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Digital Technology

Volume 702: debated on Monday 23 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What measures they are taking to maximise the use of digital technologies to improve the individual social and economic well-being of children and the elderly whilst minimising the potential risks.

My Lords, the Minister with responsibility for digital inclusion, the right honourable Paul Murphy, leads a new cross-government Cabinet committee to co-ordinate and promote policies that will ensure that all citizens, especially disadvantaged people, will benefit from the use of digital technologies. A digital equality action plan is due to be published shortly.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that almost one-third of adults in Britain have never been online through any platform? Does she agree that the Government’s current strategy for digital inclusion, to which she referred, has made no discernable difference to the take-up of digital technology? Will she explain why the headline statistics for the use of digital technology, recently published by the ONS, have remained virtually unchanged, at around 65 per cent for individuals and 45 per cent for households, over the past two years?

My Lords, I agree that one-third of people are not accessing the internet. It is very serious because they are the people least likely not to benefit. By and large, they are in the lower income strata. For example, the figure includes half of people with an income under £10,400. That is serious. I do not agree with the noble Lord that nothing has happened. For example, over the past few years, we have seen a significant expansion of UK online centres. We have put £580 million into 6,000 centres, which can be accessed anywhere by people who have no knowledge of computing. We are working to develop in the new strategy a coherent equality programme for hard-to-reach people, including some young people.

My Lords, I must declare an interest as having a brother-in-law who is severely partially sighted. Is the Minister aware of the frustration felt by blind and partially sighted people who have heard, and sometimes seen in part, advertisements on the television for audio description but find that only 10 per cent of programmes actually have it? What do the Government intend to do about that?

My Lords, the target is certainly 10 per cent, but I understand that most channels are programming for a higher figure. I take the point very seriously. In addition, Digital UK is distributing the Good Neighbours Guide to charities and community groups, which can then inform their clients about what help is available to users with particular needs when they switch over to digital TV. The Digital Switchover Help Scheme will also assist people with disabilities. I hope that they will be able to access that.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of Age Concern Surrey, which runs a computer drop-in centre. Is the Minister aware that increasingly such things as booking tickets have to be done online? Does she think that the library service in this country provides enough help to those who do not know how to access online information and make such bookings?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. It is interesting that 35 per cent of people over 65 use the internet—they are among the most intensive users. I suspect that many in your Lordships’ House qualify as silver surfers; in fact, seeing the e-mail traffic, I am sure of that. As everything is online these days, it is precisely people with leisure time who could get most benefit from internet access. It helps to reduce the isolation of older people and, critically, connects them via e-mail with their friends and services such as doctors. We have a big job to do.

My Lords, in view of the speed with which things have moved on since the Communications Act 2003, does the Minister think that Ofcom has enough responsibilities, interests and power in this area?

My Lords, as far as I am aware, it has. Given, for example, the risks that children are exposed to through access to the internet, we need to challenge the industry to do more. One outcome of the Byron report on child safety on the internet was the setting up of a UK council, including people from the industry, to address these issues.

My Lords, the Government are to be praised for increasing computer involvement among the community. However, the fact remains that they have a very unfortunate record on computer security. Computer communication is a two-way system. Can the Minister assure the House that nobody who communicates with the Government increases the risk of their computer identity being moved elsewhere and possibly abused as a result of that contact?

My Lords, there are strict protocols for handling government data and security. I refer the noble Lord to the Statement made in December last year by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, announcing the data handling review, about which we will inform the House when we can.

My Lords, what is being done to ensure that every young person receives training in digital literacy? Is the Minister aware of the CBI survey which found that 50 per cent of employers interviewed thought that their young employees’ digital literacy was very poor?

My Lords, we tend to think that all young people are computer literate, but they are not. The UK online centres and the myguide introduction to computer literacy are extremely helpful and targeted at young people as well. The noble Earl will also be interested to know that, between 2006 and 2008, Computers for Pupils put computers into the homes of 100,000 of the poorest families, so that children who did not have a computer could access one. That is the answer to the question. It is also important to share skills. We have lots of marvellous examples, particularly in the third sector, where young people have helped older people to understand and use their mobile phones and computers. It can work the other way round as well.