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Digital Exclusion (Glasgow)

Volume 565: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

Last week, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced further plans to roll out superfast broadband across the UK, so that it will reach 95% of the population by 2017. No one doubts that Government investment in that type of infrastructure is key to promoting further growth; and, in comparison with other parts of Scotland, Glasgow ranks as one of the best for superfast broadband availability and is also benefiting from the Future Cities spending. However, one reason why I have requested this debate is to caution that collectively we may have become too fixated on the rate of installing hardware, compared with the level and depth of usage by our citizens. The two are interconnected, but very often our strategic priorities and procurement policies do not match those needs together. I believe that the Government should do more to link their substantial investment in broadband with investment in citizens’ participation. I hope today, as well as setting out the scale of the challenge, to suggest some practical ways in which the Government could better adapt their policies to provide a more comprehensive strategy.

I have long taken a close interest—I have done so throughout my years in Parliament—in how Government initiatives and policies, whether lottery funds for community groups, the introduction of tax credits or the recent changes in family migration rules, are understood in my local area. Frequently, bureaucracy underestimates or simply fails to understand how, and to what extent, the general public absorb information and application processes. Many Scottish Members will recall the disaster of the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, caused in part by officials simply deleting one line of instruction at the top of a ballot form.

During the past year, I have spent more and more time with local groups and community activists, talking about the impact of the digital divide, particularly in relation to those seeking work and the forthcoming introduction of universal credit. Last year, Ofcom reported that Glasgow had the lowest level of broadband take-up of any major UK city. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) is here today. Sadly, it is not a surprise to those of us who represent a Glasgow seat that it is at the bottom or top of a league table for things that are not very good. There are many historical and economic causes of our city’s ingrained poverty, but in the case of digital access, the scale of the gap should result in a call for action, rather than simply a shrugging of shoulders.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The statistics from Glasgow show that up to 60% of people have access to broadband. That means that 40% do not. Given that access to many Government services is online only, particularly with some of the welfare changes, does she recognise that that could pose difficulties for the most vulnerable people in the city of Glasgow?

My hon. Friend has raised the point that I was going to raise in the next paragraph of my speech—clearly, he must have had advance sight of it. He has made exactly the right point, because this is a question of social justice, not just access to a certain piece of technology.

Ofcom’s 2012 consumer market report showed, as my hon. Friend mentioned, that only 60% of Glasgow’s households had access to fixed broadband, compared with a UK average of 76%. We know that at-home access is vital to allow our citizens to gain the most value from use of the internet. Against that UK average of 76%, it is perhaps not surprising that the Government, in moving to digital by default from this autumn, are working on the assumption of moving 80% of benefit applications online, but let us dig a little deeper into those figures for Glasgow.

Last month, I was pleased to host a seminar at Westminster with the Carnegie UK Trust, which has recently published a report called “Across the Divide” by Douglas White that is an in-depth review of 200 families in the city and how they are affected by the digital divide. There is much to commend in that excellent report, which is instructive not only for Glasgow but for other areas of the country that suffer from high levels of socio-economic deprivation. It should not surprise the Minister that the author pointed to very similar figures in parts of North Ayrshire, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire, which surround the city area, but I particularly draw the Minister’s attention to the charts at the start of chapter 3, which show the gap, in terms of both age and socio-economic groups, between Glasgow and the UK average. For the social group C2—a group that is often affected by our social security systems—the divide is an astonishing 25%. Against a UK average take-up of 72% for that social group, the Glasgow figure is only 47%. What happens when age is added to the equation? In the city’s entire 35-to-64 age group, only 35% have access to broadband in their house.

In some of the most deprived areas of the city, housing associations and other community groups estimate that only 20% of their tenants at most have direct broadband access. However, as the figures reveal, this issue affects all sections of the community and all demographics. There are a multitude of reasons for the gap, and the report goes into them in some depth, but cost is the primary one. For people on a low income, a fixed phone line is now a luxury that many drop in favour of pay-as-you-go mobile phones. As the Carnegie report showed, the monthly communications budget for the city’s lowest socio-economic groups is about £30, compared with a UK average spend of about £100.

The Government’s aim to move to digital by default is certainly doing more to raise the importance of the issue, but there is a real fear that we simply do not have the scale of resources required, not only for hardware access but for appropriate software and access to training and support. This is not a problem for which a one-size-fits-all approach will work. It needs a comprehensive and segmented strategy, with political commitment over the long term.

Citizens Advice Scotland, in a report issued in May called “Offline and left behind”, which included interviews with 1,200 clients, found that nearly 72% would struggle to apply for a job online and that almost half those who said that they would be completely unable to complete a benefits application online said that the main barrier was that they had never used a computer. Research conducted this year by the Prince’s Trust with young people who fall into the NEETs category—not in education, employment or training—found that one quarter dreaded filling in job application forms online, while one in 10 admitted avoiding computers altogether. As the Minister will be aware, literacy and numeracy levels play a very big part in that.

Having spoken to my local citizens advice bureau, to welfare rights officers and to my own casework staff, who recently attended a demonstration at the local Department for Work and Pensions office, I understand that the anticipated time to complete a new universal credit application is one and a half hours. Moreover, there is no provision to save information if someone wishes to pause the application process. We all have busy lives. There will be times when we are on the computer and we want to pause it, go away and look for some other bit of information and come back to it, but this is the classic “The machine won’t let us do it” approach. Frankly, it is a completely useless IT approach that by now the Government should have banned from any front-of-house application. Even those experienced in these systems are aghast at the complexity of the process.

In addition, as the Minister will be aware, jobseeker’s allowance applicants are regularly instructed to spend multiple hours each week searching online for work, but little assessment has been carried out of the actual availability of free-to-use computers in local areas. Last year, I started to carry out a survey in my own constituency of where free-to-use computers were available and what training or lessons might be appropriate and accessible if people wanted to go online and complete CVs. I then began to realise that I was the only person trying to collate that information and I was eventually contacted by a Scottish Government agency, which agreed to fund the publication of the list, so that we could distribute it to a whole host of community groups and public offices.

Absolutely no mapping has been done of where computer access is available. I know that the DWP is now trying to establish local job clubs in my constituency and many other areas, where people can access computers on an informal basis. That is all well and good, but it has only just begun that process and it takes time for community groups to find the finance, to get organised and to get the equipment—yet we are facing that radical change in a few months’ time. That is why I urge the Minister to scrap the Government’s aim of starting with a target of 80% of benefit applications being made online. It is unrealistic, grossly unfair and runs the risk of vulnerable people losing essential financial support.

What is the alternative target? I am sure the Minister will respond by saying that there has to be a target. We should all want greater online access for our constituents, because it means not only the ability to apply for benefits and search for jobs, but the opportunity to benefit from cheaper utility costs, new sources of information and knowledge and greater connectivity with the wider community. Such targets are useful to measure and drive success, but they need to be based on evidence, with a clear strategy to improve take-up. There are good examples to follow, and I point to the programme that introduced digital TV switchover as an excellent example: it adapted messages for different segments of the public; it worked with all tiers of government and local community organisations to ensure efficient delivery; and it constantly analysed evidence throughout the project and adjusted its work to suit, to ensure that it became one of the most successful Government programmes of recent years delivering information and change to the entire public.

The question that is always asked in these difficult economic times is, can we find the finance for such work? The answer is yes: to return to the point I made at the beginning of my speech, we need to integrate funding solutions with the provision of the hardware that delivers the service. I suggest that we take a small slice of the funds that we set aside for mass broadband coverage and use it to finance a public community access programme that is fit for purpose.

How do we tackle the depth of the problems faced in my home city? I was struck by the success of a community project that began in Liverpool a couple of years ago, and which has witnessed a substantial increase in usage by the population. There are certainly lessons from its success that we in Glasgow need to learn. Glasgow city council launched a digital participation group earlier this year as part of its new digital strategy, which is good, but we need the UK and Scottish Governments to respond positively to that initiative. Both Governments should look at using Glasgow as a pilot for the wider task of tackling digital exclusion wherever it occurs in the country. We need a comprehensive and segmented approach based on good-quality evidence and clear messaging. We need clear branding, which everyone in the community understands at all levels. The Carnegie UK Trust recommended creating local role models or digital champions.

Government also have a role in assisting local authorities and communities with procurement. Some of our larger registered social landlords, such as Glasgow Housing Association, are piloting special deals for their tenants that directly address the issue of cost, which is good, but given that more and more people are finding themselves in private residential properties or renting from much smaller landlords, we need to extend such schemes to everyone on low incomes. The Government can disseminate best practice, co-ordinate action and ensure that services are delivered to the public we serve. I hope that both Governments and agencies such as Ofcom will assist with a thorough mapping exercise and bring in the expertise and support of the private sector.

I mentioned software and the question of how people with few skills or qualifications can access information on computers if they do not have experience of doing so. We need simplified software that will work for them and to offer support to build their knowledge and experience, rather than just using a couple of apps. Some of the experience has been that those in the lower socio-economic groups, if they have a mobile phone, may use only eight apps in total, so we need to create a deeper and more valuable experience for them.

I appreciate that the Minister has been called in at very short notice to respond to this debate. His colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, has advised me that he has a previous and long-arranged engagement with Her Majesty at Holyroodhouse. I well understand why he is otherwise detained, but I should like formally to request a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State in the near future so we can discuss these issues in further detail. I want to be practical today and offer suggestions to the Government that are achievable and will assist everyone. We do not want people or communities to have a digital divide, but to see a new digital era in which everyone can take part.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this important debate, speaking in large part to the findings of the Carnegie UK Trust report, on the challenge of digital exclusion in Glasgow. In presenting its findings and some of the difficult and challenging issues raised, she did huge justice to the report. I commend her for the typically practical and constructive approach she has taken this afternoon.

How we involve more people in the digital community is an important subject, which we take seriously across Government. My right hon. Friends the Under-Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Scotland are mindful of the issues the hon. Lady raised this afternoon and are aware of the report. Without wishing to make diary commitments on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State, I am sure that he will be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the topic in greater detail. I will let him arrange that with her. Much of the agenda we have talked about is devolved, and it is in large part the responsibility of the Scottish Government to address the issues, but I assure hon. Members that the UK Government are working hard to raise the level of digital inclusion across the whole of Britain.

The Carnegie UK Trust report says that Glasgow has one of the lowest broadband take-up rates in the UK, which is true, but we should not allow that to overshadow the progress that has been made in the city. Take-up in the greater Glasgow area increased by 20% between the start of 2011 and 2012, exceeding the Scotland-wide rate of increase, which is closing the historic gap between Scotland’s broadband take-up and the UK average. Catch-up is taking place in Scotland and in Glasgow itself, so we can point to a relatively positive picture, but that does not detract from the gap that the hon. Lady spoke about.

The concept of digital inclusion lies at the heart of the Government’s digital strategy. “Digital by default” is our ambition for Government services, but it is not and will not be mandatory for everyone. It is important to stress to all hon. and right hon. Members that we all need to do our bit to dispel any scare stories or myths that suggest that people will not be able to access the services they are entitled to or claim the benefits they need if they do not have access to the internet at home. I was interested to hear the hon. Lady’s point about not being able to pause in the middle of an online application for benefits. That is the first time I have heard about it. I will certainly look into it, and not only from a Scottish perspective.

We recognise that it will not be possible or appropriate for everyone to receive and manage future payments of universal credit online. The Department for Work and Pensions is working closely with local authorities, to provide access to the benefits system in a variety of ways. As part of that, the Department is sponsoring local authority-led pilots around Britain, including in Dumfries and Galloway and in North Lanarkshire. For those able to use the internet, but without their own computer, all the Government’s digital services are available through the free internet access provided at libraries, and in this Glasgow is particularly well served, with 33 local libraries in the Glasgow city area offering free internet access. I completely take her point that internet access at home is particularly important for a jobseeker.

I am grateful to the Minister for replying in such a positive manner, particularly about the online application form for universal credit—my caseworkers were horrified when they came back from a presentation on it. In some parts of the city of Glasgow, where broadband access is at only 20% and there may be only one small library, there are physical issues with the sheer lack of computers, and that is even if all the libraries in the city provided them. There are queues of people trying to book appointments at the library. They are competing not only with other job applicants, but with other users of library services.

I hear what the hon. Lady says. All I can say in response is that the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State meet regularly with Scottish Government officials and Ministers, and with city council leaders as well, and if there is a physical capacity issue, in that there is not enough digital infrastructure for the demand, meaning that people who do not have internet access at home cannot benefit from the publicly available services, they can certainly discuss that with them.

As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) has previously said in the House, all jobseekers claiming benefits have a personal adviser whose role it is to support them back into work. If an adviser identifies that someone does not have the knowledge and skills needed to access online services, they can discuss those needs with the jobseeker and arrange for suitable IT training to be provided. In fact, the Department for Work and Pensions is currently piloting a digital skills assessment tool in four jobcentres in the east of Scotland, which will be used by advisers to assess claimants’ digital ability. I hope that what I have said goes some way in addressing the hon. Lady’s point about jobseekers’ lack of skills in relation to making job applications or accessing benefits online.

The hon. Lady slightly humorously talked about Glasgow being at the top or the bottom of the league table of things that were “not very good”—I think that was her phrase. We should remember, however, that some really positive and encouraging things are happening in the city. I am sure that she and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) will be only too aware of those initiatives, and will have done their bit to champion and support them in recent months and years.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a few of Glasgow’s recent successes. The UK Government are supporting the city of Glasgow to lead the way in using modern technology to support growth and increase sustainability. Glasgow beat off bids from a number of other cities around the UK to be awarded £24 million as the host city for the Technology Strategy Board’s future cities demonstrator project. The university of Strathclyde recently secured funding for two of the UK Government’s catapult centres, looking at offshore renewable energy and high-value manufacturing, which are important sectors for future growth. In 2013, Glasgow overtook Edinburgh in the global financial centres index for the first time, making it the highest-ranking financial centre in the UK behind London, and Glasgow is to host the Commonwealth games next year, which will be a highlight for the whole of our country.

I thank the Minister for listing all those fantastic Labour achievements in the city of Glasgow. May I add another? Glasgow city council has made a commitment to there being free universal broadband right across the city by the end of this council term, and to every single Commonwealth games venue having broadband by the time of the games next year.

The hon. Gentleman must have had previous sight of my speech, because that is the very next sentence. Glasgow city council is planning for a free open-air wi-fi network to be available in Glasgow city centre in time for the 2014 games, and I think we all recognise that that will mark another major step in Glasgow’s progress towards full digital inclusion.

I point to the fact that the recent spending round announcements include significant extra resources to support infrastructure investment and growth in Scotland. That is good news for Scotland, because an increase in capital spending means better infrastructure, greater competitiveness and more jobs, which clearly shows how Scotland continues to benefit from being part of the United Kingdom.

I conclude by saying that we will make a point not only of ensuring that my colleagues at the Scotland Office see what was discussed this afternoon, but of feeding the comments made and the questions asked through to my noble Friend Lord Freud, the Minister for welfare reform at the Department for Work and Pensions. Some of the issues raised deserve a full response, and we will ensure that the hon. Lady receives that response in due course. I commend the hon. Lady on how she has addressed the issues this afternoon, and the Carnegie UK Trust on its excellent report into digital exclusion in Glasgow, entitled “Across the Divide”.

Sitting suspended.