Amendment 44A

Part of Agriculture Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 17th September 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 2:45 pm, 17th September 2020

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.