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BT Openreach

Volume 586: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2014

I applied for this debate about three months ago and rather forgot that I had made the application. It only popped up in the system in the last 10 days, and quite a lot has changed since then. None the less, some of the fundamental points that I hope to raise are as important now as they were then.

First, to be positive, UK broadband roll-out—I will touch briefly on Wales, too—is a very positive story. A significant number of businesses and households are benefiting from it, and the link between economic regeneration and good-quality broadband is not disputed. However, importantly, 9.5 million UK adults lack the basic skills required to get online, and more than half of British businesses do not have an online presence to sell goods and services. That is an important underlying feature that the country and the coalition Government must address.

I appreciate that responsibility is devolved in Wales; none the less, it depends on UK taxpayers to the tune of £250 million or thereabouts. I will touch on three things that are important to the UK Government, rather than the Welsh Government, as a consequence: first, the take-up of broadband once it is installed; secondly, the issue of isolated rural communities, which has been raised many times in this Chamber and elsewhere; and, thirdly, Openreach response to customer concerns. That final point is the one on which I suspect there has been significant improvement during the past few months, but there are still concerns across the country—not just in Wales—about it.

On take-up, it is a worry to me that in Wales we are averaging about 17%; the figure went up a little bit to 19% in August in certain areas, but it has dropped back to 17% overall since then. Anglesey is doing rather better, at 25%. However, if we compare Wales with Cornwall, South Yorkshire and Northern Ireland, where the average take-up figure is nearly 30%, we appear to be underperforming. I have described the situation as being a bit like investing millions of pounds in High Speed 2, and then having no passengers using the service. To the tune of almost £490 each, UK taxpayers—including Welsh taxpayers—are creating this fantastic piece of infrastructure, yet use of it is not being properly taken up. We need to address that, for the reasons I gave earlier.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. We used to have debates about the extent to which broadband could be rolled out in our rural communities; there were figures of 96% and 97%. However, like him I fear that the debate is now about take-up. Where does he think the responsibility to promote take-up lies? Should it be with our National Assembly Government, with the Minister’s Department or with BT? I ask because, as he said, one way or another we are not getting the message across, are we?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It seems to me that once the infrastructure is in place, it is unclear who is responsible for persuading, cajoling or seducing people into using it. It was mentioned to me this morning by employees of Openreach that take-up is reliant, to a great extent, on local authority enthusiasm and energy. However, that does not seem to be a strategy; it seems to be just an aspiration. I would suggest—I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to this point—that this is a UK-wide problem. Broadband is a very expensive infrastructure project, so it is a UK Government responsibility to ensure that everybody knows that the service has been upgraded, or whatever expression one wants to use, in their area, and knows how to go about accessing it at a sensible and reasonable price. However, that does not appear to be the case at the moment. Most MPs seem to have a fairly full postbag when it comes to broadband-related issues, and yet the figures I have given show that a relatively small number of people are aware of, and therefore signing up to, the new provision.

The second issue I want to raise is isolated rural communities. We always talk about the 4%—those people who fall outside the 96% aspiration—and what the future holds for them. My question to the Minister is this: what are the UK Government’s proposals as far as those people are concerned? The Welsh Government have already given an indication that there will be some kind of mop-up scheme at the end of all this activity, which will possibly rely on wireless or satellite. However, the time scale is unclear; the method of installation, if that is the right word, is a little unclear; and it is certainly unclear what the cost would be to UK taxpayers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I wonder whether he is in the same position in Wales as I am in England; I am trying to get from BT a map that shows clearly the 4% of people who are not in the system, so that one can try to deal with the situation and ask why they are not in the system. The little bits of information that we glean seem to indicate that there is no rationale in terms of isolated communities. I can cite a place called Glasson Dock; BT tells me that it is not in the system, yet it is in no way isolated. In fact, it is a very large community just on the outskirts of Lancaster.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. There are various online methods through which one can find out when one’s community is likely to be connected, but of course there is an irony there, because part of the problem is that not all of these communities have an online capability, thanks to the problems that we are discussing, so it might not be as easy as it seems to gather that information.

In defence of Openreach, I must say that the situation is a little clearer than it was, and I can only urge my hon. Friend to do what a lot of us seem to end up doing, which is pestering the company until such time as it says what is going on, just to get us off its back. Nevertheless, it seems to me that for reasons that are not entirely clear—they may be competition reasons, or just technical reasons—it is sometimes difficult to acquire the information that we need. There is a financial consequence to that, because companies need to know how, and indeed whether, they can invest in growing and sustaining their business, and it is very difficult for them to do so if there is no clear indication as to when they might reap the benefits of this fantastic new resource.

There are two ways that Openreach can help, in relation to my hon. Friend’s first two points. The first way is through data. Openreach has a large amount of data on who is taking up broadband services, which at the moment it does not release. It is really important that Openreach considers whether it can release more data. The second way is through this new concept called fibre to the node, which Openreach has held on to for some months now, and which we really need to get rolled out, because it is the key to accessing many of the very rural communities that he and I represent.

I am grateful, too, for that intervention. I have to say that I had not heard that expression until lunchtime today; I vaguely understood it when it was mentioned then, but now I completely understand it. Coming from a rugby nation, however, I think that the only thing I can do is pass the ball sharply to the left to the Minister, because ultimately decisions about that concept are for the UK Government, or at least that concept is an opportunity for the UK Government to deal with the problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and—I have to say—plenty of other hon. Members have raised.

I will illustrate the point about isolated rural communities. The Country Land and Business Association is just one of many organisations that have helpfully made contributions to this debate, and it estimates that about 100,000 businesses with a combined turnover of up to £60 billion are affected by the lack of broadband, including many farmers, who of course have no option these days but to submit many of their Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs-related obligations and VAT returns online. It is an irony that in certain parts of my constituency farmers have to go to McDonald’s to access the free wi-fi there, in order to fulfil their legal obligations. I cannot believe the Government are enthusiastic about that reality.

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Will he note that when those farmers go to McDonald’s, which often gets a very bad press, they can be reassured by the fact that it has a very good supply chain, using British-sourced beef and produce?

I am casting an eye in the direction of the Chair, who will very possibly rule me out of order; I am almost surprised that he did not rule the hon. Gentleman’s intervention out of order. However, I agree with every word he said—I say that before I am admonished.

Thirdly and finally, I will discuss the Openreach response to customer concerns. I know that this is a controversial area; that it is very easy for people such as MPs to come up with a long stream of examples that are probably the exception rather than the rule; and that we only ever hear of the things that go wrong, rather than the many occasions on which things go right. However, there is a pattern—it has improved, but there is none the less a pattern—among constituents of mine that suggests Openreach has some way to go to reassure its customers that it has sorted the problem of addressing customer concerns, and that it is their servant, rather than their master.

I will highlight two examples of customer concerns, and I hope that the House will indulge me while I read from my notes. The first example is of three customers on the same line who were waiting for work to be done, including work to replace a repeatedly broken line that needed to be buried underground. After waiting for more than 12 months, the customers were told in the spring that work could not be carried out until the autumn, because the farmer across whose land the line was to be buried would not allow Openreach to do so until the crop on that land had been removed. In fact, the farmer in question was actually one of the three customers affected, and that was simply not the case; the land was a grass field, and he was happy for the work to be carried out as soon as possible.

That example shows a little more than just a lack of communication, or some kind of mistake in the system; it appeared to my constituent, who was a customer of the company, that the company was almost deliberately trying to push him to one side. The fact that the work took so long and in the end required him to seek what I suppose is the ultimate sanction—of going to his MP—is an indication of the distance that we still have to go to restore customers’ confidence in the company.

My second and last example is of a customer waiting for work to be done who was told that it was necessary for the council to approve the use of traffic lights on a road in order for the work to be carried out, and that a request for their use had been submitted. Fortunately, the customer’s brother worked for the relevant department in the council and knew that, first, no such request had been submitted and, secondly, there was no such requirement for traffic lights. Once this was highlighted to BT, the work was carried out and no traffic lights were used.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Those examples, from places 200 miles away from my constituency, are identical to issues faced in mine. I have heard about Openreach blaming a local authority for failure to act, yet the local authority says that Openreach has not contacted it. I am concerned, because Openreach has said that it needs to work with local authorities to get broadband use higher, but if it is blaming local authorities with no justification, surely that will not build a positive relationship.

My hon. Friend’s remarks probably reflect those of a number of hon. Members. I hope that the new regime at Openreach, which is highly focused on customer relations, realises that these are not necessarily isolated examples, that there is a bit of a pattern, and that it needs to treat them with the seriousness they deserve.

Of course, for customers there is that torturous process of trying to make a complaint to a machine of such magnitude that it is almost impossible ever to talk to the same person twice, or to get through the endless helplines, despite being reassured that “Your call is important to us”, and all that nonsense. People want action, and they want it quickly, not appeasement; yet the system seems to be geared against that.

To ensure greater openness in its provision of services, BT has added features to the “Expect Openreach” site, including a local network status checker to show information about incidents such as cable breaks, weather-related information and so on. However, the problem with isolated rural areas is that, with a lack of mobile phone coverage and poor broadband, it is almost impossible to check the “Expect Openreach” site to ascertain what caused damage to the process in the first place. There needs to be some reflection of the fact that the normal way that members of the public and customers can identify problems are not exactly open to people in more isolated areas.

I shall give the Minister a lengthy opportunity to answer two questions. I have secured a few Westminster Hall debates, and always optimistically finish by asking one, two or three questions. However, four and a half years in, no answers to those questions have been forthcoming. I hope and pray that the Minister will break that record. I am asking in the most helpful way that that I can.

First, will the Minister explain what the UK-wide strategy is for ensuring greater take-up, so that we can move our take-up figures in Wales from 17% to a much higher proportion? I hope that there will be a similar improvement across the whole UK. Secondly, will he set out the Government’s plans to deal with the 4%? What is the time scale and cost, and what is the expectation for the 4% of people who will fall behind the rest of the UK, unless we deal with their broadband demands in exactly the same way as we deal with everybody else’s?

I am grateful for the chance to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this important debate.

My hon. Friend asked two clear questions, but also pointed out that in four and half years in this place no Minister has ever answered his questions. I am a loyal Minister and I do not intend to break ranks with my colleagues. I will try to use the next 17 minutes to avoid, in any shape or form, answering my hon. Friend’s questions. If at any point it appears that I might stray towards an answer, I rely on my colleagues to intervene to prevent me from doing so. My hon. Friend needs to reach five years in this place without an answer, so that when the election hustings come he can say to his constituents, “In five years, no one has ever answered my questions.”

Of course, my hon. Friend will be re-elected, because he is a fantastic Member of Parliament. It is debates such as this one, in which he raises issues of concern to his constituents, that show why he is such a superb MP for his constituency.

Before I give way, will the hon. Gentleman let the House—and the Minister answering his question—know what his current status is?

I speak on a constituency matter. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire made a good speech, in which he talked about rurality. I would like the Minister to answer one question. Does he recognise that, in Wales particularly, rurality affects almost every constituency? My constituents, Darren Hughes, Haydn and Pat David, Gill Dowling and Justin Legg are in Pencoed and Heol y Cyw, which are only two miles from the M4, yet they have intermittent service disrupted by bad weather. However, when they approach BT Openreach they do not get satisfactory answers, let alone compensation. Does he agree that they need to receive good customer service and satisfaction?

I am not clear what question the hon. Gentleman is asking me. Is he asking whether every constituency in Wales has an element of rurality? [Interruption.] I agree—I answered that question directly. Do I agree that his three constituents deserve the help of Openreach? I agree. I have ensured that key executives from Openreach are within 50 yards of the hon. Gentleman, to take up his constituency case the minute this debate finishes.

It has been a bit of a broadband day for me. I started in the television studios of “Rip Off Britain”, with the great Angela Rippon, Gloria Hunniford and Julia Somerville, talking about broadband speeds, where, to my absolute astonishment, a member of the team told me that they lived in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and he was an excellent Member of Parliament, in tune with his constituents.

I went on to a meeting with the Federation of Small Businesses, which told me its concerns about broadband and its ambitions for the Government. Obviously, I was fresh from answering all the parliamentary questions last Thursday, where a lot of my colleagues raised their concerns. The Secretary of State was nowhere to be seen, because he was in India, so I had to answer every question.

I am pretty broadbanded out, but now is the time to turn that around and give the positive message. First, the broadband roll-out programme is going well. We have passed more than 1 million premises and we are now passing up to 50,000 a week. It has really gathered speed. We are working in all the 44 areas where we have contracts.

In Wales, a scheme of some £200 million—if BDUK, Welsh Government and European money is taken into account, and not even including BT money—will cover some 750,000 premises by spring 2015. We have already reached almost 250,000 premises in Wales with superfast broadband. Let us not forget that BT’s commercial roll-out has also achieved superfast broadband for some 600,000 premises. By spring 2015, some 1.3 million premises in Wales will benefit from superfast broadband, if ours and BT’s rural broadband programme are combined.

The programme is on track. I pay tribute to the leadership of BT—Mike Galvin and Bill Murphy—on its rural broadband programme and on its tireless, hard-working engineers, many of whom worked in difficult conditions during the floods last winter to maintain it, as hon. Members will recall. While not ever losing sight of those who feel that they are being left behind by this programme—I will turn to that in a moment—it is important to celebrate its achievements and the enormous impact it has had.

I have decided to change my mind. This is a red letter day, because I am going to answer the two questions asked by my hon. Friend. What is the UK-wide strategy to promote greater take-up of broadband? He makes a good point. We are rolling out superfast broadband and it is important that people take it up. It is also important that people remember that superfast broadband is an engineering programme. We cannot wave a magic wand and deliver it overnight. We must also remember that there is a reason why this entire programme is not commercial and that, although we all see the benefits of superfast broadband, it is not necessarily taken up by everyone to whom it is available. That may be because people have decided that they do not need superfast broadband or because people are not aware that it is available in their area. We may be able to work with them to show them the benefits that superfast broadband would bring them.

In the very best cases, local authorities work hand in glove with BT and other providers to promote superfast broadband. One good example I can think of is Digital Durham, which from the beginning has had a take-up strategy embedded within it. Another good example is Cornwall, where there has been an ongoing project for several years. BT was originally contracted to reach 80%, but with the same money it is likely to reach 95% of the county. Cornwall has had digital take-up at its very heart with broadband roll-out.

There are two other issues that I hope will increase broadband take-up. First, working with BT, we are sharing data on how well take-up is going in particular areas. I opened the first broadband cabinet of our programme in North Yorkshire, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), and I am pleased to say that after my visit, take-up in that village soared to 60%. Clearly, although I am a pretty remarkable fellow, I cannot visit every single cabinet in the country, so that strategy has been ruled out. We are sharing the data on take-up by ward, so that we can identify areas where there is good take-up and areas where there is poor take-up to try to see whether any particular factors are behind that.

I am pleased to hear that the pilot scheme is happening and that data are being shared. When I was at a presentation in North Yorkshire a few weeks ago, there was a still some reticence on the part of BT Openreach to release much of its data, so I urge the Minister to continue his campaign and to persuade it to share as much data as possible.

We have made great progress with BT. Naturally, it is a commercial organisation, so sharing data with Government and more publicly is quite understandably an issue, because those data could be shared with commercial rivals. We have reached an agreement to share data by ward level on broadband, and that will begin to feed through.

Secondly, we have our SuperConnected Cities scheme, which offers business vouchers in 22 cities in the four nations of the United Kingdom. We have an advertising campaign promoting the take-up of those vouchers, and we have seen an uplift. We should therefore seriously consider whether a national campaign is needed to promote the benefits of superfast broadband. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire loud and clear when he said that he felt that responsibility ultimately rested with the Government to promote broadband and broadband take-up. While I have talked about the need for BT and others and local councils to work together, I understand that point. We will look seriously at the role the Government can play in increasing broadband take-up.

In relation to the data being made available on a ward-by-ward basis, is that a decision for the Welsh Government or the Department here in Westminster?

The decision on getting those data was taken at the level of BT working with Broadband Delivery UK, and those data will come via BDUK. We will work with the Welsh Government, as we do on the whole broadband roll-out programme.

The second question that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire asked was about how we will deal with the last 4%, and I will answer that question, too. It is a bit like a goal drought followed by a goal festival. It is clear that we cannot leave anyone behind in the broadband revolution. As I said, it is an engineering project and cannot be wished into existence overnight. Having seen the success of phase 1, which was to take us to 90%—I think it will actually go to 93% in Wales, if not further—we instituted phase 2, to take us from the 90% headline to the 95% headline. There was £500 million for phase 1, plus local council money and BT money. Phase 2 is an additional £250 million to take us to 95% nationwide. Phase 3, as it will effectively be called, will be to get to the last 5%. My hon. Friend talked about the last 4%, but we say that it is 5%, broadly speaking.

The last 5% are the most difficult homes to reach. They are the proverbial hockey stick on the graph, where the cost gets significantly higher, and we need to ensure that we get value for money. Under the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), we instituted a £10 million fund, where we invited different providers to provide pilots to test new technology for the most hard-to-reach areas. Those pilots are under way, and I think I am right in saying that we are evaluating their impact. The fund opened in March 2014 and we launched the pilots in June. One is in Wales and there are others in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Hampshire, Northumberland, Kent, north Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire, Devon and Somerset. The pilots have put their feasibility studies in to BDUK, and that will give us a good idea of what the best technology is to use—those who are critical of BT will be pleased to know that other companies are part of the pilots—and allow us to come up with a number that we can seek to fund the last 5%. That is an important point.

The third question, which my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire did not ask, although I think it formed the bulk of his speech—the reason why he did not ask me is because, arguably, I am not directly responsible—was on the performance of Openreach on customer service. Again, I know that he has a good relationship with Openreach. He has met their senior executives on at least one occasion, and possibly today as well, to talk through his concerns and issues. It is right that every colleague can raise concerns on operational performance. On Openreach’s operational performance, I am pleased that it is in the process of hiring some 1,600 additional engineers. As an aside, I am particularly pleased that many of those engineers have come from our armed services. It is good to see people who have served their country having the opportunity for a career in a company such as BT. I meet the chief executive of Openreach regularly. He is conscious of the need to continue to improve Openreach’s customer service and to meet his targets. My hon. Friend’s concerns and those raised by many other colleagues have been heard by Openreach.

I return to the high-level points that I want to make. With this programme, we have one of the most successful Government-sponsored roll-out programmes anywhere in the world. In terms of speed and the cost to the consumer, we have some of the best broadband infrastructure anywhere in the world. It is certainly better broadband than the other big four countries of the European Union. We have a great story to tell. We are a nation that was an early adopter of e-commerce, so we know that our fellow citizens are adopting this technology.

We will not, however, lose sight of those who are frustrated and left behind. Broadband has caught up with us and has become essential and important, whether for leisure, because we all access the BBC iPlayer or the numerous other internet applications, or—as my hon. Friend alluded to—as part of business, whether it is a farmer wanting to interact with the Rural Payments Agency, a citizen wanting to interact with Government services or a small business person wanting to sell their products and services not just locally, but across the globe. We will continue to strain every sinew to ensure that we deliver world-class infrastructure across all four parts of the United Kingdom. I am grateful indeed to my hon. Friend for raising these important issues and I end with an apology for having broken his four-and-a-half year unbroken record of being stonewalled by Ministers by simply answering his questions as directly and comprehensively as I could.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.