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Volume 715: debated on Thursday 26 May 2022

We are making excellent progress on delivering the biggest broadband upgrade in UK history, so that we have fast, reliable digital infrastructure for decades to come. In the past three years, national gigabit coverage has rocketed from 6% to 68%, we are investing £5 billion so that people in hard-to-reach areas can get ultra-reliable speeds, and we have already upgraded more than 600,000 premises. We also have £500 million-worth of contracts out for tender covering areas from Cumbria to Cornwall.

Under this Government, broadband speeds are anything but levelled up. For example, the average download speed in North Shropshire is just 49 megabits per second. In Tiverton and Honiton it is just 43 megabits per second, which is half the national average of 86 megabits per second and 60% slower than the average speed in London. The Prime Minister reportedly cracks jokes about this behind closed doors, but if the Government truly care about rural Britain, why are they leaving it in the digital slow lane?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I do not share her characterisation of what is happening. I am pleased to say that there is almost 99% superfast coverage in her North Shropshire constituency, which is above the national average. Shropshire is also included in lot 25 of Project Gigabit, so those areas that are not covered by the very fast commercial roll-out of our gigabit scheme will be out for procurement—we expect it to happen in the next year—in order to build to those harder-to-reach premises.

In the meantime, if there are any premises in North Shropshire that can receive vouchers, I recommend that the hon. Lady’s constituents apply for them. I am also pleased to say that Shropshire Council is supporting a local top-up fund to supplement our voucher subsidy and has invested £2 million to date. As I say, I do not agree with her characterisation of the progress we are making.

I know that my hon. Friend shares my and my constituents’ frustration at the failure of the Scottish Government and their ironically named Reaching 100% scheme to deliver for people in Scotland. [Interruption.] It is six years late and millions of pounds over budget, notwithstanding the protestations of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands). What is the Department doing to help level up broadband connectivity for my constituents in rural Scotland?

The situation in Scotland is, admittedly, tricky. I have talked to my counterpart in the Scottish Government, and the Scottish Government’s strategy prioritises some of the islands and seeks to have greater spend in some of those hard-to-reach areas than we have in parts of England. I cannot ask people in other parts of the country to suffer for decisions made by the Scottish Government on the areas they are prioritising. I am keen to continue working with the Scottish Government on trying to get connectivity to Scotland, because I share my hon. Friend’s passion for that, but we are also looking at what we can do for the very hardest-to-reach premises, a number of which are in Scotland.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Madam Deputy Speaker.

A staggering 1.1 million people struggle to afford the most basic broadband and mobile services, and the pandemic has only reinforced the fact that broadband is now truly the fourth utility. Our day-to-day lives cannot function without it. Inflation is now running at 9%, and broadband packages have risen by 12%. With the roll-out stagnating, prices rising and household incomes being squeezed, why did the Government and Ofcom allow Openreach and other providers to raise network prices above inflation, hitting consumers and raking in profits, without real investment in full fibre?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that such services are now key utilities. As he will know, we debated the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill yesterday, in which we are seeking to bring down rents to reduce prices for operators and, therefore, for consumers.

The hon. Gentleman will also be aware of the great work we did on social tariffs with providers throughout the pandemic. The Secretary of State recently wrote to providers to understand what more the Government can do to promote those social tariffs. We have also been working with the Department for Work and Pensions to roll out social tariffs to even more people, particularly those on universal credit.

It is pleasing, week on week, to see more and more villages in my constituency getting fibre-to-the-premises broadband, but many small operators tell me that the “Equinox” Openreach discount on the wholesale price is having a distorting effect on the speed of roll-out from those smaller operators, particularly to rural communities. Has my hon. Friend modelled the impact that that discount is having on the market? What can her Department do to fix it?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important regulatory issue, which is actually led by Ofcom. It has been raised with me by altnets, and it is of concern. The Government want as much competition in the market as possible, as we think that is speeding up roll-out. The commercial sector is going great guns on this. I appreciate his concerns, and this week I met Councillor Martin Tett in the Buckingham constituency to talk about what more we can do to speed up the roll-out to my hon. Friend’s constituents.