£6 broadband tax 'will be law' before next election

Levy on landlines to be pushed through despite opposition from the Tories
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The Independent Online

Stephen Timms, the minister charged with overseeing Britain's "digital revolution," pledged yesterday to pass the £6-a-year broadband tax into law "before the general election," despite opposition from the Conservatives.

Mr Timms, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and minister for Digital Britain, said: "We want to make high speed networks nationally available. The next-generation fund will help that and we will legislate for it this side of a general election."

The Government announced in June that it would tax each household with a landline telephone 50p per month. The levy would be used to fund ambitious plans to bring super-fast broadband to 90 per cent of the country by 2017.

When it was first unveiled the Tories opposed the move, which is expected to raise up to £175m a year to fund the next-generation network. They are expected to consider scrapping it if they win next year's general election. The shadow Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said the Government should look to "stimulate investment in broadband through the regulatory structure".

Mr Timms, who took over the brief for Digital Britain after Lord Carter, the report's architect, quit before Parliament's summer recess, said the tax would be enacted in months.

The minister, speaking yesterday at a British Computer Society debate, said the £6-a-year tariff would be wrapped into the Finance Bill put before parliament in November.

Mr Timms added: "It is vital for jobs and growth that Britain has a world-class digital infrastructure. I am wholeheartedly committed to plans set out in the Digital Britain White Paper."

John Whittingdale, a Conservative MP and the chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said: "I don't like the tax, I think it's wrong and badly conceived. It will hit people with landlines, many of whom don't use broadband. Increasingly young people on the internet don't use a landline phone." He added: "Universality is desirable but there are a variety of ways to achieve it."

The Government hopes the country will be able to access broadband at speeds of at least two megabytes per second, which is enough to watch programmes on iPlayer. After criticism that the speed was not enough, Lord Carter said it was the "minimum wage in terms of broadband speeds".

Michael Phillips, product director of Broadbandchoices.co.uk, said: "Our concern is that the upgrading of the UK's broadband infrastructure is a mammoth undertaking and this unpopular tax will barely make a dent in the likely total cost."

At the time of the presentation of Digital Britain, Gordon Brown was adamant that the proposals were necessary to help lead the UK out of recession. The Prime Minister said the drive towards a digital future was as important as "roads, bridges and trains were in the 20th century".

The introduction of the levy was the biggest shock in the document, which covered topics from the internet to digital radio and creating a rival public service broadcaster to the BBC.

Another part of Digital Britain involved a crackdown on internet pirates illegally downloading music and films. The report announced that pirates would be named and shamed and would be pursued "through criminal law".

Today Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Ben Bradshaw, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, will update the industry on their latest proposals over filesharing and internet piracy.