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Government pushing crucial services online before rural Britain is ready

Tuesday, February 10th 2015 by Dean Reilly

Farmers, rural landowners and residents could miss out on digital-only government services due to poor broadband, a cross-party committee of MPs has warned.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which examines the expenditure, administration and policies of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said the “variable state of broadband access in rural areas” could cause problems.

Speaking ahead of the publication of the report, committee chair Anne McIntosh (Con, Thirsk and Malton), told Cable.co.uk: “It’s not just business. It’s school homework, it's finances, it’s council tax.

"If you cannot download without interruption – and I think this is the test – if you cannot download a film or programme to the iPlayer, then you haven’t got the capability to fill in a farm payment form.

“It’s absolutely crucial that people recognise this. My area is not as bad as some areas. For example in Devon and Somerset there’s 70% without the capability. But that leaves precisely the areas where there are farms, the homes, the rural businesses. So in my area 18% will not have the coverage.”

'Difficulties experienced'

Miss McIntosh, who previously told Cable.co.uk that a UK-wide universal service commitment of 2Mbps broadband is “already outdated”, reiterated the need for alternative plans for rural business owners and residents.

She said: “We do congratulate the RPA (Rural Payments Agency) for the in-roads they’ve made. But we’re being realistic and saying they have to have a contingency for those who are in danger of missing deadlines.

“They’ve told us that this has been tried and tested, it’s used across the continent, that they’ve pushed it to the limit. But we know with a new system there’s always the possibility that it will go wrong.”

The ‘Defra performance in 2013–14’ report credited the RPA, which manages the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) schemes in England, for taking a number of important steps to ensure those with poor broadband speeds can access new CAP application software.

However, the committee repeated its previous findings by adding: “Given the difficulties experienced with previous CAP schemes, and in particular given the variable state of broadband access in rural areas, we reserved judgment on the effectiveness of its preparations until they had been tested in action.”

It continued: “We also recommended that the RPA had a contingency plan in place in case the new CAP application system proved difficult for farmers with limited broadband capability to use and to enable it to respond to the software not functioning at the level required.”

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