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Internet Access

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2021

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend the universal service obligation for internet providers to include mobile internet access; to make requirements regarding internet access for children eligible for free school meals; to require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on progress in reducing digital inequalities; and for connected purposes.

Yesterday—although I had lost track of which day it was—I was talking to a broadcast journalist about this motion, and just as I was getting into the details of the wireless telegraphy regulations he said, “Darren, we cannot cover it tomorrow: we are doing back-to-back coverage of the presidential inauguration.” I understand that I am competing a little with the news cycle today, but I am grateful for the opportunity to plant this important flag in the sand and get this on the record.

This pandemic has highlighted many of the inequalities that have existed in our country for a long time. For children, many of whom have lost so much time at school, the long-term impact of the pandemic on their life chances could be severe. For families on low incomes, getting access to online schooling has been difficult; for many, buying new laptops and paying for high-speed broadband is just not a possibility. It is estimated that up to 2 million children in our country do not have the internet access that they need to learn from home. Although temporary solutions are welcome and important during the immediacy of the lockdown, mobile data uplifts and free access to certain educational websites will not provide the long-term solution that we need to tackle digital poverty in our country.

The Bill is not just about mobile data, wi-fi dongles or broadband policy; it is much more important than that. For many young people, education is the ticket to improving their lives. When I was at school, the internet was not as important as it is today, but getting the grades that I needed to get myself into university and to secure a career was the most important thing. I grew up knowing how difficult it could be for working parents who struggle to make ends meet. In the days before Labour introduced the national minimum wage, it was particularly hard, but the issues continue today.

I want the House and the Government to think about this motion in the context of families throughout the country—parents who desperately want to do the best for their kids, who simply cannot afford to buy a laptop or pay for broadband at home. Ofcom estimates that one in five families struggle to pay their monthly telecoms bill. Think of the young people who want to learn, work hard and do well at school because they know it is their only shot at a better life. Just think of them at home, unable to get online to learn, unsure about how they will be examined and anxious about how much they will have to catch up on. My ask of Ministers today is not just about broadband policy; it is about the hope that our children have for the possibilities of their tomorrow. We all have a duty to help them.

Dare I say it is easy for Opposition Members to stand up and point out the mistakes that Ministers have made and to suggest that the Government are not good enough—I often agree with that and no doubt will continue to do so myself—but today I am offering a solution that can work. The obvious long-term solution is to require a low-cost social tariff for broadband for families who need it. Ministers already have the power to do so in law: I draw colleagues’ attention to new section 72D in the Electronic Communications and Wireless Telegraphy (Amendment) (European Electronic Communications Code and EU Exit) Regulations 2020, which sets out the process through which the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport can direct the broadband regulator, Ofcom, to mandate internet providers to provide broadband at “a social tariff”—or, more meaningfully, at a price that the majority of families can afford and for which the lowest-income households are eligible.

Unusually, with this motion I am not asking for a new spending commitment from the Treasury. Ministers could, today, ask Ofcom to set up a social tariff for broadband without additional spending commitments on behalf of the state. Under my proposal, every household with children eligible for free school meals—1.4 million children throughout the country—could benefit. A social tariff that costs around £10 to £15 a month for broadband would make a huge difference.

As schools reopen for all our children, online learning will no doubt become a permanent feature, as schools provide additional online content for children to catch up on the schooling that they have missed during the pandemic. This is especially important for children from less advantaged backgrounds. The Sutton Trust’s polling from just this month found that only one in 20 schoolteachers from state schools believe that every member of their class had adequate internet access. Teachers are desperate to do all that they can to help their pupils, but on internet access at home they need us to help fix it.

I am sure that all of us have heard similar stories from our constituencies. At Blaise High School in my constituency, for example, 115 students have been identified as not accessing online learning and 89 students have been known to work from a mobile phone or a device shared with other family members. That is just one school. These are students who entered this crisis at an educational disadvantage, began the academic year even further behind, and now face the prospect of yet more months stuck at home, in which they will have to both keep pace with current work and begin the long process of catching up.

I am grateful to the Minister, the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), for having taken the time to discuss my proposals with me. I have seen the Department’s official response today, which reads:

“We agree digital connectivity is vital. Large providers already offer social tariffs, and we have worked with them during the pandemic to make sure people have the connectivity they need. We welcome Ofcom encouraging other providers to introduce social tariffs and will monitor the situation closely.”

Those broadly welcome comments, albeit that the Opposition do not think that the Government have done enough on internet access during the pandemic, when translated from Whitehall speak, if I might be so bold, give the internet service companies and Ofcom the opportunity to fix this now, without the need for Ministers to intervene.

Ministers rightly refer to some low-cost tariffs that already exist from the likes of BT—I should declare my interest as a former lawyer at BT—but, having spoken with BT about my proposals, I think we can all agree that the existing products are not entirely fit for purpose, and eligibility for low-cost broadband is not broad enough to cover all the families that need it. In my view, we need a standardised social tariff option from all the internet service providers, with a sign-up process that is quick and easy for families with children on free school meals to sign up to. I will call internet service providers to a roundtable in the next few weeks to get that work started, and I look forward to working with them, but if the companies fail to step up to the challenge I will be back here pushing Ministers to use their statutory powers quickly to require a social tariff by law.

In addition to providing a low-cost social tariff for broadband, my Bill also asks for two additional things from Government. First, providers who want to offer free or zero-rated access educational platforms have raised the legitimate concern that lots of affected websites, such as YouTube or the BBC, are obviously not exclusively used for schoolwork. Ministers could make it easier to zero-rate access to educational content by asking the Government Digital Service to, for example, build a single gov.uk URL that brings together educational material on to a single website, which could then be easily accessed at no cost.

Secondly, the experience of the existing universal service obligation for broadband has demonstrated that cost is not the only barrier to productivity. For some families in hard-to-reach and rural communities, the basic infrastructure challenge remains significant, and has imposed a limit on the ambitions of the universal broadband obligation. In spite of real progress, last month’s “Connected Nations” report from Ofcom identified around 43,000 properties that still cannot feasibly access fixed broadband and currently lack good indoor 4G mobile connectivity.

Part of the solution is therefore likely to involve expanding mobile coverage. As we look to a post-crisis future in which we all remain more reliant on remote working and learning, it is reasonable to ask what a universal right to have a mobile 4G signal might look like. I know that Ministers have given some thought to that question because they made statutory provision to do so last year. This is merely a gentle nudge to push that important work forward.

Lastly, I thank the co-sponsors of the Bill, in whose number are three former Secretaries of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport—the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw)—as well as the Liberal Democrat, Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru spokespeople for education and DCMS policy, the hon. Members for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for Ceredigion (Ben Lake); my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), who is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on digital skills; and my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who continues to campaign tirelessly on digital poverty.

Many colleagues in this House have raised the issue of digital poverty. The Bill commands cross-party support, including from the most senior levels, both inside this House and outside of it. Many are working hard to find solutions, but the proposals in my Bill provide an easy, long-term, cost-free solution to Ministers. Lastly, I ask them again not to see this as a proposal from an Opposition MP, or a niche request about broadband policy, but to recognise our collective responsibility in this House to help our children have hope about their future. We can and must get on with this now.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Darren Jones, Karen Bradley, Jeremy Wright, Mr Ben Bradshaw, Daisy Cooper, Jamie Stone, Carol Monaghan, Ben Lake, Julie Elliott and Siobhain McDonagh present the Bill.

Darren Jones accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 241).