We need to close the digital divide that Coronavirus has exposed

Dan JarvisA million children across the UK are having their future chances hurt because they lack access to technology: to build a fairer future post-Coronavirus, we need to end digital deprivation.

The Coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the profound social and economic inequalities that permeate Britain in the 21st Century. It’s often been said that the Coronavirus doesn’t discriminate in who it affects, but nothing could be further from the truth. Whether it is the disproportionate mortality rate in BAME communities, or the ONS figures that show the death rate amongst the poorest 10% of the population is 88% higher than amongst the richest 10%. There is a stark truth that underlines the Coronavirus: the poorer you are, the less likely you are to survive.

It’s also the case that deprivation is intimately linked to people’s lived experience of the virus. For those in jobs that can be done from spacious homes, lockdown and social isolation hasn’t been easy – but it is poles apart from those living in overcrowded flats; children growing up without sufficient outside space; workers forced to put themselves at risk because they cannot work from home. Lockdown is disproportionately affecting our poorest communities.

Take education. Research by the Sutton Trust showed that 57% of private school pupils are taking part in daily online lessons, as compared to 22% in the state sector. That falls to as low as 8% in the most deprived schools. 15% of teachers feel that more than a third of children do not have suitable technology to take part in remote learning, whilst 12% feel that a third do not have a reliable internet connection. This ‘digital divide’ is having a damaging impact on the life chances of children in the communities that I represent. I’m working with local councils, schools, colleges, education trade unions and third sector organisations to close the digital divide. I’ve always said that where you grow up should not determine where you end up; but for too many young people, growing up in households with one computer between 3 siblings, or without a decent internet connection – that’s exactly what’s happening. One million children across the country will be hit by the digital divide, we cannot risk damaging their education and life chances because of a lack of technology.

I welcome the announcement by the Education Secretary that care leavers, children with social workers and those in exam years hit by the digital divide would receive free laptops and routers to learn from home. However, we must ensure that no child is left behind, starting with sustained investment into addressing digital poverty. As a Metro Mayor, I grapple with structural regional inequalities every day. The communities I represent in South Yorkshire receive less investment in transport infrastructure and Local Authority funding than other, more prosperous parts of the country. The same is true when it comes to investment in high speed broadband. It should be a fundamental right that everyone can access a decent internet connection. Whether it is applying for benefits, paying your Council Tax or doing your weekly shop – so much of our modern life requires the technology and skills to get online.

I’ve written about the lessons of Coronavirus when it comes to rebuilding and renewing our country. There can be no return to the status quo of an economy that doesn’t work for working people. That is the Herculean task facing the Labour, Trade Union and Co-operative movement as we face the future. Rebuilding and renewing our country means reconnecting with the working-class communities that felt unable to place their faith in us last December. Regaining their trust will mean changing the very way we do politics. For too long, voters in our former Labour heartlands have been moving away from us. Partly that has been a question of policy and leadership, but there has been a gradual shift in how we interact with the communities we serve. Too often, Labour has been perceived as doing things for working-class people. To regain the trust of the voters who stayed at home or went elsewhere in 2019 – and to gain the support of the millions across the country we need to form a Labour Government – we must become a movement of working-class people and communities.

Closing the digital divide is a microcosm of how that’s achieved. One of the last Labour Government’s greatest achievements was the creation of Sure Start centres. Every community in Barnsley had one: opened by Labour and closed by the Tories. The lesson we can draw from Sure Start was that this was never about doing something for working-class families. It was about supporting parents to look after their kids and giving families lifelong skills and the ability to support themselves – a hand up, not a handout. We will have closed the digital divide when we can ensure that every worker in our communities has a decent, well paid job and isn’t forced to worry about the next bill landing on the mat. When they have the technology to support the whole family and the digital literacy skills to work and learn remotely. That’s our movement’s collective endeavour.

Dan Jarvis MBE, MP for Barnsley Central and Labour & Co-operative Mayor of the Sheffield City Region

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