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Broadband Telecommunications

4. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): What action she is taking to ensure that broadband telecommunications are rolled out more rapidly in rural areas. [51999]

10. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): What steps she is taking to assist the roll-out of broadband infrastructure in Britain. [52007]

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Douglas Alexander): We set out our strategy for making the broadband market more extensive and competitive in December. Since then the market has continued to develop. Broadband services are available to over 60 per cent. of the population, and coverage is increasing. There are now more than 500,000 broadband subscribers in the UK. The increased take-up strengthens the case for a further roll-out of services.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Is the Minister aware that, according to information that I received recently, in certain parts of the Cotswolds it will take between seven and 10 years for broadband services to become available? Will that not create a technological apartheid? People in businesses dependent on broadband will have to move away from those areas, because they will not be able to receive it.

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I am aware that BT is enabling 500 exchanges to start operating by the end of May, and I am aware of the pilot schemes in Cornwall and Wales. Does the Minister agree, however, that the country's future growth depends on the rapid roll-out of broadband services in every area? May I also ask him to look into the fact that add-on services in relation to both broadband and IDSN are not covered by the regulator? Given BT's monopoly in this respect, should the position not be examined?

Mr. Alexander: I am intrigued by the terms of the question. The advice available to me suggests that both ADSL and cable services are available in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Nevertheless, he has made an important point about how we can ensure that the services are rolled out.

Only last month, I challenged BT to provide more exchanges. I am delighted to say that there will be a further 100 throughout the United Kingdom, but we face a challenge—that of not just extending coverage, but driving up usage. That is why the price reductions of recent months will be so critical in altering the risk-reward balance in infrastructure decisions affecting rural areas that will be made in months to come.

Kevin Brennan: Does my hon. Friend recognise that the roll-out of broadband is a big issue in urban as well as in rural areas, particularly in places such as the valleys of south Wales, where cabling is not widely available? What steps will he take to ensure that there is joined-up public sector commissioning of broadband to ensure that we can spread availability, drive down costs and bridge the technology deficit in more deprived communities?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend makes an important point. One of the first challenges that we faced was to ensure that we got an appropriate return for the public sector investment in this area. The Government spend, at all levels, approximately £1.7 billion a year on information and communications technology. One of the challenges that has been set for the Office of Government Commerce is to use that spend effectively to deal with exactly the questions identified by my hon. Friend.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): The Minister may be aware of the helpful exchange that I had with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport on this issue. Does he now accept that, left to the private market, remote rural areas in the highlands such as my constituency will never get broadband? While I welcome the £30 million fund that the Government have set up, should we not do more to encourage it into those areas?

Mr. Alexander: I welcome the initiatives that have been taken over recent months by British Telecom. A further two initiatives would be of importance in the hon. Gentleman's constituency: first, the actions of the Scottish Executive in taking forward their digital highlands project; secondly, and most significantly for long-term roll-out across rural areas, there is the interesting work that BT is doing with satellite provision of broadband services, which can achieve a footprint, not

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least in the highlands and islands of Scotland, that can guarantee a service for small and medium-sized enterprises, which is very important.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): The Government's objective is to achieve not only universal affordable access to broadband—I emphasise affordable because the Minister has just mentioned satellite, which is not affordable—but a choice of diverse services to provide that access. With the failure of the broadband fixed wireless access auction, and the Secretary of State's acknowledgment to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry that there probably is not a commercial case for fixed wireless access, does the Minister accept that even if ADSL roll-out is achieved in rural areas, no competitive access arrangements will be available for the foreseeable future in many rural areas?

Mr. Alexander: No, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I recently visited Northern Ireland and saw there the development of competition in satellite services. While I accept that satellite is at the moment very expensive for SMEs, in the months and years to come, we will see the price reductions that we are already seeing in ADSL services. However, his point about platforms is important. It makes the case that the Government have been advancing that their appropriate response is to maintain platform neutrality in the area of broadband. We have set broad objectives, but it is for the market to determine, working in an effective relationship with the Government, what the most appropriate technology is for those particular areas.

Steel (US Tariffs)

5. Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): What progress has been made to secure exemptions for UK steel companies from US tariffs. [52000]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Minister for Trade and Investment and I and our embassy in Washington are in regular contact with senior members of the American Administration to support our companies' requests for exclusions from the American import tariffs on steel. I am glad to say that the Administration have now agreed to consider new applications that are received by 20 May. We expect decisions on those exclusion requests to be made by 3 July.

Mr. Griffiths: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and for the way in which the Government have tried to pursue all these issues within a strictly legal framework, unlike the American Government. That is much appreciated at the steelworks at Port Talbot, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), but which I can see from my living room window. Over the past 20 years, there have been huge reductions in jobs at that steelworks to keep it competitive. I urge my right hon. Friend to do whatever else she may have in mind to make certain that production of high-quality, competitive steel can continue in Aberavon.

Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. Throughout this whole business, we have

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stressed to the American Administration that we believe that their action is completely unjustified and unlawful under World Trade Organisation rules. We are making absolutely certain that the action that we take with our European partners is within the WTO rules. I am grateful for his and others' support for that strategy, but the most important thing that we can do to support our steelworkers, apart from fighting the American action, is to maintain economic stability and support our manufacturing industry, which I believe is now on the verge of an upturn. That in turn will produce the demand that workers at Corus in his constituency and elsewhere so desperately need. We will continue to support our steelworkers and to make the case for our highly productive and competitive steel plants against this unjustified American action.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): Will the Secretary of State confirm that Commissioner Lamy is meeting his opposite number in Washington today? Does this not confirm the benefit of Britain's membership of the European Union? If each of us were seeking independently to take on the United States, we would not have the benefit of operating as a European Union. Does that not show the good sense of the British people when they said yes to Europe in the 1975 referendum?

Ms Hewitt: I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman has said, although I am not sure that his hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench or indeed the Leader of the Opposition would agree with him. If he feels like crossing the Floor today, let me say how much we would welcome him.

Phil Hope (Corby): My right hon. Friend will know that in Corby we have a very efficient, highly productive rolling mill producing some of the finest tube in the country. Indeed, it was used to construct the London Eye, one of the major icons of the millennium. In Corby we are proud of our steel and our steelworkers and feel that the action by the United States is unacceptable, unlawful and unjustified. I thank the Government for the work that they are already doing, but if the negotiations on compensation break down, will they consider the option of European Union retaliation against the United States to force it to drop these unacceptable tariffs and allow our manufacturing industry, which is beginning to move into an upturn, to make the very most of the stable economy that we have created for businesses in this country?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is right about the competitive excellence of the company in his constituency. The anger that his constituents feel about the American action was reflected among the steelworkers whom I recently met in Yorkshire. At this stage, our first priority is to get exclusions from the US tariffs for particular products and for the companies that have requested them. Only yesterday, I spoke again to Don Evans, the American Commerce Secretary. My hon. Friend and others will welcome the fact that Secretary Evans was able to tell me that, if products on which additional import duty has already been paid since 20 March are now granted an exclusion, the extra duty will be refunded.

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We are pursuing the exclusions as effectively as we can. Along with our European colleagues, we are pursuing compensation and putting pressure on the American Administration to agree countervailing measures to compensate our economy for the impact of their tariff action and we are keeping open the possibility of retaliatory action. No decision has yet been made on that. I must tell my hon. Friend that we are all alive to the dangers of a tit-for-tat war, but we are acting under the WTO rules to keep that option open by working with the European Commission to ensure that a list of products for possible retaliation is filed under the WTO rules by 17 May.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the work of the all-party parliamentary group on steel in supporting the steel industry in Britain and on the representations that it has made on behalf of steel communities. Can she reassure the House that every effort is being made to make representations to the American Government to make sure that the protectionism and economic nationalism that their action represents will not spread to other industries?

Ms Hewitt: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are working hard and putting all the pressure that we can on the American Administration to persuade them to minimise the damage that has been caused not only to our steel industry, but to the cause of fair and free world trade by their unjustified and unlawful action. I am very grateful to the members of the all-party parliamentary group on steel for taking action on this issue, especially the recent representations that they made in person to the American embassy in London.

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