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Rural Mobile Coverage

Volume 584: debated on Thursday 17 July 2014

I start by paying tribute to my predecessor, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who did so much to champion British food and farming, improve the environment and promote rural growth.

Mobile coverage is vital for rural businesses and households, and 99% of premises already receive 2G coverage. Our 3G mobile data coverage is better than that of many other European countries. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I will be working hard to eradicate not-spots.

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new position. I hope she will ensure that the excellent work she was doing to encourage girls and boys into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects will be continued by the new Minister.

The Prime Minister seems recently to have discovered that it can be quite difficult to get decent mobile coverage in Devon—well, bully for him. Is it not the case, however, that this Government’s abandonment of our universal coverage principle, as well as the bungling of the broadband roll-out, represents a betrayal of the rural economy of absolutely epic proportions?

I thank the hon. Lady for her congratulations. I am still passionate about science and maths, and getting more women into those areas and indeed into agriculture. Getting more high-skilled people to look at agriculture as a career option would provide a fantastic opportunity. We are investing £150 million in the mobile infrastructure project to help address those areas of low mobile coverage at the moment.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her position and very much look forward to her appearing before the Select Committee. From 1 January, all farm payments will have to be digital by default. In Thirsk and Malton, 22% will have no fast-speed coverage, yet that just happens to be where all the farmers are. Will she hold out a hand of friendship to those farmers to ensure that they can access broadband for their farm payments?

I will be delighted to work with the hon. Lady and the Select Committee; I am very much looking forward to that. We know that 70% of farmers are already processing their payments online. She is absolutely right that some do not have access to online payments at the moment, which is why the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who has responsibility for farming, is making centres available that will be able to advise those farmers and help them get online.

I, too, welcome the hon. Lady to her new position and look forward to her appearance before the Select Committee. We know from the report on rural broadband that we carried out last year that the lack of adequate broadband has been identified repeatedly as one of the key barriers to growth in rural economies. In view of the fact that so much money was allocated to England and to the devolved Administrations, what assessment has been carried out of its effectiveness, given that for topographical reasons many rural areas have not yet received their access?

I agree with the hon. Lady about the vital importance of broadband for rural businesses in this country and for exports, which I am passionate about promoting. We know that the extent of broadband coverage has increased significantly from 45% of premises in 2010 to 75% now. I agree that we need to do more, which is why I am working on that along with my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on her promotion to the Cabinet. I was pleased when the Government gave £150 million to the mobile infrastructure project, but have been disappointed at the lack of progress in my own constituency so far. Will she please make it one of her early tasks to look at that project and do whatever she can to speed up progress on it, which is vital?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Promoting rural growth certainly will be one of my main priorities, and I believe mobile coverage and broadband coverage are both vital to that objective.