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Digital Inclusion

Volume 478: debated on Wednesday 2 July 2008

As both Secretary of State and the Minister responsible for digital inclusion, I am working closely with the Assembly and the other devolved Administrations to develop a new digital equality action plan. It will address issues for those living in rural communities, and I hope that it will be published later this month.

People without access to broadband are as excluded and disadvantaged as their counterparts in the 1950s who scrambled around with candles and kerosene lamps while everyone else had power at the turn of a switch. I have taxed BT about the problem many times, for instance in a letter that I wrote on 28 April to which I have still not received any acknowledgement or reply. Has the Secretary of State, in both his roles, had any discussions with his counterparts in Scotland, where I understand that BT advertises broadband availability 13 km from the exchange, compared to 6 km in Wales? How can that be done in Scotland if it cannot be done in Wales?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I shall make a point of talking to my colleagues in the Scotland Office and, when appropriate, to the Scottish Executive as well.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about parts of Wales which are not yet up to speed with broadband, and I can tell him that the Welsh Assembly Government take that very seriously too. They have provided funds for the upgrading of some 35 telephone exchanges in Wales which the companies believed were not profitable, but which the Welsh Assembly Government considered important to ensuring that broadband reached every part of Wales, including rural areas. They have also introduced a registration system for those who cannot access broadband, and 1,500 people and firms have already contacted Cardiff. The fact that take-up of fixed-line telephones and broadband in rural areas in Wales is higher than it is in urban areas demonstrates that there is a call for it.

Hundreds of people in Pembrokeshire have found that they cannot access broadband because of antiquated line-sharing devices, even when the local exchange is enabled. BT cannot tell me how many other households are affected by the problem, and seems to have no strategic plan for upgrading the infrastructure. Does the Secretary of State think that the tens of millions of pounds of public money that BT has received to roll out broadband in rural areas is money well spent?

I think that BT is spending the money properly in Wales, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, particularly in the context of my first answer. I shall be meeting BT next week to discuss these issues, and I shall make a particular point of mentioning Pembrokeshire. Later this year the Assembly Government will undertake a tendering process to choose a supplier to provide broadband infrastructure and services in what are known as “not spots” in Wales, and they expect the contract to be awarded next year. This is an important issue, and I will take it up.

When the Secretary of State meets BT next week, will he mention not only Pembrokeshire but Ceredigion? I am sure he will endorse the work of Ceredigion county council, which carried out a survey of “not spots” to identify the gaps in the system, but will he also endorse the comments of the Mid Wales Partnership about the need for “urgent planning and investment” to improve high-speed internet connections? I am particularly interested in the business case: a number of small businesses feel that they are being impeded by the lack of action to deal with the problem.

The hon. Gentleman is right. I take account of the fact that, in rural Wales particularly, many people work at home and need their computers. They need to be online, and in a position in which they can benefit from the new technology, for their businesses to work. When I meet BT, I shall be sure to discuss the problems of Ceredigion as well as those of the other counties in Wales.