My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for tabling today’s debate. As well as the powerful economic reasons for improving digital understanding, there are also some very important social reasons why we need to look at this key area. As our lives move increasingly online, we risk leaving those at the margins and without digital understanding even further behind.
I will talk very briefly about the digital inclusion and access required for improved understanding to occur. The charity Scope has pointed out that 70% of disabled people have internet access compared with 94% of non-disabled people. According to Age UK, more than 1 million older people report going more than a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. Digital inclusion is a vital and important way to combat loneliness and strengthen social links. Online connections provide lifelines for those who struggle to leave their homes, sometimes because of illness, and to keep in touch with family and friends. Efforts to improve digital understanding should not overlook the profound difference that helping people to connect online can make.
However, for people to be digitally included, they have to have digital access. The Government’s commitment to a broadband universal service obligation is a good start, guaranteeing that all have a legal right to request a broadband connection capable of a minimum speed of 10 megabytes per second. Nevertheless, there is no point in having this right if people are not able to exercise it. The Government must be proactive in working with community groups to stimulate demand for broadband and assist people who need help to get online.
Creative community solutions can make a difference, not least, for example, in remote rural areas. The Church of England is very involved in the wiSpire project, using church spires to provide high-speed internet to remote rural communities where fibre connections may not be cost effective. This benefits both the rural economy and those living in less accessible areas.
Where people have the skills, confidence and ability to get online, individuals and communities can flourish socially as well as economically. We simply cannot afford to let people miss out on this important development.