[Relevant documents: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2013-14, Rural Communities (HC 602); and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2014-15, Rural broadband and digital-only services (HC 834)]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rural phone and broadband connectivity.
Whatever the pros and cons of the argument on the length of the previous debate, on which views are widely held, shared and disputed, it is entirely appropriate that we should have a three-hour debate on rural phone and broadband connectivity, which is important to many people in this country. The debate follows one in Westminster Hall on 6 January. That debate was only 30 minutes long, but the Minister and I took 11 interventions. I am delighted by the turnout of colleagues on both sides of the House in the Chamber today. I specifically thank the Backbench Business Committee for its support in allowing us this time. I pay tribute to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for its excellent reports on rural communities, which was published last year, and on rural broadband and digital-only services, which was published just this morning.
Before Christmas, I surveyed more than 1,100 people living and working in my constituency in Herefordshire on mobile not spots. The overwhelming majority felt that that was a serious or very serious concern to them. Local businesses feel exactly the same way. In one recent survey in Herefordshire, almost 98% of local business responded to say that they had specific problems with mobile coverage.
My hon. Friend will appreciate that my seat is anything but rural, but the self-same problems of not spots relating to broadband connectivity affect even our biggest cities. As many will recognise from complaints by their staff, that applies even here in the Palace of Westminster in this part of SW1. I accept that this is a rural debate, but the issue affects the whole of the UK.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making the very important point that while these are especially difficult issues in rural areas, they are not confined to them. If it is possible to have a problem with mobile connectivity in SW1, I invite him to consider what it is like in HR1.
The issue is not merely bad mobile and broadband coverage, but the compounded effect of both, especially on isolated communities in rural areas such as my own. To take just one example, Vodafone recently acknowledged to me that it has only 55% coverage for 3G mobile data services in Herefordshire. Is it any wonder that bad connectivity is such a source of continuing frustration?
I do not mean to trump my hon. Friend, but I met Vodafone last week and its current 3G coverage in my constituency is just over 20%. The good news is that thanks to the Government announcement of additional funding, it plans to reach 99% by the end of 2017.
I invite colleagues across the House to engage in our new sport: the four Yorkshiremen of mobile coverage. If anyone can beat my hon. Friend’s figures, he or she is welcome to intervene.
In the previous debate, I focused on the basic unfairness of bad coverage and connectivity, and on its disastrous economic and social effect. I highlighted the situation at Kingstone surgery, which had such a bad signal that without urgent repairs it was going to be unable to upgrade its software, potentially affecting 4,200 patients in a matter of weeks. I have since spoken to Herefordshire council and met BT again. I am delighted to inform the House that obstacles have been overcome and that the surgery is scheduled to receive a fast broadband service on 18 February, just in time for its upgrade.
Does my hon. Friend understand the frustration of the residents of Gisburn and of Councillor Richard Sherras? The farmers who live in the small rural village of Gisburn have been told to diversify—bed and breakfasts, working from home and so on—but broadband connectivity is so bad that the chances of even watching something on BBC iPlayer is non-existent, never mind trying to run a business. Indeed, a number of farmers are expected to do their returns online, which is impossible in Gisburn.
Councillor Richard Sherras is rarely far from my thoughts. My hon. Friend’s point is illustrated perfectly by a business in Blakemere in my constituency with the wonderful name of Wiggly Wigglers. Wiggly Wigglers was set up 25 years ago in 1990 by fantastic local dynamo Heather Gorringe. It has become an award-winning example of local entrepreneurship. It began with composting worms and garden products, and has now diversified into flower delivery. It has 11 employees, nine of whom are women. It is a perfect example of the kind of higher value-added rural business that constituencies in rural areas across the country seek to emulate, but it is totally reliant on online sales— Blakemere is a village of 63 people. In Heather’s words:
“Our other services are pretty rubbish…A bus goes by once a day, our rubbish is collected once a fortnight, our roads are full of potholes, our train services impossible.”
Indeed, last year, the B road was cut off for a month and one day, and her husband Phil pulled out 39 cars and other vehicles from a chest-high flood. This is the reality of rural broadband compared with other services, and their broadband service has got steadily worse over the past few years, not better.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important debate to the House. He is highlighting how crucial it is for rural businesses and farmers to have good connectivity, but another important message is that good connectivity reduces the pressure on the road network, because people can work from home and not overstretch the commuter roads. The roads around Aberdeen, for example, are already overstretched.
Characteristically, my hon. Friend is making an impassioned speech on behalf of rural communities. We are fortunate in Macclesfield in that some communities have received broadband in recent years, but we now need to get to the isolated villages—places such as Wincle, Wildboarclough and Kettleshulme. One thing that has not come out in his fantastic speech so far is that this affects not just businesses but school children trying to do their homework. We have to ensure that whole families and communities, not just businesses, can access the services they need.
I am listening with interest to my hon. Friend’s passionate speech. May I add culture to the list of things that are missing out? In Kimmeridge, a remote part of South Dorset, they will be building, with lottery money, a new museum for fossils collected over 30 years by Mr Steve Etches MBE. They were promised broadband for this new, all-singing, all-dancing museum in 2016, but they have now been told that they are not going to get it. The effect on this small community is devastating.
May I say how supportive I am of my hon. Friend in bringing this debate to the House? Does he agree that there are other problems, such as those experienced in my constituency? In particular, we have been told that it is not commercially viable to upgrade the Great Missenden cabinet 11 to superfast broadband. Also, Connected Counties told us that cabinet 6 in Beaconsfield would be upgraded, but although we started inquiries in the middle of last year, it is not expected to deliver until the end of this year. Surely it is terrible for people to have to wait that long.
One of the saddest stories I have heard from my constituents in Fownhope is that on Monday mornings they get texts from their children’s schools telling them what matches they should have turned up to on the previous Saturday. It is the failure to provide broadband and a mobile phone signal that is causing the greatest difficulties in my constituency. I hope the Minister will keep the pressure on BT. It is delaying the connections that would enable the use of other types of telephone signal in the absence of sufficient broadband width on which companies could base their rural solutions.
My hon. Friend is right to focus on the combined effect of lack of mobile and broadband connectivity.
It is testimony to the importance of this debate that the House is so full, especially on the Government side of the argument. I am delighted that the Minister, who is not yet the Samson Agonistes of his Department, has retained his beard for this important debate. We must pray he never loses it and, in particular, that it confers the strength required to see this vital project through to its natural conclusion—and certainly that if he does lose it, he does not lose it to the mobile operators.
Responding to my debate on 6 January, the Minister stressed the huge investment in and the tremendous progress the Government are making on broadband and superfast broadband, and on improving mobile communications. He is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to him and the Secretary of State, but he acknowledged that there were still issues—how could there not be—with implementation, and it is on implementation that I believe this debate should focus. I shall pick three key areas of implementation.
The first concerns partial mobile not spots, about which so many Members have spoken. I welcome the agreement recently reached between the Government and the mobile network operators, but it would be helpful to have some detail from the Minister on what specific steps he is taking to ensure that areas with multiple communications problems—of the kind highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), which also exist in my constituency—can be prioritised for improved coverage.
The Government also need to focus on the worst-hit areas and not merely allow the operators to target the easy wins. If I may, I will tentatively offer a suggestion. Perhaps the Government might consider initiating or promoting a means by which rural communities could petition their councils for mobile services as a signal of interest to the operators and as a trigger for a fast track through the planning process. We need that kind of change if we are to get adequate roll-out to some of the more remote areas.
One can only hope, depending on his business, that once the upgrade goes through, Mr Washington will have considerably more than 2 megabits—enough to allow him not merely to run his current business, but to expand it into all kinds of other value-added areas.
My second area of focus concerns the mobile infrastructure project. The situation, it is fair to say, has, after initially high hopes, become disappointing and frustrating. When the sites to benefit from the mobile infrastructure project were first announced in July 2013, the ambition was for them to be acquired and built this year. That has now slipped—officially, at least—to spring 2016. Ten sites were identified in Herefordshire alone, but to date only two in the country, not just in my county, have been delivered. This is a vital area for the Government to focus on.
I very much welcomed the Minister’s announcement on 6 January that the mobile infrastructure project masts would now run 3G and 4G antennae, which is a great step forward. He said that
“we have put a rocket under the MIP”.—[Official Report, 6 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 69WH.]
Could he be a bit more specific? What we need now is a schedule of all the sites that Arqiva plan to develop, a detailed explanation of what barriers exist to getting the plans delivered and a plan from the Department to recover costs from Arqiva if the contract can no longer be delivered.
I met a group of constituents living at Yanworth in my constituency last weekend, who rely solely for their businesses on satellite technology, which is very slow. They have no broadband whatsoever, so should we not concentrate on the 10% that are harder to reach? I wholly commend what my hon. Friend has just said about the MIP rolling out broadband, so that we can use that for mobile technology at the same time.
It is to the Government’s credit that they have recognised the importance of the last 10%, 8% and 5%. Some will require bespoke solutions because those people live in such remote areas. We should allow technology to play its role in whatever form is required to deliver the signal that they need.
This concept of the last 10% and the last 5% is what worries me. There is a saying in rugby clubs nowadays that the London Irish are known as the “not nots” because they are not London and they are not Irish. We have the same things with “not nots” in the rural population: people who do not get broadband, do not get mobile phone coverage and do not get the other infrastructure. They are simply left out. It is no good saying 90% or 95% are getting it, if the last 5% are always the same people—those who are living in rural areas.
As a Member of Parliament from a neighbouring county to my hon. Friend’s, I know that we are acutely aware in Shropshire of the problems affecting our rural communities. I would like to hear his views on this issue. We had to set aside money from our local enterprise partnership in order to deal with broadband issues. Does he agree that such money should come directly from the Government rather than requiring us to set aside money from LEP projects that should be funding other things?
My hon. Friend’s constituency and mine have the same LEP, so we are both affected by the problem. I believe it is within the scope of LEPs to top up existing money if they think that matters are not proceeding quickly enough. I only wish that they were proceeding more quickly and more thoroughly, in a way that would meet the need that my hon. Friend has described.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need a change of emphasis from the Government? Instead of improving broadband quality for those who have some broadband—which, by and large, is their current policy, on a value-for-money basis—should they not focus primarily on areas with no broadband, so that real progress can be made?
I am not sure that my hon. Friend’s characterisation of the Government’s policy is correct, although that may be its effect. However, the principle of addressing the needs of people who have no digital connectivity is absolutely right, and is a crucial feature of the debate and of my argument.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I am sorry to intervene on him yet again. Does he share my concern about the performance of BT Openreach, whose spectacular failure to connect houses in the new development at The Orchards in Evesham has appalled me? Many other such houses are occupied but still have no broadband connection. Has the time come for us to consider the legal separation of BT Openreach from BT itself?
At the risk of prolonging my own remarks, my hon. Friend has managed to read my mind. I plan to end my speech by focusing specifically on Openreach and the problem that he has described. As Members will know, Openreach is BT’s network infrastructure arm. I have been flooded with complaints about Openreach and its poor customer service, as, I am sure, have Members on both sides of the House. The problem is compounded by a lack of direct accountability to end users, and, I might add, to Members of Parliament.
I assume that the hon. Lady means that the response from Openreach was incomprehensible, rather than the e-mails that she received from her constituents. [Laughter.] That is a vital clarification. I cannot comment on the quality of the e-mails, but I can absolutely identify with those who are experiencing those problems, and, indeed, with my constituents who have experienced them as well.
This is a highly profitable business whose network expansion has been significantly de-risked by lots of cash from taxpayers. I should like to see much more openness towards end users, a public commitment to higher standards of service, and, potentially, an opening up of the network so that other operators can offer enhanced services, including customer service—if not, indeed, the possibility of full separation. I should be grateful if the Minister would add his voice, and his enormous authority, to this issue.
In the short term, Openreach could do a great deal by pushing forward with its “fibre to the node” technology, which is an issue that the Minister has been working hard to solve. The technology could reach many of the communities to which my hon. Friend has referred, and BT and Openreach could do much more in that regard.
My hon. Friend is right. Nodes need fibrous connections.
Access to fast broadband and mobile services is not a luxury or a game, but a necessity. It is vital to the successful work of businesses in our constituencies and the social well-being of our constituents—all the more so in rural areas, isolated as they are. Connectivity presents the possibility of a long-term renaissance in our rural economies, but we need continued, concerted and resolute action to deliver it. That action must come from the telecommunications industry, from the Government, and from the regulators.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) not only on securing this debate, but on the wonderfully persuasive and erudite way in which he opened it, which makes me slightly trepidatious about following him. [Interruption.] That is most kind. I also congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on finding the time for us to debate this hugely important issue.
Even the urban parts of my constituency suffer economically from the geographical remoteness of our corner of Cumbria. My constituency includes small villages and one of the Lake district’s most remote valleys, which all Members should take the time to discover—not, perhaps, before 7 May, but at any time after that. Good-quality broadband connections are vital for local businesses trying to compete with those in more densely populated areas, for our sizeable tourist industry trying to make the most of our stunningly beautiful area, and of course simply for local residents who want to use the web at something better than the prehistoric speeds that so many of them have to cope with.
Over the last two summer recesses I travelled around my constituency by bike, sitting down with local residents in front rooms, village halls and cafes to talk about whatever issues mattered to them, and time and again—whether in Broughton, Kirkby, Leece or Great Urswick—the issue of broadband speeds came up. Many residents knew they had been promised great things by the Government in terms of rural broadband but had not seen the fruits of that.
Ministers have certainly talked the talk over recent years and some parts of my constituency are getting broadband which is much better, even if they believe, rightly, that the description “superfast” is overegging the pudding, but for too many other areas the reality on the ground simply has not changed. There is no great use in our revisiting here the fiasco of the bidding process for rural broadband, but the delays that led to it are still dragging on, leaving thousands of my constituents relying on broadband speeds of barely 1 megabit per second. In the village of Ireleth alone, 500 households are struggling along on that sort of speed. Hundreds of others in neighbouring villages are seeing similar glacial broadband speeds. The residents and I are becoming increasingly sceptical about BT’s promises—the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire eloquently made this point—to upgrade the local exchanges and ensure these villages get the 21st century service they deserve and need.
Let me give my own experience to demonstrate this point. On 14 October last year my office received an e-mail from BT stating that the exchanges at Broughton-in-Furness and Greenodd, which serve most of the rural areas of my constituency, would be upgraded during the winter of that year. That was excellent news, but then, after Christmas, another constituent from the area contacted me about their very slow broadband. I wrote to BT again. On 21 January, just three months after I was told something quite to the contrary, BT responded that
“there is no date available by when this will be ready.”
BT understood, the e-mail went on to say, that its supplier, Openreach, had met its target of delivering fibre optics to two thirds of the UK and that anything further would be a matter for funding by the Government’s broadband fund. This is another example of it washing its hands of this situation and the clear responsibility of providing acceptable broadband speeds for my constituents.
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge in the course of his brilliant speech—which easily passes muster with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman)—the £43 million that has been invested in Cumbria under this programme and the 119,000 premises that should get superfast broadband under it?
Yes, money has been invested, and where it has come in, it has been welcome, but it has been too slow, it has not met the promises of delivery which the Government themselves set out and there are still too many areas that have got nothing at all, and they are tearing their hair out. As I am sure the Minister will accept, it is my responsibility to speak up for those people in the House today. On that note, will he agree to meet BT with me, so that it can explain when faster progress will be made and when it will meet the promise that it so clearly made?
I recognise what the hon. Gentleman is saying. We have made good progress in Devon and Somerset in terms of the BT contract, but there is still the last bit. If I may say so, it is pointless meeting BT, because it simply will not deliver in those areas and what we need to look at now is other smaller providers filling in the bits that BT will never reach.
Of course I will meet the hon. Gentleman. Although it is a great hostage to fortune to say so, I make it a matter of principle that I will always meet any Member who requests a meeting to discuss this issue. And while I am on my feet, I will also say: Devon and Somerset, 300,000 premises and £92 million.
I am afraid that I cannot agree to my hon. Friend the shadow Minister’s request because he has already eloquently put the case himself, and I would be a pale imitation of him if I were to try to follow.
Perhaps we should not be all that surprised that so much of rural Cumbria is seeing such slow progress towards superfast broadband. Many of the areas that I have spoken about have yet to see any significant progress at all with the earlier technology of mobile connectivity.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has had the same difficulty as I have had in extracting the information from BT as to which areas will not be covered by it. Accessing that information would at least allow the people affected to make alternative arrangements with a satellite company. I do not know whether he has managed to find some way of getting such information about his area, given the difficulties that I have had.
The hon. Member makes a great point—the situation is a nightmare. As I have just set out, often when someone receives assurances, they prove not to hold water. BT is a company that we would think would be good at communicating, but it turns out that for too many of our constituents, who are really tearing their hair out about this issue, BT has proved to be the exact opposite.
That has got to change, and either BT changes its ways itself—in response to the threat of other companies coming in—or, if I might offer the Minister some advice, the Government embrace the idea that they need to be more active in this sector. They had a tremendous example of a lean, active state, which was provided by the later years of the last Labour Government, and this is an excellent opportunity for them to learn from those years and adopt the same approach in their own dealings.
I turn to mobile connectivity. In the Duddon valley, if someone gets one bar of reception, they count themselves lucky. Again, this situation makes running a business tricky, or completely impossible, because it cuts off communities and in a remote area it also has serious safety implications. It is perhaps odd to think of mobile coverage as the next frontier after superfast broadband, but there has been little apparent interest from commercial companies in improving coverage for much of my constituency, and I am sure that the same is true of many other Members’ constituencies.
Any movement on this issue is welcome, but with the greatest of respect to Shropshire, Dorset and Norfolk, pilot schemes in those areas do not mean much to my constituents in Cumbria or impress them very much, if at all. Many of my constituents also look askance at the Government plans to improve rural mobile coverage based on A roads and B roads. My constituents in Seathwaite, for example, are 3 miles from the nearest such road, hidden behind a 2,000 foot hill, so such plans are not likely to help them much. We need more ambition, not a brief flurry of activity because the Prime Minister could not get any mobile reception on his way to Cornwall.
My constituency is an outer London one. It is not rural, but it is nearly rural. We have A roads going through, and there are huge problems, not just in Keston in my constituency, but throughout Bromley, particularly as one goes towards Orpington.
May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps the way to get a quick solution would be to get a visit from the Prime Minister, a big fan of his, to his patch. It seemed to trigger the promise of action, if not the reality of it, when the Prime Minister was on his way to Cornwall. One never knows what could happen.
For too many of my constituents, no mobile reception and super-slow broadband are not just a holiday inconvenience; they are a fact of everyday life that impoverishes them and holds them back from reaching the enormous economic potential that my region has. Let me make one final request of the Minister, as he was so kind in agreeing immediately to my first one. Will he come to the beautiful Duddon valley—he had better come quick, given the election on 7 May—in my constituency? When he has finished admiring the scenery, will he try to do some work there for 24 hours, without meaningful broadband and with no mobile reception? Perhaps then—if he can properly appreciate how difficult it is to get anything done there—we will see some quicker action to tackle the mobile and broadband deserts afflicting too many in my patch.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) for his excellent speech, eloquently making points about matters affecting his constituents in rural parts of Herefordshire. Needless to say, many villages in Shropshire are facing similar problems. Let me highlight the village of Pontesbury, the largest village in my constituency. As Members of Parliament are inviting the Minister to go all over the UK, let me invite him to the village of Pontesbury, an important and large village just to the south of Shrewsbury, where it is extremely difficult to get any mobile phone coverage. We have mentioned local businesses, schools and children needing to do homework and other things on computers, and this problem really is holding this village back significantly, so I am pleased to hear about the progress the Government are making.
Perhaps I should clarify that when I am accepting invitations for meetings from colleagues I am happy to have them in the House. Let me also say that I hope that my hon. Friend will acknowledge the £28 million invested in superfast broadband in Shropshire, covering at least 50,000 premises—20,000 have already been reached.
I will thank the Minister for that. Given what he has said, I will bring Pontesbury parish councillors to meet him here in the House of Commons before the general election, and I thank him for accepting.
Let me make a brief point about the local enterprise partnership, about which I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire. I believe passionately that the LEP is there to bring Government money in to help with major infrastructure projects—projects that are going to create businesses, jobs and prosperity for the areas they cover. At the request of our council, a considerable amount of money from the LEP is now having to be put towards improving such services in Shropshire. That is clearly taking money away from something that I feel passionate about and that I wish to raise money for, which is the university of Shrewsbury. That money should not come from the LEP. As we are talking about a fundamental right of all our citizens, the money should come directly from the Government. We should not have to distinguish between the projects in the LEP.
I pay tribute to the leader of Shropshire council, Mr Keith Barrow, who has campaigned tirelessly on the need for the Government to provide more funding and resources for broadband and mobile phone coverage in Shropshire. I look forward to meeting the Minister with the parishioners of Pontesbury and I hope that we can make progress on this issue in the months ahead.
Order. A large number of Members wish to take part in this debate. There will be an eight-minute time limit starting from now. I hope that that will last for the entire debate and will not need to go down any further. But we will have to keep an eye on the time.
I am not sure, given the new time limit on speeches, whether I will get many megabits per second into my speech, but I will try to get in several syllables per minute.
Well done, thank you. At least somebody on the Opposition Benches is switched on. I just saw a lot of blank faces on the Government Benches.
As people, many of our needs have been met. We have food, drink, clothing and communication. In our houses, we have electricity, water and insulation, but we need communication and connectivity. That connectivity happens thanks to broadband—hopefully, it is 4G and mobile connectivity. The point was well made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) who talked about “not not spots”. Let us ensure that we get “have have” spots, because that is what we need. This connectivity is a natural need, and it is what many people want and expect. The expectation that that connectivity will be in place is growing. People are comparing the situation in their own areas not only with other places in their own countries but with other countries, particularly rural places in other countries.
Our aim is to have superfast broadband and 4G reaching 98% of the population, which should mean that connectivity is well distributed across the country and that we do not have places in the UK where broadband coverage is far below 98% of the population. If 95% of us have superfast broadband, then surely 100% of us should get normal broadband. If superfast broadband has speeds of up to 30 megabits or more, surely others can reach 2, 4, 6 or 8 megabits.
There is also a possibility of convergence with 4G, as 4G is primarily a data carrier with speeds of up to 30 megabits. It does not matter whether or not people are connected with fibre, because connectivity can be found to enable them to get on the web thanks to the speed of the new mobile communications.
I see the Minister nodding. I am glad that he is in agreement with me. Connectivity is a social necessity and a business requirement. Young people definitely expect it in rural areas. If we want to keep young people in those areas, we should ensure that they have proper coverage.
Recent lightning strikes in the outer Hebrides and the Na h-Eileanan an Iar constituency knocked out the British Telecom lines for a period of time. I came across hard-working BT engineers in ditches, fields and on roadsides, looking to find the faults for individual houses and knowing that the fault could lie in any one of four possibilities. They worked hard and did their best to get the lines up and running. Meanwhile, people have been in more than a not not spot. In fact, they have found themselves in a not not not spot—to extend the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.
Mobile telecommunications are a social utility; they are really necessary for people. We are no longer talking about having them for lighter reasons. People, including pensioners, need the links to make contact with the outside world. Mobile telecommunications are particularly important in places that are far removed from major centres of health care. People who have heart attacks can be diagnosed or have measurements taken from them and then the details can be sent to a specialist who can then advise them on their treatment. I am talking about a life-saving potential, which I know that the Minister recognises.
My fear is that the UK has been left behind in its treatment of rural and island areas. Island areas with the best coverage include the Isle of Man and the Faroe Islands, which control their own mobile and broadband communications. In many ways, the UK has failed in this regard, as 2G is patchy at best, and 3G is patchy if existent at all. Surely, this will not happen with 4G as well. In the Faroe Islands, for 50,000 people there are about 50 3G masts. We look at that with envy in the highlands of Scotland. With a femtocell system, they can reach fishermen 100 km off land on mobile phones on their boats. Although mobile phones do not have that range, they have developed the technology to do that.
In places such as the Faroe Islands there can be a signal in the undersea tunnels between their islands. In stark contrast, people who travel into London cannot use their mobile phone on the Gatwick Express as they go through tunnels. That is an indictment of the treatment of mobile telephony in the UK. I happened to be on the train with a Norwegian the other day and he could not believe that his mobile phone would not work in the tunnels. There is a really bad signal and that is almost the benchmark of what has been happening.
Roaming, or the lack of it, is definitely a problem. I think the model of not enabling roaming has been wrong, because sometimes, particularly in rural areas, there is a mobile telephone network available, but only one. People end up having to carry two mobile telephones and if they know the local area well they will know roughly which one they can use to get a signal. At this point, I praise Vodafone, which has been very good at providing a community Openreach system. I have managed to secure it in a couple of places in my constituency and hope to get it in more. It piggybacks the broadband network to give people a much wanted mobile phone signal.
We must listen when providers say that they could provide a better signal if they were allowed masts that were a little higher. I am not coming down on either side of that argument, as it might be a contentious issue and we will have to wait and see what people say, but we must bear it in mind. Mobile phone companies say that they could give us better coverage if they had higher masts.
Companies also have problems with the bottlenecks of transmitters and masts. Sometimes, unreasonable rents are asked of a second mobile phone company that wants to use an existing mast, because of the basic greed of some companies. That is choking the life and expectations of many communities. The problem also affects tourism, as people go on holiday and are unable to use their mobile phones. That is a point of frustration. If they did not want to use their telephones, they would of course switch them off.
There have been many pleas to the Minister to visit constituencies, but I would like to lighten his work load. I am not inviting him to my constituency—now there is a disappointed face. If he wants to come to Na h-Eileanan an Iar to see our beautiful scenery, he is of course welcome. My political point, which I think would help him, is that he should devolve many of these things to the Scottish Government, who could then control it all.
I am afraid that I meant both mobile and broadband. The Minister is right that the Scottish Government have done a great job and he gives me a tremendous opportunity to tell him just how well they have done. While the UK Government provided £100.8 million through BDUK, £410 million is being spent on the Digital Scotland superfast broadband programme. For that, great thanks should go to the Scottish Government, who know full well and understand the situation.
The hon. Gentleman is fiddling the figures. The total might be £400 million, but well over £100 million of that came from the UK Government and well over £100 million from BT. The Scottish Government put something in, but delivery by the Scottish Government and BT is hopeless. It is high time that the hon. Gentleman got on to the Scottish Government and told them to deliver broadband to my constituency with the money they have.
I see that the hon. Gentleman is criticising British Telecom—I am not sure whether he is calling for a Scottish Telecom. When he spoke on this issue in the middle of last month, he did not allude to the fact that there was £400 million. He said that only £120 million was being spent and did not give the full picture at all. He will, of course, be delighted to know that a 4G pilot project is coming to the island of Coll, which I am very pleased and excited to hear about. Surely he should be welcoming the progress we have seen and the laying of fibre cables to 19 remote islands, including some of my own. I am pleased to see that and I hope that it will expand. If the Scottish Government were not involved and only his own Government were, we would not have seen that at all and we would have been in a parlous state. The hon. Gentleman would do well to remember just what the Scottish Government have done. Just today, we have the news of the improved services going live in Orkney and Shetland—not my islands or his, but we celebrate that that is coming. I particularly celebrate that the service is on the way to Stornaway as well, where 5,000 premises in the Hebrides will be connected to superfast broadband for the first time.
Our next step is to expand throughout all the islands, in the rural areas of each island, and to make sure that everyone benefits, because we do not want a situation where we have the not not not spots. Lack of broadband access is a social blight and a business blight, which of course leads to an economic blight. We need the same connectivity not just as the cities of the UK but as the rural areas of the Nordic countries.
First, I add my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) for initiating this debate and the interest he has taken in the subject, which concerns a large number of us who represent rural constituencies and who believe that access to broadband is now essential, not a luxury. Despite its relative proximity to London, I had in my constituency two of the country’s four not spots. Even though the villages are just 50 miles from London, broadband was not available at all. The latest House of Commons figures suggest that only 52% of my constituency has superfast broadband access, making it one of the worst for broadband coverage. Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends who represent rural constituencies will be familiar with that situation.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that we must not forget the plight of farmers, who now have to apply online for their money from the EU? Between 10% and 15% of farmers do not have the capability to do so, which will have a serious impact on their livelihoods.
I strongly agree. That is a good example of why access to broadband is no longer a luxury but a necessity, particularly when people such as farmers are required to file information in that way.
Three and a half years ago, I held a summit in conjunction with West Sussex county council. The then Culture Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), attended and we had a good meeting to discuss how to improve the situation. Following that, the Government announced their programme to extend broadband access across the country and West Sussex county council announced its Better Connected programme. With £6 million-worth of central Government support, which was matched by the county council, the programme will fulfil the Government’s ambition to ensure that 95% of the county has access to superfast broadband and the whole county has broadband coverage by 2017.
I welcome the Government’s support and commitment. I recognise what they have done to make improvements, but we have to look ahead and test whether what is being done will be sufficient to ensure access for those in rural areas who will not benefit from the programme. The Rural West Sussex Partnership, which is a branch of the local enterprise partnership, Coast to Capital, has suggested that in fact the coverage delivered by the programme will not be 95%, but could be 90% or even as little as 85%. Even if 95% coverage were to be achieved, there would still be the matter of the 5% of people who did not have access to superfast broadband. They are often the people who do not have access to mobile phone coverage, either, and are therefore effectively disconnected.
I know of the strong interest taken by my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who met me recently to discuss these issues. I was grateful to him for the interest that he showed and for listening to the concerns that I set out. I have a few observations which I hope he will not mind my repeating to the House.
First, as other hon. Members have pointed out, there is a problematic lack of competition in the sector. That is one of the reasons why we are not seeing the necessary roll-out, an effective roll-out or sufficient customer service. There was a problem in the initial contracts awarded by BDUK because, although there were originally two bidders, one—Fujitsu—dropped out. We ended up, therefore, with one bidder for the contract, BT. So there is an effective monopoly and that is unsatisfactory. That is not the Government’s fault; it is simply the reality.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We need greater competition because that would deliver results faster for everybody. However, I query his last comment. With 44 small tenders, it was remarkably difficult for anybody to presume that they might gain more than one, other than BT. My worry is that the way the tender process was set up created the monopoly in the first place.
I am not sure whether that is the case, but we can look ahead at how we can inject more competition into the sector to ensure the competitive pressures needed to improve customer service. I would look again, as hon. Members have suggested, at BT’s relationship with Openreach and see whether there is a case for splitting them, injecting more competition there and potentially breaking up Openreach. We need more competition in this sector.
Secondly, we should not be fixated on the fibre-based solution, which will never be realistic in the hardest-to-reach rural areas. In those areas, wireless technology or access to 4G or faster mobile data signals will become the solution. I do not believe that satellite will be the solution. We therefore need to ensure that the kind of solutions being advanced in public-private partnership recognise that different solutions will be necessary in rural areas.
Does my right hon. Friend, like me, welcome the £10 million fund that the Government have created to develop new technologies? Does he, like me, hope that the Government might be able to go further to make sure that small companies, such as those in my constituency, can be supported to develop the technology, show proof of concept and thus challenge BT and deliver for rural communities?
Indeed. Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the Government’s funding initiative in this area. I had intended to go on to say that. None of what I say is a criticism of the Government; they are merely suggestions as to how we can improve the situation further.
Thirdly, we need to ensure that the technologies adopted are future-proof. There is a danger that in seeking to meet the commitment to wholesale coverage by 2017 or superfast coverage for 95%, technologies are adopted that will not stand the test of time and will quickly be found to be insufficient.
Fourthly, I have a general observation to make about subsidy. Given that we all agree that access to broadband is an essential public service, there is a role for public subsidy in this area. That role should be to correct instances of market failure. We need to be careful to ensure that subsidy is not directed at companies or providers where the market would provide a service. With the current BDUK roll-out, there is a danger that public money is being used to close the gap in areas where it would have provided the service anyway, and the remaining 5% or 10% is not being covered. We must ensure that in future subsidy is directed to the hardest-to-reach areas and that the market is left to fill the gaps. That is a hard judgment to make, given that we are trying to ensure that the market operates properly.
In my constituency villages are being connected one by one. There is a tremendous improvement, which reflects the initiative of the Government and the county council. I welcome that, but I suspect that many of those villages would have been connected anyway to fibre. What is happening is that the rural areas are being left out. I remind the House that these rural areas comprise a great number of people and rural businesses who need to be connected. There is the danger of a growing digital divide, which might in turn become a further manifestation of something we need to avoid: a rural-urban divide. We see that in many other aspects of policy, and I think that we should strive to prevent it.
I mentioned that three and a half years ago I convened a summit to discuss how to improve the situation in West Sussex, and I believe that it bore fruit. I therefore suggest holding another similar event in West Sussex, not to criticise but to look forward and see how we can close the gap and ensure that we do not have a digital divide in rural West Sussex in future. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State considered attending the summit, partly because of the lessons I think there would be for other rural areas. The summit would have the active support of the South Downs National Park Authority, for instance, which is very interested in the issue. The Government have done a great deal to improve the situation. We must now ensure that we go further and close the digital divide.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and to the Backbench Business Committee for securing this important debate. I often think there is a problem with people in rural areas being told to modernise and “get with the times” while being provided with none of the infrastructure or capacity needed to do so. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) and of which I am a member, only this morning published our report on rural broadband and digital-only services, following closely behind the National Audit Office’s recent report. I will focus my remarks on the deficiencies in rural broadband provision and the impact on local business, farming communities and economic growth.
Members will be aware that responsibility for the roll-out of broadband access is devolved, with funding, to the devolved Administrations, as the Secretary of State noted in answer to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). However, we in Northern Ireland face many of the same problems, and unfortunately many of the same deficiencies, with the Government’s approach to tackling rural connectivity, because communications and connectivity are central components of this and have to be resolved. In common with others across the UK, we face the issues associated with there being only one service provider—BT.
As phase 1 of the rural broadband project is rolled out, in parallel with the Government’s “digital by default” strategy, we must urgently take stock of the process and act to correct failings in subsequent phases. “Digital by default” should not become “digital by diktat”, especially in cases where the support is simply not there. At the moment, “digital by default” is proceeding at a pace that the broadband connectivity strategy is struggling to keep up with.
A central criticism made in the Select Committee’s report is that current efforts to bring rural communities up to speed with basic broadband access fall short of the EU’s Europe 2020 target of having superfast broadband—30 Mb—for all by 2020, and the universal service commitment target of 2 Mb already looks out of step with consumer and business needs, even though, sadly, it probably will not be met.
I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention. Those countries are in direct competition with us, and people involved in rural businesses, particularly those in farming communities, will be at a disadvantage. The Government urgently need to address this issue in conjunction with BT.
Does the hon. Lady accept that some areas in Northern Ireland are enjoying superfast broadband, but rural communities seem to lack it, and certain areas have very little broadband, with families, as well as local businesses, suffering as a result?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. I agree. The conurbations of Belfast and Derry have benefited from superfast broadband, but we who represent rural communities have not seen the best impact of that innovation. In my constituency, I have not spots and also the impact of a mountainous region. That topography limits the accessibility of superfast broadband.
Priority needs to be given to business centres in rural communities. In my area, a business centre was approved by Invest Northern Ireland and given planning permission by our local planning authority some years ago. It has a box for broadband connectivity that is not even enabled, and that will not happen until next year. How on earth do Government, in UK national terms or in devolved regions, expect a local economy to grow and develop and to provide for its citizens, whether they are ordinary rural dwellers or those who undertake farming enterprises, unless they have total access to broadband? That issue needs to be addressed.
From an infrastructure point of view, copper wires, which deliver basic broadband, will have to be replaced by optic fibres to deliver superfast broadband within a matter of years. As optic fibres are significantly cheaper, it makes no sense that intense efforts are being made to offer rural communities a mediocre broadband service that is already considered outdated at a time when urban areas are already receiving upgrades to superfast broadband.
Only this week, the Federal Communications Commission in the United States approved a new definition of what constitutes a broadband service, dramatically increasing the required minimum speeds from the current standard. Other countries recognise the importance of rural access to broadband, and if the UK does not, consumers and business will be left behind. The FCC has suggested that 25 Mb should be the new standard speed. If that is the case, we will definitely be left behind.
We are very much at risk of opening up a digital divide and a digital deficit between those with high speed and those without. This affects not only individuals but businesses in local areas. How can they be expected to compete without fair access to the same opportunities offered by new technology? In the EFRA Committee report, we suggest introducing subsidies such as vouchers. We also recommend investigating alternative technologies. That is being explored by the Government, and I hope that it comes to fruition. I urge the Secretary of State to give careful consideration to our report, on which the Government are expected to report anyway. Some very useful recommendations are contained therein which could assist the Government in working with BT and influencing it to carry out full implementation for the sake of farmers, rural communities and those engaged in rural businesses.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) for securing this debate.
North Yorkshire was one of four pilot areas that won a Government commitment in 2010 to push forward with superfast broadband in rural areas. To counter the comments of the jumping jack shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the whole idea of the project was that it should be driven by communities and not top down from London, and that approach has worked to great effect in North Yorkshire. The group of MPs, including my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), the council and local politicians have all driven Superfast North Yorkshire, which is now delivering to 86% of the most rural county in England, and that figure will rise to 90% over the next year.
Our contract was different from the Broadband Delivery UK contract. It was a specific contract with, ultimately, BT, but it was very competitive: there was full competition and transparency and BT won it at the end of the day. I pay tribute to those working locally, including John Moore, the chief executive of NYnet—the broadband body of North Yorkshire county council—who will retire in the next couple of months, and my predecessor John Watson, who has chaired that body. The contract has some great innovations. BT will pay back money to the council as part of it, if demand and usage are adequate. BT is also committed fully to a minimum of 2 Mb for all areas of North Yorkshire, whatever happens, and we will hold it to that commitment.
Farms and hard-to-reach areas in the most rural communities of Skipton and Ripon and North Yorkshire face huge challenges, and I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) that they will be solved only through wireless and innovative technologies. The cost of delivering through BT could be up to £1,500 per house and it is only innovation that will get us there.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about competition and the benefits of the scheme in his area. Does he agree with me, as chairman of the parliamentary space committee, that broadband links certainly have a role to play in the short term, although fibre is clearly the long-term solution?
I agree. That is a valid point and I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s expertise on this topic.
I pay tribute to the Government for the £10 million fund for innovation—North Yorkshire has one pilot project called Airwave—but the exceptional broadband Minister may need to dig a little deeper over the coming months and years in order to top up that fund and get a few more pilot projects going. I pay tribute to LN Communications in North Yorkshire, which, through David Hood and other investors, is trying to deliver solutions.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and he is absolutely right to champion the success—a lot of which is down to the Minister—in delivering broadband to a number of communities in North Yorkshire and York over the past few years. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is critical that we ensure that those last few remaining rural communities without high-speed broadband in his constituency and mine can get connected? A digital divide is materialising and this is about getting the last penny we can out of the funding.
Absolutely. That is a well-made point. This is not just about the Government’s responsibilities; people are taking responsibility themselves. The B4RN project—Broadband for the Rural North—split between Lancashire and Yorkshire has sought out all of the disused wires and cables to make the most of the opportunities to deliver superfast broadband.
We have not yet discussed the issue of demand, demand stimulation and how much superfast broadband is being used by our communities. On average, the figure is 18% to 20%, and in North Yorkshire it is about 20% to 25%, but we need to get those numbers up. The Opposition criticised the Government for an ad campaign over Christmas, but the Government were absolutely right to spend that money. What is the point of all the pipework and infrastructure if they are not going to spend money to encourage people to use it?
I am not going to give way to jumping jack.
I pay tribute to the expertise of Chris Townsend, who has no need to do the job but who is giving great public service by leading BDUK and pushing us forward.
We have talked about Openreach, and I concur with all the comments made. We are generally happy with BT in North Yorkshire, but there have been major service and data issues. We have tried to get information from particular boxes so that we can work out where we can improve and get more demand—again, the Minister has been helpful in knocking heads together. The issue of fibre to the node is providing opportunities to get deeper into rural areas, although BT has dragged its feet on that.
Ultimately, the infrastructure of the fourth national utility is managed as a subsidiary to the overarching board of a global successful corporation. Is that the right structure going forward? In football rights versus infrastructure I think football rights will always probably win, and we must have a real think. Ofcom started that in the past few weeks, and we must think over the coming years, with a Conservative-led, competition-driven Government, about how Ofcom is structured for the future.
I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I represent a rural constituency that is in the teeth of the superfast broadband roll-out, and is also the home of Vodafone. Twenty-five years ago, the first call was made from Newbury. The office contained 12 people and was above a curry house at the top of the high street. Vodafone is now one of Europe’s most successful companies. I do not stand here as the voice of Vodafone, but it is worth pointing out that the technologies developed through the inspirational leadership of people such as Sir Ernest Harrison are remarkable.
I was in Africa not long ago seeing the M-Pesa project, which is responsible for about a quarter of the financial transactions. It has completely changed the social dynamic and the ability of people who work in distant places to send money. It is remarkable. In this country Vodafone has developed a system for supporting people who are victims—or potential victims—of domestic violence through an alert system, and it deserves credit for much of what it has achieved.
West Berkshire has a rural population that is involved in two of the most dangerous professions: agriculture and the horse racing industry around the Lambourn valley. Getting good mobile phone coverage is not just a matter of convenience or of jobs and employment, but can be something that saves lives. The roll-out of the mobile infrastructure project is dear to our hearts in that area, and I would welcome an update from the Minister on how the project is going.
I welcome the Government’s effort to solve the problem through a legally binding agreement with the four networks that will see £5 billion invested in the UK’s mobile infrastructure. The results need to be visible as soon as possible so that constituents in areas such as mine can maximise their businesses, and people who live in rural downland villages in west Berkshire can fully partake in the dynamic Thames valley economy.
I am interested in the report produced by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and I hope that we can hold the feet of the various delivery agencies and companies to the fire, and ensure that we deliver on some of the dates. The Government’s original objective of rolling out superfast broadband to cover 90% of premises by 2015 has been altered to 95% of premises by 2017. BT has said that it is there or thereabouts, but that it might end up being achieved in 2018. I hope the Minister will ensure that such comments are challenged. Chris Townsend of Broadband Delivery UK has stated that he is “absolutely committed” to finalising the last 5% by 2020 at the very latest, and if that is accurate I hope we try to speed it up.
This is one of the problems. BDUK seems to be putting back the start date for many schemes. The village of Upottery near Honiton does not know whether it will get superfast broadband in 2016, 2017 or 2018. BDUK has been given money to get to the hardest-hit areas, but it is not getting there on time. I hope the Minister will keep up the pressure on BDUK to deliver.
Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, Dunton in my constituency was expecting to have its broadband confirmed, but it has been delayed yet again. Such dashed expectation is a constant concern. Even though there is a small percentage left to cover and the Government have done a great job, that small percentage feel left out.
That is frustrating—I entirely understand my right hon. Friend’s concerns.
I had the pleasure of being the Minister responsible for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Nobody feels more strongly about landscape than I do, but our planning policy is still restrictive. There is a phrase that I find myself using too much in politics: “The squeaky door gets the oil.” Often, when there is a proposal by a mobile phone company to put up or raise a mast to achieve more coverage, there is a lot of noise from a small number of people. The silent majority who just want a better mobile phone signal are not heard. It is important that we listen to the silent majority.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not because other hon. Members want to speak.
At least two mobile phone masts in my constituency are designed as pine trees. I am not a great fan of pine trees and the masts do not look like pine trees to me, but they work perfectly. That is a solution for those who believe landscapes will be abused by the presence of masts. I urge mobile phone companies to develop more fake pine trees of that nature.
Regulations on renting land for masts and on repairing and upgrading those masts have not been meaningfully updated since 1984. The industry suffers from much higher rents. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) made a good point about urban mobile phone signals, and that is one of the reasons for his problem. In Madrid, there are two thirds or at least half as many more masts than there are in London, one of the most important cities in the world. We can understand why his constituents are frustrated. My question—it is perhaps rather philosophical than an attempt to elicit views from the Front Benchers about the election—is on whether we should be looking at mobile phone delivery much more as a utility. My fellow members of the Country Landowners Association might not thank me for saying this, but it could be an opportunity, because that might dictate a different type of rent.
The electronics communication code needs amending, and amendments to the Infrastructure Bill tabled to introduce the new code were withdrawn. I hope the Minister updates us on the code.
I want to draw hon. Members’ attention to a remarkable Vodafone project in west Berkshire, in the village of East Garston up in the Lambourn valley. I hosted an event and I am really pleased the Minister came and made an excellent speech. There are pilots around the country and that was an opportunity for him to show off his new beard, which we all welcome. In rural locations, networks can struggle to deliver coverage by traditional means, but it can be done through small technologies. In that case, a community of 450 people in a not spot have been provided with a signal from a church steeple. The Vodafone project was delivered not through a top-down statist approach, but through a local provider working with a community. It was a joy to see the first of those Vodafone pilots. It is now one of 100 schemes throughout the country. We have heard of a similar scheme in north Norfolk that has transformed the tourism potential of the area. That is a key area of delivery for the tourism industry.
I would love to spend more time talking about broadband connectivity. We in west Berkshire look forward to ensuring that 95% of Berkshire is covered by 2017. Our focus is now on the final 5%. I believe my local authority will make an announcement in the next few days which will be welcomed by a great many people, and that we will see benefits delivered. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) that the last 5% will always be the most difficult—on any subject. We must focus not just on being rigorous in one technology but across the piece. We must be flexible and local in how we deliver this. The Opposition suggest a centralised approach that we know has failed in the past. The Government have put in place an approach that works with communities.
I thank the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) for so ably introducing the debate and the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to raise the hopeless performance of telephone companies in Argyll and Bute.
In the past two months, telephone companies, both landline and mobile, have failed miserably to keep many of my constituents in telephone contact with the rest of the world. Following a storm in early December, some constituents are still waiting for their landline service to be repaired. The experience of one constituent from south Kintyre is typical. He reported a fault in December. BT made an appointment for an engineer to visit on 28 December. That appointment was not kept. It was the same on 14 and 28 January. He is still waiting. He now has another appointment for this Thursday. I hope that this time the engineer will turn up and fix the fault.
BT’s excuse is that it has declared MBORC, which stands for “matters beyond our reasonable control”. It claims that owing to exceptional circumstances, it is unable to meet its normal commitment times to provide a service or repair faults. It seems that by declaring MBORC, BT can also get away with not turning up for appointments. This is totally unacceptable. The engineers are clearly working flat out, often in difficult weather conditions, but BT clearly does not have enough engineers operating in Argyll and Bute.
My hon. Friend is correct. We all knew for months, if not years, in advance that NATO was meeting in south Wales. His comments clearly indicate that BT looks for excuses to declare MBORC.
As several hon. Members have mentioned, BT Openreach is in the privileged position of having a monopoly on landlines. It should not be able to dodge its responsibilities for months simply by declaring MBORC. Will the Minister look at the regulations again?
The universal service obligation is supposed to guarantee a landline service no matter where one lives, and my constituents are quite rightly fed up being told that if they lived in Glasgow their phone line would be repaired quickly, but that they will have to wait months because they live in a rural area. I hope the Minister will look at the regulations again. Heavy fines need to be levied for failure to repair faults in a reasonable time and for not turning up to appointments. If BT was faced with heavy fines, it would be compelled to employ enough engineers.
It also transpires that Openreach pays compensation to service providers, but not all service providers necessarily pass that compensation on to the end user. Perhaps if there was more of a compensation culture the management would be more efficient about maximising repairs.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Fines are necessary to encourage companies to carry out their responsibilities properly, and not just use the cop-out of declaring MBORC.
On mobile phones—the problem is not just with landlines—Vodafone cannot escape criticism either. Its performance in carrying out repairs has been poor. For example, last summer it took 18 days to repair a fault on the isle of Islay, and another fault on Islay in December took even longer to repair. These are not isolated cases. There is now yet another fault on Islay that is taking ages to repair, and there have been several instances in other parts of Argyll and Bute of long delays. When challenged, Vodafone dodged responsibility by blaming the many other companies involved in tracking down and repairing faults.
A mobile phone service is not a luxury these days, but a necessity—for example, if someone’s car breaks down on a quiet country road or a farmer has an accident. I am aware of a farmer who broke a leg. He was conscious and able to use his mobile phone, but because he had no signal, he had to lie in severe pain until somebody found him. That shows the importance of mobile phone coverage these days. It is an essential, not a luxury.
I am pleased the Government have reached an agreement with the mobile phone companies. It means that the latter will be investing at least £5 billion over the next three years to extend coverage and improve signal strength, and that the number of places not covered by mobile coverage will reduce by two thirds. However, I will keep fighting for 100% coverage and speedy repairs, because speedy repairs are as crucial as the original investment. It is no good having a box-ticking exercise with an investment strategy, and then failing to maintain the service. Constituents with contracts with Vodafone are entitled to use the service. Leaving everything to the market is no good, because the mobile companies and BT Openreach would simply concentrate on the densely populated areas and ignore the highlands and islands. The Government should introduce performance standards for repairs and fine companies that fail to meet them.
Having criticised Vodafone for its failure to carry out repairs in a reasonable time, I want to congratulate it on its Rural Open Sure Signal programme, which will bring mobile phone coverage to several villages in my constituency. However, I urge it to follow up the initial investment and all the publicity with a proper repair service, because that investment is no good if the system does not work.
I was pleased when in 2013 the Government gave Arqiva a contract to build mobile phone masts in places where there was no signal. The new masts were supposed to be up and running by the end of this year, but from the experience of Argyll and Bute, this programme seems to have badly stalled. The last time I met Arqiva, it could not say where in my constituency the new masts were to be sited or when they would be constructed. We need more transparency, and I hope the Minister will tell Arqiva to publish its intentions now. We need to know where the masts are going and when they will be put up.
Bringing superfast broadband to rural areas is vital. I am pleased that more than 20% of the Government’s investment in superfast broadband—more than £100 million—was given to the Scottish Government to bring superfast broadband to rural areas in Scotland. However, delivery was left to the Scottish Government, and they gave the contract to BT Openreach. Cables have been laid and some addresses have been connected to the new superfast broadband, but most of Argyll and Bute is extremely frustrated that neither the Scottish Government nor BT can tell them when, or even if, they will get broadband. Some people on very slow speeds tell me they do not want superfast broadband; they just want a decent broadband service.
The Scottish Government and BT must be much more open and tell people when, or if, their home or business will be connected to fibre-optic broadband. Not knowing what is happening prevents people from making other arrangements, such as wireless or satellite. Given these failings, I must congratulate a local organisation on its initiative. Mull and Iona Community Trust, well led by its extremely enterprising general manager, Moray Finch, is leading the way with a project that will deliver superfast broadband by wireless to parts of Mull and Islay, as well as to the islands of Iona, Colonsay, Lismore, Luing and Jura, and to Craignish on the mainland. MICT has done very well, but that same type of project should be going on throughout Argyll and Bute, because in many places it is simply not practical to deliver superfast broadband via fibre-optic cable. I want the Scottish Government to follow the lead of the Mull and Iona Community Trust and work with community groups throughout Argyll and Bute to deliver superfast broadband everywhere in the constituency.
It is not just in remote rural areas that problems arise. BT promised that the town of Dunoon in my constituency would get superfast broadband paid through BT’s own resources last year. However, this was postponed without any announcement—it was only when people started complaining that we found this out—and it is supposed to be happening this year, but there is still no sign of anything happening. Some constituents receive extremely slow broadband speeds of well under a megabit in some cases. It is high time that BT got the work done and gave my constituents a decent broadband service.
Broadband and mobile phone services are essential these days. Investment in infrastructure and much speedier action when faults occur are essential. The Scottish Government and BT must drastically improve their performance to bring superfast broadband to Argyll and Bute as a matter of urgency. BT and Vodafone must drastically improve their performance when repairs are needed. The loss of both landline and mobile phone services in Argyll and Bute this winter has been unacceptable. I call on the Government to beef up the regulations so that phone companies can be fined for poor performance when repairs to the phone infrastructure are needed.
This is an important topic, and I shall concentrate on rural broadband rather than mobile technology. In Devon, we have challenges with both, but the broadband issue is certainly acute.
It must be said at the outset that the Government are to be congratulated on their ambition to achieve 95% superfast broadband coverage by 2017, which is admirable. The Government are to be congratulated, too, on the level of contribution provided to those in rural areas. Devon has had a generous settlement, so the real challenge has been matching that funding. At the moment, we are pretty much on course to achieve it.
As a number of colleagues have acknowledged, the challenge is in implementation. The first challenge is to manage expectation. The original maps of what was going to get done and when were, frankly, not fit for purpose. The current offering is very much better, and I accept the limitation that a postcode can never entirely clarify exactly where people can and cannot get broadband. The problem is that the consumer who signs up for superfast does not know that. If we cannot do a better job, can we have at the very least a health warning or something put in the contract so that people realise that at the end of the day when they have paid their money, they still may not be able to receive superfast broadband?
My second point is managing the roll-out, which has been mentioned by a number of colleagues. Clearly, to get to this 95% figure, we will have to make sure that the commercial commitment from BT and the subsidised commitment from BDUK are both met. There is a concern that although the match funding projects with BDUK are moving forward at a reasonable pace, the commercial ones are not. This needs to be carefully managed.
Thirdly, dealing with the last 5% is most important. If people live in a rural part of the country, it is critical to take account of it first and foremost rather than last or as an afterthought.
We talk about the 5%, but in many constituencies—mine included—a lot more than 5% are affected. It might be 5% nationally, but it is probably in the order of 65% of my constituency that do not receive superfast broadband. We need to concentrate more on getting this out to the harder-to-reach not spots.
My hon. Friend makes an appropriate point. Although the Government have done a good job looking at the new technologies—I believe they have considered reducing the options to about three—we need more than just “these are the best options”. It needs to be rolled out, and MPs and councils need to be kept well abreast of what the options are. With self-help support for local communities, we should be able to make this happen.
My communities have got together in a number of areas—and dug ditches and done deals with BT—but this is not well publicised. People living in a community who know that superfast is not coming any time soon are likely to have very little support from the Government. There is very little knowledge that would enable people to get on and do it. The Minister very helpfully provided me with the names of some satellite companies in my constituency, one of which has proved to be first-class. However, I am not convinced that I would have been given an answer if I had not asked the question.
We must bear it in mind that the alternatives have cost implications. I believe that there is a system in Wales whereby vouchers are provided for those who have to take the satellite rather than the fibre route. I urge the Government to think carefully about what can be done to help communities that need help now, rather than waiting until everything else is finished.
My hon. Friend has talked about those who are hard to reach. Does she agree that another technical problem has emerged? The longer it takes to provide a superfast connection, the less likely it is that the speed being offered will be sufficient to deal with the new technology that will then be available. That is a further reason to continue the great work that the Government are doing, and to seek alternatives so that the technology is not compromised at the end of the process.
That is an excellent point, and I am sure that the Minister will take it on board.
My fifth point is this. I do not feel that businesses are at the forefront of the challenge. Broadband is now as necessary as electricity and gas—it is the fourth utility—and if businesses cannot be supported, we are not doing our economy justice. Business parks and business estates are not automatically connected, and BT has been reluctant to deal with that, telling my constituents that it would not be profitable. That, to me, is a real challenge, because I think that businesses must be seen in a very special way.
I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. I think that it applies not only to businesses and commercial premises, but to planning for housing estates. It is vital for the respective departments and planning authorities to talk to each other as the houses are being built. Superfast broadband should be built into new developments, rather than individual constituents having to apply for it after buying their houses.
That is an extremely good point. BT may claim that the development is in an area that they do not expect to expand enough to justify the commercial cost, but that is not an argument. We know that development will continue. Broadband should be built in at the start: it is no good waiting for it to be a challenge later on. As for businesses, I find it rather horrifying that 35% of business people who work from home still rely on mobile broadband and 45,000 businesses still rely on dial-up. That simply cannot be right.
I have reached my sixth point. The House will be pleased to know that the list is shortening. I think that the promise that everyone will get at least 2 megabits per second poses a real challenge to the Government, because, in my view, that is not enough.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not, because I am short of time.
I think that we should take account of the demand for a minimum of 5 megabits per second rather than 2. I gather that the average speed that we have managed to deliver is just over 5 megabits per second, so let us aim for that. I think that the Federation of Small Businesses is considering 10 megabits, which may be a bit hopeful at this stage, but a speed of 2 megabits per second is not fit for purpose. Whether people have enough supply to carry out even some of the most basic tasks, such as reading e-mails, depends very much on the level of demand.
Last on my wish list are two technical points. One is the challenge posed by the wiring between the cabinet and the home. All the rhetoric is about getting superfast broadband to the cabinet. I have asked Ministers, BT and just about everyone else I can think of who is responsible for upgrading the connection, but they have all looked sideways and said “Not me.” Well, it certainly is not the home owner. We need to clarify who is responsible, because if we do not deal with that, getting the wire to the cabinet will not solve the problem.
My final point is about take-up. I know that the Government consider that to be one of the real challenges, which is why they have launched an advertising campaign. If take-up is too low, BT will not have a commercial incentive. However, I think that we need to view the position differently. It is not just a question of advertising. The whole concept of the importance of broadband needs to be hard-wired—forgive the pun—into our planning system, and into how we view buying, selling or renting a property. The information about what is available needs to be there up front; it needs to be part and parcel of searches and the general inquiry someone makes when looking for a new home.
Let me summarise my key points and requests to the Government. First, we should look at how we can make the sector more competitive, and consider having the Competition and Markets Authority and Ofcom look at it. Many Members have raised that point. The challenges and problems we face are in part to do with having effectively a monopoly supplier in BT, because unless it is in its interests and it can make money out of it, it simply does not happen. Secondly, please can we move to more than 2 megabits per second? Thirdly, can we look at improving the self-help? If we can improve the information flow so that people understand what can be done and when, that will be great.
That is a very brief summary, but I hope the Minister has taken on board many of those points.
Order. For the avoidance of doubt and pursuant to what was said a moment ago by the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), I can advise the House that, as things stand, there is no particular pressure on time. That might change, but that is the situation at the moment.
Broadband is just as essential to homes and businesses as electricity and telephone lines in the 21st century. All of us endorse the long-term economic plan as the way in which this Government will turn the country around in the future, and key to that is having broadband, including broadband to the rural areas of our country. In debates such as this, I often hear colleagues talking about their very rural constituencies, but, as you will know, Mr Speaker, my constituency is the most rural in all of England and it is the least densely populated constituency per square mile—there are 1,250 square miles—in England too.
As with Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, I come to praise the Minister, not to criticise him, because the reality is that he is an honourable man and he has in an epic recession overseen a very substantial investment of Government money into Northumberland, which has resulted in the provision of significant amounts of broadband. That money, going through Northumberland county council and working with BT Openreach, has provided a significant expansion on the utterly woeful situation we inherited in 2010. [Interruption.] Throughout this debate we have heard endless chunterings from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—one of only two Labour Members on the Opposition Benches, so interested are Labour Members in this subject—but in reality we were left with a terrible situation that this Government have, to their great credit, turned around.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the near absolute absence of Members on the Opposition Benches shows the indifference to the rural interest that too often seizes the Labour party, so that even when there are arguments that would reasonably be accepted by their Members they do not come here to hear them, and that rural residents across the country need to recognise which parties do take an interest—including our coalition partners?
In what must be the ultimate not spot, nobody who represents an England or a Scotland constituency is present on the Labour Benches. It is not very impressive, we would all agree.
I want to start by talking about the progress that has been made in Northumberland, such that there has now been provision of fibre broadband to Stocksfield, Heddon, parts of Wylam, Ponteland, Stamfordham, Great Whittington, Prudhoe, most of Corbridge, Slaley, most of Hexham, parts of Allendale, Gilsland—as Joan Thirlaway only recently texted me—Greenhead, Haltwhistle, Bardon Mill, Haydon Bridge, Humshaugh, Wall, Chollerford and Wark, all of which is very successful. Sadly however, as the House will be aware, I could also give quite a long list of villages and places which have not had that benefit, although the local authority and BT assure me that it will be provided in 2015. Indeed, only today I received notification from Lieutenant Colonel Richard Clements, the commanding officer of 39 Regiment Royal Artillery, that Albemarle barracks, after many years of not having broadband, now has—literally as of today—fibre broadband being provided to it and the troops there, who have returned from Afghanistan. I pay tribute to the great work that he and all the people who work at that barracks have done to bring that development about.
However, I could list a large number of villages that do not have broadband. It is fair to say that while progress has been made, there are gaps, misnomers and, sadly, too many false dawns. All of us have seen examples of where BT—it is sometimes the county council, but primarily it is BT—will suggest, “Oh, it’s all going to be wonderful in this village. We are providing this broadband to the village, or town.” Sadly, however, what happens is that the broadband is not provided, or else there is only partial provision.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make the point about false dawns; I have had many such instances in my constituency. Does he agree that it adds insult to injury when the communication about what will happen and when problems will be put right is often very poor indeed, and communities are left very uncertain about when they will get broadband and what will happen?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I can give examples of that situation. Corbridge Computing Ltd was as excited as I was when Corbridge, a substantial town in my constituency, was told on 19 September 2014 that it had received upgraded broadband. The company asked for the installation the next day; it is just metres from the exchange and various cabinets. To this day, however, it has still not been provided with any upgraded broadband. I could give similar examples, for instance at Dissington Hall. I will open its new rural enterprise hub, which is just outside Ponteland, this Friday, and it is hoped that new businesses will start up there, but to begin with there is the difficulty of not having the internet support that businesses obviously need. In a moment, I will discuss the problems that exist in the village of Matfen.
The reality is that we have false dawns and the situation is extremely difficult, because the lack of communication, and the inability of the roll-out to perform as we were originally told it would, leads to a loss of enthusiasm and support among local communities and constituents.
My hon. Friend mentioned the failure of the roll-out to deliver what is expected of it. Does he share the concern of residents in a new development in my constituency, called Abbottswood, which is right on the edge of Romsey? On moving into their new properties—there are 800 new homes in total—they expected that they would have high-speed broadband, but, unlike the rest of Romsey, they have nothing.
That relates to the point I genuinely want the Minister to respond to. Where there are new developments up and down the country, it must be part of the section 106 agreement of planning that the housing developer installs broadband as part of the planning agreement. It seems utterly illogical that we have either residential or mixed-use developments being brought forward without this fundamental precondition. If nothing else comes from this debate, we must surely address that issue.
I make the point to the Minister that in Northumberland we have not slept on our laurels. We have explored alternatives. Many people in the county have satellite solutions, or line-of-sight solutions such as Wildcard, which serves all the village of Newton. In those circumstances, such providers have genuinely made a difference locally.
Sadly, however, value for money is the key driver of Government policy. I understand why that is the case in a recession, but the consequence of value for money being a driver of policy means that the last 5%—or, as in rural constituencies such as mine, that of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), and those of the hon. Members from Cornwall and Devon, those hard-to-reach areas or total not spots—are always the last ones in the queue, because it is so much easier to address the areas with limited broadband, or those that are easier to connect to the exchange. The Government must look at the way in which they structure agreements in the future, so that a change in emphasis takes place. Without that, I foresee difficulty in getting the roll-out to the hard-to-reach areas.
I have repeatedly had meetings with the Minister, the Secretary of State, Broadband Delivery UK, which I met last week, and BT Openreach, the head of which I met only yesterday in the House of Commons. I welcome the fact that a genuine difference is being made, because it is important. I see that when I look at the example of Matfen, a village in my constituency that has had particular difficulties. People there were encouraged by BDUK to seek significant demand registration under the iNorthumberland procedure, to encourage greater funding and to encourage BT to tailor its roll-out to those areas. The consequence is that they sign up to these things but are then told that they are not going to be part of the roll-out that they thought their sign-up was so good for. In the case of Matfen we are exploring, and will be in various meetings in February, how to find a way forward in phase 2 of the roll-out, because these things create false expectation among our communities, which is not good. I appreciate the work BDUK and BT Openreach are doing to try to turn this problem around. When I spoke to executives from BT Openreach yesterday, they made it clear to me that Northumberland was a future priority for them, and my constituents will be delighted if that is genuinely proven in the developments that we hope will take place.
We will need to look at not only the planning point I raised earlier, but how LEPs, and rural growth funds can support provision. We still have silos, whereby BDUK, BT Openreach and the Government are working in one silo, and the LEPs and others are working in another. It is extraordinarily difficult to get everybody in the same room, getting a holistic group view on the particular problem. Let me finish by mentioning the problem of towers and masts. My constituency has more than 50 masts belonging to various different parts of government, but it is extraordinarily difficult to get all those masts to sign for the provision, ultimately, of broadband.
I am pleased to take part in this debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on securing it, because it has highlighted, across the Chamber, the need for broadband and mobile reception in rural areas, and the recognition that it is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
Let me start by discussing the basic need for some kind of phone that connects someone’s house to the network and by reinforcing the concerns about the performance of Openreach in the most basic provision of phone lines, especially to new builds in the constituency. It has sometimes taken six months between someone moving into a house and their having a basic phone connection. We are talking not about superfast broadband or broadband, but a basic phone connection. Anything that the Minister can do to improve that performance will be welcome; the point has been made that such a connection should be treated like electricity and water as an essential service to the household. I hope he will also deal with the relationship between Openreach and the service provider in ensuring that the consumer gets compensation for a failure to deliver. Such compensation would help focus the mind and make some recompense for people not having that basic service.
As many have said, we still need to roll out basic broadband to many of our constituents. I remember that when the first roll-out took place the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) was the Minister. He was an extremely useful Minister for my constituency, because he dealt with broadband, post offices and the oil and gas industry, bringing together almost all the casework for someone dealing with a reserved section of the legislation, given that so many other activities are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. He was shown all the different innovative projects. At the time, Scottish and Southern Energy was going to do broadband through the electricity cabling, but suddenly the exchange in Stonehaven mysteriously reached the trigger point for BT to roll out ADSL. The point about competition and the importance of driving forward innovation has been made well in this debate. The wi-fi solution for many of those places still needing a broadband connection has been highlighted by others as an important way forward.
I particularly wish to reinforce the importance of superfast broadband to the north-east of Scotland, because with the oil and gas industry, there are a lot of businesses dealing with large amounts of data, and a lot of those businesses have grown up in rural parts of Aberdeenshire. Similarly, many people who work in the industry or work abroad could work from home if they had the proper superfast connections to deal with the data. The money that the UK Government have given to the Scottish Government needs to deliver on the ground for those people in the north-east of Scotland if we are to keep a vital industry effective, at its most efficient and raising more money for the tax system to reinforce investment in infrastructure.
The other challenge is not just the mobile phone reception from the network but the fact that many of the traditional houses are made of granite, which mobile phone signals cannot penetrate. The business centre in which the constituency office is based is a brand new building with high-quality insulation, which again cannot be penetrated by mobile phone signals.
The hon. Gentleman cites a problem that is very similar to the one that exists in the valley communities in south Wales. People cannot get mobile telephony inside their homes because their houses are made of stone or granite which cannot be penetrated by the signal. A possible answer to that lies in wi-fi, for which people need broadband. People end up getting hit by a double whammy.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point. There was also the illegal solution of boosters. Perhaps it is time for Ofcom to look at how mobile phone signals can be boosted in properties and business centres. Individual suppliers using wi-fi and broadband could be a solution—that could be the case for the business centre that I mentioned. There would need to be a signal booster for each network, but it should be looked at.
Let me reinforce the fact that broadband and mobile phone connections are not a luxury; they are essential. It is time that we saw delivery to those rural areas that missed out the first time round.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate and to see in their seats so many parliamentary patrons of the rural fair share campaign. Although we are talking today about broadband and mobile coverage, we must see the matter in context. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on securing this debate and the Backbench Committee on its work.
Let us talk about context. It is a pity that we have no one other than the Opposition Whip and the shadow Minister in their place to hear this. The context is that people in rural areas are, on average, poorer than people in urban areas. They earn less; they have fewer services; they pay higher levels of council tax; and they suffer from lower funding of health, education, police and fire services. To add to that disadvantage, they find that they are in the 5% or 10%—whatever percentage it is in some grand number—that does not get the good thing that we are talking about. That merely compounds a disadvantage that is to be found in so many areas already.
What we need to do from the rural interest point of view is recognise that rurality is a need in the same way that deprivation is a need. It drives cost in the way that deprivation does, and we must make the case. We must have a broad understanding of the needs of rural communities. Let me say to the Opposition Whip, who, unfortunately for him, is in his place, that when we were discussing the Government’s programme to bring decent broadband service to rural areas, one of his colleagues said that it would mean faster internet shopping for millionaires—he went on to say faster internet shopping for wealthy people. That is a misconception of the disadvantage and low income of so many people in rural areas. They are removed from services and removed from access. The one thing that they had hoped would close that gap is digital technology, but all too often that is closed to them as well. That is the context.
Given that the fundamental challenge of rural areas is the barrier of distance, surely what we need to emphasise is that there is nothing more powerful than the technology of broadband and mobile in overcoming that barrier and in bringing rural areas all the opportunities of networked lives.
My hon. Friend is right. I pay tribute to him for how since the moment he was first elected and arrived in this Chamber—and probably before that—he has taken seriously the need to get broadband into his rural constituency. It was a privilege to attend a conference that he organised for hundreds of people in Cumbria some years ago to highlight exactly this problem.
I want to move on to talk about the long-term economic plan. When we consider the economic needs of the nation, one thing we see is that there is a productivity gap between urban and rural areas. The analysis of why that productivity gap exists shows that the problem is connectivity. It can be about highways and railways and buses, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) rightly says, it is also about the digital divide. That is why if we are to have an equitable country that is fair to all and that closes those gaps, we must prioritise this issue.
My hon. Friends must realise that after 13 years of the previous Government—understandably, as we can see the level of interest in rural issues among Opposition Members—fewer than half of all households, and those the easy and commercially available households, have superfast broadband. It is this Government, who in so many ways have had to do the heavy lifting, who have taken that figure to three quarters of households and who, by 2017, will be delivering 95% coverage. As has been said, I am concerned about the other 5%.
I will give way to the shadow Minister and I hope that he will apologise not only for the failure of members of his party to take an interest in this vital issue but for the fact that in government—perhaps preoccupied with other matters—Labour did not focus enough on the needs of people in rural areas or recognise the disadvantage there.
I am sort of grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I was not going to make a very aggressive point. I was just going to suggest that he might correct his figures. Superfast broadband is not the major issue that most people have been complaining about in the debate. The complaints have been about getting even to 2 megabits per second. Our ambition, which we would have secured, was to reach that speed for everybody by 2012 and it was his Government who abandoned that target.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, the only people I have heard who felt that that programme was on track to be delivered were representatives of the Labour party. It is a shame that there are not more of those representatives in the Chamber today to intervene and explain precisely how it was going to be delivered. The hon. Gentleman is an excellent advocate for a difficult cause, and I respect that as a politician, but the truth is, as he knows, that the record of his party was weak. The record of the Conservative party is distinctly better, but we should recognise the context. We are all saying to the Government and to the Minister that it is not enough; we must go further and that is why we are here today. It is great to have the shadow Minister here today, even if we do not have any of his colleagues—[Hon. Members: “There is one!”] I apologise.
We have the opportunity to put an ambitious aim in all the manifestos. Let us ensure that people are not isolated and that we close the gap.
May I take the hon. Gentleman back to the question of the economy and growing businesses? One quick boost that we could give to a lot of small businesses would be to encourage entrepreneurs who want to provide broadband by a wi-fi connection to places that will never gain from 3 miles of copper cable to the nearest exchange. I met such an entrepreneur only last week who was to provide for about half a dozen villages in my area. I would love to point him towards the Government funding that would give him the start that would enable that to happen, but at the moment it is not obviously there.
My hon. Friend is quite right. One of the challenges for the Government is that they are not very good at dealing with small organisations. I have a company offering a service in my area called Quickline. It contacted me and said that it would love to launch a hub in a local pub and then to offer it out to the surrounding community. I was rather rotten to the person who approached me, as I thought they were looking to do it somewhere quite close to Beverley, which would be easier. I said, “What about Holmpton, down near Withernsea?” I thought that it was about the most challenging place I could find for them and, to be fair, they agreed. The George and Dragon had that hub installed a couple of years ago and provided the offer in an area that was otherwise a not spot. It is difficult for Government, who have to secure and assure the use of public money, but we must find a way of dealing with small companies, some of which might go down as well as up. We must take some risks if we are to deliver this goal.
I could not agree more that connectivity for rural businesses is an essential service. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the rural broadband voucher scheme, which is used in Oxfordshire to provide small businesses with up to £30,000 to pay for superfast broadband connections, has been a really valuable scheme? It expires at the end of March, and it would be helpful to know what might replace it.
My hon. Friend has put that on the record and I am sure the Minister will try to answer. I hope he has time to answer the many questions that have been raised.
As we know, the 95% delivery target for phase 2 funding is a national target, and obviously there are fears among colleagues that the 5% figure may turn out to be larger than that in their area. The aim was that the funding for that, for which £5 million came to the East Riding, should be matched—it is a shame to see that there is not even a shadow Minister now, just a Whip, however marvellous he may be, which he is, of course. However, East Riding of Yorkshire council is struggling to find the other £5 million, so there is a danger that we will not get the 95% provision.
What can be done to make sure that we target the most hard to reach? It does not matter what we are dealing with, whether it is the DECC work to reduce home energy use or anything else, the tendency is to pick off the low-hanging fruit, the easy targets. Somehow we need to design a system that starts with the most difficult-to-reach properties and works back. That way, we are the least likely to do as my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, which is subsidise something that would happen anyway and not target the money on those who need it the most. That is important for the future.
It is estimated that by 2024, the Government’s current investment in faster broadband will be boosting rural economies by £275 million every month—not each year—which is about £9 million every day. It makes economic sense as well as good social capital sense to make the investment. Will the Minister update the House on the innovation fund we have heard about today, which is available for alternative technology providers who can then come up with innovative and radical approaches to reach the most remote communities? If he can do that, we will be grateful. Is there a prospect of the fund being increased?
I was delighted to hear that the Minister secured a landmark deal with mobile networks to improve mobile coverage across the UK. I mentioned earlier that, following that agreement, Vodafone will be extending 3G coverage in my constituency from just over 20% now to 99% by 2017. That is a significant move forward.
What are the Government doing to ensure that broadband infrastructure is available in areas where it would not be commercially viable for companies to install it? Also, as the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report today asks, is enough being done to hold BT to its promises? What about commercial plans from providers such as Kingston Communications, in our area? In those areas where the commercial providers said provision was commercial, they have not always fulfilled that, and then moved on. We need to make sure we have a system in place that holds them all to account, but I congratulate the Government on doing so much more, despite the chuntering from the Opposition.
It is a great pleasure to follow yet another Yorkshire MP. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on instituting what I think has become an annual debate, with the annual roll-out of the Minister.
I am sure the Minister has a good idea of some of the things I am going to say, but before I go into what are essentially concerns about rural roll-out, I will add my voice to the view expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) about the need, if we are building these thousands and thousands of new houses to try to make up for the previous Government’s failure, to make this fourth utility part and parcel of the build scheme. It seems incredible to me that it is not. I understand that the Government are looking into it, but it should already be in planning policy that these connections should be part of future building schemes.
At the moment in Lancaster, where we have large regeneration schemes going on, people are moving into flats or houses and discovering that they have no connection and that individually they have to find a way to get connected. That is amazing in the 21st century, especially in apartment and flat-style properties, and it is something the Government need to get a grip on through planning policy.
I agree, but that is not happening. The market is not yet delivering. Where it is not delivering, the Government should be delivering, in terms of planning regulations at the very least.
On the roll-out of broadband, to be fair, the Government took the decision in 2010, which we all welcomed, to do something for that section of the rural community that had been left out for so long, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) pointed out. Villages in Lancashire are being connected. It may be fast or slow in certain areas, but some of those contracts are being delivered. As the Minister knows, I, like other hon. Members, was concerned about the missing 5%. I was approached by a group led by Professor Barry Forde of Lancaster university, who said that the BT contracts could not work because of the copper to fibre issue, so BT would be unable to deliver the speeds that it had promised. [Interruption.]
I would be happy to offer my hon. Friend a glass of water for his cough, but we are out of water. I see that the military prowess of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) has kicked in—he is bringing a glass of water.
As you well know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I was up in your constituency just this week, and a beautiful part of the country it is.
I am sorry—last week. The weeks tend to blend into one. Some £50 million, 98% coverage in Lancashire, and 150,000 premises—that has to be something to shout about, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) will do so once he has had a drink of water.
I am grateful for the Minister’s intervention. He is right, and I paid tribute to that.
Back to the missing 5%: the group led by Barry Forde suggested that it would take up the 5% with a not-for-profit social enterprise and deliver hyperfast super-broadband—that is, 1 gigabit—to every property within a defined area. The group approached me as a constituency MP. The group eventually became known as B4RN—Broadband for the Rural North. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) that B4RN does not lie between Lancashire and Yorkshire. It is based in Lancashire, but gives some help to Yorkshire, as usual.
What the members of the group proposed to do seemed incredible at the time, but they have set about doing that since 2010 and have now wired up every single property in the villages of Arkholme, Abbeystead, Aughton, Capernwray, Dolphinholme, Gressingham, Newton, Docker, Littledale, Quernmore, Roeburndale, Wray, Wennington and Tatham, and soon to be connected are Melling, Whittington and Wrayton. The group is looking to wire up 2,500 people with 1 gigabit of speed. Already we have interest from businesses, doing the very thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness hopes will happen, which want to move into the area that B4RN covers because of the potential offered by this hyperfast broadband delivery.
The history is interesting. When the group decided to do that in 2010-11, members applied for some of the funding from BDUK, but the district council and the county rolled up all the funds and gave all the grants to BT, which resulted in B4RN complaining to the European Commission about the use of state aid. B4RN agreed to drop the complaint provided that the county would protect its postcode areas, as against BT’s scheme.
Hon. Members have mentioned the situation of BT, and I have brought up before the near-monopoly that exists.
I stand corrected; it has all the features of a monopoly. Let me give an example. One of the villages supposedly in the BT area is Dolphinholme, which lies between two villages that B4RN was going to wire up, so its wiring went through the village. Villagers there had been waiting for BT, but it had not yet turned up, so they asked B4RN to connect them. B4RN then began connecting those people who requested it. BT has since moved into the village and, instead of just replacing copper with fibre, is wiring the node all the way through in a way that it has not done anywhere else in Lancashire, and all for a village of just over 200 people. Why is that? It looks as though that multi-million pound business is trying to squeeze out a voluntary, not-for-profit organisation that is proving extremely successful.
Absolutely. As we have heard hon. Members shout from across the Chamber, it is the behaviour of a monopoly.
Another characteristic of a monopoly is a lack of transparency. Let me give another example. Two weeks ago a resident of the village of Scorton, which was to be wired up by BT, approached me to say that he was having problems getting in touch with BT to find out what was going on. He runs a medium-sized engineering company from home with national contracts. I took the first step of any constituency MP and asked BT what was going on. I was told that there were technical difficulties. Eventually, I went to meet the resident in Scorton and found that he had been told that BT was now de-scoping the area because it was too difficult—I had been told one story, and he had been told another.
I am still waiting, three years down the line, for BT to hand me a map showing exactly what it is doing. Let me explain to hon. Members that these are villages up in the Pennines. Then there are places, such as Glasson Dock, which lies on flat land on the coast just beyond Lancaster, that BT is not wiring up, even though there are more residents there than in Dolphinholme, where it is delivering fibre, fibre, fibre. I know that the Public Accounts Committee has looked at the situation, but I would ask it to look again at the BT situation.
I beg to differ. Perhaps the Select Committee that looked at it here could recall BT. I have made inquiries about how to get the competition authorities to look at the situation. This is the behaviour of a monopoly: there is no transparency, we are not being told what is going on, and indeed we are being given disinformation.
No, because I know that the Minister is not complacent, and I know that delivery across most of Lancashire is extremely effective, as the hon. Gentleman would have heard had he been here at the beginning. What hon. Members here are concerned about is the last 5%. I ask the Minister once again to look at BT’s performance in that remaining area.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on securing it once again. The real challenge, as we have heard in contributions from across the House, is the remaining 5% and the pitch of frustration our constituents feel when we do not see sufficiently rapid movement, when there seems to be a lack of reliable information and when they cannot get the answers they so desperately need. A significant portion of the e-mails I receive relate to the remaining 5% in south Wiltshire.
Connectivity is an essential part of our daily lives—it is the fourth utility—but it has not existed reliably in some parts of my constituency. Just a few months ago, residents in Bishopstone and Coombe Bissett were cut off completely from the outside world when there was a fault on their main telephone lines. Neither village has mobile phone coverage, so the loss of the connection left elderly residents unable to reach their panic buttons, employees unable to pay their tax bills, and at least one local business on the verge of collapse. This happened four and a half miles from the city of Salisbury. That is why we need to look carefully at all the options that exist at this point in the delivery of the roll-out to maximise broadband, and 4G, coverage.
Rural communities are resilient and innovative, as several colleagues from across the House have said, but we must do more to help them benefit from creative solutions. Two villages in my constituency, Broad Chalke and Winterslow—I thank the Minister for visiting Winterslow a couple of years ago—have benefited from Vodafone’s Rural Open Sure Signal programme, which provides 3G coverage to sparsely populated areas that otherwise would have none. That has had a transformative effect. The simplest tasks, such as schools phoning parents when their children are ill, or lost delivery drivers getting in touch, were impossible without this technology. It is imperative that we continue to look creatively at other solutions that might exist and that we do not offer inferior solutions on the grounds of cost alone, and cost as it is today.
One of my constituents who is a dedicated campaigner for better connectivity in rural areas has lived with satellite broadband for nine years. That system relies on individual packets of data being sent about 44,000 km from a satellite. He tells me that while the system functions well when downloading large files, the delay in these packets of data makes everyday browsing or video streaming very difficult. I therefore urge the Minister to ensure that alternative solutions are also on the table. I am aware that the Government have put £10 million into the pilot schemes in rural areas using different technologies, and that they will be evaluating the success of those different pilot schemes. I echo the comments of hon. Members who said that more needs to be allocated to that initiative, because that is where the last 2% or 3% are going to find their solutions. There are improvements in technology all the time, and the Government need to be right on top of the best solutions as they come into existence.
By sheer coincidence, my constituent had a new 4G mast erected close enough that he could benefit from it. I want to highlight to mobile phone companies, and to the Minister, the immense opportunity that exists in this regard. There are areas of the country that will not be able to benefit from fibre broadband cost-effectively but where 4G could provide an answer. That can be nothing short of transformative for these communities, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) said, for urban areas as well.
I hope the Minister has listened carefully to the intense and sincere speeches that have been made, because there are serious issues for constituents across the country who are so frustrated when they cannot get this matter resolved. We need to make sure that we use the new technologies and that they are delivered as quickly as possible. We should welcome the fact that only 3% of premises in the UK are now suffering speeds below 2 Mb, down from 11% in 2010, but let us not be complacent. Let us do as much as we possibly can to speed up the roll-out for the last 5%, or even the last 2%, who we all intensely fear will never get a solution.
Some right hon. and right hon. Members will be surprisingly familiar with my constituency, including the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), although I will not dwell on the result of his leadership of the Labour campaign in the by-election. As they will know, the constituency is predominantly rural, with more than 150 villages, from the suburbs of Nottingham going up through north Nottinghamshire. Our second-largest employer is Vodafone, which employs more than 500 people in the town of Newark. My predecessor and I have had an extremely good and productive relationship with the company. There has been good news, which I will come to, but there are a number of concerns.
I will deal with that last.
During his Westminster Hall debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) set out eloquently the moral and economic case for broadband in rural areas. It is not just about isolation, but about enabling people to lead full lives in an interconnected world and to consume the news, learn, be economically active and connect with relatives who live around the country and the world. I am part of perhaps the last generation of MPs to have known the world before broadband, and the opportunities it presents are immeasurably greater than those I knew as a child.
The greatest barrier to aspiration and meritocracy is lack of information. Individuals frequently set their horizons according to the world they know and have it broadened by more information and knowledge about which university to go to and which employer to seek out. It is no exaggeration to say that broadband access is about giving young people and people of all ages the benefits of the rich possibilities of our interconnected world. Not having those opportunities has a major effect. It is also evident that such access is about economic growth. The 150 villages in my constituency are brimming with small businesses, entrepreneurs and communities that want to get on and succeed, but they are being held back, with one hand tied behind their back, because of a lack of broadband access.
This is also about closing both the rural-urban gap and the north-south divide. Some 350 people commute from Newark to London. That is a difficult journey to make every day, but it can be made regularly if people can work from home with good quality broadband.
Nottinghamshire county council has made good progress in recent years. I pay tribute to Nicola McCoy-Brown, my contact at the council, and the £20 million better broadband for Nottinghamshire programme. A number of villages, including Collingham, have seen huge improvements in recent years, but a huge amount of work remains to be done. More than 40 villages in my constituency have little broadband, certainly not enough to run a business or to work or do proper education from home.
I want to raise a few concerns. The first is whether all the public money is being well spent. Those Members familiar with my constituency will know that a vast swathe of it is, in effect, made up—my constituents will not thank me for saying this—of commuter villages that are almost the suburbs of Nottingham. I am surprised that those villages are deemed not economically viable for BT to be able to supply them. I suspect that East Bridgford, Bingham and villages surrounding Southwell are economically viable and that BT is not using public money appropriately.
Secondly, the figures of 5% and 10% are frequently misused, because they are denoted by county and local authority. The result for local authorities that are predominantly urban, such as Nottinghamshire, is clearly very different from the result for those that are predominantly rural. My constituency is the 10% that is rural in Nottinghamshire, so the definition of what is rural and remote in Nottinghamshire is different from that in Herefordshire, Wales and Cumbria. In fact, a vast swathe of that 10% is not particularly rural or remote at all. I think the definition is misused.
I entirely endorse earlier comments about linking mobile and data. Smartphones are ubiquitous in my constituency, but no one can use them, even in Newark town. They are sold in all the shops by all the dealerships, but no one can use them.
Time is against me, so I will finish by addressing Openreach. The company claims not to be a monopoly, but it displays all the characteristics of one. I know this issue is market sensitive, but I urge the Minister to look into it. For good business reasons, the organisation needs to be separated from BT and broken up. In the short term, I urge the Minister to do something about the appalling customer service at Openreach and to encourage it to treat its customers with the respect and dignity they deserve.
I have followed the debate carefully and was not sure whether I would have time to speak, so I am delighted to be the last speaker from the Conservative ranks. My speech will, of course, commend the Government for the extraordinary work they have done on broadband, while suggesting one or two changes that will make all the difference.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and the Backbench Business Committee on initiating this debate. The response from the House has made it clear that he touched on a number of issues that are common to those of us who represent rural constituencies, wherever we sit in the House, and it has been essential to get the matter before the Minister and the House.
My constituency exhibits a number of characteristics that we have heard about, such as properties with fewer than 2 megabits in local authorities that I represent—that affects 8.6% of properties in Central Bedfordshire and 12% in Bedford borough. Again, the same properties tend to miss out, and the hard to reach are genuinely hard to reach.
I have an inventive and thoughtful community that has tried all sorts of different things. It is effective at putting a case together and has detailed plans. I have attended two public meetings in the village of Colmworth and heard a very detailed description of its business premises, residential areas, and the needs of such a rural area. North East Bedfordshire has a diverse community that depends on a relationship between the rural and the urban, as well as on connectivity. The opportunity to work there is becoming even more essential.
Let me say two slightly controversial things. First, I praise BT’s regional partnership director, Annette Thorpe, who has worked incredibly hard with people in my region. I have met her more than a handful of times in different villages in my constituency. She has tried to meet some of the problems, but the difficulty has been that BT is overstretched. It has had too much work and has not been able to deliver, and it has been a problem to satisfy expectations. Annette Thorpe has worked extremely hard to do all she can.
Secondly, my hon. Friend the Minister has been a victim of his own success. The Government inherited a poorly developed programme from the previous Government—whatever the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) says—and they have made remarkable steps forward. However, there is so much work to do and a limited number of people to do it, and it has not been possible to deliver everything we wanted. Communication has been crucial. In Bedford, BT has been struggling to deal with the volume of open market review requests and invitations to tender. That has resulted in it trying to make sense of its own data, which has held it back from the next steps it needs to take. The sheer volume of work being done has caused it to become a victim of its own success.
As well as the familiar issues that colleagues have mentioned, there are some new ones. BT has realised that even when it gets to the end of its programme, it might not be able to deliver. There are some properties it just cannot reach, so what is to happen to them? If it does succeed in delivering 2 megabits, that will not be enough for existing technology, and the issue must be thought through.
A further problem that we have not spent much time on concerns new developments in rural and market town constituencies. King’s Reach in Biggleswade is a new development on the edge of my largest town with 20,000-plus people, and they find it hard to get broadband and superfast broadband. I pay tribute to that community, which worked incredibly hard, and particularly to Councillor Bernard Rix, who led the work with BT, and my assistant, Mandy Setterfield. We have worked with Annette Thorpe—sometimes behind the scenes—to push things along, but there have been problems with siting cabinets and getting new properties linked up. When talking about linking up the old, we must not forget that we must also deal with linking up the new.
Finally, I would like to take up the kind offer of my right hon. Friend to meet representatives from my constituency.
If the Minister would kindly meet a group that represents not only the older rural areas that are trying to be connected, but representatives from the newer areas, I am sure he will understand our problems, including those in Dunton, which thought it was on the list and has now been bumped off. I am very grateful for the time of the House and to my hon. Friend the Minister, who should be my right hon. Friend very soon.
As a brief coda to this excellent debate, I do not believe the Minister doubts my commitment to broadband in rural areas. We have spoken many times about it. I am grateful for his commitment to the roll-out of the programme across the country and what the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has done. I used to have meetings with him as a DEFRA Minister. The two Departments energised each other in those meetings.
I am grateful to Somerset county council, of which I am sometimes critical on other matters. It has pushed strongly, but the fact remains that, despite its best efforts, very substantial parts of my constituency will still not get high-speed broadband in the initial roll-out. Often, they are the same parts that do not get mobile phone coverage.
The Minister made a brilliantly witty speech at the opening of the Haynes International Motor museum in my constituency, but if he had any doubts, he heard directly from my constituents how important broadband is to us. It is important for them in their domestic circumstances and important for their businesses.
We must now concentrate everything we have in Government and local government on ensuring that the bits that will not be reached catch up with the rest. That will not mean extending the BT contract, even if we know where the boundaries of the contract lie. It will not mean getting more large companies engaged in programmes across the country. It will mean stimulating many small businesses to provide wi-fi connections to small groups of villages, to provide the plugs to fill those gaps. We need to find the mechanism that makes that work effectively. If the Minister can do that in his remaining months in his current position, I will be eternally grateful to him. I may even take him up on the offer of meeting him with a few of my constituents to make the point yet again.
I agree with the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart). At times, I have felt as if I have walked into a meeting of the 1922 committee this afternoon—it has been a congregation of the excluded, the dispossessed and the disconnected. I should tell all hon. Members who have complained about the last 3% or 5% that I feel their pain. I recommend that they vote Labour at the general election because that is the only way they will get this sorted out.
For once, it is not just about the many, but about the few. As many hon. Members have said, mobile telephony and broadband—superfast broadband—are not luxuries any more. They are a fundamental and essential utility. People have a right to expect both in residential properties, and businesses have a right to expect them. As the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) said, many business parks are still not connected. Incidentally, ensuring that that is rolled out is the strongest argument for state intervention. That is one of the things we need to look at.
If hon. Members watched “Last Tango in Halifax” on Sunday evening, they will know how important mobile telephony is. A wedding might all too easily be cancelled because somebody did not manage to send a text message or get mobile coverage to be able to say, “I’m on my way.”
For that matter, in many places in the country, if people want to watch “Last Tango in Halifax” half an hour or an hour later on iPlayer, they would have to have 2 megabits per second at least, and yet, as many hon. Members from parties on both sides of the Chamber have said, too many people cannot even get that 2 megabits per second. If somebody is upstairs watching YouTube on a tablet, somebody is downloading something on their smartphone and somebody else is watching iPlayer through their smart TV, even 5 megabits per second might not be enough because of contention ratios. Even when the technology has been rolled past their door, many people are not connected, either because they do not know the benefits or simply because there is not enough competition in the market to make it cheap enough for them to afford.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on introducing the debate. I know the problems in his constituency, because when I stayed there for the Hay festival last year, I had absolutely no means of finding the place where I was going because Google maps gave up on me, because there was no connectivity. I think Edmund Burke would have been proud of him. I am not sure Burke had a lot to say about mobile telephony, but he was quite keen on connections. After all, he said:
“The only liberty…is a liberty connected with order.”
I want to talk about the Government’s record. Hon. Members have snuck around the corner here a little bit. In essence, they know that most of what they have argued this afternoon is a criticism of the Government’s record. They have not put it in such terms, because they know there is a general election coming.
On the Government’s record, I think what everybody has said today is that we have to take the whole country with us. That means 100%, not 93% or 95%. I merely point out to hon. Members that the original target was 2 megabits a second by 2012. That was abandoned by this Government, who moved the target to 2015. Now, the target has been moved to 2016. I suggest that that means we want lots of people to be able to run before some people are even able to walk in the digital economy, and I think that that is a mistake.
The superfast target of 24 megabits a second has also been changed. It was 90% by 2015. Then, when the Government worked out that that simply was not going to happen, for all the reasons hon. Members have set out today, they moved it to 95% by 2016.
The hon. Gentleman will be speaking in a few moments and we wait with bated breath. If he can bate his breath, I will bate mine.
When BT appeared before the Select Committee it said that we probably would not get to the 90% target until 2018, so there are problems. The Committee was absolutely right when it reported today that
“Repeated changes in target dates for rollout of superfast broadband inevitably reduce confidence that coverage will be achieved on time. They also leave those in the hardest-to-reach areas uncertain as to when their businesses will be able fully to engage with digital practices.”
The Committee, which is made up of all political parties in this House, is absolutely right.
There are key decisions that I think the Government have taken ill-advisedly. The most important in terms of mobile telephony roll-out—the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) effectively referred to this—is in relation to the electronic communications code. There are landowners in the country who have made it phenomenally difficult to put up a new mast or increase the size of a mast. The provisions in the electronic communications code need to be more like those that exist for electricity and water—the common utilities that we absolutely need—than as a luxury, which was how mobile phone telephony was originally looked on. The Government got the Law Commission to report two years ago on the electronic communications code. Only at the very last minute did they table very poorly drafted amendments to the Infrastructure Bill. They could have been on the Order Paper to be properly considered in the normal way a year ago. If hon. Members really want to tackle the problems of mobile telephony coverage across the country, they have to deal with the electronic communications code. The Government have misplayed this matter completely.
Incidentally, the hon. Member for Newbury said that we had to listen to the silent majority. I am not quite sure how one listens to silence. Maybe the point is that the silent majority are not connected and so do not have an opportunity to tell us what they think.
Another failed programme from the Government was the £150 million mobile infrastructure project. One hon. Member gently suggested that it is a bit of a failing if only two masts, serving another 400 homes, have been put up in all that time. That is not a slight failure—it is a massive failure. The Government should be coming to the Dispatch Box to hang their heads in shame.
Another £150 million has been allocated to the super-connected cities programme, but why just cities? Why did they decide to give out vouchers only for superfast cities? Why not the whole country? I represent an area—
No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He might recall refusing to give way to me earlier. Had he been a little nicer then, I might have returned the favour.
The Government allocated £150 million to the super-connected cities programme, but what did they do? They hid their light under a bushel—they did not tell anybody about the programme—and guess what? Nobody applied for the vouchers. The hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) complained that we objected to the advertising programme. That is completely wrong. He should read his briefing note from the Whips a little more carefully. We complained there was no advertising, which is why there was no take-up and why, of the £150 million, so far only £20 million has been spent. That is another failure from the Government.
On the tender process, I accept the point about having local communities drive the agenda rather than a national statist agenda, but I gently suggest that if we set up 44 separate areas, it will be almost inevitable that the only people able to compete with a company such as BT will be those with very deep pockets who could be almost certain of getting several contiguous tenders, and that was never going to happen. In effect, it resulted in a licence to create a monopoly, and where we have a monopoly, we need tough, serious rules to ensure greater competition.
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), who lost his voice and was helped out by the Minister, made a sensible point about the lack of competition across the whole area, particularly in the provision between the cabinet and the home. That was exactly the problem with the incident he related about the company called B4RN. The other problem is that we are falling far short on take-up compared with roll-out. A far better economic model would be to drive roll-out by encouraging take-up, because people would understand what we need all these megabits for. People hear us talk about 24 megabits, 30 megabits, 50 megabits, 100 megabits, 1 gigabit, but actually nobody knows what we are talking about.
The vast majority of people have no understanding of what we are talking about, which is why we have very low rates of take-up.
The Government have taken some very wrong steps. For one, they ruled out wireless at the beginning. It is a delight that there is now a £10 million pilot looking at wireless solutions, but it should have been in existence in 2011-12. It is too late now. It is wrong only to look at fibre to the cabinet, and not fibre to some properties, because the simple truth is that people whose houses are a long way from the cabinet will never be part of superfast broadband under the programme as thus exemplified.
As I have said, there is next to no competition. If the Government are to spend the best part of £500 million of taxpayers’ money—most of it coming off the licence fee—they need to make a strong argument that it is meeting market failure, and I think that when they advanced phase 2, in particular, of superfast broadband without a proper business plan, they failed to prove it was meeting market failure. There is no evidence that this is meeting market failure, rather than simply helping BT make investments it would have made anyway.
We should be one nation, not digitally divided or disconnected. We should embrace the words of E. M. Forster in “Howards End”: “Only connect”.
Let me begin by saying how grateful I am that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned E. M. Forster, because my late father campaigned for a blue plaque for E. M. Forster, which can now be seen on the flats in Arlington Park mansions in Chiswick. That is an aside, but I always like to mention my old dad, my late father, who was in the other place. I usually get to mention him during steel debates, but I digress.
We have had an excellent debate with some 18 contributions, most from the Conservative Benches because only one Labour Back Bencher showed up to make a speech. That gives the lie to the Opposition spokesman’s protestations that Labour is interested in rural communities and interested in getting broadband to them.
We heard excellent speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who called this important debate, and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock). We heard my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) talking about his area’s local enterprise partnership. We heard from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who made some important suggestions. We heard the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), who contributed to the EFRA Committee report, which to a certain extent sits behind today’s debate.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who has pioneered broadband in North Yorkshire, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) who spoke about Vodafone. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) came up with a new acronym—MBORC, which I shall investigate—while my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) quite rightly started by praising the Government.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), whose contribution I always intensely enjoy. We then heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury (John Glen) and for Newark (Robert Jenrick)—it is the first time I have heard the latter speak, and what an excellent contribution it was.
We then heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and, of course, from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) who I always remember saying—although not in this debate—that the only way he can get a signal is by standing on his kitchen cabinet.
In the time available I cannot answer all the questions put to me, but I hope that in the course of my response some of the issues will be covered. If they are not, I will write to each and every hon. Member who has made a contribution to this debate.
Let me begin with the contribution of the hon. Member for Rhondda. We heard 10 or 15 minutes from him, but just as we searched the Benches behind him for any speakers, we searched for a policy in his speech—but policy could we find there none. Is it Labour’s intention, for example, to designate internet provision as a utility? Is it Labour’s intention to bring broadband to business parks? Is it Labour’s intention simply to provide broadband only where people say they want it, so that for the first two or three years of a Labour Government we would see a marketing campaign before any broadband was rolled out?
What are the Opposition’s positions on our policies? The hon. Gentleman lambasted us for not proceeding with the changes to the electronic communications code in the Infrastructure Bill, yet while it was still in the Bill, he was writing to the Secretary of State saying that Labour could not support it. The Opposition Front-Bench team has complained about the superfast broadband advertising campaign, yet now the hon. Gentleman claims that he wished we had advertised more.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman got his facts wrong when he said that we had moved the target. We had a target to get superfast broadband to 90% of the country by the end of 2015, and we have every chance of meeting that target. [Interruption.] I repeat that we have every chance of meeting that target. Then we set a new target of 95%—namely, getting to a further 5% of the country by 2016-17. That is not moving the target. The hon. Gentleman also said that we had ruled out wireless technology at the beginning; our approach has always been to be technology-neutral.
This broadband roll-out campaign is an unequivocal success. We shall very shortly announce that we have passed the 2 millionth premise as a result of the roll-out campaign. That means 2 million households—millions of people—now getting superfast broadband where the market would not deliver. Labour’s alternative policy was to give those people 2 megabits and then forget about it. Incidentally, Labour had no way of paying for it, as it had no policy to show how it would pay for this provision of 2 megabits. In fact, 97% of the country already benefits from coverage of 2 megabits, but we know—and all my hon. Friends know from their constituents—that that is no longer deemed to be enough. Most people now expect 7 or 8 megabits.
Some of my hon. Friends talked about future-proofing. In 2010, we thought that aiming for 24-megabit superfast broadband would be the right policy, but technology changes all the time. Members will have noted BT’s announcement last Friday that it expects to be able to achieve speeds of up to 500 megabits over a copper line, thanks to new technology that it is trying out.
In the past, we have been criticised by the National Audit Office for some aspects of our campaign. I have been robust in defending our programme against the NAO’s critique, and I am pleased to say that last week it praised the roll-out of superfast broadband. It made it clear that we were close to meeting our targets, and were providing value for money. For that I thank the men and women who work for BT, including the engineers who work tirelessly to produce superfast broadband. Over the Christmas period, I visited some of them in Steventon, which is in my constituency. More often than not, they exceed their targets and their reach. I also thank Chris Townsend and all my officials who run Broadband Delivery UK, as well as Bill Murphy, who had overall responsibility for the BT programme.
I think that this is a programme of which we can be very proud. It is being delivered by a great British company, BT, and I was not going to come to the House and run that company down. Let us look at the facts. Superfast broadband is now available to nearly 80% of premises, whereas fewer than 50% had it when we came to office. The United Kingdom has a higher superfast coverage than any of the other EU5 countries. Our average broadband speed has quadrupled over the last four years. We have the highest take-up of superfast broadband in the EU5 and the lowest priced broadband in the EU5 and the United States, and we have the largest number of broadband users in the EU5.
I understand the frustrations expressed by my hon. Friends, because those statistics point to the fact that we live in a digitally savvy nation, and British consumers want to use the internet. For example, they spend the highest amount per capita on e-commerce shopping. They are rightly demanding the provision of higher speeds and better service as soon as possible, but we are moving as fast as we can, and, as I have said, we are exceeding our targets and are well on track. As for value for money, the independent assessment review conducted for BDUK showed that, in the case of a range of cabinets, BT’s costs were 90% lower than those of a normally efficient operator, while the NAO reported that the average costs of a broad range of projects were currently proving to be about 25% lower than the estimated costs of bids for those projects.
So what are the issues? I have dealt with the issue of whether we have moved the target, so let me now deal with the issue of competition. Time and again, people ask me why there is not more competition, but what sort of competition do they want? If we had organised a national bid—if we had asked a company to tender to provide broadband on a national basis rather than for 44 areas—what would have happened if BT had won? We would have had a national provider. Do people think that we should have done it according to regions? Who is to say that BT would not have won those contracts? The 44 areas were small, and were open to smaller providers should they have wished to bid. The fact is that BT won the contracts because it provided value for money. That has shown us how tough it is to build the necessary infrastructure, for this is an engineering project that requires infrastructure build-up.
I will give the Labour party some credit: it did provide an element of competition. It had a digital region in south Yorkshire which went to a provider other than BT, and that went bust. We have had to pick up the pieces, and have had to write off £50 million worth of taxpayers’ money. That is the kind of competition that Labour provided. Nearly 95% of Cornwall, where BT won the contract under the last Government, now has superfast broadband speeds. It is one of the best-connected regions in Europe, and Cornish companies are saying that they have better broadband than when they go to Silicon Valley.
The other issue is customer service. That involves maps, which pose another dilemma. On the one hand my hon. Friends say, “We want maps to show exactly where people are going,” but then the maps are published and BT or the local authority get on the ground and they say, “Actually, this is not as viable as we thought and we’re going to move somewhere else.” That leads to disappointment. There is a balance to be struck, but as far as I am aware now almost all regions are providing maps of up to seven-digit postcodes.
Contrary to impressions, I am not the spokesman for Openreach and I share, as a constituency MP, the frustrations that arise with customer service. I cannot inform the House what proportion of bad customer service and good customer service there is, but we all know that constituents who get good service from Openreach are not going to e-mail us while those who get terrible service will, quite rightly, e-mail us and expect us to sort that out. I hold my hand up and say that I have had my fair share of people complaining about Openreach customer service.
I also share the frustration about new housing developments, and as a result we have got the telecoms providers around the table with the major housing developers and we have put in place a system whereby new housing developments are flagged up to telecoms providers.
Finally, the biggest point Members mentioned is of course the last 5%. Again, I absolutely understand the frustration of my hon. Friends, and all I would say is, “Meet me halfway.” We have never as a Government pretended we were doing anything other than what we were doing. We said, “We have the money to get to 90% and we hope to do that by the end of 2015.” The Chancellor saw how well the programme was going so he gave us more money. We then had the money to go to 95% and we will get there by the end of 2017. Then, to give great credit to the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), we said, “We want to get to the last 5%, but the back-of-the-envelope cost is huge—literally in the billions of pounds—so let’s do some research before we go back to the Treasury to say what it is likely to cost.” That is why we set up the £10 million pilot projects: we wanted to get on the ground and see what new technologies could deliver superfast broadband speeds to that last 5%. We do not want to leave the last 5% behind; by definition they are the most difficult and most expensive to reach, but we will get there.
Mobile is another huge issue. We have the fastest roll-out of 4G coverage in the world and the fastest take-up, and I hope my hon. Friends will recognise the superb legally binding agreement to extend that, which the Secretary of State negotiated with the mobile operators. By the end of 2015 we will have reached 98% of premises with 4G from the main operators, but this groundbreaking deal will see the geographic coverage over the two years after that—2016 and 2017—spread to 90% of the country, and it is not going to cost the taxpayer a penny. We have already pioneered it with the mobile infrastructure projects because we have prepared—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda is misunderstanding annual licence fees. We have pioneered that with our mobile infrastructure projects because, again, we recognised that rural communities want mobile coverage, and we now have 100 sites ready to go.
It has been difficult, however, and my hon. Friends mentioned the difficulties we face with landlords, who see this as an excuse. In fact I was being told only today about a mast in the highlands that is damaged but which the company cannot get repaired because the landlords used its damage as an excuse to try to negotiate a higher rent. These are the kinds of issues mobile providers face up and down the country.
Finally, I commend the digital infrastructure document that we published today. We have been working in the last year to look at all the infrastructure networks the Government have a stake in, including the Network Rail signalling network, the emergency services network and JANET—the joint academic network for universities. We want to bring them together, to get that synergy that we have long called for.
I rest my case there, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend—I was in danger of being filibustered by my ministerial colleague. It is very good to know he shares our concerns about BT Openreach. That only raises the question of to whom he writes to express that anger.
We have had an excellent debate featuring many very powerful contributions, and it absolutely validates the decision of the Backbench Business Committee to give us this time. Many issues have been raised—economic, social and cultural, and affecting businesses, emergency services, utilities, health care, farmers, families young and old, and those learning, playing and working, all of whom depend on good mobile and broadband connectivity, and doubly so in rural areas.
We have heard about many serious concerns: not spots; the mobile infrastructure project; and Openreach. The point has been made again and again that broadband is not a luxury. I welcome the Government’s commitment; let them see it being pursued in future months and years.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered rural phone and broadband connectivity.