Monday, 15 February 2010

Home Access: another gimmick from Labour?

Today Labour-run Reading Borough Council Council issued a press release urging low-income families without a computer to apply for a grant to buy one. According the PR, the government's Home Access grant "will provide grants for 270,000 low income families across the country to have their own computer and Internet access."

The packages available to local families who apply are as follows:
1. Full package (a computer, one year's internet access, service and support)
2. A computer with service and support only
3. One year's internet access only

The Council is encouraging lower income families whose children are not on free school meals can call the 0118 939 0900 0118 939 0900, extension 74285, to see if they could qualify for free school meals and if this was the case they would also be eligible to apply for a computer.

People can also ring the Home Access local rate helpline on 0333 200 1004 0333 200 1004 to find out the full criteria for qualifying.

If you think this applies to you or someone in your family please do call the Council. I really hope it helps local families.

This initiative sounds great doesn't it? Too good to be true?

I've been campaigning to highlight the problem of "digital exclusion" in parts of Reading recently. Put simply, the sad fact is thousands of families and individuals in deprived neighbourhoods in Reading don't have a computer, let alone access to the Internet - because they can't afford one. This leaves them without access to services and opportunities other better-off people take for granted - as these days many things are geared to people who are online. This is bad news - particularly for children, because the evidence shows that children with access to computers also do better at school.

I haven't campaigned on this issue because my Party told me to: I'm doing it because I care about the fact that thousands of people in Reading are living in poverty and they are excluded from opportunities in their area whether it be jobs or education. When I knock on the door and talk to people in Whitley for example, I find many households where people do not own a computer - so they can't use email and the kids can't do homework at home, for example. This isn't fair when thousands of other families are able to do this.

I can't remember exactly when he said it, but I remember vividly Tony Blair saying in a speech to a Labour party conference early in his premiership that he had a vision of seeing everyone in the UK online. 13 years since Labour first came to power we are still a long way away from that vision.

On the face of it the government's scheme sounds brilliant - free computers: what's not to like? But, when I looked into it more closely I found:
  • The grant for families is a one off - and for one year only (what happens then? does the internet get cut off?)
  • Only families with children receiving free school meals are eligible for the grant (so those on or above the poverty line who might still not be able to afford computers lose out)

This plan seems like a bit of a gimmick to me- a sticking -plaster solution designed to grab headlines rather than actually solve the problem of digital exclusion. What about families that don't qualify but who need support? How will it help families and children in the longer term? How will a hand-out help families and children escape real poverty?What will happen when the money runs out?

Coming this close to a General Election I can't help but wonder this is yet another attempt by Labour to try win votes from working-class voters rather than actually getting to the root of the problem. This is a shame, because if it was part of a wider package of measures to help families and a genuine attempt to tackle digital exclusion I would be very much in favour of it.

Nick Clegg has made helping the poorest children perform to the best of their ability his top priority in the coming election. Labour have had years to help improve equality of opportunity in this country but all the signs are despite millions of pounds of our money being spent on education under a Labour government the poorest kids are still lagging behind. This isn't fair and it's not right.

It is Lib Dem Policy to give every child a fair start: Liberal Democrats will spend an extra £2.5bn on schools. The money will be targeted at schools taking on children who need more help, but will benefit every child in every school. The cash can be used to cut class sizes and provide one-to-one tuition or catch-up classes, ensuring every child gets the individual attention they need. An average primary school could cut class sizes to 20. An average secondary school could see classes of just 16.

See Nick discuss our policy a couple of weeks ago here:

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