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Wed, 21 October 2020

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Our farmers deserve the digital infrastructure to grow their business and thrive in a technological world

Our farmers deserve the digital infrastructure to grow their business and thrive in a technological world

The Agriculture Bill amendment would add 'broadband connectivity and digital literacy' to transform the lives of those who do so much to keep us fed, writes Lord Holmes | PA Images

4 min read

Our farmers have been on the front line throughout this Covid crisis, let's return the service by delivering an Agriculture Bill that addresses the shocking lack of digital infrastructure and skills in the countryside.

Imagine no mobile signal, no internet, no broadband.

An extreme irritation that we may all experience from time to time. Imagine this though, the reality for some. No connectivity at all. This is the day in day out reality for thousands of our farmers and those in rural communities across the country. 

No ability to get online to conduct business, make orders, connect with suppliers, customers or the tax man, never mind friends and wider family.

It is for this reason - and the negative social, psychological and economic consequences that arise from it - that I took the opportunity presented by the Agriculture Bill to try and make this parlous position a thing of the past.

The Agriculture Bill is currently passing committee stage in the Lords and is, rightly, attracting significant interest. It is the most important piece of legislation concerning these issues in at least half a century with significant implications for future food supply, security and trade arrangements as well as - I hope – addressing the shocking lack of digital infrastructure and skills in the countryside.

We must demonstrate that “we are all in this together” means enabling those living and working in our rural communities to get the internet access they have a right to

Our farmers have been on the front line throughout this Covid crisis and continue to produce delicious fruit, veg, dairy and more. 

They continue to serve their country and, through the Agriculture Bill, we can do them a service in return: high speed reliable broadband and a clear picture of levels of digital literacy along with a plan to improve it.

The National Farmers Union annual connectivity survey for 2019 found 15% of respondents reported having no indoor signal at all and just 36% reported that they had access to sufficient broadband speeds for their business.

Since the survey began in 2015 there has been a slight increase in outdoor locations with a reliable service (up 3%) yet also, shockingly, an increase of 2% in respondents with no coverage at all.

Extraordinarily, farmers are advised by the Government to get online by using the local library.

I’m not sure, quiet as it is, that it’s necessarily the place you would want to lay out all of your tax and financial details. Also, I can imagine many seeking to heed the advice only to turn up at their local library to find it closed down.

This is clearly unacceptable for the future ready agriculture sector that we need and is the reason I moved an amendment under clause 16 ‘support for rural development’ that would add “broadband connectivity and digital literacy” to the list in Annex IV of the Regulations.

This amendment was introduced and debated on Tuesday 21st July and I was pleased that it received cross party support across the chamber.

Earlier this year the Government’s response to the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee report “An Update on Rural Connectivity” said they “intend to commit £5 billion” and offered “in-principle support for a shared rural network”. My amendment offers the opportunity to convert that support from “intended” and “in principle” to practical reality.

I believe that the amendment would transform the lives of those who do so much to keep us fed.

They have been on the front line during the Covid crisis and will continue to be on the frontline - providing us with superb quality and a secure food supply - as we continue to live with Covid and face also the impact of Brexit.

We need to invest now in giving them the best chance of using technology to grow their businesses and thrive in the digital world. 

We must demonstrate that “we are all in this together” means enabling those living and working in our rural communities to get the internet access they have a right to and the necessary skills to thrive online. 

We must create the conditions so that our farmers have the confidence online to match that which is so ably demonstrated in every other aspect of their businesses.

 

Lord Holmes is a non-affiliated peer in the House of Lords.

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