As the Labour Party’s shadow minister for culture and the digital economy, Chi spoke in a debate on superfast broadband on Monday 12th October, highlighting the Government’s failure over the last five years. The speech can be watched or read below.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I’d like to congratulate the backbench business committee for holding this debate and the honourable members who have pushed for it and many informed and moving contributions, particularly my honourable friends members for Ynys Mon, East Ham, Burnley and Lancaster & Fleetwood
I’m pleased to be at the despatch box for the first time as shadow minster for culture and the digital economy.
Before entering Parliament in 2010 I spent 20 years as an electrical engineer building out telecoms networks around the world.
I confess Mr Speaker to having a geeky worry that my technical knowledge would suffer as part of the privilege of being elected but the Government has been so ineffectual that i find my technical understanding remains as relevant as ever it was.
Ministers should be ashamed of that, for it is their failure.
Mr Speaker this is the sixth largest economy in the world – a developed nation with aspirations to lead the digital world.
A country where government services are digital by default.
But we have heard the dire state were in. I wont repeat all the terrible tales we’ve heard. 1.8 million homes that cannot get broadband, dial up speeds, businesses unable to do business
The economic benefits of better digital infrastructure – or in some cases any kind of digital infrastructure – are well known.
The UK’s productivity problem is one of the biggest challenges our economy is facing. We have second worst productivity performance in the G7.
Mr Speaker Ministers are contributing to that with their own lack of productivity when it comes to providing the digital infrastructure this country needs.
The Government’s own broadband impact states:
“It is now widely accepted that the availability and adoption of affordable broadband plays an important role in increasing productivity”
Better infrastructure increases productivity by
“supporting the development of new, more efficient, business models, enabling business process re-engineering to improve the efficiency and management of labour intensive jobs, and enabling increased international trade and collaborative innovation.”
It also allows more people to work or work in different ways.
As the new leader of the opposition and our new shadow chancellor told Conference this year, at the heart of our forward-looking narrative will be plans for investing in the future, including and I quote “investment in fast broadband to support new high technology jobs.”
There are also important social benefits – online shopping is often cheaper, it opens up access to more public and private services.
It is not right that some people cannot access government services that they are paying for or even worse, penalised for not being able to access them online.
The internet opens up a world of free education and is a window on the globe.
It is ludicrous that the Government has not been able to provide what has become the fourth utility for most people.
This Government attacks the right to strike for working people but Ministers have withdrawn their labour when it comes to Broadband.
Underneath the polite tone of the motion members on all sides know anger is growing amongst their constituents – especially those in rural areas.
The truth is, it will take more than a summit to reverse what has been a failure by this Government to deliver on their promises – promises that lacked ambition to begin with.
When the Labour Government left office in 2010, Mr Speaker, it left behind fully funded plans for basic broadband to be delivered to all within two years and superfast broadband to 90% by 2017. The remaining 10% would have been covered by mobile broadband.
The European Commission set a target of 2013 for universal broadband – yet we are still not there.
We are falling further and further behind our competitors. Australia, a huge landmass is aiming for 100 mbps for 93% of premises by 2021. South Korea will have 1 gigabit by 2017.
Yet we don’t have a target this decade for getting everyone on line.
Instead in the last five years we’ve had a series of ad-hoc funding announcements and vanity projects whenever the Chancellor wants to sweeten his latest punishing round of austerity.
A series of disconnected policy initiatives that were never very ambitious have nevertheless been beset by delays.
The crown jewel in all of these – the £790m rural superfast broadband programme – has been handed entirely to one company because of a badly designed monopoly favouring procurement programme and has been panned by every committee in both this House and the other place that has a passing interest in it.
Let me be clear that is not the fault of BT but of Ministers.
What we need from Government is a vision for market-led, future-proof, universal digital infrastructure.
That ultimately means fibre to the premises. It means real investment.
That will not come about on its own.
Ministers need to set out their vision for our digital infrastructure. tell us how we are going to get there, and when Then they need to make sure it happens.
All we have from Ministers is complacency and chutzpah.
Mr Speaker, demand in this debate has outstripped supply- as with UK broadband but I do want to take to urge honourable members not to separate broadband infrastructure from digital skills and digital inclusion.
It so happens that the Government’s record on both is woeful.
There are still five million households that have no access to the internet, either because they don’t want it or because they can’t get it.
And millions more who do not feel confident using it for one reason or another – be it security fears or a lack of digital literacy.
The Government’s digital inclusion strategy – which had to be dragged out of Government by campaigners and the opposition – displays a poverty of ambition that is becoming a trademark when it comes to supporting the digital economy.
The Federation of Small Businesses have called broadband the fourth utility. They have called for it to be future-proof, with a minimum of 10 mbps.
Ministers or other groups may have differing definitions of what future proof means or how we get there.
But the fact is, if the Government have any kind of coherent strategy, they are keeping it well hidden.
Above the lack of vision or strategy we have a staggering level of incompetence in implementation – a super-slow crawl out of just two million premises so far with constant delays. Can the Minister give us a guaranteed date when this country will be fully connected & how the last 5% will be funded. It is becoming a joke. He will say we’re better than Europe but he knows he’s chosen which four countries to compare with. Overall were 10th in Europe. And parts are behind the Serengeti as my honourable friend for Barnsley observed
Whilst we would not oppose the motion the Labour Party believes a summit cannot overcome five years of complacency and incompetence from this Government or fulfill Britain’s broadband potential.