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Broadband: Rural Businesses

Volume 609: debated on Thursday 5 May 2016

9. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of slow broadband services on farmers and other rural businesses. (904830)

Broadband is, of course, essential to farmers so that they can gain access to the latest precision farming techniques; to schoolchildren so that they can gain access to educational tools; and to small rural businesses so that they can overcome variance of distance and reach customers and markets that they would not otherwise be able to reach. That is why, from January this year, we have guaranteed a minimum of 2 megabits per second, with Government backing, and we aspire to reach 10 megabits per second by 2020 through a universal service obligation.

The Public Accounts Committee concluded that “digital focus” for the CAP delivery programme was “clearly inappropriate” because of poor broadband service in so many rural areas. Indeed, the Committee’s Chair said that the programme was “an appalling Whitehall fiasco” that should have focused on the needs of farmers, rather than ending up as a digital testing ground that caused payments to farmers to be severely delayed. What commitments will the Minister give to guarantee that farmers will receive the service that they deserve from broadband providers and the United Kingdom Government?

Some of those issues relate directly to farming and the Rural Payments Agency, but let me deal with the point about broadband, which is relevant to my part of the Department. We have made two separate commitments. First, if any farmer in the constituency of any Member wishes to gain access to a 2 meg connection that would provide access to Government databases, our grant scheme will provide the necessary infrastructure. Secondly, we have made a commitment to a 10 meg service through the universal service obligation.

During a very constructive meeting with the Secretary of State, the Church of England’s representatives offered the use of church towers and spires to extend broadband and mobile phone coverage in rural areas. Will the Minister update the House on progress?

Church spires are ideally located in remote rural areas to allow point-to-point broadband coverage and good cellular coverage. The offer from the Church Commissioners is greatly appreciated, and we are working closely with our colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to take advantage of the technological opportunities.