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Digital Infrastructure, Connectivity and Accessibility

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 3 December 2020

I beg to move,

That this House notes that over one million households do not have an internet connection in the UK and 5.3 million people do not access the internet at all; further notes that repeated lockdowns as a measure against the spread of covid-19 have highlighted the urgency of achieving nationwide digital inclusion; notes that the Government’s decision to change its manifesto pledge from delivering world-class gigabit-capable broadband in 100 per cent of homes and businesses across the UK by 2025 to only 85 per cent will damage the economy and the levelling-up agenda; notes that any investment in superfast broadband without addressing the digital divide will damage social mobility; notes that digital exclusion has the biggest effect on lower-income households, increases the cost of living and widens health inequalities; believes that digital infrastructure is not a luxury resource but an essential requirement; and calls on the Government to invest in a digital catch-up scheme to support the post-covid economy, level up opportunity and lead to a fairer economy, stronger society and better lives.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to debate digital infrastructure, connectivity and accessibility today. Never has this debate been so important, so relevant and so timely—I say timely, because two days ago this House voted to extend the covid restrictions across the country. Some 99% will be in tiers 2 and 3, the strictest lockdown, and the restrictions are likely to continue for months. Having been in one form or another of covid lockdown since March, our lives have been quite literally turned online and are set to remain that way.

I also say timely because last week, among the small print of the Chancellor’s spending review, the commitment to 100% gigabit capability by 2025 was reduced, along with the financial support, which went from £5 billion to £2 billion. It is vital that today we get the original full-fibre gigabit capability manifesto commitment reinstated, because reliable online connection is not just nice to have; it is a necessity.

Even prior to the pandemic, the country’s digital infrastructure needed improving and upgrading. The National Audit Office reported that internet demand was growing at 40% a year and, according to the National Infrastructure Commission, growth would have resulted in demand’s outstripping supply for the part copper, part fibre section between 2030 and 2040. Added to that, as we all know, the coverage is very much dependent on where we live, and cities are much better than towns or rural areas. As it stands, the industry boasts that 96% of the country has at least 24-megabit capability, but that is a million miles away from where we need to be as a country, with so many people complaining that they have unreliable connectivity and slow speeds. That figure needs to be 1,000 megabits per second, not 24.

The real experience on the ground is this: in parts of Tatton and across Cheshire, constituents of mine have been informed by BT and Openreach that their properties simply do not qualify for commercial roll-out of broadband, because their homes are too far away from a cabinet and installation is too difficult and expensive to be delivered as part of the universal service offer. That means that across my constituency, broadband accessibility can vary from street to street, depending on the location of the box.

What we have seen developing in this country is a digital postcode lottery—a digital divide. Dr Helen Hosker, of Wilmslow, told me that she has “very slow broadband speeds” because her home is too far away from a cabinet. Dr Hosker, a retired general practitioner, is now struggling to work remotely for the covid clinical assessment service. As she rightly remarks:

“The current service is unlikely to support any developments with home working for myself and my neighbours. This situation will only worsen over time as reliance on technology increases. This is unacceptable when reliance on the internet has become a key part of everyday life”.

Stephen Chapman, of Knutsford, explained how over the past seven years he has had 64 visits from Openreach due to faulty broadband. Stephen highlighted the scale of the problem my constituents face when he explained that,

“there are 16 properties in our postcode that average 2MB or less,”

which has an impact on his business and his life. He says that,

“quality of life is now dependent on internet access.”

Another of my constituents, Tariq Marfani of Mobberley, an automotive and aerospace supplier, reports broadband speeds in Mobberley of, again, 2 megabits per second, which is a very long way off the gigabit connection—1,000 megabits—that the Government are striving towards. Tariq also points out that covid has brought about a shift in behaviour—not just going online, but people wanting to move out of cities to the countryside and to work remotely. Yet it is rural areas that most urgently need their digital infrastructure improved.

In fact, after I met BT last week, it revealed the latest figures, which show that only 6% of my constituents’ homes and businesses in Tatton currently have access to full-fibre broadband, and it is that full-fibre service that can provide that 1 gigabit capability and significantly improve reliability. The digital inclusion charity Good Things Foundation found that 80% of people considered digital connectivity to be a lifeline to them during lockdown. Yet, shockingly, more than 1 million households in the UK do not have an internet connection, and 5.3 million people do not have access to internet at all. Of those who do have an internet connection, Which? found that 30% said it did not meet their needs during lockdown, cutting them off from vital day-to-day services such as schooling, banking, shopping for food and getting health check-ups.

During covid and life in lockdown, as a nation we have all moved online. BT reported a 35% to 60% increase in daytime traffic. Even meetings that many of us assumed were face-to-face necessities moved online. The Health Foundation estimates that more than 700,000 patients are turning to phone and online video GP appointments. Some 1.62 million people now unemployed are using the universal credit online benefit system.

Education is increasingly delivered online; just last week, the National Education Union reported that there were 900,000 children being educated at home—one in five secondary school pupils, all needing the internet. However, with an estimated 2% of the 9 million UK households with children not having internet access, that is approximately 560,000 children whose ability to get a good education will have been disrupted during lockdown.

Being online is now crucial to everything we do—and yes, the NHS test and trace app relies on dependable broadband, too. Digital infrastructure has to be the No. 1 infrastructure project that this Government deliver, so today I am calling on them to reverse their decision to downgrade the full-fibre roll-out and instead to reprioritise it—rev it up, put the money back in the pot and deliver the full-fibre service this nation so desperately needs. The Government’s levelling-up agenda depends on nationwide digital inclusivity. If we give up on this manifesto commitment, fail to invest in our digital infrastructure and refuse to take the urgent action necessary to level up and fix the digital divide, we will be trying to deliver the levelling-up agenda with one hand held behind our back.

I applaud the Government’s commitment to a £4 billion levelling-up fund as part of the recent spending review, yet the roll-out of broadband would itself facilitate levelling up and drive forward social mobility. That money needs to go back in the broadband pot. As the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government succinctly described:

“Digital equality matters because it can help mitigate some of the deep social inequalities derived from low incomes, poor health, limited skills or disabilities”.

With broadband taking on an ever more important role in our lives, it is high time it was elevated to the status of utility and that we removed any impediments to delivering this essential service to the country.

I fully support the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill, which recognises that broadband is as essential as water or electricity. Recognising broadband as a utility means that all new homes will automatically be built with superfast internet. Furthermore, telecoms providers will be permitted to install broadband in pre-existing premises in the same way that a water provider would be permitted to install water pipes.

As we recover from this pandemic, lifted by the news of a vaccine, we need to be lifted by the news of the reinstatement of the full-fibre roll-out, too, which will provide all sorts of desperately needed jobs as we seek to recover from the covid recession. More than 10,000 jobs could be created in delivering the infrastructure, and once it was rolled out, it could create 1.2 million skilled jobs by 2025, which could add more than £59 billion to the economy by 2025.

The UK has lagged behind European neighbours and much of the world in its fibre coverage. It is time to drive this agenda forward as the UK sets forth as an independent sovereign state. Digital connectivity is no longer a luxury or even a priority. Digital connectivity must be our No. 1 priority. I appreciate that money is tight, but this needs to be the country’s top infrastructure project. I can tell the Minister that my constituents would prioritise this over High Speed 2 any day of the week.

These are my questions for the Minister. Does he agree that this must be the country’s No. 1 infrastructure project? If not, what is? Can he confirm that digital infrastructure will obtain utility status? Will he meet me and the Blue Collar Conservativism group to ensure that the £3.8 billion removed from the full fibre delivery pot is put back in, so that the 2025 commitment can be reintroduced?

Order. We will begin with a time limit on speeches from the Back Benches of six minutes, but that will very soon reduce.

I thank the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) for securing the debate, with support from me, on this absolutely crucial subject. Most unusually, I agree with almost everything she said.

When we talk about digital connectivity and accessibility, we must talk about the digital divide. This is the different experience of those who have suitable internet connections and those who do not: enough devices in the home for homework and education; enough internet capability, suitable broadband or enough phone data; and the skills to access such capabilities. The Good Things Foundation noted, in its blueprint for a 100% digitally included UK, that 9 million people cannot use the internet independently and that 23% of the poorest families do not have home access to broadband and a computer. Four out of 10 of those claiming social security lack all the essential digital skills. This is a regional issue, too. Some 49% of people in the south-east are using the internet fully, compared with 18% in the north-east and 31% in the north-west. That creates a massive divide in life chances and potential. Covid brought that sharply into focus, with families not having enough devices at home or data, and with people choosing between data, heating and food. The choices are stark and there have been months of lost education. Brilliant campaigns, such as DevicesDotNow headed by Liz Williams, were never given a penny of Government support to roll out the massive impact that could have been made in righting this digital divide.

We need a new focus on lifelong learning in digital skills, while ensuring our children get the best education they can with the digital skills that are applicable to the workplace, not necessarily a focus on coding. We also need support for teachers and adults to get the training they need, too.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the price tag for our being undereducated in relation to the internet and tech is estimated to be £60 billion? At a time like this, that is money we need.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

It is estimated that those in work need to update their skills every five months. That needs a strategic and co-ordinated approach. People often need to retrain to get new jobs, but people already in employment also need to ensure that they constantly update their skills as the world of work constantly evolves. That has not been helped in recent weeks by the Government’s decision to scrap Unionlearn, which did amazing work in this arena.

There is a plan to combat this in Sunderland, the city I represent along with two other colleagues. The Sunderland Smart City plan is designed to leave no one behind. One year ago, Sunderland City Council delivered on its promise to install and begin the city-wide rollout of free superfast public wi-fi, using 5G digital technology. It is already delivering wi-fi to Hudson Road Primary School, two community rooms in local tower blocks in the city centre, and along a coastal stretch between Roker and Seaburn, with more to come later this year and in 2021. It supports individuals and businesses, and has had over 7.5 new instances of wi-fi use and a total of 18,500 connections to wi-fi from January to October 2020. We are one of the first cities in the UK to do this and the take-up is proof that it is working well.

The investment in skills must be combined with proper investment in infrastructure, as outlined by the right hon. Member for Tatton. This must be a combined approach. Investment in gigabit broadband infrastructure on its own only makes faster internet for those who can access it, furthering digital inequalities. It does not benefit those who have not had sufficient access to begin with. It makes inequalities worse.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on digital skills, I have heard from national and local organisations from around the country about what has worked and what has not. We wrote to the Chancellor before the spending review proposing a great digital catch-up, championed by Helen Milner and the Good Things Foundation, with Government investment in skills, co-ordinated nationally through existing national networks of trusted local organisations. The Secretary of State for Education has announced boot camps for digital skills, but that is not the answer to the problems we face.

In our report, we recommended investment in existing programmes for device distribution, such as DevicesDotNow, and in existing community groups that work in harder-to-reach communities, teaching digital literacy. More must be done to educate people about online fraud and equip them with the skills to identify fraud and report it. We need to invest in lifelong learning hubs in partnership with local authorities and businesses, and we need more cross-departmental collaboration. Those recommendations would benefit not just the individual, the learner, the worker, the jobseeker, the older generation or the young—all good things—but the economy, as clearly highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). As we move out of the restrictions that the covid crisis has brought to all our lives, we must ensure that all our citizens have the data, devices and digital skills we need for the future.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) and the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this important debate. Having a good internet connection is a crucial part of life in the 21st century. Many of us take the ability for granted—to stream music, pay bills online, talk to loved ones or even download highly fictionalised TV programmes such as “The Crown”. But, by some estimates, one in five of us has internet that is so slow that it does not meet the Government’s definition of what is considered decent.

What is more, digital exclusion is rife. Millions simply do not have the money to pay for better broadband, and one in five adults lack the digital skills needed to work safely and effectively online. Only half of the homes that can have superfast broadband have taken it up. Is it because we do not know it is there or because it is simply unaffordable? More must be done to ensure that where we can, we get faster speeds. We must also ensure that the poorest in our society are not priced off the internet. It is not just about broadband affordability. There is also a question of devices as the hon. Member for Sunderland Central said. Laptops, smartphones and iPads do not come cheap, and are a significant upfront cost. Even universal credit needs an online application.

This year, I have heard from numerous companies during our present inquiry into broadband and 5G about the efforts they are making to tackle digital exclusion, whether by recycling used devices for those who cannot afford them, delivering digital skills training for young people on benefits, or innovating to roll out better broadband sooner. I fear, however, that despite the lessons of the pandemic, we are losing momentum.

The commitment to gigabit-capable broadband in every home by 2025 appears presently to be dead. My Committee repeatedly warned that the pledge was too ambitious, even with the commitment of £5 billion. I have questions for the Minister today. Which of the 20% harder-to-reach are to be prioritised? What are the parameters for that prioritisation with the smaller amount of cash that is now available? Our hardest-to-reach areas are already poorly served by existing infrastructure. Will that now mean that they have no hope of getting faster broadband? What will that mean for pricing and, crucially—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton discussed in her speech—the levelling-up agenda? That is a crucial part of connectivity and making sure that economic prosperity is spread around the country. Ministers have told my Committee that they expect prices to rise as a result of the roll-out. If cost is already a barrier to uptake, what will the Government do to ensure that we buy gigabit-capable broadband and it does not just become a rich person’s right, thus once again baking in inequalities in society? Digital exclusion, whether by dint of location, affordability or skills, is not just an inconvenience—it is a significant barrier to participating in society, and it is no understatement to say that it is difficult to live a full and productive life without digital access.

I do not wish to pre-empt my Committee’s upcoming report on broadband and 5G, which is currently being written, but it is clear that there are significant barriers to getting online for millions of us, and many hurdles to jump before we can say that we are anything other than an also-ran in terms of our digital infrastructure. We need realistic, achievable goals and sustained funding to ensure that the Government and industry can work together to deliver a reliable infrastructure, no matter where we live across our islands.

I thank the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) for bringing this debate to the House today, because this issue is extremely important to me. Indeed, in my maiden speech, I gave due notice that I would be raising the issue of poor connectivity in my constituency. It is perhaps a sad fact that I have had to do so continuously ever since, because in the vast land mass of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, there are still some very bad spots indeed.

I want to touch on a couple of issues. First, I am sure that all of us who have been telephoning our constituents during the pandemic have come across the crippling issue of loneliness, particularly for single elderly people. One route out of loneliness—one aid to make it better—has been the ability to go online, and to FaceTime or whatever with loved ones and friends. When people do not have that connectivity, it doubles the difficulty of it all; in fact, I might say the horror of it all, because it is pretty desperate. I have had some really heart-rending appeals from people to help them in their loneliness. The Campaign to End Loneliness has pointed out that half people over 75 live by themselves. In Scotland, we have a new organisation called Scotland Cares, which aims to tackle loneliness, but it is not blind to the fact that the problem will be much exacerbated over Christmas, which is a sad fact of its own.

On a more positive note, where we do have connectivity, it has been—inversely—a godsend during the pandemic, because people have been in touch with their family and friends, and have made full use of it. As we come out of the pandemic and try to restore our economy, connectivity will be crucial. It will empower small businesses and enterprises in my constituency—where they have the connectivity—to punch at an equal weight and to compete on a level playing field, and that is crucial. For myself and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), tourism is a vital industry. The ability to have equality of connectivity is crucial if the tourist product is to be sold in the most efficient way.

Let me turn to my next point. Maybe I am being a little bit ignorant—I do not know—but I have talked about bad connectivity in my constituency for over three years, and I hear conflicting answers. Some say it is the Scottish Government. Some say it is the UK Government. I do not know the middle way between all that. I ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government would consider some sort of commission or inquiry into why connectivity has not been rolled out in the past in the way in which places such as my constituency would so much desire. I am sure that this would also be true of the west country and parts of Wales. At the end of the day, I am getting tired of going back to constituents and saying, “I’m sorry. I don’t know why this is. I have been making representations on your behalf, but here am I, three years on, still not an awful lot further forward.” There has been some improvement, but there are still some very poor patches. I do not mind who is responsible; I would just like us to get to the bottom of the problem and to put it right.

My final point is simply this: as we have all gone about our business as Members of Parliament, having Zoom meetings with Ministers, with civil servants in attendance and so on, we realise—this happened to me only a couple of days ago—that as often as not the Minister is in his or her home, and the civil servants are in their homes, wherever they are in the UK. There has been great talk over the years about decentralising civil service functions out of London and the home counties, and into the north of England, or, indeed, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It strikes me that the use of connectivity has demonstrated that this can work fantastically well. It is a bit of a tall order, but could I ask the Minister to look at the benefit that could arise from this terrible pandemic? We could actually do clever things with the civil service, and create jobs in areas where rentals and costs are cheaper, which would save money for the Exchequer. I make that suggestion from the bottom of my heart.

For the purposes of total transparency, I declare that I used to work in the telecommunications industry. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) and the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this vital debate.

In my maiden speech in January, I pledged to work to roll out gigabit broadband in my constituency as it would be a great asset to local businesses and those who work from home. As colleagues have mentioned, the importance of that has become increasingly apparent in recent months as we have seen a great shift in working patterns, with more people working from home than ever before to help stem the spread of covid-19. While it is not yet clear what long-term effects the virus will have on working patterns, with more services moving online the need for high-speed broadband will remain. That is particularly true of rural areas, many of which we know are still unable to receive decent broadband.

In my constituency, much of Loughborough town is in the best 10% of areas in the UK when it comes to lines receiving superfast speeds. When it comes to being able to receive even decent broadband, two of the nearby villages, Sileby and Wymeswold, are in the worst 30%, which is reflective of the countrywide divide between urban and rural areas. I therefore welcome the Government’s commitment in the recent national infrastructure strategy to work with industry to target a minimum of 85% gigabit-capable coverage by 2025 and seek to accelerate the roll-out further to get us as close to 100% as possible.

Crucially, I welcome the emphasis that the strategy places on continuing to implement an ambitious programme of work to remove barriers to broadband deployment and maximise coverage in the hardest-to-reach areas of the country, backed by £5 billion of funding. As part of that, it is right that legislation will be introduced to ensure that new build homes come with gigabit-capable connections. However, we need to go even further and apply that retrospectively so that housing developments built in the last decade benefit from superfast broadband. Over the last year, I have supported the residents of the relatively new housing estate built on the edge of Sileby to access full-fibre connection. Unfortunately, they were faced with the prospect of having to find a significant amount of money to fund the project either through existing Government-backed funding pots or out of their own pockets. I am grateful that, after much deliberation, Openreach has funded the project and made superfast available. However, that does not happen in all cases, and there are still residents who find themselves with a poor broadband connection despite having moved to a newly built property, where we would naturally think that such vital facilities would be available from day one.

Let me say publicly that I am keen to work with fibre suppliers to gain superfast connections for all my constituents, wherever they live in and around Loughborough. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that superfast connectivity—landline, fibre connectivity—is available to all constituents throughout Loughborough?

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt). I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this important debate.

During the course of the pandemic, three things have become apparent. First, relationships really matter. The inability to connect with family, friends and co-workers is what we all miss most in the restrictions that most of the country is living under. Digital connectivity has helped those who are able to access online connections to keep those relationships going, even if it is not in reality a perfect substitute.

Secondly, the health of our economy and the health of our people go hand in hand. They are completely inseparable. If we want a strong and healthy economy, we need to invest in our people. Thirdly, the Conservative manifesto has gone out of the window. We heard powerfully from the right hon. Member for Tatton about how the commitment made in the manifesto only last December has been watered down in this crucial area of public investment. The choices and priorities of the Government risk entrenching inequality between rich and poor, deepening division between north and south and, as a result, and perhaps most appallingly of all, costing us as a country far more in the long run.

Excellent points have been made about the need to invest in our infrastructure—in cables and connections—but I want to talk about people: the 9 million people aged over 15 who cannot use the internet independently; the 23% of children in the poorest families who do not have access to broadband and a laptop, desktop or tablet; and the four in 10 claiming benefits who lack the essential digital life skills they need for everyday life and, crucially, for finding the employment opportunity they desperately want. Challenges have been writ large during the pandemic, but they were there before. One of the great lessons of the pandemic is that our failure to invest has left people more exposed to it than they would otherwise have been.

My hon. Friend is making a truly excellent speech highlighting a number of very important points, which, indeed, other hon. Members have also made. Does he agree that a crucial part of this is for there to be more enforcement and more action taken against poorly performing companies that fail to provide the high-quality service that customers now expect and demand in so many other walks of life?

I strongly agree. Most of my speech this afternoon will be challenging the Government on the steps that they need to take to get the very best service and life opportunities for our people, but there are things that many of these companies can do. Let us be honest: for all the challenges we see in our high streets and communities and the plight of the millions of people who have been excluded from any support from Government, there are a number of companies that have done pretty well, none the less, during the pandemic and which have operated not just with business as usual, but have profited enormously because of the opportunities that have been presented to them as a result of other people’s misery. Those companies should not be criticised for turning a profit or providing services, or for doing well, but it is reasonable to ask those that have done particularly well to play an active role in supporting others in our society and to live up to their corporate social responsibility.

Our failure to invest before the pandemic has left people more exposed than they would otherwise be. We have seen that with the situation in our care homes and the failure to grasp the nettle of social care reforms, which have left many people more dangerously exposed than they would otherwise have been. In this particular area, the failure to invest in the digital skills of our people has meant that disconnection and the digital divide have made some people’s experience of this pandemic even more miserable and hopeless than that of others. I really deplore the fact that education has been an afterthought during this recession, that it took so long for the Department for Education to pull its finger out and get laptops to pupils who need them, and that many schools and pupils are still waiting for laptops and had to go off before receiving any device. No thought has been given to their parents and the fact that many of them lack the digital skills to support their children. Adult education and adult skills barely get a mention from this Government, and we are scrapping really great programmes such as Unionlearn that provide basic skills to workers who desperately need them.

This is not just an issue of general fairness. Class inequality is built into this, in terms of the poorest households, as is the north-south divide. If the Government are serious about levelling up, they have to invest not just in infrastructure and places, but in people. I strongly endorse what the Good Things Foundation has said. A great digital catch-up is desperately needed, but I hope that the Minister will have something better to say than what the Chancellor said barely a week or two ago.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) for securing this debate and my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for her work on the all-party group on broadband and digital communication.

In Beaconsfield, connectivity varies from less than 2 megabits per second to 50 megs. For those who are not savvy in that talk, that is slow—very slow. I have various cases in Beaconsfield where an area was on a programme to be upgraded to super-fast, which is still in the 70 meg range, then a cabinet was not upgraded so the house can achieve only 30 to 50 megs while the next-door neighbour, being served by another cabinet, has less than 2 megs. Forget about Netflix, online learning, a Zoom call or working from home effectively with internet speeds that slow. Not only in Beaconsfield but nationwide, this is an issue that many Members across the House are facing. Covid and the working from home scenario has brought to light a lot of the disparities in digital connectivity. I thank all Members for participating in this debate today.

Effectively, the term “the last mile”—the last leg of the connection to the customer—is what needs to be addressed. This needs to be done to offer as much technology equality as possible and aid in the levelling-up agenda across the country. Technology equality would help not only in the north or in Beaconsfield but in every part of the country where we are struggling to find the technology to work from home effectively. In some areas, this technology is non-existent. Constituents are unable to be competitive in today’s workforce. Not having fast broadband will impede those looking for work in the covid era. Applying for jobs online is more difficult and challenging with a lack of speed. A speed as low as 2 megs means that people cannot take part in a Zoom call, so they cannot interview for a job. This is not equal opportunities or equal access. Even in entertainment, they can forget about watching the current season of “The Crown” or anything else during covid, and cannot speak to their family and friends on Zoom. In education, as the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) said, digital connectivity and speed affect the ability to access educational materials, and this has really been demonstrated during the covid pandemic.

We need to be faster and better, and let us open up the market so that we can have more than one provider competing for each area’s interests. Let us get the boxes up and running, and then we can pay to plug in as and when. Post Brexit, we need to be competitive on both a personal level and a business level. We require connectivity for everyone. Estonia, for example, has this collectively everywhere across the entire country, even in its woodland areas. Everyone, from the oldest lady—the grandmother—to the youngest child, has access to digital connectivity. I hope that we will be doing the same post Brexit.

Approximately 9% of children in the UK are without access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, and Ofcom estimates the number to be up to an extraordinary 1.78 million children. For those children in Mitcham and Morden, my community rallied, securing hundreds of devices packed with data, but how can it be right that their educational opportunity was dependent on a lottery of charitable giving?

Meanwhile, the Government’s attempted roll-out of remote support fell far short of the demand and took months to reach even the small number who benefited. While they promoted their online Oak National Academy, let us be clear that no number of online lessons could benefit those children unable to log in at home. Before lockdown, the children most likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide were leaving school 18 months behind their classmates, and the gap was getting worse. Schools closed, and a quarter of children on free school meals did less than one hour’s schoolwork a day. They will all have returned even further behind, so the digital divide will manifest itself by giving those from the wealthiest backgrounds an advantage over other children. Whatever happened to levelling up?

Importantly, the Government do not seem to recognise that a device is only as effective as the internet connection it is used with. No matter how expensive, how smart or how modern the device distributed, it is rendered useless if it comes without the data or dongle needed to log in from home. That means that the poorest families turn to pay as you go. Just as they pay for their gas and electricity differently, and more expensively, those families streaming online academy lessons can expect to be charged up to an astronomical £37 a day. Why have the Government not engaged with all the mobile virtual network operators—the Lycamobiles, the Giffgaffs and the Tesco Mobiles? After all, these families are unlikely to have contracts with the biggest providers.

This is a practical issue for schools right now, with the law requiring teachers to provide remote education to isolating pupils—introduced in October as the Government’s support was simultaneously slashed. So I ask the Minister three specific questions that I hope his team can find an answer to when he sums up, because I have been unable to get a proper answer from written questions. First, how many devices were distributed or available to be distributed to schools before the remote education law changed in October? Secondly, how many devices have been distributed or are available to be distributed since the law changed? Thirdly, how many dongles have been distributed and how many are still in active use?

Digital exclusion did not result from the pandemic, nor will it subside with it, but coronavirus has shone a spotlight on this inequality. That is why I have introduced a Bill calling for all children entitled to free school meals to have internet access and an adequate device at home. It is a low-cost, tangible step to closing the educational inequality exposed by the pandemic, because surely, no matter in what corner of the Chamber we sit, we can all agree that no child’s education should depend on their internet connection.

Can I first congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on bringing this very important debate to the House today? I think she is not just a superstar for common sense and blue collar conservatism, but actually a rock star for levelling up too. I really want to thank her very much indeed.

Amidst the green and pleasant lands of rural Dorset and the rolling hills of West Dorset, I regret to tell the House there is a desert. I am afraid that is a broadband desert. Why? Because the most rural parts of Dorset have been falling further and further behind on digital connectivity for years. I think the Minister here today knows full well, probably to the digit, my own broadband speed, from our most recent correspondence. For the House’s record, it is 1.4 megabits per second, and he knows how I feel about the fact that, in London, it is in excess of 200 megabits per second download speed. What starker contrast can there be?

The telecoms industry has had a tendency, I am afraid, to focus on commercially attractive urban areas, perpetuating the digital divide in rural areas such as Dorset, and I am here not only to make the case to the Minister today for rural West Dorset, but for the whole of rural Britain—for levelling it up and making sure that we also get our fair share. We must also be more ambitious. It is not good enough just for the urban areas to be the benchmark. I want rural Britain to far exceed it, as I know we can do. We must look to full-fibre gigabit gadgets and all the other things that there are too—the next generation of connectivity—to unleash the full potential of Dorset’s innovative rural, agricultural and coastal economy. Today, I further seek the Minister’s assurance that rural West Dorset will be leading the way.

Coronavirus has clearly emphasised the geographical inequalities that exist for digital connectivity, as more people than ever have worked and learned to socialise virtually from their own homes. This wave of remote working presents an enormous opportunity for West Dorset, and I know rural Britain. It has shown that business and commerce does not have to revolve around London or other cities. In my own constituency, 97% of businesses are small or micro-sized. These local businesses depend on reliable fast broadband to their offices, factories and farms, and I am determined, as my hon. Friend the Minister well knows, that we will sort out digital connectivity for them.

Our absolute priority in Dorset is the construction of a full-fibre spine—critical to dealing with changing commercial conditions and enabling connectivity to the most digitally disadvantaged locations in Dorset. My colleagues in Dorset Council have done fantastic work to secure the bulk of funding for this project, too. I know the Minister knows that just a relatively small amount of Government support here can unlock bountiful opportunities for Dorset. I urge him to move with haste, ensuring that this project can be fully funded.

Yesterday, I met Network Rail and others to find some really new, innovative ideas as to how they can help us as well with this national challenge that we have. I want to put on record how grateful I am to the Minister for all he has done and, I hope, continues to do for us in Dorset. I see him as a knight in shining armour. I hope the rest of my constituents and rural Dorset do the same when he comes to sort out our issues.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) because the situation that he describes in his constituency is one that is all too painfully familiar for me in mine. It is almost a cliché to say that the pandemic has opened our eyes to what is possible with good-quality connectivity. From the northern isles’ perspective, we see it rather differently. The pandemic has shown us what is possible for other people because so many people in my constituency are left bumping along on speeds that are less than 2 megabits per second.

I joined the 21st century just a couple of weeks ago, when I bought myself an iPhone 12, which has 5G capability. I speed tested it in Parliament yard as I was coming up for the debate today. I got a speed test of 227 megabits per second download and 39 megabits per second upload. So the Minister can surely see: we have spoken for years about a digital divide, but that divide is now a chasm.

For Orkney and Shetland, the idea that internet speeds and access to the internet should be more than 200 times greater in SW1 than in KW15, 16 and 17, and ZE1, 2 and 3—[Interruption.] I can still do it sometimes. That illustrates the nature of the problem we face. It speaks more eloquently than anything else I can think of about the failure of how we have gone about this as a country. Simply leaving it to the private sector, which will inevitably build from the big conurbations and go outwards, instead of building from the edge and coming inwards, is what has produced the situation today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) spoke a few minutes ago. He asked in a tone of frustration and exasperation that I can well understand, “Who is responsible for this?” because we have this constantly in Scotland: on the one hand, there is the provision made by the Scottish Government; and, on the other, we have schemes funded by the UK Government. The difficulty is that neither of them gives us what we need.

Not that long ago, this House legislated for a universal service in broadband. Constituents of mine get quotes from BT for that and they hear of £50,000, £60,0000 or £70,000 for a broadband connection to get them to 10 megabits per second. If that is only available to people who have a spare £50,000, £60,0000 or £70,000 lying around the house, by definition it is hardly a universal service. However, my constituents are also frustrated at the lack of certainty and community consultation we see from the R100 scheme of the Scottish Government. We still do not know what they are going to deliver and when we are going to get it. All the signs are that the problems that we have had—a service to be deployed in the isles that is designed in Edinburgh; what people in Edinburgh think we can get and we need—are going to be there again. So the most remote and the most economically fragile communities in my constituency still risk being left behind. It should not be rocket science. Surely, with a bit of will, the Governments could speak to each other and do better than this.

It is always a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). Last time, he was speaking about fish before I spoke, and this time we are speaking about the internet. While we might not be classed as a dynamic duo, we are at least a duo talking about the same issues with the same concerns.

I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on bringing this debate to the House. She has raised with such fortitude and passion an issue that is of concern to many of us in this House. From the not-spots to the hard-to-reach areas, the fully fibred and the simply disconnected, all of which make up the patchwork of variable connectivity that criss-crosses our country, our network is in need of rapid modernisation.

We are all aware of the dramatic impact that covid has had on how we work, shop and interact. Such a reliance on technology has been borne out of necessity. In a short space of time—the past 10 months—we as individuals have become as digitally advanced and interlinked as we might have done over a decade, had such a crisis not evolved. Working from home has become so commonplace it is hard to predict when, if ever, we will return as a whole to condensed city centres or places of work.

The ease with which digital connectivity has facilitated this enormous societal shift means that whenever we do return to normality, it is unlikely that the digital genie will ever be put back in the bottle. We are therefore going to have to embrace this new reality of remote working and of using the mediums of Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Office.

As many have already mentioned, many have been locked out or have simply just not had access to digital connectivity across their areas. It should be a startling fact that 63% of young people rely more on mobile internet for work now than ever before. A new generation of “anywheres”, rather than “somewheres”, who are tech-literate and mobile, working from their phones, laptops and tablets, should be encouraged.

For those who can remember a time before Facebook, the speed at which adaptability is coming about is remarkable. There are benefits that come with it, from estate agents who have done virtual tours, to online medical health centres, pubs, local charities and centres of culture and art, all of which have embodied virtual reality. It is a positivity that we will have to embrace and enhance in the years to come.

But—there is a significant “but” here—according to Cable’s worldwide broadband speed league, the UK is 47th. Out of the top 50 digital-connected nations, the UK’s ranking at 47th should be a cause for concern. The Secretary of State for Education should be particularly concerned to learn that Belgium, France and Spain are all ahead of us on this one. A global Britain must be a connected one. We are quick to tout the amazing things that we do in this country—from FinTech to fibre optics to photonics—but if we want to see those industries and sectors thrive, we need to ensure that connectivity is widespread and across the whole United Kingdom.

Of course, one of the hard-to-reach areas is my constituency in the south-west. Out of 53,000 premises, 20% remain disconnected or completely unconnected at present. That stat is not as bad as the figure for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), but it must be addressed. I have lost count of the number of times the issue has been raised on the doorstep or in my inbox. It restricts opportunity and investment. Addressing it allows us to promise to generations and different parts of our community that we will level up. If we do so, I hope that we will recognise that if we put our money where our mouth is, it gives us the chance to provide opportunities in the south-west, the north-east and anywhere else in the United Kingdom, to provide a new generation with the tech literacy it needs and to attract new investment and opportunity across the whole United Kingdom.

I thank and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on bringing this important debate to the House. I start by recognising what the Government have done in this space, where we have some very positive developments. I particularly honour them for the “outside-in” approach to extending broadband coverage, so that everywhere gets connected together, including the hardest-to-reach 20%. That is an important principle.

The Government are seeking not just the sugar rush of investment in the productivity sweet spots of our country, but long-term investment in the future of all our communities. I particularly congratulate the Government on issuing 40,000 vouchers under the rural gigabit broadband voucher scheme. Some 500,000 premises have been connected to gigabit broadband in the past year. That is a very positive development, but as we have heard, more is needed for rural areas.

The internet is the saviour of the countryside. If we want our towns and villages to prosper, which means more remote working, more start-ups and more young people staying in the countryside, nothing matters more than this, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton said. We know that 30% of rural firms experience unreliable broadband, which is twice the rate of firms in urban areas. Levelling up means equalising the quality of broadband in rural and urban areas. It is not only the deserts of Dorset we need to worry about but the wastelands of Wiltshire, which are just as bad, and I urge the Minister to help us.

This is not just about geographies; it is about the people within our geographies as coverage expands. Investment in digital infrastructure on its own is not enough. The fact is that, on its own, that investment would widen inequalities and reduce social mobility. It would just further advantage the people with the capabilities to use that technology. The question for us is, how to address the digital divide as we build up our digital infrastructure? The answer is more social infrastructure, and I am pleased that this concept is becoming more and more recognised.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor talked in his spending review statement last week about the infrastructure of everyday life. These are the institutions and the services that bring people together and spread opportunity. He particularly mentioned libraries when he talked about the levelling up fund. I pay tribute to the Good Things Foundation, which has a vision for the role of libraries as the digital hubs of our communities, with a central focus on digital skills. We need a great digital catch-up and a great national mission to get as many of those 9 million people who want and need it online, working through trusted local organisations. The Good Things Foundation estimates that for £135 million, we could halve the digital divide and get 4.5 million people online over four years at a cost of around £30 per person, or the cost of a GP appointment—just think of the gains to wellbeing and prosperity that that £30 per person will produce.

There is an even bigger prize, which is to get big tech on the side of our local communities. I know that this is a stretch. Culturally, after all, big tech is the incarnation of the idea that we do not belong anywhere. I regret to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) celebrating the “anywheres”; that was very off-message. Big tech incarnates the idea of the Californian-themed cyber-universe, but it does not have to be that way. I know that many of the big tech firms are thinking differently now, seeing how they can support local economic growth and focus less on the abstract global community of their users and more on the real-life local communities that their users live in.

I hope we can open a conversation with some of the big tech firms to see what they can do to create what we might call digital social infrastructure and improve the wiring of the social economy. Crucially, we must not empower tech giants with access to community data for them to exploit commercially. Any new systems that are built must be non-proprietary, and value created from community data must be owned and used by communities themselves. There is a good conversation to be had here, and I hope the Government will do that.

If we have learnt anything from the pandemic, it is surely that broadband is an essential component of modern life, yet just over 10% of households in the UK have access to next-generation full-fibre broadband, compared with 80% in other developed countries. The UK’s average broadband speed places us 22nd out of 29 western European nations. My rural constituency languishes at 634th out of the 650 UK constituencies for its connectivity, and getting better broadband is a top priority for a huge number of my constituents and businesses.

Levelling up the UK is not just a north-south issue. It is also a rural-urban issue. Workers in the rural economy are at least 16% less productive than the national average. Only yesterday, I spoke in a debate on the issues in Devon and Somerset, where we do not have superfast broadband yet, let alone gigabit-capable broadband. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on broadband and digital communication, I hear concerns from across the country and across the House about the plight of hard-to-reach rural communities in accessing a usable broadband connection.

While recognising that achieving 100% coverage by 2025 was ambitious, I think we can see through the pandemic how ambitious targets can drive great achievements, such as building testing capacity and securing a vaccine. I am disappointed that, while the industry continually advises that it could get very close to 100% gigabit-capable coverage by 2025 if some barrier-busting were to take place, the decision has been taken to reduce that target, which unfortunately will inevitably condemn many rural communities to being stuck with inadequate broadband and increase the urban-rural divide.

While I acknowledge that the full £5 billion we committed to has not been withdrawn, the significant reduction in that amount announced in last week’s spending review to just £1.2 billion has understandably rung alarm bells for the industry and my constituents about our commitment to ensuring that hard-to-reach rural communities are not left detached from the digital infrastructure that they desperately need to enable their children to access education, their businesses to thrive and them to work from home as far as possible. When we look to levelling up and building back better, are we not hoping to do it greener as well? In rural areas with limited public transport, surely improving broadband coverage will not just reduce the productivity gap of our beautiful rural communities, but enable them to reduce their carbon footprint.

I realise that the magic money tree cannot keep on giving indefinitely, but North Devon’s infrastructure asks do not include motorways or railways. We would like access to the same speed of broadband connectivity as other parts of the country. There are businesses ready to help deliver that if we can remove some of the obstacles in their path and let them begin to connect up our countryside and ensure that no community is left behind.

It is a pleasure to follow my barrier-busting hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby). I also want to thank my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), and the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for securing this important debate, because this is about our future—this nation’s future. Every part of our future is involved in what we do and how we spend our time online: most businesses today do not operate without engagement online; every one of our schools does not operate without being online; our justice system is online for remote courts; our health system is online for accessing medical records; and our usually booming entertainment sector is driven online. Increasingly, every part of our lives is relying on our digital infrastructure.

Let me take us back a few years, on a trip back into the annals of time, to when people had modems that they plugged into the phone line. They would press a button and hear whizzes, and occasionally the pizza wheel of doom would appeared and they would watch it—I am sure the Minister does not remember this, perhaps because he is not quite old enough to remember any of these things happening. I am afraid that that is not confined to history for every part of our communities today. The pizza wheel of doom occasionally appears for some of the rural residents in villages such as Higher Walton, just outside Warrington, where people are really not enjoying much faster speeds than when they had modems a few years ago.

I welcome some of the initiatives being introduced to connect in some of the hard-to-reach areas, such as the village of Lymm in my constituency, where we are seeing major extensions of the gigabit-capable fibre broadband into homes which previously were not included in the schemes. I am keen to explore further the opportunities to look at community fibre partnerships, with the help from government, to secure connectivity for villages across my constituency. Connecting every constituency and every home in the north-west of England to full fibre broadband by 2025 would create a £5.5 billion boost to the region’s economy; 54,000 people in the region could be brought back into the workforce through enhanced connectivity, including small businesses and helping entrepreneurs to drive their companies forward. To do that we need the Minister to confirm rapidly how much money will be available in the voucher scheme after March next year. The rural gigabit vouchers have helped hundreds of thousands of premises to be connected and have the potential to connect even more rapidly, but we need that commitment from the Minister.

I wish to finish by talking about some of the communities that are excluded even though they have superfast broadband. I held a number of roundtables last week with headteachers, who talked to me about some of the pupils in some of the most deprived areas of my constituency, who certainly could connect on to superfast broadband but did not have a laptop. They did not have parents who had the knowledge to be able to support and engage them digitally in lessons. There is a real challenge to tackle that digital divide—that must remain a priority for this Government. The future digital inclusion programme will support some of those hardest-to-reach groups in society, including many older residents who have never worked in an environment where computers were part of their life. We need to keep it in mind that, for them, accessing a GP via econsult is a bit like a foreign language.

To round off, I am really pleased to see that Openreach is partnering with the Good Things Foundation to support the network of digital skills centres from across the country, but let us drive this further and faster.

It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate and I really thank the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) for bringing it to us. I cannot quite remember the pizza wheel of doom, but it is probably that I have not heard that expression since I last used Yahoo.

If I go onto doorsteps in North Norfolk, I can guarantee that one of the most common issues that my residents want to talk about is broadband or their mobile phone reception—or lack of it. In the 21st century, it is rather surprising that we continually talk about this issue; we do so time and again. It should be an absolute given than people are entitled to a decent mobile phone reception and decent broadband speed wherever they live. I fully recognise that the Government are making great strides to ensure that no area of the country is left behind to suffer from poor speeds, but in May, the Ofcom report revealed that the average home broadband speed was just 64 Mbps. In my constituency of North Norfolk, the average speed was just 35.7 Mbps, making it one of the slowest areas in the country. That is just about half the national average, which is just not good enough.

I regularly try to help my constituents with the universal service obligation offering. The problem is not that the coverage is lacking per se—actually it is pretty good. Around 95% of people get a connection in my constituency, but the last 5%, which we hear about so many times in this place, just seems not to be able to be helped at a reasonable cost. I regularly get costs coming back at around £50,000, which, as we know, our vouchers do not quite stretch to. I welcome the fact that the Minister is aware of this problem and is trying to solve it. If I can make a small ask, can some of that £5 billion—like the vaccine that I asked for the other week—come to North Norfolk?

Good broadband and mobile signal is fundamental in our post-covid recovery and we have heard that many times today. There are many people who want to move out of the cities and come to live in beautiful locations such as where I am from. What holds them back time and again is wanting to be able to run their business from home, get that speed and perhaps a service business and they need that reliable broadband. What is even more of a potential issue is a decent mobile reception. I would like to get a decent mobile reception before we even get 4G or 5G in North Norfolk please. As we have heard before, the shared rural network is absolutely imperative. We have got to have that. If we get it right, what that has the capacity to do is to supersede any fixed line broadband scenario.

If I had a top ask of the Minister, it would be just how do we get that very last 5% covered across all parts of the country, and particularly to rural areas such as mine, that need that adequate broadband connection. How do we make it cost-effective? For everybody back in my patch, I say, yes, we want 4G and 5G but we also want a reliable mobile signal that spans the entire area, and, certainly, we must bring forward the shared rural network as fast as we can in the next few years.

May I also add my name to the long list of Members congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) and the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this important debate? Getting online and having basic digital skills are now as important for getting a job as English and maths. Yet the fact that we have 9 million people struggling to use the internet independently and being locked out of the digital economy means that we are not levelling up, but leaving people behind. It is now the Government’s opportunity to turn the great digital divide into the great digital catch-up before it is too late and a whole generation of talent is lost for good. Regarding costs, the Minister might be interested in joining my campaign with CEO Alexander Fitzgerald from Cuckoo, asking for VAT to be reduced to 5% on broadband, as it is on other essential items. Regarding costs, the Minister might be interested in joining my campaign with CEO Alexander Fitzgerald from Cuckoo, asking for VAT to be reduced to 5% on broadband, as it is on other essential items, which would save on average £70 per household. Although that would come at a cost of £2 billion to the Treasury, I feel that that money would soon be returned.

Not wanting to be a negative Nelly, I will talk about Silicon Stoke, which I know has become ingrained in the Minister because of the amount of communication he hears about it. By April 2021, we will be one of the first cities in the country to have a full-fibre network, which will cover more than 104 km and be able to offer 100% of residents and businesses in the city a truly future-proof, point-to-point network, delivering gigabits to every house and premises. Full fibre is the foundation stone of Silicon Stoke, the plan to put Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke at the centre of the digital tech revolution. If the Government are looking for a location to launch their full-fibre strategy for the country, it has to be Stoke-on-Trent.

Of course, Silicon Stoke and full fibre are not just about faster movie nights, virtual meetings and amazingly fast gigabit download speeds; this £25 million-plus network will unleash a staggering £625 million into the local economy over the next decade, as well as longer-term socioeconomic benefits. I thank the Minister and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for the Department’s £9.2 million contribution towards the project.

Immersive learning is something I know a lot about as a former teacher. We have never been able to realise it, due to the technological constraints schools face, but in Stoke-on-Trent the world where teachers and students can access educational resources instantly and teach through virtual reality is literally just around the corner. To help to make that happen faster, I ask the Government to recognise the opportunity that such a connection would provide to the educational offer of the city and therefore the levelling-up agenda.

In Stoke-on-Trent we hope to produce a game school—a regional free school for 14 to 18-year-olds with partly selective entry, based on talent and commitment to developing specialist skills in different elements of game design, creation, production and marketing. I hope the Department for Education will capture the excitement of that vision and help us to create that school, with all the attention and profile it would bring to Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Backing the Silicon Stoke educational plan will help to level up Stoke-on-Trent at gigabit speed.

Silicon Stoke will also address the healthcare needs of my post-industrial city. Technology-enabled care services such as telehealth, telecare and self-care apps have the potential to transform the way people engage in and control their healthcare. The West Midlands Academic Health Science Network is already working alongside the Stoke-on-Trent clinical commissioning group to make that vision a reality. I hope the Department of Health and Social Care, along with NHS England and NHS Digital, will make Stoke-on-Trent the city to showcase digital-enabled health and care. The Department and the NHS can make full use of the open access, full-fibre network connectivity that we have to offer right now, today, in Stoke-on-Trent.

Mr Deputy Speaker, allow me to begin by offering my own congratulations to the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on securing this debate. She makes an important point when she says that we should be treating broadband and connectivity as being every bit as important as any other utility that we take for granted in our home.

As many hon. Members have said, the importance of connectivity has never been brought home to us more than over the past few months. Whether for shopping, access to public or medical services or even, dare I say it, fulfilling our role as parliamentarians, without connectivity it would have been an exceptionally more difficult time than it already was.

What that has done is expose the yawning chasm of the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots—those who can access reliable high-speed connections and those who cannot, because they lack the personal financial means, the technical skills, proximity to a suitable wired or wireless connection or some combination of all three. The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) captured it well when he spoke about some of the data on the exclusion that people face, which is stark in terms of people’s socioeconomic status and who gets left behind in this. Speaking as a Member of Parliament covering parts of the city of Aberdeen as well as parts of rural Aberdeenshire, the contrast between areas of the city where there is a gigabit-fast enabled connection and parts of my constituency that struggle to get enough bandwidth to reliably download emails or even to make a mobile phone call is really quite stark.

Telecommunications is a power that is reserved to Westminster. Nevertheless, the Scottish Government, recognising the gulf between what the market will deliver by itself and what even the interventions of the UK Government can deliver, have made tremendous efforts to close that gap by making broadband investment themselves. The Digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has provided fibre broadband access to nearly 1 million premises the length and breadth of Scotland, taking fibre to the cabinet and in some cases to the premises that would not otherwise have been reached by infrastructure of that quality.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) spoke of the R100 programme. I share his frustration about the north package, which was mired in a legal dispute over the awarding of the contract. Now that that has been overcome, I look forward to seeing the details of how the £384 million that has been earmarked for the north will start to benefit the communities that we both represent. Even that will take us only so far, however. Vouchers will go only so far, and the UK Government’s universal service obligation is in many cases reliant on 4G broadband connections that simply do not exist. So, in terms of the roll-out and the additional resource that the UK Government have committed—which, sadly, has been cut back—yes, we need to build from the outside in, but we also need to ensure that all parts of the UK, even those with devolved Governments who are doing their bit to enhance the existing provision, receive their fair share.

In the remaining time available, let me speak up for the alternative providers known as altnets. For those who are unfamiliar with them, they are alternative internet service providers who rely on radio connections or even their own fibre to provide internet broadband services, but they rely on existing infrastructure from companies such as Openreach for the backhaul. Openreach recently made an announcement, aimed at those particular providers, that it would be levying a supplementary charge, and it is no exaggeration to describe that charge as punitive. I would almost go so far as to say that the charges it proposes to place on the leasing of those lines could in some cases be anti-competitive, and I hope to have a conversation with the Minister about that so that we can look into it further.

It is also important to say that, once the infrastructure is there, it must be accessible and safe. That means having the means to access it with the devices that are available, especially for those who cannot afford to purchase them themselves. It also means people having the skills to access these services. Too many people lack the necessary digital skills for work, even though they might have them for their daily lives. The drop-off in the socioeconomic standing of people at that skills level is absolutely stark, and we must ensure that we do not embed that generational inequality going forward.

We have been forced to go online to do more, and the longer the UK Government delay their online harms legislation, the more likely it is that people will come to harm. We are talking about risks to children, as well as the risk of criminal activity including fraud and crimes of acquisition and exploitation. We are also talking about misinformation and disinformation, particularly as we go into a process of vaccinating millions of people across the country against this dreadful virus. The bots, trolls and disinformation merchants will be out there working tirelessly to sow mistrust and distrust. We need to give people the means to access these services and the digital skills to use them, but we also need give them the life skills to differentiate between quality information and misinformation.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I can see that my own personal broadband in this debate is about to be choked fairly soon, but I would just say this. I cannot remember—perhaps someone will tell me afterwards—who said that markets are a bit like donkeys, in that they are useful for getting things done, but they occasionally need a prod in the right direction. Nowhere is that more true at the moment than in telecommunications and broadband. The UK Government have the regulatory and constitutional powers to act in this regard, and we are very keen to work with them at UK level to see how they can use those powers for good, to go further and faster.

I would like to start by thanking the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for securing this important and excellent debate. When I first entered Parliament 10 years ago after 20 years as a telecoms engineer, I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of discussion on digital connectivity and digital opportunity. That has really changed in the past few months, although not significantly in Government time. Members have shown real knowledge, passion and understanding, and I hope that the Minister has been listening.

As several Members—most eloquently, I thought, my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh)—pointed out, the covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the significant role that online services play in supporting people’s social lives, education, workplaces and communities. We have seen a huge shift in people’s dependence on digital. The Office for National Statistics estimates that almost 50% of people are currently working from home, and 80% of people told it that they feel digital technology has been a vital support to them in lockdown, if they have access to it.

Several Members—in particular the hon. Members for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) and for West Dorset (Chris Loder) and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael)—emphasised the economic importance of digital connectivity, but for it to play that role, we need it to be reliable and fast. The 2020 National Audit Office report “Improving Broadband” found that, at 14%, the UK has one of the lowest full-fibre coverage rates in Europe, as several Members observed.

The fact is that successive Tory Governments have presided over 10 wasted years for our telecoms infrastructure. The last Labour Government made great strides in building a digital economy. Our Communications Act 2003 set the strategy and vision, and our office of the internet was a world leader. We oversaw the roll-out of first-generation broadband to 50% of households by 2009 and were in the top 15% of global broadband speed tables, with competitive infrastructure positions.

I wonder whether the hon. Member agrees with me that, actually, it was the Labour Government who made telecommunications companies spend billions of pounds buying bandwidth that previously had been only a matter of hundreds of pounds. If they did not have that bandwidth, they did not have that network and they were not in the market.

I am afraid that I do not have the time fully to go into the reasons why that intervention is wholly without value. First, we are talking about fixed networks here. Secondly, the huge improvement in the services that could be offered on spectrum meant that that spectrum was valuable, and it is in the public interest that valuable spectrum should have its value recognised.

This Government have flip-flopped and U-turned when it comes to our network infrastructure. As the right hon. Member for Tatton reflected, the Prime Minister initially promised full fibre to all by 2025. In their 2019 manifesto, the Government downgraded that pledge to universal gigabit-capable broadband to every home. Then, only last week, they sneaked out in the spending review plans to water down their broadband promises; instead of keeping to their manifesto promise, the Government are now aiming only to have a minimum of 85% coverage by that date. The budget for that plan remains the same, but now only £1.2 billion of the £5 billion will be made available up until 2024. We were promised roll-out; what we got was roll-back.

BT’s own analysis shows that at the current rate, full-fibre coverage will reach only 70% of UK premises by 2025 without the removal of key barriers, making even the revised target unrealistic. At the current rate, the Government’s 100% target will not be met until 2033, disappointing many Members, including the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis).

The Local Government Association also has major concerns about the Government’s intention to centrally procure and manage the contracts for the delivery of gigabit-capable broadband infrastructure. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to reassure local authorities that they will be involved in the local delivery of both broadband and 5G infrastructure.

For many, access to fibre is but a dream. As the hon. Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), for Devizes (Danny Kruger), for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) set out, in the wastelands of Wiltshire and the deserts of Dorset they have no, or very little, broadband access. There are 1.9 million households without access to the internet and 155,000 UK properties are unable to get decent broadband. In rural areas, 50% of rural premises have patchy and unreliable mobile reception. Nearly half a million rural premises cannot get decent broadband. The broadband universal service obligation is no such thing, with rural residents potentially charged tens of thousands of pounds to connect to broadband, as the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) highlighted.

We need to provide network access to protect the most vulnerable in our society. FutureDotNow estimates that between 175,000 and 500,000 of those who received letters instructing them to shield during the pandemic had no internet access, yet because the letters were peppered with references to websites, those individuals would find it incredibly difficult to access the information they need. Yet the Government do not even have a target for digital inclusion. Could the Minister speak to that?

Many Members made the point—I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central and her all-party group, and the passion of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) in this area—that digital infrastructure is not enough. We need digital skills, which are economically key to keeping us safe online and unlocking the potential of digital. A lack of digital skills isolates people. To participate effectively online, individuals need devices on which to access the internet. Without them, individuals are excluded. What is the Minister doing to provide the digital skills and access that are needed?

I am aware that the Minister previously told the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that although he wanted to do more to help those who are digitally excluded, there were limited resources. I think the Chair of the Select Committee dealt effectively with that point. I urge the Minister to find the political will and set out plans to ensure that nobody in the UK is left behind through a lack of digital literacy in this digital age, and that everyone can be an active participant in our increasingly digital world. Digital should be an enabler, not a divider.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) and the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing the debate.

When I first came into this place, I set up the all-party group on broadband and digital communication. On 12 October 2015, I secured a debate on broadband. Today, I stand here as the Minister with responsibility for broadband. Mr Deputy Speaker, be careful what you wish for. I say that, because I honestly believe there is no more important infrastructure job that this Government are tackling. Connectivity is about so much more than cables: whether it is the fact that people who are online are more than £200 a year better off, can educate their children better, can see their doctors more effectively, can have the hospital appointments they need, can watch “The Crown”, fictional or otherwise, or can see their relatives at a time when, now more than ever, we all want to see our relatives. When I set up the all-party group, it was because I am passionate about this subject. I have spent the best part of two decades writing and talking about it. Connectivity is an engine of social justice. It is critical to the levelling-up agenda. It will make this country greener, more inclusive and more diverse.

I want to turn immediately to the first question that my right hon. Friend raised. We are committed to delivering nationwide gigabit connectivity as soon as possible. The 85% minimum coverage by 2025 is just that. If we can go faster by 2025, it will be with the help of the industry and we will do just that. The constraint is simply how fast we can dig up the roads and bust every barrier. Since this Government took office in 2019, gigabit-capable connectivity has risen from 9% to one third today. We will keep up that pace and, by the end of next year, I expect gigabit-capable connectivities to be half of all connections.

I would invite the hon. Lady to turn to the “National Infrastructure Strategy”—it may be on her bedside table: it is certainly on mine. Page 11 of the “National Infrastructure Strategy” has 15 bullet points. She asked how important this target is to the Government. Well, of those 15 bullet points, the ninth is HS2. The third bullet point is levelling up. to answer her question about how important broadband is, it is the very first bullet point. It is absolutely essential. I look forward to meeting her blue collar group—I pay tribute to its work—to discuss that in more detail. We will spend every bit of the money as fast as we possibly can to deliver that target as fast as we possibly can.

Several hon. Members raised the issue of education and devices. In the extraordinary circumstances of this pandemic, the Government delivered 340,000 laptops and tablets and 51,000 4G wireless routers, and spent £195 million trying to make sure that the children and families who needed it most had the connectivity that they needed when so many of the schools were closed. It is a testament to a programme in which we showed all the commitment we possibly could and got both the data and the devices to people who needed them most.

The hon. Lady shakes her head. As one of the members of the ministerial group, I know that we strained every sinew to get all of that connectivity there and we will continue to do that to make sure that children are educated as best they can be. I pay tribute to the teachers who have converted their lessons to online, because it is a huge change in working patterns.

The Minister will know that the Government introduced a requirement on schools to provide online learning on a Thursday at 6pm. On the Friday, the Government halved the number of laptops and computers available for children who had no such access at home. How does the Minister believe that that action helped schools to provide education to those children?

The DFE is absolutely committed to targeting the laptops and the connectivity to where they are needed most. She is right to say that the allocation changed: it was because of that targeting, to get the devices to where they were most needed. She presents it as a cut, but it is inaccurate to do so.

The Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), talked powerfully about the importance of making sure that we encourage people to take up broadband where it is offered. That is why the Government have set up the Gigabit Take-up Advisory Group—GigaTAG—with the FSB, Which? and the CBI, to make sure that where broadband is there it is taken up by businesses and consumers. We want to try to create that virtuous circle that demonstrates that there is demand and, therefore, greater reason for the private sector to invest. It is the private sector that will deliver 80%, if not more, of the market as a whole. Where the industry has the capacity and the capability to deliver more gigabit-capable coverage, we will do everything we can to drive that forward.

I turn to what we have already done and what we will continue to do when it comes to busting the barriers that various hon. Members have mentioned. We have taken legislative action to make it easier to install broadband in blocks of flats. We have committed to legislate to mandate gigabit connectivity in new builds. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), who has already delivered for one estate and I know will deliver for many more. We expect gigabit-capable coverage in her constituency to reach 50% by the end of next year, which I know she will welcome. We are also preparing to consult on changes to the electronic communications code so that greater access is given to land in a way that works for landowners and the networks to roll out wireless networks, focusing in particular on 5G.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) mentioned the importance of competition. I will use that as an opportunity to talk a little about the future of the gigabit programme. Before Christmas, we will be talking about the pipeline and the beginnings of the roll-out for the gigabit programme, which I hope will provide hon. Members with a greater sense of where we will focus our resources in the first instance. I say to those such as my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who pointed out areas with the worst connectivity, that they should not fear that they will be at the back of the queue. We are keen to focus our resources on areas that will see the greatest benefit from improvements. That is something good to hear from Norfolk to Dorset and Scotland as well.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) asked about the smaller networks that are often those used by people on lower incomes. The Government’s package announced for vulnerable consumers included commitments not to disconnect people in financial distress not only from the larger networks but from those such as giffgaff, which she mentioned. We focused not just on large providers but on ensuring that there were protections for vulnerable consumers as well. In the same way, I point out to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton how, in the course of the pandemic, half a million NHS workers benefited from enhanced provision from the main telecoms providers, because we understand exactly how important it is to get the best connectivity to NHS workers who, in cases such as that of her constituent, came out of retirement—it sounded like she did—to help out with the pandemic. That is just a small number of examples of what the Government have done in the course of the pandemic, but it testifies to our commitment to a crucial agenda. Another example will be working with the Good Things Foundation, which my hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and Culture met recently. We are committed to working with the Good Things Foundation and we will continue to do that. The skills toolkit in April was very important.

I close by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton. In the Backbench Business debate I held in October 2015, there were some 54 contributors; today there were 20-odd. We are making progress on this agenda, but I am as impatient as she is to ensure that we get the job done. The Government’s commitment should not be doubted for a second.

In the time I have left to me, I thank once again the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have the debate and the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for working so closely with me to ensure that the debate happened. We can see from the number of Members who attended how important this issue is to everybody, for a whole host of reasons. We had excellent speeches about the differences between city and rural, about inclusion and about levelling up. It really was important that everybody was here today.

I mention in particular the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) and I hope that his being here and speaking will mean that this is a recurrent theme in that Committee until we get what we want. I thank the Minister, too, who I know is a champion for digital infrastructure and inclusion and an expert in this area. I am delighted that he said that digital infrastructure was high on the priorities—higher, much higher, than High Speed 2—so my only concern is that while the money tumbles for digital infrastructure, the money for High Speed 2 goes through the roof, and that must be changed.

I am delighted that he said that digital infrastructure was high on the priorities—higher, much higher, than High Speed 2—so my only concern is that while the money tumbles for digital infrastructure, the money for High Speed 2 goes through the roof, and that must be changed.

I do hope that the Minister is strengthened—maybe even fortified—by the debate that we have had today, so that he will go back to the Chancellor with us all behind him and get that £5 billion back into this pot, where it deserves to be and to have it delivered by 2025—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).