Digital Inclusion: Time for Action Not Words

The House of Lord's digital exclusion inquiry rang alarm bells - but the Government's response fell flat. Our Group CEO, Helen Milner OBE, writes about our disappointment at the lack of promised action.

Government response for digital inclusion: a disappointing outcome

The House of Lords Digital and Communications Committee thrust the urgent need for action on the digital divide onto the national agenda when it launched its inquiry into digital exclusion and the cost of living crisis earlier this year. Their report did not hold back on its criticism of the Government’s lack of action on the issue, with Conservative Chair Baroness Tina Stowell herself commenting that ‘the scale of the problem is a direct consequence of the Government’s political lethargy’.

Having called on the Government to act on digital inclusion for most of my working life – I had great hopes that the report would serve as a wake-up call, prompting the Government to reclaim its attention and act in a pragmatic, proportionate, and joined-up manner.  

We waited with baited breath for the Government’s official response, and resigned ourselves to disappointment; and the Government’s response, out today, did just that – disappointed us, and then some. 

Engaging with digital exclusion, but lacking ambition for new strategy

Let’s start with the positives: the Government says it’s clear that no-one should be left behind in the digital age and that there is more to be done. The Government recognises that millions of people face digital exclusion, and that tackling this should be a cross-cutting Ministerial priority for policy across Whitehall departments. They quote the 2022 UK Digital Strategy that HMG has a “vision to enable everyone, from every industry and across the UK, to benefit from all that digital innovation can offer.” And they point that digital inclusion will drive forward their ambition to Level Up the whole of the UK. 

Great. The Government thinks digital inclusion is necessary and a priority. 

One thing that the Lords were clear was lacking was a credible, current, digital inclusion strategy; the previous one was published in 2014. The Government says a new strategy isn’t needed.

I’m not going to get lost in the weeds of what the document is called, but, what we do need, as soon as possible, is: a clear vision from the Government for a nation without a digital divide, clarity for what the role of Government is (for success lies in cross sector partnership that includes the Government), and a published action plan for the next 12 months. 

Billions at stake, but leadership is lagging

We know that there’s a £13.7 billion benefit to the economy if we fix the digital divide. A failure to seize the reigns of leadership on digital inclusion is failing our citizens, society, economy, and future as a result. 

Maybe, just maybe, the new dedicated cross-Whitehall ministerial group will be publishing an action plan soon, as the Minister is going to chair the group that “will drive progress and accountabilities … setting clear objectives, monitoring delivery, and engaging with experts”.

Please make this transparent, please drive new actions and don’t just feel content with what’s already happening, or took place in the pandemic but is no longer resourced. Please extend the invitation to HMT, Department of Health and Social Care, and DEFRA. We are disappointed, however, that the Government has not opted for a dedicated digital exclusion unit, as this would be better placed for delivering across Government silos.

More promising – a consideration for device donations

Affordable devices are essential to excluded people who don’t have one and have no money to buy one. We work in partnership with businesses and public bodies for the National Device Bank taking in tens of thousands of old tech to give out refurbished tech to excluded people through the amazing network of community digital inclusion partners in the National Digital Inclusion Network.

DSIT will conduct a “substantive review” of their current position and “identify a roadmap to future donation”. And they will encourage other departments, public bodies, and companies to do the same. We have five times the need from our Network as there is supply. Thank you for this commitment, please can it be quick. 

Now the less good. 

It’s time for action, not words

Too many words, no vision. Too much on what has been delivered, and not enough on what’s going to be delivered. 

Most of the Lords’ recommendations have not been taken up. You can see that the Committee Chair, Baroness Stowell, isn’t impressed – here’s her response. She says “We are .. disappointed at the lack of further ambition indicated by the Government response. It does not engage substantively with the extent of some of our concerns.” And she closes “we are clear that the Government’s ambition for the UK’s technological developments will not be met unless more importance is attached to ensuring everyone gains from the benefits.”

Removing VAT on social tariffs?

No. The Lords recommended a VAT reassessment on broadband social tariffs to encourage their greater affordability for people who really need them. At Good Things, we’ve been calling for scrapping VAT for several years. And more recently the Data Poverty APPG and key influencers such as Darren Jones MP have asked for a digital and social inclusion fund created from the VAT – reducing it from 20% to 5% would enable the remaining 15% charge on broadband products to create a £2.1bn fund per year, ring-fenced to help fund the Digital Inclusion Strategy.

The Essential Digital Skills Framework to be used for school leavers, apprenticeships, and adult education courses?

No. Despite 10.2 million people in the UK lacking the very foundation digital skills to function effectively in our society. 

Community-level interventions being critical to fixing the digital divide?

No. Both for supporting excluded people with the very basic skills for a digital age, and for providing free connectivity and devices, community-level interventions are critical. This underpins action for digital inclusion – it’s how people can be reached and motivated, it’s a trusted, local organisation staffed by people who have stood in the same shoes previously, and this informal support and personalise and tailor based on someone’s needs.

It exists already. The Lords’ Committee visited Skills Enterprise in Newham as part of their evidence gathering. These places and this network exists already, but is excluded from the full resources these local organisations need. Libraries are part of this, but aren’t (and don’t want to be) the only organisations in the local ecosystem, and many would say they too are on their knees with the scale of the exclusion in our communities.

It’s time for action not words. We know a general election is coming – so let’s make sure this time isn’t wasted. We must act now to help fix the digital divide – for good.

Share this with your networks below and help us spread the message: that to #FixTheDigitalDivide, we need more action from Government.