Bishop of St Albans on how digital access and understanding can help deal with social exclusion

On 7th September 2017 Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho led a debate “That this House takes note of the case for improved digital understanding at all levels of United Kingdom society.” The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, took part:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: 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.


Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (LD):…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans made a powerful speech about fairness. Obviously, I would subscribe to that, because if we in this House are passing laws relying on “digital by default”, it is not right if we do not know what we are asking our clients—applicants for universal credit—to know and understand, because we need a better grounding. We need not only a grounding but an understanding—that is a good word; it is not just digital skills that we need, but an understanding of what a modern Parliament needs.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con) :…When I came to Parliament, I used to wax lyrical on the awfulness of internet and mobile coverage, as well as the problems of exclusion, described again today by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and my noble friend Lord Cathcart.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)…But there are of course still parts of our society where an awful lot more work has to be done: among older people, who can benefit enormously from digital skills, whether by shopping or by talking to their relatives abroad, or whatever it might be—that has got better; among younger people from different socioeconomic groups and from poorer groups in society, who will not get jobs unless they are digitally literate; and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans told the House, among disabled people, whose lives can be greatly enhanced if they are linked up to the internet.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Ashton of Hyde) (Con)….More than £24 million of central government funding has been allocated to better broadband for Norfolk. That has been matched by local council funding, which means that more than 173,000 additional homes and businesses are able to access superfast broadband in Norfolk. I accept that, for people who do not have it, this is a real problem—I have experienced it myself. But I also commend what the right reverend Prelate said about WiSpire fixed wireless providers. They would be particularly appropriate in Norfolk—which, as we know, is very flat.

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