Esther McVey: We should honour our manifesto commitment to close the digital divide. Especially during this time of Covid.

3 Dec

Esther McVey is a former Work and Pensions Secretary, and is MP for Tatton.

The country has just entered what is essentially a third lockdown. Ninety-nine per cent of the population is now in the highly restrictive Tier Two or Three until early February, along with all the huge damage that will continue to bring to people’s mental health and livelihoods. So it is desperately important that everyone is able to connect online.

Covid has speeded up the digital revolution that would have evolved over a longer period of time. GP appointments, business meetings and education have rapidly moved to online, and millions of us have stayed in touch by using video services for the first time. It is becoming more and more essential for people to be able to get online with a reliable online connection for vital day-to-day services like banking and shopping. Yet many are being left behind.

According to research by the Good Things Foundation, nine million people who struggle to use the internet independently have been locked out of this digital economy and are being left behind. Nearly 200,000 children in the UK have almost no connectivity at home, and had no hope of getting an education whilst schools were shut, and 23 per cent of children from the poorest families do not have access to broadband at home.

This digital poverty is hitting society’s most vulnerable the hardest. Millions of people have become completely disconnected from 2020 society, and if we want to kickstart our economy, and start digging our way out of the enormous economic difficulties we’re in, we need every part of our country and economy able to make the most of these enormous opportunities online, rather than leaving millions of people on the other side of the digital divide without internet access or training.

The Conservative Party pledged during the last general election to bring world class gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025. Despite the widespread availability of the so-called “super fast” broadband, many parts of country are experiencing quite the opposite: unreliable connectivity and slow speeds, especially in rural areas.

Many of my constituents in Tatton and across Cheshire have been told that their properties do not qualify for commercial rollout of broadband. Across my constituency, broadband accessibility varies from street to street, and in Tatton, only six per cent of my constituents’ homes and businesses currently have access to full fibre broadband. This postcode lottery is only reinforcing the digital divide and exacerbating digital poverty.

So it was particularly concerning to me that the Chancellor’s Spending Review quietly ditched the commitment for 100 per cent gigabit capability by 2025 and slashed the financial support for it by three quarters from £5 billion to £1.2 billion. Whilst the new £4 billion “levelling up fund” is welcome, rolling out broadband would itself facilitate social mobility, so this seems a wasted opportunity.

So I am calling on the government to do two things, which I will be raising in the House of Commons today as part of the Blue Collar Conservative campaign on fixing the digital divide.

First, we must honour our manifesto commitments to the millions of people across this country who put their trust in our Party, and commit once again to delivering full fibre by 2025. NHS Test and Trace relies on dependable broadband, as do the 1.62 million people (and rising) unemployed who have to use the Universal Credit benefit system, and my constituents’ quality of life is dependent on this internet access.

Second, if we’re going to lock people down again for the next two months, and ask people to work from home and isolate from family and friends, they must get the tools and the training so that they can stay both socially and economically active. We have suggested investment in a new “digital catch up scheme” which is ready to be implemented immediately and could allow everyone, whatever their background, the opportunity to make the most of their potential whilst life has to be spent online.

We were elected last year to “level up” opportunity throughout the country. Blue Collar Conservatives all over the Britain know that there’s as much genius and talent in the north as anywhere else, and our Party’s task is to ensure everyone has the opportunity to break free and make the most of those talents, and not be held back by their background, and not have to move south to fulfil their ambitions.

The levelling up agenda depends upon nation-wide digital inclusivity. If we give up on this manifesto commitment, fail to invest in our digital infrastructure, and refuse to take the urgent action necessary to level up and fix the digital divide, we will be trying to deliver the levelling up agenda with one hand held behind our back.

The Department for Digital, Housing, Communities and Local Government itself said that digital equality “can help mitigate some of the deep social inequalities derived from low incomes, poor health, limited skills or disabilities”.

These repeated lockdowns in 2020 will leave a lasting legacy. But as painful as the year has been, we have seen an unprecedented mass movement online, which has brought with it many innovations which will shape our lives and the way we work forever.

So it is more important than ever that we turn our attention to the number one infrastructure project as we move forward: digital connectivity and digital inclusivity. We must redouble our efforts to roll out full fibre broadband, whilst at the same time fixing the digital divide. Not doing so would betray the very communities this government was elected to deliver for.

Kate Dommett and Sam Power: We must act now to protect our elections from foreign interference

25 Sep

Dr Kate Dommett (University of Sheffield), and Dr Sam Power (University of Sussex) are the authors of Democracy in the Dark: Digital Campaigning in the 2019 General Election and Beyond.

Only now are we beginning to get the real picture of what campaign spending looked like in the 2019 election. Our new analysis shows that the £19.5 million the Conservatives raised in this period is greater than the sum total of reported donations to all political parties in 2017 during the same pre-poll period (that stood at nearly £18.7 million).

Where did it go? The official spending returns aren’t yet out. But we can catch glimpses through social media giants’ ad archives.

Digital campaigning is a big business. We estimate that spending on social media platforms increased by over 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2017. Of this, the three main UK-wide parties spent around £6 million on Facebook and just under £3 million on Google.

While Facebook was used by all three national parties to a relatively equal extent, the Conservatives invested dramatically more in Google (which includes YouTube). The advertising archives suggest the party spent £1,765,500, dwarfing the combined spend of £873,300 made by Labour and the Liberal Democrat accounts on this platform.

Yet despite these large numbers, online spend by parties made up only a fraction of the total political ad spend overall. Why? Because we are seeing the rise of the ‘outrider’. These so-called ‘non-party campaigns’ often spring up in and around elections – with the public in the dark about how they are funded, and by who. In 2010 there were 18 of these bodies registered with the Electoral Commission; by 2015 that number had nearly doubled to 30, and last year the figure had doubled again to 64.

While digital campaigning has huge, positive potential to reach out to voters, there is much we don’t know about who is behind online content. This has led to urgent calls for change.

Many of you will be familiar with the practice of putting ‘imprints’ on printed campaign materials. Bizarrely, 15 years after the launch of Facebook in the UK, there’s still no such rule for online material meaning the provenance of these ‘outriders’ is often not widely known.

In this transparency vacuum, social media giants’ have set up their own online ad archives, allowing us a glimpse of the scale of campaigning. But anyone who has used them will know they are insufficient, error-riddled, and often too vague to be useful. Often, we just don’t know who’s targeting us online.

Analysis presented in the report coded data from Facebook to identify 88 UK organisations as non-party campaign groups active during the 2019 election. These groups placed 13,197 adverts at a calculated cost of £2,711,452. Facebook knows who they targeted and why, but they provide only limited information about this in the archive. This makes it impossible to know what exactly is happening, and suggests a need for more transparency.

Whilst the government has rightly pledged to implement online imprints, this remains out for consultation. Whatever the result, it only scratches the surface. We have revisited the many inquiries that have been explored the issue of digital campaigning to highlight a number of simple and proportionate recommendations to protect a free and transparent debate, around which there is broad and cross-party consensus.

The need for online imprints – and soon – is clear. However, currently donations under £500 are not classed as such, meaning foreign actors could split up donations into smaller amounts to shift our political debate. Companies funding political interventions only have to generate a nominal amount of income in the UK. A simple change in law could clarify that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Given concerns about Russian interference, this kind of enshrined principle is vital.

Many of the recommendations in this report echo existing calls to modernise electoral law to help rebuild trust in our democratic system. It’s why the report has been backed by Cheryl Gillan. As she notes, we need honest conversations about the need for “more transparency in the money spent on campaigning in the electoral process, particularly in the light of the rapidly developing digital world”. Despite the huge growth of online ads, what was spent on digital campaigning is far from clear.

“We must continue to examine how we can ensure we have free and fair elections and what changes are necessary to our laws as technology continues to advance,” Dame Cheryl writes.

We cannot leave our electoral integrity in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley giants. Unfortunately, recent years have seen parties and campaigners become even more cautious about disclosing information about their campaign activities online.

Maintaining transparency needs an independent regulator, which is why we are concerned by threats to abolish the Electoral Commission if it cannot be ‘radically overhauled’. The ICO has major clout to investigate alleged wrongdoing when it comes to our data. We must give the same – if not more – gravity to our free elections.

With elections due to take place across the UK in May 2021, we cannot let the urgent task of ensuring our electoral integrity be kicked into the long grass once more, or set-backwards through the rash dismantling of our watchdog.

At present, it is exceedingly difficult if not impossible to uphold the fundamental principles of our democracy: of openness, transparency, and public trust. Digital campaigning has the potential to be hugely positive – provided we don’t let secrecy rule the day.