Budget 2021: A missed opportunity

Helen Milner blogs about how the 2021 budget was a missed opportunity for the millions of digitally excluded people in the UK.

When Rishi Sunak stood up and delivered his 2021 Budget, he described it as one that ‘meets the moment’. In recent days and weeks, the Chancellor has struck (as you’d expect) an optimistic tone in the media, talking about giving people ‘hope’ and ‘opportunity’.

But our work with our fantastic and resilient network of hyperlocal community partners tells us that, 12 months on from the first lockdown, this is a moment when millions of people in the UK are as digitally excluded and locked out of opportunity as ever.

At this moment, millions of adults lack devices, data, and the basic skills to allow them to participate in our digital society. At this moment, they are struggling to support their family’s online learning, arrange online health appointments, apply for jobs, or manage their finances through digital services. At this moment 7 million people have no internet at home and 1 in 6 households have struggled to pay broadband bills during the pandemic.

COVID-19 changed everything because suddenly the nation became aware it could not live without the internet. For people who are able to use technology, shifting everyday life online has been strange and unexpected, but not exactly a leap in the dark. For those millions who can’t, lockdowns have meant being literally cut off from information, education, support, and essential services – leading to loneliness, anxiety, and social isolation. This isn’t okay.

Missed opportunity

The Chancellor did announce a three-year £295m Help to Grow Digital scheme, aimed at helping 100,000 small and medium-sized businesses to grow and become more efficient.

But if business owners and staff lack basic digital skills – and confidence – to do things like use a browser and send emails, they won’t benefit from help with more advanced skills like selling online or managing accounts and finances digitally. As the Government themselves admitted, 5 million workers are at risk of becoming “acutely under-skilled in basic digital skills” by 2030 (HM Treasury, 2021). We must fix the digital divide now to avoid this and help millions to take advantage of our economic recovery.

Analysis undertaken by the University of Liverpool shows that in the North East of England and Yorkshire and the Humber, 52.6% and 43.0% of people respectively are either completely offline or have very limited digital skills. With 82% of jobs advertised online requiring digital skills (DCMS, 2019), unless more people in areas like Darlington and Leeds are supported to cross the digital divide, the job opportunities created by these big regional initiatives – like the freeports and new economic hubs – will pass many by. It’s critical that we invest in digital skills in these areas to help level up our country.

As Darren Jones MP, Chair of the BEIS Select Committee and Chair of the new Data Poverty APPG has pointed out, the job finding support service announced in this Budget is delivered online. So it’s disappointing the Government has missed the opportunity to give an employment boost to some of the nine million people in the UK can’t use the Internet without help (Lloyds Consumer Digital Index 2020).

Golden opportunity

Last December, Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman said the Government’s commitment to Digital Inclusion shouldn’t be doubted for a second, but I’m afraid that after this Budget doubt remains.

The Government now has a golden opportunity to banish doubt and show it is serious about fixing the digital divide – by making a commitment to a 100% Digitally Included Nation by 2030 the headline ambition of its new, long-awaited Digital Strategy.

It should set out a clear and bold vision for tackling the essential digital skills gap and finding long-term sustainable solutions to data poverty – and should lead by example by committing to embedding digital inclusion within policies right across Government.

This vision should be backed by investment by the Treasury, allowing all areas of government to work together with industry and the social sector to make this happen. Only then will the growth and opportunity the Chancellor talks about be levelled up across the country.

At Good Things Foundation, we and our thousands of community partners are ready and willing for the opportunity to play our significant role. The time for inaction is over – the Government must fix the digital divide now.

Helen Milner

Helen Milner

Group Chief Executive

Helen Milner OBE is the Group Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation. Founded as a staff-led mutual charity in the UK in 2011, Helen led the establishment of a subsidiary charity, opening an office in Sydney in August 2017, and running the Be Connected Network for the Australian Government.