With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement to the House about connectivity and our recent announcement about the shared rural network. Last month, this Government announced £5 billion to accelerate the roll-out of the highest-speed internet across the country, including in our rural heartlands. The money is being targeted towards the hardest-to-reach areas of the UK, so that they will not have to wait for their homes and businesses to be connected to fast, reliable broadband. They will be given connections capable of download speeds of 1 gigabit per second to take advantage of everything that the next generation of new technology has to offer.
Connectivity on the go is equally important. Mobile phones are revolutionising our day-to-day lives and are crucial for businesses as they compete and grow. Half of adults—I reckon this will apply to pretty much every right hon. and hon. Member—say that they missed their mobile phone the most of all their devices, with one in three saying that they never use a computer to go online.
However, too many areas of the country are still waiting for high-quality mobile coverage. Today, only 66% of the UK landmass has geographic coverage from all four mobile network operators and 9%, largely in rural areas, has no coverage at all. I am therefore pleased to inform the House that last week the Government announced support for a shared rural network programme, subject to binding legal agreement being concluded. The proposal has been brought to Government by the four UK mobile network operators—EE, Vodafone, 3 and O2—and sets out their ambition to collectively increase 4G mobile coverage throughout the United Kingdom to 95% by 2025.
Under the proposal, areas that have coverage from only some providers—partial notspots—will be almost entirely eliminated, meaning that we will get good 4G signal anywhere, no matter our provider. It also promises to deliver greater coverage in the total notspots—the areas that currently have no mobile phone signal at all. The network will result in 95% of the UK getting coverage, including additional coverage to 16,000 km of roads and 280,000 premises. The biggest improvements will be felt in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The four operators will commit up to £530 million to get rid of the partial notspots, but we recognise the difficulty of building infrastructure in remote locations. The Government are therefore sharing the cost and are prepared to provide a further £500 million to eliminate total notspots. The Government’s investment will provide new digital infrastructure in areas that are not commercially viable for operators, to ensure that this new service provision continues for at least 20 years. It will also cover the cost of upgrades to the emergency services infrastructure, making it available to commercial operators.
The announcement is great news for consumers and a big step forward by the mobile network operators. It will be underpinned by legally binding commitments from each operator to reach more than 92% UK coverage by 2026. The mobile network operators will adopt new coverage obligations within their existing spectrum licence conditions to ensure that the outcomes will be delivered. If they cannot demonstrate that all reasonable efforts have been made to comply with the obligations, there are penalties for the operators, with a maximum fine of up to 10% of annual turnover. Although 2025 is the target date, many consumers will feel the benefit of the programme long before its conclusion. Annual coverage improvement targets will be published, and Ofcom will report regularly on the shared rural network’s progress in its “Connected Nations” publication.
The UK has a vibrant telecoms industry, and we are keen that the shared rural network proposal reflects that. The programme will be jointly delivered by all four mobile network operators, but it is expected that organisations from across the industry would have the opportunity to get involved in delivering the programme at various levels of the supply chain, building the required infrastructure in an open, fair and transparent way.
The mobile network operator proposal is conditional on Ofcom removing its proposed coverage commitments, which were included in the design of the original auction. I have written to Sharon White, the chief executive of Ofcom, setting out the Government’s support for the programme, subject to a binding legal agreement being concluded. It is for Ofcom to decide how it wishes to proceed with the auction. This morning, Ofcom opened its consultation on an alternative auction design, without coverage obligations.
I have also made it clear to the mobile network operators and to Ofcom that the Government retain the right to support the original Ofcom auction if a final and legally binding agreement on the shared rural network is not reached. I have considered the shared rural network proposal carefully, along with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I am satisfied that it improves on the coverage obligations set out in Ofcom’s proposed auction and should deliver good value for money. However, I have made it clear to the mobile network operators that, until a final agreement is reached, the Government’s support does not make a legally binding arrangement or contract and does not create any expectation that Government will act in that way.
In the coming months, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Ofcom and the mobile operators will work to finalise the legal agreement so that we can get on with the important job of improving mobile coverage. The operators share our ambition. I am confident that this proposal is the answer, and I expect to be in a position to update the House early next year.
This is a world-first deal that means that consumers will be able to rely on their own provider’s network to use their mobile phones wherever they are. It will make patchy coverage a thing of the past and mean that more people in rural areas can benefit from the speed and efficiency of coverage on the go. This Government are committed to giving rural areas across our United Kingdom the digital connectivity needed to flourish and to make the UK a world leader in 5G technologies. That is what this landmark investment will do. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. May I start by welcoming her professed enthusiasm for pulling this country out of the cyber slow lane? However, having read her statement, I am afraid to say that, on close examination, it would appear that our Teletext Tories will have to do rather better than this.
Let me start, for the benefit of hon. Members, with the points on which we agree. It is surely right that we dramatically step up the efforts to pull the country into the 21st century. We were a leader once. Now the networks that we have, like the targets that we have set, are well behind the best in the world; so while today’s progress is, I suppose, welcome, it is really half of a half-measure, when what was needed was a bold 10-year national switchover plan to deliver ubiquitous gigabit per second access to every corner of the country.
At our most generous, we welcome the commitment to 95% 4G coverage, because it is better than the 91% that we have today, but I am afraid that still leaves a 4,681 square mile area of the country where coverage will be non-existent or not good enough. As Members know, that is an area twice the size of Norfolk and much bigger than our largest county, North Yorkshire. Nor, it would appear, will progress be as rapid as was promised. In its manifesto, the Conservative party promised 95% coverage by 2022. Now the Secretary of State says it is 2025, and the industry briefing issued this morning says that will not be achieved until 2026.
Nor is the proposal as well financed as is needed. Ofcom says that the cost of sorting out all the notspots in the country is between £3 billion and £6 billion, yet just £1 billion has been announced, half from industry and half from Government. At best, it is half of a half-measure. Nor, it seems, is the deal with the industry actually done. As the Secretary of State made clear in the rapid canter through the final paragraphs of her statement,
“the Government’s support does not make a legally binding arrangement or contract and does not create any expectation that Government will act in that way.”
That is known as the small print; in this House, we call it, at best, a running commentary on what she is doing in the office this week. It is a running commentary on half of a half-measure that is four years late and leaves an area of the country twice the size of Norfolk without the coverage it needs. Members will therefore forgive us for not applauding this announcement from the rooftops.
However, to take this announcement seriously for a moment, which is more than the Chancellor obviously has, I suppose we should trouble the Secretary of State with some questions on her running commentary on half of a half-measure. Her Majesty’s Government have already backtracked on their commitment to full fibre roll-out by 2025. Can she reassure the House that this measure, such as it is, will not be diluted any further? Will she bless us with some interim targets? Perhaps they could be knocked together. If so, are we likely to see them any time soon? She told us today that the paperwork is not going to be signed until 2020, but she says that Ofcom has announced that it is moving ahead with a consultation on the spectrum auction, without coverage obligations. Why is Ofcom proceeding with that, given that the Secretary of State is commending this different approach to us this afternoon? Under the plans will consumers be able to access a choice of all four network operators in the 95% area that she has sketched out? Finally, I suppose the Secretary of State should be asked to tell us whether she agrees with Ofcom that £3 billion to £6 billion is going to be needed to eliminate all notspots in the country. If she does agree, will she explain why she is not bringing that proposal to us this afternoon?
Today our network ranks not as the first, second or third best in the world, but as the 26th. Some Eighty per cent. of our constituencies do not enjoy 4G coverage from all big four operators. I know the Secretary of State has done her very best today to dress this up, but we should call it what it is: too little, too late, for a country that deserves far better. [Interruption.]
I thank the right hon. Gentleman—I think—for the response to the statement. The paltry support he got from those on his Benches when he sat down showed that they did not think much of it either. It was a typical grudging response from the Labour party, rather than a recognition that this is a significant step forward for consumers and for our constituents. Just to answer some of the questions he put on behalf of the Labour luddites in this House, let me say that the 95% target for 2025 is achieved by getting to just over 92% by 2026. This is a clear commitment given by the four mobile network operators, and it is actually much better than achieving it either through the spectrum auction or through any other roaming proposals. It is right that we should see that this is delivered properly and comprehensively across the UK, rather than rushing, although we are clear about the 2025 target.
On interim targets, we are obviously going to wait for industry to say how quickly it is able to do the roll-out, but I was clear in my statement to say that many areas will see this coverage much more quickly.
On the letter from Ofcom, it is obviously a decision for Ofcom as to whether to carry on with the auction coverage. However, I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman read Sharon White’s letter, because she is very clear that by following this proposal and sharing infrastructure,
“the four operators can deliver much greater improvements in coverage at less cost than they could do individually”,
“We believe this is an efficient way of improving coverage which should provide a better experience for consumers than other alternatives like rural roaming.”
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether all four were included in the 95%, and that is absolutely the case.
This is a significant moment for improving mobile connectivity, which is absolutely essential to making sure that the UK plays its part in being able to develop, use and innovate the technologies of the future. I would hope that all those who hope for coverage in areas such as the west midlands, which is leading the charge in terms of the 5G test beds, under the brilliant mayoralty of Andy Street, could celebrate rather than offer this grudging response today.
When the previous Prime Minister rang to fire me from my position as telecoms Minister, she could not get through because I did not have a signal on my mobile phone, so this announcement today is close to my heart. May I ask the Secretary of State to update the House on any changes to planning regulations, which are often the barrier to erecting much-needed mobile phone masts in rural areas?
I thank my right hon. Friend very much for his question. As he will know, at the end of August we announced a consultation, which closes on 4 November, about how we can simplify the planning process in relation to mobile phone masts. Obviously, a balance needs to be struck between having masts and coverage right the way across the country and allowing local communities to have their say. We await the responses to the consultation and will bring forward further proposals to the House.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I am glad not to be forgotten.
In the words of the author Arthur Herman, “Scotland invented the modern world”, but the reality is that Scotland is now being held back by this Tory Government. The Scottish National party welcomes the Government’s announcement about the shared rural network proposals; if they are delivered with the improvements that the Secretary of State says there will be, they will be improvements for our rural and island communities. But even with that investment, Scotland’s 4G coverage level would still be below the overall UK-wide geographic coverage figure of 95%, leaving further work to be done.
I have to say that I am pleased that the Secretary of State seems to possess a more realistic understanding of what the devolution agreement actually is than her Scottish Tory colleagues. She is aware, it is clear, that telecommunications is a reserved matter. But with Scotland receiving just 3% of UK Government funding for broadband, compared with Northern Ireland’s 91% funding, will she reassure me that the programme will be rolled out and that, when it is, we will get a fairer funding settlement than we have had thus far?
People hearing this announcement today could be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. The 2017 Conservative manifesto promised to end rural notspots by 2022—a target that we know will not be met. We are now being told that the target will be 2025. Can the Secretary of State give me a cast-iron guarantee that that target will be met? If not, will it really have the teeth that she is suggesting?
I thank the hon. Lady very much for her reply; at least she was a little more enthusiastic than the Labour Front Bencher—not difficult, given the low bar that he set.
The current coverage of all four operators in Scotland is 41%; under these proposals, that would get to 85% of Scotland. Of course there will be more to do—there always is. MPs have fought for this issue: I have been significantly lobbied by Scottish Conservative colleagues for this improvement. The hon. Lady and constituents across Scotland should be encouraged, given that the proposal has come forward from the operators themselves. That means, I think, that they are confident about being able to deliver it.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on persuading the mobile operators to do what they resisted and told us was completely impossible for them to do? When she comes to address the final 5%—the notspots—will she ensure that lessons are learned from the previous attempt, which was the mobile infrastructure project? Unfortunately, that was able to deliver only a fraction of the number of miles promised, given the numerous obstacles that it ran into.
I thank my right hon. Friend. As a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, he will understand the significant challenges that there have been to bring everyone together to work on this. He is right to point out that there will always be a final 5%, but there are other proposals such as the roll-out of broadband, all of which have to be taken in the round. We are talking about 4G today, but there are also the 5G proposals and broadband. We know that this is a challenge and that it is in the most rural areas that connectivity is most important.
Businesses and citizens across this country suffer the consequences of the Tories’ ideology of austerity, which prevented proper investment in our digital infrastructure. Rural broadband is not a next generation “nice to have”, but a necessity here and now. Therefore, given this agreement for shared infrastructure, will the Secretary of State say what the quality requirements are for uplink, downlink, latency and congestion; how rural areas will benefit from the infrastructure competition that there still will be in the rest of the country—will he commit to there still being an infrastructure competition in the rest of the country—and how we can make sure that the telecoms companies are accountable for the public money that they will be given to make this happen?
I thank the hon. Lady very much for her question. In talking about the difficulties and the disappointments, she almost ran out of time to actually ask her questions. She is right to say that connectivity is hugely important for all our constituents wherever they are. There will be, as she will know if she looks at the detail, a shared rural network entity, to which all four mobile network operators will be party, and that is the way they will be held accountable by the Department for the targets they are meeting.
I suspect that, had my right hon. Friend announced a coverage improvement to 195%, the Labour party would still not have said that it was enough. Some of us can see this for what it is, which is a significant step in the right direction, on which I congratulate her. None the less, does she agree that, as she said, this is a voluntary agreement in exchange for removal of conditions on a spectrum auction, and that it is sensible to make sure that Ofcom keeps compulsory roaming on the table until the ink is dry on a voluntary agreement to make it happen?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend very much. There appears to be a surfeit of former holders of my office on these Benches today, which is a sign of just how much time everyone in this job has had to invest in getting to this stage. He is right that it would not have mattered what we announced today, the Labour party would have found reason to disagree with it, which is unfair to the people they represent. He is absolutely right that we need to keep all the options on the table until that legally binding agreement is concluded, and that is what we will both be doing.
Well, I welcome what the right hon. Lady has had to say today, but the people I get very fed up with are those from mobile phone companies, because they will quite often say that a person in a village such as Porth has 100% coverage when, actually, nobody in Hannah Street can get any signal whatsoever. Recently, when there was an arson attack on the mast, which covered several different companies, EE did not even bother to tell all its local customers that coverage would be out for four weeks and it refused to give compensation. The mobile phone companies simply must do better.
That is very true.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, which is that honesty about the coverage being offered is very important. There is nothing more frustrating for people than being told that they have coverage—or it even looking like they have coverage on their phone—but they still cannot make a call. I am concerned to hear how EE handled that particular attack. I hope that Members right across the House will always know that, if they have problems such as that, they should contact me, the Ministers involved, or the Department so that we can follow it up on their behalf.
The Secretary of State said that we should be fair to those we represent, so, in that spirit, I ask her this. After one of my constituents on the Isle of Arran almost died owing to notspots last year, the previous Secretary of State assured me that there would be 95% coverage in each of the four UK nations by 2022. We see today that that target has now slipped to 2025, and we know that Scotland’s 4G coverage will still be less than the UK-wide numbers, as the Secretary of State set out. Will she explain to the House, in the interests of my constituents, what has gone wrong with tackling notspots so far in Scotland and when Scotland will have the same coverage as the rest of the UK?
I would ask the hon. Lady also to raise that question with the Scottish Government. She is right to say that we want to get on with this and that matters of critical importance—even life and death—can rely on having a mobile phone signal, but we need to do this in the right way so that it actually works and provides reliable coverage. As I said in my statement, although 2025 is the target date, there are many areas where shared 4G coverage will be in place much sooner. There are difficulties in the more rural areas, which is why this is going to take slightly longer to roll out in some parts of the UK. I hope that we will have more details in time so that constituents can see where that coverage is going to be achieved in their area.
First, until we change the rules in national parks, we are not going to achieve universal coverage. Secondly, Connecting Devon and Somerset has been a disaster. Will the Secretary of State please change what that project is doing? Until we do, the good burghers of Somerset and Devon are not going to get universal coverage.
I will certainly look into the issue that my hon. Friend has raised in relation to the national parks, but of course there are always going to be challenges. It is not just about throwing money at the problem. It is also often about ensuring that the physical infrastructure is allowed to be erected.
With regard to Connecting Devon and Somerset, the digital and broadband Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), had a meeting with Members from the area. We know that there have been issues, and obviously the organisation is looking for alternative providers. My hon. Friend is talking about broadband connectivity, which is a slightly separate issue, but he is right because at the end of the day, constituents do not distinguish; they just want better connectivity all round.
A shared rural network is to be welcomed, as it could vastly improve coverage in Ceredigion. The Secretary of State will appreciate that rural communities will be eager to see swift progress on this proposal, so could she clarify whether recently constructed Home Office masts, in addition to any future emergency services network infrastructure, will be made available to this end where appropriate?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement and decisive action on this matter. Coverage in rural areas is very dependent on the roll-out of the emergency services network, which is behind schedule and over budget. I understand that it is the preserve of the Home Office, not her Department, but will she use her best endeavours to ensure that this project is brought back on track?
I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed for his comments, and pay tribute to him for campaigning on this issue and encouraging other Members to work together to ensure that my Department was rightly put under some pressure to make sure that we delivered on it. He will be interested to know that since I have taken over the Department we have been working very closely with the Home Office and got the agreement about the emergency services network, but I accept his challenge, and the conversations with the Home Office will of course continue.
East Lothian has been let down by Governments north and south of the border, who have ended the LEADER programme, as well as the Community Broadband Scotland and R100 funding. If it were not for East Lothian Council and local companies such as Lothian Broadband that have found imaginative solutions to this problem, East Lothian—its businesses, constituents and the children who are just trying to do their homework—would be in a desperate state. Between the Palace of Westminster and East Lothian, which will win the coverage war?
I will leave the hon. Gentleman to have his fight with the Scottish Government, but he makes a good case about how slow some progress has been under their ownership. I pay tribute to those in East Lothian, including businesses and local authorities, for the work done locally. We are talking about a shared rural network, but this is also a shared endeavour to ensure that we have good connectivity. I would like to think that the more we can all work together, the more likely it is that this announcement will turbocharge connectivity in East Lothian.
I congratulate the Secretary of State. The shared rural network—something I have lobbied her predecessors for on many occasions—is fantastic news, because healthcare and businesses in rural areas such as my constituency in Devon cannot survive without it. The Secretary of State has mentioned 5G. Could she perhaps look at prioritising the roll-out of 5G in rural areas, where the need is so much greater?
I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming this announcement. 5G is already being rolled out and there is no intention to stop that process, but we need 4G as well. The intention is to ensure that her constituents have the best connectivity possible, rather than picking particular technologies. There is already some 5G around her constituency in Devon, but I do accept her challenge. At the end of the day, I think constituents just want faster connectivity—in a way, regardless of how it is delivered. We want the UK to be a world leader in 5G, and it is very important that that happens.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment today to the rural broadband network roll-out. She will know that through the confidence and supply agreement, certain amounts of money have already been set aside for the rural network. Perhaps, Mr Speaker, you, like me, will recall Radio Luxembourg and remember that it faded in and out. There are still parts of the Province where a rural network is not achievable. What will be done to address that issue for small and medium-sized businesses and for those who are self-employed, where it is really important to have rural broadband network roll-out?
The hon. Gentleman is right that having good broadband and good mobile connectivity is important for all of us, but particularly for our small and medium-sized businesses, many of which are run from rural, even residential, premises and need that connectivity to be fast and reliable, and not, as he says, to fade in and out. I hope he will welcome the fact that at the moment the coverage of all four operators is 78% in Northern Ireland, but once the shared rural network programme has taken effect, which we very much hope it will and as it is expected to, it will reach 91% of Northern Ireland.
I regularly survey my constituents in Brigg and Goole and the Isle of Axholme on this and produce a network by network, geographically located report. EE has been very good in responding to those surveys. A new mast in Broughton will come online on 5 November as a result of that, and changes are also being made to a mast in Reedness, so there is some good news. However, it is clear from my surveying of constituents that the maps provided by the networks do not have a great deal of reality compared with what my constituents are experiencing. May I urge the Secretary of State to look at that? Will she also look at local authorities offering up their facilities? One of my local authorities, North Lincolnshire Council, did that, but not a single one of the networks took it up on that offer.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about maps. That is really important. Now that the mobile network operators are working together, it will hopefully be easier to get that information so that our constituents will be able to see the progress that is being made. He talks encouragingly about the two masts and the changes already happening in his constituency. In relation to local authorities, we are working with the Cabinet Office and having conversations to make sure that local authority infrastructure such as hospitals and schools can also be used to increase and improve connectivity in these communities.
Will the Secretary of State straightforwardly confirm that the deadline set out in her party’s 2017 manifesto will not now be achieved? Competition between mobile providers has been very fruitful for consumers over the past 20 years, particularly in reducing call charges. How will Ministers make sure that future fruitful competition will not be blunted by this collaboration?
We are not nationalising the mobile network operators—they have come forward with a plan to work together, which is a very good sign. One of the key elements we will need to get this right and to follow the legal processes is to be compliant with competition law. The right hon. Gentleman invites me to say that earlier targets are not necessarily going to be met. Of course, we have not yet reached the end of this Parliament. Actually, I think that his constituents, like mine, are interested in what we are going to do rather than necessarily always looking at the numbers.
This is very good news for Staffordshire. Even around the Lichfield area we have notspots. What consideration did my right hon. Friend’s Department give to roaming? If roaming were permitted, as it already is for 999 calls, this could be introduced so much quicker.
I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for this network. I am delighted that it is going to benefit Staffordshire and all parts of the United Kingdom. The mobile network operators have proposed, and we agree with them, that it will be much better for consumers because it will be much more consistent. The thing about roaming is that people get passed from network operator to network operator, so there is more risk of the signal falling out, whereas in this way they stay with their network operator as they travel across the United Kingdom, and therefore the signal is much more likely to remain consistent.
My constituency runs along the M4 corridor, and I have been raising the specific issue of the south Wales valleys with the Secretary of State’s predecessors and previous digital Ministers for the three and a half years that I have been in this House. Large areas of my constituency have no coverage, and my valleys are blamed for that. Can she set out what specific support will be available for south Wales valley communities, and will she consider using areas such as the M4 to improve connectivity?
I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, or the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), will be. Unfortunately, although I have many powers, moving mountains and valleys is not one of them—there is a limit to what I am able to do, but perhaps in due course, who knows? We would need to talk to the mobile network operators about their proposals in relation to the infrastructure needed for the future and for masts in particular. As I said in my statement, this proposal will deliver additional coverage to 16,000 km of roads, and I certainly hope that the M4 corridor will be one of those.
This announcement is hugely welcome for the people of Lincolnshire, who are suffering from notspots. What can I do to ensure that Lincolnshire gets access to the network earlier rather than later between now and 2025?
I thank my hon. Friend. She might want to take a leaf out of the book of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), by working with the mobile network operators to map where they have coverage and masts and where they think they will need new infrastructure, to ensure that this coverage can be delivered. I know that she will be very active in lobbying for that, to benefit her constituents.
I, too, welcome today’s announcement. As you know, Mr Speaker, I have said countless times in this place that connectivity in my constituency is very patchy and simply not good enough, so I am grateful for this. I want to ask the Secretary of State to do two things. First, can she ask her private office to provide a big map of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross? Secondly, can she write to the Scottish Government saying, “Could you give us a list of all the bad parts of Jamie Stone’s constituency?” and then put them on her map, for them to be ticked off one by one?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming this announcement. I am sure that my private office will be listening with great interest to his request for a map and details of the coverage. That would be a good thing to provide, with as much detail as we can, so I will certainly ask the operators about that.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He is right; this is about people being able to see improved coverage. That is why it is important that the mobile network operators conclude the binding legal agreement, so that we are able to map, have milestones for when the coverage will be delivered and understand exactly what infrastructure is needed and which operators need to share infrastructure more. I hope that he will play his part as the local MP by asking operators those questions, and we will certainly play our part in ensuring that they reveal that information to MPs.
I echo the wide welcome for my right hon. Friend’s announcement from those Government Members who represent rural constituencies, as well as from some Opposition Members, excluding those on the shadow Front Bench, who do not know what “rural” means. My right hon. Friend referred to the emergency services network and making massive improvements to coverage in the road network, which is excellent. Could she also encourage the operators to improve the signal on our rail network? Many of us are unable to work while travelling to and from this place by rail.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that challenge. He is right; improving rail connectivity remains a significant ambition. I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Transport about that. There are some other challenges, but we are working out how we can do that. I am pleased to say that in the latest franchise, there was a greater requirement for on-board connectivity, and I hope that we will be able to see that throughout the network.
I welcome this announcement. As my right hon. Friend knows, parts of Kent have worse coverage than Kabul. Will she tell me a bit about her 5G plans? I believe that there will be an announcement tomorrow about China’s possible involvement in our network. Does she agree that that poses a major danger to the Five Eyes community and that US sanctions against Huawei would leave us looking like we had just signed a long-term lease for business space with WeWork?
I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I am not able to say much about this for very obvious reasons. A decision will be announced in due course. I just want to say two things to the House. The first is that high-risk vendors have never been and never will be in our most sensitive networks. The second is that the security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms network is of paramount importance. We will bear both of those things in our minds when making any decisions.
As an MP for one of the largest constituencies in the UK with a large number of notspots, I do welcome this announcement, but my right hon. Friend will be aware that many of the people who do not have a mobile service also do not have a broadband service. Given the abject failure of the SNP Scottish Government to deliver on any of their broadband targets, will she say today that those people who do not have broadband will be prioritised in the roll-out of this initiative?
My right hon. Friend makes the very important point that connectivity is obviously of paramount importance. Having been driven through his constituency not long ago, when I had the experience of the signal dropping out, I know how important it is. He makes a good point about prioritisation, which I will discuss with the operators, but he makes an even better point about the fact that the Scottish Government, having promised much on broadband, have not so far delivered. I hope that people in his constituency and elsewhere will be mindful of that whenever they come to visit the polls.
This is obviously great news for my constituents in North Cornwall. The issue was highlighted back in 2014 when the then Prime Minister had to cut short a holiday because of a known notspot that we have. It does not just affect tourism; it is also affecting business investment in the south-west. May I urge the Secretary of State to do all she can to avoid the two-tier system we have with urban and rural communities?
I thank my hon. Friend very much. I well remember visiting his constituency when he was seeking to be elected, and he has been a doughty champion for better connectivity across his part of Cornwall for many years since his election. He makes a really important point. One of the reasons why we are announcing this and why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced the £5 billion for rural broadband is that we want to make sure that our rural areas are absolutely not left behind and that the focus is not just on our urban areas. Both areas need to be better connected, and we need to do it at the same time.
May I thank my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister for the breakneck speed at which they have turned this around following my PMQ last Wednesday on this very subject? This is obviously very welcome news to my constituents and businesses and a real boost to the local economy, and it is great to see the UK Government working with the mobile providers. It is good news for everyone in Angus. Could she make it even better news by shortening the time the project will take to be completed?
My hon. Friend asked a brilliant question at Prime Minister’s questions last week, and I am very pleased that we have been able to answer her request quite so quickly. She has asked another very good question today, and that is a real challenge. We will obviously have to see exactly how quickly the roll-out can happen, but she is a doughty champion for her constituency of Angus, and I will come back to her on exactly when it can expect to get that better connectivity.
I welcome the statement and my constituents in North Dorset will as well, probably with the caveat that it is about time. May I take my right hon. Friend back to the planning issue? Can she keep the planning team’s and Ministers’ toes to the fire on this? It is all well and good having the policies in place, and they do need updating, but their speedy implementation to get the right decisions to deliver the network is key, and local government has the key that unlocks it.
I thank my hon. Friend very much. I should just warn him and probably all right hon. and hon. Members that better connectivity may of course mean more emails and phone calls from those we seek to represent, which I know is something we will all relish. He is right about the planning system, and we absolutely will keep those feet to the fire. We are working very closely with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to make sure those reforms can go through. We obviously need to have a consultation, but we also want to break through these barriers.
May I welcome enthusiastically this announcement? It really beggars belief to listen to the negativity of the SNP. Given its lack of delivery in government in Scotland, SNP Members have a nerve to talk about our Government. Since Stirling is the third worst constituency in Scotland for mobile phone coverage, may I ask my right hon. Friend why it is right that my constituents should continue to have to pay the full rate of charge for a mobile service they do not enjoy?
My hon. Friend has raised an important question about customer service. He is a doughty champion for Stirling, and he has brought the issue of better connectivity to my attention. I was happy to accept the challenge, and that is why I wanted to get this announcement out as soon as possible. I hope he will agree that this is a good day for connectivity in Scotland. Of course, Stirling is, I think, one of the first gigabit cities or first fibre cities, but we need to go further, and I know he will be at the heart of making sure that that happens.
I thank my hon Friend very much indeed. The issue of a debate is obviously one for the Leader of the House of Commons and the usual channels to discuss, but I know that Ministers will have heard his request.
In relation to the Isle of Wight—a place I know well from my family history—I very much hope that, if he is able, as the local MP, to work with the operators to find out what issues there are relating to masts and any other blockages there might be, we will be able to improve the connectivity. We in the Department will play our part to support him in that.
May I lobby my right hon. Friend hard on behalf of the new unitary authority, Dorset Council, which has submitted bids for better rural connectivity? Can we please have the money, because we need it to create the jobs and prosperity that we desperately need?
I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed. I accept that lobbying request. He is right to say that there are always opportunities for funding bids. He is also right to point out—which he does as a champion for Dorset and his constituency—that with better connectivity comes the opportunity for more employment, more prosperity and more productivity. That is why this Government want to introduce better connectivity right the way across the United Kingdom.
On behalf of the people of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine—yet another vast rural Scottish constituency with its fair share of notspots—I enthusiastically welcome the announcement made today. Does my right hon. Friend agree that nobody should be punished or treated like a second-class citizen just by virtue of where they choose to live and work in our country?
I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed. He is absolutely right that this Government do not want to draw a distinction between people who live in an urban or a rural area as far as connectivity is concerned. Everybody needs greater connectivity; it is an important way to enjoy the new technologies, to prosper, to build productivity and to support small businesses and households. That is why we are taking it so seriously and why I hope, particularly in relation to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, that people will see this as a great announcement.