The announcement of Environment and Rural Affairs Select Committee enquiry into “Rural broadband and digital only services” should be just in time to spur government into joined up action before the start of the 2015 Election Purdah.The terms of reference put debate over rural broadband into the context of the demands of the Rural Payments Agency that access to its services be digital by default . The absurdity of these demands (and lack of practical attention to the means of delivering “assisted digital” to those without adequate on-line access) has just been compounded by the decision to force farmers to also use the new Government Verify Service instead of the Government Gateway accounts they use for tax purposes. The consequences of this decision were all too predictable. It should also be remembered that the pilots are the stalking horse for the Cabinet Office attempt to force millions of small firms and all those who make individual tax claims, to similarly move from the Government Gateway, instead of simply offering them the new service as an alternative.
It is as though those taking the decisions concerned are closet UKIP supporters determined to “take-out” not only the current Government’s rural MPs but also the digital by default enthusiasts of the opposition. Or is it merely a short term ploy to help meet DEFRA‘s targeted spending cuts – by making it impossible for farmers to claim anything in the period to March 31st 2015.
Either way, it signifies political disaster for the Government – even before we begin to consider the implications for all those, other than farmers, who live in rural areas who are losing their buses, post offices, market town bank branches – for whom this is clearly the thin end of a very big wedge threatening to exclude them from public services … and drive them into the arms of UKIP.
I therefore urge all those with friends and relatives living in rural not-spots (who will not be aware of the Select Committee enquiry because they are unable to browse the web in the first place) to let them know of opportunity to make their views known before November 19th and to offer to email submissions for them if they cannot get on-line to do so themselves.
I also suggest that All Party Rural Services Group, SPARSE, ACRE, the Countryside Alliance and Country Land and Business offer to collate the views of their members and supporters and that the Federation of Small Businesses offers to collate the views of their 100,000 or so rural members.
P.S. I would also like to take this opportunity to promote a modest suggestion to make it easier for those in rural areas to deal with all those offering to help them via the growing plethora of fragmented grant and loan schemes: The Gov.UK Unified Grant Applications Form (GAF1) . The “business case” is obvious. The only credible argument against is the job preservation of those who want to be seen to be doing something, even if only wasting the time of everyone else, but do not actually have much, if any, money to give out.