[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Sixth Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2013-14, Rural Communities, HC 602, and the Government response, HC 764; Seventh Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2014-15, Rural broadband and digital-only services, HC 834, and the Government response, HC 1149.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered superfast broadband roll-out.
Members who had the pleasure of being at Prime Minister’s questions earlier today will no doubt think that we have already considered superfast broadband roll-out, because it was by far the most popular subject for Members to ask the Prime Minister questions about.
What we are discussing today is by far the most important infrastructure programme that we will consider in our lifetime. There has been much discussion of new train lines. In fact, during the past five years the progress we have made on superfast broadband roll-out has been immense, and I will begin by covering some of the progress that we have made in the last few years.
I intentionally asked for this House to consider superfast broadband roll-out rather than simply the rural broadband programme, because we must acknowledge that there are serious problems in cities as well as in rural areas. Geographically, the rural broadband programme remains an enormous task, because it covers about 40% of the country, but I ask that we also consider today the huge numbers of people in cities who often have very slow connections.
Back in 2010, shortly after the formation of the coalition Government, the then Culture Secretary announced that we would have the best broadband in Europe by 2015. As a journalist covering that, I remember being convinced that, if we were to have that, we would have it only by fiddling the figures. In fact, it turns out that, measured against comparable nations such as Germany and France, Britain has indeed made incredible progress. More to the point, we have by far the most competitive marketplace in broadband, so our constituents pay a good price for the service that they get receive.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Public Accounts Committee has looked at this issue in detail, and I warn the Minister that we will no doubt look at it again. The hon. Gentleman talked about there being good competition, but does he agree that there are technology companies based in my constituency and around the country that would like to break into this market but find that there are barriers, partly because of how the rural broadband programme was rolled out? Does he also agree that the Minister needs to look seriously at the issue again?
I am delighted to hear that the PAC is interested in considering the issue again; I know that the Minister will agree with me on that. Of course, it is important that we are genuinely technology-neutral when it comes to establishing the best way of getting from 90% coverage to 95% and 100%.
That brings me to my second point, which is about where we are now and where we will be within the next five years or so, so that we can get from 95% coverage to 99%, and then perhaps up to 100%. I should begin by saying that in my own county of Lincolnshire, BT’s roll-out is not only ahead of schedule but £7 million under budget. I may not be the only person who expresses a view on BT in this debate, but I should say that there are some examples of areas where it has delivered the programme that it was asked to deliver. However, I suggest that where we have a challenge is when it comes to delivering the next stage of that roll-out.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, but I am concerned that what we are talking about is “up to 95%” and not “past 95%”. In other words, we are asking for something that will possibly be delivered, but it will probably not be delivered in quite a lot of constituencies.
I agree, and it is interesting to note that the target that we will have in Lincolnshire is 86%, which is obviously some way below 95%. In Herefordshire, I believe that the target that people will end up with is about 40% superfast coverage, so various rural counties have big issues.
My hon. Friend and I have the pleasure of representing the east of Lincolnshire, which stretches from the sweeping coastline across to the rich agricultural fens and the rolling hills of the wolds. The only cloud in the sky is the fact that BT tells me—with some pride, it seems—that overall coverage in Louth and Horncastle is 22%. Can we please remember that when we talk about 95% coverage, that figure is very much an aspiration in Louth and Horncastle?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend reminds me of the variation in BT’s performance even within Lincolnshire, and it is crucial that we discuss that variation today.
The next point to consider is that when we are talking about moving from 95% coverage to 99%, BT is by no means the only game in town. In other parts of the country, contracts have already been signed with companies such as Gigaclear, and I hope that Members who ask themselves how their own counties can get the best out of BT will look at those other contractors, which have been able to remind BT that there are other options available, because their existence sometimes seems to produce a marked improvement in BT’s performance.
The other issue affecting our move from 95% to 99% coverage remains the provision of 4G and subsequently 5G; I think that is the first time that they have been mentioned in this debate. Many Members have applied to speak in the debate, and the two questions that I would like them to ask themselves are, “How do we get the best out of the contracts that we have already?” and “How do we apply maximum pressure to best fund the roll-out, which will be expensive but more than worth while, to go from 95% to 99%?” I contend that a big part of that movement from 95% coverage to 99% should be not only fibre broadband but 4G and 5G, and there is also a place for satellite broadband.
I have a final point to make, which is that BT’s relationship with BT Openreach is currently being considered. I know that there is a range of views in the House about BT and Openreach. I urge only that the competition authorities seriously consider whether the best interests of the consumer are being served by BT’s current relationship with Openreach. I look forward to other people expressing different views during the debate.
I will close by saying that when we talk endlessly about the vital importance of infrastructure, it is often roads and railways that we emphasise, but when I talk to constituents it is almost always broadband that comes up as the most important infrastructure project for them, and they would like to see faster speeds, including in their own houses.
At the risk of turning this into a Lincolnshire-only debate—important and desirable as that would be—I must say that my hon. Friend is making a great case for the fact that, as we all know and as is shown by the number of attendees in this debate, broadband is now absolutely essential. At a parish council meeting last night, a parish councillor who is a constituent of mine told one of my district councillors that her children want to move from Wilsford to Sleaford, because there is better broadband in Sleaford. They have to link to the school computer for their homework, and they cannot get that link.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this issue is so important now because we simply cannot conduct our lives, and everything that we have to do to interact with Government and everybody else, without access to good broadband? That is why it is so important, not only in urban constituencies but in rural constituencies; indeed, it is particularly important for rural Britain.
My hon. and learned Friend pre-empts my final point. Superfast broadband is important not simply because it allows our constituents to watch all the stuff that is associated with broadband—all the entertainment from the BBC and all the gaming that we hear so much about—but because it allows the business of government to become so much more efficient, whether telehealth or rural farm payments.
I should like to fire a non-Lincolnshire shot. My hon. Friend has talked about the infrastructure. As one gets to London and Surrey, where there have been enormous efforts, it is other infrastructure—railways, roads and so on—that causes the difficulty. Has he noted that the BT contracts seem to be selective or blind-eyed, so that when it becomes difficult the company works around such infrastructure and we are left with islands and pockets, which should have been prevented in the contracts?
My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. We must, when we consider how state aid works, go to the areas that need the help, rather than subsidise a commercial roll-out that would take place none the less. The construction of such contracts is crucial, as is councils having the expertise to ensure that they get the best out of those contracts. I know that a number of colleagues want to mention that.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I should like to press him on urban “not spots”. Often, the most isolated areas have good broadband coverage where the commercial contracts have worked, but little bits are left, often in residential areas, and we cannot even get the commercial firms to be transparent about where those areas are, let alone do what is necessary. Does he agree that a lot more transparency and co-ordination is needed between operators, and often with local authorities?
I agree. I hope that the House will look forward a couple of months, when more detailed maps of phase 2 roll-outs will allow us to look into phase 3. That will give constituents some clarity, which we so urgently need, so that we can say to people, “We know that superfast broadband is finally coming to your area, but it won’t be here for another two or three years,” or however long. That will at least allow some communities to make up their own minds about whether they would like to put their own money into helping to jump the queue, or whether they are content with the wait.
The lack of clarity has been damaging. Our postbags are full because people often tell us that an update on a website saying, for example, “Your cabinet will be upgraded within the next three months,” has remained the same for the past six months or longer. That is deeply unhelpful to us, to councils that are trying to oversee the process and to BT itself. We should acknowledge that sometimes the companies have been their own worst enemies.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is always interesting when a journalist comes into the House and speaks with authority on a subject, which does not always happen.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned state aid, and there is an important point to be made in that regard. A big concern expressed by many of BT’s competitors is that, given that every contract was won by one player, there is no clear, transparent evidence that state aid was not used to advance BT’s original intentions rather than meet the real needs of the country.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for transparency, which is a key point. Many hon. Members have questioned, outside this debate, whether the process that we undertook with Broadband Delivery UK would necessarily be the way we went if we ran it again, or indeed if it is the way we should go when we think about further phases. That is also an important part of the debate, but the most important factor is that we should not allow our foot to be taken off the gas. We should not allow anyone to think for a moment that we are not all committed, on a cross-party basis, to getting Britain from 95% coverage to 99% and beyond, in the best possible way for both the taxpayer and our constituents.
Finally, before I allow many other hon. Members to speak, I add that what we have achieved over the past five years is remarkable. The risk is that in looking at the final 5% we will not only fail to close the gap between 95% and 99% but leave tiny “not spots” that will effectively be ruled out of serious coverage forever because they are not part of a co-ordinated, serious national programme. I hope that a serious case is made in this debate for acknowledging all that BT has done in trying to make its best practice standard practice across the country, and for its continued ongoing investment in the programme. I also hope that a serious case is made for no community being left behind.
Order. Before I call the next Member to speak, I have some guidance. There are 26 Members who have put in to speak today and just over 70 minutes to allocate to them. I know that Members will be mindful of each other, given that three Front-Bench spokesmen will speak later, in the final 30 minutes.
In addition, interventions should be short. Be mindful of the fact that, if you intervene more than once, you may slip down the list. I am not sure, but you may. I thank Mr Phillips, who has withdrawn his name having made an intervention, allowing other Members a little more time—notwithstanding his Lincolnshire roots.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman). He talked about rural issues not being the main issue, and I accept that. However, there is a double whammy for people on the periphery of a rural area. It is a great place to live, but businesses complain that it is not a great place to do business. I speak on behalf of businesses, including tourism, and on behalf of many others.
We are not a semi-detached area. I believe Ynys Môn is the heart of the British Isles. It is very close to Ireland and to England, and south of Scotland, so it is the centre of the British Isles. Business is in many ways London-centric, and Cardiff-centric in Wales, so we do feel left out.
I welcome the Government’s making progress, which has been mentioned, but I am afraid it is not sufficient in areas on the periphery of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned peripheral areas. The Faroe Islands, between Scotland and Iceland, are a peripheral area in Europe. Each and every house in the Faroe Islands has wired broadband: that is a choice their Government made and it has happened. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if we made such choices, we too could achieve that. In the meantime, 4G surely has a huge part to play in the inevitable “not spots” continuing to exist in the UK, although not in the Faroe Islands.
The hon. Gentleman makes the case well. The Faroe Islands is a great example. I have learnt something today. Where there is the political will, there is a way. In the 21st century, this should be a necessity for rural areas, not a luxury.
The Minister highlighted some good working practices in previous debates. The Welsh Assembly has a good working relationship with the UK Government and the European Union in delivering superfast broadband in Wales. That has been working well, to an extent.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way for the last time, because so many hon. Members want to speak.
Given how the relationship between the Welsh Government and BT has worked in Wales, is the hon. Gentleman proud that Wales has nine of the 20 worst performing constituencies in the country? Those constituencies have no broadband connectivity whatever, despite the fact that the Welsh Government levered in more than 50% of additional funding from Europe.
If I have the opportunity, I will come to some of the figures comparing the nations and areas within Wales, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—there are some poor performing areas in Wales, as there are in the rest of the United Kingdom. He is a close neighbour of mine and there are issues with the roll-out in his constituency, but I want to concentrate on the second-class service in peripheral areas, not only in broadband, but in mobile connectivity.
Broadband connectivity is essential for competition, enterprise and accessing public services. Limited and slow access to broadband in peripheral areas is against the Government’s policy of increasing online public service resources. They say we need that, but farmers in my area are always complaining that they have difficulty submitting their tax returns online, for example. The Government are encouraging them to do their tax online, but there are connectivity problems and I am sure that people are getting fined as a consequence of being late.
We have a great example. We heard about the Faroe Islands, but in the 20th century throughout the United Kingdom, in the whole of Great Britain and Ireland, the Post Office was able to deliver the same quality of phone line to every house, regardless of its location. The Minister will be pleased to hear that I am not advocating full renationalisation of all telecoms systems, but I am boldly making the point—[Interruption.] I know that the Minister is laughing at the first part of that, but he should not laugh at this: the market is letting areas of the United Kingdom down. That is why the debate is so important. We want to see the one nation that we all hear about—we are all agreed on it and we all use that terminology—but the United Kingdom is becoming two nations when it comes to telecommunications. The market is not working for parts of Britain.
The Minister has been in his post for some time, and I welcome him back to it, so he has heard the arguments, but I want to hear something different in his reply—I want to hear some answers. I do not want to hear him blame the devolved Administrations or local authority partnerships. I want to hear what the Government will do to close down black spots, which are not “not spots”; they are black spots, because they have little or no fast mobile or broadband coverage. Let us remember that peripheral areas pay more for their petrol, diesel, utilities, gas and electricity. They pay more for goods in many ways, and the wages are often lower than in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I was on the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change and, when talking about smart meters, I questioned the companies that have been delivering them on behalf of the Government. We have been discussing 95% coverage and, similarly, I can guess where the 5% of “not spots” will be from day one; they will be in peripheral areas. Smart meters are not in the Minister’s brief, but generally we should be starting pilot schemes in some of the rural and peripheral areas, then rolling out from there, rather than doing what the companies want and basing schemes on the number of people living in an area.
These are not left-wing or liberal views; they are the views of many ordinary constituents of mine, as well as of the Countryside Alliance, which has lobbied me, the National Farmers Union and the Farmers Union of Wales. The Minister should take note of not only what we are saying here on behalf of our constituents, but what such groups are saying collectively. They are making the case to improve commerce in their area.
The previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), talked tough with the mobile and broadband companies but failed to deliver. To be frank, he let them off the hook in the previous Parliament, and I do not see much improvement in speed and access. Goalposts are being moved by the Government. The former Economic Secretary was good at giving us updates in the House, but all he did was delay and push 2015 back to 2016 and then 2017. The mobile phone companies in particular are now repeating that mantra.
I realise that we are short of time, but slow speeds need to be improved quickly. To help the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) with some of the figures, parts of Wales are behind, with an average of 60% superfast broadband, including the large conurbations. Northern Ireland does exceptionally well, with 94% superfast broadband, so it can be delivered to peripheral areas where there is political will, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has proved that. England has 80% superfast broadband and Scotland has some 64%. We need to ensure superfast broadband throughout the UK quickly. I want to see BT and the Welsh Government working with the UK Government and the European Union to ensure that we have the funds to make that happen.
Many of the cabinets and exchanges in my constituency have the facility and the infrastructure, but we are talking about the last mile—although when it comes to rural areas, it is not one mile but many, and that is the problem. Many commercial companies do not see the value in rolling out from the cabinets and exchanges to households and businesses in my constituency. I speak for many people in peripheral and rural areas when I say that we need superfast broadband as a matter of urgency. We want the 21st-century access to goods that everyone else in the large towns and cities of the United Kingdom has.
I cannot comment on the content of the speech, but I can observe that it was nine minutes long, which I hope can be avoided in the next speech.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for securing the debate.
Lincolnshire is a hilly part of the world, but it is probably not quite as hilly as Devon. In the Blackdown hills, which are part of my constituency, we have huge problems in getting broadband. We talk about 95% broadband being delivered to the country, but we are bordering on 50% in my constituency and most of the Blackdown hills are not getting any broadband at all, with many villages being left out.
There is also a lack of transparency. The confidentiality clause in the last contract let by Devon and Somerset has led to huge problems. In the new contract that Devon and Somerset are being asked to sign, BT is asking for an extra £35 million and three more years to deliver the broadband, most of which should have been delivered by 2016. What sort of deal is that, I ask the Minister? It is no sort of deal whatever. We are being held to ransom for the simple reason that the waiving of the state aid rules lasts only to the end of this month, in a few days’ time. BT is holding a gun to the head of Devon and Somerset and saying, “If you don’t sign, you’ll be outside the state aid rules. What will happen then?” That is wrong.
BT is a very good company, but it is dominant in the marketplace. It is delivering good broadband in many parts of the country, but in others it is simply not delivering. What are we doing as a Government—what is the Minister doing—to stop that happening? I have every confidence in the Minister, who I have had many meetings with, but I want action—not warm words—to ensure that BT delivers.
All our constituents are being put at a disadvantage, and many farms and businesses will probably not get broadband until 2020 or beyond. In the 2020 election campaign, do hon. Members from any party in the House want to go around the villages that do not have any broadband and face the consequences? That is the reality, because all the time BT is rolling the programme further back—not further forward—and that is the real issue. I want a clear indication from the Minister that, if we are to have a dominant BT in the marketplace, which I have no problem with, I expect the Government and Ministers to ensure that a deal that can be signed is brought to Devon and Somerset.
The other issue for the Government is that Devon and Somerset have had some £100 million of taxpayers’ money from council and Government taxes for this; if BT does not deliver, the Government cannot deliver the 95% target by 2020, because of the size of the scheme—it is as simple as that. If Devon and Somerset are prepared to sign another contract with BT, I ask again that BT honour its commitments, deliver the broadband it has already said it will and put in the contributions it said it would make—we have yet to see the colour of BT’s money, which does not bode well.
My final point is that Dartmoor and Exmoor have a new arrangement with a company that is delivering the scheme by wi-fi; that seems to be getting under way very quickly. BT has said it has looked at new technologies, but is still rolling out fibre-optic cables and cabinets. If a place is a long way from the cabinet, broadband costs a fortune and may not even be put in. Why is BT not using new technologies? I would like the Minister to answer that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this debate.
I will be brief, as the main themes have been well aired already. I want to raise specifically with the Minister the issue of two areas in my constituency that are being appallingly served by BT, Askham and Kirkby-in-Furness. I have been deluged by complaints from constituents who have just about managed to get internet access to email me in advance of the debate, because they knew I intended to speak today.
The situation in Askham concerns a particular cabinet. It is the sort of case that will be familiar to many hon. Members present—indeed, the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness gave a good account of how BT seems to shift the goalposts. People in Askham were promised a cabinet. They were then given the excuse that the road around the cabinet site was eroded; if the Minister wants to come and look at the cabinet—I am sure that will be high up on his to-do list at the start of the new Parliament—he will see that that excuse is a nonsense. They were then given a second excuse, namely that there was no land on which the new cabinet could be sited that was not private. But anyone looking at the site would see that those excuses do not hold water. Hundreds of people in Askham are tearing their hair out.
The situation is similar in Kirkby. The service is going significantly backwards and BT has not given a date by which it will be fixed. I do not like having to name and shame a company for poor service, but I am afraid that is what we have to do in Parliament, given BT’s intransigence on this.
Might it be a solution to have a specific fund for cabinets? Once the network is laid out, the problem will be getting cabinets that can be spurs off the network to local communities.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting suggestion and one that the Minister may want to consider, but as far as I am concerned—and as far as my constituents are concerned—a promise was made by Government to deliver superfast broadband and another was made by BT to facilitate that, and we should hold both to account, whether or not a separate fund for cabinets is created.
I do not like having to raise this issue in Parliament, but we are going to keep banging on about this to BT until it fixes the issue. I hope the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance that the Government will intervene, if necessary, to sort the problem out.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing the debate. I suspect he will not speak to such a full Chamber for much of his first term in Parliament. The attendance today reflects the importance attached to this issue by all hon. Members.
It may not have escaped my hon. Friend’s notice that I do not have the most rural of constituencies, but there are also significant issues with superfast broadband in urban areas. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) is well aware of that, as it is something we addressed in the last Parliament.
I believe that I know what the right hon. Gentleman is going to say. In advance of his speech, may I say that, despite the fact that he sits on the Government side of the Chamber, I am likely to agree with everything he says on behalf of my constituents in Islington South and, in particular, Tech City?
Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman continues, I will just remind the hon. Lady that she has only just arrived in the Chamber, so did not hear my earlier comments about the number of interventions and their brevity. I hope next time she will arrive a little earlier in order to hear the Chair’s remarks.
I hope that my intervention was short enough, Mr Pritchard.
London councils will have a chance to have their say as well. I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words. She tempts me to start a different speech—there are various things I should love to say today if she is going to be agreeing with every word.
One of the most significant delays in connecting a business or resident to broadband infrastructure, even in the heart of London, is the time taken to negotiate the legal permissions that are needed to allow that infrastructure to cross the public highway or to take it into a building. That is particularly the case in built-up areas. It can take some 18 months for the parties to conclude those negotiations; the usual period is about eight months. During that time, of course, a broadband provider will not be able to supply the building.
To speed up the process, the City of London corporation is leading a group of central London boroughs—including Islington and Hackney—known as Central London Forward in a project to produce a standardised agreement for permission to install broadband infrastructure. I am pleased to say that Westminster City Council, my other local authority, is also a main leader on the project. The City and Westminster councils have invited all the key players to participate, from broadband providers through the great estates in the west end to major developers across London.
The product of all that activity will be a standardised agreement known as a wayleave, which all parties will be able to use as a template for their negotiations. I have no doubt that such a standardised agreement will speed up connections to broadband infrastructure, because parties will not have to start their negotiations from scratch. The Minister has played a leading role in the process, and I thank him for helping to contact the key parties and for championing activities to improve broadband connectivity.
Although the Minister can happily say that Greater London compares favourably with other world cities, with 88% coverage, that figure is not reflected in what is the economic heart of the capital, and indeed the country. It is not just my constituents who are missing out but the entire UK economy, and he will appreciate just how important it is that digital infrastructure in central London does not fall behind that of rival global cities.
Locally, BT’s approach seems to be based on a belief that there is insufficient demand to invest further. I share some of the concerns that have already been raised about that. As well as the more distant rural parts of this United Kingdom, large swathes of urban areas—with important small and medium-sized enterprises—are poorly served, and are restricted to woefully outdated copper broadband. In addition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, the European Commission is preventing the Government from subsidising the roll-out of superfast broadband in inner cities and beyond. Perversely, that means that remote villages sometimes have better broadband connections than those available in my constituency, which contains the political, business, cultural and technological heart of the UK.
There has been a significant market failure. I may not express this quite as robustly as it was put earlier, but I will be interested to learn what the Minister is doing to address the problem. I accept that it requires co-operation with internet service providers, Ofcom and the European Commission, but it is time we stepped up to the plate. Although I hope we will not have such a well-attended debate in future, simply because I hope many of the problems will have been solved, I look forward to hearing the contributions of hon. Members from both sides of the House today. It is beholden on the Minister to recognise that this is a very real problem, not just for outlying rural areas but for the heart of our cities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
I am here today—I am sure it is the same for many other hon. Members—because access to decent broadband is extremely important to individuals and to businesses in my constituency. More and more business transactions are now taking place online. In rural areas such as my constituency in Cumbria, banks are closing branches, making broadband more important as a way for people to be able access banking. Children and students are also encouraged to use online learning resources, which can be difficult. There is talk about getting access to doctors through Skype in Cumbria, but of course we cannot do that without decent broadband. I could go on.
Connecting Cumbria is managing the roll-out of superfast broadband in Cumbria. It has delivered phase 1 successfully, but we are moving on to phase 2 and, I hope, phase 3. The difficult geography of Cumbria makes that extremely challenging. I hope that the Government will continue to treat roll-out in rural areas as a priority for funding. The mere fact that outlying areas are considered hard to reach should not mean that they are left behind.
I declare a personal interest, as I live in a rural part of Cumbria with a diabolical broadband speed. I often struggle to open emails, and give up. The problem is not just speed but consistency. It is hugely frustrating when a broadband connection keeps dropping in and out. I avoid doing my banking online at home, because I worry about the security issues if the connection drops out when I am logged in at my bank. Most days I have to jog up and down the stairs a few times, because the router is upstairs and I have to switch it on and off to try to get connected. It drives me mad.
I fully understand the frustrations of constituents with similar problems who have got in touch with me about broadband—very many of them, despite the fact that I have not been an MP very long. A particular bugbear is the fact that many services and companies are switching to online access only. Will the Minister consider whether rural communities’ access to reliable broadband can be assessed before the decision is made to switch a service to online access only?
I have some recent relevant personal experience with the Rural Payments Agency. Last year we completed our forms on paper, but this year my husband and I were told we had to do it online. We had the most ridiculous Saturday afternoon trying to do that. Not only did that mean battling with the poor internet speed but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) mentioned, our mobile signal is not good, and we were told to input a text code to the system. I was running around the garden with the phone trying to get the code, so I could shout it to my husband before the five minutes were up and he could input it. That is absurd. It is a ridiculous way to carry on.
I welcome the roll-out of superfast broadband, which is incredibly important to my constituency. Rural areas, as well as the more urban ones that have been described today, must not be disadvantaged. The Government must not assume that there is decent access when they make services online only. As the roll-out continues, will they please take connectivity into account?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing the debate. It is pretty clear from the large attendance that the issue features strongly in our mailbags and inboxes—when people can email us at all.
It would be incredibly easy to knock BT as effectively a monopoly supplier, but that would be too easy a goal. I represent a rural seat, and I am very grateful for the way senior BT executives have made themselves available to come here for meetings to discuss the future and the service. Only 43% of North Dorset is covered by superfast broadband. That might seem to be the Elysian fields to some hon. Members, but in my judgment 43% is not particularly good. I would like the Minister to consider three key points. One is the huge amount of irritation caused by descoping, which is totally bogus in my opinion. I do not think that the contractor—in this case BT—should be allowed to descope areas that it has previously included in its submissions. I am thinking of Durweston and Stourpaine, which are the Blandford 8 cabinet box number in my constituency, and Motcombe and Bourton, which are served by Shaftesbury 15 and 16. Those have suddenly been dropped out, because they appeared either too difficult or too expensive. The rules should not have allowed the possibility for such areas, and indeed many others, to be dropped out of the scope of the contract.
Third parties are also, as I understand it, holding up delivery. I understand that some problems have arisen with regard to wayleaves from the Forestry Commission and in particular, in my constituency, the Crown Estate. If the Minister used his good offices to bring pressure on to those and other executive agencies of the Crown that would be enormously helpful.
We also know, I think, that BT was incredibly heavy-handed in the bidding process. I know from my previous experience as a councillor in Oxfordshire that there was quite a lot of arm twisting by BT at the county council to go totally with BT—otherwise it would not play ball—even though others were trying to come in and fill the gaps. I am sad to say that was also the experience in North Dorset where a community-led initiative, Trailway, wanted to fill the gap, but BT told Dorset County Council clearly that if it supported the group or gave it any cause for hope, BT would walk away from delivery for the whole county. In what, to use the old term, we might call the big society, such community and rural groups, which are well known for their self-sufficiency, resource and ingenuity, are exactly the people we should champion.
That is done and we are where we are, but I ask the Minister to consider putting on pressure in any further discussions and negotiations with BT, so that where it has decided not to fill in the gap, black hole or whatever we care to call it, it must be able to provide all the relevant data and information to community groups and other providers, such as Wessex Internet in my constituency, who want to fill the gap.
Does my hon. Friend and neighbour agree that the issue is one of the most important for Dorset infrastructure, along with road and rail? It relates to the whole of Dorset—east Dorset, Purbeck and Poole, and we are making the argument for businesses, tourists and residents alike.
Prescience about what we might say in our speeches is not restricted to the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), because my hon. Friend takes me neatly on to my next point. It is worth while reminding a large company such as BT— I have little or no doubt that it will be listening to the debate with keen interest—that such macrobusinesses have the future of microbusinesses in their hands.
However, it is not just a question of business. Other hon. Members have talked about the importance of broadband connection to schools and colleges. There is a primary school in my constituency, Spetisbury, that has no access to broadband at all, and none in sight. Other hon. Members have spoken about the problems for agriculture. Farmers are increasingly asked to make submissions online, but there are swathes of the Blackmore vale where people might as well try to write on vellum with a quill, for the speed they can manage on the internet. In North Dorset we often call it the superfast bridle path.
Businesses such as Goldhill Organics, an online business in my constituency, and an award-winning maze designer in Durweston, are all significantly held back from growth and the creation of jobs—from bringing people back to paying tax and getting them off the dole queue. That is all fundamentally constrained by an inability to get access in a rapid and reliable way to what I think we would all now agree is effectively a basic utility.
Tourism and events in a rural area are absolutely key. I am thinking of pubs with letting rooms, such as the Talbot in my own village of Iwerne Minster. Again, they are held back from growing their business and seeing a return on their investment. BT has done much and is to be congratulated. We are leading the European league table, but please let us not sacrifice the 5%; please let us not forget the rural areas. In closing, I press again the three key points that I made to the Minister in opening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on initiating this very important debate. You will be relieved to hear, Mr Pritchard, that my carefully crafted, 10-minute speech will be jettisoned and my comments compacted into two or three minutes, I hope.
First, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the great progress that has been made. An additional 2.5 million homes and businesses were linked up to superfast broadband as of May. However, there has been much talk of the last 5% and peripheral areas, and I want to talk about the peripheral area that I represent. My comments will be very much in the spirit of those from the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who talked about his experiences there.
Ceredigion ranks 646th out of the 650 constituencies for internet speed. Superfast broadband is available to 12% of my constituency, ranking it 639th out of the 650. When we reflect on phase 3 of the roll-out, I would like to know from the Minister what timetable we are now operating, because, like other hon. Members, I have many impatient businesses and householders in my constituency. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which I have to say after the great speech earlier is now in the incredibly safe hands of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)—I say that as a former coalition Member, but I genuinely mean it—said in February that it wanted a timescale for the final roll-out of phase 3, and we anticipate a response from the Minister on that. I would also be interested to find out the outcome of the research and trials that have been taking place as part of phase 3. This is about the necessity of those new technologies to get to the scattered communities that make up the bulk of my constituency.
The critical issue for me is businesses and the development of a rural economy. Reliable internet access has been identified by 94% of small businesses as essential. Ofcom recently called for lower prices for high-speed business lines, which will be welcome news to many of my constituents —at least, the few who can access high speed—but of course the technology needs to be available in the first place. Many of my local businesses genuinely struggle. Two weeks ago, the Gomer Press, a historic printing firm and a growing business in Llandysul in the south of Ceredigion, approached me with its genuine concerns that the speeds that it is receiving with BT are harming its business, as it struggles to receive the files that are necessary to undertake the printing work required of it.
The hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) talked about tourism. That is a growing sector in west Wales. I commend to the Minister the Conrah hotel in my constituency, which is a good, four-star hotel. If he comes to west Wales, he should come to that hotel. Its owner, Mr Hughes, tells me that although his broadband is provided by BT, the service is so shockingly bad that most of his clientele are reluctant to come back because of the inadequate broadband. We are letting down key businesses in rural, peripheral areas—key businesses that have a huge impact.
Let me reflect on some other issues. Our constituents are increasingly required to undertake business online. A constituent wrote to me last week about the new Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency regulations for a digital counterpart driving licence. How can that be possible in an area where people will not be able to access the digital component? Other hon. Members have mentioned the members of the farming community who come to us with genuine concerns that they cannot undertake what is required of them, such as the reporting of cattle movements to the British Cattle Movement Service, online completion of single farm payment forms and the checking of market prices. Those are just some of the problems that farmers face. In addition, small businesses have to undertake electronic verification of VAT returns. One constituent was required to register his tax returns and he was fined because he was unable to do so. We managed to get the money back for him. He was told that he could register a paper submission, but when the note came back, the farmer was also told that next time he should go down to the local library, where there would be a broadband connection, to register his tax returns. I would challenge any Member of the House to go to one of the marts in my constituency and tell a farmer to go and register his tax returns online—they would get a spirited response.
This is a matter of necessity and of urgency. I am following your stipulation about time, Mr Pritchard, but we need some immediate action on the matter.
Before making my remarks, I must declare an interest. My husband is director of policy at the broadband provider Sky.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing the debate so soon after becoming a Member. Broadband is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. For my local small businesses, for my farming community and for local families at home, access to the internet and all that it has to offer is a core requirement of day-to-day life. However, in many places—particularly in rural areas, such as my constituency of Wealden—people have to contend with a limited choice of service providers, slow speeds, regular service blackouts and general unreliability. My Wealden constituents should not have to put up with that in 2015.
I have received a number of complaints from constituents about their broadband services, and they demonstrate how lives can be blighted by broadband difficulties. I will share just two examples. A local mum who runs her own business contacted me about a service blackout that left her without an internet connection for 19 days. Can you imagine, Mr Pritchard, trying to run a business without the internet for 19 days?
However, the problem will not be solved by a roll-out of superfast broadband in the short term, because the problem is with the access network—something that is taken for granted by those pining for an upgrade to the superfast network, but that some of my constituents can only dream of. Any superfast roll-out cannot be at the expense of investment in the access network.
Another constituent, whose house is connected to the Ripe exchange, which is not enabled for fibre service, is in the dark over any possible upgrade. BT’s website shows that his area is in line for one within six months, but that notice has been on the website for 12 months already. My constituent has not been given a provisional timetable by BT, BDUK or the local council detailing when the negotiations will be brought to a conclusion, never mind when any upgrade might finally happen. BT and BDUK must become much more transparent.
I commend to my hon. Friend North Lincolnshire Council, which has done an amazing job of ensuring that at every step of the way residents know what happens. As a result, take-up is way in excess of what was expected. That is in stark contrast to my other local council, East Riding of Yorkshire, where communication with the public has been woeful at times. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This can be done, if local authorities and BT have the desire to do it—and it should be done, so that residents know when they will get their upgrade.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that example.
Beyond the impact on businesses, there is an impact on older people. I am pleased to be the new co-chair of the all-party group for ageing and older people. Addressing ageing and loneliness is a priority of mine. The speed at which technology is changing is frightening for the best of us, but for older people it can be truly isolating. Ensuring that they have access to the internet is not just an economic or technological issue, but a social care issue. We cannot let anyone be left behind or left out.
This and the previous Government have taken encouraging steps with respect to broadband provision. The £1.7 billion being invested is welcome, as is the fact that, according to the Countryside Alliance, 90% of premises will be connected by early 2016. My concern is that the other 10% should not be left behind and that during the roll-out of superfast broadband, the responsibility to deliver basic broadband to those who fall beyond the limits of the BDUK project should not be overlooked.
My hon. Friend and I are constituency neighbours, sharing a border as we do. Given that 15% of our local residents are self-employed and more than half of them work for small firms, does she agree that this is even more of an issue for us in East Sussex and that it is important that the Government get it right?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Most—90%—of my local businesses employ fewer than 10 people, and they tend to be run out of people’s own homes, so having rural broadband, whether the speed is slow or fast, is absolutely imperative. I thank my hon. Friend.
The Government predict that, by 2017, 95% of premises will benefit from speeds of more than 24 megabits; some of my constituents are asking for just 2 megabits, and they are not even getting that. The broadband connection voucher scheme, which allows businesses a grant of up to £3,000 for better and faster broadband, is also welcome, but it does not help my constituents one little bit; it is, for the moment, limited to businesses located within a certain distance of the 50 cities benefiting from the scheme. I hope the Government will consider expanding the scheme’s horizons and work to support other businesses.
Order. I now have to call the Front-Bench spokespeople.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for securing this fascinating debate on an issue that affects everyone in this Chamber—we must ensure that we have effective broadband. I am particularly drawn to the comments of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) about the difficulties he faces in his rural constituency, which I share in Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) spoke about 4G and 5G filling the gaps where we cannot get fibre broadband, which is one of the big problems in rural areas. We do not even get a 2G signal in large parts of my Eddisbury constituency. That option is simply not available because of the failure of the mobile companies to act in concert.
I agree with the hon. Lady. When we talk about the kinds of solution that we need to deliver in rural areas, we cannot consider broadband in isolation. We also need to consider the opportunities that mobile telephony would provide. She is right that it is not only the failure of broadband; it is also the failure of mobile connectivity. I met members of my business community in Lochaber and Fort William last week, and they add weight to that. There are four significant employers. Marine Harvest, for example, is a fish farming business that has great difficulty in connecting at any level with its fish farms around the constituency, which adds costs to the business. The same is true of Ferguson, a transport company, which has the additional cost of having to buy satellite phones so that it can connect with its drivers. That is the kind of cost of being in more disadvantaged parts of the country that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn was talking about. We need cross-party work. There will be opportunities when 5G is introduced in 2016, and we need to ensure that there is a competitive advantage for rural areas by ensuring that rural communities are at the front of the queue, not at the back.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about other methods and technologies, and many villages have asked me whether BT will consider fibre to the remote node options, which can join small groups of, say, 30 properties to a smaller cabinet. That method is being trialled, but BT will not put it into practice. I ask the Minister whether we can try some other methods.
I was going to come on to that, because there is clearly an issue, particularly in rural areas, with the distances from cabinets, which result in the degradation of broadband speeds. We talk about the delivery of superfast broadband, but the reality is that it is not superfast, so nodes, satellites and other such things must be considered in rural areas if we are determined to get it right.
Time is marching on, so I will omit many of the remarks that I was going to make. John Swinney, a colleague of mine in the Scottish Parliament, wrote to the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy in March 2015 calling for the introduction of a universal service obligation for broadband that would ensure that everyone in Scotland, and elsewhere in the UK, could access affordable high-speed broadband. The UK has a telecoms universal service obligation, which entitles every property in the UK to a telephone line, but it contains no meaningful provision for broadband, which it should. A broadband universal service obligation, working alongside significant Scottish Government investment, would help to address the digital divide and ensure that everyone in Scotland could access broadband services, regardless of where they lived.
All, regardless of location, deserve to benefit from the opportunities of connectivity. A recent report by the Boston Consulting Group stated that internet-related activity in the UK accounted for 8.3% of GDP in 2010, and it forecasts that that will increase to 12.4% by 2016. Data traffic is exploding worldwide, growing at a compound rate of 23%. To be able to compete, it is clear that our connectivity infrastructure has to be fit for purpose. Many UK cities such as Peterborough, York and Coventry, and Aberdeen and Edinburgh in Scotland, are seeing the development of fibre rings that will deliver speeds of up to 1 gigabit. The leader of Peterborough City Council stated that the development is the most important event in Peterborough since the arrival of the railway. I tend to agree, and I welcome the opportunity of superfast broadband from which businesses and consumers will benefit in those cities, but it raises the challenge of ensuring that we deliver appropriate connectivity in rural areas.
My SNP colleagues from rural constituencies and I are looking forward to working with hon. Members from other parties who face the same challenges as we do. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report on rural broadband and digital-only services, which was published in January 2015, graphically pointed to the challenges and opportunities to be met. The last sentence of the summary states:
“It is vital that the last premises in the UK to have access to basic and superfast broadband are treated just as well as the first premises and are not left behind or forgotten.”
There are particular challenges with the incumbent technology of fibre to the cabinet, in which the ultimate connection is by copper wire, and consequently we have the degradation of broadband speeds. As the report states:
“The fact that Fibre to the Cabinet is not a suitable solution in every circumstance or every community means that alternative solutions, such as wider satellite coverage or Fibre to the Remote Node, are necessary. Alternative solutions are required not only to ensure that the current commitments of basic and superfast broadband are met but also to ensure that the infrastructure being deployed is future proof and able to meet demands for increasing broadband speeds.”
It is in that context that the plans for next-generation capabilities, particularly 5G, are critical. We need to debate how effective mobile coverage in rural areas, and technologies such as 5G, could allow us to deliver efficient and effective broadband capabilities. The opportunities that the connected cities will have mean that the Government have to consider how we create competitive opportunities in rural areas. My party and I welcome many of the improvements.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that inviting in other technology providers is an option, albeit one that could prejudice access to Government money by showing that there is no market failure? That would leave a legacy of high costs for individuals in the provision of broadband.
That is a reasonable point. In the context of what we did in highland, rural and urban areas of Scotland, we suffered from the fact that there was no potential provider other than BT. We need to ensure that there are people who can provide such services at the right cost, whether in Scotland or in the rest of the UK.
My party and I welcome many of the improvements that are being delivered today in both urban and rural areas of the UK. However, more has to be done so that everyone can share in the opportunities that superfast broadband can deliver.
As you know, Mr Pritchard, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. I have never quite worked out which it is with you. [Interruption.] I missed that, I am glad to say.
Order. I think the shadow Minister has said enough. I call the Minister—[Laughter.] No, I’m kidding.
Fortunately, Mr Pritchard, you cannot call a Division in this Chamber, so we cannot put that to the test.
It is a great delight to take part in this debate, and it is also a great delight to see the Chamber so full, which is unusual. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) has chosen the right subject, on which I congratulate him. I look forward to hearing a great deal more from him. I hope he will be a little less opaque about BT and Openreach in future. He is no longer a journalist, and he is allowed to say what he thinks, even if Whips are listening in. An awful lot of Members now have significant concerns and will be carefully watching Ofcom’s inquiry into the roll-out and the relationship between BT and Openreach. We want to ensure fair and open competition, but we do not want to dismantle a company for the sake of some kind of prejudice.
The hon. Gentleman referred to this being the most important infrastructure roll-out in his lifetime. I hope he will have a long and fruitful life, and who knows what the future may bring? In my constituency, the roll-out of mobile has been complicated and difficult. I know that because when I wrote a letter demanding that Tony Blair stand down as Prime Minister, fortunately I had no mobile coverage in my house, so no journalists were able to get me for at least four days.
The point has been well made by many hon. Members that peripheral economies come in many different shapes and sizes. All too often, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has said, the infrastructure problems with broadband also relate to physical access, roads, buses, transport and everything else. [Interruption.] I cannot hear what the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) is saying.
I am not sure what devolution has to do with this particular issue. [Interruption.] If the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy wants to make a contribution, I am sure he might catch your eye later, Mr Pritchard, if I sit down. [Laughter.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn made several points and said that the market is not working— many hon. Members have rightly expressed concern about how we have assessed state aid and market failure—and I am not sure that it has really delivered the significant outcomes that we would all like to have been achieved for the significant amount of money that the Government have put in.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) gave what I can only describe as a Julius Caesar speech, as its basic tenor was, “I come to bury Vaizey, not to praise him.” He made his points better than I can, so I will not make them again.
Throughout the previous Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) consistently made points about how his constituents are affected, and he was absolutely right to do so. It is good that he can now get emails on the matter, even if many in his constituency still find it difficult to get superfast broadband.
The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field)—I note that most constituencies have two names in them; few are as concise as Rhondda, unlike the Member for Rhondda—made the important point that the issue is not only about rural constituencies. Some of the most intractable problems relate to cities. For instance, all the cabling on the south bank of the Thames runs in and out of the side of the river, which makes for very difficult contention ratios along long copper wires. That has still not been resolved in many cases, so he is absolutely right.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
We want to hear from the Minister fairly soon, so I am tempted to try to stop sooner—oh, all right, the hon. Gentleman is very beguiling.
The hon. Gentleman is characteristically generous and courteous in giving way. Some hon. Members have rightly ensured that urban broadband has not been neglected in this debate. Nevertheless, does he agree that it is vital to retain a focus and determination to prioritise coverage in villages such as Seagrave and Thrussington in my constituency and in rural “not spots”?
Since the Rhondda is often described as semi-rural or semi-urban, I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman and—sitting next to him—the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, which is having one’s cake and eating it. However, the points are well made. In the end, universality is what we are trying to achieve, which is what we are not achieving as yet.
The hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) made a worrying point about BT’s aggressive bidding process. I hope that BT will have heard it. I am sure it will: there is probably someone from BT sitting in the Public Gallery, or watching on TV or via broadband. Who knows—perhaps they have superfast. But the hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to talk about filling in the gap.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) has one of the worst sets of problems of all 646 constituencies. His points are well made and I hope the Minister will be able to answer them. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) is a new colleague who, like many others, is already raising matters of significant concern to her constituents. I am sure she will continue to do so, and we hope to hear from the Minister on them. The hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) made important points about the access network. Since we politicians are not necessarily experts in every aspect of technology, we sometimes get focused on broadband speeds to the detriment of other aspects of competition that also affect the subject.
I was slightly nervous about an SNP Member sitting behind me—at my back, as it were: the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). I kept thinking of Andrew Marvell and “always at my back I hear the SNP horribly near”. However, the hon. Gentleman made some important points. If he can act as my PPS, that will be very helpful in these debates.
We all agree on the centrality of superfast broadband. That is absolutely clear. For home entertainment, many people now watch television via broadband, including—ironically enough, since much of this is being funded out of the licence fee—the BBC iPlayer. Also, children might be upstairs watching television programmes, playing audio-visual games on tablets, using Spotify and so on. The NHS relies on broadband not only for the booking of appointments, but for passing notes from doctors to hospitals and for the examination of X-rays, often in other parts of the world. Schools and children being able to do their homework have already been referred to. Of course, increasingly, the Department for Work and Pensions wants to move to a model where everything is done on the internet, which will require superfast broadband and reliable connections.
The creative industries now represent one in 12 jobs in this country. We can add value and guarantee our economic future by supporting our creative industries. Superfast broadband with speeds of at least 24 megabits per second, and I suspect considerably more in future, is going to be important to our economic future. It is in a sense a utility as important and as essential as electricity.
We all agree that some significant progress has been made, but the symbolic fact that so many Members from all political parties are here on behalf of our constituents is an indication to the Minister that not enough progress has been made. Phase one and phase two of the project aim to get to 95% of all premises by 2017. I originally thought that it would be the beginning of 2017. Since the Government had originally said it would be by May 2015, that was a legitimate expectation, but the Government are now talking about the end of 2017 for that target to be met.
The hon. Member for Eddisbury referred to the fact that some people still cannot even get the 2 megabits per second. That is a dramatic problem for people running the most basic of businesses that have to relate to the wider world, because everybody has at least a website and some means of getting in touch with a business online.
Our original target of 2012 has not been met, and the Government bear a measure of responsibility for that. I notice that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness referred to Prime Minister’s questions. I have heard the Prime Minister referring to the mobile infrastructure project many times. Some £150 million is devoted to it. It is meant to get to 60,000 properties, but, so far, it has got to just 1% of those in three years. so I think that the hands-off approach has not been suitable.
Order. The Standing Orders for Westminster Hall debates have changed. If Members have not seen them, I encourage them to read them. Matt Warman is entitled to wind up the debate, subject to the Minister allowing time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I say that to all the Chairmen, but in your case I really mean it. You have your own experience of the broadband roll-out programme, because your Labour council refused to take part in the phase 1 programme; having seen how successful phase 1 has been, it has now, I gather, set up to take part in phase 2. That is down explicitly to the actions of the brilliant Conservative MPs in the area, who persuaded the Labour council to come on board the programme and connect 8,000 premises that otherwise would not have been connected.
I do not know whether to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this debate, but I should thank him for bringing so many hon. Friends and colleagues here to support me this afternoon on a complex and difficult programme. I certainly thank him for the email he circulated earlier today:
“You may be interested to know that in my own county of Lincolnshire, BT’s rollout is ahead of schedule and well under budget.”
I think that that is true in many areas.
I shall give a brief history of time on behalf of my hon. Friends. Everyone knows that when we came into government, we found that the previous Labour Government did not have a plan to help get broadband out. They talked about a 2 megabit commitment for the end of 2012, but they had not put anything in place for that. My right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), when he was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, rightly decided that we had to push further and go for superfast broadband from the get-go. He knew full well that, if we had rolled out 2 megabits, I might have been able to stand up in this Chamber and say that we had achieved that, but all hon. Members would be screaming for superfast broadband. He made the right decision.
We set it out that phase 1 would cover 90% of UK premises and on many occasions I had to appear in front of the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), the then Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, following various National Audit Office reports, and hear that we would not make that target. Indeed, I recall that some journalists in the sector thought that the target was too stretching and could not be achieved. However, lo and behold, by the end of 2015—or early-2016 at the latest—we will have reached it. In fact, we will shortly announce that we have exceeded 3 million premises, as the figures are increasing by 40,000 premises a week.
This is a complex engineering job that does not involve simply turning up at a doorstep and flicking a switch. An expensive cabinet, which needs power, needs to be put in and then it needs fibre run from it back to the exchange. All that requires highways, planning and power.
The Minister will also be aware that the Public Accounts Committee called for local government and BT to make further information available—including, critically, information about the speed of service. Is he content that his Government have done that?
If someone goes to gosuperfast, a website provided by the Government, they can type in their postcode and find out whether they have access to BT Openreach, which gives access to Sky, TalkTalk and other over-the-top providers—or, indeed, access to Virgin Media. It is important to remember that this is an engineering project and some of the tasks achieved, such as getting fibre to the Scilly Isles, rank among the most complex engineering phases.
I will not go through every single speech—they were all brilliant, but there were a lot of them. Let me take two quick examples. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) talked about the need for rural areas to come first, but his area is a classic example for why the scheme matters. Precisely no premises in his constituency were due to get commercial superfast broadband from BT or any of the rivals that often say that they could do the job better because such investment is not economic. However, 93% of his constituents will get superfast broadband under the scheme, including those—[Interruption.] That is what is being delivered under the scheme. This is what we are up against: when superfast broadband is delivered to Opposition Members, they do not want to give us any credit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) spoke with great passion and asked what I was doing to help him. This morning, I had another meeting with BDUK to discuss getting the contract signed for connecting Devon and Somerset and I have such meetings all the time to get local authorities together with BT. We have already provided £110 million for Devon and Somerset. We have passed 143,000 premises and we are due to pass 300,000.
I recognise the huge improvements that have been made and the manifesto commitment to roll out ultrafast broadband to premises as soon as possible. However, are we being ambitious enough? Australia will be delivering 100 megabit broadband to 93% of premises by 2021, Finland will deliver that by 2015 and South Korea will deliver 1 gigabit by 2017. According to a London School of Economics report, the Government’s investment—
I have got my hon. Friend’s point; I am running out of time. We are being ambitious enough for him because we support him. That is why 100% of Torbay will get superfast broadband under our scheme—[Interruption.] Sorry, I got the wrong name—I heard the Chairman give the wrong name!
Before the Minister completes his comments, I should say that there has been a lot of talk about roll-out but not so much about take-up. Will he refer to the fact that, in parts of Wales, take-up of this fantastic scheme is still in the low-20s? Everyone seems to think that that is someone else’s problem, so will he clear that up?
I will. Take-up is extremely important and the good thing is that take-up brings money back into the scheme. For example, the money set aside to get superfast broadband to Cornwall was due to get coverage to 80%, but because of high take-up we have reached 95%.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake)—I got his constituency spectacularly wrong; I hope he will forgive me—mentioned other jurisdictions. He will be pleased to know that the previous Australian Government lost the election because their broadband plan was so poor. If he believes that those Australian plans will happen, he will have to think again. They are busily trying to revise their programme because it was far too expensive and due to deliver far too late.
All my hon. Friends will have the note from the Library that puts us first in almost every category in the big five in the EU. Analysis published today by Enders Analysis again puts us top on access to speeds of 30 megabits. We are beating the Germans, the French, the Italians and the Spanish on that as well as on average internet connection speed. Because that scheme has been so successful, we have gone on to phase 2, which is 95% coverage. That is also why we have signed almost every single contract apart from Devon and Somerset, which I hope we will sign on Friday. We can then get on to start planning how we will get to 95%.
The Minister said that the cabinets are expensive. The European Commission’s report by Oxera, which evaluates the UK scheme, has a chart on page 4.5 that should say how expensive the cabinets are, but unfortunately that page is blank—it has been edited out. I happen to have got hold of that chart and it looks like cabinets are a lot cheaper than BT said. In particular, when Olivia Garfield, the former head of BT Openreach, said in “Strike Up Broadband” on 13 December 2013 that cabinets cost £100,000, she was, to use a technical term, talking crap, was she not?
I do not know whether that is a technical term. I do know, however, that in my hon. Friend’s constituency some 33,000 premises will be delivered superfast broadband thanks to the plan. He will also know that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have validated the scheme for value for money. No contractor pays BT until the work is done and BT presents invoices, and the scheme is audited regularly.
Phase 2 is going ahead. Phase 3 is about no one being left behind, which is the theme of the debate. The key point about that last 5% is that we do not know how much it will cost. Back of an envelope costings can run into billions, but we need a proper figure. That is why we have launched the pilots, some of which are already delivering broadband connections to people all over the country. Better still, they give us an idea of the kinds of technology we can use to get to that 5%. That will include suppliers other than BT and other technologies that BT and others are using, such as wireless and satellite.
Hon. Members have talked about businesses. We do not want to leave businesses behind. That is why we have launched our successful business voucher superfast broadband scheme. This morning, we announced that that scheme has delivered vouchers to 25,000 small businesses in cities up and down the country. Better still, there is now more competition in the market. Virgin Media announced £3 billion of investment because of the success of our scheme. TalkTalk announced a 1 gigabit offer in York and it will roll that out to other cities. BT has invested £3 billion of its own money and let us not forget that we have the fastest 4G roll-out and take-up anywhere in the world.
Will the Minister clarify the timing of phase 3 for the final 5%?
We hope to set out our proposals on phase 3 later this year. We are working on a series of proposals that we will look at in some detail and hopefully we will present those and take them forward. However, this is obviously a complex issue. Let us not forget that we are talking about the most difficult and expensive-to-reach premises. However, we do want to reach them; that is why we will carry out the scheme.
This is an unequivocal success story. I look forward to coming together again with all my hon. Friends and other hon. Members when we announce that we have reached the 3 million milestone. That may be in the summer recess, so I will invite them all to join me at a suitable seaside resort to make that announcement and release some balloons. Otherwise, they may want to put out press releases in their constituencies that tell their constituents how hugely successful the scheme is.
However, I do not want to be flippant or facetious. We have not forgotten those who need broadband. The tone of the debate was absolutely right. We are at a critical point where the engineering scheme we are rolling out is meeting the almost universal demand from our constituents for broadband. As a constituency MP, I know that those who get broadband under the scheme do not always say “thank you”—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).