No, Prime Minister! The UK digital exclusion crisis is getting worse - and no-one in government seems to be in charge!

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 29, 2023
The UK Government talks a good story around building a digital economy, but the harsh reality is that more and more people are excluded due to lack of skills. A new House of Lords report doesn't pull its punches.

The UK needs to open its eyes to the digital exclusion crisis

As Salesforce’s World Tour series of events hit London today, the company announced a $4 billion investment in the UK over the next five years by the US tech leader. This comes on the back of a previous five year $2.3 billion commitment back in 2018.

It’s the kind of hi-tech vote of inward investment confidence that Brexit Britain likes to hear. Earlier this month Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was telling London Tech Week audiences that:

Companies are voting with their feet and saying, ‘Look, the UK is where we want to be’.

Today Sunak is quoted as stating:

Salesforce’s major investment in its UK business over the next five years is a ringing endorsement of our economy. It will strengthen the company’s UK presence, increasing capacity, as well as creating vital jobs, reinforcing our position as one of their largest markets outside of the US. This investment sits alongside my key priority to grow the economy and pledge to make the UK the best place in the world to start, grow and invest in tech businesses.


All of that’s great stuff on paper, but it takes more than money to build a digital economy - and here’s where the UK has run into serious problems. By happenstance, today has also seen the release of a new report from the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee on the subject of digital exclusion - and it doesn’t make for pretty reading.

It’s a detailed report, with an slant on the impact of the cost of living crisis, but the bottom line conclusion is that the digital exclusion issue in the UK is getting worse - and no-one in government, up to and including the Prime Minister’s Office, has a credible plan of action, or indeed apparent intent, to address this crisis.

The cross-party Committee doesn’t mince its words. Noting that the last time a formal digital inclusion strategy was published was 2014, it goes on to argue that since then things have deteriorated. The report states bluntly:

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’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 report, based on an evidential inquiry that’s been underway since February, cites a series of shocking stats to back up its argument:

  • Some 1.7 million households have no mobile or broadband internet at home.
  • 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.
  • And that comes with a bill of a £63 billion annual hit to the UK economy.

The Government has taken its eye off the ball, finds the Committee, and needs to refresh the 2014 inclusion strategy urgently, beginning with an update on progress against the original objectives outlined in that policy document.

But don’t hold your breath, is the underlying message here, as the Committee claims that the oft-promoted idea that tackling digital exclusion is a priority for government isn’t credible in itself, stating:

We have no confidence that the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) is making digital exclusion a priority in cross-Whitehall policy-making. There do not appear to be adequate formal structures for co-ordinating policy, updating targets, or reviewing progress at either an official level or ministerial level.

What's needed now, the Committee urges, is a cross-government digital exclusion unit with a mandate for co-ordinating external stakeholders, and working across departments to embed digital exclusion in priority policy areas, including economic growth, levelling up, public health, education, skills, employment and welfare.

And there’s a shot across the bows of Downing Street itself:

We further recommend that the Prime Minister’s Office takes a direct interest in tackling digital exclusion and establishes a suitable mechanism to oversee progress on the refreshed digital inclusion strategy.

In other words, more action to back up the fine words, Prime Minister. The Committee concludes:

The Government must show leadership on tackling digital exclusion. This is a complex task and the Government cannot solve everything, but that is no excuse for inaction.

Blazing a trail

There’s also clearly a role for business here in tackling the exclusion problem - and the one area in which the Committee’s report falls short is limiting its considerations here to Internet Service Providers, rather than to the overall digital vendor landscape.

Salesforce has a good track record here, most notably with its free online training skills initiative, Trailhead. Almost a quarter of a million Trailblazers - as participants are known - have earned 2.5 million badges in the UK alone. As Phil Wainewright noted back in April, Trailhead has become a great asset for Salesforce since its debut in 2014:

From its beginnings as an inspired tactical response to a looming skills shortage, Trailhead quickly became core to the company's mission, largely because of its success in making the Salesforce ecosystem more accessible as a career choice, by reaching people who had never previously considered working in tech.

It’s also an upskilling model that can be a great asset to the wider digital economy of a country. Salesforce and its ecosystem of customers and partners in the UK is expected to create 271,700 new jobs and £52 billion ($66 billion) in new business revenues by 2026, according to 2021 research by IDC.

For its part, Salesforce has also been a vocal advocate for government and the private sector to come together to create a national skills platform to help people source and access the training that they need. It backed up this call with a grant of over £1.1 million to support education programs in the UK.

At the London World Tour event, Zahra Bahrololoumi, CEO, Salesforce UKI, reiterated that call to arms: 

We're still lobbying for it and I'm still very vocal about it. The situation in the UK is acute in my opinion....The fact that one-in-six people don't even have basic digital skills, defined by 20 simple items, ranging from things like securing your home and being able to find and seek jobs doesn't paint a pretty picture in terms of what our society can do in terms of sustaining themselves. 

It's not for want of available content that can help, she added: 

We have Trailhead. We're really proud of it. We know how it impacts people's lives. Google also has brilliant training. AWS has brilliant training. Microsoft has brilliant training. Then look at the banks and what Lloyds Bank does and what Barclays does with its Digital Eagles.

But no-one can access all this in one single place. The gateway to that [skills] platform needs to be these 20 essential digital a pathway or a route for people to access things in one place. You can also overlay apprenticeships and the Apprenticeship Levy. You could have return-to-work schemes in there. You can have everything in a one-stop-shop. It's such a quick win because all the content is already there.

Bahrololoumi concluded with a pledge: 

I promise you this continues to be my mission. I will say it every time I get the opportunity to get to Number 10 or in front of Rishi or any government minister. It's top of mind for me all the time.

My take

It’s hard to imagine how the message in this report - and such stinging cross-party criticism - wouldn’t sink home in the corridors of power. But even if it’s not enough to prompt more active intervention by the government of the day, the benefits of a more focused and active policy should be clear.

A report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) earlier this year found that that every £1 invested in basic digital skills could generate an overall return of £9.48 by 2032.  In terms of headline-grabbing numbers, an investment of £1.4 billion in such training for currently excluded UK citizens would deliver up to £13.7 billion in economic benefits, including around £483 million in additional tax revenues for HM Treasury.

As Martha Lane-Fox, one time founder of and now Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, put it on Twitter earlier today:

This isn’t an issue that’s top of [the] policy agenda, but it needs to be.

It absolutely does. 

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