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Broadband Coverage

Volume 596: debated on Thursday 4 June 2015

I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that 97% of UK homes and businesses already have access to 2 megabit per second broadband, up from less than 90% in 2010. We hope that all homes will have it by the end of 2015.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his position. I had hoped that he and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills would form a dream team to tackle the nightmare of broadband coverage in this country, including in areas such as mine in Shoreditch. Can the Minister explain why millions of pounds of public money has gone in and yet, as we have heard from other hon. Members today, there is still a serious problem across the UK with what should be a 21st century utility?

I will suppress my personal hurt that the hon. Lady would prefer to deal with the Secretary of State rather than with me, although we have dealt with her issues in Shoreditch over many months. I am pleased, for example, that in her constituency many businesses are taking advantage of broadband vouchers, that Virgin Media is rolling out broadband and that BT is investing in broadband. Across the country, more than 2.5 million homes are covered by our very successful programme.

12. As the Minister knows, my constituency is sandwiched between Reading and Oxford and is only a stone’s throw from London, but there is great frustration at the impoverishment of the broadband coverage there. What is he doing to encourage improvement? (900106)

The other day I received an e-mail of congratulations from one of my hon. Friend’s constituents thanking me for the broadband that is being delivered to his constituency. As his next door neighbour, I know that the Oxfordshire broadband team is doing a fantastic job in rolling out broadband to thousands of homes across Oxfordshire.

It would be quite nice to have decent internet access from these Back Benches from time to time. We are talking about universal broadband in the country, but while that is important to many of our constituents, a large number of people still not do have any digital access, and with the closure of libraries and other facilities where there is digital access, a real social exclusion issue is developing in parts of the country. What more can he do to make sure that all our constituents have access to digital technology?

I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you have taken note of the hon. Gentleman’s comments about wi-fi in the Chamber. Digital inclusion will form part of our new digital implementation taskforce, and I am pleased that at the end of the last Parliament we set aside more than £7 million to put wi-fi in libraries. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need as many community spaces as possible where people can access the internet.

The Minister will have got the point from the last 10 minutes of exchanges that decent broadband speed is now a utility expected in every household, like running water and electricity. How effective does he think that the current programme is in filling in the gaps that, especially in rural areas, make it almost impossible for people to set up successful businesses where they are most needed?

As I have already said, I think that the programme has been successful. We have passed more than 2.5 million homes. By the end of 2015 we should have 90% superfast broadband coverage in the UK, which compares well with almost every other country, and puts us at the top of the tree of the big five in Europe.

Hon. Members are right; this is a problem. As I recall, there was a big underspend—£75 million—on the super-connected cities programme. Would the Minister like to reallocate that to speed up broadband roll-out? I offer him this idea free, gratis and for nothing.

I am extremely pleased to have a free, gratis and for nothing suggestion from the second candidate for the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee who has participated in questions this morning. I suspect that whoever wins that chairmanship will want to investigate broadband and will take note that the super-connected cities vouchers scheme has now taken off like a rocket, with 24,000 businesses now benefiting. In fact, we are going to spend the money by the end of this year.

While I rejoice for the people of Cheltenham—the town in which I was educated—who may be reaching 96% coverage by 2017, I have to worry about the people of my constituency and other parts of rural Essex where, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) has just said, there are now serious gaps. The way business is being done in this country now means that people are spending part of the time at home. That is not to mention the farming community; the Government insist on providing so much information through high-speed broadband that it is essential that we accelerate the programme.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says. The digital implementation committee will be looking at ways in which we can accelerate an extremely successful programme.