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Rural Related Politics - An RSN weekly review

27 April 2020

Below is an RSN review of last week's rural related politics as well as a look forward to the week ahead:

Last week in politics 
(20 April -  26 April)

On Wednesday 22nd, in a debate on Telecommunications Bill, Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab) raised the need to improve the country’s infrastructure and to ensure the universal availability of broadband for everyone, regardless of whether they live in urban ?or rural areas, in their own houses or—the focus of the Bill—in shared dwellings.

COVID-19 update

- On Tuesday 21st April, Jesse Norman MP (Con) answered Mary Kelly Foy’s MP (Lab) question on whether the Treasury plans to extend the small business grant funding of £10,000 for all business in receipt of small business rate relief or rural rate relief to charities in receipt of charity rate relief. Jesse Norman said that the Government has provided a comprehensive, coordinated and coherent package of measures to support all businesses through this period of disruption caused by COVID-19, including one-off grants for small businesses that pay little or no business rates because of small business rate relief or rural rate relief, to help meet their continuing business costs.

- On Wednesday 22nd April, in the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee session scrutinising Secretary of State Oliver Dowden, Julie Elliot MP (Lab) raised the issue of vulnerable people who do not have access to online resources. She asked how many households are expected to get digitally connected in the next few months. She also raised the issue of superfast broadband and gigabit enabled full fibre broadband delivery not working in some areas. Permanent Secretary at DCMS Sarah Healey responded that the Department has been working with telecommunications companies to identify vulnerable people and investing in superfast broadband is helping people access this. It is also working with charities to get tablets and computer donations to vulnerable families.

Also on Wednesday, in a debate on COVID-19 Response, Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP (Con) referenced the importance of home testing kits, which will be available through the post. He said that ‘especially in more rural areas, this might be one of the most effective ways of people accessing testing’.

Also on Wednesday, the Government launched an effort to tackle loneliness and social isolation during the outbreak and period of social distancing. The new #Let’sTalkLoneliness public campaign aims to get people talking openly about loneliness, and includes new public guidance offering useful tips and advice on what to do to look after yourself and others safely. In a wide-ranging cross-Government and cross-sector plan, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has also announced that:

  • Smaller, community-based organisations in England helping people to stay connected in local communities will benefit from being a priority category of the £750 million package of support for charities announced by the Chancellor on 8th
  • National loneliness organisations will be allocated £5 million worth of funding to continue and adapt their work at this time.
  • Loneliness charities including Age UK will be supported to work with NHS Volunteer Responders in their communities.

- On Thursday 23rd April, the DCMS Committee announced it is widening the scope of its inquiry into Broadband and the road to 5G, inviting evidence submissions on the impact of COVID-19 on the roll-out of full-fibre and 5G infrastructure, including any differences being experienced in different parts of the UK. The deadline for submitting evidence has also been extended to Friday 19th June. The inquiry will cover how realistic the Government’s ambition of nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, and what measures (regulatory, financial, technical, other) will be needed to achieve it. It will ask what needs to happen to ensure the Government’s ‘outside in’ approach successfully addresses the digital divide while also delivering value for money, and also what will be the impact on individuals and communities whose broadband and mobile connectivity fails to keep pace with the rest of the country over the next 10 years.

Also on Thursday, Business Secretary Alok Sharma MP (Con) announced that high street shops and other companies under strain will be protected from aggressive rent collection and asked to pay what they can during the coronavirus pandemic. Statutory demands and winding up petitions issued to commercial tenants will be temporarily voided and changes will made to the use of Commercial Rent Arrears Recovery, building on measures already introduced in the Coronavirus Act. Moreover, landlords and investors will be asked to work collaboratively with high street businesses unable to pay their bills during the pandemic.

- On Friday 27th April, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps MP (Con) presented the Government’s daily virtual press conference on COVID-19. Mr Shapps stated that the continued operations of passenger and freight transport is critically important to the UK’s resilience, and announced a new package of measures to ensure that the transport sector boosts the national response to COVID-19. This includes up to £17 million in funding to ensure ferry routes between England and Northern Ireland are kept running, as well as £10.5 million for links to the Isle of White and Scilly Isles. Mr Shapps also said that Network Rail will be making regional centres available to support the testing effort, and that this work is now underway.

- On Saturday 25th April, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick MP (Con) has praised councils for ensuring that the vast majority of parks are open ahead of the weekend, so more people can get outside for exercise safely. He welcomed the reopening of parks across the country following his request at last Saturday’s Downing Street press conference, while stressing that people must continue to observe social distancing.

- On Sunday 26th April, Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs George Eustice MP (Con) stated that food availability now is back to normal levels and has been for several weeks, with the food supply chain also experiencing a significant reduction in staff absence over recent weeks. He also noted that so far, 500,000 food parcels have been delivered to individuals within the shielded group, that is those who cannot leave home at all due to a clinical condition that they have.

Also on Sunday, the Government unveiled a network of mobile testing units to respond to areas of highest demand, travelling to test frontline workers and the most vulnerable at sites including care homes, police stations and prisons. The number of new mobile units is being scaled up after a successful pilot last week, which saw Department of Health and Social Care vehicles refitted to fully functioning testing sites, following a design developed by the Royal Engineers of the British Army. There are 8 existing mobile units carrying out tests across the country, including in Salisbury, Southport and Teesside.

This week in politics 
(27 April -  3 May)
  • The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee holds its first virtual evidence session into the financial and service delivery impact of COVID-19 on local authorities on Monday 27th The session with the LGA and other local government representatives will examine the impact that the COVID-19 crisis has had on local government finance and its ability to provide vital services. The session will examine the immediate funding needs for local authorities to provide critical services, following significant drops in revenue over recent months. It will also look at the pressures on individual services, including social care, homelessness and bereavement services. Also on Monday, the Education Committee will host an oral evidence session on Accountability hearings, with Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector from Ofsted, and Matthew Coffey, Chief Operating Officer from Ofsted.
  • On Tuesday 28th April, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will have an oral questions session in the House of Commons.
  • On Wednesday 29th April, the Education Committee will have an oral evidence session in the House of Commons on the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson MP.
  • On Thursday 30th April, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee will have an oral evidence session on the impact of COVID-19 on businesses and workers, with Philip King, Interim Small Business Commissioner, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Martin McTague, National Vice Chair Policy and Advocacy, Federation of Small Businesses and Adam Marshall, Director General, British Chambers of Commerce.


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