Rural Economy (Rural Economy Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:55 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Colgrain Lord Colgrain Conservative 6:55 pm, 8th October 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, on his deft chairing of the committee, and I thank the other members of the committee for making it such an enjoyable and informative exercise. My entry in the register of interests shows that I have a lot of commitments to the rural sector, and it was a real privilege to serve on the committee. I also thank the staff, two of whom are present. The clerk was Simon Keal, and such was the sure touch with which he conducted our affairs that we would never have known that it was his first time in such a role. Katie Barraclough, the policy analyst, and Breda Twomey, the committee assistant, instilled great confidence, and their committee was grateful for their application and professionalism.

The remit of the committee,

“to consider the rural economy and to make recommendations”. could not have been broader and each chapter in the published report could have constituted the basis of a stand-alone report. However, there are two recommendations by the committee to which I would like to add further comment in the light of the Government’s response. The first relates to digital connectivity. The House has already heard much about this from committee members. On 3 August, the new BT chief executive gave no comfort at all when he was reported in the Times as saying that the company was ready to step up the construction of the next generation network and that:

“It could be a very positive story, a national mission”.

He has since tabled six points to the Government on behalf of the industry that must be addressed to meet the 2025 target. In addition, the Chancellor announced last week a further £5 billion to improve digital connectivity, but without, it must be said, the authority that would seem necessary to insist on the work being done with the timeliness that is required.

Let me give him a first-hand account of the obstacles that he, and we as a country, face. I am one of 45 households in our area of West Kent discussing a community fibre partnership with Openreach. We are located 30 miles from Hyde Park Corner, so it is not exactly the back of beyond. We are a mix of individual residential houses and businesses, and we are in the process of sending a sheet of completed information back to Openreach to apply for the requisite vouchers. We are told that this process will take four to six weeks in addition to the nine months that it has already taken us to get this far in the process, and we are assured that the work will be carried out within 12 months, but that is after the additional three months that it will take DCMS to approve the rural gigabyte voucher scheme. That means that if all perform up to their promise, it will have taken us two years to upgrade from our current 2.15 megabits per second to a promised superfast broadband speed. For rural businesses and communities, this timescale is calamitous. We have been told that 550 such CFP partnerships have been delivered by Openreach to date, with 90,000 households connected out of the 5% of the country still without broadband. Given that there are 1.5 million households still to be connected, it is evident that the recommendation in our report that Ofcom urgently review the universal service obligation is something on which this Government, and every future Government, must concentrate with an all-out effort to achieve. Our Prime Minister, in Billy Bunterish mode in his conference speech last week, referred to gigabit broadband spreading rapidly across the country like tendrils of superinformative vermicelli. Well, if he wants culinary imagery, he is talking tripe.

The second set of recommendations that I seek to highlight relate to recommendations 90 and 91 in our report on the subject of apprenticeships, and the Government’s reply, which in large part supports our suggestions. I know that the whole House agrees that in the person of the Minister, my noble friend Lord Gardiner, we are fortunate to have someone who is so totally in tune with and so personally well informed about the issues sweeping across the rural economy. However, I ask him to give special consideration to the apprenticeship issue. With the uncertainties relating to the availability of skilled full-time and part-time employees across the rural sector as a whole, and in particular horticulture, silviculture and now increasingly viticulture in Kent, these positive responses by the Government to the whole question of apprenticeships and the training of young people are to be welcomed. I urge the Minister to do his utmost to accelerate assistance in this area and to further the positive momentum that the Government have already generated. I would like to hear from him how this can be achieved.