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Superfast Broadband

Volume 542: debated on Thursday 22 March 2012

May I apologise for the Secretary of State’s absence from questions today and thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving him leave of absence? The whole House will be aware of the happy reasons for that absence.

We anticipate that the broadband delivery framework contract will be signed with suppliers in mid-April, and we expect the first three projects to enter procurement using the framework immediately after. We have set a target for all broadband procurement to be completed by the end of 2012, so that delivery can be completed by 2015.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Rural north Yorkshire is already benefiting from the Government’s investment in broadband, and after yesterday’s Budget cities will, too, but at higher speeds. How do we avoid a continued digital divide between rural and urban areas, but at higher speeds?

My hon. Friend has been a doughty champion of his part of the world in securing superfast broadband. All the country will benefit from superfast broadband, but it is quite right that we continue to invest in higher speeds, particularly for cities, to maintain our global competitiveness.

Will the Minister congratulate Worcestershire county council, which has set aside £8.5 million in these difficult times to secure superfast broadband? In Redditch we have a £300,000 project to enable residents to stay at home and work instead of travelling into cities. What can the Government do in these times to help local authorities further?

We continue to invest a substantial amount in broadband roll-out, and I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Worcestershire county council on investing alongside the Government. It is a great testament to the scheme that we have put in place that we have secured private funding and local government funding alongside central Government funding.

What progress has been made to overcome the issues of state aid in unlocking the rural broadband fund, which will help in counties such as Hampshire?

We have applied for a UK-wide scheme for state aid approval. We believe that we are close to approval, and we continue to work closely with the European Commission on the issue.

The cumbersome and expensive Broadband Delivery UK process appears almost to have eliminated competition, which ought to have had a very important role in it. Ministers made a big strategic error in supporting superfast broadband at county level, rather than regionally. Does the Minister recognise that it will be a scandal if the outcome of the process is that, in the end, all the money is just handed over to BT?

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman, as a former telecoms Minister, does not understand that, if we had had a national or a regional scheme, competition would have been even harder to secure. As it is, three major competitors remain in play in terms of broadband roll-out.

How, in rolling out broadband, will we ensure that the people who undertake installation in different regions—rural areas as well as urban—do not simply move from London and then take their skills back to London, and that a skill repository is left among the work force where broadband is installed?

I cannot guarantee that the engineers who lay broadband will stay in the areas in which they work, but the key point about broadband roll-out is to ensure that all parts of the country benefit from the infrastructure so that we can base companies with high skills all over the country.

Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer found extra money to extend superfast broadband to small cities, but, as the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said, the real digital divide today is between those with broadband and those without. Peter Cochrane, former chief technical officer at BT, giving evidence in the other place, described access as “a fundamental human right”. Two million people, mainly in rural areas, are still without broadband, and Labour pledged to guarantee 2 megabits to almost every household by 2012, but this Government will not achieve that until after 2015. Why are Ministers so unfair in their treatment of rural Britain?

I certainly reject the accusation that we have been unfair on rural Britain, and my glass, unlike the hon. Lady’s, is half full not half empty. I look forward to going on a tour with her to Belfast, Cardiff, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and so on and telling people that they are getting unfair treatment from the Government because we are investing in their broadband networks.

Rural Britain, in the shape of the small town of Bradford on Avon in my constituency, welcomed the news this week that it is to have superfast broadband with the conversion of its exchange. [Interruption.] In the Budget yesterday the Government announced pilots, including one in Wiltshire, for rural growth networks to address the barriers to economic recovery. Will funding from those networks be available to increase the roll-out of superfast broadband in rural areas?

I did not hear the entire question because of the continued carping from the Opposition at our support for our major and smaller cities. I will happily work with the hon. Gentleman to ensure that all broadband funding is used as effectively as possible in his area.