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Mr. Robathan: Yes, but I am sure local govt candidates in the hon. Gentleman's Labour association would have been pleased to see him in person, rather than in e-form. [Interruption.] It is suggested that the hon. Gentleman's e-form is better than his person, but I would not dream of commenting on that. Personally, I voted by post a couple of weeks ago.

In the circumstances, the debate is a bit of a filler. I am sorry about that. It should be an important debate that is well attended, but sadly it is not. The Order Paper states that the First Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee is of particular relevance, yet I note that there is certainly not a single Conservative MP from Wales in the Chamber, nor are there any MPs from Wales from any other party. Also, I regret that the debate will be interrupted by the important statement on Northern Ireland.

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The importance of broadband is that it gives us the potential to change our lives and the way that we work, and it is doing so. The information highway—the internet—has been compared to railways in the 19th century and roads in the 20th century. It is of enormous importance to communications. E-commerce has arrived and is having an impact. Politicians should be cautious about being too visionary in their claims on technical matters, or too reactionary. Business men should also avoid being reactionary. Only three years ago, the then chairman of BT, Iain Vallance, said that he saw no market for residential broadband. When I heard that, it reminded me of politicians between the first and second world wars who extolled the virtues of mounted cavalry in preference to noisy and smelly tanks.

It was the business of the chairman of BT to have a little vision, and politicians can assist in that where necessary, but we should beware of technical aspects, especially if we are not qualified. The Minister is extremely well qualified. He wrote a book on broadband back in the 1980s, before most of us had even heard of it. I trust that he is using his knowledge to assist in its development. I confess that I come to the debate with an O-level in physics with chemistry from 1966, but neither we, nor our constituents, need technical qualifications or detailed knowledge to understand the concepts and benefits that the technology can bring us. It is for others to explain the technology to those of us—I see one or two others in the Chamber—who may need it explained from time to time.

I applaud the Government's stated target, which could be called a vision, of having the most extensive and competitive broadband market in the G7 by 2005. We support that, although I am not entirely sure whether it will come about. In my speech, I shall discuss the importance of broadband, what the Government and the public sector can do, what the role of competition and private enterprise should be, and possible future developments.

E-commerce is changing business, almost to the extent that the industrial revolution did 250 years ago. Laymen like myself use Amazon, Sainsbury's to you, and E-commerce is entering every nook and cranny of business, and every aspect of business can benefit from it. It can benefit plumbers to pharmaceutical giants. Businesses are using the internet, and they want to use broadband. The information society is also benefiting all public services, which can only improve as a result. It is changing the way in which people communicate with their friends and access information at home. We all accept that the rapid introduction of broadband is important for the UK, and we support the Government in that.

My access to the internet on the House of Commons network, which of course is broadband—Demon, I think—is almost instantaneous. I contrast that with my experience at home in Lutterworth in my constituency, where I spend hours waiting for it to dial up and then get cut off after about two minutes, which is rather trying.

Although we may all agree on the targets and benefits, we note that the strategy is not yet working as we would wish. The Minister touched on that. Ministers want broadband to be accessible to all parts of the country,

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yet terrestrial broadband is still unavailable to one third of the UK's 24 million households, including two out of five suburban households. In rural areas, as we know, access is patchy. We want diversification in the rural economy. The Minister mentioned speaking to the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life, which is important. Areas such as mine—and those of all my hon. Friends in the Chamber and some on the Government Benches—where farming is in the doldrums have many small businesses, which need fast, cheap and easy access to the information highway.

Lawrie Quinn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene again. Given his broad welcome for the project, can he confirm that the £30 million that the Government have allocated to regional development agencies to develop broadband access, particularly in rural areas, would be continued and developed further by his party?

Mr. Paice: That was a one-off.

Mr. Robathan: Indeed. Moreover, I wonder whether the £30 million could be better spent. I shall deal with that in detail and answer the hon. Gentleman, but I should prefer to do it in my own order than in his.

Mr. Drew: I emphasise a different point that has been made by several of us. The issue is not just giving people access, but the follow-up afterwards. Whenever I speak to BT, the biggest criticism is of the amount at which it has set its trigger level, which could be seen as an unfair system, but it is the one that we have. What follows or does not follow is not taking the broadband revolution forward as quickly as it might. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that?

Mr. Robathan: I am not entirely sure what the hon. Gentleman thinks should follow.

Mr. Drew: There is a lack of follow-up. People who get on to the trigger list do not see it through. That is galling, because it means that the process is not being taken forward.

Mr. Robathan: I understand now what the hon. Gentleman means; that having registered, people do not take up their registration at a later date. I put that down to consumer choice. BT is willing to enable an exchange at what it says is half the likely return that it will receive, because it believes that that will grow. I am sure that BT is right.

Britain has little more than a quarter of the number of broadband connections per head of population of Sweden, and we lag woefully behind Japan and Germany. Measured against the Government target, we are sixth among the G7 countries, ahead only of Italy.

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We are also behind countries such as Iceland and Portugal. The Minister may be about to tell me that that situation has changed in the last week.

Mr. Timms: Those figures will be reassessed in the course of the next few weeks and I am confident that the new ones will tell a rather happier tale than the one that the hon. Gentleman is relating.

Mr. Robathan: We will welcome that. We led the way in narrowband internet access, mobile telephony and digital television.

Brian White: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should follow Germany's example where the incumbent, Deutsche Telekom, put in DSL to prevent competition when it had to divest itself of its cable companies?

Mr. Robathan: I did not say that or suggest it. The hon. Gentleman will know that Deutsche Telekom has its own serious commercial problems, partly caused by its investment in DSL.

I come now to the Government's role and how the public sector can assist. I was interested in what the Minister said about how public sector enablement will help us. Technical improvements are moving faster than Government legislation or regulation, or bureaucratic minds, possibly can. Nevertheless, there is a big role to be played in creating the environment in which broadband can be accessed easily throughout the UK. The situation is improving, so I do not knock the Government.

On 20 March my exchange in Lutterworth still had a few to go to reach the trigger mechanism, but in May we should be enabled, and the local Member of Parliament is expected to be asked to inaugurate—or whatever one does—the exchange. Throughout Britain more exchanges are being enabled. I understand that under the trigger mechanism, 59 have been enabled, making a total of 1,182 BT exchanges, and more than 300 rural exchanges have reached the trigger levels.

Mr. Garnier: I am interested to hear about my hon. Friend's experience in Lutterworth, which is about 40 miles from my area. The Lutterworth exchange will presumably serve between 15,000 and 20,000 inhabitants, not only within the town itself but within the wider area. I am concerned about the smaller hamlets that are desperate to get on to broadband but which do not have the populations to justify the sort of registration that he has been talking about.

Mr. Robathan: My hon. and learned Friend is right to be concerned about smaller hamlets and isolated farmhouses where there may have been diversification or where it is simply the farm business that requires broadband.

To be fair to BT, it is reacting well. Since Sir Iain Vallance's extraordinary comments about residential broadband, BT has been pushing things forward. The Government are also committed to connecting public services, about which we have heard. Notwithstanding what the Minister has said—I hope that he will explain further when he replies to the debate—the Government

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have gone somewhat awry. In my constituency, schools are being enabled. For example, Sherrier primary school in my home town of Lutterworth has broadband. I thought that it had a midband speed, but the Minister tells me that it has over 1 megabyte. Why should not that school have brought broadband access to the whole of Lutterworth? That would seem the obvious way to go. Sherrier and other primary schools have obtained access through the East Midlands Broadband Consortium. Similarly, Sapcote library has a connection, but through the People's Network, which I believe the NHS uses as well. The library has broadband, but at the Sapcote exchange, which has a trigger of 350 connections, only 212 have registered so far, so it will have to wait.

BT and others tell me that aggregated public sector demand, which often uses the BT network but private dedicated lines, could pull all that broadband demand through to the private sector and to all homes. Will the Minister clarify that? I am still not entirely clear about whether those private dedicated lines can be used as a backhaul to bring broadband to every home in an area.

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