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Superfast Broadband

Volume 553: debated on Thursday 22 November 2012

We are making good progress, and I can confirm the good news, which I know the hon. Lady will welcome, that the European Commission has now approved the UK umbrella state aid notification. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] A cheer for Europe in this Chamber is a thing of rare beauty, and we will continue, therefore, to progress our rural broadband programme.

But the Minister for communications cannot hide the complete “comnishambles” over which he is presiding. That is why state aid approval was delayed for so many months. We have a multi-million pound superfast broadband process with no competitors. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that there is effective competition in the delivery of superfast broadband, so British consumers and businesses get the choice they deserve?

I agree with the hon. Lady that we have a multi-million pound superfast broadband programme, and it is going to deliver superfast broadband to 90% of the country. I cannot make companies compete for these funds, but we do have a robust process in place to ensure value for money, and we are proceeding apace.

Will Ministers consider prioritising not spots for the roll-out, such as the village of Denton in my constituency, which has shamefully been neglected by BT, as well as areas that have poor mobile reception, such as St Margaret’s and Kingsdown, which get French mobile phone signals?

For the 4G auction, we have put in place a 98% coverage obligation. Getting broadband to the village of Denton will, of course, be part of the Kent rural broadband programme, so it will be a matter for my hon. Friend to discuss with his county council.

The Government chose to abandon Labour’s target of universal broadband access by 2012, and last week Ofcom published figures that showed that 10% of the population— 5 million people—have no access to broadband whatever. The problem is especially bad in rural areas, where access is 50% worse than in urban areas. In north Lincolnshire, only one person in five has access to broadband, and in Ceredigion the proportion is one person in four. Whatever happened to the party of the countryside?

We did not abandon Labour’s pledge; Labour’s pledge was unaffordable and it was unclear how it was going to be paid for. We have put in place a much better pledge—to deliver superfast broadband—and we have among the highest penetration of internet access in the world.

I congratulate the Government on getting this state aid approval. The Minister will be aware that some telephone exchanges serve residents and premises that cross local authority boundaries, so will he encourage authorities to work together even when they are not in the same consortiums, to ensure residents served by those exchanges are properly supported?

We are certainly encouraging that, and a number of counties are working together, including Devon and Somerset, and Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. We will continue to encourage that where it is appropriate.