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Jeremy Hunt: Endless reports will not lead to a digital Britain

I thank the Secretary of State for advanced notice of statement and for sending me the report. However Mr Speaker I was disappointed that yet again the contents were broadcast on the Today programme, in the Telegraph and Times before this House was informed.

There was even a briefing at No 10 at 8 am this morning to which the industry, including broadcasters, were invited.

I would respectfully suggest if the Secretary of State is serious about cross-party consensus, he should respect the role of parliament in this as on every issue.

I welcome the interest the government has shown in our digital economy.

All sides of the House are united in the desire to maximise the competitive strengths of our creative economy and I welcome the fact that government has obviously committed considerable resources to putting together this report.

However, sadly most people will be pretty disappointed with this report.

The digital economy is vital for Britain because of our natural strengths in creating digital content. But when it comes to delivery of that content we are lagging badly:

  • 21/30 for broadband speed
  • 40% households without broadband at all, with connections falling last year
  • EU global league table of digital adoption skills and use 7th to 12th
  • Next generation trailing: report itself concedes France, Germany, US and Japan

So this was the chance to put things right.

Instead of which this government, which has been the best customer for the management consultancy industry in the history of Britain, has promised us no new action, but a total of 8 new reports.

This week a woman in California gave birth to 8 babies. Perhaps in homage to her the government has announced 8 new reports. But whilst the world was surprised and delighted with the arrival of the octuplets, we have all become wearily familiar with this government's continual substitution of reports for action.

The report does mention action, however.

Under the most critical question of all is how to stimulate investment in a next generation broadband network. This is dealt with under Action 1.

What is Action 1?

"To establish a government-led strategy group"

A future Conservative government will make it a major objective to ensure that more than half the population has access to next generation networks within five years. So can I ask the Secretary of State, does the government accept this as an objective and will it deliver it?

The report says the government will "work with operators to remove barriers to development of wholesale market in access to ducts." If BT, who owns the ducts, does not cooperate, will it force BT to open them to other suppliers as Conservatives have pledged?

Can he also tell us who is in overall charge? Lord Carter, Lord Mandelson or the Secretary of State? Without clear leadership the chance of delivering on such huge commitments is miniscule. So can we have a categorical assurance there is no turf war going on between DCMS, DBERR and Ofcom that prevent the government showing the leadership that is so desperately needed.

On universal service obligation for broadband we welcome the long-delayed commitment to making sure everyone has access. But who will pay for this? Expressing a sentiment is fine, but without a roadmap to delivery it is surely a totally empty promise.

The government says that the commitment should be for 2 Mbps access. Given that the national average access speed is 3.6mbps, isn't the scale of the government's ambitions pitifully low, simply saying it wants to ensure the whole population has access to half the current average speed by 2012?

On digital radio, the report says "we are making a clear statement that DAB should be a primary distribution network." So how will it be funded? How will the government make sure DAB becomes available in people's cars? How will it ensure signal is strengthened in rural areas?

On copyright protection, instead of a solution we have a proposal to set up a new quango with a new tax on internet users. Why do we need another agency when Ofcom is already equipped and able to do that job? And why should legitimate internet users have to pay for copyright infringement of transgressors?

On peer to peer file sharing, they talk about consulting about legislation? But can the Secretary of State tell me how ISPs are supposed to identify illegally shared files, given what happened in France when many users simply reacted by encrypting their files when the French government introduced similar measures?

On internet content, I notice the Secretary of State's idea for cinema style rating for websites is not in there? So can he tell us if it has been sidelined, perhaps by voices in government more realistic about the ability of government to control the internet?

On the review of terms of trade, can the Secretary of State give clarity on timings given that whilst a review is taking place investment in independent production will be very hard to sustain?

In October the Secretary of State said "Now is the time to move from think-tank phase to delivery phase."

So where is the delivery on next generation broadband access? Another consultation
Where is the delivery on copyright protection? Another quango
Where is delivery on peer to peer file sharing? Another consultation
Where is the delivery on the crisis facing local newspapers? Another review
Where is the delivery on community radio? Another consultation
Where is the delivery on terms of trade? Just another report

Mr Speaker there are no concrete pledges, only 8 new reviews.

A Conservative government made telecoms deregulation a reality. It made the satellite and cable revolution happen. Now it looks like the country will have to wait for another Conservative government to end the curse of endless reviews, reports and consultations and lay the foundations for a truly competitive digital Britain.

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