18 November 2019

Labour’s broadband bung ignores the needs of the ‘digital underclass’

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Announcing Labour’s new nationalised broadband policy, Jeremy Corbyn declared that it would be one of the most “transformational policies that will change your life”. The proposed broadband is “not just any broadband” but the fastest full-fibre broadband and will be available to every home in every part of the country for free as a universal public service.

The rhetoric may sound enticing, but how would this policy open up opportunities to “everybody” when it offers no practical assistance to those who most need access to digital technology and skills, the 10% of Britons who make up the ‘digital underclass’?

Access to digital technology such as smartphones, laptops and tablets, not access to broadband, should be the first issue to prioritise. For example, how can the 320,000 homeless people in the UK (according to Shelter) afford to pay for technology to serve their short-term needs, such as finding the nearest foodbank or applying for jobs in order to secure stable employment and housing?

In our increasingly digitised society, the vast majority of job applications now take place online. Universal Credit job-seekers must spend 35 hours per week job-searching, however many applicants do not own their own laptops or computers to create and send CVs, so resort to using computers at their nearest Jobcentre Plus. Even when job-seekers can access a Jobcentre Plus computer their hours are limited to accommodate other job-seekers. For a single person over the age of 25 the monthly standard Universal Credit allowance is £317.82 – that might afford a cheap laptop, but only for someone who had virtually no other outgoings.

The same picture emerges at schools, which are increasingly turning to virtual learning environments. As Cliff Manning at ParentZone points out, many children from low socioeconomic backgrounds can only access the internet through smartphones on credit, and may not have access to a computer to help with their homework. There are currently a number of schemes available for children to get heavily subsidised laptops, but even this is too expensive for some parents.

A practical solution to these problems would be to offer greater access to digital technology, such as providing substantially discounted technology at the point of need which can be deducted from the first employment pay check. All school-age children should be provided with basic homework-orientated technology to assist them with their education.

In that context, spending £20bn on free broadband for everyone seems a particularly poor use of public money, given that those without access to digital technology will still not be able to access it.

It’s not just about access to technology, but digital skills as well. Though Labour’s new policy does recognise that poor digital access increases the likelihood of missed educational, job and health opportunities, it fails to recognise that digital skills, not just free broadband, must be at the heart of such a policy.

Middlesex University’s Dr Josie Barnard recently highlighted that nearly a quarter of the British adult population lack the essential digital skills they need for life, such as filing in a tax return or using a smartphone to make a phone call. Nearly 30% never use the internet at all, or only use it in a limited way. Six million can’t turn on a digital device and over seven million can’t open an app. This applies not just to older people who have not grown up with computers but also young people who have access to the internet but are not able to use its full potential.

Considering that 65% of children currently attending primary school will be doing jobs and using technology that doesn’t even exist yet by the time they are of working age, and that 300,000 young people currently lack basic digital skills, rectifying that situation ought to be among government’s most pressing priorities. Instead of offering bungs to the entire electorate, the truly progressive policy change would be to empower the digital underclass. That would truly be a ‘transformational’ proposal to change people’s lives.

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Joanna George is a law student and member of the Steering Committee of the Constitution Reform Group, which advocates for a new Act of Union Bill