready to go. Elsewhere in the country, they got phase 2 going before the end of phase 1.

It is a great cause for regret that the Scottish Government have for more than three years sat on £20 million of UK taxpayers’ money, which could have been used to deliver broadband for the people of Scotland. Brendan O'Hara raised the question of that £20 million. We offered it in 2014. A further £60 million is being returned from the first contract because of the level of take-up in phase 1, and another £14.5 million from underspending on that contract, and £30 million from city deals. In total, there is £125 million of UK taxpayers’ money waiting to be spent in Scotland—waiting for the Scottish Government to get on with it. So you can see why we and the people of Scotland are rightly frustrated at the Scottish Government dragging their feet.

Throughout the process, BDUK has offered technical support and assistance to Digital Scotland to try to get things going, but it seems that the Scottish Government’s fixation with pipe dreams of independence has distracted them from the job of delivering to the people they are meant to serve. It is part of a pattern.

As a result of our experience of delivering superfast broadband through the Scottish Government thus far, we have decided that for the next generation of broadband technology—full fibre—we will instead deal directly with local authorities across Scotland, as we do in England. We have already had a fantastic response, and I am looking forward to going to Aberdeenshire next week to see their pilot of a local full-fibre network project and to see progress on a test bed for 5G. I look forward to working constructively with Digital Scotland to deliver on the next steps of the superfast project and with local authorities across Scotland to deliver the next generation of technology that is coming rapidly.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Media)

The Minister said a moment ago that BDUK is on hand to offer technical solutions. Perhaps he is coming to my direct question on the problems of GigaPlus Argyll. BDUK offered no solutions; it absolutely abandoned GigaPlus Argyll and ignored me, as the Member of Parliament, on numerous occasions.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Gentleman should have been talking to Digital Scotland, because we gave the money to Digital Scotland to deliver, and for three years it has sat on that money and done nothing with it. What we need from the Scottish Government is not noise, but action for the thousands of people who have seen nothing but buffering while the Scottish Government have sat on their hands and sat on the money.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Media)

So, for clarity, BDUK has no role to play in the position of GigaPlus Argyll, despite being set up through BDUK? BDUK has no role to play for an elected MP to contact?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport

In future, BDUK and the UK Government will be delivering our full-fibre, next generation technology directly to local authorities in Scotland, instead of through the Scottish Government, because we have been so disappointed with the failure of the Scottish Government to deliver on money that has already been allocated.

Photo of Ross Thomson Ross Thomson Conservative, Aberdeen South

Aberdeen has suffered from poor digital connectivity for too long. UK Government grants of up to £3,000 to get gigabit broadband are very welcome. Does the Minister agree with me that that investment will help support Aberdeen to continue to compete on the international stage in areas such as oil and gas, food and drink and life sciences? Does he share my belief that Aberdeen City Council would do a much better job of delivering that locally than the SNP Government in Edinburgh?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport

I wholeheartedly support that and I look forward to working with local authorities right across Scotland, of whatever political persuasion, as we have with local authorities across England whatever their political persuasion, and as we have successfully with the Labour Welsh Government, who have delivered better for Wales than the Scottish Government have delivered for the people of Scotland. This is not about party politics; it is about how to best get decent broadband to the people. That is what I care about. We have had failures from the SNP Government, so we are going to go direct to local authorities, and I look forward to working with Members right across Scotland to make sure we can get that delivery.

In the meantime, of course I look forward to working with Digital Scotland on the contracts that are already in place to get to the end of that roll-out. I plead with the Scottish Government to get a move on. We stand ready to help get broadband to the people of Scotland. We will do everything we can to make that happen, but our patience with the Scottish Government when it comes to the next generation of delivery has simply run out.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk 10:59 am, 22nd November 2017

I am very grateful to all Members who have contributed to today’s debate and am particularly pleased to hear the Minister’s comments about involving local councils in the delivery of broadband in Scotland, after the huge failure of the Scottish Government.

It is notable that most of the Members who contributed to the debate all agreed that the SNP Scottish Government have failed miserably in the delivery of superfast broadband in Scotland. We had the pleasure of the company of three SNP Members for most of the debate. I think it is always telling that when the SNP are under pressure, the call goes out for troops to come and help them, and they fill up their Benches to give them some support—but they have all gone off again. As I said, I am very grateful to have had this opportunity to raise such an important issue for my constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the roll-out of broadband to rural communities in Scotland.