Christmas quips won't get the broadband job done

Houses of Parliament

Houses of Parliament (Photo credit: Gail Johnson)

Most of the time, the Houses of Parliament is something that makes me proud to be British. The representation from every corner of the UK, the ability to question ministers, parliamentary privilege; this to me is what real democracy is all about.

Other times, I want to punch the walls of the impressive gothic lobby at how often that democracy is wasted.

Today was one of those days.

I was watching the questions to the DCMS ministers this morning and was pleased when the subject of the broadband roll-out arose.

Nigel Evans, the independent MP for Ribble Valley, kicked off with a lame joke about the Obama ‘selfie’ scandal, saying if the secretary of state, Maria Miller, came to Lancashire, she would find it “a bit hit and miss” if trying to upload one taken with him.

Yes, we all groaned, but the over-arching point was a good one.

“In Lancashire, only 55% have access to superfast broadband, whereas nationally it is 65%,” he said. “Will she ensure that Lancashire is not going to be left in the digital dinosaur age but 100% will get access to it?”

Miller had stats to say it was actually available to 67% in the Lancashire and used the figures to show the government was making progress, but ended with the line: “We are making progress but clearly we need to make sure that continues.”

Ok, nothing ground breaking there. Happy an MP has brought it up but let’s try something a little more taxing for the minister, shall we?

Step up Sir Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for Devon North, who had a much less jocular tone with Miller and a real question to ask.

“The secretary of state referred to the 10% that is most difficult to reach with superfast broadband,” he said. “Does she recognise in areas like mine that 10% is in fact far bigger than that and that the rural economy is very dependent on small micro businesses and much higher than average levels of home working?”

“Will she get on with allocating the £250m that has been set aside for this 10% and will she not make it match funded by already broke local authorities?”

Alas Miller, going unquestioned as is the nature of these things, used the question as an excuse to say how great her party’s plans were compared to the previous administration and to bypass the real question of the £250m – something that can’t be allocated whilst the DCMS, local authorities and BT keep hidden where the BDUK roll out is taking place due to state aid rules – with a coming soon trailer.

“My honourable friend is absolutely right to say that making superfast broadband a priority infrastructure project for this country was absolutely right for this government to decide to do [we didn’t hear him say that] and the plans we inherited from the party opposite were lamentable [he didn’t say that either].”

“He will know that we have already allocated £250m, which we will be announcing shortly how that will be used [so, it hasn’t been allocated to specific projects yet then, has it?] and also he will have noticed in the Autumn Statement an additional £10m for the hardest to reach areas where we need innovative solutions [another fund where details remain scarce].”

So, this didn’t get any of us much further.

But when Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, stood up I thought here we go. I know this woman has balls and at least with the cheeky ‘lamentable’ comment about the previous government’s plans – Labour wanted everyone to have a minimum of 2Mbps by 2012 by the way – she also had motivation to take the DCMS to task.

Talking specifically to Ed Vaizey, who is the real minister in charge of broadband roll-out, she said: “Under Labour’s universal broadband pledge, everyone would now have enjoyed a year of full access to decent broadband instead of the ongoing delay and controversy we have.”

Yes Onwurah! Now, go in for the kill; why the delays? Why the cover ups? When can we have transparency?

“So can I ask the minister if he will be sending out eChristmas cards this year and, if so, does he take responsibility for all the problems so many people will still have receiving them?”

YES, YOU GO… wait a minute… a Christmas card joke? Really? You have your moment to stand there in parliament and question the people running this much maligned scheme to try to get some real answers, and you make a terrible joke about online cards?

Vaizey answered in his BoJo-esq style, of course. With a wry smile and a gesture to John Bercow, he said: “Mr. Speaker, call me old fashioned, but I send out physical Christmas cards. You will receive one and so will the honourable lady.”

And how they all laughed; Vaizey, Onwurah, the gathered throngs – OK, tens – of MPs, whilst I sat here with my head in my hands asking myself what is a point in a parliament and questions to ministers if it is just all a chance to try out your stand-up skills and make a mockery of a serious issue?

I have been experiencing a lot of abuse via email and Twitter since starting to seek out the postcode data and roll-out plans of the BDUK project. I have also been condemned in public for posing difficult questions. I have watched other outspoken individuals seeking out transparency for the project go through similar things.

All we want is the answers and, when answered fully, we will get back in our boxes.

But let’s face it; if the best we are going to get from the opposition is a quip about festive postcards, I think we all have to keep this up for some time and have quite a way to go before the truth will truly be out there. 

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