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Phone and Broadband Coverage (Herefordshire)

Volume 590: debated on Tuesday 6 January 2015

We can commence the debate, as the Minister and the Member whose debate it is are in position. If hon. Members intervene on Mr Norman, could they please be brief, as this is a half-hour debate?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship or chairladyship, Mrs Main.

As colleagues will understand, this is a very serious issue that affects vast numbers of our constituents. This is only a short debate, but I see from the serried ranks of Conservative MPs and, sadly, the absence of Labour MPs that at least on one side of the House, this is a matter of great importance. I will be delighted to take interventions, as Mrs Main said, but let me make some progress first, and then I will invite colleagues to express their views.

I came to this subject because I was concerned about the combined effects of a bad mobile signal, a bad broadband signal and a phone line that is not working well. We see that in Herefordshire. Just a few weeks ago, I surveyed more than 1,100 people living and working in my constituency on the issue of mobile not spots and—

If my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) will let me continue, I will flag up when I am ready for the odd intervention or two.

The overwhelming majority of the constituents whom I surveyed thought that this was a serious concern and were in favour of action to tackle partial mobile phone not spots. We welcome the work that has been done on that by the Department so far. The situation is exactly the same for businesses. When Herefordshire’s sustainable food and tourism partnership surveyed its members, 97.8% responded to say that they had specific concerns and problems.

However, this is just part of a bigger picture. The Government need to look not merely at the effects of bad mobile and broadband coverage individually, but at their compounded effect. That is further magnified where there are insecure energy supplies, as in rural areas such as mine.

A mobile phone service is a lifeline for many people in rural areas, especially as BT telephone boxes are being withdrawn. Utilities, emergency services, telemedicine, delivery companies and tourists all require and rely on mobile and wi-fi coverage. However, it is common for my constituents to have download speeds of 400 kilobits per second and upload speeds of 120k—barely better than the old 56k connection—on aluminium phone lines, which prevent any kind of easy upgrade.

Welsh Water has told me that bad mobile coverage affects

“our speed of response and efficiency”

in attempting to serve tens of thousands of local people.

Kingstone surgery in my constituency has such a bad signal that if BT Openreach does not make urgent repairs, it will be unable to upgrade its software, potentially affecting 4,200 patients.

One of the issues that my hon. Friend is rightly exploring affects both our areas. Much of the rural heartland that we represent cannot be reached by the outreach that BT is doing, and we will need extra funding for some of our areas. I expect that that is exactly what he is homing in on. Across Exmoor, Dartmoor and those places, we will need that funding, I would have thought.

I think that is true. It is not clear that an enormous amount of extra money is required, but it does have to be targeted at areas that suffer that compounded effect.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate, and may I join him in pressing for a longer debate? Clearly, the attendance at this debate shows that we need that. May I also echo my hon. Friend’s words about not spots? The Government are doing a great job nationally of rolling out 90% mobile and broadband coverage, but for the 10%, which is disproportionately in rural areas, we will need further help.

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks, with which I concur. I would go further and suggest to colleagues that the ability to communicate is a fundamental freedom, protected in law, which underlies the very basis of human well-being and prosperity. In this digital age, people who are prevented from being able to use a phone or personal computer are in effect being stifled or gagged. They must be allowed the ability to send and receive information without impediment. In Herefordshire, it is not a matter of money; the system just is not available at any price, or at least at any price short of a satellite uplink.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. The situation is every bit as bad as he says, because if we cannot get proper broadband, we cannot get the boost to the mobile phone signal, either, so we are caught in a forked stick.

I absolutely concur with that, too. The point is that the Government need to take this seriously, not only as a matter of policy but as a matter of basic humanity and responsiveness to deep social needs.

Let me summarise the situation in Herefordshire. I will start with the mobile side. We have the fourth lowest overall population density in England and the greatest proportion of its population living in “very sparse” areas of any local authority in England. About 5% of Herefordshire by geographic area has no mobile phone coverage at all. As for partial not spots, according to Ofcom’s UK mobile services data for the year before last, nearly 40% of Herefordshire’s geographical area can receive a signal only from one or two operators. That is the highest incidence of partial not spots in England.

That directly damages public services. I mentioned Welsh Water. Even the Royal National College for the Blind, based in Hereford city, has said that its staff struggle to get a mobile signal when assisting their blind and partially sighted students. Everyone in this Chamber would agree that that is absolutely unacceptable.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend’s constituents in Herefordshire are as frustrated as mine in Nottinghamshire. The Government spent an enormous amount of money advertising the fact that broadband is coming, so when people find themselves in a not spot, that almost adds to the frustration that they feel.

That is certainly true. It is known in the literature as the tunnel effect. If we are sitting in a queue in a tunnel and the lane next to us starts moving, our initial feeling is optimism. If that lane then continues to move and we do not, that optimism can quickly turn to social frustration. I think that that is what we have seen in this case.

There are bright spots. I do not want to discourage colleagues from recognising that. We now have digital exchanges in Hereford city. We have a 3G femtocell in the village of Ewyas Harold. That just shows the power of this technology when it can be properly rolled out, because the people there are delighted with the progress. However, it has been extraordinarily difficult to achieve any real change.

The mobile infrastructure project, which the Department has very wisely and interestingly rolled out, is a case in point. When the sites to benefit from it were first announced, in July 2013, the ambition was for them to be acquired and built by 2015. That has now slipped to spring 2016. Ten sites were identified in the county of Herefordshire. To date, only two sites in the country—forget the county—have been delivered. That illustrates how difficult it is to achieve change.

Does my hon. Friend share the view of one or two of the mobile phone companies that the market has almost become too competitive, and that providers are being forced into the densely populated areas to chase a decreasing margin, which means that rural areas suffer?

That is an interesting line of thought, which I have not heard of. I wish it could be said that providers were competing for the custom of my constituents, but at the moment they are not making themselves available in any degree at all in many areas, which is why we have so many partial not spots. In any case, the mobile infrastructure project, which is such a worthwhile potential scheme, only targets basic 2G services. Why can we not put 3G and 4G services on those masts to provide a cost-effective universal broadband service?

May I bring the attention of my hon. Friend and the Minister to a further, more fundamental problem? Before we have even entered the next stage of roll-out, we in Cumbria already face a heartbreaking problem. Even with plans in place from the county council and BT to roll out, it looks as though inflexibility in extending funding will mean that we may not be able to push beyond March to September, and we may end up with £3 million unspent. There needs to be a big push in Herefordshire to ensure flexibility in funding. Without that, even the existing plans will fail.

I am grateful for that advice. On the fixed line side, the situation is almost as bad. I was delighted when, in the company of the Minister, we had a great summit in Herefordshire in July 2010 and shortly thereafter won one of the first four fast broadband pilots. That was a great moment for the county. I know that the Minister—on whose growing beard I congratulate him; he has succeeded in the beard-anuary bet—has been tireless in his work on the project, as has Herefordshire council. The whole thing has been delayed by the need to get EU clearances, by slow procurement and by very slow implementation by BT. As a result, my county is still, nearly five years later, one of the very worst places in the UK for fixed line internet speeds.

Dorset has a problem similar to that in Herefordshire. In the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we took evidence the other day from a senior director from BT, and from listening to him or reading the transcript we get the impression that all is dandy. Will the Minister put more pressure on BT to meet those targets? If we listen to BT, those targets are going to be met, but clearly they are not.

That is unfortunately true. BT lives in a Pollyanna-ish world in which all is for the best in this best of all possible internet worlds, but that is simply not the case in the real world. The truth of the matter is that more than half the wards in Herefordshire are in the bottom 25% of England and Wales for average download speed, and only one ward in the entire county is in the top half. House of Commons Library analysis shows that rural village wards in Herefordshire have substantially slower broadband speeds than average, which makes it difficult or impossible to use voice over internet as a substitute for the mobile phone signal that nobody receives in any case. Even some commercial premises in Hereford that were recently upgraded to digital exchanges do not have decent broadband coverage, which is simply unacceptable and a great depressant on local economic activity.

As we can see from the number of hon. Members present, that is not simply a problem in Herefordshire. Three of my constituents, Mark Dixon, John Ballantyne and John Gannon, have complained about inadequate broadband coverage in rural areas. Surely the Minister should address the wider issue of ensuring that there is superfast broadband to all homes throughout the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that remark. If I listed all my constituents who are affected, it would take a full day and a half of debate. Difficulties with reliable mobile coverage have been compounded by poor service from BT Openreach. Its remit as a non-customer-facing organisation causes enormous problems for my constituents. It is nearly impossible for them, or even for my staff, to get hold of people at Openreach. It takes too long to get one of its engineers to site, and they are often unprepared for the challenges of work in rural locations. It is difficult even to get in touch with Openreach, because there is no mobile signal in the areas from which one might seek to contact it. In addition, no effort seems to be made to prioritise customers who might be vulnerable because of age, disability or the sheer remoteness of their homes.

I praise my hon. Friend for the timeliness of the debate. Does he agree that extreme weather conditions such as floods, ice and snow highlight the importance of good broadband and mobile phone coverage? In the last week, my rural communities in Marsden, Hade Edge, Scholes, Cinderhills, Wooldale, Golcar and many more places were left isolated because of the questionable gritting policy of my local Labour-run Kirklees council. My constituents really need good broadband and mobile phone coverage.

It is a shame that literally no Opposition Members, let alone a Front-Bench spokesman, have attended the debate. I absolutely concur with the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. Constituents of mine have pointed out that they have been unable to contact the emergency services in the case of road traffic accidents and emergencies because they cannot get a mobile signal. There is a serious issue about allowing the emergency services to do their work.

What is to be done? I entirely reject, as colleagues will have heard, the argument that mobile phone coverage is a luxury, or that extending it should not be a concern of Government. I am delighted that that idea has been rightly rejected by Ministers for the nonsense that it is. Mobile coverage is absolutely essential to our constituents’ economic and social well-being. As a practical matter, they have no real economic power to secure parity of treatment. Someone who lives in a partial not spot has no place to go. They cannot secure the coverage that they need, and they have no alternative that might give them any economic leverage. On the contrary, the status quo raises serious questions about the effectiveness of competition in the market for mobile phone services in many parts of the country.

I absolutely welcome the initiative of the Secretary of State in this area and the recent agreement reached by Government and the mobile network operators. I wish that they would take that a step further and press for wider roaming rights for our constituents. Areas such as Herefordshire with multiple communications problems should be prioritised for improved coverage in a manner that follows local needs, not industry lobbying.

I will seek a full debate on the Floor of the House of Commons on those issues. I will encourage all my colleagues who are present today, and the dozens of others who have expressed an interest in the matter, to come along and take part in that debate. I want to cover three or four specific issues in that debate: first, a full understanding by Government of the nature of the problem, namely the combined effects of poor mobile, broadband and voice coverage; secondly, the specific performance of BT Openreach as a monopoly supplier of network infrastructure, and its manifest inadequacies; thirdly, recognition by Government that failure of phone or electricity is more serious where mobile coverage is patchy, so BT Openreach and the utility companies should prioritise repairs to such areas; and, finally, I suggest that Ofcom needs to look at service contracts. Mobile customers who sign such contracts and find that their connection is much worse than expected should be able to leave them early and on non-punitive terms. [Interruption.] On that basis, and with a welcome to Labour colleagues who have just entered the Chamber, I conclude my remarks.

Before I call the Minister, I point out that we will finish at 16.52. On a point of clarification, although the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to say that there were no Labour Members present during the debate, it is not appropriate for a Labour shadow Minister to be here.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Madam Chairman Ladyship, and I put on record your new title, which has been proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman). He is well known in the House as an expert on constitutional matters, so I will not take issue with him on that. As he noted in passing, this is the first outing of the beard, and it depresses me that it took him nine minutes and 42 seconds to mention it. Subject to the nature of the interventions that follow, the beard may or may not survive the week.

We are talking about a serious issue, so I will take a more serious tone from now on. I note that I have plenty of time to set out our position, and I will be happy to take any interventions from hon. Members should they wish to further the points they have made so eloquently throughout the debate. It is fair to say that, given the absence of Labour Members, we in the Government cannot be accused of gerrymandering in the way in which we are tackling broadband coverage. Clearly, it is doing very well in Labour-held constituencies.

Conservative Members understand that Government cash is limited so the Government should spend their money in the most efficient manner possible. Can the Minister explain to my constituents who cannot raise the funds to get broadband why the Government put a double-page, full-colour spread in the Daily Mail saying that broadband is coming? Would that money not have been better spent on actually connecting a dozen households in my constituency, rather than telling them that it might happen?

As a Minister I am also responsible for supporting the national and local press, so I am obviously in favour of anything that we can do to support the Daily Mail. The serious point behind that advert is that we are rolling out superfast broadband throughout the country as part of our rural broadband improvement programme. Although we are using public money to fund it, it is a co-investment with Openreach. One reason why we are doing it is that sometimes, broadband is not commercially viable, and one way to make it more viable is if more people take it up. We have noticed that, even in rural areas where people have cried out for broadband, they are not taking it up when it is there, so we want to encourage take-up. It is worth saying to my hon. Friends that the more people take up broadband, particularly under the rural broadband programme, the more money we will get back under the contracts we have negotiated with Openreach and therefore the more money we can invest in rural broadband.

Given his commitment to superfast broadband, will my hon. Friend the Minister absolutely confirm that we in Cumbria will not find that inflexibility from the Department for Communities and Local Government and too narrow an interpretation of European Union guidelines leads to us being unable to spend the money allocated to us, thereby leaving tens of thousands of my constituents without broadband coverage?

I absolutely take on board my hon. Friend’s point, which he made to me over the Christmas recess. I can confirm to him that my Secretary of State is in touch with the relevant Minister at DCLG. There is a technical point: European Union funds must be spent by the end of 2015. There is, therefore, a deadline by which such funds much be spent—currently March—to ensure that the time for spending them does not inadvertently overrun. We are making a confident case to DCLG that we can continue to spend the money throughout 2015 without any danger of spending it after the cut-off date at the end of 2015. My hon. Friend’s point is well made and the Department agrees. We are working hard with DCLG to come up with a solution because, when European money is on the table—I know that Government Members are all in favour of Europe—it is important that we spend it effectively on behalf of our constituents.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that we must encourage not just the big players to get involved? There are smaller players such as County Broadband in my constituency, which is a local player that knows the local parishes very well. It is important to make room for some of the small players as well as the big ones, particularly when it comes to bidding for contracts.

My hon. Friend is quite right. I am pleased to say that some of the smaller players have participated in our latest fund, which is designed to ascertain the cost of getting broadband to the last 5%—the most expensive and difficult-to-reach premises. Of the eight contracts awarded, I think that almost all have gone to smaller players, which continue to play an important role in rural areas—for example, Gigaclear provides a first-class service to many of the villages in my constituency.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In many ways, North Yorkshire is a bit like Herefordshire in its rurality. We have had great success: in some villages, take-up of superfast broadband has been 50%, and in one village it is at least 70%. Does the Minister agree that, for those people who are out of the way, in the 10% without coverage—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for yet another chance. I have been asked by the Clerk to clarify my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am a director of two telecoms companies.

Returning to the point about the 10% of people who do not have broadband access, or who have access of less than 1 MB, does the Minister agree that rapid deployment is needed of alternative solutions, such as fibre to the remote node and wireless solutions, so that the people in that 10% can enjoy the benefits of superfast, as many of my constituents are already doing?

I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why we put together the £10 million fund. As I said, a number of private providers are trialling such technology. The trials are under way, and we will evaluate them shortly, which will influence phase 3 of our rural broadband programme. It is no secret that our ambition is to deliver superfast broadband to 100% of premises in the UK.

That is good news about take-up in Yorkshire. Before we leave that point, take-up in a lot of rural areas is as low as 18%. It is one thing for the Government to encourage people to take it up, but an 18% take-up rate for such a huge infrastructure project is tantamount to a failure. We must do better than just encouraging.

I do not really know how to answer that point. On the one hand, one hon. Member criticises me for putting adverts in newspapers to encourage the take-up of superfast broadband; on the other, another hon. Member asks me to do more to encourage it. We cannot order people to take up superfast broadband, but we can tell them that it is here. We can also make the point that we have some of the cheapest superfast broadband to be found anywhere, not only in Europe but around the world. I am used to hearing people say, as I am sure my hon. Friends are, that they can access much better broadband when they go to their holiday villa or the like, but what they do not say is how much it costs to access it. We have some of the cheapest broadband.

The Minister has talked about the third phase of the Department’s plans. Can he spend a second or two talking further about that? Also, does he recognise the point about the compounded effects of lack of service, and might that justify an allocation of more funding in the third round to rural areas such as the ones we have described?

To put phase 3 in context, during phase 1 we put £500 million on the table, along with local authorities and BT Openreach. That figure rose to £1.2 billion. We intend to reach 4 million premises; we have already reached 1.2 million, and will shortly have reached 1.5 million. We are passing 40,000 premises a week. We will do the last 3 million of those 4 million premises in the time that it took us to do the first 1 million. That was phase 1. Across Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, the area in which my hon. Friend’s constituency is located, the programme is worth about £45 million. About one third of premises in his constituency, or about 14,500, will get superfast broadband coverage as part of that programme.

In phase 2, we wanted to go from the 90% target we had set ourselves—we were open about that target—to 95%, which will give an additional 1,600 or so premises in my hon. Friend’s constituency access to superfast broadband. At the end of that phase, 42,000 premises in his constituency, or about 92%, will have superfast broadband.

Phase 3 initially involves a £10 million fund to do pilot projects in different parts of the country to trial the new technologies that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) talked about, in order to evaluate the potential overall costs of getting to 100%. The figures on the back of an envelope were in the region of £1.5 billion to £2 billion, which is clearly an extraordinary amount of money, so we wanted to do work on the ground to evaluate how much it would actually cost.

I thank the Minister for his generosity, even with his beard. He is being kind in responding to the comments from colleagues, but he has not responded to one particular point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire, which concerned BT’s performance as a monopoly provider. My parents moved house recently, well before Christmas. They moved into a mobile phone not spot in Begbroke in my constituency, and applied for wi-fi. It was only put in place on Monday. That is an unacceptable level of service, and it is common. How will the Minister improve the level of service from BT?

I am aware of some of the problems Openreach has. It is recruiting some 1,500 additional engineers. My glass is always half full, so I praise Openreach for the work it has done. I visited some Openreach engineers working in my constituency over the Christmas period, when they were busily wiring up 360 of my constituents in the village of Steventon.

To sum up, we have the superfast broadband programme. We also have the mobile infrastructure project, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire pointed out, there are 10 MIP sites in his constituency. It has been tough going, getting the MIP up and running, not least dealing with landlords. However, we are also upgrading the technology so that it can accommodate 3G and 4G as well. Of course, there is also the landmark deal that my hon. Friend referred to: we have negotiated with the mobile operators to provide 90% geographic coverage, which will get rid of two thirds of not spots. That was a deal done without the need for legislation and time-consuming consultation. Already, the mobile operators are committed to 98% coverage of premises, but 90% geographic coverage will make a significant difference to rural areas.

I must make it clear that, despite the rightly testing nature of some of the speeches of and questions put by my hon. Friends today, we are on the same side, in the sense that we absolutely recognise the needs of rural communities. That is why we started the superfast broadband programme, why we extended it to phase 2, why we are looking to extend it to phase 3, why we have put in place the MIP and why we have put together the deal with the mobile phone companies.

However, implementation is quite another matter. I absolutely hear the concerns of many of my hon. Friends about how, and the speed with which, these projects are being implemented. I assure them that the superfast broadband roll-out programme is now going very quickly indeed. The roll-out of 4G is the fastest anywhere in the western world, and we have put a rocket under the MIP as well.

I welcome this debate and the forthcoming Adjournment debate, and I look forward to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire, who so ably secured this debate, having a debate in the main Chamber so that we can examine these issues in more detail. I apologise for the fractured nature of my speech. I wanted to take as many interventions as possible, but we have been interrupted by Commons business and the odd joke.