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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 9, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 09 January 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Digital Connectivity, Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


Contents


Digital Connectivity

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Good afternoon. The next item of business is a statement by Paul Wheelhouse on enhancing Scotland’s digital connectivity. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so I encourage members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons.

14:00  

The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands (Paul Wheelhouse)

This Government is committed to transforming Scotland’s digital connectivity and delivering world-class digital infrastructure. We have made significant progress already in that regard, despite telecommunications being an entirely reserved matter and all legal and regulatory powers sitting with United Kingdom ministers.

Through the £400 million digital Scotland superfast broadband—DSSB—programme, which was set up by my colleague Fergus Ewing, we met our target of providing access to fibre broadband to 95 per cent of premises across Scotland on time and on budget. In fact, we exceeded that target. Now, more than 943,000 premises can access fibre broadband, which is around 103,000 more premises than we originally anticipated.

We are also going where others would not invest. Before the DSSB programme, there were no plans for commercial fibre broadband roll-out in Orkney, Shetland or the Western Isles. Now, more than 80 per cent of premises in those places have access. We have also seen huge increases in coverage in much of rural Scotland, from the Borders to Argyll and Bute and the Highlands. As the DSSB programme team has announced, take-up of broadband services on DSSB-funded infrastructure now sits at over 60 per cent, although it was expected that take-up would be only around 20 per cent. That higher take-up further enhances investor confidence.

Through a contractual mechanism that is known as gainshare, that better than expected take-up has resulted in additional funds being available, which is ensuring that build continues and that there is no gap between the DSSB programme completing and our reaching 100 per cent—R100—programme beginning. Indeed, we now have a strong foundation from which to reach 100 per cent.

Since 2014, superfast broadband access has increased by 35 percentage points in Scotland—from 59 per cent to 94 per cent—compared with a 21 per cent increase in the UK. I am aware that the UK Government has, belatedly, woken up to its responsibilities in this area. As part of his leadership campaign last summer, Boris Johnson pledged to deliver full fibre

“to every home in the land”

by 2025. By the December UK election, that promise had been watered down to a commitment to

“roll out gigabit broadband across the country by 2025”.

The UK Government has also been slow to invest in digital connectivity beyond its contribution to the DSSB programme. Currently, it is contributing just £21 million of the £600 million that this Government has committed to the R100 programme. The UK Government is providing a miserly 3.5 per cent of that money, with the balance of £579 million being fully funded by the Scottish Government. However, I expect Scotland to receive our fair share of the £5 billion that was announced by the UK Government for extending gigabit-capable connectivity, and I would welcome the Parliament’s support to achieve that.

That is why, over recent years, in the light of large areas of rural Scotland continuing to experience very poor or non-existent broadband coverage and poor connection speeds, we could not wait for UK ministers to fulfil their responsibility to deliver broadband infrastructure for all. We have, therefore, forged our own ambitious digital agenda, committing to deliver access to superfast broadband to every home and business in the country through the R100 programme.

I have kept the Parliament informed of developments in the procurement process for R100 throughout the past year. Most recently, I advised Parliament that contracts covering south and central Scotland areas have been signed, and, as promised, I can provide more detail today on what those contracts cover. They will deliver £133 million of investment in the south lot area and £83 million of investment in the central lot area.

In the south lot, alongside commercial coverage, we will reach more than 99 per cent of the 26,000 premises that are eligible for R100, leaving in the region of just 200 premises in the area requiring to be connected by alternative means. In the central lot, the contract that we have signed with BT, alongside greater than anticipated commercial build, will reach at least 47,000—almost 87 per cent—of the 55,000 eligible premises. The remainder will require to be connected by alternative means, which I will outline shortly.

I remind members that our commitment was to extend superfast access to all, providing access to speeds of 30 megabits per second or more. I am able to announce today that we will go significantly beyond that. I am delighted to advise that, as a result of our actions, all of the planned R100 build in the south of Scotland and the vast majority of the R100 build in central Scotland will use full-fibre—or fibre to the premises—technology. That will provide access to gigabit-capable speeds—in other words, not 30Mbps but 1,000Mpbs. The roll-out of full fibre to most parts of southern and central Scotland is going significantly beyond our original commitment and will deliver a truly future-proofed solution for Scotland, ahead of the rest of the UK, even though the topography of those areas means that this will be one of the most challenging broadband infrastructure builds anywhere in Europe.

Of course, that complexity and the fact that the technology that is being delivered will go beyond our original commitment mean that the civil works will take time. Engineers will reach around half of the target premises in both lots—approximately 23,000 in central Scotland and 12,000 in the south—by the end of 2021, and the majority of the build will be completed by the end of 2023.

I acknowledge that, on its own, that would be insufficient to enable superfast access for all homes and businesses by the end of 2021, as promised. That is why, in the meantime, we will provide additional support to ensure that everyone can access superfast broadband services in that timescale.

As I have previously made clear to the Parliament, there was always going to be a need for an aligned intervention to connect premises that, for technical reasons, are beyond the reach of R100 contracts. I can advise today that the aligned interventions will be delivered through a voucher scheme that will be funded by the Scottish Government. I can further advise that anyone who is unable to access superfast broadband through the R100 programme by the end of 2021—even if R100 will ultimately reach them—will also be eligible for that voucher scheme. The voucher scheme will launch later this year and will provide grants to broadband customers in non-domestic and domestic premises, offering support to access a range of technologies and suppliers.

Of course, I had hoped to announce details of all three contracts today. Unfortunately, as I advised before the recess, the contract award for the north lot, to which we have committed £384 million, is now subject to a legal challenge from Gigaclear Ltd. Until that challenge is heard and resolved, we are unable to award the contract as planned. I am unable to comment on the litigation process, but I reassure members that we will do our utmost to ensure that people in the north of Scotland can access superfast broadband through the R100 programme as soon as possible. In the meantime, customers in the north lot area will be able to access the voucher scheme when it launches, later this year.

Commercial investment has an important part to play in enhancing Scotland’s digital connectivity. Indeed, as members may be aware, it is a matter of law that the Scottish ministers cannot invest in areas where commercial investment is already proposed. Commercial suppliers are already going further than was originally anticipated, which has reduced the number of premises that require public investment. BT is currently updating its modelling to reflect those changes. Once that is completed and detailed survey work has been undertaken, I will be able to share specific details of the roll-out plans down to premises level.

The fibre that we deliver through the R100 programme will help to improve Scotland’s mobile connectivity, providing the backhaul that is needed to support the growth of 4G and 5G services, which will benefit the development of the Scotland 5G Centre and our 5G strategy. It will enable the movement of data across Scotland, supporting the growth of data-driven industries and technologies such as digital health delivery and the internet of things—IOT—in which Scotland is already a leader. It will also support our ambition to establish Scotland as a green data-hosting location.

The R100 fibre will link to new international fibre connections that will connect Scotland to the rest of the world, enable data to be moved efficiently across national boundaries and open up a range of new economic opportunities for existing and emerging businesses. Crucially, enhanced digital connectivity will support Scotland to make a just transition to the new ways of working that are needed to address climate change. It will give people and businesses the tools and skills that they need to harness the potential provided by digital technology.

There is no doubt that rural Scotland has perennially had to play catch-up with the rest of the UK when it has come to digital connectivity and prior waves of telecommunications investment. The work that has been done to date, which has been led by this Government’s approach—again, I pay tribute to Fergus Ewing for that—and undertaken through DSSB, has laid foundations on which R100 will build. That will ensure that, for the first time, Scotland is ahead of the curve not just in the UK but internationally.

The R100 programme is a prime example of how the Scottish Government is using devolved economic development powers to mitigate and resolve a market failure that has arisen in what is, for now, a reserved policy area: telecommunications. This Government will extend full-fibre broadband across the length and breadth of rural Scotland. We will deliver a huge number of full-fibre connections in what are among the most challenging locations anywhere in the UK or Europe. For most of those who will benefit, we will greatly exceed our 30Mbps superfast commitment.

The R100 programme will help to deliver social, economic and environmental benefits for all of Scotland, enabling innovation and the creation of highly skilled jobs, opening up remote working and social and leisure opportunities, delivering digital health and other new public services, and reducing travel, including the need to commute.

Scotland’s enhanced digital connectivity will support our transition to a net zero economy and will boost population retention and attraction. I am excited about what that connectivity will mean for everyone in those communities that we reach through delivery of this hugely ambitious investment and commitment.

The Presiding Officer

The minister will now take questions on his statement.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the minister for advance notice of his statement, albeit that it is a disappointing one. I feel sorry for Mr Wheelhouse, because sitting next to him is the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, Mr Ewing, who made all the promises on superfast broadband, yet it is Mr Wheelhouse who has had to come to the chamber superfast and break every one of them.

To be fair to the Scottish Government, I accept that it chose to make promises above and beyond its call of duty on digital connectivity. I have always accepted that, and it was an admirable ambition. The problem is that buried away on page 3 of the statement is an admission that that commitment simply will not be met. Reaching 100 per cent of premises across all of Scotland by the end of 2021 has become reaching them by the end of 2023 at the earliest. Another big project is two years late. It all sounds so familiar.

I will ask some specific questions on what we have heard. On the south and central lots, what percentage of the 100 per cent coverage—if we ever get there—will be directly and solely attributable to Government intervention, as opposed to commercial roll-out? What, technically, are the “alternative means” that will fill in the gaps in fibre coverage, which the statement said it would talk about but does not? Notwithstanding the difficult, technical legal challenges that the minister is facing, given that the south and central lots will now have to wait until 2024 for coverage, how much longer beyond that does the minister think that people in the north lot will have to wait for superfast broadband?

Finally, given a choice between a guaranteed speed of 10Mbps right now from the UK Government and waiting at least four years for the Scottish Government’s 1,000Mbps, which does the minister think people would choose?

Paul Wheelhouse

I should thank Jamie Greene for that list of questions, because it will be fun responding to them.

On the guaranteed 10Mbps, if Mr Greene had been paying attention to the statement—I point out that he had advance sight of it—he would know that I made clear in it that a voucher scheme will be available to give customers a superfast service before the end of 2021 if they want one. That is well ahead of the 10Mbps speed that the UK Government has specified and well ahead of its 2025 commitment for gigabit-ready services. On both counts—in timing and in quality of the offer—what we are providing under the statement is better than the commitments of the UK Government.

On the work in the south of Scotland, as I made clear, only about 200 premises will be left in the whole of the south of Scotland, which includes not just Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders but parts of Midlothian, West Lothian, Clydesdale and Ayrshire. Just 200 premises across that entire region will require additional support, and they will be eligible for our aligned intervention voucher scheme, which will deliver a service to them, should they wish it, before the end of 2021. We will certainly deliver to them as equivalent a service as we can and we are looking at trying to deliver up to gigabit speeds for them, using vouchers to do so.

I hope that, when Mr Greene reflects on the statement and today’s discussions, he will see the positives. As for the idea that something is buried on page 3 of a statement that has been given to Parliament and broadcast on television, I would argue that I have not buried information but have been honest about the impacts of litigation and the improved quality of the outcome that we are going to deliver, which have an implication for timing.

I hope that, when Mr Greene reflects, he will see that, under the DSSB programme, we have already delivered to 943,000 premises that could not be delivered to commercially. We are legally allowed to operate only where there are no commercial plans so, by definition, that is entirely additional to commercial roll-out. I hope that, when he has time, he will reflect on his performance today.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement. The minister has confirmed the worst-kept secret: the Government’s R100 programme, irrespective of the promised speed of 30Mbps or more, was never ever going to be reached by the end of 2021. The manifesto commitment was made in haste, but it was reneged on painfully slowly. We still do not have a timetable for when the commitment will be reached.

In his statement, the minister indicated that the vast majority of properties that are covered by the current R100 programme—in south and central Scotland, at least—will get fibre to premises. What will happen to properties that are not covered by the R100 programme? Will all those properties also get fibre to premises? When I say “all”, I do not just mean properties in cities that the commercial sector is targeting, or the new builds in our towns that are currently getting fibre to premises by the commercial sector; I mean the millions of homes that are not covered by the R100 programme or the commercial sector’s current plans for fibre to premises, and which are often in smaller towns in areas such as those that the minister represents. If the R100 programme now largely means fibre to premises, surely that means far more properties that are not covered by the commercial sector’s plans or by the current R100 programme must be brought in.

Paul Wheelhouse

Colin Smyth has raised a kernel of a genuine point, which I will address first, before I return to something else that he said.

I reiterate that 100 per cent of the R100 deployment in the south of Scotland region will be full fibre. That leaves just over 200 premises in the whole of the south of Scotland that will need another intervention, and they will be eligible for an aligned intervention voucher scheme. For technical reasons, we might not be able to provide full fibre for the scheme, but we will certainly deliver a minimum of superfast broadband, which was the commitment, and I hope that we will be able to find a solution that goes way beyond that. A range of technologies could be deployed and, on a property-specific basis, we will look at the most appropriate technology to use. I do not want to specify that all 200 premises will be provided with one or another; there will probably be a mix. We will do everything that we can to ensure that services go well beyond superfast speed, if we can do that.

I hope that that gives Colin Smyth reassurance. The scheme will cover all the towns and communities across the south of Scotland for which there is not already a commercial proposal. As he might know, commercial investment plans are afoot in the south of Scotland, and I hope that he recognises that a number of companies have made significant announcements in that regard across South Scotland, which is the region that we both represent. I hope that he welcomes that.

I will challenge Colin Smyth on one point. He implied that we have just landed things such as the voucher scheme on the Parliament today. For the entire time that I have been in the Parliament—and, I believe, with Mr Ewing before that—we have been talking about the need for aligned interventions to sit alongside the main R100 procurement. We have always said that the R100 programme will not do the job entirely. We will need commercial roll-out and aligned interventions, and I have set out today a process for delivering exactly that.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Does the minister agree that it is hugely disappointing for people in the north of Scotland that Gigaclear’s actions have resulted in a delay to the award of the north lot, which, given the amount of Scottish Government investment, promises to be truly transformational for the area? Does he also agree that it is completely unacceptable for a company that has never invested a penny in Scotland—

The Presiding Officer

Ms Watt, I point out two things. First, your microphone is not up. Secondly, there is likely to be litigation, so I would be very careful about expressing comments about the outcome of that litigation.

Maureen Watt

Okay. The company had its contract to deliver a far smaller and far less complex broadband project in Devon and Somerset terminated due to non-delivery and there is now a delay to the roll-out of broadband in the north of Scotland simply because it did not win that contract.

The Presiding Officer

I am sure that the minister will be careful in his response.

Paul Wheelhouse

I will be, Presiding Officer. I appreciate the understandable frustration that members are expressing about the news and the litigation. I am sure that Maureen Watt appreciates that I cannot comment on the legal challenge or on the past performance of Gigaclear. However, I am disappointed about the delay to the roll-out of broadband to people who are living and working in the north of Scotland. I think that it is fair enough to comment on that.

We want to ensure that public sector procurement processes are fair, transparent and accountable. I hope that the situation can be resolved as soon as possible to ensure that, one way or another, we are able to deliver services in the north of Scotland and that customers are not unduly affected by these developments.

In the meantime, I stress that customers in the north lot are eligible for the voucher scheme that I have mentioned. That will enable grants to businesses and home owners to be delivered, which will allow access to superfast broadband when the voucher scheme launches later this year. I am considering what we can do proactively to ensure that there is as much visibility of the scheme as possible and that customers in the north of Scotland know about what it can offer.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I thank the minister for early sight of the statement, and for the positive news that is contained therein. It highlights the UK Government’s shortcomings and the absolute brass neck of Conservative members in their response. The Scottish Government will enjoy Green Party support in calling for a fair share of the UK moneys—if, indeed, they materialise.

The minister will be aware that the Western Isles ConCom—connected communities—project, which is run by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, is to close, and that in excess of 30 per cent of households in each of the three island authorities do not have access to superfast broadband. Will he commit to prioritising roll-out of superfast broadband in our island communities?

Paul Wheelhouse

I have to be slightly careful. I hope that John Finnie will understand why, given that the subject that is under litigation is the north area. However, I can absolutely give the member the assurance that we are, regardless of the outcome of that process, prioritising our island communities, as we have always tried to do, with the outside-in approach. We are working to ensure that those communities get their fair share of investment—indeed, sometimes justifiably more than that—in order to try to bring about genuine transformation in digital connectivity in the islands. That was flagged up in the national islands plan consultation process as being critical to protecting against depopulation, and to allowing the areas’ economies to thrive.

I welcome John Finnie’s support, and that of—I hope—colleagues from across the chamber, as we work constructively with UK ministers to get for Scotland as much as possible of the £5 billion that has been promised, in order that we can deliver the best outcome for communities on our islands.

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

The minister is right to highlight the role that commercial providers have in enhancing our digital connectivity. Will he outline what support the Scottish Government is offering to enable service providers to invest, and will he give some examples of what they are delivering locally alongside Government investment in broadband and mobile connectivity?

Paul Wheelhouse

I am grateful to Willie Coffey for his long-standing interest in the issue, and for asking that question. As I alluded to in my statement, we are using devolved levers to support telecoms operators. Ultimately, the matter is reserved to the UK Government, so we have to be careful. One intervention that we made through last year’s budget was to provide 10 years of non-domestic rates relief on newly laid unlit fibre, which doubles the UK Government commitment of just five years of relief. I know that that has had an impact: we have had positive feedback from the industry, which has warmly welcomed the measure.

We have also taken action to reform the planning system and to extend permitted development rights, with the aim of encouraging new investment in Scotland’s digital infrastructure. As a result, we have seen extensive new commercial plans emerging from BT, Virgin Media, Vodafone and CityFibre. In the past year alone, CityFibre announced £200 million of investment to roll out its gigabit fibre to the premises network in Scotland, as part of its gigabit cities programme; Virgin Media confirmed that further network expansion is under way through its £3 billion project lightning, which will increase its fibre capacity and coverage footprint in Scotland to about 46 per cent; and Openreach announced that four Scottish towns—Kilmarnock, which is close to Mr Coffey’s heart, Bathgate, Broxburn and Whitburn—will be prioritised as part of its fibre first programme.

Our approach has also had a positive impact on the R100 programme, with commercial suppliers already going further than we had initially anticipated, which has reduced the number of premises that require public investment. For example, Sprouston and Walkerburn in the Borders will benefit from commercial roll-out, so we no longer have to cover those two communities with R100. I hope that that gives members a sense of the impact that commercial investment is having on roll-out of R100.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

Forgive me, Presiding Officer, if I appear to be rather weary with yet another ministerial announcement of a delay in meeting the Scottish Government’s broadband commitment to have every home connected by next year. How is it good news when the minister says that quite a few people in the south of Scotland who do not have a connection will now have to wait until the end of 2023, and we do not know how long my constituents in the north will have to wait?

However, there is exciting news: people will be dancing in the streets of the villages of Aberdeenshire, because they are going to get a voucher that will be able to connect them to the service. That is all very jolly, but what people actually want to know from the minister is when they will all be connected. Please answer the question, minister.

Paul Wheelhouse

This is a shame. I have been in the habit of having positive discussions with Mike Rumbles, lately. Unfortunately, the old Mike Rumbles has emerged again today.

As I mentioned, I cannot discuss the legal case, but Mr Rumbles will clearly be aware that it has had an impact in relation to today’s announcement. As I said in my statement, we had intended at this point to give clarity about all three contracts, as I had communicated at committee. Unfortunately, there has been a legal challenge. It is perfectly legitimate for the business to do that. I am not criticising that, but it is something that we have to live with.

Mr Rumbles asked about the delays. I made it clear in my statement—perhaps he did not have a chance to reflect on it in advance—that we have committed largely to full-fibre roll-out in the north lot area, which his constituents will be served by. Of the 55,000 premises that we are able to target through R100, 87 per cent will get a solution through our main R100 procurement. Everyone else is entitled to the aligned interventions voucher scheme. All the people who are affected can choose, should they wish to do so, to have that service through a voucher by the end of 2021. Therefore, if they want to avoid going beyond 2021, they can do so. However, if they are prepared to wait, they will always—[Interruption.] Those who are covered by the R100 project will ultimately get the R100 delivery—[Interruption.] Perhaps Mr Rumbles could wait for my answers to his questions before he fires more at me.

The R100—[Interruption.] I think that Mr Rumbles is asking me when it will happen. That is down to individuals. If people want the service before the end of 2021, they can ask for and get a voucher for that.

People will get the detailed planned roll-out of R100 in the coming months. There will be an online checker, so that people can see at a glance—an improvement on the DSSB system—their premises and whether and when they are getting the R100 procurement; whether and, ideally, when they are getting a commercial deployment; or they will be shown their eligibility for aligned interventions.

I hope that Mr Rumbles will have a more cheerful expression on his face once he has read the detail of what I have said today.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I welcome the minister’s announcements, particularly that R100 will deliver almost 100 per cent access not just to superfast broadband, but to broadband with gigabit-capable technology. That has the potential to provide a huge boost to South Scotland’s economy, particularly in not-spot areas such as the busy train line between Stranraer and Barrhill. It would be helpful to better understand the areas that the lots cover. What is meant by south, central, and north lot areas? Will the minister provide more information about that?

Paul Wheelhouse

I will happily do so. To make the lots as attractive as possible to the telecoms market, the country was split into three regions—north, central and south. Keeping in mind that R100 is tackling the most difficult-to-reach premises, each lot was, to try to improve their attractiveness, structured so that it contains a mix of the most difficult-to-reach premises and more accessible properties.

The north lot broadly covers the Highlands and Islands, Angus, Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and Dundee, and extends as far south as Dunoon on the west coast and Crianlarich in Stirlingshire and Coupar Angus and Dundee in the east. The north lot also encompasses all our inhabited islands, including those in North Ayrshire.

The central lot broadly covers central Scotland and Fife, and extends as far south as Ayr on the west coast and Dunbar on the east coast.

The south lot covers the Scottish Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and, as I have alluded to, parts of West Lothian, Midlothian and East Lothian and parts of East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire and Clydesdale.

I will provide a more detailed breakdown of the areas that are covered by each lot, which I will place in the Scottish parliament information centre, to assist members in informing their constituents about how today’s announcement affects them.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

Although it is not unexpected, the delay will be very disappointing to rural businesses in my constituency. As the minister will agree, the uncertainty for businesses is a major issue that could cost them thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of pounds.

I welcome the commitment to publish detailed plans of which premises will get superfast services and when. I acknowledge that BT is currently modelling, but when is the minister likely to publish information on individual businesses and let them know when they are likely to be connected?

Paul Wheelhouse

That is a fair question. I will give a bit more clarity on the point that I made at committee. We are revising our understanding of the commercial roll-out. BT is taking an extensive look through the delivery plans that it has agreed with us, and is trying to net off the areas that will be covered by commercial roll-out, so that we have a definitive list of the properties that we will be dealing with under R100. We expect to do that between now and the spring, and to publish by the summer an online checker that contains the detailed information that I have promised to Fin Carson and other members. It will give detail down to premises level, rather than to postcode area, which was the DSSB approach.

Members will therefore be able to help individual constituents who have approached them by guiding them to that information. We are looking at potential ways to communicate through Parliament and to offer members opportunities to ask questions on behalf of their constituents. We can take members through that information.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

Not every Aberdeenshire MSP will come out with curmudgeonly nonsense, as Mike Rumbles did, because most of us recognise that, if we waited for the UK Government or commercial providers, the vast majority of Aberdeenshire would not have a sniff of superfast broadband. That said, I am disappointed about delays to the north contract because of Gigaclear’s action, but I welcome the minister’s commitment to ensuring that people and businesses in my constituency, and elsewhere in the north of Scotland, benefit from the voucher scheme. Will the minister provide a little more detail on what the scheme will involve, and how he will ensure that people in the north know about it and how to apply?

Paul Wheelhouse

I thank Gillian Martin for her positive remarks. I share her frustration, but she will understand why I cannot go into the detail of the implications of the legal action.

As I said earlier, the voucher scheme will be available across all three lots. It will launch later this year and will provide grants to broadband customers in residential and business premises, to allow them to access a range of technologies and suppliers.

Members will be aware of existing voucher schemes run by the UK Government. We are working with UK ministers and officials to join up our respective funding pots and processes, in order to deliver the most streamlined and effective solution to benefit people, businesses and communities. Ideally, people will go to one stop and get all the information and funding that they need. That would be helpful—we have had positive discussions with UK ministers and officials on that.

Our approach will aim to make use of a proven application and payments platform, which is used for the existing UK-wide rural gigabit connectivity programme, and I am currently considering what we could do when the scheme launches to ensure that people and businesses in the north lot area know what the scheme can offer. We will engage with colleagues from the north to find out their views about how best to engage, including through their offices, to ensure that constituents get the information that they need if they approach their MSP.

I am keen to get the contract for the north lot concluded as soon as possible. I assure Gillian Martin, and indeed all the members in the north of Scotland area, that we will do all we can to make that happen, while protecting the Government’s interest at the same time.

Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Will the minister confirm that the Government’s intention is that full fibre to the premises will be delivered to R100 customers in the north of Scotland, as elsewhere? If so, will the voucher scheme enable customers to install full fibre to the premises connections, if they wish to do so?

Paul Wheelhouse

On the point that Mr Macdonald raises, I am in difficult territory, because if I comment in any degree on the content of the technology, I might fall foul of the on-going legal action, as there are potentially two different outcomes to be determined. In a broad sense, I can say that both bids have a lot of full fibre in them—if I can go as far as that without getting myself into trouble. We are keen to maximise that, working in some parts of the north with commercial partners, which are delivering full fibre, as the member knows, in the city of Aberdeen and in other locations where that is prevalent.

Presumably, it is possible in some cases that the voucher scheme may help to deliver full fibre to premises, but there will also be satellite, fixed wireless and other technologies. As I said earlier in response to Colin Smyth, I do not want to be too specific about the outcome, because in one valley there might be a cocktail of solutions, depending on what is cost-effective and what will deliver the best service outcome for a household or business. I do not want to be too prescriptive. Full fibre is certainly one of a suite of options but—to be honest—in some cases there is potentially the need for satellite and fixed wireless to be deployed.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

The minister mentioned promoting commercial investment, which I hope will result in addressing areas such as the Montrave estate in my constituency. Will the minister say more about what he understands of the UK Government’s plans regarding digital infrastructure, and how likely it is to meet its target of 2025?

Paul Wheelhouse

Although we note the UK Government’s commitment to invest £5 billion in improving connectivity across the UK, there appears to be a clear misunderstanding of how long it will take to carry out a procurement exercise of that size. As Mr Ewing and I both know, it is not an easy process. I am certainly aware of that—as, I think, are colleagues in other parties—especially as I understand that there will be a period of discussion and negotiation this year to ensure that state aid cover is in place for any new investment by the UK Government, before procurement can even commence. If we add in the time and resource required to physically deploy the infrastructure, that 2025 target looks hugely challenging. In the same way that colleagues here are saying that they always thought that the Scottish Government’s target was challenging, as has proved to be the case, I caution that UK ministers may find it difficult, too.

The announcement today confirms that the R100 programme will deliver a high proportion of full-fibre infrastructure—the point that Lewis Macdonald raised—ensuring that Scotland will have a head start on the rest of the UK. That is perhaps a unique situation for Scotland in the history of telecoms infrastructure roll-outs, and we should all seize that opportunity to grow the economy, against the backdrop of historic underinvestment in that area.

I certainly welcome the views of two House of Commons committees, which have called on UK ministers to provide additional funding to Scotland and other parts of the UK in order to tackle the issue. They have suggested that Scotland should be prioritised for that, because of our topography.

We believe that any further funding in support of gigabit-capable connectivity offers a real opportunity for us to work with UK ministers. After all, what we do will help to deliver their target and to make quick wins against their targets. We are keen to collaborate where we can on R100.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Sadly, another contract is going to be delivered late—another broken promise. Fergus Ewing offered to resign if R100 was not delivered by 2021, and it appears that it will not be delivered in the Highlands before 2026 or 2027. If Mr Ewing is having trouble with the drafting, I will give him a hand.

Will the vouchers issued for superfast broadband in the Highlands ensure that no one there pays more than those in the central belt for the equivalent broadband connection?

Paul Wheelhouse

The latter part of Mr Mountain’s question relates to a fair issue to ask about. If I recall correctly, we have discussed at committee that we are worried about the cost of delivering services. I take some encouragement from the announcement today from DSSB that take-up has now reached 60 per cent, which is really encouraging, but I entirely accept that there may be people who are being priced out of using broadband services.

We do not have the tools in this Parliament to intervene in the telecoms market. That is not to make a constitutional point; it is a fact. For us to make an intervention there, the UK Government would have to take a step forward in that regard.

The idea of a social tariff has been floated. Could the approach under which the social tariff operates in the energy sector be applied in the broadband sector, too, to help customers faced with the high costs of connecting? I am sure that we all share the ambition to get everyone connected where we can do so.

Regarding Mr Mountain’s first point, I think he is being hugely unfair on Mr Ewing. Mr Ewing is always an honourable and principled man, as we know, but he has moved on from his previous portfolio, I am the person who is now responsible for delivering the programme, and I take the blows on the chin for that now. Regardless of whether it was me or Mr Ewing in place—or indeed anyone else—we would potentially face the threat of legal challenge. What has happened is unfortunate, and we have to live with it, but I am confident that we will deliver a highly successful programme with a great outcome for the customers who will benefit from our broadband investment. I would hope that, once the heat of this debate has gone by, members will be grateful to see real progress in all their constituencies.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

As the minister will be aware, the connected communities service that has been alluded to, which has provided broadband as a stopgap for many of my constituents in hard-to-reach places, will cease in March, largely due to the rapidly decreasing number of people requiring it. That switch-off will nonetheless leave a number of my constituents with no access to broadband in the immediate term. What can be done now to assist those connected communities customers who face losing their digital connectivity in March?

Paul Wheelhouse

That is an important point, and Mr Finnie raised a similar one. I recognise Dr Allan’s considerable constituency interest in the matter.

In a situation where a broadband network is failing and is going to collapse, with an impact on customers, there is clearly an opportunity to engage with Ofcom to see what we can do, working together with it, to support those customers and to ensure that they have continuity of service. I am certainly happy to meet Dr Allan, and indeed Mr Finnie, who have both expressed an interest in this regard, to try and give them surety about what we can do to help their constituents and to ensure that no customer is left without a service for a long period.

Clearly, we will have to work with the regulator. We do not have a direct axe to grind in that debate, but we will do what we can to facilitate a good outcome for those customers.