Full Report

A House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee inquiry into digital exclusion has concluded that the Government is failing to tackle digital exclusion. You can read the report summary below.

Digital Support Derbyshire is concerned about the ongoing impact of digital exclusion on many of Derbyshire's most vulnerable residents. The affordability of an internet connection and suitable digital device is a big issue during these cash-strapped times. If you also have limited digital skills, confidence and support then you may find yourself unable to access important online services and opportunities, or connect easily with family and friends. 

Report Summary

The Government aspires to global digital leadership. But it does not have a credible strategy to tackle digital exclusion. This matters. Everything from housing and healthcare resources to banking and benefit systems is shifting online at an unprecedented rate. By failing to take decisive action the Government is allowing millions of citizens to fall behind.

The figures are concerning. Fully 1.7 million households have no mobile or broadband internet at home. Up to a million people have cut back or cancelled internet packages in the past year as cost of living challenges bite. Around 2.4 million people are unable to complete a single basic task to get online, such as opening an internet browser. Over 5 million employed adults cannot complete essential digital work tasks. Basic digital skills are set to become the UK’s largest skills gap by 2030.

This all has profound consequences for individual wellbeing and multi-billion pound implications for UK productivity, economic growth, public health, levelling up, education and net-zero objectives.

The root causes of digital exclusion reflect longstanding social, economic and regional disparities which are not easily solved. But the current scale of the challenge is a direct consequence of political lethargy. The Government has major ambitions to make the UK a science and technology “superpower”, boost economic productivity and digitise public services. It must pay more attention to the basics which underpin the long-term viability of such aims.

Successive governments have supported initiatives on skills, assisted digital services, telecommunications infrastructure upgrades, device distribution schemes and cheaper internet tariffs. These are welcome. But the standards for digital inclusion are constantly changing as technologies develop and societal expectations evolve. This presents a moving target which requires ongoing political attention.

The Government’s contention that digital exclusion is a priority is not credible. Its flagship digital inclusion strategy is almost a decade old. Formal cross-government evaluations seem to have stopped. Working groups have been disbanded. Interventions to help with internet access are too timid. The Government cannot be expected to solve everything but it can achieve much by showing interest in driving change against clearly defined objectives. We have no confidence that this is happening. Senior political leadership to drive joined-up concerted action is sorely needed.

The need for a new strategy

The Government must publish a new digital inclusion strategy and establish a new cross-government unit with direct input from Number 10. It should focus on five key actions:

  • Act decisively to help with cost of living: to prevent more people becoming digitally excluded over the next 12 months the Government should cut VAT on social tariffs and work with businesses to help to scale-up internet voucher initiatives. It should ask public sector organisations to donate old devices to digital inclusion initiatives and encourage businesses to do likewise.
  • Invest 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. This is about teaching people the basics, not coding. More attention also needs to be paid to interventions that do not involve qualifications—community organisations in particular are key to delivering local-level interventions. Businesses must be engaged to help equip employees with the most basic skills.
  • Boost digital inclusion hubs: there is inadequate support for community-based digital inclusion hubs. Domestic and international evidence suggests place-based inclusion support works. The Government should build on existing examples in the UK, focusing on libraries and other local amenities.
  • Prioritise competition alongside local benefit: the Government is backing vital telecommunications upgrade programmes. But smaller providers may be crowded out. This would mean less market competition and fewer digital exclusion benefits provided by local alternative networks who connect and support poorly served communities. This trade-off deserves more attention from Ofcom and the Government.
  • Future-proof public services: the Government must review the increasing use of predictive machine-learning tools in public services. Digitally excluded groups are likely to be poorly represented in some datasets that inform algorithmic decision-making. They face a growing risk of marginalisation as a result.

Businesses must play their part. Internet providers have introduced a range of cheaper internet packages but take up of social tariffs by eligible customers is just five per cent. Providers should do more, including better advertising and reducing excessive penalty fees for exiting contracts.

Finally, we call on all providers of public-facing services to recognise that making things digital does not necessarily make them better. Not everyone wants to be online, or online all the time. And some level of digital disparity will inevitably endure even in a highly inclusive society. Accessible services and offline alternatives are essential to ensuring people are not left behind in an increasingly connected world.

Full Report