The House of Lords has criticised the government’s response, or lack thereof, to its Communications and Digital Committee’s report outlining ways the government can address increasing levels of digital exclusion in the UK.
The government responded to the recommendations in the report by claiming that while it agrees there are a large number of people who are digitally excluded in the UK, it has already achieved so much with its current plans that it is not necessary to create a new strategy to tackle this issue. It responded similarly to a number of other recommendations made by the committee.
“Digital exclusion is not a problem that will solve itself,” said Tina Stowell, chair of the House of Lords’ Communications and Digital Committee. “It is an ongoing challenge, and we need clear direction from the government about how they will prioritise making sure people are not excluded or left behind when it comes to enjoying the benefits of being online.
“Our report set out a series of key areas where the government could take the lead in tackling the digital divide, including in developing digital skills and confidence among those with the lowest level of digital capability,” she added.
“In their response, the government have reasserted that digital exclusion is a priority, but their actions do not live up to the words. It is simply not credible to claim it is a priority when the key strategy for helping people keep pace in such a fast-moving area is over a decade old.
“It is disappointing that the government’s response has not taken up the committee’s positive challenge and signalled the ambition needed to close the digital divide for the UK to thrive as a tech superpower,” said Stowell.
Despite digital becoming increasingly important for day-to-day life, there are still a number of adults without the digital skills needed to complete basic digital tasks, and many other individuals across the UK who are unable to access the internet.
Tina Stowell, Communications and Digital Committee
The main suggestion in the Lords’ report was to create a new Digital Inclusion Strategy to replace the current one, which is now nearly 10 years old.
It also asked the government to make it easier for the public to access the internet and devices, make it easier for education providers to offer digital skills training to a variety of people, and do more to ensure smaller telecoms providers are able to offer internet access to those who need it.
But many of these points were not fully embraced by the government in its response – it highlighted digital inclusion as “a priority” for the government and argued many steps have already been taken to offer support to those who may not have digital access.
While the government said it would set up a cross-ministerial committee to investigate what departments involved in digital inclusion can do to donate devices to those who may not have access to tech, it claimed the original strategy, developed in 2014, “continue[s] to inform” decisions made around digital access and skills, with digital inclusion being included in all policy areas rather than being tackled as an individual issue, and therefore a new Digital Inclusion Strategy is not necessary.
The government also said it would not set up a governmental digital exclusion unit, develop a “clearer definition” of what counts as a social tariff for internet access, or apply digital skills targets for different stages of people’s lives or education levels.
The Lords described the response as “lacking ambition” and “failing to engage” with the issues outlined in the committee’s investigation and subsequent recommendations regarding the lack of digital inclusion in the UK.
Elizabeth Anderson, Digital Poverty Alliance
Elizabeth Anderson, interim CEO of Digital Poverty Alliance, said while what is being done is a positive, there’s a long way to go, especially as the pace of technology adoption is causing the digital skills and access gap to widen.
“When we look at statistics that highlight 13-19 million people over the age of 16 are experiencing some form of digital poverty, while it is estimated that 20% of children are in digital poverty, it is disappointing to see that there will be no new strategy to address this growingly urgent issue as more essential services – from homework to welfare services – move online only,” she said.
“Government needs to adopt a long-term and strategic approach to ensure that the millions of people offline do not get left behind – with new ideas and innovation. We particularly welcome the cross-departmental group to address the issue and will be keen to engage with government going forward. It is essential that government, businesses and the third sector work together to ensure we can meet our goal of eradicating digital poverty by 2030.”