Parents are to receive vouchers worth up to £700 to ensure that all 1.4 million children growing up in homes without computers can have access to the internet, Gordon Brown will announce today. In his speech to the Labour conference, Mr Brown will trumpet the £300m scheme as evidence that the Government has not run out of steam and still has a radical agenda for the next 10 years.
Although two out of three adults in Britain now have internet access, one million households are still not connected. The means-tested vouchers, to be spent on connection charges, technical support or buying computers, are designed to ensure that all 1.4 million children who do not have access will enjoy it by 2011 if their parents want it.
As well as boosting the performance of pupils and their job prospects, internet access will enable parents to get regular updates about their children through emails from schools. Poor families will be the main beneficiaries from the one-off vouchers, which will range from £100 to £700, according to family income.
Mr Brown will tell the Manchester conference: "To ensure we are prepared for the times to come, the Government will fund one million more households to get online, enabling parents to link with the teachers at their children's school and helping young people with their homework and coursework." In what has been billed as the most important speech of his life, Mr Brown will acknowledge his mistakes since becoming Prime Minister; argue that he has acted to put them right, but be bullish about Britain's and his own prospects. He will try to settle the doubts in his own party about his leadership by insisting he is the right man to lead the nation through the global financial crisis.
In a carefully staged show of unity, David Miliband praised Mr Brown as "inspirational" and was warmly welcomed by the Prime Minister after his speech to the conference yesterday. The Foreign Secretary insisted that Labour was not doomed to defeat at the next election as he urged party activists to take the fight to the Tories.
However, last night it was reported that Mr Miliband had been overheard telling aides that he toned down his speech to avoid a "Heseltine moment" – a reference to Michael Heseltine's challenges to Margaret Thatcher's authority as Conservative Party leader.
"I couldn't have gone any further. It would have been a Heseltine moment," Mr Miliband reportedly said.
Labour's high command is desperate to kill off speculation that Mr Miliband is manoeuvring to establish himself as Mr Brown's natural successor. Although he was scrupulously loyal to the Prime Minister, his speech strayed well beyond his foreign affairs brief and will be seen as an attempt to set out his personal political credo. It was received with a polite 50-second standing ovation.
Mr Miliband urged delegates to "prove the fatalists wrong". He said: "Just as I hate defeatism about our country, I hate defeatism about our party. Government is tough. You have to prove yourself every day. But the toughest day in government is 10 times better that the easiest day in opposition – not just for us, but for the people we represent. An age of massive change needs leadership from a party dedicated to change."
He said that the Government had achievements on both international and domestic stages. "I feel pride in what we have done, but also look forward with excitement at we can do and will do."
Mr Miliband turned to the Prime Minister and told him: "It's no exaggeration to say you have transformed the political debate about international development in this country over the last 11 years and we should take inspiration from you."
Lord Kinnock, the former Labour leader, said the "infantile" conduct of Mr Brown's critics could tear the party apart. He described as "tragic" the call by Charles Clarke, his former chief of staff, for Mr Brown to stand down if he cannot turn around the party's fortunes.
But another Labour peer, Lord Desai, urged Mr Brown to heed "the writing on the wall" and stand down to save Labour from electoral disaster.