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Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:50 pm on 25th March 2020.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Industrial Strategy) 4:50 pm, 25th March 2020

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Without wishing to go into the financial crisis and the, in my opinion, very well deserved backlash against the financial sector, which continued to make profits while so many people felt the impact of that crisis, it now has the opportunity to demonstrate the social value and support it can provide in times of crisis and emergency, especially, as my hon. Friend says, for those who have taken out loans or credit cards and those who need loans. Many businesses are still saying to me that they are not getting the loans that they are promised, particularly the tech sector start-ups, which rarely have the assets that banks feel are necessary to offer such loans. We want greater corporate citizenship from the financial sector and from other businesses, too.

I applaud and echo what many of my colleagues have said about those who are suffering the most in this crisis, but my focus is on the impact of the digital divide in our country in relation to coronavirus. We know that access to and ability to use the internet is not evenly spread across our society. In the UK, data from the Office for National Statistics indicates that in 2018, 10% of adults said they did not have access to the internet at home, while 4.3 million had no demonstrable digital skills. That data also showed that 12% of those aged between 11 and 18 years reported having no internet access at home from a computer or tablet.

Since 2011, adults over the age of 65 have consistently made up the largest proportion of adult non-users of the internet. More than half of all adult internet non-users were over the age of 75. Across all age groups, disabled adults make up a large proportion of adult internet non-users.

In normal times, access to the internet improves hugely the chances of, for example, finding work. It also, as we have heard, makes it easier to access universal credit—in fact, it is essential to access universal credit—and it enables people to connect and communicate better with family, friends and the community. These are not normal times, however, and for the next few weeks and perhaps the next few months, social distancing is going to be the norm. Social distancing must be accompanied by digital coming-together, and for that we need digital skills and digital access. We have heard about the implications for mental health of isolation without the ability to communicate. I want the Minister to think about what that means for the 11% who have no access to the internet.

What I want to see from the Government in the next few days is first, digital skills. There are those who have access to the internet but do not have the real digital skills to use it. They need to be able to take advantage of the many different courses and means of entertainment and so on, which are all fantastically being developed at the moment. They need the digital skills to be able to access that. In that respect, I recommend the work of Sue Black with the #techmums initiative, which is still rolling out during coronavirus, and also the work of many other charities.

Secondly, there is the question of capacity. Here I am really concerned, because all we have had from the internet service providers and network operators is general vague promises that there will be the capacity and it will all be fine and all right. To be frank—I have been known to mention this, but I will say it again—as someone who worked designing telecom networks as an engineer for 20 years, that does not reflect at all my experience. Capacity needs to be dimensioned and built in. There will be capacity now that is dedicated to business networks that may need to be moved over to support home networks with the huge increase we are seeing in working from home.

Moreover, we need to be able to secure capacity for our essential services. I am already hearing that in Newcastle, for example, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust cannot provide the capacity for administrative workers to work from home. If those essential services can be delivered from home, it frees up space and hospitals and car parks and so on.

Just as with personal protective equipment—we had a lot of time to prepare that was perhaps not best used, and there was a lot of talk about everything being okay, which has turned out not to be the case—I fear that over the next few weeks, when we are all confined to our homes with only the internet to serve as a social medium that we can take advantage of, we will find that there is not enough capacity. Networks will fall over. There will be delays and, as always, it will be the most vulnerable and the poorest who will suffer most. I would like to see modelling of the traffic impact on our networks. I would also like to see a commitment to digital access for all, particularly for young people and schoolchildren who will be expected to be learning from home. They need to have free access to the internet to enable them to do that.

Moving on, I want to say a little bit about where we need to go from here. In economics classes, we were taught that the virtue of a capitalist market economy is that it ensures the efficient allocation of capital, as market competition drives inefficiencies out of the system, ensuring the cheapest, most innovative products and services possible. The best the state can do, we were told, is to get out of the way. But the capacity to deal with a major health or economic shock is, by definition, inefficient when that shock is not there, so extra ventilators and stocks of masks or toilet paper are inefficiencies that the free market system drives out. They can only be provided and stocked by the state, and the problem with the lean, mean state machine that the Conservatives advocate and have done their best to create over the 10 years of austerity is that the state is then no longer equipped to provide the resilience, the stock and the inefficiencies that are necessary to support our population in a time of crisis as we have now.

This is a war, and as a war it has real heroes—NHS workers, care workers, teachers, transport workers and cleaners. Not all of them are in the public sector: we have heroes in the private sector too, in supermarkets with our retail workers, and those isolating at home, which is something we have never asked people to do before. As a woman of colour, I know that there is despair at the realisation that natural hair may no longer be a choice, but the only option for us. There are many sacrifices, large and small, which are expected to be made over the next few weeks. Obviously, not everybody faces the particular challenge I just mentioned.

The heroes of this war must be rewarded. After the second world war, we had the national health service, homes fit for heroes and the welfare state. After this battle, we need an economy fit for heroes. We who have the privilege of walking in these corridors of power are insulated from some of the worst impacts—the desperation, the fear and the confusion that I know is going on in homes across Newcastle. I want the Minister’s reassurance that we will build a better and fairer economy out of this desperate crisis in order to be an economy fit for the heroes who are now helping us to drive out coronavirus.

I want to end on a note of hope and optimism, because in Newcastle and across the country we have vibrant, active people who want to do the right thing and want to support and look after others. We have great communities across our country, such as in Newcastle with the Newcastle City Council city lifeline, which allows people to volunteer their time to support community organisations and projects. We have already heard that the national Government scheme for national health service volunteers has been inundated.

Newcastle upon Tyne Central has 11 active community Facebook groups that residents can post their needs and volunteers commit their time to. Slatyford tenants association in my constituency, which offers bingo and tea once a week, has closed down for the duration of the coronavirus crisis, but is looking forward to opening again. Mrs T’s Café in Blakelaw, which supports the local community through excellent nutritious food, is looking forward to getting back.

Of course, we also have our food banks. Newcastle United Supporters Trust is one of the most impressive organisations I have ever seen. As a Newcastle United supporter, one of the most inspiring sights on a Saturday when walking past St James’ Park is the Newcastle United Supporters Trust stall, where those shaking the buckets, as I have done, will find people putting in £1, £5, £10 or £20. We should not need food banks, but when we do, such generosity from Geordies and people across the country is inspiring. Although we cannot have stalls on the streets—we have no more football matches for a while—we still get fantastic support online. Food is being donated by businesses such as Fenwick, TK Maxx and Thorntons. Geordies from Newcastle, but also from Brighton, London and, I understand, the Falkland Islands have donated money online. We also have Newcastle United Foundation, which is delivering hot meals to schoolchildren. They all need our support, as do our theatres, cinemas and charities.

Much of the real world is going online and we need to ensure that we have a real-world community, as well as real employment and a real support and welfare sector for when the crisis is over, when we can build an economy fit for the heroes we will create.