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Wednesday, 27 September, 2000, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
Digital exclusion still a problem
Area BBC
Deprived areas are getting help with digital skills
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

As new figures reveal the width of the digital divide in the UK, web experts warn that government attempts to bridge the gap could fall short.

Unless the government start delivering on their promises to put computers in the hands of the needy, the digital divide will only deepen they say.

Attempts to close the divide were dealt a blow this month by OECD figures which showed that the internet is still the plaything of the well-off.

It will not work if it is controlled by the council and the government

Nigel Stewart, Redbricks, Manchester
And figures released on Tuesday by the National Statistical Office also revealed the extent of Britain's digital divide, with barely 20% of unskilled and 26% of semi-skilled workers found to be using the net regularly.

By contrast, 66% of professional workers are keen net users.

Many of those who do not use the internet regularly say the cost of buying a computer and paying high phone charges are the deterring factors.

The OECD figures found that the UK has some of the highest charges for net access among Western nations.

Online life

In early September, Tony Blair unveiled the UK Online initiative which will attempt to close the gap between the "have-nets" and the "have-nots", and boost net and computer literacy levels in the UK.

As part of the initiative, the government will spend 250 million to set up a national network of community computer centres that will run internet and computer training courses.

The majority of the centres will be located in the 2,000 most deprived areas of the UK and help to re-skill the long-term unemployed and needy to help them rejoin wider society.

But the leaders of already established community computer projects that are helping to revitalise and re-skill inner city areas are critical of the government's approach.

Nigel Stewart, founder of the pioneering Redbricks project in Hulme, Manchester, says the UK Online initiative will only succeed if the people it is aimed at are given a bigger say in how the thing is run.

"It will not work if it is controlled by the council and the government," he said. "It will only work if it is owned by the people using it."

Community computers

The Redbricks project has wired up 90 flats into one network that shares a high-speed link to the wider internet. People now store MP3 music files centrally so anyone can listen to them.

Participants pay 3 per month for their net access and get the opportunity to learn and chat online with neighbours. Some have now banded together to buy food in bulk to get big discounts.

Mr Stewart said it had made a huge difference to the area by fostering a sense of community and getting people with very different skills to call upon each other for help.

The initiative was started without government help and many local authorities are now looking at ways of replicating its success across the country.

Mr Stewart said the government's big problem was its inability to recognise local talent that could be called on to get a project going.

"The government start from the idea that there are no resources and lots of stupidity and think they will have to give stuff to people," he said. Instead, he argued, they should build on what is available locally.

Reaching out

George Cook, founder of Community Logistics, which recycles and refurbishes computers for charities, said its involvement with past government projects had left it disillusioned.

Community Logistics has set up projects in many needy parts of the UK, such as Angell Town in Brixton.

But Mr Cook said if its experience with the Computers Within Reach project was any guide then the government had a lot to learn.

That project was announced in the March 1999 budget and was intended to give net-capable computers to the most needy and deprived families for as little as 5 per month. It was backed by government spending of 15 million over two years.

Despite the promises, said Mr Cook, nothing had happened.

"It is a classic case of spin and no substance," he said. "Not a single computer has been delivered to a single needy child."

The project has been crippled by frequent changes of policy and staff, said Mr Cook. It is due to be relaunched later this year.

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See also:

11 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Blair's online drive to help homeless
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Blair unveils internet plans
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'Laptops for pupils' visionary
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When the web is not world-wide
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The losers of the digital divide
18 Jul 00 | Education
Internet televisions to widen access
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Government 'must revamp websites'
04 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
G8 ministers warn of IT divide
04 Feb 00 | Scotland
Income creates 'digital divide'
31 Jan 00 | Education
Centres to bridge 'digital divide'
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