Five questions answered on report criticising the government’s rural broadband rollout plans

We were promised super-fast broadband - where is it?

The National Audit Office has raised concerns over the government’s delayed roll out of superfast rural broadband. We answer five questions on the report.

What are they key criticisms of the report?

Mostly that the scheme is two years behind its original schedule. Only nine out 44 rural areas are expected to reach targets for high superfast internet by 2015, with another four potentially missing an extended 2017 deadline.

The office is also concerned that BT would be the only firm likely to win contracts and thus benefit from £1.2bn of public funds as a result. It also raises concerns over the government’s ability to negotiate fair contracts with BT.

If the scheme is delayed does the report think it will cost the taxpayer more?

Yes.

Originally Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt pledged to have internet speeds above 24 megabits per second available to 90 per cent of premises in every local authority of the UK by May 2015 for £530m, plus funds added by local councils.

Last week the treasury revised its plans, stating that it wanted 95 per cent of UK properties with access to superfast broadband by the end of 2017, and pledged another £250m more to meet this goal.

The report states that the: "government is not strong at taking remedial action to guard against further slippage".

There have also been claims that the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) does not have a proper grip on the programme and that BT is being unclear about costs.

What are other people saying?

Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who is the chair of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee, speaking to the BBC said: "Opaque data and limited benchmarks for comparison means the department has no idea if BT is being reasonable or adding in big mark ups.”

What has the DCMS said?

"We agree that effective enforcement of the contracts is important and are working with local authorities to ensure this," a spokesperson told the BBC.

"As the NAO report makes clear, the project's funding model greatly reduced the cost and financial risk to the taxpayer."

What has BT said?

"There was strong competition when prices were set at the start of the process and that has ensured counties have benefited from the best possible terms," the company told the BBC.

"Deploying fibre broadband is an expensive long-term business and so it was no surprise that others dropped out as the going got tough."

However, the report states that there had already been one instance where the company had been caught overcharging the government for management costs of £3m. It also pointed out that some of BT’s figures are largely based on assumption.

Fibre-optic cables - the tools of the trade. Photograph: Getty Images.

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.