Care leavers are facing “digital poverty” without laptops or access to the internet, campaigners say.
A government scheme to provide digital devices and internet access to vulnerable young people in England during the pandemic is set to end in November.
Charities say it risks leaving up to 80,000 18-25 year-old care leavers isolated and unable to access education and work or to keep in touch with friends and family.
In an open letter to ministers, leading charities and youth organisations including Barnardo’s and The Children’s Society have called on the government to extend the scheme and ensure every care leaver gets internet access for at least 12 months when they first live independently.
They’ve described the move to stop the scheme as a “backward step”.
The letter reads: “Taking it away would not only be a backwards step, but would have a potentially damaging effect on these young care leavers’ ability to learn, communicate and work effectively.
“It would plunge many into digital poverty.
“Devices and internet access are crucial to minimise disadvantage and maximise opportunity. Digital access should be a right, not a luxury.”
The letter has been sent to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Children’s Minister Vicky Ford and Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi.
Alongside the open letter, care leaver Luke Fox has started up a petition on behalf of the Care Leavers National Movement (CLNM) which is part of the National House Project.
He is hoping to get 100,000 signatories to secure a debate in parliament.
He told Sky News living without digital access makes “you feel like you’re the lowest of the low”.
He added: “Because you can’t do things that everyone else can and care leavers often don’t feel like they’re normal anyway because they’ve essentially lived without their family whereas everyone else have.”
He described how vital an internet connection was in supporting a friend in care who was suicidal.
He said: I’ve actually managed to stop them killing themselves virtually over the internet.
“It was a very difficult night for me.
“I was laid up in south Yorkshire, they were down in London standing on edge of a bridge.
“If it wasn’t for that virtual connection and the internet I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that.
“The only reason I was able to do that at the time was because I was in a place what had internet.”
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Charities said lockdown has “shone a light” on the isolating situation many care leavers find themselves in.
As a result, they want the government to recommend that all local offers for care leavers include the right to a digital device and internet access to keep them connected to others.
Chris Wright, Chief Executive Catch22 – one of the charities to sign the letter – said: “For many young care leavers, having access to a laptop and a decent internet connection has been a lifeline during the pandemic.
“With the scheme ending and Covid-19 restrictions tightening again, there is a real danger of young care leavers slipping back into digital poverty in the coming months and beyond.
“We cannot afford to let the digital divide become even wider.
“We urge Government not to desert these young people, and to keep them connected. Digital access must be seen as a right, not a privilege.”