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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.