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Broadband: Rural Communities

Volume 742: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2023

[Peter Dowd in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of broadband for rural communities.

It is a pleasure to be here as the Member for West Dorset and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I welcome Members from across the House who are participating in the debate, and extend a warm welcome to my constituents in the Gallery.

“Inequality”, “isolation” and “exclusion” are the three terms most associated with the impacts of poor rural broadband. “Weak” and “ineffectual” are terms often associated with Ofcom, the regulator, which is meant to protect the interests of constituents, both urban and rural. “Ruthless”, “commercial”, “yield maximising” and “predatory organisations” are terms often associated with businesses—often very large businesses—that look to prioritise urban rather than rural areas through maximising revenue. The terms “rural isolation” and “digital poverty” are often ignored, yet they are incredible issues for those of us who represent rural constituencies, not least in the south-west.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. If we are serious about saying we are going to level up, does he agree that there is no reason why a community that is geographically isolated also needs to be digitally isolated?

Yes, I entirely agree. For far too long the prioritisation has been to connect urban and more densely populated areas, rather than rural areas. We live in a country where we do not value people’s lives more in urban areas than in rural areas; it is important to have fairness across the board, including in terms of investment. Only last week in this very Chamber, I and other Members made the point that rural funding and investment—for rural councils, services or others—need to be prioritised much more. We do not want a turf war; we just want fairness across the board. At the moment, I am afraid to say, I am concerned that my constituents in West Dorset are not receiving that fairness.

I do not know whether colleagues here will appreciate or understand the term “rural notspots”, but they are a big issue. Rural notspots are areas where people are lucky if they can get a mobile signal and extremely lucky if they can get a broadband connection. Vodafone’s report, “Connecting the Countryside”, revealed that 4.8 million people in rural constituencies live in 5G notspots, and 100% of West Dorset is a 5G notspot or partial notspot. That has a huge impact on residents across my constituency and, I am sure, in neighbouring ones as well.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for calling this debate. He is absolutely right about notspots. We have notspots in the city of Hereford, but in Herefordshire we also have very isolated areas. Does he share my view that the problem is not just with Openreach and the enforcement of Ofcom, but that there is a specific problem related to the reliance on voice over internet protocol, as though that were a solution with batteries for people who find themselves isolated, as my constituents were in Bacton and Abbeydore recently? What long-term solution will we have to address that issue, alongside all the ones my hon. Friend has already memorably raised?

I wholly agree. In a moment, I intend to talk about the impact of the digital phone switchover, because it appears to be complete madness that we are continuing to progress with that when there are vast swathes of rural Britain—not just rural West Dorset, but other areas, including, I am sure, my right hon. Friend’s constituency—where the decent or functional connectivity that is needed to achieve that switchover is lacking.

On many previous occasions, I have stressed that the statistics provided by organisations such as Ofcom, which is meant to be the regulator, simply do not represent the lived experiences of many thousands of my own constituents, and colleagues from across the House will probably express a similar view. It is totally unacceptable that Ofcom states that every area in and around the village of Stoke Abbott has either good or okay data coverage. Well, I am afraid that the reality is quite the opposite, as anyone who visited would see, and many other villages and parishes have the same issue. It is bordering on a scandal that enormous mobile phone operators can publish data saying that they provide a signal or a connection, and that is backed up by Ofcom, when the reality is that people living in those parishes—although it can also be the case outside, not just inside the home—cannot get a signal at all. Around 75% of the community I surveyed about the issue ranked their coverage in the worst possible terms. Stoke Abbott in my constituency has 0% gigabit capability and a widespread lack of 4G, and I mentioned the 5G notspots earlier.

I want to use this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House e-petition 636502, which is on the funding of fixed wireless broadband for poorly connected areas. Having been elected to this House four years ago, almost to the day, I have become very well aware that when it comes to petitions, it is those with the largest number of signatories that get the biggest hearing. E-petition 636502 has received 1,232 signatures. On the face of it, that may not be a huge number but, my goodness, those 1,232 people are the most affected by the inability of any part of the sector to provide them with the most basic level of connectivity, forcing them into a totally unacceptable level of rural isolation and indeed rural poverty.

We know that there is a huge difference to the economy and people’s wellbeing where there is a fixed broadband connection; we also know that 98% of people in urban areas have a fixed broadband connection compared with just 83% of people in rural areas, and that fixed broadband connection correlates to economic activity. In constituencies such as my own, a third of the population are over 65. That is an unusually high age demographic, meaning that there are many older people who are not familiar with—in some cases, they are unable to become familiar with—the technology required to achieve some of the things that the Government and others might like to see in the evolution of communications; I have already mentioned the digital phone switchover, but I am also talking about basic services. We are seeing record numbers of bank branches closing in market towns. Elderly people are being put in a situation in which they are fearful of using technology because they may not necessarily have the skills to pick up whether a particular correspondence or email is spam; they fear the consequences of doing the wrong thing, often feel that they are between a rock and a hard place, and are not sure what to do.

Some 97% of the businesses in West Dorset are small or micro-sized. Our economy is very rural. Those small businesses need better connectivity than they have. It is really concerning that an attempted change through the digital phone switchover, which has been postponed once, although I understand that BT is going to progress with that. I find it incredible that organisations such as the Local Government Association estimate that 1.7 million people who access technology-enabled care and support will be put at risk because of a potential lack of connection once the analogue lines are switched to digital. How can any moral organisation consider doing that when we are presented with such statistics? I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will take particular note of this point, because it is a massive concern for Members such as myself who represent vastly rural constituencies with a considerable number of older people; we have many concerns about their care in that situation.

The problem is not so strongly felt in urban areas, but it is important to talk about the extent of the roll-out of improvement across the board. Part of the yield-prioritised approach of many larger businesses is that they look to roll out schemes, in line with Government incentive schemes, that will benefit as many houses as possible in the shortest possible time. That is all well and good, but when an area of the country—perhaps an urban one—that has, say, 100 megabits per second speed is looking to improve still further to gigabit speed, and there are places with barely a 2 megabit per second speed that are still being left behind, something is going quite wrong.

In September 2022, gigabit coverage was 47% in predominantly rural areas versus 79% in urban areas. My constituency and, I am sure, those of neighbouring Members of Parliament will be experiencing the same thing. The Government have set very clear targets, which I appreciate because they are helpful to give guidance to the industry about the Government’s wish and intention. The Government targets of 85% and 99% gigabit availability by 2025 and 2030 respectively sound good, and I appreciate them, but it is really important that the Government hear this message loud and clear: it is no longer acceptable to me that the 15% and 1% respectively are the same 15% and 1% who lost out in previous schemes. Those people are being pushed further and further back in the wider connectivity race than they should be. That is why I called out earlier the pretty ruthless, commercial and yield-maximising approach of some of the largest companies in this space; that approach needs to be challenged, and I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will consider how we can ensure much better fairness in this area.

West Dorset serves as a particularly good example. The Minister will know that if a provider signs up to one of the various different Government schemes—whether it is the voucher scheme or, for example, a community fibre partnership—that blocks the capacity or capability of a competitor to say, “Actually, we would like to go there.” That business can hold on to the area and get its claws into it for a prolonged period. It appears almost anti-competitive that, as happened in the Bridport area of my constituency, Jurassic Fibre, with the best of intentions, formerly did lots of very good work and was then taken over by AllPoints Fibre, and now the engineering work and the whole approach to making that happen has been put on hold, ad infinitum in many areas. The company feels as though it is okay to put that on hold while it considers the consequences of its reorganisation and takeover. Well, that is not acceptable. When there are other businesses and companies that believe they could provide that service to local people much more quickly, and possibly more efficiently, it is anti-competitive to allow that sort of behaviour.

I could run through so many parishes by way of example, but if there is one thing that I really would like the Minister to come back on and/or action, it is this approach by some providers that, in effect, land grab and say that they will make improvements and meet the Government’s intentions—whether through a voucher scheme or otherwise—but then fail to deliver and block others from showing an interest in doing so. Indeed, the whole bidding process for providing the next level of improvements is hugely affected by this as well, which is a great concern to me. I hope the Government will take action, understand that those organisations that have committed to do something have not delivered, and remove the primacy they have to prevent others from doing so.

I would like to summarise my remarks, because I know that many other colleagues would like to speak in this debate, and I appreciate the time that I have had so far. Overall, I would like the Government to note that, for the last four years that I have been in this place, one of my priorities has been to ensure that we make substantial improvements to address rural isolation and rural connectivity. I know full well that the Government have indeed made a lot of progress in that area, and a lot of my constituents have felt those improvements. But it is also fair to say that the most rural villages and parishes still continue to be left out, just because they might have only 40 or 50 homes, or maybe even 100. That is not acceptable and not part of what we believe is right, in the spirit of fairness across the country for all our constituents.

I warmly encourage my colleagues here to contribute to the debate with their own experiences. I am sure that many colleagues present, especially those representing rural areas, will have very similar stories to mine. That is why it is so important that we have this debate and allow the Government to hear this feedback, I think for the second time today—I understand that there was the copper cabling debate earlier, which I am sorry I was not able to be at, because of other business that I had to attend to in the House. I hope that we will see real, significant improvements to how we support the most rurally isolated people in our society today.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to be called first from the Opposition side. I would say it is unique; it may not be all that unique, but that is by the way. I thank the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for leading the debate so well. He set the scene well for his constituency; I will mirror what he said for my own, and others will do the same shortly. I am aware of what the hon. Gentleman has done to improve mobile and broadband connectivity for his constituents. Most of us here share the concern that some cannot access the same technological advances as others. This is very much a UK-wide issue, so it is great to be here to give a Northern Ireland perspective, as well as that of my constituents.

As the Minister will know, back in 2017 we had a deal with the Conservative party, through a confidence and supply motion, to deliver some £150 million of broadband across Northern Ireland. That secured the delivery of broadband to almost 90,000 rural premises across Northern Ireland. While others, namely Sinn Féin, postured and said that we did not need to do that, public money was spent on high-speed broadband for rural dwellers, and the intervention has been the most transformative investment for our rural economy since the electricity network was extended. We should never underestimate the importance of what happened at that time.

One of the most startling statistics of the past five years has been the fact that Northern Ireland, at 82% full-fibre broadband, is already well ahead of England at 67%, Scotland at 60% and Wales at 49%. The Republic of Ireland was way behind us at 40%. Maintaining current rates of progress until 2025 will see Northern Ireland becoming the first country in these islands in which availability reaches 99% of our premises. That is some of the good news. In my constituency of Strangford, we have had 5,000 homes upgraded, which is a massive boost for my constituency. It underlines the importance of what we did, so I publicly thank the Minister and our Government for the partnership we had at that time.

To update hon. Members on where we are now, in June 2023 the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland launched a public review aimed at improving broadband infrastructure, predominantly in rural areas, to catch up that 18% who do not have it yet. Many constituents who have been in touch with my office have been able to avail themselves of the scheme, but others are still unable to resolve the issue.

The public review is part of the planned implementation of Project Gigabit in Northern Ireland. Project Gigabit in the UK is the Government’s flagship £5 billion programme to enable hard-to-reach communities to access lightning-fast gigabit-capable broadband. It is a commendable project by the Government here, and one that I welcome because I see the benefits; I am sure we will see more benefits shortly. In addition, members of the public, businesses, groups, organisations, telecoms infrastructure providers were able to avail themselves of the scheme, but thus far I am aware of a few instances where businesses are struggling to regain better connection.

I will give an example. I spoke to the Minister beforehand about this and gave him a letter along these lines just last week: I am currently dealing with an issue for a constituent whose business is on a rural road in Saintfield, a village in my constituency. I have sent numerous emails to the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. I handed the case to the Minister through the Whip. Indeed, I have spoken to the Minister.

On this rural road, cables, fittings and nodes have been secured to permit the extension of sufficient broadband to this area. It is frustrating to have all that stuff in place when all we need to do is make that last connection, and then that business will be up and running. The work was halted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and my constituents have received little or no communication on the improvement of their broadband. I am hopeful that the Minister will help to resolve the issue for my constituents, and I know my hope and confidence in him will not be misplaced, but the damage and the hassle for local businesses are extremely destructive to people’s livelihoods.

Another example of where we need to improve relates to card payments and the sending of digital invoices and receipts. Cards are often not charged and there are delays in the processing of payments, which poses an inconvenience for customers and business owners. When broadband is poor, emails with digital receipts will not send properly and online orders cannot be made efficiently. That creates more issues for local businesses, given that we encourage people to invest in them daily. I look again to the Minister, who always responds positively and grasps the issues that we put to him. I am confident that his answers will reinforce my faith in him. I ask him to look at the cases I have mentioned, and I would be grateful if he expedited any work on them for the betterment of my constituents’ businesses.

Many farmers in my constituency—others will probably say this as well—keep track of livestock through online apps. Given that there is so much rural theft, that is to be encouraged, and I encourage it in my constituency. To ensure that the agricultural industry can thrive, we must ensure that rural connectivity is made a priority. Doing so will benefit the local economy, which agriculture plays such an important role in making successful. Like the constituency of the hon. Member for West Dorset, my constituency of Strangford has seen many large high-street bank closures in the past couple of months. In the past couple of years, 11 banks have closed in my constituency, which has meant a huge shift to online banking.

I am conscious that others wish to speak; I want to give them equal time to contribute, so I will conclude. For rural constituents, online and telephone banking are more or less their main ways of accessing banking services. If decisions are being taken to close banks, we must ensure that consideration is given to having the best possible broadband and mobile signal. I am confident that we can achieve that, and I look forward to it. Again, I ask the Minister to chase up the constituency case that I mentioned and to keep in contact with my office. He has already given me that commitment, and I am quite sure that that will happen.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) and congratulate him on securing today’s important debate.

On the doorsteps of North Devon, getting broadband done was second only to getting Brexit done when I was elected back in 2019. On my arrival here, I rapidly took over the chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on broadband and digital communication. I was determined to find some positive news for the Minister about rural connectivity in North Devon. When I was elected, 90.3% of my constituents could access superfast broadband and 3.9% could access gigabit-capable. We have come a long way: the figures are now 53.8% gigabit-capable and 94.2% superfast.

That sounds fabulous, and it is an immense improvement to have got to that point. However, being a mathematician at heart, I had a bit of a play around with the numbers at the weekend. My fear is that 5% of my constituents still do not even get superfast broadband. There are still over 1,640 constituency properties—not people—that are below the universal service obligation. There is a real concern about the digital divide, which I have spoken about at many recent events. Some people are completely cut off. Yes, the letters complaining about rural connectivity have stopped, but that is probably because people do not know that there is no connection because they are unable to get online. I am deeply concerned about what will happen with the remaining 5%.

I know what the plan is. In the time that I have been in Parliament, Connecting Devon and Somerset has connected over 2,000 properties. That does not sound like many, but the engineers on the ground—I have had the pleasure of meeting them with Building Digital UK—say that the build in my constituency is the hardest they have ever delivered. When we talk about rural connectivity, we need to understand that until we get 5G and the satellite system sorted, we will not be sending fibre down every little farm track. We must look very differently at the final 5% and how we will connect those people.

I thank the Openreach team and the community of Mortehoe. The little village of Mortehoe in my constituency has undertaken a fibre community partnership. It was combined with work with National Grid, because—to cut a very long story short—in the end they could not actually do the fibre community partnership. It means that gigabit-capable broadband is about to be switched on and that all the overhead cables, right the way through the village, can be taken down in this area of outstanding natural beauty, so that Mortehoe has both a stunning view and gigabit-capable broadband. That is a testament to the work of that community.

I highlight that community because one of my concerns about the plans for the future of North Devon is that, because we are going into what is called the Project Gigabit type C contract procurement round, which will not complete until next spring, we can no longer access fibre community partnerships. Communities that have managed to deliver gigabit-capable in conjunction with Openreach, Airband and other operators cannot have a fibre community partnership until that procurement round has finished. I would dearly like to see that issue addressed.

I am very grateful to Openreach for connecting the village of Westleigh. I am the guinea pig in Westleigh: I am living the dream of connecting to gigabit-capable after an engineer was sent last Friday. I talk about the digital divide, and I am really concerned about how complicated connecting is. Hon. Members might think that it is straightforward once the fibre is in the property, but I was sent a cable—no instructions, just a cable—to try to connect myself to the outside world. I asked how to connect the cable, and I was sent a hub. I decided that I would do nothing, and the engineer very kindly came and sent back the hub because I did not need it and they knew how to plug in the cable. The joy of having an actual engineer in my house is that I could talk to them about what is going on.

I know that this is the wrong debate—I, too, was tied up on other parliamentary business this morning—but I would like to flag the issue of phone lines being switched off. I know people do not necessarily believe my version of events, but the engineer who was sat in my house on Friday explained that when they go round to houses to fix the landline, they ask where the broadband hub is, and they are often told by the elderly resident that they do not have broadband. They then find that there is a pile of hubs in brown boxes in the hallway that have never been opened. People do not understand the technology that is being sent to them. It is hard to explain to communities that have never had broadband that they now do not have a phone either, and that they will get this brand-new technology and a phone at the same time. We need to understand that unfortunately, unlike the Department, which is hugely high-tech and does really exciting things, most of our constituents who have not had access to this technology have a lot of catching up to do.

I am utterly delighted with gigabit. The speed is fantastic and there is no buffering when I catch up on important world events such as who got through on “Strictly”—we keep up with the big issues of the day—but I still cannot make a phone call in the kitchen because my phone relies on the wi-fi and the only way to get it through a cottage wall is with these bouncy discs, which did not come with the cable and would double the amount that I have to pay for my brand-new, super-duper gigabit-capable. I feel that that is wrong, because they will not alter how much I use the connection, so there should be a fixed price.

We need to make connecting easier. I urge all my constituents to check what has gone past their house, because 53.8% of properties in North Devon can now access gigabit-capable, but take-up is a fraction of that. It is a bit complicated, as I discovered, but in the longer term it is well worth giving it a go.

I want to put on the record my thanks for all the work that has been done in my constituency, which I know is hard to get to. I really am worried about the final 5%, and I think that not enough is being done to look at satellite, radio, 5G and the other technologies that remote rural constituencies need in order not to fall further behind. Many are already not one or two but three technologies behind, and we need to help them to get online. People also need the skills to access the services that we all rely on in this technological age.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd.

The internet has plainly revolutionised the way we live our lives and the world we inhabit, but the trouble is that it is increasingly a tale of two halves: those people who have fast, superfast or ultrafast broadband in urban areas, and those of us who live in rural areas, who go without. In huge swathes of the countryside, people find it hard even to get a mobile phone signal, so this is exacerbating a problem that we have already.

I would like to give the House some examples of situations that I have encountered in Devon. In Northleigh, a small village outside Honiton, fewer than half the residents can access full-fibre broadband. One constituent, a surgeon, has written to tell me that because of the stuttering delivery of the Project Gigabit vouchers, he has wi-fi so bad that he is unable to download crucial scans the day before an appointment. The Government say that they are trying to wrestle with the waiting list of 7.7 million operations that is bringing this country’s economy almost to a standstill. If that is the case, addressing wi-fi has to be one of the places where we start.

The 900 residents of Kilmington have had a dreadful experience. They often use the village hall, so they tried to get a business broadband service for it. When they got in touch with various internet service providers—I have all the correspondence here—they were not informed about the universal service obligation and the funding to which it entitled them.

Meanwhile, the parishioners of All Saints, near Axminster, have taken it upon themselves to appoint a broadband champion. So great is the issue for people in the village that they feel that that is necessary to give the matter some status and authority.

Those are just three examples, but I could give many more from my part of Devon. The south-west in general has dreadful download speeds. The UK average is 111 megabits per second. In the south-west, we have an average speed of about 99 megabits per second, but in my corner of Devon it is more like 57 megabits per second, which is half the national average. Even some of the towns in and around my patch, including Axminster, Seaton and Sidmouth, have some of the worst speeds in the country and are in the bottom 10% for download speeds. The contrast with the urban areas is stark.

Openreach has written excitedly to constituents in Tiverton extolling the virtue of ultrafast fibre to the premises, which it claims will have download speeds of more than 1,000 megabits per second. Yet Devon homes and businesses should not hold their breath, as there is a target of 25 million by 2027. We heard from the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) that it will be difficult to reach that extra 5% and that perhaps those people living in rural properties in those places should simply wait for 5G. I am sorry, but I do not feel that we should accept that. If there is a universal service obligation, we should, as a country, make sure that that is rolled out everywhere. It is not just affecting people’s social cohesion or their feeling of connection to others—

Could I correct that statement? I did not say that people should just wait; I said that we should be looking at how we can connect them. Like the hon. Gentleman, my Devon neighbour, I agree that there is a need to speed up, but I encourage him to speak to Connecting Devon and Somerset to better understand the work that has already gone on and which premises are affected. It has detailed stats available and will be able to update him.

I am grateful for that clarification. The hon. Member mentions Connecting Devon and Somerset; I have heard from constituents about how CDS did not draw down funding from Project Gigabit and has missed out on substantial sums of money that it could otherwise have garnered.

Will the hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, join me in welcoming the Government policy to set aside £8 million to help those who are in the most difficult positions—down country lanes and so on—with the satellite options? Does he think that that is a good move that will help his constituents, as it will help mine?

The simple answer is yes—I welcome any and all interventions that support our rural constituents to get them broadband—but the reality of what our constituents are feeling and finding on the ground is very different. We can talk about any sum of money we like, but the reality is that the pledges that have been made, including in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, are not living up to the reality for our constituents. The Conservative Government have been promising for years that we will see a mass roll-out of gigabit broadband of at least 85% by 2025, yet rural areas are once again left lagging. It is very much true for Devon, and it is very much true for the west country: we are being taken for granted.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for securing this incredibly important debate. Like others, getting better broadband for my constituents in has been a key focus of my work since 2019. During covid it became clear how isolated some of my constituents could become.

I want to raise awareness of a couple of issues in particular, which are still holding us back. I am afraid I am not as positive as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) about Openreach. The communities of Kilmeston, Bramdean and Cheriton had a gigabit voucher approved by Building Digital UK more than a year ago but, since then, Openreach has delayed things.

First, Openreach told constituents that BDUK was the hold-up on approving the gigabit programme vouchers. When I contacted BDUK, it turned out it had not been given all the information it had requested. I had to ask BDUK to extend the deadline for the previous scheme to get the vouchers approved, and it did so. I am grateful to BDUK for all its hard work and for responding so quickly to my questions.

Since then, Openreach has dithered about installing the fibre. Again, constituents were told SSE was the blocker. I met SSE and it turned out that every other telecoms provider agrees nationwide licences with SSE for its poles to carry cables, but Openreach has not. Openreach has agreed to pay for the licence for this project but there is apparently a delay in getting the payment made to SSE. That nonsense had been dragging on for months, and I understand the sheer exasperation of my constituents.

There are a couple of senior public servants who were given fast broadband very quickly. That is fine but, while doing that, Openreach bypassed many other residents with equally important jobs: the director of NHS emergency services; a consultant orthopaedic spinal surgeon; three GPs; a CEO responsible for vehicle fleet support for 12 police forces, two first-aid services and two ambulance trusts; a project manager for a national mobile telephone company; project manager for SSE, ironically; a senior TV news correspondent; the editor of a national sports newspaper; and many more, which I will not list now.

I complained about this to the CEO of Openreach and I got diverted to the MPs’ complaints department. Does he know how his company is performing in rural areas? I will keep battling on to break this logjam, but perhaps it would be useful for Ofcom to look into how different infrastructure owners work together in practice. Although we have guidelines, it seems more can be done to facilitate getting cables installed.

A second problem relates to constituents who have been abandoned completely by another company. The company, now branded as Trooli but originally Call Flow, has told residents of Woodlands in my constituency that it is discontinuing its services. That has come out of the blue, with minimal information supplied. They are being told to switch to 4G; the trouble is there is no 4G in that area. Although Trooli says it is within its rights to do this, surely it is unacceptable that a company that has had public money to set up its network can simply walk aways from it, when there is no viable replacement.

Does my hon. Friend agree that some of these unscrupulous providers, who suggest they are going to do things but then backtrack and fail to deliver, should be properly held to account, and that we should find ways to ensure that Ofcom does that?

Absolutely, and I hope Ofcom is listening to the debate. It is disgraceful that public money is being used and wasted. Hampshire County Council supported the installation and has done everything it can to help me across the constituency. This is not any fault of the council, and I am grateful for its support. Trooli’s behaviour has been appalling, and I would welcome the Minister’s advice on how I can put this right. I will also ask Ofcom to look at the matter.

This community will be included in the procurement scheme, with CityFibre hooking it up in future. However, the community cannot be left without provision in the meantime, though I hope it will be prioritised for the future work. The Government-funded Hampshire procurement is fantastic news for Meon Valley. The technology is evolving with 5G on the way. It is vital that we use every means of getting better broadband into our communities. I will keep pushing Government and the private sector on this issue, because businesses, families and schools depend on being able to work at high speed. It is very frustrating for everyone when it takes so long to put in.

It is an honour to serve under your guidance this afternoon, Mr Dowd. I give huge thanks to the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for securing this important debate and for making an important and valuable introduction. I pretty much agree with everything everybody has said so far. I want to endorse what is being said.

The reality is that rural communities are not able to access equal coverage—not only broadband, but other forms of modern connectivity. That puts us and our residents at a significant disadvantage. If we think about health, for example, to live in a rural community is to put oneself at greater risk of not being able to access telemedicine. If we think about our general wellbeing, to be more isolated is a dangerous thing. Last week in this place we discussed isolation and loneliness and the impact on the mental health of people of all ages, particularly older people. To be cut off and not able to access modern communications—broadband and other forms of digital communication—is both dangerous and unfair.

When it comes to education in the lakes and the dales, the Eden valley and Westmorland are beautiful and isolated places with schools as small as a dozen or so children in some cases, and high schools with fewer than 200 children. Those young people have to do their homework. They have to be able to access technology at home to be able to research, study and complete assignments on time. That goes for people studying in our area who are at the University of Cumbria, or who are studying elsewhere around the country but living at home in and around the lakes and the dales.

I think about the business community: one in four people of working age in our communities in Westmorland work for themselves. We have a hugely disproportionately high number of people who are self-employed or working for themselves in other ways—freelancing, and so on. It is important not only that people have access to high-quality broadband and other forms of connectivity, but that the access is symmetrical: upload speeds should be as accessible as good download speeds. To say nothing of entertainment, frankly the people of Westmorland and Lonsdale have as much right to be able to witness the indifferent and erratic form of Blackburn Rovers via their television screens as anybody else in the country—hurrah for the three points we scraped last night. To be serious, we are now in a world where it is taken for granted that we have that sort of access. In communities like those of pretty much all of us here today, that is not the case. We are gathered here because we believe that and it is our experience locally.

I have a couple of related non-broadband points that others have also raised. According to Vodafone, my communities are in the bottom 2% for mobile connectivity, so broadband is not the only issue. Others have talked about Digital Voice. I was in the debate this morning led so admirably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). Only a week and a half ago, much of Cumbria was completely snowed in and blocked. We had all sorts of impacts when it came to electricity being down. If your electricity is down, so is your router—you ain’t got no broadband; your digital access has gone. Maintaining that copper backstop is a lifesaver. We are used to extreme weather in my neck of the woods and we toughed it out, but there were people who were not vulnerable at the beginning of that experience but became vulnerable by the end of it, simply because so much depends on digital access. When it is wiped out, people are seriously vulnerable.

Let me say something about Project Gigabit. It is absolutely right that rural communities as a whole are left behind when it comes to connectivity of all kinds, and this Government need to bear a significant amount of responsibility for the failure to tackle that. One broadly positive thing that they are doing is Project Gigabit. I do not want to say that there is anything wrong with what the project is doing; I am concerned about some of what it is not doing. There are 61,000 properties in Cumbria within the scope of Project Gigabit. We know that at least 1,000 of those will not get connected within that in-scope area. Those are the very difficult-to-reach places.

Many people in and around the communities of Sedbergh—Sedbergh town itself, and the communities just beyond it—are now deeply concerned that they will be among the properties that are in scope, but not connected, which seems wrong. To go back to what I said about symmetrical access, we also know that the access and connectivity given to many homes connected by Project Gigabit might mean very high download speeds, but low upload speeds, which is a huge problem for people who are studying or in business.

I want to highlight again some of those people who are likely to be in scope but not connected. Hill farmers will almost certainly be among that group, and they have seen a 41% decrease in their income over the last three years under this Government. The very people who have no money to pay for the connection themselves will be in that tiny fraction, but that is still a significant number of people who will be outside Project Gigabit.

In my last minute, I want to talk about those properties that will be in what is called “deferred scope”. They are not being connected via Project Gigabit now, but they may be in the future—the next two, three or four years. I was at a meeting in Murton village hall on that very snowed-in weekend with the communities of Murton, Hilton, Ormside, Warcop and the surrounding areas, which are places in the “deferred scope”.

Were the Government to be flexible and allow the return of the voucher scheme, a wonderful community interest company, which I mentioned here before, called B4RN—Broadband for the Rural North—will be able to provide £33 a month access, with gigabit upload and download for absolutely everybody and with 100% of properties within scope. All it takes is for the Minister to agree to the ask that I have made of the Secretary of State in the last few days: that the Government would, through BDUK, re-offer the vouchers for those communities and be flexible, so that those communities are connected to the best speed at the best connection as quickly as possible.

There are so many pressures facing rural communities—house prices, the loss of housing stock as second homes and Airbnbs take over, a decline in school numbers, and therefore often a decline in communities themselves. We need to tackle all those things separately, but hyper-fast broadband for all parts of rural communities is one way to fight back against the isolation and deprivation in so many of our communities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd, and to speak in this vital debate; I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on securing it.

In the modern world, access to the internet is of the utmost importance, yet I worry that those in the hardest-to-reach areas are being left behind. The digital divide has stark impacts on rural communities and on their education and access to services. I have spoken previously about the impacts of the loss of in-person services on rural communities, yet if the online methods of accessing these services are inaccessible, many of my most vulnerable constituents will miss out.

For example, from March 2024, Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency services will no longer be available in post offices, which will disproportionately affect rural communities. Many bank branches, as we have heard already today, will close across my constituency, leaving customers having to travel further to access banking services or to rely on their broadband connectivity at home, which is rather lacking.

In Somerton and Frome, 4.6% of people—over five times the national average—have broadband speeds below the legal universal service obligation. Nearly a quarter of Somerton and Frome is in a 5G notspot, and 39 postcode areas in my constituency are in a 3G notspot. Many constituents struggle to access services online given their sluggish broadband speeds. Although I welcome some of the Government’s actions to improve rural broadband and mobile connectivity in rural communities, we need to go further to help those in the hardest-to-reach areas.

In Berkley Marsh, just outside of Frome, one constituent faces the very real prospect of having no internet provision next year. They are dependent on wireless broadband from Voneus and a BT landline, with the latter switching off next year. They will be left with broadband speeds of 250 kbps. Another internet provider wanted to supply fibre to their home, but they are being frustrated by other providers. That highlights the plight of those in hard-to-reach areas. It will affect businesses, residents and consumers alike.

Langport and Long Sutton in my constituency are in the worst 10% of areas in the UK for superfast broadband availability. Businesses in Langport suffer from poor internet speeds and struggle to use new and efficient digital solutions. Somerton and Frome has hundreds of agricultural businesses, many of which suffer from woeful broadband speeds, inadequate for them to carry out the multitude of necessary online tasks. The Government estimate that there will be fewer than 100,000 very hard-to-reach premises, but their delivery costs are likely to be above the limits of commercial investment cases, the gap funding approach to Project Gigabit, and the broadband universal service obligation’s reasonable cost threshold. This makes these premises commercially unattractive, which has been heard already today.

Digital isolation has a debilitating impact on our communities. It stifles growth and often means that vibrant rural businesses move away or simply do not locate to the area in the first place.

Would the hon. Lady, my constituency neighbour, agree that the universal service obligation is often used by some providers as an excuse for not actually having to carry out their commitments? Would she also agree that it appears there is almost some sort of cartel-like behaviour going on with mobile providers and broadband providers? Indeed, we shall be exploring some of these things in a debate in the House tomorrow, which I think is about Vodafone and others. Our constituents are paying the price and not getting what the universal service obligation says they should.

Clearly, given many of the comments heard today, I would agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to put more focus on the very hard-to-reach places, particularly in rural areas, to reduce the digital divide and ensure that no one is left behind. I hope the Government are listening to rural areas, and I look forward to seeing progress happen in Somerton and Frome.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), who I know to be an outstanding parliamentarian and a Conservative for whom I have some measure of affection. I will go no further than that.

This is a really important issue. I have no need, much less wish, to cause any more pain to the rural English MPs who have turned up here today to cite the very real challenges faced by their constituents in accessing what is essentially a vital utility like any other in the world that we live in today. However, I want to highlight what the Scottish Government have done, first to demonstrate how outstanding the Scottish Government are, but secondly to demonstrate how much it costs to supplement the woeful service levels of the UK Government. It is the UK Government, not the Scottish Government, who are responsible for broadband in Scotland.

Nevertheless, we in Scotland are not prepared to sit by and watch our communities and enterprise suffer while waiting for Westminster to act. That is why the Scottish National party-ruled Scottish Government’s reaching 100% superfast broadband commitment will ensure that everyone who wants superfast broadband has access to it, extending full-fibre broadband across some of the hardest-to-reach rural communities in Scotland. As I mentioned, this is reserved to the Westminster Government, but the Scottish Government committed to enabling access to superfast broadband—speeds of at least 30 Mbps —to every home and business by 2021, now upgraded to a new commitment to make the connections 30 times faster than originally stated. Connections will be delivered on a rolling basis under R100—reaching 100%—contracts, which are expected to be completed in 2028. Around 99% of the connections being delivered by the Scottish Government through R100 contracts are full-fibre capable and able to deliver speeds of up to 1000 Mbps.

That commitment is being delivered via three strands. First, there is £600 million in R100 contracts, delivered through a partnership with the UK Government. One would think that the Government responsible for delivering that would put in the bigger element, but no: the Scottish Government are putting in £550 million and the UK Government are putting in slightly less than £50 million. I say to the hon. Member for West Dorset, whose pain I feel after his intervention on the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord): £8 million to ensure that hard-to-reach properties are supported to achieve such connectivity is chicken feed. It will not even look at it; we need to invest vastly bigger sums. So that is the scale of the inaction and the challenge that is commensurate with that inaction.

The R100 Scottish broadband voucher scheme will help those that want access to the R100 principal scheme. The voucher helps people connect to superfast broadband in northern Scotland. Those not covered by R100 can apply for a one-off £5,000 voucher to help them set up a permanent suitable connection for themselves. Above that, a £400 interim voucher is available to those for whom it is known that R100 will benefit them in time, but not yet.

To date the Scottish Government have invested £1 billion of public funding to transform Scotland’s digital connectivity through the Digital Scotland superfast broadband and reaching 100% programmes, and improving mobile connectivity through the Scottish 4G infill programme. That is not our responsibility. I say that again because it is so important.

The Scottish Government’s Digital Scotland superfast broadband programmes have already connected about 1 million properties across Scotland to faster broadband. It should not be viewed as a cost; it should be viewed by the UK Government as an investment, because it is viewed in Scotland as such. We believe, and can demonstrate, that every £1 invested in the Digital Scotland connectivity programme delivers £12 to the Scottish economy. That same R100 programme has also delivered full subsea cables. The hon. Member for West Dorset and colleagues from the south-west and north-west have demonstrated that their topography and geography is particularly challenging, but so is that of the Orkney and Shetland islands. The roll-out of superfast broadband is taking place there as well.

There is lots of disdain for Openreach, but in response to the investment that the Scottish Government have put in, Openreach is building full fibre faster and further now and reaching around 60,000 new premises every week—equivalent to a town the size of Livingston in West Lothian. That means passing another home or business with ultrafast gigabit-capable broadband every 10 seconds.

It is important to realise that I am here as the SNP’s spokesperson, but also as somebody who represents a rural constituency. Although larger towns and villages are benefiting, it is not the case in my glens. It is not the case in Glen Doll, Glen Prosen or Glen Isla that the digital speeds are being realised, so it is absolutely essential that the UK Government regulations and legislation support the Scottish Government’s ambition to be a truly digital nation.

I rarely get a response from a Minister in Westminster Hall, so I am hopeful that the Minister will break that cycle this afternoon. I should be grateful to know what the Scottish Government will receive from the UK Government’s £5 billion earmarked for investment in gigabit-capable infrastructure, because the Scottish Government continue to urge the UK Government to extend the gigabit networks to Scotland’s rural communities where the challenges remain manifest. As I say again, perhaps for the sixth time, telecoms is an entirely reserved matter.

Economic growth in Scotland’s islands and rural locations is being curtailed by the slowest broadband speeds in the UK. That does not help rural communities in the south-west or north-west, but it is a challenge that the UK Government must step up to.

It is universally acknowledged that you are the snappiest dresser in the House, Mr Dowd, so it is great to see you in your place here today. I feel very odd—in the past few weeks, I have been to both the cinema and the theatre with the Minister and I am now in a debate with him for the second time today. There is to be another debate today, though I cannot be there. I do feel as if I am spending more time with the Minister than is good for my marriage. I do not think he will break with any precedent by answering any questions today, but we will try.

I commend the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on securing this debate. This is the second time we have debated this precise issue, but it is important to keep on fighting the battle. He may have caught the Minister and me smiling or laughing a bit because the hon. Gentleman referred to Ofcom and network coverage issues and both I am the Minister made the same point during the earlier debate—that, quite often, Ofcom’s version of reality is so different from the experience of ordinary people that it really is time that Ofcom and the providers looked much more carefully at how they present what they purport to be evidence of coverage.

Likewise, the Minister will no doubt say—he announced it this morning—that he is putting the PSTN switchover on pause, which is a good idea. He referred to several other matters where the Government are taking action because there are very legitimate concerns about how the switchover will affect the provision of quite a lot of services. Indeed, following this morning’s debate, the Minister will be delighted to know that I have tabled questions to ask him how many traffic lights in the UK depend on PSTN. I look forward to hearing his answers.

The hon. Member for West Dorset referred to Stoke Abbott, which was thus described in 1906:

“as pretty a village as any in Dorset.”

I was delighted to be in Bridport a few weeks ago with his predecessor, Oliver Letwin, who has a slightly different view of the present Government from him, I think.

It is always good to have the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). We missed him this morning; I believe he was at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. He made an important point about livestock: most farmers must have some kind of digital connectivity simply to do their job. They cannot pretend to be Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene from “Far from the Madding Crowd”; to make a living in agriculture, one must have a modern farm.

The hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) is absolutely doughty on these issues. I feel as if I have lived in her kitchen now, because this is the second time I have heard the stories about her hubs and her platelets or whatever it is that she had to have installed. She was determined to find some positive news, but mostly came out with negative news. There are real problems for anyone who wants to be able to deliver. As she herself said, no one will lay fibre 5 miles down a lane to a single house, so other options must be available. She referred to satellite. Obviously, we want to see much greater technical innovation in this field so that no one is left out.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) complained about the Government’s lackadaisical attitude. I have heard him make some of his speech before, but there is no danger in repetition—that is the only way one ever gets anything done in politics, so I commend him for that.

The hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) is a wonderful swimmer, as I know because I recruited her to the parliamentary swimming team, and she had a list of people who had been kind of given preferential treatment. If someone in a community needs to have more than superfast broadband in order to do their job but the whole community does not get the same, that can be a problem.

Let me just qualify that: only two public servants, who I did not mention, got fast broadband. The ones I mentioned did not get fast broadband. I was explaining that they were equally important. I did not mention the ones who got fast broadband for obvious reasons—I think they are quite embarrassed about getting fast broadband before their neighbours. There are huge numbers of very important people who also need it.

No, it is not a good excuse and that is not a very good argument to make.

I concur with the point made by the hon. Member for Meon Valley about the head of Openreach. It is important that major corporations, which broadly speaking have not far off a monopoly position in the UK, respond to Members of Parliament as swiftly and directly as possible and do not simply pass the buck. The hon. Lady also made a very good point about the need for better co-operation between all the different operators in this field, because now, with all the “old-nets”—I fully support competition within the market—there is a danger, which I will discuss a little later, that if there is not co-operation there will be a complete and utter muddle.

I think I have heard some of the speech by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) before, too, and again I commend him for repetition; it is not something ever to complain about in politics. He made two really important points. The first was that being isolated is a dangerous place to be in the modern world. If we think about an elderly person who relies on mobile connectivity to connect to her relatives, who might be on the other side of the world, or to healthcare providers, that is evident, and the point is extremely well made. He also made a point about hill farmers. Funnily enough, when I had a farm in the Rhondda, which was on a hill, I had the best connectivity I have ever had, but that was purely and simply because the mast was almost immediately opposite my house.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) made a very important point about Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency or DVLA services no longer being available in post offices. Soon, my constituency will no longer have a bank at all—no bank whatsoever. Of course lots of people are using digital banking services today, but sometimes it is necessary for someone to go physically to a bank, to prove their identity and so on. Banks will need to go a considerable further distance to make some things available online that currently people cannot do online; because of the distances involved in travelling in rural areas, the present situation is simply problematic. However, even if that happens, people need full access to a broadband connection; otherwise, they are simply unable to continue their business.

I think that Vintage Ghetto is the hon. Lady’s business, or perhaps one of her businesses; I do not know. Vintage Ghetto has some very fine things online, if anybody wants to go shopping before Christmas. However, I simply note that it will be difficult for people to pursue that kind of business, which many people in rural areas now do, without having a really strong broadband connection.

Finally, there was the contribution by the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan). I would have laid a bet that he would refer to what the Scottish Government have done and condemn the Westminster Government for not doing what the Scottish Government have done. I could point out that the Welsh Government have often intervened in the same way in Wales to address some of the problems that we have in rural areas. However, the truth is that we need a whole-UK answer to all these issues, and I will give some of the reasons why in a moment.

Broadband is not just important in rural areas but absolutely vital—for building or growing a business; for running a farm or, for that matter, diversifying an agricultural business, for instance by allowing tourism; for doing homework or, for that matter, doing university study; for providing healthcare and local services; and, frankly, for growing up, by allowing children to talk to their friends online, play a video game or download a film.

Members have talked a lot about the haves and the have-nots in this field. Members may not be aware that the phrase “haves and have-nots” originally comes from “Don Quixote”. It is when Sancho Panza says:

“There are two kinds of people in this world, my grandmother used to say—the haves and the have-nots. And she stuck to the haves. And today, Señor Don Quixote, people are more interested in having than in knowing. An ass covered with gold makes a better impression than a horse with a packsaddle.”

I quote that extract because one of my concerns about the way that we are developing in relation to broadband and digital connectivity in this country is that we get a bit too focused on the “having” rather than on the “using”. Indeed, my biggest concern as an MP who represents one of the poorest constituencies not only in the UK but in Europe, is the affordability issue.

I have raised this issue in a previous debate and I know that the Minister has similar concerns. There are social tariffs. They are almost unknown to most of the people who might be able to take them up. One local council—maybe several councils now, but certainly Sunderland City Council wrote to everybody in its area about social tariffs. The council had the information on who qualifies for universal credit and who therefore qualifies for a social tariff, so it wrote to everybody concerned and that drove up the take-up of social tariffs. However, when 18% of poorer homes in the country—in my patch, I suspect the percentage is even higher—do not have any internet to home at all, even when superfast broadband or gigabit capability is available, that is going to be a long-term problem for levelling up, for all the reasons that the hon. Member for West Dorset gave earlier. It is not levelling up if people simply cannot afford to take something up.

Secondly, as several Members have said, many people are not taking up better connectivity, either because it is too expensive or because they simply do not understand what the benefit might be to them. When we and the industry bang on about gigabit-capable, megabits per second, superfast or fast broadband and all the rest of it, that is not a sell to an ordinary household. People want to know what they will be able to do that they could not do previously and therefore why they need it. There is a real marketing problem across the whole of the UK that we need to address if we really are to drive up take-up, otherwise the danger is that all the companies will be making massive investments but getting no return. That is when the whole situation may get into trouble.

I worry about the exclusion of certain areas and categories of people. I have asked the Minister this before and I ask him again: how are we doing on new contracts for Project Gigabit? When I asked him the last time we met, he said that more were going to be let in the next few months. It would be interesting to know precisely how that is going.

My other concern is this: competition is a really good thing, but not if it turns every street into the wild west. In just the last few weeks, in my own patch—particularly in Tonypandy, CF40—lots of different companies have been digging up the roads again and again. People are sick of it. It is happening not just in Kingston upon Hull but in lots of different places in the country. I worry that the system, through Ofcom’s powers, is not strong enough to ensure that there is proper co-operation. One complaint I had said:

“You will have seen road closures without relevant permissions being granted, poor reinstatement of pavements, mud-laden streets, poor communications with residents and tardy workmanship.”

I am fully in favour of companies such as Ogi rolling out gigabit-capable broadband in my patch, but I also want to see rational co-operation between the different organisations.

Finally, the Minister will know that the Government’s digital strategy is now more than a decade old. In fact, the online version has references to websites and programmes that no longer exist, so I think it is time for a new Government digital strategy. After the Government responded to the House of Lords digital exclusion report, Baroness Stowell, who is a Conservative Member of the House of Lords, said that the failure to come up with a new Government digital strategy

“suggests a reluctance to dedicate political attention and departmental resource to this matter”,

and the Communications and Digital Committee in the House of Lords said:

“The Government’s contention that digital exclusion is a priority is not credible.”

I therefore hope that the Government will announce today that they will start consultation on a new Government digital strategy.

I will end with some questions. I have asked these questions before, but the Minister did not answer them. Have I run out of time?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. The fact that we have had such strong attendance is, I think, an indication of the importance that Members from across the country attach to this issue.

Obviously, I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for securing the debate. As he knows, I was born and grew up in his constituency, so I am very familiar both with the beauty of West Dorset and with its extremely rural nature—not just that of West Dorset but of Somerton and Frome and of Tiverton and Honiton, both of which I know well from my childhood.

I think we all recognise how ultrafast broadband at the very least, if not gigabit, is becoming an essential of modern life. That applies right across the UK, whether you live in a built-up urban area or a rural community, and the Government are committed to delivering gigabit broadband across the whole of the UK.

That is being done very rapidly by the commercial sector, but the Government recognise that it is necessary to supplement that with public support in order to extend coverage to areas that are not commercially viable. That is why we pledged to achieve 85% gigabit coverage of the UK by 2025 and nationwide coverage by 2030. Already today, more than 79% of premises can access gigabit-capable networks, up from 6% in January 2019. When I took up my position in May, I think we were at 76%, so the figures are still rising every day. Obviously, as we seek to hit the target, it becomes harder, because we are dealing with harder-to-reach premises, but the UK is building gigabit networks faster than any EU country.

The commercial roll-out is key. We are doing what we can to make it easy and attractive for firms to build their networks in the UK. There was reference to Openreach having a near-monopoly. Openreach is obviously the major supplier, but there is also Virgin Media O2, which is the other major fibre network provider, alongside over 100 out-net providers that are investing over £40 billion to roll out gigabit-capable broadband right across the UK. We regard that as the fastest and best value for the taxpayer, because it means that we can focus Government funding on the harder-to-reach areas.

I think my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset mentioned cases in which some companies had accepted contracts and then failed to deliver on the terms that they had agreed. We monitor the performance of every supplier, and if companies fail to deliver contracts, the contracts will be terminated and we will seek alternatives. We have tried to ensure that Project Gigabit is designed to deliver coverage in all areas of the UK, rather than leaving the hardest-to-reach areas until last. That adds to the coverage that is already being delivered through the superfast programme.

Our funding has already enabled gigabit connections to over 900,000 premises, and we forecast the figure to be over 1 million by the end of March next year. Of those premises, over 700,000 were classified as sub-superfast, so the vast majority of our investment is going into the communities that need it most. In the last year, we have delivered gigabit-capable broadband to over 160,000 premises, 90% of which are classified as rural. We have already announced 15 Project Gigabit contracts in places such as Cornwall, Cumbria, Norfolk, Suffolk, Oxfordshire and Northumberland, and a further 24 local and regional procurements are under way—plus our cross-regional approach, which includes areas across England and Wales.

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) raised the important issue of the public switched telephone network, which, as he mentioned, we also debated this morning. As we move to full-fibre broadband, the old copper network becomes unviable and is being retired. The Government were clear from the start that we would allow migration from copper to voice over internet protocol on full fibre only as long as we were absolutely sure that those customers who relied on copper—particularly the most vulnerable and especially those with, for instance, telecare devices—were properly protected. Unfortunately, there have been a couple of incidents in which telecare customers have found that their devices have not worked, which is completely unacceptable. That is why, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, we said this morning that we are pausing the migration. We are holding a roundtable tomorrow with all communication providers to get absolute guarantees that they will migrate their customers only if they can be certain that the most vulnerable are properly protected.

Let me turn to the constituencies of hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset will be aware that, according to the latest statistics, 97% of premises in West Dorset have access to superfast speeds. That is in line with the national average, but I accept that, in terms of future-proofing, we are looking to extend gigabit coverage, which still stands at only 45% in West Dorset. Given that it was only 4% in 2019, we are making good progress. West Dorset is included in Project Gigabit’s Dorset and South Somerset regional procurement, which we launched in May, and we are looking at reviewing bids from suppliers. It is our hope to award a contract for that in the spring, and we estimate that under that contract several thousand premises in West Dorset are set to benefit.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly recognised the extraordinary progress that has been made in Northern Ireland. With 94% gigabit coverage, it is ahead of all the other nations of the UK. Beyond that, we have Project Stratum, which is investing £170 million to reach another 85,000 premises with gigabit broadband. The hon. Gentleman raised some specific points, and I know that he has written to me on them. I will respond to him with a detailed answer to the questions that he raises.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) has been very active in pursuing me and Government. She will be aware that in North Devon at the moment there is roughly 95% superfast coverage and 54% gigabit coverage, but there are still premises in her constituency that are without. She will be aware that we are looking at the cross-regional procurement contract covering West and North Devon, which should ensure that certainly a large number of the 2,500 premises that do not have adequate broadband will be covered. For the hardest-to-reach premises, we are looking at alternatives—such as, for instance, satellite provision.

The situation in Tiverton and Honiton has been raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) not just in this debate, but in the past. Again, I am conscious that there are patches in his constituency that have not been reached. We think that 230 premises do not have a broadband speed of 10 megabits per second or indoor 4G coverage, and those are obviously ones that we are concentrating on, but in the particular case of the village of Northleigh, the voucher scheme there has now been given the go-ahead.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

I shall endeavour not to delay the House for too much longer, because I am aware that debates are backing up—like a queue of buses or something.

I want to address one or two points that other Members raised in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) raised a particular issue in her constituency. Again, 72.7% are currently able to receive gigabit broadband in her constituency. A small number of premises are definitely lacking both decent broadband and mobile coverage, and obviously they will be our priority. We will take away the point she raised about Trooli, and BDUK will be in touch with her, once it has looked into that.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) has indeed raised that particular issue before, and I will endeavour to ensure that we get specific answers for him. Equally, a small number of premises in the constituency of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke)—again, a constituency I know very well—are also currently outside. The vast majority in each of these cases will, we hope, be covered by either the commercial sector or Project Gigabit, although there will still be some hardest-to-reach premises, for which we will look at the alternatives.

I want to touch on the position in Scotland, to respond to the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan)—who I do not think is back with us yet—and put it on the record that, while R100 is administered by the Scottish Government, Project Gigabit, although funded from the UK Government, is delivered through the Scottish Government. It has taken longer than we would have liked. However, I am in touch with my opposite number in the Scottish Government and can tell the House that, of the £5 billion that the Government are putting into Project Gigabit, an estimated £450 million is to go to the Scottish Government, and we currently have a market engagement exercise under way.

Hon. Members have also rightly touched on the importance of mobile coverage and the efforts made to extend 4G coverage. As the hon. Member for Rhondda observed, the complaint that has been heard—that Ofcom’s estimate of the existing extent of mobile coverage does not match people’s actual experience—is one that we are very much aware of. We have raised it with Ofcom, and we very much wish to improve the accuracy of the existing statistics.

The hon. Gentleman, speaking for the Opposition, raised three issues, on which I agree with him completely. I would like to make it clear that we are disappointed that the take-up of social tariffs has not been greater, and we are working particularly with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to try to draw attention to their availability.

One thing that I have suggested to Ministers in that Department is that DWP could simply include a reference to social tariffs in any letter to anyone in receipt of universal credit or any other benefits.

I think that is a perfectly sensible suggestion. Indeed, it is one that I hope the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), might already be pursuing; if not, I will draw it to her attention.

The wider issue of take-up is terribly important because, to get expressions of interest and bids from the out-net to obtain contracts under Project Gigabit will depend on being able to attract customers to take that up when it becomes available, and we are looking at other ways in which we can promote take-up.

Finally, the hon. Member for Rhondda raised an issue that features quite a lot in my postbag, which is telegraph poles. I understand the frustration of people who may have existing broadband suppliers but then see another competitor wishing to install telegraph poles. We are talking to Ofcom and local authorities about that. I hope that I have managed to address most of the points raised. It is always a pleasure debating the hon. Gentleman. I suspect this will be the last time I shall do so in my present capacity—

I am very touched. That is because my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) will be returning after Christmas.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).