Friday, 29 May 2009

Broadband speeds

Fascinating meeting this afternoon with representatives of BT Openreach. We were talking about why broadband speeds in one village in my constituency vary so much from house to house and at different times of day, and what we can do about it.

In general, once a line has been tested for faults, the biggest single determinant of broadband speed seems to be distance from the exchange. BUT - this is the length of the wire, not the distance as the crow flies, so a house that is physically nearer to the exchange can be further away in terms of length depending on the route the wire took.

The second important factor is which 'Communications Provider' you are using. At our local exchange there are three companies with their own 'kit' in the exchange - BT, TalkTalk and Orange. Each of these will differ in the quality of the equipment they have put into the exchange, how many subscribers each has and - interestingly - the capacity of the line out of the exchange to the national network (I think this may be called 'backhaul'?).

The third important factor is the setup within the house. The BT people said that all sorts of things within a house can affect the connection speed including the state of the electrical and phone wiring within the house and interference from things like thermostats switching on and off, microwaves being switched on etc. On this latter issue, they showed us something called an i-plate which you can insert into your phone socket and which filters out some of these sources of interference. Some people have reported big improvements in speed when they tried this.

Finally, we learned that part of our local network is actually aluminium wires rather than copper wires (from a time when copper was v expensive) which doesn't affect phone quality but does undermine broadband speed.

One of the frustrations is that it does seem to us from our local surveying that choice of service provider may make a big difference at our exchange. But as a consumer you don't know what actual speed you will get unless you switch provider! We're going to do some more work locally looking at who people are using to see if one provider is systematically better than the others. Though if this is the case and everyone switches then we'll all be fighting for bandwidth and the speed will drop...

Finally, we were reminded of two sources of improvement 'in the pipeline':

a) the Government is pledged to bring in a 'universal service obligation' of ensuring everyone can achieve 2 Mbps; this could be through a range of technologies based on location but this investment should improve things for everyone;

b) BT itself is investing in new high-speed optical fibre which will give super-fast broadband to 10m houses by 2012; unfortunately, towns and villages are unlikely to be very high on the list for upgrading....

Monday, 18 May 2009

Tax Credits and the missing billions

Just done a quick TV interview for GM-TV tomorrow morning about the billions of pounds that go unclaimed each year in tax credits. We've unearthed new Treasury figures (which were not suprisingly released with no fanfare) which show that up to 1.5 million families with children are entitled to children's tax credit but don't get it, and up to 1.5 million working people are entitled to working tax credit but are missing out. In each case the average amount unclaimed is in excess of £2,000 per year.

You would assume that if it was 'free money' then people would claim it. But the system is so complicated that many people don't even know they are entitled. Others are put off by the daunting complexity of the forms, whilst others have claimed but had such a bad experience that they've given up. Particularly hard hit are those who are awarded money in good faith only to be told years later that the figures were wrong and they now owe thousands.

We want to see a much simpler system so that people know where they stand. In particular, if they provide all the information accurately and in good faith, they shouldn't be subject to HM Revenue and Customs changing their mind and demanding thousands of pounds back years later. The tax credits system needs to be on the side of hard-working families, not making their lives a misery.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Drip, drip, drip...

The daily publication of excerpts from MPs expenses makes pretty depressing reading for anyone involved in politics. No mainstream party is going to escape from the general cynicism that these stories are generating, and I don't doubt for a minute that, come the European elections, the main winners will be the 'can't be bothered to vote' party and, more worryingly, the extremist parties who voters may be tempted to support to register a generalised protest.

The only glimmer of light in all of this is that the leaks in the newspaper may bring forward the ludicrously slow timetable for publication of every MPs' expenses, which still isn't due officially until July. I would like to see everything published within the next couple of weeks. We then need the Committee on Standards in Public Life to come up with independent recommendations for sorting all this out which Parliament should accept and move on.

One thing I hope the Committee will recommend is that if MPs do buy a home in London for the time they are away from home, they should not benefit from any capital gain when that property is sold. In my case I have seen the value of my London property increase and have said that when I cease being an MP and the property is sold I will not take a penny from the proceeds - I will hand it all back. The taxpayer contributed to the costs of buying the flat, and the taxpayer should get his/her money back (and more besides) when the property is sold.

This whole issue needs clearing up and quickly, not least so that we can then all focus all our attention on the business of holding this government to account.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Minister challenges First Bus

Interesting development today in our campaign for better local bus services.

I led a 30 minute debate in Parliament this afternoon highlighting the way that First treat their customers, notably with the short-notice cut to the X27. I quoted from the reply that one local resident had received to their e-mail challenging First Bus to subsidise routes such as the X27 from the profits they make on their city centre routes. In reply, First had said that the law prevented them subsidising services in this way.

I raised this with the Transport Minister (Paul Clark) who said he wasn't aware of any legislation that would stop First doing this if they wanted to.

So someone's got it wrong....

I also asked about Councils getting more power to force companies to run routes and to cap fares. The Minister said that Councils should have these powers in place by the end of the year. The challenge then will be to get the local councils in our area to use those powers, as I think First Bus have us all over a barrel at the moment.