Our party must do more to tackle the digital divide

Whether it’s canvassing apps like MiniVAN or our fully-fledged – and fully functioning – virtual conference, Liberal Democrats have never shied away from digital innovation. Our current platform champions the roll-out of technologies like gigabit broadband and 5G, whilst also highlighting the frustrations of those in rural areas with limited access. By no means are we wrong to support these policies.

However, they do little to help those who don’t have the digital skills necessary to make the most of the internet. And what good is gigabit to you if you can’t even afford basic broadband? There are millions of people who are ‘digitally excluded’ in this country, and we need to do more to support them.

According to Lloyds, there are 9 million people in the UK who are unable to use the internet independently, and millions more who only use the internet for limited purposes, like social media. Meanwhile, roughly 23% of children in the poorest families do not have access to a desktop, laptop, or tablet. This had drastic impacts on children’s learning throughout lockdown and will likely have long-lasting consequences.

I was encouraged to hear Alistair Carmichael raising this very issue in Parliament on Monday. Children’s access to technology is paramount to ensure they aren’t left behind. Even when schools are open, access to tech at home helps children learn new skills and excel in the classroom.

But it would be a mistake to label this ‘digital divide’ as simply an education issue. There are digitally excluded people and households in every community, within every generation, and thousands of people have suffered with social isolation throughout this pandemic. This is, in part, because of a lack of access to – or understanding of – technology.

With our economy and public services continuing to move online, we must do all we can as a party to help fix the digital divide. We must ensure that everyone, regardless of their age, income, or background, has the skills they need to get the most out of the internet. Failure to do so risks entrenching poverty, particularly amongst some of the most vulnerable groups in our society.

That’s why I believe Liberal Democrats should commit to supporting a Great Digital Catch Up scheme, as proposed by Good Things Foundation in their Digital Blueprint. From children to carers, the elderly to the unemployed, Good Things Foundation has already supported over 3 million people to get online through their Online Centres Network.

Their new proposal pushes for a £130m investment into digital skills and device roll-out. It would help 4.5 million people cross the digital divide, whilst generating an estimated £1.92 billion for our economy. That £130m figure might sound like a lot – but it’s actually the equivalent of just 2% of our broadband budget.

This would be an initiative which unites the public, private, and charitable sectors, ensuring that millions more people can take advantage of digital innovation. Not only should we join this effort – we should take this chance to become the leading party for digital and social inclusion. So let’s unite behind this goal and help fix the digital divide.

* Tom McGrath is a Lib Dem member in Sheffield, former Parliamentary Assistant to Shaffaq Mohammed, and currently a Policy and Public Affairs intern for a digital inclusion charity.

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15 Comments

  • “I was encouraged to hear Alistair Carmichael raising this very issue in Parliament on Monday”.

    I just wish Mr Carmichael had raised the whole issue when he was Lib Dem Chief Whip in the Coalition Government when Lib Dem MPs voted to introduce Universal Credit which now impacts on nearly six million people in the poorest parts of society – and which of course was dependent on computer access. Too little too late.

    It was left to the CAB and Foodbanks to try to help (and still are) when so many were left struggling to get access.

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  • I certainly agree that we need to deal with the problem of children without access to internet, However this is mainly a question of poverty. We need to deal with the problem of poverty in our country.
    We also though need to deal with the problem of the behaviour of the companies who provide the technology. They market increasingly « advanced » technology. My phone is a Samsung and I am deluged with adverts asking me to buy a new model, which will do the same thing.
    What they do not provide is a simpler interface with me which so I can actually use some of the facilities. And supply it at a reasonable price.
    OK I am now an old person, but do not see why I should have to be trained to use badly designed software.
    So all in all let us fix the real problems. Lack of money in the case of many, and a IT industry focussed on those with money to pay.

  • Totally agree with David Raw. When I saw “I Daniel Blake” it was an afternoon when normally there were few people there. It was a sell out that afternoon, and the reaction of people made it clear that they understood the issues.
    Is it not time that the party including our leader woke up and smelt the coffee?

  • @ Tom Harney Glad to have your support, Tom. I did give said Leader a copy of the UN Alston on Poverty and Inequality in the UK last year. Meanwhile in Orkney & Shetland not everyone can afford the coffee.

    Orcadian News CAB Report on Orkney Foodbank May 17, 2018 at 12:17 pm

    According to the CAB, many Orkney residents — including children — are going hungry. Looking at statistics of the Orkney Foodbank and case studies of clients the CAB referred to the Foodbank, they conclude that many families go hungry because of delays in benefits payments or struggle to feed themselves in the school holidays when they do not have access to free school meals.

    It has also been found local parents will often forgo eating to ensure that their children are fed, while others face hunger because a parent has had to flee domestic violence.

    But the biggest cause appears to be that families are struggling with low incomes, the report suggests, and most of these families have at least one adult in work. Orkney CAB believes that this could be because, although employment in Orkney is high, average wages are often low.

    Of the 652 foodbank vouchers issued in Orkney during 2017, 226 of these were due to low income. Other common causes included benefit problems (147 vouchers issued) and homelessness (47 vouchers issued).

    “We are increasingly seeing clients who desperately need help because the benefits system has let them down,” said CAB manager, Alison Gunn.

    The full report can be viewed at: http://www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/CAB/library.asp

    The Shetland News “Shetland Food Bank”, 27 November, 2019

    “However, the main reasons are concerned with the benefits system which supports those most in need. Delays in payment of, or changes to, benefits, or the debts incurred while people wait for their first payment are the main reasons forcing people to seek help.”

    A report by Heriot-Watt University, entitled the State of Hunger, confirmed these reasons are the main causes of food poverty throughout the United Kingdom. This report also found that people who have been referred to a food bank have an average weekly income, after housing costs, of just £50. “If someone has to wait five weeks to receive their first benefit, they end up in arrears with rent, electricity, etc. and how can they pay off those debts if they are struggling to live on £50?”.

  • Laurence Cox 18th Oct '20 - 11:41am

    As we are not in Government (unlike in the Coalition period that David Raw rightly identifies) what we can do by calling for change in Parliament is limited. However there is one aspect of the digital divide that we do have control over and that is our own Party Conferences. I must say that I was disappointed at the turnout for the online Federal Conference (<3% of our membership); it may have been better than the previous year's physical conference, but it is still a smaller percentage than voted for Federal Board candidates (10%) and a much smaller percentage than voted for leader (57%).

    We need to ensure that a significant proportion of our membership are involved in Conference to make our decisions democratic, and one aspect of that is to ensure that we are not excluding members who are less digitally savvy.

  • Nonconformistradical 18th Oct '20 - 3:57pm

    @Tom Harney
    “My phone is a Samsung and I am deluged with adverts asking me to buy a new model, which will do the same thing.
    What they do not provide is a simpler interface with me which so I can actually use some of the facilities. And supply it at a reasonable price.”
    Predatory capitalism. Exploitation.

    “OK I am now an old person, but do not see why I should have to be trained to use badly designed software.”
    Quite

    I have an old mobile – not a smartphone – which can be used for phone calls, texts etc. – that suits me fine. It serves my needs.

  • Steve Trevthan 18th Oct '20 - 5:03pm

    Well posted Mr. Raw!
    Might there be a tendency for political parties to have one set of priorities when out of power and another when in power?

  • I am sceptical about this post.

    Where people are digitally excluded, one key reason, touched on above, is lack of money. Where people are too poor, it is reasonable for the state to tax the rest of us to pay them benefits. That is why we have a social security system. I would like to see evidence that someone on benefits cannot afford basic technology and connectivity, provided that they give it priority over other spending that we may regard as less essential.

    Where the digital exclusion comes from either lack of interest, or lack of knowledge, then we need to make technology skills education available either free or preferably cheaply, so that people put some investment into their own learning.

    Beyond those factors, if people choose to opt out of technology, that is their choice and they live with the consequences.

  • @ Mohammed Amin “I would like to see evidence that someone on benefits cannot afford basic technology and connectivity, provided that they give it priority over other spending that we may regard as less essential”.

    I’m sorry, Mr Amin, that’s the sort of utilitarian Gradgrind comment used by the right wing of the Tory Party back in the 1920/30’s when Council houses were first being built….. and they often said, ‘they’ll only keep coal in the bath’.

    I suggest a visit to your local foodbank and Citizen’s Advice Bureau to brush up your knowledge of the real facts. Are you the same Mohammed Amin who became a member of the Liberal Democrats after being expelled as a member of the Conservative Party for thirty six years ?

  • David & Tom are absolutely right. Quite simply this article , along with so many more is putting the cart in front of the horse. Our party can do nothing about the digital divide until it finds a way to win seats and on councils and in parliament. But how often do we have articles telling people how to win seats or even saying what people think we should do to start winning seats compared to those pontificating about what we should do if we happen to get there.

    Get real. Get active.

  • Nonconformistradical 19th Oct '20 - 8:51am

    @Mohammed Amin
    On the posting by David Raw 18th Oct ’20 – 8:48pm – Mohammed – perhaps you ought to investigate properly for yourself the financial situations of people who – in or out of work – struggle to afford food on the table, roof over head etc. before implying that their problems over digital access might be failure to prioritise their outgoings. You made the point – so it’s your job to come up with evidence that failure to prioritise is the problem. Back up your assertion with evidence.

    On a more general point – one – in my view worrying – issue about digital exclusion is our so-called government’s apparent desire to make all its dealings with the human beings living in the UK as entirely digital as they possibly can.

    Which serves to turn human beings into numbers to be fitted into categories dreamed up by the government, allocated by algorithms (just a bit of computer program code) and failing lamentably to match reality on the ground (well demonstrated recently through their failures to get a properly working Covid-19 tracking app into use).

    I am not a number. I am a free human being!

  • Steve Trevethan 19th Oct '20 - 9:25am

    David Evans makes an interesting and important point about article types.
    Perhaps they could be approximately labelled as “If” comments and “How” comments”?
    Might their proproportions depend upon articles submitted, editorial policy/practice, a mixture of the previous two or some other factor?

  • @David Raw

    I resigned from the Conservative Party after 36 years of membership. I was expelled by the Conservative Muslim Forum. Full details at https://www.mohammedamin.com/Politics/Resigned-Conservative-Party-why.html

  • @Nonconformistradical
    Each person makes their own spending decisions. I do not believe in giving people “things” as opposed to giving them money and letting them decide how to spend it.

    The only exception are “things” where there are efficiency gains from central provision, such as state schools and the NHS.

    We have a benefits system; if a majority of the country believes that benefits are too low, then they will be raised.

  • @ Mohammed Amin “We have a benefits system; if a majority of the country believes that benefits are too low, then they will be raised”.

    Do you mean like they were between 2010-15 ?

    Every welfare cut listed: how much a typical family will lose per …www.theguardian.com › Datablog
    1 Apr 2013 — The charity, Child Poverty Action Group, has compiled a list of benefit changes showing the complexity of the Coalition’s welfare reform …

    Spending review: welfare bears the brunt as extra £7bn of cuts …www.theguardian.com › politics › oct › spending-revie…
    20 Oct 2010 — Chancellor says cuts to benefits, child tax and disability payments helped limit overall reduction in Whitehall spending.

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