The general election campaign is well and truly underway now, with party manifestoes launching throughout the week. Yesterday marked the release of the Conservative Party Manifesto 2024, and we were eager to see what might help the fight to tackle digital poverty.

We didn’t see too many surprises in today’s release – Conservative hopefuls have been keen to emphasise that they have a plan and have been teasing the plan throughout the campaign. Here’s our breakdown of what the Conservative Party’s proposals mean for digital poverty:

Infrastructure

The Conservative Party is committed to continuing its rollout of gigabit broadband and aims to reach 85 per cent gigabit coverage by 2025 and full gigabit coverage by 2030. It also plans to continue the rollout of 5G and to place the UK at the forefront of adopting 6G.

Our review of this pledge is mixed. On the one hand, having a slow or unreliable connection is, of course, something that excludes individuals from accessing the digital world. On the other, as we have seen with the rollout of Project Gigabit, just having the availability of decent broadband in an area is not enough to make sure that everyone can access it.

Coverage of high-speed broadband is high, but 15 per cent of premises have a low-speed connection and a further 13 per cent do not subscribe to fixed broadband at all. Coverage is not the only thing that matters here – take-up matters too. If a household can’t afford their internet bills, or if they lack the skills or confidence to get online, they won’t.

Protecting Children Online

The Conservatives have also pledged to legislate the banning of smartphones in schools and plan to consult on introducing further social media parental controls, in order to strengthen the Online Safety Act.

Reducing screen time for kids isn’t necessarily a bad idea – excessive screen time has been linked to poor sleep, academic issues, and poorer mental health outcomes in children. Unfortunately, there has been no discussion about how to tackle digital inequalities in schools. Education now increasingly occurs online, which is not limited to homework, collaborative learning, and parent/carer communication. This is in spite of the fact that around 20 per cent of children experience digital poverty.

Reducing screen time and protecting children online is an important task – but it’s one that ignores the needs of children who are increasingly being left behind. At the DPA, we feel that the solution is that children need access to keyboarded devices – laptops or tablets – rather than smartphones, and that digital skills on how to use computers safely must be taught within the classroom.  One in five children have no access at home to devices suitable for learning.

Technology and the NHS

One interesting manifesto aim is its plans for the NHS app. According to the manifesto, the Conservatives will: “Make the NHS App the single front door for NHS services. Patients will use the App to access their medical records, order prescriptions, book vaccine appointments, access a digital red book and manage their hospital appointments.”

This pledge could mean different things for digital poverty, depending on how it is implemented. It might mean reducing and consolidating the number of medical apps and websites we need to use to access NHS services and manage our health. If this is the case, it would hopefully reduce the amount of confusion around which app or website to use and when, and allow easier support and patient training. In turn, that would help improve confidence in accessing key services online. A small positive step, but a positive step nonetheless.

Read another way, however, this pledge might also mean pushing more services online and reducing the number of other avenues to access health services. This move would further restrict the digitally disenfranchised from accessing vital services and worsen health outcomes, especially the 1 in 2 older people who are in digital poverty.

Thoughts on the 2024 Conservative Manifesto

Although there have been few surprises in the manifesto, it appears that the issue of digital poverty has not been given significant attention. The nation’s Digital Inclusion Strategy is now a decade old, a period during which the integration of digital and real-world interactions has become increasingly seamless. Currently, up to 19 million people face challenges in fully engaging with the digital world. This situation indicates a need for urgent, actionable, and comprehensive solutions.

The Conservative Party aims to make the UK a country where young people acquire the necessary skills to succeed, public services effectively serve citizens, and families receive adequate support. Addressing digital exclusion is essential to achieving these goals and ensuring that no one is left behind.

Phoebe Sleet is the Digital Poverty Alliance’s Policy and Insights Manager