A campaign by Farmers Weekly for better rural broadband has been praised in parliament.

The Battling For Broadband campaign aims to improve rural access to the faster broadband speeds enjoyed by people and businesses in larger towns and cities.

Two million people in the UK have poor broadband access, with 166,000 people living in areas where there is not broadband access at all.

The campaign was praised by shadow DEFRA minister Huw Irranca-Davies during a Westminster Hall debate about rural communities on Tuesday (17 April).

Government ministers professed the “critical need” to enhance UK food security yet many farmers were unable to fill in forms online, he told MPs.

“Rural living and working have many advantages, particularly if remote working and advances in remote communications can be harnessed,” said Mr Irranca-Davies.

“I commend the Farmers Weekly ‘Battling for Broadband’ campaign”
Shadow DEFRA minister Huw Irranca-Davies

But an emerging digital divide was putting a brake on rural economic development because of poor internet connections, which was inhibiting rural business potential.

Farmers have difficulty completing online forms because of broadband not-spots and slow broadband speeds, said Mr Irranca-Davies.

“In that respect, I commend the Farmers Weekly ‘Battling for Broadband’ campaign,” he said.

“Is the [government] worried about the potential for a growing digital divide between superfast urban areas and super-slow remote rural economies?

“The latter could benefit so much more from good broadband access.”

In response, junior DEFRA minister Richard Benyon lay the blame at the door of the previous Labour government, when Mr Irranca-Davies was a DEFRA minister.

“The Rural Payments Agency encouraged farmers to fill in their forms online,” said Mr Benyon.

“A lot of farmers live in areas where there is lamentable or no broadband signal, so they ended up having to take their forms down to the pub on a memory stick to download their data to the RPA.

“That is one of many past examples of how not to do policy, and it also shows why broadband is so important.”

Mr Benyon said it was the government’s ambition that someone who lived in a remote part of the countryside had access to fast broadband speeds as easily as someone in a city.

“That is our ambition,” he said. “DEFRA has rolled out a rural broadband fund to try to get to those hardest-to-reach groups.”

“Our commitment to have the best broadband across the country by 2015 is on track and it is important that we continue to maintain DEFRA’s role in reaching the hardest-to-reach groups of people.”

Supporters of the Battling for Broadband campaign are being encouraged to take action to increase broadband speeds, raise awareness of the issue and write to their MP.

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