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Broadband: Social Tariffs

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that eligible households are aware of the social broadband tariffs available to them.

My Lords, while there is a good availability of low-cost offers for broadband customers, low take-up remains an issue, partly due to the need for greater awareness. My department is working with a range of parties, including other government departments, jobcentres, libraries, local authorities, charities, consumer groups and internet service providers, to get the message to everyone eligible. The Government are also raising awareness through the UK-wide Help for Households campaign so that families up and down the country know how and where to find these offers.

My Lords, millions and millions of people—up to 4 million on benefit—are spending more than they need to on their broadband, as the take-up of social tariffs is shockingly low. We need to do more. Digital inclusion matters: without it, we know that people are economically and socially disadvantaged. I take the point about awareness but is it not time for the Government to work with internet service providers to do two things? First, they should ensure an industry standard for all social tariffs for speed, terms and costs. Secondly, and most importantly, they should create an auto-enrolment scheme so that everybody who is entitled to a social tariff and a data voucher receives them.

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, whose Question is helping us to raise awareness for all those that need it. As I said, we are working with a number of groups and parties across the country to get the message out. She rightly underlines the importance of the internet to the way everybody leads their lives. One of the myths to bust is that the speed provided on a social tariff is inferior to other ones. Many providers offer very good services for people, and we are keen to get the message out, through our communications campaign and our work with the Department for Work and Pensions, on the other issues she mentions.

My Lords, the Minister is right in what he says, but while we all support the universal need for broadband, since 26 December last year, as he knows, planning regulations have been changed so that all new-build housing must have full-fibre broadband provision. Is he satisfied with that, and does he not think there are other ways in which we can encourage providers to provide full fibre for a much wider area of the country?

My noble friend is right to point to the changes that were made in the building regulations on Boxing Day. That, of course, sits alongside the work we have taken forward through two telecommunications infrastructure Acts to help ensure that connectivity reaches more households, particularly those in large blocks of flats. It accompanies our wider work to ensure that everyone has access to high-speed internet. As a result of that, 73% of UK premises can now access gigabit-capable broadband, a huge increase from just 6% this time four years ago.

My Lords, lack of access to digital devices is a major cause of data poverty. What resources are the Government providing, and what steps are they taking, to make sure that public bodies such as GP practices and schools ensure that families in data poverty can access digital-only services? Do the Government even have a comprehensive digital exclusion policy?

By its nature, this, of course, touches on the work of any government department. The Department for Education, through its digital entitlement programme, is equipping people with digital skills. DCMS encourages departments to consider, when making policy, the needs of people who might be digitally excluded. It is supporting that through, for instance, its work with the approximately 2,900 libraries nationwide to make sure that people can get online there if they need to.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that BT has said that by 2025, it is going to disconnect all wi-fi copper connections, and that the average cost for all consumers will be about £100 a month? How is anybody going to afford this?

We are working with providers to make sure that faster broadband connection can be rolled out to people across the country and that those costs are not passed on to consumers. It is of course in providers’ interests to provide fast connections and products that people want to use.

My Lords, given the pressure on hospital beds and the move to virtual wards, whereby patients are looked after at home and monitored through electronic devices, what are the Government doing to ensure the rapid installation of adequate broadband in homes with no connectivity, so that patients can be cared for in these virtual wards —which are being set up specifically because there are not enough beds in the NHS to take them?

The noble Baroness touches on work about which it may be better for my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to respond. We are working to ensure that everybody has connection to high-speed internet, and through social tariffs it is now available in 99% of the country.

My Lords, many millions of people can neither afford to use internet broadband nor even own a smartphone, especially the elderly. Government figures suggest that more than 90% of people under 60 are digitally enabled, but approximately half of over-75s are not. Can my noble friend the Minister comment on the apparent age discrimination inherent in allowing the accessing of essential public services, banking, making parking payments and more to require ownership or use of an app or the internet? What is the Government’s strategy for remedying that digital exclusion?

My noble friend is right about the different impacts this has on people of different ages. While accessing services online provides clear benefits to people, I know that many companies are mindful of those who are not yet able to do so. As I have said, we are ensuring that everyone who wishes to do so has access to high-speed internet. Through social tariffs, they know that they can afford it, so if they wish to access those services online, they can.

My Lords, the Government are handing £5 billion to BT for broadband provision. Under that deal, BT will keep the resulting assets and income streams for years and years to come. Can the Minister explain why, as part of that deal, the Government did not ask for free broadband for all poor and vulnerable households?

As I have said, the industry is responding, with a number of operators providing low-cost social tariffs for people who want them. We think that a voluntary, market-led approach is the quickest way to provide fast internet connection to everybody, and we are very grateful for the industry’s co-operation.

My Lords, can the Minister come back to the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann? It appears that some government departments will accept payments only if they are made online, thereby excluding millions of people from engagement. What are the Government going to do to be more inclusive?

My Lords, I will discuss that with colleagues in other departments who are responsible for that particular aspect.

My Lords, as the Minister himself acknowledged, automatic verification of eligibility for cheaper broadband and mobile tariffs is just one side of the story, as only 136,000 households are signed up, with potentially millions not receiving the help they could benefit from. What assessment has been made of the low-income groups who are missing out? Can the Minister commit to a targeted rather than a general campaign to increase take-up—for example, contacting claimants directly? After all, the Government are aware of who they are.

The Department for Work and Pensions is working with operators to ensure that the digital verification system is consistent with that. Earlier this month, Sky became the first national provider to go live on that system, with others following in the coming weeks and months. The noble Baroness is right: this and our broader work to help households is part of a large communications campaign that is indeed targeted at the households we think will benefit from it. For example, there are adverts on cash- points, the sides of buses and pub TV screens, and leaflets have been disseminated to 150 supermarkets and to food banks and hospitals around the country to ensure that the message gets to those who will benefit from it.

My Lords, would the Minister like to try again to answer my noble friend Lord Sikka’s question? Can he say why BT has not been required to offer free broadband to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, who clearly have some of the greatest need?

I did answer the question. We consider that the quickest way to get this help out is through a voluntary, market-led approach. The social tariffs are available in 99% of the country, and our communications work is to ensure that people are aware of them and take them up.