Digital poverty predated the pandemic. Here’s a long-term solution

Darren Jones

Life in opposition can be incredibly frustrating, with an ability to say but not to do. Over the past year, as we’ve seen how ruinously unequal the effects of this crisis have been, that’s been truer than ever. Far too often, the government has been far too slow to make even the most painless and inexpensive decisions necessary to get help where it’s needed.

But in the spirit of finding a common-sense consensus for action, I today asked ministers to take just such a step – and so help millions of poorer schoolchildren get the internet access they need to learn effectively from home.

My internet access bill calls on the government to use powers it created only last autumn to require internet service providers to offer low-cost broadband at a ‘social tariff’ – meaning £10 or £15 per month — to the lowest-income households. Based on my proposals, that would benefit 1.4 million children eligible for free school meals, at no cost to the taxpayer and without the need for fresh legislation.

Although digital poverty predated the pandemic, months of lockdown has exposed its prevalence and exacerbated its long-term consequences. That is true across the board, but the harshest impacts are being felt by the least advantaged children, as a return to home-learning makes decent broadband the prerequisite for participating in education.

That leaves families for whom a high-speed internet connection and a new laptop just aren’t an option in an impossible position. It’s no good telling even the most dedicated parent in that position to step up, when Ofcom estimates that one in five households has trouble paying their monthly telecoms bill – or to tell even the most diligent student that their hard work will pay off, when they don’t have the means of accessing lessons or keeping up with homework, let alone catching up on lost time.

As Labour colleagues like Siobhain McDonagh MP and Julie Elliott MP, amongst others, have been tireless in highlighting, this isn’t a niche concern. Right now, nearly two million children lack adequate internet access – in the poorest households it’s one in four – and the toll is already being felt, with a quarter of kids on free school meals managing less than an hour of work per day during the first lockdown. These children were already at an educational disadvantage, began the year further behind, and now face the prospect of permanently worsened life chances unless we act.

Growing up, I knew first-hand how challenging life could be for working parents who struggled to make ends meet – particularly in the days before Labour introduced the national minimum wage – but I also knew that putting in the work at school was the ticket to a better and freer life. As I said in the House of Commons today, this is just about broadband policy, it’s about the hope our children have about the possibilities of their tomorrow. We have a duty to act to help them.

But I am optimistic – because it’s not for want of action from teachers, local government and charities, nor some cross-party political will at Westminster, that we find ourselves here. From free laptops and dongles, to some internet providers finding ways to offer zero-cost access to educational platforms, we’ve been biting around this problem for months. What’s clear, however, is that quick fixes aren’t enough. This is a long-term problem in need of a long-term solution.

That’s why I’m determined to see low-income families given the permanent option of affordable monthly broadband. I’d be happy to see service providers and Ofcom sort this out without the need for government intervention — and I will now be working with them to try and make quick progress without the need for statutory intervention. But if the internet service providers don’t step up and fix this, I will be back in the House of Commons demanding that ministers use the powers they have to require this change now.

I will shortly be announcing a new Coalition for a Broadband Social Tariff and announcing the offers from the internet service providers to provide a social tariff to the families that need it, without the need for ministerial mandate. When I do so, I hope you’ll join me, so that, together, we can get this deal done and help the millions of children in our country who need to get online, to learn and to renew their hope for the future.

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