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Volume 501: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2009

Scotland and the UK are ahead of most of Europe on broadband availability. However, we recognise that some people still have problems accessing broadband, and that is being addressed through the “Digital Britain” White Paper.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Is he aware of the particular difficulties in rural areas? I carried out a survey in my constituency recently, and on average 11 per cent. of those who responded said that they had difficulty receiving broadband. In Millport, the figure was 30 per cent. What can the Government do to intervene and ensure that the problem is addressed quickly?

My hon. Friend has raised these issues regularly and campaigned on them, and she is right to draw out the point about people who are locked out of digital broadband for reasons of geography or income—whether in Millport, which I regularly enjoy visiting, or anywhere else throughout Scotland. We are determined that at least 90 per cent. of the country should have access to super-fast broadband, and I am happy to have more discussions with my hon. Friend about how we can ensure that that target is hit in her constituency.

Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that Ofcom is perceived as a toothless tiger that requires more powers? I have campaigned on this issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark). In a letter I received from Ofcom, the regulator states:

“Ofcom does not have the power to mandate ISPs”—

internet service providers. Surely that power is overdue, because otherwise, many of my constituents, along with those of my colleagues, will continue to receive a poor broadband service.

My hon. Friend makes some very important points about the decision-making powers and architecture that will ensure we achieve 90 per cent. broadband penetration. We are trying to ensure that the market provides most of that, and we expect that up to two thirds—60 to 70 per cent.—of homes will be able to access super-fast broadband through the market. However, the Government will have to do additional things, and my hon. Friend can make the case for giving Ofcom additional powers; but, again, we are absolutely determined that no one be excluded for reasons of geography or income.

Is the Secretary of State aware of The Press and Journal report today that, according to the Top 10 Broadband website, broadband speeds in Aberdeen and Inverness are running at about half the rate of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and that BT does not know why? Will he undertake to find out why, and recognise that high-tech global industries operate out of Aberdeen and need to have the same access as the best in the UK?

The right hon. Gentleman, also, makes a really important point, and the issue of access to broadband for business and domestic users is crucial. The figures that I have show, however, that despite that worrying report in the newspaper, Aberdeen is ahead of most Scottish cities. The fact is that less than half of people in Dundee and Edinburgh have access to super-fast broadband, and less than one third have access in Glasgow. Aberdeen is in a much stronger position, but we are determined to ensure that there is universal access in Aberdeen and beyond.

What can the Government do to help or compel BT to upgrade exchanges, especially in rural areas, to ensure greater broadband penetration for the islands of Scotland in particular?

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, and the people there raised those issues with me. It is important that there be an upgrade for copper and wire networks, but the Government are also committed to a 50 per cent. levy on those with BT lines—[Interruption.] I mean a 50p levy. [Interruption.] That is the tax at some point in the future. There will be a 50p levy on those throughout the United Kingdom with a BT fixed line, and rural areas and island communities will benefit from that.

I wish to take the positive message from the Secretary of State today. I had an open meeting in Lanark last week with voluntary organisations and small businesses in my constituency, particularly those in the Clyde valley, so his statement today will be good news, but we should roll out the programme as quickly as we can.

My hon. Friend makes the point that, for many people throughout Scotland and the UK, access to super-fast broadband is about a way of life. A decade or so ago, such infrastructure and technology was a luxury; today, it is increasingly a necessity. It is crucial that no one, for reasons of geography or income, be locked out of those changes.