Today the Chancellor set out his Spring Statement, and whilst never intended to be a budget, it has extended out into a package of interventions to help handle the cost of living increase – on the same day the ONS announced inflation had reached 6.2% during February. Yet his focus has remained on fuel and energy, and not on targeting the digital poverty crisis that persists across the UK.
We all know that it has been a massively difficult economic period – for people, for industry, for government. We know that the war in Ukraine is going to have a knock on effect around the world, and that there is every likelihood that the cost of living will continue to rise exponentially within the UK due to this and the Covid pandemic.
Access to the internet, to digital services, is now essential. Many of us – including, likely, you, as you are online and reading this blog – now consider the Internet a key part of life. Energy, water, broadband line – utilities we cannot imagine living without and forming our package of essential services. But millions of people remain offline, continue to lack the ability to use digital services, and for 53% of those offline a monthly broadband bill is too expensive (according to Lloyds Bank data). And – a further 2.5 million people who are online are now behind on their broadband bills, according to the Citizens Advice Bureau. Their use of the Internet, something we view as essential, driving them into debt.
We simply would not accept 53% of UK residents being without heating, or without a mains water supply. But the Internet’s perception as a luxury still hangs over – despite the fact that digital exclusion reduces people’s ability to find a job or better paid work, trapping them in a cycle of digital poverty. And digital poverty often correlates with poverty in other areas, such as food and fuel. Giving people the ability to get online is absolutely key, whatever they need access in order to do – from children’s education to job hunting.
Where the Chancellor has taken action on cost of living are those high profile issues around energy poverty, alongside highly publicised rising prices at the petrol pumps. We, of course, welcome anything that the government does to reverse increases that create hardship, and therefore we are supportive of the package announced – it just doesn’t go far enough, and misses out the critical importance of digital access in every day life.
Already announced broadband price hikes, above 9% increases for millions of BT, EE, PlusNet, TalkTalk as well as others, will drive digital access out of the reach of more, meaning that millions more families in poverty could be forced to choose between internet access, heating or food. These increases are even more than the high levels of inflation. An immediate step could be to remove VAT on residential broadband, even temporarily, to reduce the pressure on hard working families.
As more and more jobs depend on home workers having their own internet access, as more essential services – from Universal Credit to completing online consultations before booking a GP’s appointment – require digital access, not to mention the every day services many of us need such as making bank payments, finding jobs, researching homework, accessing training – we will be campaigning for government to recognise the vital importance of connectivity, as part of the approach to tackling digital poverty. And we will be calling for the Chancellor to address digital poverty, including broadband costs, within his future financial statements.
Elizabeth Anderson, COO, Digital Poverty Alliance.