Digital Infrastructure, Connectivity and Accessibility

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Thursday 3rd December 2020

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Hansard Text
Matt Warman Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Matt Warman)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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

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

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

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

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

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

indicated dissent.

Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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

Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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

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

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

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

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

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