2 Rushanara Ali debates involving the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport

Tackling the Digital Divide

Rushanara Ali Excerpts
Thursday 4th November 2021

(2 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali (in the Chair)
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Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate. This is in line with the Government’s guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have covid lateral flow tests twice a week—I am sure you all have. You can do that at home or on the parliamentary estate, and you can pick up tests here to take home. Please also give each other enough space when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber.

Stephen Timms Portrait Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of tackling the digital divide.

I am delighted to be serving under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Ali. It strikes me, and I am pleased to see, that with you, me and the Minister, we have strong east London representation in the Chamber today. I am also pleased that the Work and Pensions Committee is strongly represented in the debate. I think there is a significant crossover between the digital divide and the concerns the Committee has been engaged with.

Let me begin with a tribute to the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), who is chair of the all-party parliamentary group for broadband and digital communication—I am the vice-chair of that group. Before her recent well-deserved promotion, she was the sponsor—the initiator—of this debate. She is not able to lead on it, given her current position, but I am pleased to have the opportunity to do so as a rather poor substitute.

As we all know, there has been dramatic progress in getting people online since March of last year. Lloyds Bank’s UK consumer digital index, published in May, reported:

“In the last 12 months, 1.5 million more people have started using the Internet, resulting in 95% now being online… We have made five years’ worth of progress in one”.

It has been a pretty dramatic change. The report makes the point that it is

“well evidenced that people using digital tools and services have a real advantage”.

It also points out that digital skills have moved from being an advantage to being a necessity during the pandemic.

The fact that so many have come newly online is an opportunity for us to build on. But 2.6 million people still are not online. Ofcom reported in July that 2 million households struggle with the cost of broadband or smartphone services, with some staying offline as a result of those cost barriers. Ten million people also lack basic digital skills.

I am sorry to say that the Government’s digital inclusion strategy has not been updated since 2014. It is high time that it was. The topic has not had the priority in Government that I hope it will have in the period ahead. I warmly welcome the Minister to her post, which she took up relatively recently. I hope that in winding up the debate she will be able to hold out the prospect of new priority being given to digital inclusion and of policies enabling real progress on it in the period ahead.

The Good Things Foundation focuses its impressive range of programmes on the digital divide. Its document “A blueprint to fix the digital divide”, published in September, identifies three requirements. No.1 is digital skills, No. 2 is community support and No. 3 is affordable internet, and I will use those three headings in my remarks.

First, on digital skills, progress is very important for levelling up. The Lloyds Bank report pointed out that people using digital services are

“more likely to build their savings reserves, find new ways to save money and can more easily find and access new information, plus manage their well-being”.

We might add that they can also more readily look for a job, apply for universal credit and manage their universal credit account online.

There is a real levelling-up challenge here. Whereas, according to Ofcom, fewer than 21% of people in London are limited internet users, that proportion is almost twice as high—38%—in the north-east, the region represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who is the shadow Front Bencher for this afternoon’s debate. The other nations and regions fall between those two figures, and within regions levels of engagement are much lower among benefit claimants than among other people. I hope that digital inclusion and the development of digital skills will be supported by the UK shared prosperity fund, and that the Government will support local initiatives to tackle the problem, such as Andy Street’s digital catch-up programme in the west midlands to help those who cannot use the internet to learn digital skills, and Andy Burnham’s ambition for Greater Manchester, which is to help all people who are 25 and under, over 75 or disabled to get online.

The Government’s entitlement for people to get full funding for essential digital skills qualifications is welcome, but we need to go further. Level 1 qualifications are not meeting the needs of local employers, while those who stand to gain the most are least likely to engage if they do not first get informal, community-based help. Age is the biggest determinant, with older people less likely to have digital skills. Age UK reports that in the first quarter of this calendar year 40% of over-75s and 12% of 65 to 74-year-olds had not used the internet in the previous three months. However, there is also a big group of younger people who need help. Ofcom’s 2021 technology tracker research found that among school-aged children—those aged between four and 18—eight in 10 had access to an appropriate device at home all of the time, enabling them to connect to the internet for online schoolwork or learning as needed. Of the remainder, 13% had access some of the time, but 2% rarely had access and 2% never had access, meaning that a significant group of school-age children are fully excluded.

Over a fifth of the respondents to a survey quoted in a Vodafone report on the UK’s digital divide last month did not have the software in their household to complete their work, education or leisure pursuits. We also need to reflect on the digital skills that more and more people in work are going to have to acquire, and the Government’s lifetime skills guarantee needs to address that issue directly. techUK has highlighted the gap between, on the one hand, the upsurge in demand for digitally skilled workers in areas such as coding and, on the other, the limited opportunities to retrain in those fields, with a need for immediate action to close that growing digital skills gap. By 2030, it is estimated that nine out of 10 workers are going to need to learn new skills to do their job, at a cost of well over £1 billion a year.

That brings us to the second area, community support. Helen Milner, the chief executive of the Good Things Foundation, has called for support to develop

“a national network of at least 10,000 trusted places where people can get community help with digital inclusion—reaching into villages, towns and cities, and supporting COVID-19 recovery.”

A very good example of such a place is Skills Enterprise, a charity based in Bonny Downs Baptist Church in my constituency and founded in 2006 by the energetic social entrepreneur Malathy Muthu. It is a small but very effective training provider, which quickly reorganised for the pandemic to stop people who were already digitally excluded being further isolated. The Good Things Foundation helped by providing devices that Skills Enterprise could distribute through its DevicesDotNow partnership with FutureDotNow, which raised over £1.5 million nationally to supply devices and data. Skills Enterprise used those devices to ensure that people who would not otherwise have been able to get online could do so during the pandemic.

The number of service users Skills Enterprise supported increased by 50% during the pandemic, and it is now supporting 160 people. I presented certificates to a number of them on a visit last month. It has helped people who were setting up businesses, who were home-schooling, or who were simply having to self-isolate—showing them how to download and use things such as Zoom. Skills Enterprise has helped people with online shopping and banking, and it has helped a large number of people to apply for universal credit, as applications became online-only during the pandemic. It found that virtual form-filling sessions typically lasted around three hours over the telephone for applicants who were not digitally confident and who needed to be talked through the process of applying for universal credit. I am pleased to say that Skills Enterprise has worked with Jobcentre Plus as well. Two people were able to save £300 a year after Skills Enterprise helped them to switch energy providers online, and 23 people it has worked with have found jobs during the pandemic thanks to the acquisition of new digital skills.

Skills Enterprise is an example of exactly the kind of place that the Good Things Foundation rightly says we need across the country. It is having a positive local impact, but there are not enough centres like that around. Funding from central Government is needed urgently to deploy digital champions around the country and to support grassroots organisations to address the divide.

The third area is affordable internet. The scaling back of the Government’s ambitions for connectivity has been a big disappointment. The Government started with a target of 100% fibre by 2025. That was downgraded to 100% gigabit by 2025, and then down again to 85% gigabit by 2025. We are now falling further behind the rest of Europe, and we really should be doing better. Some £5 billion has been provided, but I understand that only a fraction of that will now be invested by 2025; the rest will not be invested until later.

Openreach has estimated that a nationwide full-fibre deployment could add £59 billion to the UK economy by 2025. With growth so elusive in the economy and the Chancellor forecasting that it will be down to 1.3% by the end of his forecast period, that sort of growth is a prize that we cannot afford to forgo.

The Government’s shared rural network scheme aims to provide 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025. I think Vodafone has announced coverage of two Welsh villages under the scheme, but I do not know of any other announcements on increasing coverage that have been made by UK mobile operators as part of this initiative. Will the Minister update us on its progress and on whether there are prospects for more such projects in the near future?

The universal service obligation, launched by the Government in March, which I welcome, allows rural households to demand connectivity from BT, but some of that connectivity might have a very high price indeed, with reports of 60,000 households being charged up to £100,000 each in order to gain the access being provided. Will the Minister give us some reassurance that the access that the USO ensures will be affordable, and will she give an indication of the extent to which the USO has been effective in extending access in the first six months or so of its operation? I commend the work of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, which has set out a range of ideas for steps that the Government can take to increase access in the hardest-to-reach areas, and I hope Ministers will take those ideas forward.

The price to users is a major issue. Households with the lowest incomes spend nearly four times more as a proportion of their disposable income on fixed broadband than the average. Ofcom reports that at least 100,000 households, and possibly many more, are unlikely to gain internet access in the next year because of the price they would have to pay to get it. Ofcom research also found that 4% of families with school-age children relied solely on mobile devices during the pandemic.

I welcome the efforts of telcos and others with innovative partnerships and new social tariffs. TalkTalk’s partnership with the Department for Work and Pensions provides eligible jobseekers with an uncapped broadband service for six months to help them search for jobs, with the DWP paying the fixed cost of the connection and TalkTalk offering the service on a not-for-profit basis. I welcome that imaginative approach and the partnership that has been established.

Vodafone has a buy one, give one scheme in partnership with the Trussell Trust, which I also welcome. BT, Community Fibre, Hyperoptic, KCOM, Virgin Media and VOXI each offer at least one targeted tariff with unlimited internet access, priced with varying degrees of affordability. Some are priced at £10 per month, which is very good, and some at rather more than that. Is the Minister keeping under consideration the possibility of imposing a requirement for social tariffs on all providers?

There is clearly a great deal more to be done on this front. After the pandemic, there can be little dispute about the central place of digital inclusion in any programme for levelling up. The pandemic has rapidly accelerated take-up, but it has also deepened the disadvantage experienced by those who do not yet have digital access. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the House that the Government recognise the crucial importance of this issue and that she will prioritise making progress on it in the spending review period ahead.

Covid-19: Support for UK Industries

Rushanara Ali Excerpts
Thursday 25th June 2020

(4 years ago)

Commons Chamber
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Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers
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I do agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. They are more heavily impacted and I hope it will be possible to have a sector-specific scheme for them.

I was about to turn to exactly that point—the arts, events, theatre, performance, musicians, actors and creators. With no date set for the resumption of events and performances in theatres or music venues, this crucial part of our economy could be the hardest hit of all of them. The future of our regional theatres in particular looks perilous. Adrian Vinken, chief executive of the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, wrote in the Daily Mail today:

“The entire performing arts industry is…facing oblivion. This is not only a human and economic disaster—it is a cultural catastrophe.”

As we heard from the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) , the insecure and sporadic nature of jobs in the industry means that many workers fall within the gaps in the Government’s covid intervention package. This includes, typically, freelancers who get part of their income through PAYE and part of their income through self-employment. They may not have been in their PAYE contract at the right time to be furloughed, and they may not earn enough of their income from self-employment to qualify for the self-employment income support scheme. As well as considering further funding support for those workers and sectors, we must have a clear plan to get theatres and venues open and to get events starting again, as has been managed in countries such as South Korea.

It is also really important to reflect on aviation, which, as the petitions highlight, is also hard hit. We need the air bridges in action. Blanket quarantine requirements will make it a hundred times more difficult for aviation to recover, and it is hard to understand the need for quarantine for people coming from places that have fewer covid cases than we do. I appeal to the Minister for a risk-based approach on quarantine so that travel can start up again and we listen to the petitioners who are demanding help and support for aviation.

Our nurseries and childcare are also mentioned in the petition. I welcome the extension of the business rates holiday, directly implementing one of the demands of petitioners, but Ministers need a firm and funded plan to support the sector in the long term. The early years stage of education is crucial in determining life chances, and if we are to deliver on our promises on social mobility and respond to legitimate concerns on equality of opportunity, we need to help nursery and childcare providers through this crisis and ensure that they are on a stable footing for the long term, including restoring funding for maintained nursery schools.

Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)
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Does the right hon. Lady agree with me and the Treasury Committee that the Government, unfortunately, have left out more than 1 million people through the job retention scheme who are struggling? Many of them are freelancers working in the theatre sector and others—there are new starters who are suffering. We need to make sure that they get support they need, alongside the many things that she is talking about.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers
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I certainly acknowledge that the Treasury Committee identified gaps in provision. Unfortunately, a number of my constituents fall into those gaps, so I hope that there may be further help, but more importantly, we have to get the economy opened up again so that people can start earning a living in a normal way.

On zoos and aquariums, I welcome the grants of up to £100,000 offered by the Government to get them through the crisis, again responding directly to the e-petition. I pay tribute to the dedicated work of zoo staff, many of whom went the extra mile to look after the animals in their care, despite lockdown.

Whether it is zoos or nurseries, theatres or airports, hospitality or wholesale, the best shot in the arm the Government can give all these sectors is to let them open for business again. It was, therefore, an immense relief to hear from the Prime Minister that the 1 metre rule, with safeguards, will be introduced in England from 4 July. I have been advocating this for weeks as the only way to save our pubs and hospitality, travel and tourism businesses—and the only way to save the summer holidays.

The multiple schemes I have set out have provided vital life support for the economy and are protecting the livelihoods of millions upon millions of the constituents who vote for us to serve them in this place. They have protected people who would otherwise be facing great hardship and adversity, but their eye-watering cost means it is inevitable that they are time-limited. The only way to put the sectors highlighted in the 12 petitions on to a sound and successful footing for the long term is to let people out of their homes, back to work, back to the shops, and back to the pub. That is starting to happen and I very much welcome the news that 4 July will truly be our independence day as we take the next cautious steps in lifting lockdown and moving on from the covid emergency.

--- Later in debate ---
Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)
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I welcome the chance to debate the support we provide to industries and the many sectors hit hard by this pandemic. We are braced for the worst economic downturn for many decades, if not centuries. Many thousands of jobs are at risk of being lost or are likely to be lost, including at Centrica, Nissan, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. We are talking about plans to cut some 12,000 jobs. At Rolls-Royce and many other companies all over the country, many of our constituents will be affected. Some 10% of the population could face unemployment; 1 million young people are likely to face unemployment by the end of the year.

This also needs to be considered in the context of what kind of deal might be agreed, and how much friction there might be, with the European Union; the risk of a no-deal Brexit causing huge disruption; and the possibility of a second wave of the pandemic. So the risks are huge, both economically and in terms of health and our relationship with our biggest trading partner. That is why it is important that our Government focus on ensuring that there is a clear and coherent economic plan to protect the jobs that have been retained with the help of the job retention scheme. It is important that employers who are not in a position to make the contribution that they will soon have to are not forced to do so, because that will lead to more job losses. It is also vital that the Government heed the recommendations of the Treasury Committee report to provide support to the over 1 million people who did not benefit. Many of them work in the sectors that we have been talking about today, including in freelance jobs in the theatre, the music industry and creative industries in constituencies like mine—more than 1 million of them need help, including the new starters and those in the hospitality sector who have been neglected.

I hope that the Government will have a clear response to support the younger generation. We cannot afford another lost generation. It is vital that we have a credible economic plan that is ambitious, bold and inclusive, and protects everyone in our country. The Government must create a new settlement genuinely to tackle the inequalities that exist in our country and to ensure that no one is left behind, particularly those who have already faced hardship.