Victoria speaks in superfast broadband debate

The below account is taken from the House of Commons Hansard for 12 October 2015:

Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con): I add my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for securing the debate, and to the Minister for listening to our tales of woe today.

I can start on a slightly happier note than some did. It was not in the first week of May this year that my family’s lives were changed significantly, but in the first week of March. Previously, the internet in our small village had not been at all reliable at peak times, or when it rained, as it occasionally does in north Oxfordshire. Then, overnight, my husband stopped commuting and joined the army of those who work at home, I found that I could answer emails in seconds, and the children found to their amazement that they could watch reruns of “Top Gear”, on a variety of devices, in every room of the house. For me, the advent of superfast broadband will for ever be associated with Jeremy Clarkson. Quite simply, reliable fast internet changed all our lives.

I am sure that the Minister is as proud as I am of our local branch of Broadband Delivery UK. I was able to meet representatives of the branch during the recent recess. Better Broadband for Oxfordshire is committed to doing just what its name implies. To date, it has delivered on target, on time and under budget for the two years it has been in existence, and it is ranked fourth in the country for delivery. It can surely be no coincidence that the Minister represents the neighbouring constituency to my own. Better Broadband for Oxfordshire is funded from a variety of interested groups, including our local enterprise partnership, BDUK and our district councils. Despite all this excellent work, however, much of my casework still concerns the lack of broadband.

One issue is that commercial providers of broadband declare an interest in providing services for a particular area. If they are successful, those declarations remain valid for three years, and the service might not be provided until the end of that period. That is a long time for a village or an industrial estate to wait. Better Broadband for Oxfordshire has in some cases needed to challenge those delays, and has on occasion needed to take over the delivery of the service. However, a better solution could be to shorten the period allowed for delivery, and to insist that the service is provided in a timely fashion.

Another big issue in Oxfordshire is attenuation. Much of our network is still reliant on old copper lines, and copper replacement will need to take place if we are truly to realise the potential of broadband, but that will require enormous investment. The older lines are a particular problem in rural areas, especially for farmers. As much farming is conducted online as it is in the cowshed these days. Those of us who have tried to download Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs manuals, or even to fill in a tax return, over a less-than-perfect connection know how frustrating that can be. If a provider can be found to install fibre-optic cables to remote farms, that has to be paid for. There is some confusion over whether an EU subsidy of, I believe, about £3,000 is available to assist farmers in paying for that installation. The National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association take slightly different views on whether the subsidy can be claimed by those who also claim the single farm payment. I would be grateful for clarification on that point. It is important that the Government do not assume that all Government business can be conducted online before we have achieved more universality of service. I hope that, following the “not spot” summit, I shall be able to go back to my constituents in north Oxfordshire with concrete ideas and timetables for the future.