Labour Wants Telecoms Giants To Give Children Free Data To Study Online In Lockdown
Sir Keir Starmer said tech firms must be pressured into providing free data for children learning at home (PA)
Sir Keir Starmer has called for pressure to be put on telecoms giants to provide free data for children forced to study online by the new lockdown.
The Labour leader said “data is a big problem” after the Prime Minister announced schools will be shut for at least six weeks to try and tackle the spread of the new coronavirus strain, meaning children will instead study online.
Figures from Ofcom last year revealed almost half of the poorest households with children do not have home access to the internet.
The same study showed two-thirds of those households relied on smartphone access to get online, which can involve costly data plans with telecoms firms.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Sir Keir said they should be urged to provide free or subsidised access as kids must learn from him until the February half-term.
“Data is a big problem,” he said.
“Everybody needs to try and make this work and that includes the companies that can take away the charging for data.”
And his deputy Angela Rayner tweeted this morning: “No child should be stopped from learning because their family is struggling.
“That means laptops for all students who need them and the government must ensure tech companies waive wifi/data fees for disadvantaged children.
“And it should have happened last March.”
Children's Commissioner for England Anne Longfield echoced the call for better tech support in homes. She said the Government needed to treat pupils without laptops and access to sufficient technology as a priority.
She told Today: "There is no doubt that remote learning and a large amount of time out of school has a very negative impact on children.
"Remote learning now needs to be a high priority for the Government and we need a plan around that to ensure there is consistency in what schools are able to offer but also that tech issue.
"A lot of pupils still don't have laptops. They are surviving on broken phones - those children now need to be seen as a priority to get into the classroom and deemed to be a vulnerable child.”
Ms Longfield added: "There is also the issue of the cost of data, and I think this is something that tech companies and broadband companies really need to step up to now."
Sir Keir also called for a return to the "spirit of March", with more support for schools and businesses affected by the new lockdown, and backed calls for furlough to be made available for parents unable to work because their children's schools are closed.
"The general principle should be that where there are health restrictions there needs to be an economic package to support that," he said.
"Because of the decision last night for a national lockdown there is now a mismatch and that has got to be addressed - and that means for working parents."
But he confirmed Labour will back the package of measures when the House of Commons is asked to approve them later this week.
"Yes, it is what we had in mind and we will back it,” he told BBC Breakfast.
"It was inevitable we needed a national set of restrictions. That's why I called for it."
In response Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said one of his "biggest worries" is disadvantaged children will not get high-quality remote learning, and it was why the government were “so reluctant to close schools” at all.
He told Times Radio: “We know that it's students in the most difficult and disadvantaged circumstances, who lose out most from not being in the classroom.
“That's one of the reasons why the education secretary has been working so hard to ensure that we can improve access to the sort of technology that enables children from every background to access remote learning.”
Mr Gove also said the country was in for a "very difficult" few weeks and could not give a firm date for when the lockdown would be lifted.
He told Sky News: "The Government is doing everything it can in order to ensure that we can roll out the vaccine more rapidly, help the vulnerable by getting the inoculations they need and make sure that at the end of what will inevitably be very, very difficult weeks, that life can eventually return to normal."
Pressed on whether the lockdown was likely to last until March, Mr Gove added: "We will be able to review the progress that we've made on February 15, just before the traditional school half-term.
"And we hope that we will be able to progressively lift restrictions after that but what I can't do is predict - nobody can predict - with accuracy exactly what we will be able to relax and when.
"What we do know is that the more effective our vaccination programme, the more people who are protected in that way, the easier it will be to lift these restrictions.”
He revealed the Chancellor Rishi Sunak will set out details of additional support for businesses affected by the third lockdown later today.
Mr Gove also confirmed A Level and GCSE exams this year are “cancelled”, with education secretary Gavin Williamson to address recalled MPs in the Commons tomorrow on what they will be replaced with.