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Volume 611: debated on Thursday 9 June 2016

6. What steps his Department is taking to accelerate the roll-out of broadband in (a) rural and (b) urban areas. (905294)

I am very pleased to tell you once again, Mr Speaker, how well the rural broadband programme is going. We have reached our target of 90%, with 4 million homes passed, and we will reach our target of 95% by the end of 2017.

My constituents in the parishes of Dallington, Brightling, Mountfield, Ashburton and Penshurst will welcome the Government’s new legal right to fast broadband. May I ask the Minister whether the reasonable cost test will be benchmarked against, first, the realistic cost to install in rural areas that are not currently connected to fast broadband and, secondly, the cheapest cost that any provider would charge rather than the cost that BT Openreach may calculate?

We will certainly consult on the reasonable cost test, and it may well be that a number of providers do provide the universal service obligation, which will potentially provide welcome competition. That will be open for consultation once we have passed legislation, which I know will have the support of the whole House.

Earlier this week, I received an email from the Minister, which helpfully informed me that 3,198 premises in my constituency—that is 8% or nearly one in 12—are not currently planned to be connected to superfast broadband. What has the Minister got to say to the sizeable number of my constituents who face the prospect of never being able to access an adequate broadband connection?

I would say to her constituents that we said that we would get to 90% by the end of last year, which we achieved, and that we would get to 95% by the end of 2017, so we have been completely transparent about what we are planning to do. We are now consulting on a USO precisely to help those constituents of the hon. Lady who are not in the rural broadband programme. We are bringing in important changes to planning in the digital economy Bill, which I hope will have the support of the Opposition Front Bench team. She should congratulate the Government because the way the contracts have been constructed means that almost £300 million is coming back, so we are going to go further than 95% and reach more of her constituents. She should be telling them that rather than complaining.

Residents in Denford are extremely frustrated at the lack of progress in securing superfast broadband. Will the Minister encourage Superfast Northamptonshire and BT to redouble their efforts to get Denford connected?

What discussions are the Minister and his officials having with Welsh Government Ministers and officials about the universal service obligation to ensure that we can have joined-up thinking when the Bills, which I support, come through? To cement this relationship between the Welsh Government and the UK Government, may I repeat my offer of Ynys Môn as the location for a pilot scheme?

I would happily work with the hon. Gentleman and the Welsh Government. I have always found him and the Welsh Government to be congenial colleagues in regard to the roll-out of superfast broadband.

We know that the Secretary of State wants to leave the European Union, but his Minister appears already to have left the United Kingdom to inhabit some fantasy “Broadbandia” in which everything is, in his words, an “unadulterated success”. For the rest of us in the 21st century United Kingdom, however, the reality is different. One in five broadband users still has less than half the speed that Ofcom classes as acceptable, and 70% of smartphone users in rural areas have zero access to 4G. Rather than living in “Broadbandia”, the rest of us are living in “Broadbadia“. Will the Minister stop fantasising and acknowledge the view of the Countryside Alliance:

“This rural broadband betrayal is devastating”?

I know that the hon. Lady will want to join me in commemorating this important day, which is the 33rd anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s landslide election victory in 1983. In that year, there was no broadband and the Minister you see before you was sitting his O-levels. The Secretary of State, however, was on the great lady’s battle bus.

The hon. Lady might quote the Countryside Alliance, but the gardener Robin Lane Fox wrote an article in the Financial Times, which I know she reads, in which he talked about a move to the rural arcadia brought about by our broadband roll-out programme. He said that, like Falstaff, he was looking forward to dying babbling of green fields because he could live in the countryside with a superfast connection. Let us remind ourselves that Labour had a pathetic megabit policy, and that is still its policy. Let us also remind ourselves that we are two years ahead of where Labour would have been, and let us talk up the success of this programme instead of constantly talking down great broadband Britain.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s performance is greatly enjoyed, not least by the hon. Gentleman.