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Mr. Timms: I shall be happy to explain further what I had in mind when I reply, but once the infrastructure has been provided to meet the public sector commitments, it is available to other users as well; for example, to provide backhaul from a local wireless broadband service, if that is a way of meeting the needs of a particular community. I should also add that the 2 megabyte per second two-way target for primary schools is for 2006. I am not saying that every primary school has that at the moment. That certainly is not yet the case.

Mr. Robathan: I am grateful to the Minister for that. He has an enormous knowledge on which many of us rely.

The roll-out is fairly slow. The schools completion will not be until 2006. As the Minister has now told us, some of the connection is only midband. When Sapcote library—sitting on its midband—and perhaps Sherrier primary school are surrounded by an enabled exchange, the residential houses on either side will have 512 kilobytes whereas the library and the school will, as I understand it, still have a slower midband connection.

Mr. Mole: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robathan: I will, but it will be for the last time because I wish to sit down shortly after 2.30 pm because of the extremely important Northern Ireland statement.

Mr. Mole: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the UK online access in particular that can be obtained through public libraries is an important part of creating public awareness about the capabilities of broadband, and that the Government are entirely right to promote such facilities, because if people see the benefits for their home or business, it will lead them to register, showing service providers such as BT that the demand exists?

Mr. Robathan: I agree up to a point that it is valuable for libraries to have broadband but perhaps—funnily enough, the Government are coming around to this with the appointment of a director of broadband—that could be done in a slightly different way to allow access for residential and business users.

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The private sector is usually of greater importance than the public sector in developments such as this, and I think that the private sector will drive this matter. It has been suggested that the DTI is obsessed with competition in the roll-out of broadband, although I do not necessarily agree with that. I tend to the view of others in the industry who suggest that competition is driving development, technology and access. However, the Government should take a pragmatic view and consider what they want to achieve with their investment. The present competitive and dynamic market has been largely achieved by private investment.

We are already the most competitive in the EU and to that extent the Government's policy on driving competition has been right. We have already heard about the number of connections; 1 million cable connections were announced yesterday in a press release from Telewest and NTL. Interestingly, BT tells me that it has only 22.6 per cent. of the share of the retail broadband market because over half is on cable. It has 51 per cent. of the retail DSL market, 49 per cent. going to other internet service providers. I applaud that and I congratulate cable providers. I also congratulate BT, which is striving to increase its share of the market. It would be churlish of me not to do so, as I received from it in today's post an invitation to the CBI annual dinner. I do not think that that involves a registrable interest, but I do not want to be rude to my hosts.

We want the Government to create conditions in which the broadband market can thrive. I reiterate that we are not sure that all investment in the public sector is currently being made along the right lines. A £30 million grant has been made available to RDAs, as the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) mentioned. I am not sure whether that is the right approach. My RDA, the East Midlands Development Agency, is very good at producing big, glossy documents such as the one that I am holding, which is the second copy that it has sent me; it obviously knew that I put the first copy in the bin, where I will put this one. It is a very glossy document featuring nice pictures of lambs and flowers, but it does not set out much action.

EMDA plans to use its share of the £30 million on a wired-up communities competition that will take three years to come to fruition. As we have heard, this is a very fast-moving field and we would not expect the situation to be the same in three years' time. Indeed, more than 30,000 new broadband connections are made every week. None the less, the same RDA blames the lack of

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vision in providing broadband services to rural areas on the slowdown in the international IT industry and the money spent by mobile phone companies on the 3G auction. Anybody who has seen the RDAs at work knows that they are not likely to drive fast broadband roll-out.

I wish to speak briefly about the future before I sit down to allow the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to speak. As I said, we should beware of being too visionary about technical matters. Of course, "broadband" is a somewhat amorphous and imprecise term anyway and is used in respect of anything between 100 kilobytes and several megabytes, as I understand it.

Higher bandwidth will be offered, largely because of competition. The process is a continuing one and is increasingly sophisticated. People are investigating compression technology, which could allow fibre-optic cable to be laid from every exchange to the remote concentrating units. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) finds this so funny; perhaps he would like to give us a digression about remote concentrating units, which are situated at the end of every street and in villages. The Government need to be flexible and enabling, and not dirigiste and controlling.

A particular proposal that has been raised with me relates to something called wi-fi. I am sure that the hon. Member for Ealing, North knows a lot about wi-fi, which would use wireless standard 802.11. The Minister might like to mention the proposal, which I understand could lead to a system that would not require the digging up of roads but would not be entirely wireless, as it could be provided through wires to small, remote communities.

I note that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is waiting to speak and I shall conclude my remarks. Although broadband has not been on the lips of everybody to whom I have spoken on the doorsteps of Lutterworth and elsewhere during canvassing for the local elections, which is what most hon. Members are doing now, I suspect that it should be. It is an enormously important issue—

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): In Penrith.

Mr. Robathan: As my right hon. Friend says, broadband is enormously important in Penrith as well as elsewhere. We hope to address it further and to see more of it, and I hope that the Government will be able to answer one or two of the questions that I have asked in my brief speech. We now look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

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Northern Ireland

2.34 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): With permission, and with thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I intend that this should be only a brief statement, but I propose, again with the permission of the House, to return to the House next week to speak at greater length about the issues involved and to allow Northern Ireland Members in particular, but other hon. Members too, to participate fully in respect of such a statement.

We have, with the Irish Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland, made a great deal of progress since the institutions were suspended in October 2002 towards restoring devolved government on a stable footing and completing the process of implementing the Belfast agreement. We have made it clear throughout those discussions, however, that in order to do so, it was essential to complete the permanent transition to exclusively peaceful means in Northern Ireland politics.

A very substantial set of proposals has been discussed by the two Governments with the political parties and broadly accepted by them setting out what acts of completion would involve. They include a joint declaration by the British and Irish Governments setting out how we would secure full implementation of the Belfast agreement, with detailed annexes on security normalisation, devolution of policing and justice and human rights, equality and identity. There is also an agreement between the two Governments on how future adherence by all parties and the Governments to the commitments set out in the agreement and joint declaration would be monitored and arrangements for remedying breaches of those commitments. Finally, there is a scheme for the handling of the cases of those on the run for terrorist offences.

We have also received a statement from the IRA about acts of completion, but despite the intensive efforts by the leadership of Sinn Fein to clarify the key points, we believe that there remains a lack of clarity on the crucial issue of whether the IRA is prepared for a full, immediate and permanent cessation of all paramilitary activity, including military attacks, training, targeting, intelligence gathering, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, other preparations for terrorist campaigns, punishment beatings and attacks and involvement in riots. Without clarity here, we will not be able to build the trust that is necessary to restore devolved government.

We have concluded that this issue cannot be resolved during an election campaign. We have therefore concluded that we should postpone the elections until the autumn to provide more time to rebuild the trust that will allow the restoration of the institutions based on the agreement and its full implementation.

We have not so far published our proposals because they were part of a whole package that would also have included clear statements on exclusively peaceful means, but we believe that in the interest of proper public debate, we should now make them available. We shall publish the proposals this afternoon and call on the IRA to publish its statement. We, for our part, will go ahead

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and implement as much of the joint declaration as we can, where that is not conditional on clear and definitive acts of completion. Copies of the joint declaration will be placed in the Library of the House.

The Prime Minister is speaking this afternoon about this issue and he will go to Dublin next week to discuss the next steps with the Taoiseach. I understand that there will be a strong wish in the House to discuss these issues once hon. Members have read the Government proposals. As I said, I therefore propose to make a fuller statement to the House next week, and a Bill for the postponement of the elections will follow shortly afterwards. But I believed that it was essential to give the earliest possible notice to the House of our intention that elections should be postponed, and that is why we are making the announcement here today.


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