Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 742: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2023

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 13 December 2023

[David Mundell in the Chair]

Copper Wire Telecoms

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the withdrawal of copper wire telecommunications networks.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. Sometime ago the Government decided that the copper wire network—the analogue service—would be switched off in about December 2025. I can understand the reasoning behind the decision that the switchover would be industry led. We can see the sense in that, given how the telecommunications market operates these days. We have come some way from the days when everything was held under the General Post Office, which was the responsibility of a Government Minister. Although I understand the logic, I am afraid I have to bring a fairly simple and blunt message to the Minister this morning: it simply is not working.

It is apparent from the communications that I have with the industry and my constituents that the private companies are focusing on what matters to them rather than the needs and wishes of their customers and the communities we are elected to serve. The Government, after having made the decision that the switchover should be led by the industry, now have to step up to the plate, take charge and make sure that it is done properly. We have until the end of 2025 to get this right, but in terms of Government policy and given that there will be a general election in that period, we know that that sort of timescale can pass in the blink of an eye. This matters to people throughout the United Kingdom. It predominantly causes concern in rural communities because, in the switchover from analogue to digital communications, we have been the ones who have constantly been left behind—although I know that there are also urban communities that will be affected.

In Shetland and Orkney, our particular concern is around the resilience of the digital system—the fibre-optic system to which we will be transferred. For people in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow, power cuts are significant events because they are so rare. For us they are just part of everyday living, especially in the winter months. Occasionally we suffer catastrophic weather episodes such as we had last December, when parts of Shetland were left without electricity for six days. I am not always Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks’ biggest fan, but it really put in a shift along with council workers, the coastguard and other emergency services. It did a remarkable job in getting people connected back to electricity and making sure that those in the more hard-to-reach parts of Shetland were properly cared for.

Such events are occasional but not unknown. As we all suffer more and more catastrophic weather events in future, we have to assume that there will be a growing pattern of disruption for which the new system, when it is introduced to us, has to be fit for purpose; at the moment, with the lack of battery powered back-up, there simply is not that. Having a telephone line that we can plug in to the socket at the wall is very often the only means of communication left to people in such circumstances.

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for securing a really important debate. One such incident happened in the lakes and the dales and Eden just a week and a half ago when we had serious snowy weather, which locked people in their communities, and many places— the Langdales, Coniston, Eden Valley and so on—lost electricity. During that time, people lost access to digital connectivity because the electricity went down. Having access to analogue and copper wire telephones gives people the opportunity to get care and reach out for help—to not be isolated. Does he agree that the Government need to get a handle on this issue to make sure that isolated communities are not cut off from the communications they will desperately need in these far too frequent extreme weather events?

I absolutely do. By way of illustration, I received an email from a constituent in Walls, in the west side of Shetland, describing what life was like for him, his family and his neighbours during the six-day power outage last year. He said:

“Power was down…Internet was down…Heating was down (Our house has a gas cooker thank goodness)...The roads were impassable to cars for most of that period. 4x4 pick-ups could get through latterly into the week…The local shop was closed because it needed power to price items…Advice from the emergency services was that in the event of an emergency we were to wave down a passing police car. (This rather desperate advice was pretty hopeless, but more hopeless given road condition)…I need to emphasise that during this week an analogue phone with self-powered phone line was THE critical means of external contact with the outside world other than listening to the news on a battery-powered transistor radio.”

I am interested in my right hon. Friend’s point about the passing police car; we have precisely six police officers in the entire vast county of Sutherland. Does he agree that in a constituency such as mine, the distances are so vast and the time it takes for the emergency services—an ambulance, a doctor or whatever—to get to where they need to be is so long that any delay in getting the call through because of what he describes is unacceptable?

It is absolutely unacceptable, because it would be unacceptable to people living in a town or a city, and if it is unacceptable to them, surely it must be unacceptable to those of us who live outside the major conurbations.

Alongside my Scottish Parliament colleagues, I run regular digital forums. They started originally to raise issues relating to the transfer from analogue to digital television—we have been going that long—and they have morphed over the years to deal with concerns about broadband, superfast broadband and mobile connectivity. We held two such sessions in Kirkwall and Lerwick just last month, which representatives from EE, BT, the Scottish Government’s digital team and other mobile companies attended either in person or online, and their inability to answer questions was remarkable. The people in the audience asked fairly basic questions about how the switchover would work and what it would mean for them, but the people on the panel just looked at each other blankly and shrugged. The companies have no proper understanding of the scale of the problem.

Ahead of this debate, we have received a number of briefings. I draw the attention of the House to the one from BT Group, which runs to two sides of A4—that is quite instructive in itself. It is, if I may say so, fairly heavy on assertion and light on evidence to back up the assertions. It explains that the change is inevitable, and we know that the copper network will have to be replaced eventually, but BT says that it

“will provide a better quality, more resilient service for the future.”

Well, it is that question of “more resilient” that I would query; and, again, I see nothing in the briefing that gives me particular comfort.

The briefing does deal with resilience. It says:

“In the event of a power outage, a back-up, resilient solution for Digital Voice will be required to remain connected.”

There’s a blinding statement of the obvious if ever I saw one. It goes on to say:

“We advise customers to use their mobile phone where possible, as the simplest way to remain connected.”

Well, a number of my constituents would love to use a mobile phone to stay connected, but for obvious reasons—which BT has been telling me for the past 20 years are too difficult to solve—they are unable to do so. Very often, getting a mobile signal requires them to go out of their house and down to the bottom of the garden because they will not get a signal inside the house. Doing that in the middle of winter, in the dark in a howling gale—I can tell you because I have done it—is not much fun. The briefing goes on to say:

“They typically have a longer battery life and calls to the emergency services can be made over any mobile network, including over 2G. Our battery back-up unit provides up to four hours of standby time and up to two hours of talk time to keep customers connected during a power outage. This is available free of charge to vulnerable customers and others may purchase one if they wish.”

Four hours of back-up time in a six-day power outage such as we had in Shetland really is not what we need. It concludes:

“For the very small proportion of customers (less than 1%), with insufficient mobile or broadband connectivity to make a call to the emergency services, we will continue to meet our commitments under the Telephony Universal Service Obligation (USO) to ensure they remain connected.”

That is a pretty good idea, but I suspect that many of those 1% of customers live some distance away from the person who wrote that briefing. It is remarkable that, despite the assertion, there is absolutely no indication of how that laudable aim will be met.

I had a much better briefing from Alice Mathewson, the development manager for North Yell Development Council. With Members’ indulgence, I will take a bit of extra time to read this into the record. Alice was at the digital forum in Lerwick, and she wrote:

“As you are aware I asked a direct question about this to all panel members at your digital forum in Lerwick last month, and no one could give any viable response to this. In addition, the lack of awareness from everyone on your panel was both quite telling and very frightening.

Our community is well used to power outages and disruptions caused by storms. However, the storms seen on our island in December 2022, which resulted in some areas being without electricity for four days, have reminded us of our vulnerability and the need to improve our resilience.

Coupled with electricity outage was severe snow and high winds. All communications on and to the island failed, including mobile and landline services, and travel to and within Yell came to a standstill. Whilst luckily there were no fatalities locally, there were a number of near misses particularly among the more vulnerable in our community, and a complete communications black out on the island, including landlines, resulted in difficulties undertaking welfare checks and an inability to put out any form of emergency response request.”

North Yell Development Council is taking this properly seriously. It is setting up a network of community hubs so that there will be places people can go where there will be warmth, food and whatever other support they need, and they will have connectivity through very high frequency radios. The briefing says:

“We intend to put VHF radios in these hubs in order to try and have some form of emergency communication for our communities. This will be limited in its scope and is a step back to a predigital age. However, it is at least some form of solution, which is more than was offered by anyone on your panel. It also will not help communities outwith our island.”

That, I suggest, gives a proper understanding of the scale of the challenge. It is light years away from what we have seen from the telecommunications companies.

There are particular concerns about availability for older people in these communities who rely on telecare services—for instance, pendants that they can press when they are in difficulty. My father, who is now living on his own at 92, has a little box that sits in the corner of the room, and just when it is least expected—at about 6 o’clock at night—a rather bossy voice booms around the room, saying, “Have you taken your pills yet?” These are examples of the ways in which we are able to help people who want to remain in their own home to do so, in communities like the one I represent. Without the availability of these services, we know what will happen. The families who live closer or elsewhere in the country will quietly, one by one, say, “Come on, you can’t continue to live here. You need to move into the town or come and live with us.” In that way, choices expected to be available to people in other communities are taken away from ours, which becomes denuded of people who want to remain there.

Finally, I get a steady trickle of complaints about one particular issue. I cannot yet say that this is a business practice, though it appears it may be, and we need to get to the truth: people tell me that they have had their analogue line switched to a digital line by BT, without being told what was happening and without proper consent being obtained. The undertakings we get from BT are in relation to vulnerable people and all people over 75. As I said, I cannot yet say that this practice is widespread, but I do see a trickle of these complaints coming in; my caseworkers deal with them and it causes me concern.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He has been outlining the problems faced by his rural-based constituents, many of which are replicated in parts of Northern Ireland. We managed five or six years ago to negotiate a confidence and supply deal with the previous Government, part of which has resulted in fibre-optic cables being fitted. That means that many people are not suffering the same complaints and delays as they did previously. Perhaps that technology could be rolled out in isolated communities in places like his constituency.

Absolutely. As I said earlier, we know that the copper network is not going to last forever and that a solution has to be obtained. The bottom line is that that requires two things: resource and political determination. The reference to the confidence and supply arrangement is not lost on me in that respect. The resource will doubtless end up as an arm wrestle between the companies and the Treasury. The political determination can come from the Minister. That is absolutely necessary if the Government’s stated end is to be achieved. This can be his moment to shine, and I hope to hear from him that he is prepared and looking forward to stepping up to the challenge.

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate. It is an important issue, not just for my constituents and his, but across the country. I am thinking in particular of rural communities but also of the elderly and vulnerable communities that he mentioned.

The United Kingdom has embarked on a transformative journey of departure from traditional copper wire networks that have long underpinned the country’s communication infrastructure. Copper wire has been the backbone of telecommunications and still provides a vital service lifeline for many residents. However, I am conscious that the advent of digital technologies and the exponential growth of data usage have rendered copper wire networks less capable of keeping up with modern needs.

Copper wire networks are limited in bandwidth and data capacity, impeding the ability to deliver high-speed internet and accommodate the data-intensive services demanded by consumers and businesses. I am conscious that the withdrawal of copper wire networks is in line with the UK Government’s commitment to nationwide broadband expansion, and it is a crucial component of the country’s digital strategy, to ensure that remote and underserved areas have access to a reliable, high-speed internet.

Although that transition holds the promise of improved connectivity and technological advancement, it also raises valid concerns that warrant careful consideration and proactive measures. Upgrading the entire infrastructure from copper to fibre-optic cables not only requires substantial investment but it requires meticulous planning. There are cost implications and logistical complexities, and the need for widespread implementation raises concerns about the pace and scope of the transition.

In this country we did the digital TV transition very well. Led by industry, it worked exceptionally brilliantly. I should also point out, however, that in my constituency there are those who do not subscribe to internet or satellite TV. A substantial number of coastal communities only get access to 15 Freeview channels, rather than the plethora that many others do, because they rely on a relay, rather than a direct, transmitter. All of a sudden, the service where people can pick up a phone and dial anywhere in the world is going to change. We should therefore be mindful of not having a worse service for our constituents who, for whatever reason, choose not to have broadband services, but still want to have that connection around the world.

As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has discussed, bridging the digital divide and preventing communities from being left behind is an important task, not only for Government but for Ofcom and the telecommunication companies. I am aware that making the transition is an industry-led initiative and not directly Government policy. As I have pointed out, I fully understand why not only BT but other internet companies have decided that that is the way forward, and I do think they have been listening. However, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, we have seen an increasing number of storms and longer power outages, and it is those lengthy power cuts that really worry people. Indeed, right now, the recommendation to vulnerable communities or vulnerable people is to make sure they have a back-up analogue phone that they can plug into the socket in case of those sorts of issues, particularly as more and more people use electronically charged phones. It is therefore concerning to see how quickly we are approaching the industry’s self-imposed deadline on the transition.

I am conscious, and my right hon. Friend the Minister will know, how much mobile phone coverage has expanded since 2010—it is extraordinary. The number of transmitters has increased, and the Government have made it easier to put them up. I am not aware of the specific issue in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, but I can imagine. We talk a lot about how many places in the country have access, but I expect that there are several of us who represent those who do not have quite the same level of access, and we still want to see a fair deal for our constituents.

Can my right hon. Friend the Minister challenge Ofcom about its maps of coverage? I am conscious that Ofcom says parts of my constituency are covered by a variety of servers but, thinking out loud, the Deben peninsula, Sutton, Shottisham and areas like that suffered in the storms, were cut off and people could not do things such as phone for an ambulance and similar unless somebody was able to get into a tractor and drive through the floods to go somewhere where they could get a signal. It is those sorts of real-day issues that I know the Government are concerned about. That is why I hope their discussions with Ofcom and Openreach are ongoing, in order to think that through.

I appreciate that we will be discussing rural broadband later today, although I will be in the Treasury Committee so cannot join the debate. The same issue with Ofcom and access to a mobile signal is pertinent, with more and more people wanting to use the internet, so the same request will be made again. Indeed, there is a debate tomorrow about the merger of Vodafone and Three. I strongly say that that presents a real opportunity for significant investment in more transmitters around the country. I am concerned about the suggestion that Three being part of the Hutchison Whampoa empire is somehow dangerous to our country. Far from it—they are the same people who own Felixstowe port, Superdrug and Greene King and provide electricity for at least a third of the country. As we move forward and think about our infrastructure, I know the Government continue to keep security uppermost. They took the action a few years ago when they decided to remove a certain supplier—Huawei—from an amount of the infrastructure in this country. Nevertheless, we need to tread with confidence as we move forward.

Can my right hon. Friend the Minister update us on what has happened elsewhere in Europe with the copper switch-off, which is under way in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and if we can learn lessons for those final communities that are quite hard to reach in that regard? It would be good to get some clarity. Different years have been given for when the switch-off will happen—the end of 2025 was one example, and more recently I have seen Openreach talking about 2027. It would be useful to get an update on exactly where we are on that. For what it is worth, I think we should even consider asking for it to be pushed back until 2030, but I accept that Ofcom issued guidance a few years ago. I do not know if that has been updated; it issued advice initially in 2018. However, I give credit to BT and its Digital Voice migration. It has listened: it paused the Digital Voice migration for a year, and in particular it looked at how it will support people with a particular telecare device, to which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred. People who have only landlines today are people of a certain age and customers who have no mobile signal, but that comes back to my earlier point: I am afraid that we cannot just trust the maps put out by Ofcom.

On the power situation referred to by the right hon. Gentleman, an hour is simply not enough. Okay, we might get something with four hours, but we need to work that through and consider how we could have community hubs or similar. Parts of Scotland are much bigger geographically, but the constituency I represent is about 300 square miles in size. Our district council is the largest by population, stretching from Felixstowe to Lowestoft, so as a rural part of Suffolk we are pretty extensive. I hope that some further work can be done there.

I appreciate that the number of people who do not have an internet connection is becoming lower and lower, but the percentages mean that that is still hundreds of thousands of people. The Government have made it a requirement that people can get an internet-based line without having to take a package, but we need to ensure that costs do not escalate so that that is prohibitive for people who still want the security of a landline.

I hoped and assumed to some extent that Ofcom had sorted this out a few years ago. Some of the issues the country has faced and the bodycheck caused by covid have knocked back some infrastructure projects and other transitions that we need to undertake, but it is important not just for BT and Openreach but for Ofcom and the Government to listen carefully on consumer protection and seek assurances that nobody will be left behind. It is not just about trying to get everybody on broadband; it is about ensuring that people have confidence in a lifeline when they pick up the phone if they need help or if they suffer the isolation of not being able to have a phone call. We must ensure that is guaranteed not only now, but for generations to come.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate, because letters from BT about the switchover have already started landing in North Shropshire and, as one might imagine, a number of people are concerned about it.

We have discussed the topic at length. The right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) covered some of the points that I will make. The plans to remove copper wiring from landline telephone networks are problematic, mainly because of the contingency plans in place when there is a power cut. We all accept that analogue phone lines have reached the end of their serviceable lives: repairs are difficult and expensive, and the whole network is becoming difficult to maintain. We need to bring the telephone network into the 21st century, so moving to a digital system that offers better connection with higher sound quality seems like a good solution. However, as we have discussed, the problem with anything digital is that when we get into a rural area, we need a good plan B—and probably a plan C—for when things go wrong. We are all extremely concerned about the issue of power cuts, which are obviously not as bad as they are for an island community, but they still pose serious threats, even in places such as North Shropshire. In bad weather they occur frequently, and they regularly span longer than just a few hours. Storm Arwen in 2021, shortly before I became an MP, left some of my constituents without power for six days. It is an issue for all rural areas as well as those island communities.

As we have discussed, voice over internet technology requires a power connection. If people are cut off from a power source, they cannot contact anyone, including the emergency services. The official plan B is to have a battery back-up. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland pointed out, a battery back-up lasts only for a few hours, which is not long enough for a number of different events in an average winter, and certainly not long enough for some of the more extreme weather that we experience once every few years.

The other back-up plan is a mobile phone. Obviously, a solar-powered pack can be used to charge a mobile phone and keep it going through the worst power outages, but—and I think the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal covered this—lots of people in rural areas do not have a reliable mobile signal. Ofcom has said that 13% of the land area in North Shropshire is made up of partial notspots, so many residents do not have a choice of mobile provider if they want a signal at home. Ofcom also says that 3% of the UK cannot access a 4G signal at all.

I, too, have real concerns about the Ofcom maps. The lived experience of my constituents is that they often do not have any kind of signal indoors, even in places where Ofcom thinks they do, and that, if they do have a signal, it can be intermittent. For example, no one in my house received the emergency test signal that was sent to people’s mobile phones last year, yet we are technically in a good 4G area with indoor coverage from a number of providers. Because my husband has a home phone and a personal phone, he has two different providers, and we did not get an emergency test signal on either of them, so we know that those maps are unreliable.

To go slightly off topic, a mobile phone that functions at home but not at work is not a huge amount of use. There is an issue about the importance of being able to get a signal from all providers in all areas. I shall come on to that in a second.

Ofcom has said that landline providers have to continue to provide people with access to a telephone line even in the event of a power cut, but if people cannot prove that they do not have a mobile signal, how will that happen? I cannot prove to Ofcom that I do not have a mobile signal, because its maps say that I do. On occasion I do, but often I do not. I am worried about how residents in that situation will prove that they need an alternative back-up.

The shared rural network is supposed to address the problem of a poor mobile signal. It has promised to deliver a 4G signal from at least one mobile provider to 95% of the UK by 2025. The important thing is that we are talking about the 5% that is not included in that promise. It is supposed to be a partnership between mobile operators and the Government to fund masts so that they can be upgraded or built in areas that receive poor coverage. That is welcome: we want more investment in mast infrastructure. Having done some work on the issue, however, I am concerned about some of the things that I have been told by mobile operators. The three mobile operators that are not EE, which is BT’s mobile operator, have told me that EE has offered them exorbitant rates to share mobile masts, so those masts have been essentially cut off from them. The three other network operators are upgrading their existing masts and in some instances building new ones. Those will have shared equipment on them, but they will not have EE’s equipment.

The roll-out will continue to be patchy, and it will still cause people a number of issues about which network to choose and whether the service will function both at home and at work. It would be much more effective to have legislation that required the operators to share their equipment at a reasonable rate or which allowed customers to roam between providers, as they do for their emergency signal. At the moment, people cannot roam to make a call to a friend or relative, as they may well want to do during a power cut, but they can roam to call the emergency services. We need to look at that technology and expand it further.

Ofcom reports that only 45% of indoor premises receive a signal from all mobile operators but that 96% receive a signal from at least one. In my experience, that is not true, but still we are talking about the 4% of people who do not receive a signal indoors. If someone who has no signal has fallen over and needs to make a call in an emergency, they will not be helped.

Overall, the most important thing is that we need to address this mobile coverage problem. We need to bear in mind, if there is a big power outage in the area, that the mast carrying the mobile signal may well be out of power too, so it is not a fail-safe back-up to a copper line when there is a six-day power outage, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland described.

I would like to raise the issue of telecare devices, most of which historically have used copper wire technology. I have been reassured that there will be a proper roll-out and they will be upgraded as appropriate, but I wonder whether the Minister could provide us with any detail of how that is being tested, just to give some reassurance to my constituents who are concerned about whether they can continue to use those devices.

I want to touch on access to broadband. In North Shropshire, we are—I hope—lucky to be at the forefront of the Project Gigabit roll-out and, again, we are grateful for that. Project Gigabit plans to reach 9,000 of the 12,000 hard-to-reach properties in my constituency. Again, that is great, but it is the 3,000 properties that will not have a decent broadband service that we continue to be concerned about.

Rural communities are already disadvantaged regarding communication possibilities. We need to ensure that when we switch from the outdated copper wire technology, we have a robust back-up plan for those people who will be without power potentially for days on end. If someone cannot call an emergency service, they really are living in the dark ages compared with the rest of the country. Someone in my constituency might have to wait seven, 10 or 11 hours for an ambulance if they fall over and break their hip. That is assuming they have a functioning phone signal and call as soon as the problem occurs. If they cannot get in touch with anybody and have to attract the attention of a neighbour living many hundreds of yards away—just to summon help in the first place—they are in a pretty dire situation. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that we have properly thought-through plan B and plan C back-up plans to ensure that my constituents are safe should a big power cut occur.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). The majority of people probably have no idea about this subject—certainly no idea of the implications for them. For me, this is a debate about resilience, about what we do when things do not work as they should and about back-up plans. When dealing with climate change, unexpected power outages and extreme weather, we need back-up plans. If we did a quick poll in the room of how many people have 10 litres of water, three days’ supply of food and a torch with back-up batteries in their house, we would probably all fall short, but that is what we need. We also need a phone signal and to be able to contact people.

I will briefly digress to address the point made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) about the Vodafone-Three merger. She talked about the areas in which Three is already involved. When she mentioned it was the same people who are in charge of x, y, and z, she did not say they are the same people who have close links to the Chinese Community party. There is a real naivety to think that all is fine and that we can hand over critical infrastructure in this manner, but that debate takes place tomorrow.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) set out well the reasons why the switchover is happening and the advantages it will bring to do with better signal, clearer calls and lower energy use. That is fantastic, but we need to ensure that everything works as it should when the switchover takes place.

With new telephone lines working via the internet, all landline users will first need a broadband line, which not everybody has. Traditional telephone lines are run largely by Openreach and Virgin, private sector organisations that have taken the decision to retire these networks. Communication providers such as BT, Sky and TalkTalk are moving their customers over to fibre lines by December 2025. In fact, I believe Virgin hopes to have its customers moved over before then. The Government have said this change is industry led, but in practice it is a bit more complicated. The complexity of the current broadband market means there are more than 600 providers with 600 different processes, each managing the change in their own way. That could leave the consumer vulnerable, and certainly in a position where information is not properly communicated to them.

Analogue lines, of course, have back-up power, so they can work without an independent power supply if a property is affected by a local power cut. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland talked about the issues with his rural island constituency. I appreciate that power outages are far more common there, but even in urban constituencies and in cities, we do have power outages; more than that, wi-fi goes down regularly. Over the past week, the wi-fi in my house went down six times—that I am aware of—and twice while I was in the middle of a meeting. That was really problematic, and it would certainly be problematic for a vulnerable person who has fallen over. Although I understand the specific reasons why the right hon. Member brought this debate, the issue is not specific to rural constituencies.

Currently, personal alarms and fall detectors operate over the analogue network. It is estimated that around 1.7 million people in the UK use such devices, and they will be at risk if we do not get this switchover right. How will a personal care device work on a digital line if there is a power cut or the wi-fi is down? Those are more common occurrences than the Minister might like to admit. Upgrading those devices to the digital network—changing them so they can operate—is also going to be extremely costly, considering the number of people using them.

The Government have said that the change is industry led, possibly to wash their hands of it. Local authorities, which are often concerned with the care of vulnerable individuals, have been given no financial support for this change. Where will the money to upgrade those devices come from? There is also a lack of information, particularly from service providers. Despite that, I do not believe there are any plans for a national awareness campaign, by either Government or Ofcom—maybe the Minister can tell me otherwise. That is something we need to consider.

On top of that, there is also the potential for this switchover to create opportunities for criminals to target vulnerable constituents. There may be a potential increase in criminality through the selling of devices at inflated prices, selling vulnerable individuals new broadband packages that they may not use when all they use is a phone line, or perhaps charging for unnecessary work in their properties. We all need to be aware of those possibilities.

In summary, what is it we need? We need clear information—a campaign from Government to let people know what is happening. The timescale for this switchover has to be stretched. December 2025 will come up on us very quickly. From what we have heard this morning, many things clearly have not been considered. We need a back-up plan for when the internet goes down, and not just for when there are power cuts, because the internet often goes down even without power cuts. We need to know what specific interventions will take place in rural areas. Finally, returning to my initial point on resilience, we need to think more carefully about how we all consider our own resilience. Do we have the means to cope with extreme weather? We will be getting more of it.

It is always a delight to see you in your seat, Mr Mundell, chairing our proceedings with such grace and elegance. It is a great delight to commend the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on getting this debate today. We have campaigned together on many issues over the years, not least on the death penalty around the world. I am always a bit worried about his constituency, because there seem to be so many murders in Shetland of late. I am sure it is good that the BBC is making so much programming in Shetland, but honestly, virtually everybody on the peninsula must have been subject to murder, involved in a murder, or interviewed by the police at some point—I do realise it is fictional.

The right hon. Gentleman made some very good points and I will come on to them in a moment.

It is good to have the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) here with us, who made some very important points. She referred to the debate tomorrow on the potential merger between Vodafone and Three. I will also not be there, because I shall be at Glenys Kinnock’s funeral. The Minister will have a different shadow tomorrow; my place will be taken admirably by another Chris from the shadow Front Bench, also from south Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans). I somewhat disagree with the points that the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal made, but anyway, those will be elucidated tomorrow.

It was good to hear from the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), who referred to notspots, which I think she said covered 13% of her constituency, and the fact that 3% of people in the UK have no 4G signal. We are also 51st in the world for 5G signal. We are all aware that there are quite a lot of issues in terms of mobile and internet connectivity that apply to large sections of the United Kingdom. Somehow, we have not really managed to seize this with the energy that some other countries have managed.

I apologise to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), because I meant to mention her point about mobile signals indoors. I think any of us who have tried to have a mobile phone call on the parliamentary estate will know that mobile signals indoors are temperamental at least. Older buildings can be difficult, because of the thickness of the walls. Modern buildings can make it difficult for mobile signals too, because of the amount of steel on the outside of them. Having a mobile signal outside does not necessarily mean there is a mobile signal inside.

I will come on to that point about the difference between inside and outside, which certainly applies to homes in the Rhondda. The point was also made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) was saying that the signal on the parliamentary estate was temperamental or that the MPs were—maybe it is a bit of both. The hon. Lady made other good points about the potential for criminality. This is not a point that I have heard elsewhere. The Minister may want to refer to it later.

One of the biggest problems with this debate is that the vast majority of people in this country would have absolutely no idea what we are talking about. In fact, I would guess that of the 650 MPs, barely 10% would know what we are talking about. That is a potential problem, because if the public does not know what we are talking about, there is a danger for other people to exploit that lack of understanding and knowledge. Several Members have referred to the fact that this is primarily an industry-led, rather than Government-led, project. They are quite right, but the Government have a significant responsibility in this area. Towards the end of my speech, I will come on to a few things that I think the Government may want to look at.

There are real, legitimate concerns. PSTN—if 650 MPs were asked to say what that acronym stood for, my guess is that we would be lucky if 10 of them knew the answer—stands for public switched telephone network, and I only know that because I am reading it out.

The complete lack of public understanding of the issue is significant. The industry is extremely diverse, with roughly 650 providers in England alone, let alone the rest of the UK. As has already been referred to, BT has decided to delay its digital voice roll-out, and instead of a national roll-out by the end of December 2025 there will be a region-by-region roll-out, which adds a degree of complexity to any kind of national understanding of this issue. Indeed, I would argue that there is even less clarity about what is happening now than there was back in 2022.

As has already been said, some devices rely on PSTN. Security alarms are one. I would guess that quite a few MPs have security alarms. I wonder how many of those alarms are reliant on PSTN; I have no idea.

I will just highlight that point by drawing on personal experience. New security alarms do not rely on the copper network, for that reason, but they are reliant on a mobile signal, so if there is no mobile signal, they will not work.

Indeed. That is a point I will come on to again later.

The hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to telecare devices, with 1.7 million people in the UK relying on them. I am not quite sure what percentage of those devices are still on PSTN, but I would guess that it is a pretty high. One of the problems that plagues the debates on this issue is that we do not have reliable data and statistics, so the Government should try to ensure that we do.

A significant number of traffic lights rely on PSTN. There was a time in Russia when people in the Russian Federation thought that a red light meant that they should drive very fast, which was a bit of a problem. Then there was a problem because all the traffic lights in Russia went off at 10 o’clock at night, which led to other problems. I do not know whether the British Government know how many British traffic lights rely on PSTN, but maybe the Minister will be able to enlighten us later.

Then there is closed circuit television, or CCTV. There is a wide variety of different systems of CCTV up and down the country. Many of those systems will now have transitioned, but some have not.

I feel very old-fashioned in saying this, but fax machines are another thing. I saw a fax machine a couple of weeks ago in a hospital, and it is extraordinary that some of our public institutions still rely on fax machines because other forms of data interoperability simply do not exist.

My right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) made it a mission to get rid of fax machines from the NHS, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree that fax is still the single most secure way to communicate information, partly because of its ancient technology.

Indeed. However, I would argue that relying on legacy systems is dangerous for our public institutions, because we have to pay a lot of money to keep and maintain them, and they do not have a great deal of resilience. Of course we also know that if someone sends a handwritten letter, that may be more reliable than some other forms of communication. Anyway, the point is well made that we still have fax machines. Therefore, there is a wide variety of areas where we need to take cognisance of the impending danger if we go too fast down the route that we are discussing this morning.

Ofcom has also identified a series of different vulnerabilities—people who are more vulnerable than others in relation to age, disability, physical and mental health, and income. One of my biggest concerns as shadow Minister with responsibility for digital is that 18% of poorer homes in the UK have no internet to home at all—18%. That is a problem for levelling up; it is a problem when it comes to diversifying the economy; it is a problem in rural areas; it is a problem in inner-city areas; and there are problems in relation to buildings where it is difficult to get wayleaves. A whole series of issues combine to create a real, long-term problem for some of the most vulnerable families in the country. Some 7% of Welsh adults have no internet to home at all, so relying on VoIP to deliver emergency services with PSTN gone is problematic.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has faced emergency situations in various storms, and I think this debate partly stems from that experience. Of course, the law requires phone services to take all necessary measures to ensure uninterrupted access to emergency organisations, including during a power cut. That remains the case for VoIP services, which is why Ofcom provided guidance in 2018 on how service providers should do that. Virgin Media, for instance, will provide an emergency back-up line that relies on a battery-operated box in such circumstances. However, the way that all the service providers in the UK are meeting that responsibility remains unclear, which is why Ofcom started a monitoring programme in July 2022. It would be good to hear from Ofcom on how well that is proceeding.

In May 2022, the Electronic Communications Resilience and Response Group published a post-incident report after the storms in 2021-22. It was rather, I would say, blasé. It seemed to suggest that we could now cope better and that there would be greater resilience in future, but I think the points already made by several Members were very well made. In December 2022, Ofcom produced its “Connected Nations” report, which similarly suggested that we had learnt a lot of lessons from the storms, but I am not convinced that we are in a strong enough place.

I fully accept that, as a couple of hon. Members have said, there are significant advantages to transitioning. First, the copper wire is not going to last forever. Secondly, there is an affordability issue for the for the operators—keeping two systems going is more expensive. I would like every home in the land to have at least a superfast broadband connection. We were aware during covid in particular that many children were unable to do their homework because they basically relied on a mobile phone for their internet connection, and I do not think that will really work for the future.

Other countries have been much more assertive, aggressive and determined to transition. The Netherlands and Estonia have completed the process. Singapore completed it in 2020. Japan will complete it by next year. Spain had already done 80% by 2020, and Portugal had done 60% by 2020. By contrast, the UK managed only 2% by 2020. We are laggards in this. I am not going to excoriate the Minister for being slow and tardy—I see he is waggling his head in a sort of Eeyore way—but I am going to make this point to him: Estonia took three years to do it. Estonia is a much smaller country, so perhaps it was simpler to do it there. The Netherlands took 15 years. One could argue that we are going too fast to be able to ensure that we have met all the problems.

What should we do? First, I think we should pause this process now. We should take stock. The right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal made the good point that we should learn lessons from other countries. We should find out how Estonia managed to do it in three years, how Singapore managed to do it by 2020, and what resilience programming they have. How do they make sure that, if there is a power cut—in particular, one that lasts more than a couple of hours—how do they make sure that people are safe and protected? I do not want that pause to be endless; six months is enough, but I think we should take stock and the Government should come back to us with a clear plan of how we can move forward.

Secondly, we need to identify vulnerable customers and communities, because this does not play out equally in every part of the country. Thirdly—this point has been made by several hon. Members—we really need to improve mobile connectivity. I repeated that point at least 20 times as an MP, but in the words of Browning:

“Hark, the dominant’s persistence till it must be answered to!”

Ofcom says there is full connectivity in the town of Porth where I live in the Rhondda, both indoors and outdoors. That is a complete and utter fiction; I cannot get a mobile signal inside my house, other than through VoIP, and that is not just the case in my house, but in nearly every other house in Porth. Ofcom needs to go back to the drawing board and start again on providing accurate information on mobile connectivity.

We must also do more on enabling shared networks and shared masts. It took us far too long to get the electronic communications code through, and I understand that it still has not been fully implemented, though maybe the Government will be able to update us on that. I worry that it does not quite do the trick for enabling mobile connectivity in the rural areas we are talking about. In the Rhondda, sheep can be seen from virtually every house if one looks carefully enough, so we feel rural; though it is quite a dense community mostly living in the valley floor. We in the valleys community share with many other rural areas across the whole country the same anxieties about being able to develop economically, socially and culturally, and to take part in the full opportunities that a digital world offers when we cannot have reliable mobile connectivity.

Since I might not see you again in the Chair before Christmas, Mr Mundell, I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Thank you, that is gratefully received. I call the Minister, and remind him that we want to leave a few minutes at the end for Mr Carmichael to wind up.

I share the pleasure of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant), in seeing you in the Chair this morning, Mr Mundell. Let me start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate on a very important issue, and I am grateful to all those who have contributed and made some important points. The debate has ranged far and wide; we have encompassed the subject of the debate taking place this afternoon in this place, and indeed the debate in the Chamber tomorrow afternoon. This has been a good rehearsal of some of the issues.

This country is on a journey towards a digital economy. The Government have set an ambition that we should be one of the most technologically advanced economies in the world, and we are transitioning very rapidly away from the old analogue past through the roll-out of gigabit broadband. Indeed, I suspect that this afternoon the Government will be pressed to go further on that. We are making real progress, and we will report the latest figures for Project Gigabit on Friday morning. I was delighted to visit the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) not long ago, when we peered into a broadband cabinet in Orford.

As we move towards the most modern technology, we leave behind the infrastructure of the past, which includes the eventual closure of the analogue telephone network. The Opposition spokesman pointed out that it is perhaps not universally known as the PSTN, but it is a term that people will become more familiar with. It represents ageing technology—the first automated exchange was invented in the late 19th century, and the analogue network as we know it has existed since the 1980s. It has done a great job for us, but it is not fit for purpose today. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain: spare parts are difficult to find, the number of outages is increasing and the engineers who work on it are retiring. Not moving away from that to a more modern, resilient network would in itself create risk. The question is how we accomplish the change in a way that is secure, efficient and protects those who still rely on the PSTN network for connectivity. It is vital for Government, industry and Ofcom to work together to make sure the transition is achieved successfully.

As has been recognised by several speakers, the process was decided and initiated by the telecoms industry. The Government did not ask it to do so, nor have they determined the timelines or parameters for the switch-off. However, as the hon. Member for Rhondda points out, the Government have a responsibility to ensure the protection of all citizens, so they and Ofcom are working together to monitor the progress of the migration.

We have a particular interest in the groups in society who rely on their landline the most and might find it difficult to migrate to a new technology. They will include elderly citizens, people with mental or physical impairments or those who suffer from other vulnerabilities. We looked for very strong assurances that the needs of those people would be recognised and protected during any migration that took place.

Despite the assurances that we were given by communications operators, we have recently become aware of serious incidents of telecare users finding that their devices have failed when trying to activate them. That is completely unacceptable. The safety of vulnerable people has to be our top priority. As soon as we learned of those incidents, the Secretary of State and I met the relevant communication provider and requested that it carry out an urgent investigation to identify all vulnerable customers and make sure that their devices are fully operable.

In addition, we have asked the companies to pause forced migrations from PSTN networks and have asked Ofcom what more it can do to monitor the migration process. We have invited all communications providers to attend a roundtable tomorrow to ask them to sign up to a charter of commitments to protect vulnerable consumers through the transition. That will cover the need to protect vulnerable consumers—particularly telecare users—as well as the need to go further than Ofcom guidance on power resilience for the most vulnerable consumers and to agree a cross-sector definition of vulnerability.

I have also had meetings in the last 24 hours with Ministers from the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to discuss what more can be done to protect vulnerable consumers and to facilitate data sharing between local authorities, telecoms firms and telecare providers so that we can locate every single one of the people reliant on those devices.

The Minister might want to speak to the devolved Administrations as well, because many of those responsibilities are devolved.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and we will do that. Existing telecare devices already in the system need to be digitally compatible, and we are talking urgently to the Department of Health and Social Care about that. I take his point that we need to make sure that all four nations of the UK receive the same information and can give the same assurances.

Consumers can feel confident about the migration only if they understand how the change will impact on them. They need to know what additional support is available to them. That is particularly important for vulnerable consumers. Although the PSTN network is due to be switched off in full by 2025, the approach to migrate customers off the network varies from one provider to another.

Turning to the issue that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland raised in his opening contribution, network resilience is of particular importance. Telecom is vital critical national infrastructure, and that is never more true than when it is providing a literal lifeline to vulnerable citizens. That is why we have always placed such emphasis on network security and resilience, and why we introduced the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021. We published the UK Government resilience framework in December 2022, and the Deputy Prime Minister recently issued the first update to it.

With the PSTN network switch-off, it is vital that operators continue to prioritise resilience and make special arrangements for their vulnerable customers. The power sector takes important action to protect its customers and to ensure that the correct support is given to the most vulnerable customers during power disruptions, including those who are disabled and reliant on electric power devices. Electricity distribution network operators are obliged to maintain a priority services register.

Separately, since 2018 Ofcom has issued guidance to operators to ensure the sector remains resilient to all risks that may affect services. It states that, in the event of a power outage, providers should have at least one telecoms solution available that enables access to emergency organisations for a minimum of one hour. The solution should be suitable for customers’ needs and should be offered free of charge to those who are at risk. In line with that guidance, fixed-line providers offer back-up battery equipment for the required one-hour minimum, and in many cases battery back-up lasts much longer.

Several Members raised the concern that one hour is insufficient. Obviously, we face more violent weather events and potentially greater power outages, so we will keep that under review, and we are asking Ofcom to look at it again. We have never suffered a nationwide loss of power services, and major outages are still quite rare. If we experience a network outage, there are strong response mechanisms in place across all the operators to ensure services can be restored as quickly as possible. Where telecoms services have experienced disruptions, generally caused by severe weather, typically they resume immediately on power restoration.

Distribution network operators are also required to liaise with local authorities, strategic co-ordinating groups and local resilience forums and partnerships, to share information about vulnerable customers and provide welfare support by working together, but we recognise that we need to do more. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to Ofcom last year to request a wider review of telecoms resilience, and to ask whether more can be done to improve the sector’s power resilience. Ofcom has provided new resilience guidelines for communications providers on the measures they are expected to take in relation to the resilience of their networks, as part of their security duties under the 2021 Act. That includes specific measures for electrical power back-up required in fixed-line networks.

The Ofcom consultation on resilience guidance was published last week and is due to close on 1 March. It proposes updating the resilience guidance, including ensuring that networks are designed to avoid or reduce single points of failure; ensuring key infrastructure points have automatic failover functionality built in so that traffic is immediately diverted to another device or site when equipment fails; and setting out the processes, tools and training that should be considered to support the resilience requirements. Throughout the consultation, Ofcom is also inviting stakeholder input on the question of mobile resilience, asking what services consumers should be able to expect during a power outage and what a more cost-effective solution may look like.

It is important to recognise that power resilience is not just important in the context of the withdrawal of the copper network; it is essential to the functioning of all communications networks, including the mobile phone network. Comment has been made about the fact that mobile coverage is still not as great as we would like it to be. The wireless infrastructure strategy sets out a route to extending mobile coverage, and the shared rural network is helping to deliver that. I recognise the complaints that Ofcom’s assessment of the current mobile network coverage does not match the everyday experience of most hon. Members—including myself, I might say. We have asked Ofcom to look at that urgently to try to improve the accuracy of existing mobile coverage statistics. We will continue to prioritise power resilience issues for fixed and mobile networks across the country, working closely with the industry and the power sector. The Government are continuing to work with Ofcom to understand what may be considered appropriate and proportionate as an outcome of the consultation.

It is important that we have telecoms networks that are fit for the modern age. It is right that the technology that underpins the network is updated both now and in future, so that it can keep pace with all the demand that we place on it—from the digital economy, to social connections and contacting the emergency services. It is important that the network is fit for purpose, secure and resilient. In modernising the network, it is also important that communications providers work closely with their customers—especially the most vulnerable—to understand their needs.

It is right that the industry should seek to switch off the PSTN but, in doing so, companies should ensure that the transition is secure and efficient, and that they protect those who rely on the PSTN for their connectivity. As I have said, we remain extremely concerned that some of the understanding and assurance that we had about the protections being put in place appear not to have been fully delivered. For that reason, the Government are acting urgently to consult both Ofcom and all the communications providers to put in place absolute assurances, so that we can guarantee to the public that the transition will be conducted safely.

I thank you for your chairship, Mr Mundell, and all those who have taken part in what has been an even wider-ranging debate than I had anticipated. I might have anticipated that discussion would stray into terms of mobile phone networks and the rest, but not that we would get as far as talking about fax machines and traffic lights. I think I can say that, of all the possible difficulties that will arise, the operation of traffic lights concerns people in Orkney and Shetland less than others.

I thank the Minister for his full and detailed response. This has turned out to be a more timely opportunity to ventilate the issues than we had anticipated. When he goes to his roundtable tomorrow, I hope that he will impress upon the operators to whom he is speaking that vulnerability is a question not just of age or medical condition; occasionally, it is also a consequence of geography. I hope that he will make the point that this transfer—inevitable as it may be—is not good enough for anyone until it is good enough for everyone. If we get that understood by the industry, I hope that eventually we will achieve the laudable ends that the Government and the operators themselves identify of a modern, fit-for-purpose communications network.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the withdrawal of copper wire telecommunications networks.

Sitting suspended.

Sexual Harassment of Surgeons and Other Medical Professionals

I will call Rosie Duffield to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. There will be no opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of sexual harassment of surgeons and other medical professionals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of sexual assault against surgeons, nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals and patients in clinical settings. In April, I used my Prime Minister’s question to mention the report commissioned by the Women’s Rights Network and written by my friend, the sociologist and criminologist Professor Jo Phoenix, entitled “When we are at our most vulnerable”. The report revealed some truly shocking statistics about violent sexual assault, and everyday inappropriate and unwanted acts intruding into the work lives of professionals and disrupting the recovery of the most vulnerable and ill. How dare we call ourselves a civilised society if we turn a blind eye to this and do not do everything possible to support those women, and some men, who are brave enough to come forward, as well as those who do not feel that they can and suffer in silence?

Professor Phoenix found that more than 6,500 rapes and sexual assaults had been committed in hospitals in England and Wales over a period of nearly four years. Some were against children under 13, yet in a mere 265 cases—a minute 4.1%—was anyone known to have been charged. In total, 2,088 rapes and 4,451 sexual assaults—6,539 cases—were recorded by police forces from January 2019, and one in seven of those, or 266 a year, took place on hospital wards. As the researchers at the Women’s Rights Network sent freedom of information requests to 43 police forces across the UK and 35 responded, the figures are, in truth, even higher and even more shocking.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and on what she does. Those of us who are here have a particular interest. A recent survey of 2,500 doctors by the British Medical Association found that 33% of female and 25% of male respondents had experienced unwanted physical contact in the workplace. Worse still, these are only the figures for those medical staff who felt confident enough to come forward, so unfortunately the figure is probably much larger. Does she agree that provision must be put in place in the NHS and other, private healthcare facilities to ensure that staff members feel not only safe and protected, but encouraged to come forward and discuss instances of sexual abuse and rape within the workplace? In other words, there must be somewhere to go, someone to talk to and someone to sort it out.

Absolutely, and I thank the hon. Member so much for raising that important point, which is supported by all the work that the BMA has done, including the report that he mentioned.

The rape of a female child under 13 was included in those shocking statistics, alongside the rape of a female over 16 by multiple offenders in west midlands hospitals, three rapes of a female under 16 in Cambridgeshire, and six rapes of girls under 13 in Lancashire. It is important to note that although the FOI responses do not record the sex of the victims, national data shows that less than 5% of rape victims are men, so it is reasonable to assume that most victims are female. The investigation uncovered 13 rapes of males over the age of 16, however, including one incident involving multiple offenders, and the sexual assault of a male child under the age of 13 in a Cambridgeshire hospital.

We know that hospitals are, of course, monitored by many CCTV cameras, and individual wards usually have safe-door entry systems, which prompts the question of why only a tiny percentage of cases—4.1%—resulted in a charge or a summons. Indeed, five police forces did not issue a single summons or charge a single suspect for any of the 334 reported sexual assaults in their areas. Why not? The WRN report says:

“The damning figures are probably ‘the tip of an iceberg of indifference’ around the safety of NHS patients and staff”,

as some forces gave inadequate information. For example, Police Scotland did not provide any figures, citing cost constraints, and of those forces in England and Wales that did respond, seven forces provided incomplete responses, five did not give information on the number of assaults that occurred on hospital wards, and three did not provide information about the number of people charged or summonsed.

As Heather Binning, founder of the Women’s Rights Network, says:

“These statistics are jaw-dropping. We began this investigation because a number of members raised concerns about the safety of women and children on NHS wards, but we are horrified at what we have uncovered.”

I am grateful to the WRN for highlighting this problem and shining a light on something that has gone almost completely unnoticed in this place before.

The BMA represents doctors and medical students across the UK. It also produced a briefing for today’s debate, as we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It states:

“The BMA is deeply concerned by the overwhelming number of doctors who have experienced sexual harassment at work.”

Its “Sexism in medicine” report of September 2021 found that 91% of women doctors in the UK have experienced sexism at work, with 42% feeling that they could not report it.

The hon. Lady is highlighting a very important issue. She made a point about reporting, which is certainly an enormous challenge. The Women and Equalities Committee heard from Chelcie Jewitt of Surviving in Scrubs, who made the point that when doctors tried to report harassment, they were often told by the General Medical Council that it was a trust issue, yet the trust would say that it was a GMC issue. Does the hon. Lady think that goes some way to explaining why there is a lack of reporting and that, when there is reporting, it seems nothing gets done?

Absolutely. I thank the right hon. Lady so much for raising the work that Surviving in Scrubs does. I know that its evidence was really important for her inquiry.

The survey found that doctors’ experience of sexism and sexual harassment had prevented them from choosing certain specialities and had affected their career progression. Doctors say that the very structure of medical training creates a power dynamic, where perpetrators can have a significant impact on doctors’ opportunities to progress. The scale and severity of sexual harassment in medicine was further highlighted by the working party on sexual misconduct in surgery survey, which found that a third—a third—of NHS female surgical staff had been sexually assaulted by colleagues in the past five years.

These shocking findings led the BMA to launch its “Ending Sexism in Medicine” pledge in March 2023, which over 60 organisations have signed. The pledge aims to help ensure

“a world where doctors and medical students can work in a safe environment free from discrimination, and where gender plays no role in career progression or how they are treated.”

The pledge commits to ending sexual harassment in medicine and ensuring that structures are in place to enable reporting safely.

The BMA has called for the Government to implement legislation that includes a preventative duty on employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment taking place, including from third parties, and to support the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023, which places an obligation on employers to protect employees from sexual harassment. It stresses that all vital protections, policies at work, legislation and support for staff members must also be applied to students undergoing vocational training rather than just those classed as employees. As someone with a medical school in my constituency, I could not agree more.

I am also grateful to Tamzin Cuming, chair of the Women in Surgery forum at the Royal College of Surgeons, and to Professor Carrie Newlands, co-lead of the working party on sexual misconduct in surgery, for their report “Breaking the Silence”. The foreword is written by Professor Dame Jane Dacre, who says:

“This report shows that we still have a long way to go in demonstrating the respect that our female colleagues deserve in the surgical workplace. The survey findings of sexual misconduct are eye-watering and upsetting. It is difficult to read some of the testimonies, and this work should galvanise all healthcare organisations to make sure the problem of sexual misconduct is eliminated.”

It is an outstanding report that includes shocking data and statistics as well as chilling quotes from those affected. I urge anyone here to read it.

I cannot do justice to this work in such a short debate, but I want to read some of the quotes from those who took part:

“I watched a consultant fiddle with the hair of an industry representative, and kiss the back of her neck, at work. She was in a difficult position and did not want to report the incident.”

Another says:

“He’d frequently rub himself against me repetitively during surgery, grunt and gasp in my ear, then leave the operating theatre before the operation was over. The scrub nurse used to help me close up. She once cried with me after surgery and reminded me that she was powerless to do anything, but that she cared.”

Another states:

“The orthopaedic consultant, during an operation, discussed with his (male) trainee how they like blow jobs. It was my first day in theatre.”

I apologise for the unparliamentary language.

Those accounts are just a small snapshot of some of the report’s findings. It represents a lot of work and I hope that the authors’ recommendations can be given serious consideration by health bodies and the Government, along with the important work of the GMC, which has produced updated guidance on good medical practice and professional standards, which I am afraid I have not had time to give justice to today.

Since entering Parliament, I have focused on women’s health, our experiences of the NHS and maternity healthcare services. The pressures and enormous stress placed on our NHS professionals are well known, but these women who save lives, whether as a surgeon, nurse or a friendly reassuring receptionist, deserve to work in a safe and respectful environment, where they are given the dignity they deserve. Patients must feel and be safe at all times within a clinical setting. I am certain the Minister agrees, and I would be happy to work with him to ensure we get a much better place for all of those who need and love our NHS.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for raising this incredibly important issue. She has been a tireless voice for women in this place, on this and many other matters. Our health service holds a special place in all our hearts. It is appalling that NHS staff face sexual assault. The reports the hon. Lady talked about, “Breaking the Silence” and that from Surviving in Scrubs, make for incredibly difficult reading. I salute the authors for their courage and professionalism.

The first report highlights that up to two thirds of women and nearly a quarter of men had been the target of sexual harassment from colleagues in the past five years. It also states that a third of women in surgery have experienced sexual misconduct in their training, including sexual harassment, sexual assault and even rape. Sadly, there is other such published research about the alarming levels of unwanted sexual behaviour happening to NHS staff and patients, including an investigative report by the Women’s Rights Network, which again the hon. Lady mentioned.

Let me be clear: that behaviour is disgusting and deplorable, and has absolutely no place in our hospitals. Staff who dedicate their lives to helping others need to be able to do their jobs without fear of any kind of abuse, let alone sexually motivated remarks, insults or attacks. NHS leaders have a duty of care towards their staff and patients. Ensuring staff are safe and treated with respect is a crucial part of creating safe and compassionate workplaces.

NHS organisations also have clear policies to deal with reports of harassment or bullying. We know that raising and reporting sexual harassment and misconduct is never easy, particularly when the perpetrators are in positions of authority or are patients. However, victims need to feel confident to raise such issues and be reassured that appropriate action will be taken by their employers.

I thank the Minister for giving way, and welcome him to his new role, appreciating that he has only been in it a few weeks. I gently say to him that there is a real challenge in our NHS when 10% of women in one study reported unwanted sexual conduct in return for career opportunities. That is absolutely about power, and it is going to take a step change to break down those structures that enable such harassment to continue, behind a veil of silence, so that women are still afraid to speak out.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who is the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, for her work in this area. I completely agree with her point; there needs to be a serious culture change. We would all recognise that over many years the NHS has been fantastic in treating patients. However, quite often the same clinicians, in many regards, have not been as compassionate when looking after each other.

The workplace culture that has developed in parts of the NHS need addressing. Even though I am new to my role, with only three weeks in post, as part of the NHS long-term workforce plan, I am looking at that culture and the staff leaver rates across a whole range of different parts of the profession. That is important because we must ensure that people have a safe and enjoyable working environment. At the moment, reports such as those detailed by the hon. Member for Canterbury show that in far too many trusts, employers are falling well short of providing that supportive environment, which is the least people should expect.

Turning to what has been happening, most NHS organisations now have trained staff to help colleagues raise concerns in this area. That includes a network of more than 1,000 local freedom to speak up guardians across all trusts, supported by an independent national guardian to help drive positive cultural change. We have also established a confidential helpline for staff who want to speak up but need guidance about what to do and where to turn. That, again, goes to the point made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North about the experience of people complaining but being passed from pillar to post between the GMC and trust. I hope that the confidential helpline will help make a difference.

NHS organisations must do everything they can to stamp out the unacceptable behaviours at all levels across the health and care system. In April, the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay), convened an urgent meeting with NHS England to ensure that NHS organisations are doing more to tackle such behaviours. We have made some progress, although I acknowledge that there is much more to do.

This year, NHS England broadened and strengthened the remit of its domestic abuse and sexual violence programme, which was established in 2022, to address sexual harassment and misconduct on NHS premises. All trusts and integrated care boards were asked by NHS England to appoint an executive and operational lead for domestic abuse and sexual violence. Those leads are reviewing their policies, training and support systems to enhance support for staff and patients.

In September, NHS England launched the first ever NHS sexual safety charter across the healthcare system. There are now 200 signatories, including NHS employers and the Royal College of Surgeons. Signatories commit to taking a zero-tolerance approach to any inappropriate or harmful sexual behaviours in the workplace by implementing all 10 charter commitments by July 2024. The commitments include establishing clear reporting mechanisms, implementing training programmes and providing essential support for those involved in investigations. NHS England will use the new network of domestic abuse and sexual violence leads to share and promote good practice and develop practical solutions in implementing the new charter.

Data capture is also a key commitment in the charter and to gauge the charter’s impact, the NHS staff survey now includes a question related specifically to sexual safety. That systematic approach reflects a commitment to transparency and accountability in creating a safer working environment. The Equality Act 2010 has also been amended this year to include a new duty on employers to take steps to prevent the sexual harassment of their employees. Implementation of the charter will assist NHS employers with meeting the duty when it comes into force next October.

The GMC is unable to consider complaints about registrants that relate to matters more than five years old unless it considers it to be in the public interest to do so, which has been raised during the debate. We are modernising the legislation that governs professional regulators, which includes removing the five-year rule as part of the reforms to regulatory legislation for doctors. It will allow the GMC greater discretion to consider whether a concern should be investigated. Introducing those changes remains a top priority for the Government.

I hope that these measures show that we are committed to addressing the problem with targeted action. However, I acknowledge that there is more to do, and I would be happy to work with the hon. Member for Canterbury and Members across the House to ensure that we get it right. We will not be satisfied until the number of staff facing sexual harassment is down to zero. There must be a collective effort across our health service to enact change. Strong and effective leadership is crucial, and it starts from the top. The Government, with NHS England driving this work, are calling upon all NHS boards to sign the sexual safety charter and ensure that their healthcare settings are safe places for our current and future workforce.

I will close by acknowledging the bravery of all those women and men who have come forward with their experiences of sexual harassment and misconduct in the healthcare workforce. That includes the testimonies in the report from Surviving in Scrubs, some of which the hon. Member for Canterbury read out. It takes incredible bravery and selflessness to come forward. Thanks to those brave women, and some men, we are getting ever closer to ending the scourge of sexual assault in our health service. I thank the hon. Member for putting a spotlight on the issue today. We must not tolerate it.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Broadband: Rural Communities

[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)).

Kettering Bingo Hall: Community Ownership Fund

I ask colleagues to move out as quickly and as silently as possible. I will call Philip Hollobone to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Community Ownership Fund and the former bingo hall in Kettering.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I thank Mr Speaker for his special permission to hold the debate, and I welcome the Minister to his place to hear the remarks I will make on behalf of my local constituents in Kettering. It is a huge privilege to be the Member of Parliament for Kettering, and the subject I wish to raise today is among the most important I have ever had the opportunity to raise in front of a Government Minister. That is because I speak on behalf of my local residents, who are all behind the bid being made by Beccy Hurrell and Lindsey Atkins of the Beccy Hurrell Voice & Arts Axis Hub Community Interest Company. I fully support, 100%, their excellent community ownership fund bid for £2 million, to revive for community use the former Gala Bingo hall building, which is located right at the heart of Kettering town centre. If the bid is successful, it would be transformative for the heart of Kettering.

The 25,000-square-foot building on Kettering High Street opened in 1936 and was once the home of a 2,000-seat theatre and cinema, orchestra pit and restaurant. It has been empty and, sadly, unloved for more than five years. In 2018, when it closed, Tony Smith, the well-known Kettering historian, said the closure of the Gala Bingo hall would

“end another chapter in the history of this unique High Street building. It began as the Regal Cinema, built on the site of Goosey & Sons’ drapery store and officially opened by Earl Spencer on Boxing Day, 1936. The £70,000 super-cinema had 2,000 luxury seats, its frontage dominated by a central tower with a neon halo visible for miles”

on its art deco frontage. He went on:

“Sunday night stage shows in the 1940s featured the legendary Flanagan & Alan, the Crazy Gang, and Vera Lynn. In 1948”

—after the war—

“the Regal was taken over by Granada Theatres and in the 1960s The Who and The Rolling Stones were among the top bands to perform there. The Gala bingo club took over the building after the Granada closed in 1974.”

It ran it until the bingo hall itself closed in 2018.

Sadly, since then, in June 2019, local police found 2,000 cannabis plants inside the empty building, potentially worth almost £3 million—£1 million more than we are asking from the Government to help redevelop the site. The Kettering Town Centre Partnership then had it listed as an asset of community value, giving local groups the chance to put together a bid if it ever went on the market. Earlier this year, its owners notified the council of their intention to sell it, and the BHVA Axis Hub CIC applied to trigger the moratorium. The company is hoping to buy the former bingo hall through the separate CIC structure and then lock it in as an asset for the local community.

Beccy Hurrell and Lindsey Atkins are quite simply remarkable individuals; I am not sure I have ever come across people with more enthusiasm, entrepreneurial spirit or dedication to a cause. Their laudable ambition is to transform the site into a safe, affordable and dynamic space for the local community—for local businesses, aspiring musicians, students, start-ups and families. They want to create a community hub packed with theatre space, performance spaces, a music studio, rehearsal rooms, hot desks, spaces for community groups, crafting areas and a café. Were Beccy and Lindsey’s bid to be successful, it would be simply transformative for Kettering town centre.

I said that Beccy and Lindsey are remarkable. Indeed, they have recently won a number of prestigious local awards. They were crowned the health and wellbeing business of the year at the North Northamptonshire Business Network business awards, recognising their dedication to promoting wellbeing through the arts. They were also named small business of the year at the Northamptonshire business awards, so they are extremely good at what they do.

There is huge local support for this initiative. Beccy and Lindsey engaged with local media to get the message out about their plans for the site, and there was an article in the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph in February this year. Following that, the newspaper emailed Beccy and Lindsey back and said:

“Just wanted to let you know about the incredible reaction from people yesterday to the story about your plans for the bingo hall. I know you’ve seen a lot of the comments but just wanted to put into context how popular the plans have been! The Facebook post itself reached 116,000 people, it got 1,000 likes and to date 13,000 people have read the story online, with that figure still rising.”

That reaction was in the first 24 hours after the article was published. The newspaper went on to say:

“That’s pretty unprecedented for a story like this—usually those sorts of figures we only see on negative stories/court cases. I hope you’ve also received lots of feedback/comments from people. We quite often do stories about things where people go ‘oh that’s a nice idea’ but then don’t support it, but there’s a genuine buzz about this.”

I hope that the campaign to restore and keep the bingo hall will be successful. I am mindful that the hon. Gentleman has laid out the history. Are there are any famous people from Kettering who could be called upon to be philanthropic and give money to help him and others achieve the goal?

That is a very constructive suggestion. I hope that from media coverage generated by this debate, such individuals might well come forward. One of the main ideas about the £2 million funding bid is that it will get the initiative under way and then attract other investment, whether from individuals or the private sector. It is seedcorn capital to get the project up and running. The idea is for it to be self-financing quite quickly so that it is not a further drain on local or national taxpayers, but the £2 million is needed to get the building up and running again. Hopefully, it will start things off. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that constructive suggestion.

As the Minister will know, the aims of the community ownership fund are to support community groups so that they can take ownership of important local assets at risk of being lost, empower their improvement and run them sustainably for the long-term benefit of the community. Beccy and Lindsey’s bid meets all those aims: I doubt whether the Minister will have received many bids of a higher quality. Indeed, Beccy and Lindsey have submitted a 196-page business plan to the Department. I have never seen a higher-quality bid for anything.

Kettering is a priority 1 candidate for levelling-up interventions. A successful community ownership fund award for this bid would deliver not just one but all five of the Government’s ambitions for community ownership fund schemes. Those five aims are to: increase feelings of pride in, and improve perceptions of, the local area as a place to live—tick; improve social trust, cohesion, and a sense of belonging—tick; increase local participation in community life, arts, culture, or sport—tick; improve local economic outcomes, including creating jobs, volunteering opportunities, and improving employability and skills levels in the local community—tick; and, lastly, improve social and wellbeing outcomes, including having a positive impact on the physical and mental health of local people, and reducing loneliness and social isolation—tick. I know that in his new role the Minister will be paying close and diligent personal attention to all the bids before him. I hope that the strength of the application will convince him that it is fully worthy of Government support through the community ownership fund.

The mission of the BHVA Axis Hub is to be the nexus where creativity, enterprise and community all intersect. Importantly, the site is right in the middle of Kettering town centre. Recently, the town centre was blighted by having an asylum hotel at the Royal Hotel, just a few doors away from the Gala Bingo site. Fortunately, that has now been closed down. The hub would be transformative for Kettering town centre and fulfil the Government’s levelling-up objectives were the £2 million to be allocated.

The mission of the BHVA Axis Hub is, first, about unified collaboration—to bridge the gap between creative minds, businesses, third-sector organisations, Government agencies and local communities, ensuring that everyone finds their sanctuary. Secondly, it is about health and wellbeing—to facilitate easier and anonymous access to services, reducing the daunting thresholds that many face. Alongside that, it will foster an environment where health services are more community-centric, eliminating the need for distant health visits. Kettering General Hospital has shown an interest in outsourcing space in the new venue.

Thirdly, the hub is about professional support. It would be a haven for those working remotely, start-ups, established local businesses and other third-sector organisations to connect, collaborate and innovate. Fourthly, it is about educational outreach. It would provide comprehensive programmes for young people not in education, employment or training, facilitating their transition into education or employment. There would be partnerships with local schools and education institutions to provide apprenticeships and vocational training.

Finally, the hub is about artistic empowerment. There is a huge local creative arts scene in Kettering. Beccy and Lindsey hope to establish a state-of-the-art gig venue/theatre that not only showcases local talent but educates budding artists on the intricacies of gig management, theatre production, stage management, lighting and sound. It would be the launchpad for grassroots musicians and theatre artists to realise their dreams.

As I said in response to the hon. Member for Strangford, Beccy and Lindsey are looking for seedcorn capital to get this innovative venture under way. Their aim is to achieve self-sustainability within two years of operation, ensuring that the hub is financially stable. On the back of the Government’s investment, they would be able to secure funding and partnerships from local businesses, other Government agencies and third-sector organisations to provide resources and services to the community from this central town-centre site. They would be able to diversify revenue streams, tapping into rentals, events, gigs, local productions, workshops and collaborative projects. The social objectives of this bid are also impressive. They aim to increase access to services by 30% in the first year of operation, with a focus on bringing services closer to the heart of the community.

Beccy and Lindsey would launch a comprehensive programme for local young people not in education, employment or training, and for socially isolated individuals. It would target at least 200 participants in the first year, and aims for a 70% success rate in transitioning them into education or employment. Beccy and Lindsey aim to create a vibrant community of at least 100 regular remote workers within the first year; this would foster collaboration and reduce isolation. They wish to establish partnerships with a minimum of 10 local businesses and third-sector organisations in the first year, to provide resources, support and services. They aim to launch the gig venue, which would have the capacity to host a minimum of 20 grassroots events in the first year, and to establish training workshops on gig and theatre management, targeting up to 100 participants.

The social outcomes from these endeavours would be impressive: a reduction in the number of individuals feeling isolated or disconnected in the local community; enhanced accessibility of vital services; improved overall community wellbeing; and the creation of employment, educational and volunteering opportunities, leading to personal and community growth. The initiative would also amplify the voices of local grassroots musicians and creative artists, enriching the already rich cultural tapestry of the Kettering community.

I hope the Minister will agree that the bid is impressive. In year one, 2024-25, Beccy and Lindsey aim to secure the Gala Bingo hall site; initiate immediate remedial works, including the removal of the remaining asbestos; and engage with community stakeholders on the final designs, to ensure they meet the diverse needs of the local community and, importantly, protect the delightful art deco frontage. In year two, 2025-26, they would want to celebrate the successful launch of the building’s front section, which would be fully equipped to serve as Kettering’s premier co-working and event destination, with expanded staffing and operational capabilities, so that it can integrate community-centric events and initiatives. In year three, 2026-27, they wish to commence and expedite the rebuild of the back of this massive building in the heart of Kettering, keeping sustainability, accessibility and community needs at the forefront of design and execution. They would aim to launch pilot programmes, tailored towards education, skills training and community health, and strengthen ties with key local businesses, educational institutions and civic bodies.

In year four, 2027-28, with a significant portion of the building revamped, Beccy and Lindsey would aim to streamline operational processes, ensuring a seamless blend of co-working spaces, event areas and community-focused sections. In year five, 2028-29, they would realise the full potential of the site. The entire building will be humming with activity, following the completion of the refit and rebuild.

The site would become north Northamptonshire’s premier hub for work, creativity, collaboration and culture, and that would deepen the societal impact of the project. Programmes would be expanded, and partnerships improved, for maximum community outreach and enrichment. I do not know of any local organisation that is not supporting this bid, but one of the most important, from the perspective of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, is North Northamptonshire Council, which is fully behind this project. NNC fully endorses and supports the vision of creating a hub on the former Gala Bingo hall site. The vision, values and priorities of the council align very closely with what the initiative submitted by Beccy and Lindsey looks to achieve. Importantly, from a growth and regeneration perspective, it would lead the drive for regeneration of Kettering High Street, and would reach out much more widely to the broader North Northamptonshire community.

There are key local wards that DLUHC has identified for levelling up in its “Levelling Up the United Kingdom” White Paper. NNC’s vision is of a place where everyone has the best opportunities and quality of life, and the hub initiative clearly demonstrates an opportunity and displays the characteristics to help achieve the council’s aims and objective. The council’s six key commitments are: “Active, fulfilled lives” for local people, as well as:

“Better, brighter futures…Safe and thriving places…Green, sustainable environment… Connected communities…Modern public services.”

All six of those aims would be delivered by these axis hub proposals.

Importantly, another central Government initiative is family hubs. NNC is one of 75 councils that have been given funding to put family hubs into practice. The one in Wellingborough is already open, but in the Kettering area, NNC is looking to open up another one in the next period of time. The venue we are discussing would be ideal for such a family hub investment.

Also, the hub would help with other council and Government programmes for children’s centres, community wellbeing forums and local area partnerships. It would help the local business community, help with the relocation of NHS services to the heart of Kettering town centre, which would improve access for those who find it difficult to get to their GP surgery or to the hospital, and foment better Workplace-style projects.

I hope that I have given a flavour of how important the bid is to people in Kettering, how important it is to me, and how much it would benefit not only Kettering High Street but the town of Kettering as a whole, and indeed wider North Northamptonshire. I genuinely struggle to imagine that the Minister could have seen any bid among all those submitted to him in recent months that is of higher quality than the one that Beccy and Lindsey have prepared. I urge him, and plead with him; £2 million is not a huge amount of money, compared with the billions that the Government spend every year, but putting £2 million into the old Gala Bingo hall site in Kettering would be transformative for the area.

It is a pleasure, Mr Dowd, to see you in the Chair, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for securing this important debate.

We are all too aware of local communities losing beloved assets that foster a sense of community pride and empower communities. That is why, in July 2021, the UK Government launched the £150 million community ownership fund, which forms part of the UK Government’s levelling-up agenda. It supports ambition and builds opportunity through targeted support for places where community assets can make the most difference. The fund helps to safeguard the small but much-loved local assets on which we cannot possibly put a price.

Since the launch of the fund, I am very proud to say that we have awarded £49.3 million to 195 projects across the UK, with £35 million allocated to 131 projects across England, £6.2 million allocated to 28 projects in Scotland, £4 million allocated to 18 projects in Wales and £4.1 million allocated to 18 projects in Northern Ireland.

The community ownership fund has been one of my favourite funds to work with since I became a Minister in the Department, because we get to give the cash directly to the community groups that can really make a difference, as we have heard from my hon. Friend. Recently, I had the privilege of visiting the historical Keighley & Worth Valley Railway. The restoration effort there is not only preserving a piece of history—the railway had a starring role in “The Railway Children”—but enhancing transport infrastructure, supporting local economies and ensuring the wellbeing of more than 250,000 passengers who use this tourist railway line annually. We were able to give the railway funding in the last round of funding from the community ownership fund.

I have even had the pleasure of making it all the way up to the Western Isles, where I visited Laxdale hall. It is using its £300,000 community ownership funding to fully renovate its community space, which it will use to host community sales, supporting local businesses and encouraging social inclusion.

We have made positive changes to the fund for future bidding rounds. We have announced changes in round 3, including allowing applications from parish councils, an extension of the funding cap for all assets, and a match funding reduction for all bids, bringing the requirement down from 50% to 20%. Incorporated voluntary and community organisations, and parish, town and community councils, can make the case for up to £2 million in capital match funding to help a community owned asset that would be at risk of being lost without community intervention. Bidding for round 3, window 2, closed on 11 October 2023, and successful bids will be announced later this month. Once a window closes, all applications are assessed against the assessment framework, which is publicly available on To ensure fairness and protect public money, all bids go through the same thorough assessment and due diligence process before receiving funding.

One of the fantastic things about the community ownership fund is that unsuccessful applicants are welcome to reflect on the feedback they receive, and to apply again in one of our next funding rounds. That is why this is one of the best funds in Government. Unsuccessful applicants are provided with feedback on where their application failed against the assessment criteria, as set out on This feedback signposts to the relevant sections of the guidance document, which applicants can use to strengthen their bid. On top of that, development support is now available to applicants via the My Community website. Our development support provider offers initial support and advice to all interested applicants up to the expression of interest stage, after which certain applicants will be able to access in-depth support for the development of their application and business case. That may also include access to small revenue grants to secure specialist support.

The current round of funding opened a week ago today and will run until the end of January. I encourage all hon. Members to engage with community groups and to encourage them to apply, or at least submit an expression of interest as soon as possible. As I have already said, unsuccessful projects can apply to the fund again in this round. My hon. Friend said that the Gala Bingo hall used to be the Granada theatre, and had brilliant acts, such as the Rolling Stones. In the words of the Rolling Stones, I tell my hon. Friend:

“You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometimes, well, you just might find

You get what you need”.

I hope that that response gives him some satisfaction.

I have heard today about the many merits of the Kettering bingo hall bid, and the impact that the proposal would have on the local community in Kettering. I wish Beccy, Lindsey and the BHVA access hub the very best of luck in this next round of the community ownership fund. As I have said, my door remains open for further discussions with my hon. Friend and any other interested parties on how we can seek to improve bids in future rounds if they are not successful this time around.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

UK Military Action in Iraq: Declassified Documents

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of UK military action in Iraq and declassified documents from 1998.

By way of introduction, I pay tribute to Declassified UK, and in particular its co-founder and editor, the journalist and author Mark Curtis, who has provided an invaluable public service by shining a light on declassified British documents from 1998 at the National Archives. The documents, which run to over 900 pages, reveal what actually went on behind the scenes when the UK Government decided to take military action in December 1998 in what became known as Operation Desert Fox: the four-day bombing campaign in Iraq from 16 to 19 December 1998 by the United States and British militaries. This is important in and of itself, but also because it was the precursor to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Before I turn to the key findings from the declassified documents, let me recap the human cost of military action in Iraq. This House will forever remember the sacrifice of the 179 British servicemen and women, as well as the 23 British civilians, who lost their life during the conflict in Iraq. Yesterday, I joined the War Widows Association for its Christmas gathering; I pay tribute to its secretary, my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituent Sue Raw, and to the amazing women and men who have lost a loved one during a conflict, or as a result of the lasting consequences of conflict.

In addition, there is also the horrific human cost of the war in Iraq. A research study published in The Lancet in 2006 estimated that more than 655,000 Iraqis had died as a consequence of recent wars. In November 2006, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 1.8 million Iraqis had been displaced to neighbouring countries, and 1.6 million were displaced internally. As recently as March 2023, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimated that 1.1 million Iraqis are still displaced internally or live as refugees abroad. According to an April 2014 report in The Guardian, the war cost the British taxpayer £9.6 billion. Doubts over the legality of the invasion of Iraq have done irreparable reputational damage to the western world, including the United Kingdom, throughout the middle east and among Muslim populations both at home and abroad.

I turn to the key findings from the declassified documents in relation to discussions involving, and advice given by, the then Foreign Office legal adviser, the Solicitor General, the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Attorney General, the Deputy Secretary for Defence and Overseas Affairs.

On 12 February 1998, the Foreign Office’s legal adviser, Sir Franklin Berman, wrote to his Department’s senior civil servant. He said that

“the only valid claim to employ force (in this case) is under the authority of the Security Council…my view is that a new resolution in suitable terms is a sine qua non.”

He added:

“The Ministerial Code requires Ministers to comply with the law, including international law…I cannot believe that Ministers would wish to order British servicemen into action unless their legal advisers were able to assure them that it was legally justifiable.”

The then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was again told of the Foreign Office view two days later, on 14 February, in a meeting with the then Solicitor General for England and Wales, now Lord Falconer. Referring to the UK’s invasion of Egypt over Suez, Lord Falconer told Tony Blair that in the Foreign Office

“some lawyers argued very strongly that it would be the first time since 1956 that the UK had used force without the backing of the Security Council resolution”.

Lord Falconer stated that some lawyers

“might feel strongly enough to resign”,

as they might be expected to implement decisions

“that they believed were incompatible with international law”.

Five days later, on 19 February, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and the then Defence Secretary, now Lord Robertson, attended a briefing by Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Charles Guthrie and Air Marshal John Day on

“targeting plans for operations against Iraq”.

The minutes note that the Chief of the Defence Staff

“mentioned that he was worried about the legal side; he hoped this could be sorted quickly”.

The minutes then state: “The prime minister”—Tony Blair—

“noted that the legal advice was that securing another”

Security Council resolution “was preferable.” They added:

“The prime minister concluded that…he did not want to have everything depending on securing a further Resolution”.

What on earth did he mean by “everything”? What exactly had he committed to? We know that Tony Blair had been told by then—in a communication entitled “The Legal Use of Force”, from Michael Pakenham, deputy secretary for defence and overseas affairs, to John Holmes, principal private secretary to the Prime Minister—that a further resolution was essential, not preferable. Tony Blair’s statement in the minutes of the meeting with the Chief of the Defence Staff implies that he would be prepared to use military force without such a resolution. That is unlawful, yet that is exactly what happened as events transpired.

One note in the bundle of papers, which is undated but likely to be from February 1998, appears to be from officials in advance of a meeting between Tony Blair and Attorney General John Morris. This note suggests that Tony Blair pressed Morris to legally justify the use of force. The “Speaking Notes for the Prime Minister: Iraq—The Legal Position” reference Morris’s memo of 14 November 1997 and say that it “helpfully indicated” there could be “exceptional circumstances” in which the use of force could be justified without a Security Council statement. The note then says:

“I trust that you can confirm now that my description of what would constitute ‘exceptional circumstances’ is correct”.

However, Morris’s memo clearly states the following:

“Such a situation has not yet arisen; and even in such extreme circumstances, the UK could expect to be questioned closely about the legal basis for its resort to military force. The Government would need to have the strongest factual grounds for such action.”

This advice from Attorney General John Morris makes it clear that a Security Council statement was “an essential precondition” to using force.

In July 1998, Michael Pakenham, deputy secretary for defence and overseas affairs, wrote a confidential note entitled “The Legal Use of Force”. That was sent to John Holmes, principal private secretary to the Prime Minister. In it, he said that the Foreign Office legal team were continuing to advise that

“the bottom line remains that in most foreseeable circumstances, a Resolution of the UN Security Council is required before the use of such force can be authorised”.

He added that

“acting against UN principles or without”

UN Security Council resolutions

“may in the short term meet…immediate need but is in the long term wholly contrary to our interests”.

The communication also states:

“the advice given by the FCO legal team, and closely followed by the Law Officers, is that there are certain fundamental rules which any Government must follow, and tests they must meet, before authorising the use of force by our Armed Services. Without such tests being met, there would be a very real risk of members of the Armed Services being subject to criminal prosecution.”

In summary, the then Foreign Office legal advisers stated that the

“only valid claim to employ force”

was under the authority of the United Nations Security Council. The Solicitor General warned Tony Blair that there were lawyers who might resign rather than have to implement decisions “incompatible with international law”. It is absolutely clear that neither the Foreign Office’s legal adviser nor the Solicitor General was willing to advise that military action was legally justifiable.

We have evidence of the then UK Prime Minister pressing the then Attorney General to provide a legal justification for military action. If that was not concerning enough, we also had the Chief of the Defence Staff stating that he was worried about the legal side. Crucially, the deputy director for defence and overseas affairs offered absolute clarity that

“the bottom line remains that”

a UN Security Council resolution is required before the use of force can be authorised. In fact, the communication sent to Downing Street makes it clear that the Prime Minister’s office was told that that was essential.

On 14 November 1998, Tony Blair authorised the strike on Iraq, but UK and US forces were stood down at the last minute, when Saddam Hussein agreed to permit weapons inspections. Just before Iraq’s climbdown, Tony Blair held a meeting with the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, the Defence Secretary, now Lord Robertson, and the Chief of the Defence Staff, Charles Guthrie, in which he affirmed:

“The time had now come for military action to be taken against Iraq.”

According to the minutes of that meeting, there was no consideration of legality, except that it was agreed to justify the use of force

“not because he [Saddam] was in technical breach of UN Resolutions but because he posed a real and imminent threat to peace and security in the region”.

As Declassified UK has stated:

“This was a de facto acknowledgement that the threshold demanded by Britain’s legal advisers—new Security Council authorisation—had not been met.”

On 16 December 1998, the US and UK struck Iraq in a wave of air attacks. Almost 100 sites were attacked by US and British aircraft and cruise missiles from US navy ships and B-52 bombers. General Peter de la Billière, a former head of the SAS who commanded British forces in the 1991 Gulf war, questioned the political impact of the bombing campaign.

It is clear from the declassified documents that Tony Blair misled Parliament. When he announced military action to Parliament on 17 December 1998, he said:

“I have no doubt that we have the proper legal authority, as it is contained in successive Security Council resolution documents.”—[Official Report, 17 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 110.]

But that was clearly misleading, as he had been consistently advised—by the Solicitor General, the Attorney General, the Foreign Office legal adviser and the deputy secretary for defence and overseas affairs—that further UN authorisation was required for the use of force. Thus, British officials justified their action by claiming that other UN resolutions previously passed in 1998 revived the authorisation to use force provided in resolution 678, a remnant of the Gulf war, passed eight years earlier in 1990.

Since the other resolutions did not explicitly authorise the use of force, the UK argument was a spurious one. Of the 15-member Security Council in 1998, only three members supported the action: the US, Japan and Portugal. Five years later in 2003, the UK and US relied on the same resolution, 678, to justify their subsequent invasion when they again failed to secure a further Security Council resolution for the use of force.

These files from 1998 suggest that Tony Blair was motivated more by maintaining relations with the US than by upholding international law—something of which he was again culpable in 2003. On the same day, President Clinton told Tony Blair during a phone call that military action against Iraq might have to be used. Blair replied, saying that he agreed and that Mr Clinton

“could count on our support throughout”.

That commitment of support was not underpinned by international law.

On the point about Saddam Hussein being unwilling to co-operate, Tony Blair said:

“we would have to enforce our will”,


“even if there were some differences between us on the legal front”.

According to Declassified UK,

“Blair was intimating to the US president he was prepared to override British legal concerns”

and obligations.

On 14 February 1998, as Washington and London were close to striking Iraq, Blair told Solicitor General Lord Falconer:

“it was inconceivable that we would refuse the Americans the use of the base at Diego Garcia. At the very least this had to be legally possible.”

So far, the Government have not declassified all files relating to this period. They have kept secret several of the Iraq files from the Prime Minister’s office, which cover the end of 1998 and the beginning of 1999. Can the Minister explain why these documents have not been put in the public domain and when we can expect publication? The files do not appear to contain the minutes of the meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair and Attorney General John Morris. Can the Solicitor General confirm whether that is the case and whether the minutes will be published in full, and if so, when?

These declassified documents show that Tony Blair was determined to take military action against Saddam Hussein in 1998, against explicit advice and in the absence of sound legal arguments or justification. They show that Tony Blair dismissed legal objections to his 1998 bombing campaign. That was the direct precursor to his stance on the invasion of Iraq five years later in 2003, which was also deemed illegal by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, when he said of the war in September 2004:

“From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.”

Indeed, it was the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw who privately warned Tony Blair in 2002 that an invasion of Iraq was legally dubious, stating that

“regime change per se is no justification for military action”,

and that

“the weight of legal advice here is that a fresh…mandate may well be required”

from the UN. Those words chime with, and are foretold in, the declassified documents that I have highlighted.

I want to place on record my appreciation to parliamentarians who have raised similar concerns in the past, including former Labour MP Dennis Canavan, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and the SNP’s Margaret Ewing and Jim Sillars. I recall that Margaret Ewing questioned the Prime Minister directly in the House at the time, and in 2016 Jim Sillars called for a retrospective Iraq war crimes Act to be passed by the Scottish Parliament. It was the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) who stated:

“The second Iraq war was started to liberate the Iraqi people. Instead, it shattered their country. It was intended to stabilise the middle east. Instead, it destabilised the middle east.”—[Official Report, 14 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 530.]

He deserves credit, as does my own party leader, the right hon. Alex Salmond. Mr Salmond was right when he said:

“Through the long debates on Iraq, many of us suspected that the Prime Minister had given commitments to the American President which were unrevealed to this House and to the public. The Chilcot report outlined these in spades. The famous phrase

‘I will be with you, whatever’

will go down in infamy in terms of giving a commitment.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 1531-1532.]

In both instances—in 1998 and in 2003—we know that Tony Blair received legal advice warning that military action was illegal; and, in both instances, he ignored that legal advice and went on to authorise the deployment of British service personnel. Blair pressed officials, in particular the Attorney General, to provide legal justification for the use of force. He received none, but he did it anyway.

Blair misled Parliament by claiming that a legal basis for military force without a UN Security Council resolution existed, when in fact it did not. The consequences have been devastating for Iraqis, for the region and for military personnel and their families. Lives lost in the theatre of war are well understood, but the lives wrecked by the trauma of conflict are less easily quantified, yet every bit as real. I heard such stories yesterday when speaking to the war widows. Such loss and devastation is met with great courage by those affected, but every person’s loss should surely be based on a lawful instruction.

How can it be that a Prime Minister who prosecuted two wars against lawful advice and instruction has been rewarded with a knighthood? It is an insult to every single life lost; it should be withdrawn forthwith and a path to full justice secured. Governments should not lie to go to war, and the truth must now be told.

I intend to call the Opposition spokesperson no later than 5.40 pm. Hon. Members should bear that in mind when making interventions.

First, I thank the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) for setting the scene so well. I also thank him—I spoke to him beforehand—for his focus, quite clearly, on the truth of the matter and the sacrifice of those who gave their lives. Some of their families, I understand, are in the Gallery today. I convey my sincere sympathies and thoughts to those who lost loved ones and live with the pain of that loss. The hon. Gentleman said that incredibly well in his contribution, and I thank him for that. I know that others will focus on that as well.

As we are all well aware, in April 2023, Declassified UK, a media organisation that focuses on the work of the British military and intelligence agencies, published an article about classified documents that are now declassified. It said, and indeed suggests, that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was informed that military action was unlawful without UN authorisation, but proceeded with Operation Desert Fox in Iraq in 1998 none the less. I well remember at that time that we had been dealing with the fallout of the troubles, and I did not relish the thought of war, yet I was also mindful that evil triumphs where good men do nothing. I declare an interest as a former solider: for the record, I served in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Artillery for some 14 and a half years. I enjoyed the service, but I should put that on the record as I speak about these things.

I have not had a chance to read the reports in their entirety, but I have read a number of articles on the issue, and it is clear that things were withheld from the public. In Northern Ireland, there is a circumstance that we are all too familiar with. The taste left in people’s mouths when they see the difference between their lived memory of a timeline, which I and others lived through, and the events and facts behind the scenes is not a good taste. The declassified British documents in the National Archives appear to show that Blair was already set on taking military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime throughout 1998, in the absence of legal arguments to justify it. I find that difficult to grasp, yet I know that sometimes open information is not the same as intelligence passed on. I am loth to comment too deeply on the matter, as I am also aware that documentation does not accurately cover what I lived through in Northern Ireland either.

I will state clearly that opinions on whether Blair’s Government took the right steps in 1998 on the right information do not alter the irrefutable fact that our armed forces acted with dignity, and our pride in them and their actions must be clear. We cannot allow those who have sought to undermine our armed forces for so many years to grasp these documents as part of their war on the honour and integrity of our armed forces personnel.

Forgive me, Mr Dowd, but I omitted to welcome the Minister to his place. He has been in post the past week or thereabouts, perhaps less, and I want to wish him well. He has been a good friend of mine—of us all, by the way—over the years. I very much look forward to what he will say. I also look forward to the contribution of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), because he is a man I have known for a long time and I value his contributions.

To go back to the subject, the presence of our military, our armed forces, was called for by their Government. Their conduct was regimented and measured, and their names must retain our sincere thanks and appreciation. I believe that that must be clear in this debate, regardless of anyone’s opinion of Blair’s decisions and the documentation. If anyone feels that what we now know about the intelligence should call into question the need for the war, we should remember that the presence of the armed forces is not something that can ever be questioned or ever be in doubt. I know that hon. Members all agree with me when I say that.

The deaths of those young men and women were not in vain. The actions they took and the position that our Government put them in lives with them to this very day and they were right and proper. We remain proud of their contributions and actions. History must never forget. It reminds us all of their contribution, their service and their sacrifice. Again, I commend the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath for securing the debate, and to those in the Public Gallery who lost loved ones, my sincere commiserations.

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

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) for securing this debate, because we do not often have debates on things that are historical. It is normal for Parliament to focus on the present day and things that are current, but it is helpful sometimes to look back in history and to learn lessons from our recent past. It is excellent that this information has been extracted from the National Archives, which he and others have reported on.

I congratulate the new Solicitor General on his post. I met the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) shortly before he became Chair of the Defence Committee. He did an excellent job in that role, but his services are now obviously required by Government instead.

Today, I will draw specifically on some of the things that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath talked about in relation to Operation Desert Fox in 1998. I will also make reference to the invasion of Iraq by the US, UK and others in 2003. Finally, I will ask one or two questions about the role of Parliament in a declaration of war, or in the commitment of UK armed forces to going to war.

We have already heard a great deal about how the Prime Minister in 1998 operated with knowledge of what was legal, but perhaps decided to park that, or in large part he put it aside and decided to press on with Operation Desert Fox none the less—hence the four days of bombing of Iraq. Alongside the international law issue, however, it was fascinating to hear from the reporting of that time and from this newly released material what was being said to the Prime Minister from a pragmatic perspective. It was not just legal advice that he was receiving; he was also receiving advice about UK interests. For example, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee at the time, Sir Michael Pakenham, told the Prime Minister that to engage in military action would be “acting against UN principles” and

“in the long term wholly contrary to our interests”.

Given that the material that has come out of the archive is largely about legal advice, it is fascinating to read that Robin Cook—the Foreign Secretary of the day—and other legal advisers were suggesting that there would have been a serious problem unless the UK acted with further UN Security Council resolution mandates, and that we might instead have sought to get a new Security Council resolution stating that Iraq was in material breach of previous UN Security Council resolutions.

I was also very interested to hear from the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath about those fascinating insights of how the Chief of the Defence Staff at that time was saying to the Prime Minister that we really did need legal support for military action if it was to go ahead. That does not surprise me, because Sir Charles Guthrie was an excellent CDS. I had the privilege of having a conversation with him at a bar while he was still serving. Just prior to that, he had written a book, “The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare”. This dealt partly with jus in bello—just war theory as it applies to the conduct of war, which we have been talking about a lot in the House in recent weeks, in relation to Israel-Gaza. He also wrote about jus ad bellum—how wars are initiated. He clearly knew a lot about international law.

Lastly, I would like to talk about the light these revelations cast on the relationship between Parliament, the Executive and the judiciary. Until 2003, it was customary for our armed forces to be committed to war by royal prerogative. Indeed, it is the sovereign decision of the Executive to commit our armed forces to war. On 18 March 2003, something changed. There was not just a debate in Parliament, but a vote on the invasion of Iraq. People will recall that on that day, there was a very large majority vote by MPs in favour of the UK joining military action in Iraq. In opening, Tony Blair offered,

“it is right that the House debate this issue and pass judgment.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 760.]

Clearly, he said those words knowing full well that he had the support of many on his own Benches and on the Conservative Benches. As a footnote, I add that Tony Blair referred that day to the Liberal Democrats as unified “in opportunism and error.” He said that because we were indeed, as a party, unified in opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

The point is that this was a case of Parliament getting an opportunity to have its say on the commitment of UK armed forces to war in Iraq. I raise that because the documents we are discussing today reveal that the Executive were going beyond legal advice and beyond even the advice of really expert opinion, such as the Chair of JIC, and the CDS. They were making an executive decision that essentially came down to the view of the Prime Minister. It is troubling that so much authority was ultimately vested in that individual. What we can take from that period is that, in future, the legislature ought to have greater scrutiny of decisions to commit our armed forces to war. Finally, when the Minister stands to his feet, I would be interested in hearing his reflections on how UK armed forces will be committed to war in the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. Like others, I pay tribute to my party leader at Westminster and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey), for a forensic examination, and I pay tribute to Declassified UK for the information it has provided. It is appropriate that we should be debating this, because it is something we must never, ever forget. It is ironic—I noticed this on social media—that today is the anniversary of Saddam Hussein being discovered in hiding and the dishevelled despot being brought out. I have a moral objection to the death penalty, but like everybody else, I shed no tears for Saddam Hussein. He was a deeply evil man, although it would have been better had he been brought to trial at the International Criminal Court, according to normal rules, than simply hanged.

The consequences of the Iraq war, as was said by my hon. Friend, live with us and reverberate with us to this day. We were taken into war on a false prospectus. We were taken in on deceit and, indeed, on lies. It is important that that be brought to account. The world is a far less safe place from that war. Millions have died, not simply in that country but around the world. A refugee crisis that we now see and live with was kicked off and has continued. Perhaps also more worryingly, the moral authority of western democracies has been lost and we can trace that back to the war in Iraq. I will go on to comment on that.

I have some sympathy for the Minister because he is having to deal with the sins of a different Administration. However, as has been mentioned by others, the Tories were joined at the hip with Labour in the war and have to take account for the consequences, even if the principal villain was Tony Blair.

There were rebels and people’s names have been mentioned. Indeed, there were two in particular who we should thank for their actions. Robin Cook has been mentioned as deeply principled. I knew Robin Cook and stood against him. I disagreed with his position on the constitutional status of Scotland, but nobody should forget not just the courage he had but the convictions he retained. In speaking out against the Iraq war, we should never forget him and it is a tragedy that he is not here with us today.

Equally, Charles Kennedy spoke out against the Iraq war. He was decried for it, but it was principled. I recall marching with Charles Kennedy in Glasgow, when more than 100,000 people in Scotland marched, as they did in London and other cities, not simply across the UK but across the world, to say, “This is not in our name.” Yet Tony Blair took us to war despite the objection of principled people such as Cook and Kennedy and despite the millions marching across the United Kingdom. We live with the consequences today.

Where is the accountability? Yes, we have had Chilcot and yes, we have had some matters put out there, but nobody has been held to account. We were told it was weapons of mass destruction. We were told we were only minutes away from doom and gloom and, indeed, it was portrayed as the death of democracy and almost the death of humanity. That was shown to be a lie. That same lie was perpetrated by the United States about going into Afghanistan, when it said it was all about 9/11 even though it was quite clear that if they were going to deal with the perpetrators of 9/11 they should be addressing Saudi Arabia. As with Khashoggi, people turned a blind eye to an ally or, indeed, as with the United Kingdom, one that is viewed as bankrolling the armaments industry.

That was formed on a strategic lie and done for access to oil and for wider geopolitical positions. The problem is that we have to live with that today and the consequences reverberate. As is often mentioned in political debates, that brings back Santayana’s words about those who cannot learn from history being doomed to repeat it. Repeating it we have been and repeating it we are.

We have seen the disaster that has befallen Ukraine, but we worry and wonder why 85% of the globe has not signed up for sanctions against Russia. I believe there should be sanctions against Russia. I condemned Putin for the invasion, even if I think that some of the actions that have been taken have been wrong and I do not support the actions of the United States. Let us remember that, at the end of the day, the rest of the world does not see this with the same eyes as us. They are saying, “Where is your moral authority when you were prepared to go into Iraq but now you condemn Putin?” We are paying the price for Blair’s folly.

Equally, I have to say that I remember that there was criticism, and rightly so, of the Wagner Group. But what was the precursor of Wagner? The precursor of Wagner was Blackwater. Let us remember that, after Iraq, we privatised war. We saw war privatised and we saw private militias that made a lot of money for individuals basically come in and take over something that would previously have been dealt with by a military that represented the state. Before Wagner came on the scene, it was Blackwater, and that affected us. It was not just a corporation in the United States. I met young Scottish soldiers who told me about colleagues of theirs who were deliberately failing drug tests, because it was better to go and get paid £100,000, as they got for going to be militia or contractors. Let us remember that, when we talk about contractors in places like Iraq, they were not bricklayers or scaffolders; they were soldiers carrying out private work for what America and the UK carried out. That was the precursor. As I said, it started with what Blair did, then it reverberated out, and now it lives with us and we have to face those consequences.

And now we have Gaza. We see western democracies again failing to speak out: we see the UK abstain and the United States object. And people wonder why countries such as South Africa and Brazil look at the western world and say, “Who are you to lecture us? Who are you to go on about Putin? Who are you to go on about the sins of Saddam Hussein, when you are prepared to turn a blind eye to what you are doing by funding and supporting the Israel Defence Forces?” All of that comes back, and that is why there has to be honesty and accountability—because the UK’s action in Iraq has fundamentally damaged not just the United Kingdom but western democracy. We were lied to as a people. The objections of the people, who were vociferous—people marched in their hundreds of thousands—were literally ignored by Executive diktat. That must not be allowed to be repeated. That is why we need to get these documents out there and why those who perpetrated this sin—because it was a mortal sin—must be held to account.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. It is also a great pleasure to welcome to his place the new Solicitor General, the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts). We are both relatively new to our roles, although I have had the benefit of this being, I think, my second tour in this particular circuit. I am sure that the tone of our debate will remain as thoughtful and constructive as that which was maintained by the previous occupants of our roles—just as it has been today—and I look forward to those debates in the weeks and months ahead.

I commend the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) on his determination in securing this debate. I know that he has previously made attempts at securing urgent questions on this important issue, and no one can doubt the sincerity of the concerns that have led the hon. Gentleman to pursuing this matter and securing this debate. Whether or not we reach the same conclusions, I applaud and commend him for his persistence in raising this issue.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath argues, powerfully, that there is a through line from the discussions that took place within Tony Blair’s Government in 1998 over the decision to carry out airstrikes against military assets in Iraq, without authorisation from the United Nations, and the decision, five years later, to take military action against Saddam Hussein. The contention is that that decision in 1998 paved the way for the decision in 2003 and that, despite the 12 volumes and more than 2.5 million words of the Chilcot report, we cannot fully understand the process that led to the 2003 decision until the 1998 decision is subject to the same level of scrutiny, including the release of all outstanding papers on the issue.

Let me say that I understand the point that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath is making. As I have said already, I do not doubt the sincerity of the concerns that lie behind his campaign on this matter. It is worth saying, however, that there is another, more immediate throughline from the decision taken in respect of Iraq in 1998, which was the decision taken by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton just a year later in respect of the intervention in Kosovo.

There again, a UN resolution in favour of action could not be achieved because of the permanent Russian veto; there again, as we will surely discover when the relevant papers are released, there were debates both inside and outside Government about the legality of acting without the cover of a UN resolution; and there again, the judgment ultimately made by Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and other NATO allies was that the air strikes they authorised against military assets were justified because of the civilian lives at threat if those assets were left intact.

People may disagree with the air strikes in Iraq in 1998. They may even disagree with the air strikes in Kosovo in 1999. But it is important to recognise that what was going on in that era was not some specific obsession with the regime change of Saddam Hussein, which would lead to the tragedy of the Iraq war in 2003, but a constant debate about whether the world could afford to wait for action from the United Nations following the tragedies of Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995.

I hear what the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath is saying, but while he may maintain that the willingness to set aside legal concerns over the 1998 action was the precursor to what happened in Iraq in 2003, we must also remember that if that same willingness to act had not been present in 1999, we would still be talking today about how the world stood by and allowed the genocidal destruction of the Kosovan people.

I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because I want the Minister to have the full opportunity to respond to him.

The final point I want to make relates specifically to the issue of which documents have been published in relation to the 1998 action and which are still being withheld from publication. I have no knowledge of how those decisions were arrived at, but I would urge a bit of caution before we leap to any conclusions or encourage any theories that already exist out there about what the still-unpublished papers may or may not contain. In my experience, when officials—in whichever Department it is—sit down and sort through these documents, and decide what to publish and what to withhold, they are always rather more concerned with what precedents will be set for the future and whether there are any security implications for individuals still alive in the present, and rather less concerned with what revelations will emerge about the past.

Personally, I am in favour of maximum transparency wherever possible. I am also in favour of Government Departments being clear about the broad reasons for their decisions when they feel obliged to hold material back from publication. If there are any more concrete reasons that can be provided today as to why the particular papers at issue have not so far been published, then I would welcome that too. That is not because I think there is any great mystery being covered up, but precisely because I think the opposite is true and the Government could dispel a lot of unnecessary and ill-founded speculation if they were clearer about the broad reasons why some material is withheld. If that were to be one positive outcome from this debate, I would welcome it. Another would be to recognise that what motivated much of the action during that period in history was not the desire for regime change in Baghdad, but a compulsion that many leaders rightly felt not to repeat the grave mistakes of Bosnia and Rwanda.

Finally, I offer my sincere commiserations to the loved ones of those military personnel and civilians who lost their lives in these terrible and tragic conflicts.

It is a great honour and pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this evening, Mr Dowd. I thank hon. Members and right hon. Members who have been kind enough to welcome me to my role. I look forward to working with them on this issue and many others, and to serving the House in this role. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and I know each other well from maritime matters already, and I am confident that we will have, as ever, the constructive relationship that the House would expect.

May I start by also extending my commiserations to all those who have been affected—families, friends, British personnel and civilians? We deal with enormously sensitive and tragic historic matters here, and while we will talk about some of the detail of disclosure matters and decisions that were taken, we should never lose sight of the fact that, at the beginning and end of the story, are people whose lives have been irrecoverably changed, and in some cases ended. I know that the House will join me in recognising that.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) secured this debate to discuss the declassification of documents arising from UK military action in Iraq in 1998, and indeed the action itself. He has opened a number of matters before us regarding the merits of that action. Of course, I have to start by saying at the outset that these are historic matters that have been subject to exhaustive and detailed examination in other places, as he will know and to which I refer him. These were matters for many Administrations ago, and not ones that this Government can comment on in the merits. Today, I would like to deal with some of the issues around the disclosure of the documents, which are things that I, as Solicitor General, can comment on. I hope to be able to offer some constructive comments there, and then invite the hon. Gentleman to assist me in some other areas.

I would like to deal with some of the process of the declassification of historic records and to discuss the convention relating to Law Officer advice, which is relatively understood but departed from in some circumstances, such as the ones that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I will also mention some of the changes that have been made post Chilcot. Of course, Chilcot’s terms of reference did not include the area that the hon. Gentleman specifically refers to today; none the less, coming afterwards there were some changes in the way that Parliament and Government approach those matters, and I will address some of them today.

In relation to UK military action in Iraq in 1998, certain documents, including advice from Law Officers, have been declassified and released to the National Archives. I understand that the hon. Member has shared a link with the Department, which covered some documents that he wanted to discuss today. My understanding is that those particular documents have in fact now been declassified and are now open for public review—I think that is the case and I am grateful to him for confirming it. The catalogue goes through an updated process, and I think that is the position with those documents now.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to comment on why some specific documents were not available. I apologise that I am not able to give him the answer to that right now, but if he were to write to me and draw my attention to the specific documents he referred to, I will be able to give him an answer and either point him to where they are or give him an explanation of why I cannot. Of course, it is for the Cabinet Office, rather than the Attorney General’s Office, to take a view on whether documents should be disclosed, and whether in full or with redactions for any reason. I make that request and offer at the outset; I hope to be able to give him some assistance.

I will make some comments on the framework for disclosure, which may be of assistance. The Public Records Act 1958 placed Government Departments under an obligation to identify public records with historic value and to make arrangements for their permanent preservation. It imposed a duty to open these records after the passage of 50 years. That 50-year rule was reduced to 30 years by the Public Records Act 1967 and further reduced to 20 years by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. Departments may retain records, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 placed a duty on Departments to justify whether records transferred to the National Archives should remain closed to the public. However, the general rule is that material that is 20 years old becomes public records.

There have been a number of bespoke bodies responsible for the physical housing of this material, but since 2008 it has been the National Archives. As I have mentioned, there is a framework based on the exemptions for disclosure. That is contained in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and determines whether material transferred to the National Archives should be open to the public.

There are several exemptions that are not time-limited. Those include: national security; defence; international relations, or information provided in confidence by other states or international organisations or courts; the economy; criminal investigations; parliamentary privilege; health and safety; and environmental information. A number of those exemptions will require the Department that owns the information to carry out a balancing exercise as to whether it is in the public interest to disclose that material. That requires consultation across Whitehall and other bodies, and the outcome of that test is subject to the approval of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is advised by the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives.

There is a separate scheme—the security and intelligence instrument—which is approved by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and which governs information relating to the security and intelligence agencies. That information is retained in the relevant Departments, and information retained by way of the instrument has to be re-reviewed every 10 years. Regardless of how retentions or disclosures are made, anyone is able to challenge such disclosures or retentions by submitting a freedom of information request to the National Archives for closed material or to the originating Department for retained material. I hope that has been helpful to the House with regard to the procedure for the disclosure of such records and gives an overview of the position.

The second point that I would like to spend a minute or two on is the Law Officers’ convention; I know that the House will be familiar with it, but it is worth rehearsing in a little bit of detail. Some of the aspects that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath has been speaking about do indeed refer to legal advice that was given at the time, or even to the advice of the Law Officers. In this case, some of that material, as he knows, is available in the National Archives.

As a general rule, there are clear and well-understood reasons for not disclosing legal advice, and there are specific considerations around advice that is given to the Government by Law Officers. They may not be relevant to the context or background of this debate—which is about a historic matter and in any event that advice has been published—but, simply for completeness, it is usual practice that advice given by Law Officers and the advice that has been sought, or indeed the fact that advice has been sought, is not disclosed. That is the Law Officers’ convention and that is reflected in the ministerial code. The fact that Law Officers have or have not advised must not be disclosed outside Government without their authority.

It is only in narrow circumstances that that convention has been waived, and that has been with the consent of the Law Officers. As the hon. Gentleman knows, perhaps the clearest example was the legal basis for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I know that the House will understand that the very clear reason for the convention is that, as with any client-lawyer relationship, it is to enable the Government to seek legal advice in private without fear of adverse inferences being drawn from the content of the advice or indeed from the fact that advice has been sought in the first place. It means that the Government are not discouraged from seeking advice in certain cases, or pressured to seek advice in inappropriate cases, and it protects that relationship, as with any client-lawyer relationship.

The third point that I will spend a few moments talking about, before I leave some time for the hon. Gentleman to respond, is on Chilcot. There have been a number of changes after Chilcot, which of course was a major inquiry after the 2003 invasion. Operation Desert Fox is outside the scope of the Chilcot terms of reference, but the report does cover the use of military force by the UK and US in Iraq in 1998, including documentary evidence and witness testimony, so some matters can be dealt with in there. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not go into the details that were discovered in terms of the merits, but there have been a number of changes since. There is a Chilcot checklist to support decision making, the National Security Council was established to help with the decision-making process, and Law Officers have to be consulted in good time. There are a number of ways in which the situation has changed since the time he talked about.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) asked me about the Cabinet manual. A convention has developed that before troops are committed, the Commons is given the opportunity to debate the matter, which the Government have acknowledged in the past. Although the general convention remains as it is, there has been some amendment of points since then.

I apologise for running over slightly, Mr Dowd. I want to leave the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath some time to respond, but I hope I have dealt with the questions he wanted me to; he can of course come back to me if not.

Thank you, Mr Dowd, for your assiduous chairmanship. I thank all Members for their contributions. They have been very reflective and quite helpful. I want to pick up on a few points that were made. First, I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his sincerity and passion, and his comments on the bravery of service personnel—

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).