The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has launched a major inquiry into broadband provision in rural areas as more public services become digital by default.
From January 2015, all applications for the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Single Payment Scheme will have to be made online, and the Rural Payments Agency has committed to providing “additional support” for customers who can’t access the internet, those who feel they lack the appropriate skills, and those who do not even own a computer.
Because of this push to online only, concern has grown that many farmers in parts of the UK that have not yet been reached by the BDUK rural broadband project will be left out.
The inquiry, which is open to submissions until 19 November 2014, will examine how the BDUK scheme – managed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – is meeting the government’s universal access commitment in providing superfast broadband to 95% of UK premises by 2017.
The committee has invited written evidence on the extent of broadband availability in the hardest-to-reach areas, digital access and experience of digital-only services – such as CAP applications – and what kind of support is being made available to those required to use such services.
Broadband campaign group the Shropshire and Marches Campaign for Better Rural Broadband – which cut its links with Shropshire Council in October in frustration over BDUK funding – said it would be advocating for a moratorium on contracting for rural broadband by all BDUK-funded authorities that had not yet contracted BT to provide the second phase of the rollout.
In an email to members, the group said the moratorium should remain in place until the committee of MPs published its findings and recommendations.
Rural campaign organisation, the Countryside Alliance, welcomed the inquiry. Policy head Sarah Lee said 20,000 of the UK’s 100,000-plus farmers had no internet access or insufficient broadband speeds to be able to make their Basic Payment Scheme applications online.
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“The farming industry has been working closely with the government and the Rural Payments Agency to ensure no-one is left behind,” said Lee, “but we would like assurance from Defra that these 20,000 farmers will not be penalised for a lack of digital connectivity if they fail to apply for their Basic Payment Scheme by May 2015.”
Digital economy minister Ed Vaizey said he understood the frustrations of those who felt left out, but argued it was unrealistic to not push government services online.
“We are a nation of adopters of technology, we are one of the leading e-commerce nations in the world because of people being comfortable in this country using websites to transact,” said Vaizey. “So you can’t stop the economy and say I want to get off.”