Speech : Taking Scotland Forward

25 May 2016

I, too, congratulate the new members who are making their first speeches.

Connectivity is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Scottish Labour led the charge for better connectivity; it has continued to campaign for that over the past decade and to see the improvement through.

Those campaigns have resulted in projects such as the Highlands and Islands programme being rolled out.

That programme was supposed to deliver 84 per cent coverage by the end of the current phase. If we contrast that with the First Minister’s assertion that more than 85 per cent of Scotland is covered, we c an see the difference between rural and urban coverage.

The SNP has been in power for nine years.

It promised 95 per cent coverage by 2017, but there is not a hope of achieving that promise.

When the figures are broken down geographically, we see a huge di sparity many rural areas are much less likely to be connected and some have rates that are not even close to 50 per cent.

The Scotland - wide figures hide the unmet rural need for connectivity. We need a strong strategy that will target the hard - to - reach are as.

We know that BT, which is the preferred contractor, operates only through fibre and copper, but we need a mix of technologies to get to remote and rural communities.

Some communities are doing things for themselves strong rural communities are raising funds and some are even installing the technology themselves.

That is positive, but what about the less active communities? Will those outside towns or those that have no natural leaders be left behind?

We need to rethink how we deliver broadband in those areas. What about a social enterprise, set up with the intention to deliver to the more remote regions?

We must ensure that BT, which has received huge amounts of public money, facilitates and supports those communities rather than puts barriers in their way.

The second phase of the broadband project is now being contracted. We need much more priority to be given to rural areas - the areas of market failure.

It is hard to understand why areas that would be served by the market receive Government funding while those that are not are forced to wait.

How much, for example, will the Highlands and Islands get to continue the roll - out of broadband in comparison with those in urban Scotland?

Rural areas have the most to gain by being connected in terms of addressing the population decline and the economic, telehealth, educational and social benefits.

We have not started to reap the benefits of telehealth.

Recently, I was told by an 80 - year - old constituent that she paid £100 for a taxi to access a hospital appointment.

If it is too expensive to offer transport to that patient, why on earth was she not offered a telehealth appointment instead, saving her and the health board a huge amount of money?

Education also has much to gain. When I went to high school, I lived away from home.

Fortunately, fewer young people are being asked to do that, but it is still the case that in some places young people choose to travel to access education because the range of education on offer locally is not what they need for their future ca reers.

Surely good broadband can allow children to study closer to home by accessing online classes that are not available locally, giving them the same opportunity as others without forcing them away from their homes?

Without broadband the rural economy s uffers.

How can people complete their CAP forms online if they do not have broadband access? That brings me to the absolute debacle of the CAP payments.

It is unbelievable that a Government — with plenty of notice — cannot set up a computer system that will wo rk.

While the Audit Scotland report highlighted worrying procurement procedures and conflicts, more worrying is what will happen to the farmers and the crofters who are at the mercy of the system.

They have been given loan payments to tide them over — whethe r or not they wanted them, in some cases — but what will happen when their claims are not processed in time to pay off the loans?

Will they have to pay interest? Will they lose their subsidy?

If the EU penalises the Scottish Government, which budgets will be hit?

What happens to those who, because of the situation that they are in, then fall foul of state aid rules? All those questions need to be answered. So, too, do the central questions: what on earth is the Government going to do to make the system work a nd what checks and balances are in place in the system to make it happen?

I am grateful that the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity took time this morning to speak to Opposition spokespeople.

We will work with him to sort out the problems , but they are urgent and something must happen.

I am honoured to be given the Scottish Labour Party’s brief on the rural economy and connectivity.

The health of the rural economy is intertwined with the progress of connectivity, and everything that we do depends on that being delivered quickly.