My Lords, it is a pleasure to move Amendment 44A. In doing so, I thank my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering for her support. The amendment is incredibly straight- forward. It would enable farmers and all those in our rural communities to have the broadband connectivity and digital skills to operate confidently in that space.
As we have seen through the Covid crisis, our farmers have been on the front line in so many ways, filling in for long supply chains that should, in many ways, probably not have been that length in the first place. Our farmers have absolutely stepped up. Although they have been on the front line, they have often found it impossible to be online. The National Farmers Union broadband survey last year showed that 15% of those in our rural communities had no indoor broadband connectivity at all, and a shocking 36% could say they had only adequate broadband cover.
As we have also seen through the Covid crisis, it is not just the economic imperative to be online; there is a social and psychological dimension. Not only have our farmers not been able to run their businesses efficiently and effectively, the social dimension of keeping in contact with friends and family, and the psychological difficulties often felt with the remoteness of rural communities, have been brought home only too strongly through the Covid crisis.
Amendment 44A would put an end to this parlous position when it comes to broadband, digital connectivity and digital literacy. Earlier this year, in response to the EFRA Select Committee inquiry on broadband conductivity, the Government said that they had in principle put £5 billion in and would look at a shared rural broadband network. It was talked of in principle and intention. How do the Government intend to put that into will?
It is not just good soil and good farm management that produce our fabulous food, fruit and horticulture products but having high-speed broadband and the confidence and digital skills to operate in cyberspace as much as across the fields of the United Kingdom. We must demonstrate that we are all in this together. That means providing a level of broadband and digital literacy for all our farmers and all those in our rural communities. Does my noble friend the Minister agree? If the Government are not up for supporting the amendment, will she say how they intend to get the best out of all our rural communities, not least our farmers, to deliver on the levelling-up agenda and to drive economic, social and psychological benefits for our farmers and all those across our rural communities? I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to support Amendment 44A and I thank my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond for tabling it. I pay tribute to his expertise, knowledge and sheer perseverance in this area. It gives me the opportunity to draw further attention to how woeful broadband and wi-fi connections are in many parts of rural England because places are simply too far—more than a mile—from the local box.
Also, many will not appreciate the issue with the mobile phone signal. I look directly at the Woolsack; I am sure this problem is not unfamiliar in Scotland. In the summer in parts of North Yorkshire where the red phone boxes have been removed it is inherently dangerous if you do not have access to a landline. It is incredibly important that we should have a good mobile phone service. I had hoped we would be able to piggyback on the police service, but apparently we are not able to do that for security reasons. North Yorkshire Police made a massive investment to make sure they could apprehend criminals by getting reinforcements where that was the case.
I take this opportunity to bring to my noble friend the Minister’s attention how in many areas of the dales and the moorlands of the north of England there is both poor mobile phone conductivity and woeful broadband—it is persistently bad. I welcome the amendment and the extra spending the Government have announced to be spent in areas such as North Yorkshire, recognising that this is the case.
We went into the last election and the previous one with a commitment to a universal service of “x megabytes by x date”. That date keeps moving. Can I press my noble friend on what date we will have universal service and on whether the additional funds that the Government can find can be spent on the 3% of the population who are hardest to reach? It grieves me greatly to be told that 97% of the population will have universal access to broadband but not the 3% of us who happen to live in rural areas. I want to ensure that we can reverse the priorities and spend the additional money, and any other money that is available, in these hardest-to-reach areas.
As my noble friend Lord Holmes set out, it is an unacceptable situation that, in the 21st century, children who are sent home from school because one of their class has Covid-19, and who are diligently trying to do their work at home, prevent farmers going online to fill in forms. I hope that the Minister uses her good offices to correct that situation.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, for bringing forward this amendment. I suspect that other Peers did not realise that this amendment had been re-tabled, hence the short speakers’ list.
During the Covid-19 lockdown it became painfully apparent how inadequate the broadband system is, as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has said. It is vital that all areas of the country have good, fast and resilient broadband, especially those in our agricultural sector. Many Peers attempting to take part in virtual proceedings have struggled with connections suddenly dropping off or being unable to log on in the first place. In 2018, the average broadband speed in rural hamlets and isolated dwellings in a sparse setting was half that of major conurbations. Can the Minister say whether this has improved in the intervening two years?
In the aftermath of the Huawei fiasco, the Secretary of State was clear on the consequences of the Government’s decision to pull out. Operators charged with delivering 5G will now, without compensation, have £2 billion less to spend on rolling it out, at the same time bearing the cost of ripping out high-risk vendor 5G equipment by 2027. This is a huge proportion of the investment which was to be committed by the operators towards 5G rollout. Can the Minister say whether, in the intervening months since this decision was made, the Government have now reconsidered providing compensation to providers and consumers? The change in provider will delay the rollout of 5G by two to three years. Rural communities are already extremely disadvantaged in their connectivity. Many rural businesses have had to relocate to more urban areas to continue operating. Those in the farming community, like others, must fill in all their forms online. This now appears to be the Government’s only way of communicating with those residents to whom they attempt to provide services.
As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, during the lockdown children were dependent on Zoom connectivity to take part in sessions with their teachers. Although this meant that they received some tuition, for many the connection was so poor that it was hopeless. If the Government are true to their word in wanting to support rural communities, it is vital that broadband connectivity and digital literacy are taken seriously. This is not a “nice to have” for the agricultural industry, but an “absolute must”. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for once again raising this important issue. He is right to draw attention to the alarming lack of progress in rolling out broadband to rural areas. This is hindering the ability of British farmers to do their job, and it will become even more of a crisis when new farming techniques requiring regular digital applications become mainstream.
The latest Ofcom report identifies 677,000 homes and offices without decent broadband, but the vast majority—496,000—are in rural areas. Ofcom also reports that many rural areas are left with patchy and unreliable mobile reception, with less than half having 4G coverage. Sadly, it is all too common to hear stories of farmers driving around the countryside to try to get a signal to carry out even the basic business connections that they need for their work.
The lack of broadband is also having a wider impact on rural economies and is preventing the development of start-up businesses and the capacity for people to work at home. As work and training provision are increasingly focused on home working, where strong digital connectivity is key, a whole new generation in rural areas is being excluded from good employment opportunities.
It is hugely frustrating that it is taking so long to get this right. Since this Government have been in office, promises about broadband have come and gone, so forgive us if we are cynical about the latest announcements. Of course we welcome the latest government promise to invest £5 billion in rolling out full fibre broadband across the country, and we welcome the money set aside to specifically target vouchers at rural homes. We very much hope that these initiatives are successful and able to reach into the hard-to-reach rural settings which have been shunned by the private sector up until now. The £20 million set aside for the rural gigabit connectivity programme does not seem a lot of money, given the costs involved in rolling this access out. Nevertheless, it is a start.
Perhaps when the Minister replies, she could clarify by what date we can expect to achieve access for all rural properties to full fibre broadband and say whether she is confident that this programme is on track and will meet that deadline. I look forward to her response.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for tabling this amendment which seeks to use the Agriculture Bill to provide for new socioeconomic support programmes to help fund improved broadband connectivity and digital skills in rural areas beyond the end of the current rural development programme. He is indeed a champion of addressing the very real digital divide.
I reassure this House that we recognise the importance of the issue that this amendment raises. This Government are determined to connect every home and business to the fastest broadband speeds available. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has just said, access to digital is key to helping all rural communities build resilient modern businesses, as well as supporting them in their daily lives. Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the integral role that digital connectivity plays in our daily lives, economically, socially and in continuing to deliver essential public services. The Government are investing record amounts to level up digital infrastructure across the UK. We are already connecting some of the hardest-to-reach places in the country, including through the superfast broadband programme and the £200 million rural gigabit connectivity programme. The Government want nationwide coverage of gigabit-capable broadband as soon as possible.
We have also announced £5 billion of public funding—not just in principle; it has been announced—to close the digital divide and ensure that rural areas are not left behind. Only last week, we announced that more than £22 million of additional funding is being invested in the UK Government’s broadband voucher scheme, which subsidises the cost of building gigabit-capable broadband networks to hard-to-reach areas. The Government are working with mobile network operators to deliver mobile connectivity improvements through a shared rural network. Much is therefore already in place to improve connectivity in rural areas, and we have already started the 5G rollout.
We also recognise the importance of improving digital skills in rural areas. There is a wide number of initiatives to support this, including the digital skills partnership launched by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in 2017, to bring together organisations from across the public, private and charity sectors to work together to close the digital skills gap at a local level. Although the current rural development programme allows for support for broadband and digital skills, these wider government initiatives are the key funding mechanisms for broadband connectivity and digital skills. However, we are also committed to supporting rural communities through post-EU exit funding and the UK shared prosperity fund, which will play a vital role in supporting rural and coastal communities in recovery and renewal from Covid-19.
As set out in the manifesto, the Government intend to introduce the UK shared prosperity fund to replace EU structural funds. Defra officials are working closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which leads on its development, to ensure that its design takes account of the dynamics of rural economies and the challenges faced by rural communities. The final decisions about the quantum and design of future socioeconomic funding will take place after the upcoming cross-government spending review.
With these assurances, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I have received no requests for further short questions. Accordingly, I call the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond.
I thank the Minister for her full and thorough response, and all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. All I would add at this stage is that the Minister consider further whether there is anything in this space which could be considered for Third Reading. The Agriculture Bill provides a real opportunity to focus on such an important bedrock—as important as the soil will be the fibre which enables food to grow, economic development and the social and psychological well-being for farmers all across our rural communities. So I urge her to consider whether there is anything that can be brought at Third Reading. Also, will she consider convening a round table with colleagues from DCMS to see whether there are any further specific support ideas that can be deployed in this space? I once again thank noble Lords who participated and the Minister for her full response, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 44A withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 45. I remind noble Lords that Members, other than the mover and the Minister, may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this amendment, or anything else in this group, to a Division should make this clear in debate.