HC Deb 02 April 2003 vol 402 cc899-900
1. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

What steps he is taking to enable the socially excluded to gain access to the internet; and if he will make a statement. [106159]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

The Government are committed to ensuring that all who want access to the internet can have it by 2005, including those in areas of greater disadvantage. As services improve, it is important for everyone to have a chance to access those services in as convenient a way as possible, which includes electronic means.

Michael Fabricant

As the Minister knows, access to the internet is one thing but access to broadband is something else. He will be aware that, compared with the United Kingdom, in the socialist countries of Scandinavia, 10 times as many people per head of population have access to broadband. Given that the Minister's boss, the Deputy Prime Minister, has decided to forget that he is a socialist, how can we ensure that more people, especially in socially deprived areas, have access to broadband? Without such access they will not have full access to the internet as the Minister and I understand it.

Mr. Leslie

The hon. Gentleman's new commitment to tackling social exclusion is most welcome, if somewhat unexpected. There are now nearly 6,000 UK Online centres around the country, enabling all people from all corners of society to access the internet. Broadband is extremely important, and we are working not just with the Cabinet Office but with the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that broadband can roll out across the United Kingdom, more than is possible in most other developed countries.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the arrival this week of ADSL broadband in Wemyss Bay in Inverkip in my constituency?

In future, the ability to access interactive services will be provided by digital television. Will my hon. Friend ensure that when the digital action plan is published in the coming months it sets ambitious targets for broadcasters, so that maximum and speedy availability of digital services is possible throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend is right: broadband offers new opportunities for swift and always-on internet access. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is primarily concerned with local government service provision, and one of the national projects that we seek to support is digital television access, which enables local people to apply for benefits or council services online.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Is the Minister aware that yesterday I spoke at the Country Land and Business Association conference on rural tourism? One of the most important points emerging from the CLA's excellent paper on the subject concerned the role of broadband in the marketing of rural tourism, and in helping people in the countryside whose lives are not all that easy and who may find it difficult to reach the larger markets that they deserve. Will the Minister assure us that, in line with Members on both sides of the House who are keen for more broadband access to be available in rural areas, he will urge British Telecom to pull its finger out?

Mr. Leslie

I will give British Telecom a call—and I will look up the hon. Gentleman's speech when I next have a chance to view the CLA's website.

We must indeed ensure that those in all parts of the country, including rural areas, have the same opportunity to access the internet, and broadband is extremely important in that regard. If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman is the very embodiment of the word "broadband".