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Digital Infrastructure

Volume 624: debated on Tuesday 18 April 2017

The Government are taking action to give the UK the world-beating digital infrastructure that it needs. Broadband across the country has been transformed by the Government-led £1.7 billion superfast programme, extending coverage at 24-plus megabits per second to 95% of UK premises by the end of this year. At autumn statement 2016, we committed over £1 billion more to support the market to deliver full-fibre broadband networks, to enable 5G mobile and to keep Britain at the forefront of the development of the internet of things.

The reduction in business rates on new fibre roll-out is hugely welcome, but will the Chancellor assure me that we will incentivise the roll-out of more fibre in such a way that no tax is paid until the fibre is first used, rather than from when it is first installed?

The Government’s clear intention is to incentivise investment in fibre broadband networks. The Department for Communities and Local Government will shortly publish a consultation on the implementation of this relief, which will set out more detail on how new fibre will be defined, and we look forward to the responses to that consultation.

Why does the Chancellor not shake up some of his colleagues, and start investing in the digital infrastructure in the north of England, in Yorkshire in particular? Will he also look at other infrastructure, such as railways? When are we going to get the electrification of the TransPennine Express route?

At autumn statement, we announced £23 billion of additional investment in our infrastructure, and key priority areas such as research and development, specifically designed to address the UK’s productivity problem. This investment has to be spread across the whole of the UK economy to make sure that we deliver improved productivity and improved economic growth across the economy as a whole. Such investment is going in: public capital investment will be at a higher level in this Parliament following the announcement of this decision than it was before the financial crisis.

While the Government boast about the speed of fibre broadband across the United Kingdom, there are many areas—especially in parts of my constituency—where sending mail by pigeon would almost be quicker than sending it through the fibre network. What action does the Chancellor intend to take to ensure that farmers, small businesses and others relying on digital means of communication in rural areas have a greater ability to deliver such messages?

I cannot speculate on how fast the pigeons are in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I can tell him that all consumers now have a right to 10 megabits broadband. By the end of this year, 95% of properties will have access to 24 megabits broadband. The Government are investing more money to reach the last 5%, the hard-to-reach that are often in rural areas.

In Scotland, the original plan was as for the UK: 95% coverage by this year, additional funding for rural areas, money for wi-fi in public buildings and a superfast broadband target of 100% property coverage by 2021. Given that this should be a common endeavour, will the Chancellor welcome the steps taken in Scotland to deliver on those performance targets?

We have a UK-wide target. We of course welcome any other actions taken on top of that to achieve yet higher levels of broadband penetration. That is a very positive move for the economies of the regions and nations they affect.

I thank the Chancellor for that. However, the issue is not simply about the provision of infrastructure, but paying for digital usage. Will he give a guarantee to the House that when the UK Government enter the Brexit negotiations there will be no return to the super-expensive roaming digital phone charges for UK citizens working and living in the EU, and for EU citizens living and working in the UK?

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s concern and I am absolutely sure that the vast majority of our constituents would agree with his suggestion that we seek to maintain cost-effective access for UK phone users whenever they are roaming within the EU. I think that will be an issue for this Parliament post-Brexit unless we choose, in the course of the exit negotiations, to reach a reciprocal agreement with the European Union.