Stourbridge MP backs free Digital Showhome upgrades for house owners in Essex amidst warnings that rush to online-only society is locking out poorly paid people

Stourbridge MP and government minister Margot James has announced a £400,000 Digital Inclusion Grant for Essex that includes funding ‘smart home’ upgrades for private house owners who agree to open their doors to show their ‘technically disadvantaged’ elderly neighbours how to use the Internet.

But fresh unease about the Government’s race to switch public services to Artificial Intelligence (AI) system control has been heightened by a damning report that many poorer households who can’t afford broadband at home are effectively being locked out of essential government lifelines.

In a statement about the Essex scheme, a spokesman for Ms James’ department said, “A number of ‘smart homes’ with digitally savvy older people demonstrating tech in their own homes are being created as part of an innovative scheme to boost the nation’s digital skills.”

The Essex project is is in step with the Government’s strategy to push the UK into becoming an online-first economy in which digital automation increasingly replaces the need for, and eventually the availability of, face-to-face dealings or personal consultations.

However, according to a United Nations report, analysis by the telecoms regulator Ofcom indicates that almost half of people on low, uncertain or zero incomes whose financial plight would qualify them for support under the Government’s controversial Universal Credit regime are unable to access the system’s digital gateway because they don’t have broadband at home.

In particular, Universal Credit’s ‘digital-by-default’ regime requires claimants to be available for online consultation and job-seeking at any time and for up to several hours a day or risk punishment sanctions that include benefit payment suspensions of up to three years for entire households.

It is these strictures that led UN inspector Professor Philip Alston – who investigated poverty in the UK in late 2018 – to conclude that many poorer and vulnerable households are trapped outside the system, unable to reach in for help they are entitled to get.

The number of Stourbridge households that have been conscripted onto the sanction-bearing ‘conditionality’ Universal Credit system was due to exceed 5,000 by Christmas 2018, following official trend figures previously published by the Department for Work and Pensions in the town.

According to the UN analysis of 2017 Ofcom figures, nearly half of people on low incomes do not have broadband internet at home. It says that only 43% of those on low income do their banking online. Based on data from the Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2018, 21% of the UK population do not have five basic digital skills and 16% of the population is not able to fill out an online application form.

In a weekend statement on Twitter issued by her DCMS department, Ms James said: ‘We are committed to improving the digital skills of people of all ages so everyone can enjoy the benefits of modern technology.’

Her spokesman said that the Digital Showhome grant winners will ‘open their homes for older people to visit so they can learn first hand from their peers how to make the most of smart technology to control household appliances, book GP appointments online, contact friends and family by video, and shop online. Younger, ‘digital buddies’ will also be on hand to support with digital skills.’

Ms James did not mention the Digital Inclusion Fund or its application details and deadlines in her newsletters to Stourbridge constituents in 2018.

UPDATE: The announcement of the taxpayer funded ‘smart homes’ deal for the Uttlesford area has coincided with a wave of protests from local people against an Essex County Council plan to close two local wifi-equipped public libraries that currently offer limited free internet access in Stansted and Thaxted.

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