Chi Onwurah: Labour's digital promise

As the election looms Chi Onwurah, one of the few IT and telecoms professionals in parliament, looks back on her first five years as MP for Newcastle Central, the state of digital Britain and her hopes for the future if Labour forms the next government.


Five years ago I was taking unpaid leave from my job as Head of Telecoms Technology in Ofcom in order to stand as the Labour candidate in Newcastle Central in my very first General Election campaign.

In Hustings, online and by post I was often asked for my views on different policy issues and spent a lot of time researching the background and the party position so that I could give informed answers. And I remember being somewhat disappointed that there were no questions about the subject I knew intimately and wouldn’t have to do any research on – Broadband.  Having written parts of  and proof read most of the Labour Government’s Digital Britain report, as well as being responsible for understanding the costs, design, take up and technology of Broadband at Ofcom, I felt reasonably sure I could answer any question.

Only they did not come.  Broadband was not an issue in the last election. Nobody asked me about it and the great work of the Digital Britain report was rarely mentioned to me.

Fast forward five years later, broadband is the issue it should have been in the 2010 election. Newcastle Central, is an urban constituency, and it is also a ‘super connected city’. Yet I am often asked about digital infrastructure, take up and digital inclusion – by individuals and by businesses, particularly small business

And whilst superfast broadband may be available – at a price – in Newcastle, businesses complain that their highly skilled employees cannot take advantage of flexible work from home policies because their homes in rural Northumberland can’t even get basic broadband.

In the last few months of Parliament, rural broadband particularly came up time and time again – on February 3rd the House spend three hours discussing it or rather bemoaning its unavailability. The frustration of farmers and those who represent them – mainly Tories – at this Government’s failure on broadband and mobile notspots has grown dramatically over the course of this parliament.  Whilst historically the Tories and the Whigs divided the support rural England between them,  on broadband the Conservatives and the Lib Dems seemed determined to unite rural Britain against them.

The Coalition’s decision to abandon Labour’s pledge to deliver Universal Basic Broadband by 2012, has meant that in 2015 farmers still cannot get online to complete mandatory Defra submissions. Research from the World Bank estimates that for every ten percentage points increase in broadband penetration, economies experience between 1.21 and 1.38  percentage point increase in per capita GDP growth. The rural economy has basically been shut out of much of the potential economic benefits which broadband brings.

But it is not only the rural economy which has lost out. This Government has been characterised by an absence of any long term vision for the digital industries. There was the debacle of the non-appearing Communications Green Paper whose appearance was repeatedly promised for over a year before being brutally killed off and replaced with -  five seminars.

But to the surprise of no-one, five seminars was not enough to address the challenges and opportunities of what is the most important enabling technology of our age, a platform for innovation and increased productivity across almost all sectors, indeed across almost all human activities, and a prerequisite for the high skilled digital One Nation we wish to build.

Rather than rising to the challenge and producing a long term vision – as Labour did in 2003 with the Communications Act, what we had from this Government was a variety of ad-hoc initiatives – super-connected cities, mobile infrastructure projects, fibre enterprise zones... the list goes on.

In opposition Labour has been far more Governmental in looking forward to the impact of broadband and digital technology on our economy, Government and society.  We have had three major digital reviews – our Digital Skills Taskforce led by Maggie Philben, the Digital Government Review that I commissioned, the Labour Digital Review as well as the independent Armitt Review of Infrastructure whose recommendations on  an independent National Infrastructure Commission we have accepted. The Infrastructure Commission will assess how best to meet Britain’s infrastructure needs, taking them out of the short term political cycle. 

Our manifesto published last week has the importance of digital technology running through all the different policy areas and commits us to ensuring that all parts of the country benefit from affordable, high speed broadband by the end of the Parliament. This Government Digital Inclusion target leaves 10% of us offline – that is there idea of inclusion. We believe that is just not good enough.

Because of this Government’s incompetence we are starting from a position where far too many have yet to feel the benefits of broadband. The next Labour Government will bring it to all.

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