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Digital Connectivity: Rural Wales

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 1 March 2023

1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving digital connectivity in rural Wales. (903769)

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Llefarydd, and a happy St David’s Day—dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus.

The Government are committed to improving digital connectivity as demonstrated by our commitment to Project Gigabit, the shared rural network and, most recently, the new very hard-to-reach pilots, two of which are located in Wales.

Ofcom reports that some 30,000 premises across the UK have no access to decent broadband or to a decent 4G signal, including rural areas of Ceredigion, such as Lledrod, Pennant, Talgarreg, Cribyn, Sarnau, Abermeurig and Coed-y-bryn to name but a few. Will the Minister make representations to colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that those areas are prioritised in the next iteration of Project Gigabit?

The hon. Member is right to raise that issue. Let me reiterate that we have Project Gigabit, which is an ambitious £5 billion project to reach the hardest-to-reach areas outside of the commercial scope, and also the Alpha trials using satellites, two of which are in Snowdonia National Park. There are, as he will be aware, also opportunities through the Mid Wales growth deal. I would be happy to meet him to discuss what more we can do. With regard to mobile networks, there is the shared rural network, alongside the use of the Home Office’s extended area service infrastructure.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) is absolutely right to raise the issues that he has—he is often right, actually. I declare an interest here, Mr Speaker. In the Dysynni valley, in Gwynedd, broadband fibre was connected to premises after being a complete non-spot for so many years. Can my hon. Friend the Minister carry on with the hard work to ensure that there is gigabit connection within Cymru—Wales?

I know that my hon. Friend is a regular visitor to Wales. He is quite right to raise the importance of broadband both to people’s modern way of life and also to business. There has been progress, but there is much more to do.

Happy St David’s Day, Mr Speaker. I thank London Welsh School for such a lovely flag-raising ceremony this morning.

On the subject of digital connectivity, EU structural funds have helped our universities to deliver research, innovation and skills development across areas that the Minister’s Government consider a priority, including digital transformation. Many of these projects now face a cliff-edge as EU structural funds finish, with 60 projects in Wales due to end this year, putting around 1,000 skilled jobs at risk. What conversations has he and the Secretary of State had with Cabinet colleagues to protect those valuable skilled jobs?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. She is right that academic institutions have been reliant on EU structural funding in the past. There is, of course, the shared prosperity fund coming forward, which universities will need to apply to. I know that my colleague the Secretary of State is visiting all universities across Wales. I have accompanied him to Bangor University and I have also visited Wrexham University very recently, and both are adjusting to the new landscape.

Going back to the subject of gigabit, the Government’s Project Gigabit boasts that it will deliver lightning-fast reliable broadband to every corner of the UK, but the project update that was published this week by the Minister’s Government shows that Wales has the lowest coverage of any of the home nations—just 57% compared with, for example, 73% in England and 89% in Northern Ireland. Does that not represent yet another broken promise by the Tories to Wales?

The hon. Lady is aware that the geography and topography of Wales make digital connections more tricky than in some other areas. She is also aware that it is the Welsh Government who have been leading on the roll-out of broadband in Wales in conjunction with Building Digital UK, and I agree that more work needs to be done to improve those figures.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Lefarydd, a dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus i chithau ac i bawb—happy St. David’s Day to everybody.

Although the Minister might blame the mountains, it is evident that poor connectivity in rural areas is clearly one of the factors holding businesses back. Another is trade barriers, particularly for Holyhead. Pre-Brexit, about 30% of all trade through the port went on to Northern Ireland from Dublin. That trade has collapsed and it is not protected by green lanes. Stena Line says that there needs to be a solution to this disparity. Can he come up with a solution to protect Holyhead from his Government’s policy?

The right hon. Lady recently attended a debate that I responded to in Westminster Hall, where she was making the case for a freeport in Holyhead. She knows that there are opportunities, through freeports, to boost the trade through Holyhead and other ports in Wales that are seeking the same designation. I urge her to continue that fight.

I urge his Government to come forward with news, because Wales desperately needs two freeports at least.

The Prime Minister said yesterday that Northern Ireland is in the “unbelievably special position” of having privileged access not just to the UK market, but hey, to the EU single market. That is an excellent argument for Plaid Cymru’s policy to rejoin the single market. Why is it not good enough for Wales?

Wales voted to leave the EU quite decisively. The right hon. Lady knows that the situation in Northern Ireland is really quite different from that in Wales, and this is a carefully put together deal to accommodate that situation. I feel quite sure that the EU is not in the business of allowing what she suggests.