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Tackling the Digital Divide

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 4 November 2021

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.

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.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for his kind words and for standing in to take over this debate. As the original sponsor and the chair of the APPG on broadband and digital communication, I am delighted to speak in the debate.

I also speak as the MP for North Devon, a part of the country where our broadband speed lags behind not just the rest of the country but the rest of the south-west. That is why I have committed myself to the APPG to see what more can be done to roll out better broadband to north Devon and beyond. While I warmly welcome last week’s announcement that more rural properties will be reached through Project Gigabit, it is still over two and a half years away.

Gigabit broadband is available to 28.7% of the population in the UK as a whole, but to just 20.3% in North Devon. Superfast broadband across the UK is at 95% coverage, whereas in North Devon we are at just 86.7%. Our average download speed is just 42.1 megabits per second, compared with a south-west average of 64.8 megabits per second and a UK average of 72.9 megabits per second. Some 3.1% of rural areas are unable to receive decent broadband, compared to 0.4% in the UK and 0.6% in the south-west, and 6.3% of my constituents are unable to receive 10 megabits per second. After Brexit, broadband was the No. 1 issue on the doorstep in the election campaign of December 2019. With those figures, it is no wonder.

The challenge of the digital divide, when it is as extreme as it is now in rural parts of the UK, such as my constituency, is that people have no idea what they have, could have or should have. After all, what does gigabit capable mean? If people have had under 10 megabits per second, they find superfast broadband exciting—do they need to go faster? They do not know what they are missing out on because they have no way of accessing it. Smaller companies, such as Jurassic Fibre, have installed gigabit-capable fibre, but take-up has not been high, as lack of understanding, awareness, cost and the inconvenience of changing service provider—these are not wholesalers—is holding back our speeding up.

I want to put on record my thanks to Openreach for connecting up Tawstock primary school and Umberleigh primary school during the pandemic, but how do we still have schools that are unable to access the web? Children as young as six have explained to me how lessons are interrupted with a “circle of doom”. Is it any wonder that local employers complain of a skills gap? How are students going to learn digital skills with the circle of doom as their learning companion?

Given how far behind we are in connectivity, parents are often also in no position to assist with technical challenges. Our schools, parents and students have all done a fantastic job getting through the pandemic despite the connectivity challenges they have faced, but the situation has gone on for far too long. Parish councillors—many of mine doing a sterling job now in their 80s—may not be best placed to decide on the right broadband solution, as they are being asked to. We now see some villages with multiple operators putting up poles and promoting their services, while others languish with nothing.

It is not just our broadband speeds that needs accelerating, but the roll-out. I thank Openreach for tackling the Lynton and Lynmouth rural build project, which has generated dramatic photos of the fibre passing down the funicular railway; but that project came to fruition due to a chance meeting between me and the chief executive. While I am grateful for that, what would have happened without it?

I recognise that Connecting Devon and Somerset is doing its very best in difficult circumstances to connect up North Devon, but it too needs speeding up. The approach of connecting up one or two remote properties at a time does not seem joined up or a good use of vital engineers or taxpayers’ money. This week, it took my intervention to prevent the Building Digital UK programme from over-fibring in one village that Openreach has already connected up as a commercial build. It keeps putting up additional poles in beautiful North Devon, rather than using existing assets, which is creating so much extra work. I hope that more can be done to effectively manage the programme; with so much still to connect, having some places connected by multiple providers does not seem a good use of taxpayers’ money.

I urge the Minister to rethink what more can be done to help rural constituencies such as mine to join the digital revolution before we move into yet another phase, with landlines potentially to be switched off, when we have no mobile service either. If I move my head during a call at home, I lose my connection, on both wi-fi and mobile calls. I say to the Minister, please do not turn my landline off. What will I do if there is ever an emergency?

I am not on commission with Openreach—if CityFibre wants to rebrand as RuralFibre, I am happy to welcome it instead—but we need one wholesale company to come and connect the whole of Devon, rural or not, commercially viable or not. We are falling behind not only the rest of the UK, but the rest of the world. To my mind, hard-to-reach, remote rural constituencies such as mine need better digital connectivity than more well-connected urban areas.

Across the south-west, connectivity is poor in terms of both transport and digital infrastructure. In Cornwall and Devon, the number of jobs that are reachable within 60 minutes by car is two times lower than the UK median, and the number of jobs that are reachable within 90 minutes is five times lower than the median. When we talk about levelling up in North Devon, it is primarily digital infrastructure that we seek. We have been left behind for too long with poor transport infrastructure, and our geography means we will never get any closer to the nearest city, but the technology is available to connect us digitally. I hope the new Secretary of State will bring the drive she has shown in addressing other inequalities in our society to bridging the clear rural digital divide.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this time for what is, for my constituents, an important debate.

We have had an interesting contrast in two different definitions of what constitutes the digital divide. They are both very legitimate cases but, with absolutely no disrespect to the right hon. Member for East Ham and in no way wishing to belittle the very important issues he identified, I would love to have a lot of those issues in my constituency. The problems of access to software and so on are only really problems if we have the necessary hardware. Unfortunately, I am afraid that the experience of my constituency is rather closer to that of the hon. Member for North Devon and her constituents than to the—apparently very well-represented—east end of London.

To explain the scale of what we are talking about, in Orkney we have 65.93% superfast coverage—that is 30 megabits—and 1.48% full fibre. In Shetland, the comparable figures are 75.26% and 1.5%, and for Scotland as a whole they are 94.8% and 28.01%. When we talk about digital divides, I do not think there is a better illustration of the nature and extent of that divide than in these figures for the Northern Isles.

I do not think my constituents have ever been unreasonable on this. We always knew that there would be issues, given our geography, but it has now got to the point where it was revealed today, in The Press and Journal, that the Scottish Government’s Reaching 100% target is being put back to the end of 2026 and into 2027 for completion. The target was set in 2017, and it was originally to be completed by 2021. That allows us—or would allow us, were it ever to be completed—to catch up and to get what other people already have. That means that it will have been a full 10 years before we get that level of connectivity.

I will say two things about this news. First, I do not think that it demonstrates a great deal of respect for the communities I represent, or those around the highlands and islands, for this to come into the public domain because a newspaper has put in a freedom of information request to get that data. The reason for the delay should be something that is open and transparently disclosed by Government Ministers, but when asked by The Press and Journal, a Scottish Government spokesperson refused to comment. We do not even know why we are running up against this extension to an already over-extended deadline.

However, I must also say—this touches on something that the right hon. Member for East Ham said—that our experience regarding the USO has been less than fruitful. For a connection under the USO, my constituents are quoted exactly the sort of figures that the right hon. Member spoke of: tens of thousands of pounds. There are ways in which properties can pool together and share that burden, but when we spoke about the creation of a “universal service”, I do not think anybody imagined that it would be open only to people with tens of thousands of pounds for something that people in urban conurbations take for granted.

My frustration is that in Scotland, we have two schemes running: the universal service obligation and the Reaching 100% scheme. Nobody knows whether they should take the bird in the hand that is the universal service, which would guarantee them 10 megabits, or wait for the bird in the bush that Reaching 100% may be, whenever we reach the Reaching 100% target, which would give 30 megabits. To be quite honest, I do not really care which route people take.

We have two Governments in Scotland both spending taxpayers’ money, and the two schemes surely could be made to work better than this. There surely is no reason why they should be set up effectively in competition. Surely, for the benefit of the people who are paying the taxes and requiring the service, it ought to be possible to do something with one scheme that would actually deliver. At the end of the day, I do not care which flag is on the box that eventually arrives; all we care about is that we have meaningful connectivity.

In July of this year, we had encouraging news about the shared rural network and were pleased to see progress, but it has all been very quiet since then. The shared rural network and the availability of mobile phone connectivity are major frustrations of constituents in the communities that I represent, and it is something on which we would like to see faster progress. We were pleased to see the progress. However, when things are going well, Governments are always very quick to have announcements, press conferences and photo opportunities; when things go quiet, being the nasty, cynical, suspicious person I am, I am inclined to wonder whether there might be problems somewhere. An update from the Minister on the shared rural network would be most welcome.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. This is my first Westminster Hall debate since I was elected, so it is a pleasure to be here to talk about this important issue.

We have seen from the contributions so far that this is a really wide-ranging issue that has many impacts. We see that in our communities. I do not share many of the experiences of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) or my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), but I sympathise a lot with what they say.

I have a few points to press with my hon. Friend the Minister, particularly on how we build this digital infrastructure. We saw the target for premises being fitted for fibre by 2025 reduced from 100% to 85%. It is vital that we hit that, and as part of that we must ensure that we get the processes right, particularly by ensuring that procurement deadlines are met by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. There have been delays in some of the procurement processes and, having spoken to officials, I know that the Department is working on them. However, it is important that we streamline those processes.

I have been heartened by the importance the Minister’s Department is placing on ensuring that the delivery, which will be really important as we build this digital infrastructure, actually happens. From a process point of view, it is important that we hit those benchmarks. I know that the Department has said it is confident that it can hit that target. It is good to see that confidence, but we need to see it translate through.

I think we can all agree that the other issue the Minister and her Department need to address is the reform of access issues. Particularly when it comes to construction and installation, access issues have been really prominent. Whether that reform relates to things such as wayleave or to broader access issues—for example, access to residential blocks, working with housing providers to ensure that no one is left behind and we can truly roll out this new network—it is going to be vital. We must ensure that everyone can see the benefits of the new network.

These are real operational issues; they are not particularly controversial. It is clear that we all have an aim, which is to see the roll-out happen. We just have to ensure that, operationally, it can. It is really important, therefore, that we solve the procedural anomalies to ensure that we can get the systems fitted. Obviously, I welcome the overall £5 billion that was provided for this. I know that £1.2 billion has been identified as part of the spending review so far. It is obviously important that we follow through on that. I think the Minister would agree that it is vital to ensure that that investment follows through and that we see its benefits. That is going to come down to the internal processes around procurement, contracting and relationships with the commercial sector in terms of delivery.

I should say that I sit on the Public Accounts Committee, and we have looked at this issue recently. The role of, and the relationship with, the private sector on the delivery has been an interesting one; it has enabled this to be delivered in the way that we wanted. Clearly, there are lessons to be learned. There are also lessons to be learned about how we get this right more broadly. I am not going to give it a 10 out of 10 for delivery. There are definitely things we can learn for the other broader public infrastructure projects that we will have to do as part of levelling up.

I want to turn to what the digital divide actually means. The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) touched on what it means more broadly. I could not do justice to the way that he articulated it; he talked about access to the universal credit system, pensions, education and work—we know how important those things are. The example that was felt most in my community, particularly at the height of the pandemic last year, was that of education and access to digital devices for some of the most vulnerable young people in society. I pay tribute to Summerhill Primary Academy in Tipton, which went above and beyond to ensure that vulnerable young people could get devices. We know from the research that around 105,000 devices were dispatched to schools.

While that was a great initial response, there is clearly a bigger issue here: people in deprived communities, a lot of the time, do not have access to a basic digital device. As the right hon. Member for East Ham touched on, as we progress, and as the world of work develops and things change, it is going to become so important that we get this right. We must enable people to access those devices so that they can do basic things like homework and access the important public services that they depend on.

We heard about the skills work that has been done, particularly in the west midlands with our Mayor, Andy Street. Again, that happened because it was identified that we had pockets of deprivation where people did not have that skillset. It all intermingles with the underlying social issues that we have to tackle. The digital divide has highlighted the vulnerabilities in our society. We must not just see the provision of infrastructure as one step; we must look at the underlying issues that mean the infrastructure is not there in the first place. I think that there is an opportunity, in the work the Minister and her Department are doing to tackle this, to examine why communities like mine have for so long been excluded in this way.

I cannot touch on this issue in the same way that many hon. Members have in their comments. I will say that the fibre roll-out is a great opportunity, but the process has got to be right. I implore the Minister to get the internal processes right to realise that. On the digital divide more broadly, and the vulnerabilities that it has uncovered, there has to be a holistic approach. It is not just about the provision of devices and broadband, important though they are; it is about the underlying issues that this has uncovered. By addressing those, we can ensure that we finally plug the divide that people, particularly in my community, have had to deal with for so long.

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this important debate. The right hon. Member for East Ham made an extremely well-informed and helpful contribution. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), someone does not have to be in an outlying constituency, such as North Devon or the constituency of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael)—the most outlying in the United Kingdom—to realise that there are problems. The digital divide is UK-wide.

The hon. Member for North Devon said that it is really important that people are online. I think we have all come to that consensus here. Several Members mentioned education, work opportunities and actually being able to access Government services, all of which is important. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) pointed out that the two Governments in Scotland are, it would be fair to say, doing their utmost to make sure that people across their governing areas are covered. However, there are difficulties with geography and, as the hon. Member for West Bromwich West said, processes.

I want to update the Minister on what the Scottish Government have been trying to do. They are trying to eradicate digital exclusion as best they can. They have made huge moves to get 88% of Scotland online, but serious discrepancies remain. Access sits at only 82% in the most deprived areas and 96% in the least deprived. Access is at 66% for over-60s, whereas it is at 99% for 16 to 24-year-olds, so there is work to be done, and that has been recognised. Across the UK, superfast broadband availability averages 86% in rural areas and 97.2% in urban areas. In Scotland, it averages 73% and 97.5% respectively. Again, there is work to be done.

The picture for gigabit broadband is more positive in Scotland, with 45.4% of households having such speeds compared with 37.5% in England, 71% in Northern Ireland and 29% in Wales. However, the rural-urban divide persists for gigabit broadband in Scotland, too. That needs to be addressed. The Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—COSLA —have a joint digital inclusion strategy to try to help tackle the digital exclusion in Scotland. They are investing in 4G notspots to ensure greater coverage and investing £463 million in the Digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, which has extended fibre broadband access to more than 950,000 homes and businesses across Scotland.

The Scottish Government and COSLA are also promoting the digital participation charter, which has been signed by 673 organisations. That is important. Each organisation has committed to supporting their employees and people across Scotland to develop the essential digital skills needed to do their jobs, live their lives and use digital services with confidence. Other Members referred to the fact that we need to educate people on how to use digital services. It is as important as rolling out broadband and tackle the other fibre optic issues we have been talking about.

The digital divide may have existed before the pandemic, but it has been exacerbated by it. That is why the Scottish Government have invested in several digital inclusion programmes throughout the pandemic. So far they have invested £25 million for digital inclusion among school-ages children. More than 72,000 devices and over 14,000 connectivity packages have been distributed to learners across Scotland via this funding. That goes over and above the Connecting Scotland programme, which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned. He has pulled something out of a hat, because I have not read The Press and Journal, but I absolutely get his point. The Scottish Government were aiming to have everything done by the end of the year.

I did not honestly expect that the hon. Lady would know the details. I say to her colleagues, perhaps through herself, that the frustration that we have felt in our communities at the moment is from not knowing. It comes from not being told in the first instance and then not being given the explanation. There may well be a reasonable explanation, but not knowing it just leaves us wondering.

I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention. I assure him that I will try to find out, if I can. I make no guarantees or promises, but I will try. I do not think I can say any fairer than that.

Local authorities in Scotland also bear the responsibility for laptop and digital device provision to students, which is hugely important. In many cases, it is easier to do such things in Scotland through the 32 local authorities and COSLA, because it is more joined up. There has been investment in the Connecting Scotland programme, which helps to provide low-income households with digital devices and support, and the Scottish Government have now increased funding to more than £48 million.

In less than a year, Connecting Scotland has reached 9,000 people who are at clinically high risk, or extremely high risk, from covid-19. That was really important, because of the sense of isolation. As the Scottish National party’s disability spokesperson here at Westminster, I can vouch for the importance of helping deprived people who also suffer from extreme loneliness and physical disabilities to feel part of the community, even if that is done digitally. The Scottish Government are committed to tackling the digital divide in Scotland, and they will continue to do so.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to the R100 contracts. It is now largely a full-fibre programme, delivering full-fibre connections on the ground while the UK Government are still planning to do so. Will the Minister tell us how far they are getting along? If I talk about what is being done in Scotland, it is not because I think that everything is better in Scotland—though often it is—but because it is useful for other parts of the UK to learn from what we are doing and not to have to start reinventing wheels. The R100 contract delivery will extend beyond the end of 2021. The Scottish broadband voucher scheme will ensure that the 100% superfast commitment is met. The main voucher offers up £5,000 to obtain a superfast broadband connection, and the £400 interim voucher is available to those for whom a R100 contract bill will be delivered after 2021. Again, this work is ongoing.

The SNP is going far beyond the commitment to deliver access to superfast broadband, and a significant proportion of connections are being delivered as full fibre. Such technology will future-proof our connectivity, but Scotland’s topography means that the build is complex and will take time. We all recognise the different geographies and topographies across the UK, but if we are to move forward, it is really important that we get broadband out to everyone as soon as we can.

Despite broadband investment remaining fully reserved to the UK Government, which is where we get the two-Government approach, the SNP Scottish Government have taken by making substantial investments in Scotland’s digital infrastructure in order to improve coverage. The Scottish Government are committed to tackling the digital divide and will continue to do so. Will the UK Government do more to match Scotland’s digital ambitions and deliver key funding to tackle the digital divide? Will the Minister confirm that Scotland will receive its fair share of the £5 billion earmarked by the UK Government for investment in gigabit-capable infrastructure in order to carry out these ambitions? The SNP Scottish Government have chosen to focus on delivering technology that will underpin economic growth and connectivity for decades to come.

I have quoted several figures, but it is really important to think of the people behind the digital divide—the people who suffer because of it and who cannot be as ambitious as some of us are. It sometimes seems like a first-world problem when we complain about things such as not being able to get superfast broadband, but it is very difficult when someone is disabled and housebound and does not have the cash to buy digital equipment. If the UK Government are serious about levelling up, they must look at this issue in full, and commit to ensuring that those who have suffered throughout, before and after the pandemic have access to proper, good-quality broadband and digital equipment to help them grow and prosper.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ali. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for having secured this debate with the support of the APPG. He has long been an exceptional champion for digital inclusion.

I welcome the Minister to her position: this is the first time we have met on this brief, as it were. I hope that when addressing this critical issue, she will show similar passion to that of my right hon. Friend, and indeed the other Members who have contributed to today’s interesting and well-reasoned debate. From the hon. Members for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) and for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), we heard what I can only describe as damning examples of the digital divide in their constituencies, about which they feel very strongly, and rightly so.

The Labour party believes that technology can change lives for the better, and it already has. Families separated by geography are now connected online, and a world of experiences, advice and memes are available to everybody from their smartphone. In 2020, the pandemic placed technology firmly at the heart of our working and social lives: last year, the average UK adult spent about a quarter of their working life online. We are all digital citizens now, but that is a truth that cuts two ways, given the digital inequalities that so many face.

I start from the position that access to the internet should be a right, not a privilege, and I ask the Minister directly to tell us whether she believes that as well. Ensuring that access is a right and not a privilege means providing people with the skills and confidence to use the internet, as well as the necessary infrastructure, and ensuring that no one is priced out of important digital products and services. Unfortunately, digital skills, digital confidence and digital infrastructure are exactly what the Government have been getting wrong for the past 10 years, overturning the world-leading position they inherited from the last Labour Government.

Let me take each in turn. On digital skills, all I need to say is that the Government’s last digital inclusion strategy was published in 2014. That included a target of 90% online, which has largely been achieved. Is the Minister’s position then “job done”? Is it okay that 10 million people still lack the basic digital skills needed to function in today’s digital world, according to the Good Things Foundation? Is it acceptable that families have to choose between food and mobile data, and saw their children left without access to education every time there was a covid case at their school? Is it fine and dandy if small businesses cannot compete online? Will the Minister say when we will have a digital inclusion strategy?

A lack of digital skills can have wide-ranging implications, as we heard during this debate. Professor Arpana Verma found that digital inequalities have been increased by the digital revolution, and has noted an inextricable link between health literacy, digital literacy and financial literacy. Digital illiteracy also leaves people excluded from employment, and lower-income households are one of the groups most likely to face digital exclusion. I agreed with the Scottish National party’s spokeswoman, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), when she said that we have to think about the people behind these statistics and examples. The cost to society and individuals could not be greater, but the Government’s investment in digital inclusion is ad hoc and limited. Also, digital inclusion must include businesses, who must be able to do business in digital markets.

During the pandemic, many small businesses could survive only if they moved online. Grainger Market in my constituency—a historic and iconic covered market with many stallholders, none of whom were online when lockdown started in March 2020—moved online within three weeks, offering all kinds of produce and services to my constituents across the city, but it did not follow from that that they had the necessary digital skills, cyber-skills in particular, to maintain a sustainable and secure business. Yet the Government’s flagship Help to Grow digital scheme provides only £8.30 for each UK small and medium-sized enterprise. That is a missed opportunity to empower small businesses and workers to succeed in the digital age.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham mentioned the call for greater help in the community, and closing and reducing the opening hours of so many libraries has not helped there. Will the Minister say whether we will have a digital strategy for small business inclusion as well?

Digital skills and confidence are related, but are not quite the same thing. As a chartered engineer, I have been deeply disturbed by the way in which so many of my constituents are now fearful of technology. They are forced to claim benefits online when they cannot afford broadband, and required to sit on hold for hours as an algorithm determines their future. They see their children bullied online and their favourite footballers trolled online. They see public figures, particularly women in the public eye, attacked and often threatened online. They see their phone used as an instrument of surveillance by their employers and their employment cancelled by text message.

Ensuring digital confidence means supporting and empowering our digital citizens. It means introducing legislation that protects people online, but for 11 years that is exactly what successive Tory Governments have failed to do. Even now, four years after they finally promised legislation, we have the online safety Bill only in draft form, and that is inadequate on so many levels.

The Nominet Digital Youth Index, published today for the first time, highlights that nearly three in five young people in the LGBTQ+ community have experienced hate speech online. Nearly half of young people feel isolated, and one third of 17 to 19-year-olds say the internet has a negative impact on their mental health, but the online safety Bill does not prioritise action against racism, misogyny or homophobia. The draft Bill also manages to shift—this is quite an achievement—more power to the tech platforms, allowing them to mark their own homework without giving their executives any legal liability. It does give plenty of power to Ministers, but does not give the regulator the resources or powers necessary to guard against tomorrow’s future harms such as algorithmic control—a harm that is very much here, but is growing is scale.

Finally, I come to digital infrastructure. As we have heard, we have had another wasted decade. Internet access is an essential utility but, again, many households in this country do not have reliable broadband. The Prime Minister promised full fibre for everyone—I hope the Minister will tell us what happened to that promise—and then in 2019 that was downgraded to nationwide gigabit broadband coverage by 2025. Two years on, we now have a target of 85% gigabit broadband by 2025, but the actual plan shows that the Government will spend only £1.2 billion of the promised £5 billion to achieve that. No doubt the Minister will mention the rural broadband scheme, but the number of times it has been announced is, I think, greater than its number of users.

We need infrastructure to be affordable. A third of adults who are not online cite cost as a reason, according to research carried out by Lloyds. Two million households struggle to afford their internet bills. We have also heard that the universal service obligation is an obligation to provide service at whatever ridiculously high price it may be calculated at. To deliver a high-skilled, high-wage economy, all corners of the UK need to be able to access world-class digital infrastructure at affordable rates. Without it, we are pricing out a significant proportion of the population from the digital world.

As we have also heard today, charities and some businesses are working to address data and device poverty. The Good Things Foundation has built a national data bank to provide free mobile data for people on low incomes who need it, working with local community partners and mobile network operators. However, I hope that the Minister will appreciate what I mean when I say that it should not be up to charities to ensure digital equity, and I think the hon. Member for West Bromwich West highlighted that.

Labour decided, because of the lack of action from this Government, to take matters into our own hands. After months of consultation with a wide range of stakeholders— including businesses, platforms, individuals, charities, citizen organisations, trade unions and other groups—we published our report, “Our Digital Future”, in the summer. It set out the ways in which we can beef up digital skills, confidence and infrastructure, and improve digital public services to ensure digital inclusion.

Labour wants Britain to be the best place to grow up in, to work in, to raise children in and to grow old in. We want empowered citizens who do not merely have access to the internet as passive consumers but who are equipped with the skills and tools to make the most of technology, and who are protected from those who use technology to cause harm. To achieve this aim, we support a robust regulatory framework that protects users, and enhances individual and national security. Labour will consider whether we need a Minister whose portfolio is entirely focused on digital inclusion, to ensure proper digital access and bring everyone online. That is what closing the digital divide requires.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I hope that my voice holds up today. I have done my test and thankfully I do not have covid. However, I have a very tickly throat, so I hope that I do not have a conference whatever-it-was—2018?—moment. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this incredibly important debate, and I am grateful to other hon. Members for their useful and heartfelt contributions.

Improving digital connectivity for everybody across the UK is a priority for our Government, for all the reasons that have been cited. If we knew before the pandemic that digital services, infrastructure and skills were important, our experience during covid has really deepened that understanding, in ways that I do not think any of us could have imagined. The moving of so much economic activity online, as well as so much of our social lives, and even schooling and healthcare services, in the past 18 months to two years means that the challenges arising from any existing digital divide have been amplified. And just as our eyes are open to the huge opportunities presented by a more digital world, as set out by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), we have to be aware of the risk that people who do not have the confidence, the capability or the tools to access that world could be excluded from those opportunities. So, I am very grateful to hon. Members here in Westminster Hall today for highlighting that risk. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) really brought the issue to life in his contribution; I must say it was an excellent first contribution by him in Westminster Hall.

In my previous role, in the Cabinet Office, I looked closely at how we could improve online Government services for the citizen and tried to put accessibility, inclusion, trust and good customer services at the heart of the system that we are designing for a new Government app. A lot of work has also been going on about how easy it is to fill out forms online and how to streamline things on, so I hope that reassures the right hon. Member for East Ham that I will want to apply similar principles to my new role as the Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure. I want to know how our interventions are working on the ground for people. Are we getting people the connectivity they need? Are we equipping them with the right digital skills? Are we creating the right environment for companies to deliver? Are we putting resources in the right places?

There is a lot of work to do here and we are ambitious in what we want to achieve. But as we have discovered here today, there will be challenges along the way, which is why debates like this one are helpful to me as a Minister, because they give me intelligence about what is really going on on the ground, rather than just the official view.

On the pandemic, of course there were challenges, but the superfast infrastructure that was already there has held up pretty well. Huge amounts of work were done between telecom providers and Government on social tariffs and I want to try to build on some of that progress, because there was excellent working between some of the providers—thousands of laptops were provided.

In terms of isolation, when I spoke to some of the charities in my constituency, particularly those for disabled people, I found that they were able to innovate and introduce new ways of connecting with the people whom they were serving with quiz nights, meetings and different kinds of outreach which, for some people, was a new and beneficial addition to their life—notwithstanding all the other problems of isolation that, obviously, the pandemic brought.

Addressing the digital divide means that we make sure that everybody in the UK can access and use digital communication services. That means getting the right infrastructure in place to deliver connectivity for everybody. It means making digital skills training available to everybody who needs it. I will set out what we are doing in each of those areas. Some of those issues are covered by other ministerial colleagues, so I will take away the things that I am unable to cover in this debate. I also assure hon. Members that meetings are taking place between DCMS Ministers and ministerial colleagues in DFE and DWP, because we think there is a lot of overlap here and we need to get this policy right.

On connectivity and infrastructure, we are in the midst of the biggest digital build in UK history in the form of Project Gigabit, which aims for nationwide gigabit coverage. One of my concerns in this area is whether people understand why they should want gigabit speeds over superfast speeds—a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon. It is important to say that Project Gigabit is as much about future-proofing against the needs of tomorrow as it is about giving constituents lightning-fast speeds today. As we start to understand and anticipate a world where more and more applications depend on having reliable digital infrastructure, it is important that we have the highest quality infrastructure in place.

The best way to achieve gigabit coverage and eliminate the digital divide is to create a competition-friendly environment where deployment is commercially viable, and then to focus Government funds on that 20% of the country where we think commercial deployment is unlikely. This approach is working. In January 2019, 6% of premises had access to gigabit-capable networks. That figure is now 58% thanks to our thriving market of 80 providers. We think that will reach 60% by the end of this year, but we are targeting a minimum of 85% gigabit coverage by 2025.

To address the right hon. Member for East Ham on our targets, we have been transparent that delivering nationwide gigabit coverage by 2025 will be challenging. There are various different issues, including skills, where some of the commercial roll-out means that there is a challenge in trying to incentivise providers to want to provide for the very difficult, hard-to-reach areas. Our manifesto explicitly acknowledged how difficult it will be, but 85% coverage would still be a huge jump on 2019, when the coverage was 6%. That is not the limit of our ambitions and we want to keep going so that we get as close to 100% as possible by 2025. The Prime Minister is extremely passionate about that target and we want to make sure that he is not disappointed.

By listening to industry and working closely with Ofcom, we have made a number of policy and regulatory changes to stimulate the market, including instructing Ofcom to create a pro-investment, pro-competition regulatory system for telecoms. We are introducing a 130% super deduction on qualifying plants and machinery investments, which means that millions more homes are expected to receive coverage without any Government subsidy.

We want to change the law to make it easier to connect premises and blocks of flats. We are piloting innovative new approaches to streetworks, which we think will speed up build by 10% to 40%. We are working with industry to set up a gigabit take-up advisory group with the Confederation of British Industry and the Federation of Small Businesses, so that we can increase consumer demand for gigabit and incentivise further investment from the private sector.

I am listening with great interest to what the Minister is saying. She has explained a little about why the target was downgraded from, I think, initially 100% fibre by 2025 to 85% now. Surely it would be possible to do better if more of the funding was available earlier, rather than much of the £5 billion being postponed until after 2025. Could it not be brought forward again?

It is all part of the Treasury gating process. The money is available, but there needs to be confidence of success. We will have to iron out some difficulties in the way that we procure contracts, and learn some of the lessons that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon referred to in relation to the superfast roll-out and other parts of the gigabit coverage. There will be a bit of testing to see what works best before the Treasury is confident to release the next funds. However, the funds are available. I am happy to explore that further with the right hon. Gentleman if he would like more details.

Since 2018, we have provided gigabit coverage to more than 600,000 rural premises, so that the same commercial and other opportunities reliant on connectivity can be provided for those living in the countryside as those living in towns.

On the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) about the holding factors in rolling out superfast broadband, the Minister mentioned skills. I understand that the skills necessary to dig up so many roles may be limited at the moment. What is she doing to increase the number of skilled engineers needed for the roll-out?

That is one of the issues that we are talking to the DWP about. We are also working very closely with the likes of Openreach and others to try and get that skills pipeline going, because it will be critical to the success of the roll-out.

Those 600,000 rural premises are just the start. In Devon and Somerset, 66,000 further premises now have gigabit coverage through the gigabit-capable delivery as part of the superfast broadband programme. I have been pressing officials on some of the previous challenges of that programme further to discussions that I have had in the Lobby with my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon.

We have a number of interventions to address the part of the build that we think the market will not cover, including broadband vouchers. We are funding full-fibre networks at 1,084 schools that were previously stuck in the digital slow lane, and we want to connect 6,800 public buildings by the end of the year, including hospitals, GP surgeries and fire stations. That was another important point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon.

We are also bringing forward procurements to provide coverage to as many of the remaining premises as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West raised some incredibly important points about some of the issues that the Public Accounts Committee looked at in relation to procurement, which are very much on my mind. I want to make sure we get this right, but there will be challenges.

The first procurement for Cumbria got under way last month, and further procurements will begin shortly for areas including Cambridgeshire, Durham, Northumberland and parts of Dorset. We will then continue with the pipeline of procurements to cover the rest of the UK as quickly as possible. I note the points raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) about Scotland. I am exploring BDUK’s relationship with the Scottish Government and what more we can do to help people in the devolved nations. I am talking to my officials about that.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. I want to make sure I have understood the point she is making. Is she saying that the constraint is the industry’s capacity to deliver the infrastructure?

I think there are challenges with that; yes. As I say, it is something that I am discussing closely with industry. There are some questions about where we want to target resource because, looking at the final percentages, those will be the hardest to reach. It will require a different kind of manpower and skill, and it will require much more resource and time. We have to decide whether to go for the hardest-to-reach areas or to focus resource on getting as many people covered as possible. Those are some of the tricky choices that have to be made. I am fairly new to this brief, so I am trying to work my way through all these questions with officials.

If the industry comes forward with proposals with capacity to deliver this more quickly than achieving 85% coverage by 2025—and the funding could be brought forward, as the Minister said—would she be open to looking at possibilities along those lines?

Yes, we certainly would. I appreciate the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making.

Since the launch of the broadband universal service obligation, which has been raised by a number of Members, BT has already delivered USO connections covering more than 3,700 homes, and it is in the process of building more than 2,500 more. Ofcom now estimates that just 134,000 premises—or 0.4%—do not have access to a decent broadband service and they may therefore be eligible for a USO connection. However, to address the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns, we know that some premises have received very high quotes and may therefore be very hard to reach, potentially requiring a different approach to deliver cost-effective upgrades. That is why, in March, we published a call for evidence on delivering improved broadband to very hard-to-reach premises.

In addition, Ofcom announced in July that as a result of its investigation, BT has provided assurances that it would use Ofcom’s approach to calculating excess cost quotes. I therefore encourage anybody who had previously been given a universal service obligation quote to speak to BT, if they have not already been contacted.

The progress that we are making with gigabit builds on the earlier success of our superfast broadband programme. The final independent evaluation of superfast by Ipsos MORI concluded that the programme met its objectives to reduce the digital divide and have significant local economic impact, including through the creation of 17,000 jobs and an increase in the annual turnover of local businesses by approximately £1.9 billion, which underlines the importance of connectivity.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon mentioned the telecom industry’s plans to look at a landline upgrade by 2025. I appreciate the importance of landlines, particularly to older people. I want to be clear that nobody is having their landline taken away or removed. The way that landlines work in the UK is changing. Providers are moving from the old public switched telephone network to the new voice over internet protocol technology.

The PSTN is a privately-owned telecoms network and the decision to upgrade it was taken by the telecoms industry. What people often miss about the issue is that the industry’s decision to upgrade the PSTN is due to necessity, because that network is increasingly unreliable and prone to failure, with some telecoms companies finding it very hard to source certain replacements or spare parts to maintain or repair connections. That makes it very unreliable for consumers long into the future.

The VOIP technology is expected to offer consumers clearer and better-quality phone calls, but I assure hon. Members that we are working extensively with Ofcom, the emergency services and others to ensure that all consumers and sectors are fully prepared for the migration in 2025.

I thank the Minister for giving way and making such efforts to communicate with us. With regard to her comments about the public switched telephone network, while it is true that they will not be ripping the lines out of people’s homes, as I hope she knows well one of the features of the PSTN is that it carries power down the lines, which is not a feature of VOIP. People will find that some aspects of the reliability of their telephones will change—if there is a power outage, for example. What proportion of people are aware that the PSTN will be switched off?

I will be looking closely at that issue. I am fairly new to my brief, so I have not explored it in as much detail as I would like, but I will take away the hon. Lady’s points and get back to her. She is a telecoms engineer herself, so her expertise far outweighs mine in that field.

We have an ambition to look at 5G signal and ensure that the majority of the population have access to it by 2017, because that can also help with bridging the digital divide and dealing with some of the issues of connectivity for those who are slightly behind on the gigabit roll-out. I am pleased that all four network providers have now launched 5G services and that 5G service availability has risen tenfold since December 2019; but there is still a long way to go.

While the vast majority of investment in the roll-out is being made by the private sector, my Department has launched the £200 million 5G testbeds and trials programme to prove that demand for 5G service is a reality. Once we have established the demand, we need to move into the next phase, which is driving the roll-out and adoption of 5G to level up and boost the economy across the Union.

A number of hon. Members have raised the shared rural network, which is incredibly important and tries to deal with the issue of notspots. The agreement on the shared rural network will see the Government and industry jointly invest over £1 billion to increase 4G mobile coverage throughout the UK, to 95% geographic coverage by the end of the programme.

The electronic communications code plays an integral part in delivering our digital networks, and we reformed it in 2017 to make the roll-out faster and more cost-efficient, but we recognise that further changes need to be made. We are looking at some reforms, which we will be bringing forward shortly.

Before I finish, I want to talk about some of the digital skills inclusion issues that have been discussed today. DCMS works closely with the rest of Government to ensure that all Departments are considering the needs of digitally-excluded people when making policy. I talked earlier about the nascent one log-in for Government project and the funding for that. When I was in the Cabinet Office, we made sure that included digitising the Home Office’s births, deaths and marriages register, so that people with a smaller footprint do not find themselves digitally excluded as more and more services move online. I want to apply some of the principles of the work that I did in the Cabinet Office to my new role, particularly when it comes to digital identity and ensuring that people are not excluded as digital identity becomes more of an everyday part of their lives.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital access and digital capability for connecting with family and accessing vital services online. Digital skills are required across all sectors of the economy, but are now more important than ever. Our tech industry is also continuing to grow and create a vast amount of jobs, so we do not want people to be excluded from those.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. I hope that she will not finish without addressing my question about a digital inclusion strategy. The vast majority of her speech has been on infrastructure but, as we know very well, skills and confidence are going to drive the take-up of digital services and digital inclusion.

As I said, I am working with Ministers in DWP and DFE to look at some of those issues of digital inclusion, but I will take away the hon. Lady’s specific point.

Over the past three years DCMS has supported the development of seven local digital skills partnerships, in Lancashire, the heart of the south-west, the west midlands, the south-east, Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and, more recently, West Yorkshire. We are going to launch the eighth in Hull and East Yorkshire in mid-December. Those partnerships bring together large employers, regional academia, the local public sector and training providers from the region to collaborate and develop digital skills programmes that help build capability in the regions and reduce the digital divide. That was very evident in the early stages of the pandemic lockdown, when all seven regions worked with multiple stakeholders to ensure that the most vulnerable in our communities had access to the internet and were supported with relevant digital skills training to get online.

We have also funded the fast track digital workforce fund, a £3 million digital bootcamp based in Greater Manchester and Lancashire. The fund aims to move those in low-skilled and low-paid jobs into better-quality digital roles that meet the needs of the local economy.

In response to covid, and in partnership with social change charity the Good Things Foundation, we also launched the digital lifeline in February 2021. That is a £2.5 million fund that aims to reduce the digital exclusion of people with learning disabilities in particular, by providing free devices, data and digital support to over 5,000 people with learning difficulties who cannot afford to get online. In September, we also partnered with industry leaders to launch the digital inclusion impact group to tackle digital exclusion. One of the pilot programmes, Dell donate to educate, will support children with the right access to technology at school and at home. As I said, progress of all of those items will require a lot of cross-Government work with colleagues in other Departments.

Once again, I thank right hon. and hon. Members for securing the debate, and also the all-party parliamentary group on broadband and digital communication for its work. As everyone recognises, improving digital connectivity for everybody across the UK is a priority. We are working with energy to deliver fantastic digital infrastructure across the country. We are trying to design accessible online Government services. We are investing in digital skills. Those are big tasks, and we will of course encounter challenges along the way. The pandemic has made the online world ever more integrated with the offline one, and I hope that hon. Members will work with me to ensure that every citizen can be taken along on this journey, so that people from every part of our country and from all walks of life feel that technology is ultimately an empowering force.

Thank you for the opportunity to say a few remarks by way of concluding, Ms Ali. I am grateful to the Minister and to all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate.

I particularly welcome the Minister’s offer that if the industry proposed to extend the fibre and gigabit infrastructure at a faster rate than is projected to meet the current target of 85% by 2025, it would be possible for some of the £5 billion that has been earmarked for that to be brought forward before 2025, and hopefully to get a higher level of penetration than the current 85% target. If that is possible—and I want to pass on a message to the industry to look at what they could achieve if additional funding was available—I would hope that that would really help in Orkney and Shetland, North Devon and elsewhere around the UK.

I hope as well that the Minister will be updating the digital inclusion strategy, which we last saw in 2014. I welcome a number of the points that she made towards the end of her speech about that, and I particularly welcome the work that she described the Department undertaking with the Good Things Foundation. However, if that was all set out as a strategy, that would be encouraging and would help achieve the goals that we have all agreed are so important.

I am very grateful for the opportunity we have had to air the matter of tackling the digital divide this afternoon. I hope that we shall be able to review it regularly over the months ahead, given its importance to the inclusion of all our constituents.

Question put and agreed to.


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

Sitting adjourned.