British Government’s claim that digital exclusion is a priority is “not credible”

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez October 23, 2023
The British Government’s hopes of becoming a global digital leader are being undermined by its lack of a credible strategy to tackle digital exclusion, claims the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee.

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The British Government has been heavily criticized by peers on the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee for its lack of credible strategy to limit digital exclusion, which it says is undermining its broader global ambitions. The government has said that digital exclusion is a priority, but the Committee highlights that its strategy is a decade old, key partners to support the strategy no longer exist, and links to websites within the document are no longer working. 

The Committee points to the scale of the problem, noting that 1.7 million households in Britain have no mobile or broadband internet at home; up to a million people have cut back or canceled internet packages in the past year; around 2.4 million people are unable to complete a single basic task to get online, such as opening an internet browser; and over five million employed adults cannot complete essential digital work tasks. 

The government itself in a letter to the Committee notes that digital exclusion is impeding economic growth, productivity, and social inclusion, but doubled down on its belief that tackling the problem is a “priority”. 

diginomica has highlighted how Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has positioned the UK as a digital epicenter in the global economy, suggesting that major technology firms are “voting with their feet”. However, as my colleague Stuart Lauchlan noted, it takes more than money to build a digital economy - and digital exclusion is a serious hindrance to meaningful progress in becoming a digital world leader. 

In a letter to Minister Paul Scully, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Chair of the Committee, Baroness Stowell, said that the Committee is “disappointed at the lack of further ambition” and that the government’s response does “not engage substantively” with the extent of the concerns raised. 

The letter states:

Digital exclusion is not going to solve itself. As our report set out, it will become increasingly difficult and costly to retrofit inclusive approaches as technological change accelerates. Some parts of society are already falling behind as digital-first approaches become commonplace.

Digitized healthcare is a good example: it could generate public sector cost savings, encourage innovation, boost productivity and improve the lives of citizens. But those without skills and access risk being left behind, which risks a two-tier system while reducing the pool of potential users to support this growing industry.

Similar considerations apply to many areas of the economy as well as the Government’s wider plans to make the UK a science and technology ‘superpower’. There cannot be sufficient progress without addressing bottlenecks at the lower end of the digital skills supply chain and ensuring there is a long-term supply of skilled and connected consumers across all sectors of society. The divides between digital ‘haves and have-nots’ will deepen unless the Government takes this issue more seriously.

Baroness Stowell added that whilst the government suggests that the principles behind its digital exclusion strategy remain relevant, the relevance of principles is not the same as the enduring relevance of an entire strategy. 

Recommendations and response

The Committee made a number of recommendations to the government to address its lack of commitment to digital exclusion, including: 

  • Carrying out cost-benefit analyses of policy interventions using government-held data

  • Empowering Ofcom to oversee how social tariffs are advertised to improve take-up

  • Removing VAT from social tariffs to improve affordability 

  • Establishing a digital exclusion unit to support cross-government working 

  • Expanding internet voucher schemes to wider groups in need

  • And embedding basic skills targets and assessments across education life stages

The government's response indicates a limited ambition to adopt these, the Committee said. The full response is lengthy and can be read here, but essentially can be boiled down to the government not seeing digital exclusion as a stand-alone issue, but rather one that should be included in a broad range of policy areas - which is a helpful stance to take, when avoiding the Committee’s recommendations. The response states: 

We agree with the Committee that digital exclusion is affecting millions of people in the UK and impeding economic growth, productivity and social inclusion. As noted in the Committee’s report, digitally excluded people are less likely to be in well-paying jobs, have worse health outcomes, and overall lower quality of life. As a result, digital exclusion creates new inequalities and exacerbates existing ones, making it difficult to fully participate in society.

The Government has been clear that ensuring that no one is left behind in the digital age is a priority and considers that credible steps have been taken to offer needed support. This includes people who do not have the access, skills, or motivation to use the internet. 

The UK’s Digital Strategy published in 2022 is clear that HMG has a “vision to enable everyone, from every industry and across the UK, to benefit from all that digital innovation can offer.” Ensuring that everyone across the country is digitally included will also help drive forward our ambition to Level Up the whole of the UK. 

However, the Government recognizes that there is more to be done, particularly in light of the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic and the accelerated pace of digitization.

My take

For those of us in the UK that have been close observers of the government’s digital ambitions for a number of years, it will come as no surprise to hear that it’s tackling the subject by making grandiose statements (‘we will be a global leader in digital!’), whilst undermining these plans by not focusing on the fundamental building blocks that would support this. Talking to technology companies and end users about their digital plans, the thing that they highlight time and time again is how they struggle to get access to skills and talent. This is being made more difficult thanks to the government’s Brexit/immigration strategy, which has locked off easy access to skills from our closest trading partners. Couple all this with a looming election in the next year or so, where the government seems intent on pursuing culture war strategies, rather than helpful policy to improve the future of Britain - I don’t hold out much hope for any meaningful change in this area in the short term. 

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