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.