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UK Lords: Govt lacks plan to tackle digital exclusion

June 29, 2023

By Colin Mann

The Government’s ambition to make the UK a technology superpower and boost economic growth is being undermined by high levels of digital exclusion, according to a report, Digital exclusion, from the Communications and Digital Committee of the House of Lords, the Upper Chamber of Parliament. The Committee says the scale of the problem is a “direct consequence of political lethargy”.

Despite aiming to make the UK the centre of AI regulation internationally, the Government does not have a credible plan to tackle digital exclusion. The last digital inclusion strategy was published in 2014. The problem is being exacerbated by the cost of living crisis which is forcing more households to cut back or cancel their Internet packages.

The report finds that by failing to take decisive action to tackle digital exclusion the Government is allowing millions of citizens to fall behind – with multi-billion pound impacts on economic growth, public health and levelling up. Overall digital skills shortages cost the economy up to £63 billion a year.

The Committee sounds the alarm about deepening disadvantage as the rapid shift towards online services accelerates and those who remain offline fall ever further behind. Already 90 per cent of jobs are only advertised online. The growing use of machine learning in public and private sector services will further disadvantage digitally excluded groups, who are often poorly represented in datasets and are likely to face further marginalisation as a result.

Digital inclusion is a moving target. The report makes clear that without effective Government action the digital divide will widen. As the pace of technological change accelerates, the gap between included and excluded groups deepens and even those who can get by today may struggle in future. The Government should not assume digital exclusion will be solved as older generations leave the workforce or die.

The Committee highlights concerning figures around the level of digital skills in the UK and household Internet access:

  • 4 million people are still unable to complete a single basic digital task to get online.
  • 5 million workers will be acutely under skilled in basic digital skills by 2030.
  • 7 million households have no broadband or mobile Internet access.
  • £63 billion (€73bn) is lost each year to the UK economy each year due to overall digital skills shortages.
  • 1 million people have cut back or cancelled their Internet packages in the last year due to affordability issues.

To tackle the crisis in digital exclusion the Committee says the Government must demonstrate leadership, urgently publish a new digital inclusion strategy and establish a cross-departmental government unit with a direct line into Number 10. The new strategy should focus on:

  • Urgent action to help with the cost of living crisis: This should include scrapping VAT on social Internet tariffs to reduce the cost, and working with the private sector to scale up Internet voucher schemes. The Government should make public sector organisations donate old devices to digital inclusion projects, and encourage the private sector to do the same.
  • Investment in basic skills: the most basic digital skills are now as important as maths and literacy. They should feature more prominently in schools, apprenticeships and adult learning courses. The focus should be on basic skills, not coding.
  • Boosting digital inclusion hubs: There is inadequate support for community based digital inclusion hubs. The Government should support libraries and other community venues to take a bigger role in supporting digital inclusion.
  • Future-proofing public services: the Government must review the increasing use of predictive machine-learning tools in public services to ensure the digitally excluded do not face further marginalisation due to poor representation in the datasets used to inform algorithmic decision making.

“The Government has bold ambitions to make the UK a technology superpower and centre of AI development, but we can’t deliver an exciting digital future when five million workers are under skilled in digital and nearly two and half million people still can’t complete a single basic digital task,” commented Baroness Stowell of Beeston, Chair of the Committee. “Tackling digital exclusion isn’t as sexy as searching for the next tech unicorn, but we can’t compete as a global player without getting the basics right.”

“We have found a distinct lack of leadership in Government to tackle this issue. It is shocking that a digital inclusion strategy has not been produced since 2014 and the Government sees no need for a new one. It is vital we get a grip of this now.”

“The cost of living crisis has made access to the Internet unaffordable for many. We need urgent action to ensure people aren’t priced offline. This should include scrapping VAT on social tariffs and more efforts to promote their availability. The Government should also work with the private sector to expand Internet voucher schemes and set an example by making more public sector bodies donate old IT equipment to digital inclusion projects.”

“Digital exclusion is a moving target. As technology develops, people currently confident using IT at work and home will need to keep refreshing their skills to avoid being left behind. We can’t assume younger people are digital natives who won’t need to develop new skills. We need to ensure everyone and all age groups have the digital skills they need to operate and the opportunities to keep developing those skills as technologies change,” she concluded.

“Much of modern life increasingly has a digital component, whether that be how we access and use public services, financial services, health services, culture, community, or employment,” notes Shimrit Janes, Director of Knowledge at Digital Workplace Group (DWG). “With the United Nations Human Rights Council having just this year gathered to debate whether access to the Internet should be considered a human right, the report on digital exclusion from the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee is timely.”

“Another way of understanding digital exclusion is to see it through the lens of the digital divide: who does and doesn’t have access to digital services, what are the individual and systemic reasons for that, and what are the implications for equity. In DWG’s own research series on the importance of digital inclusion in the workplace, it was found that access to equipment, digital skills and motivation were three essential aspects that need to be in place for someone to be able to participate in digital life.”

“Underpinning those three areas exist a plethora of antecedents, such as the need for: digital literacy on how to access and use digital services across all age groups; access to connectivity and hardware (for example through geographic location and disposable income); and digitally accessible services for disabled people. Many of these areas are also further exacerbated by the current cost of living crisis, with both personal and organisational budgets being cut.”

“In addition to this, it’s crucial to understand how exclusion can be impacted by a lack of safety online; for example, women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, people of colour and disabled people are more likely to experience cyberbullying and a sense of exclusion from online spaces.”

“Without nurturing digital inclusion for those who are less likely to have access for reasons such as the above, the digital divide and people’s ability to participate in modern life is greatly impacted, warping access to digital society and therefore how society itself is shaped. This is more likely to be experienced by people from marginalised communities, further exacerbating other forms of exclusion and poverty.”

“Rather than being seen as separate, digital exclusion therefore needs to be seen as another symptom of systemic pressures preventing people from being able to participate in modern society as equal citizens. Greater work is needed to understand what the blockers are for people from accessing digital services and places, and how to address them.”

“Government at both local and national levels has a role to play in this area, partnering with private companies, charities, and educational institutions. With digital services forming a shared ‘digital commons’, digital inclusion is deeply intertwined with what is required to be an active citizen today and as we move into the future,” she concluded

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