How is Westminster tackling the Digital Divide?

In case you missed it, we've put together all the highlights from the “Tackling the Digital Divide” backbench debate earlier this month.

The “Tackling the Digital Divide” debate saw cross-party MPs quiz the Minister about how the government is addressing the issue across the UK. 

We’ve put together a speaker-by-speaker overview to cut through the prattle. You can also head over to Twitter to read our quick recap

Stephen Timms MP (East Ham, Labour)

The debate kicked off with Stephen Timms MP discussing how despite the dramatic progress, 2.8 million people are completely digitally excluded. With affordability and absence of basic digital skills creating a barrier for millions, he called for the government to update their Digital Strategy to enable “real progress” towards digital inclusion. 

Timms also highlighted Good Things Foundation’s Blueprint and unpacked our three core asks: 

  • Digital skills to help level up and improve employability across the U.K.
  • Community support by highlighting our Community Partners Skills Enterprise, who are delivering digital skills support in his constituency.
  • Affordable internet for all, rather than infrastructure alone. 

Selaine Saxby MP (North Devon, Conservative)

As Chair of the APPG on Broadband and Digital Communication, Saxby jumped into discussing lagging broadband speed and how people in rural areas – like her North Devon constituency in the South West – are suffering due to broadband infrastructure’s slow roll-out.

“I hope the new Secretary of State will bring the drive she has shown in addressing other inequalities in our society to bridging the clear rural digital divide.”

Alistair Carmichael MP (Orkney & Shetland, Liberal Democrats)

Given the location of his constituency, Alistair Carmichael MP continued to focus on connectivity and its affordability. Unlike the experiences of his fellow East London representatives, Carmichael explained how his constituents are facing problems with hardware rather than software, as many have to pay “tens of thousands of pounds” for coverage.

He was keen for the Minister to update the Hall on the Shared Rural Network which is delivering mobile broadband countrywide, announced earlier in the year.

Shaun Bailey MP (West Bromwich West, Conservative)

Newly elected Shaun Bailey MP unpacked the wide-ranging nature of digital inclusion during his Westminster debate debut.

He began by addressing how to build infrastructure and the processes behind delivering such projects. Following on from Stephen Timms MP, Bailey discussed what the digital divide actually means: access to benefits and pensions, education and work.

We were happy to hear Bailey amplifying device access, and championing our friends in the West Midlands and their work around digital upskilling.

“I want to turn to what the digital divide actually means […] access to the universal credit system, pensions, education and work — we know how important those things are.“

Marian Fellows MP (Motherwell and Wishaw, SNP)

The Scottish National Party was represented by Marian Fellows MP, who echoed Carmichael’s points about the digital landscape being more positive than the rest of the country, though she added there are difficulties with geography and processes in Scotland’s initiatives.

As well as praising the Scottish’s Government’s digital inclusion programmes, she drew on her role as the SNP’s disability spokesperson in Westminster, vouching for the importance of helping deprived community members who may experience extreme loneliness and physical disabilities, even if that’s done online.

Fellows wrapped up by questioning the Minister on the UK government’s plan to match Scotland’s digital ambitions and asking if the devolved nation will receive its fair share of the infrastructure investment.

Chi Onwurah MP (Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Labour)

Starting from the position that internet access should be a right, not a privilege, Onwurah began by questioning the Minister about whether she believed that as well. Onwurah continued by asking when an updated Digital Inclusion Strategy was due and whether this would involve small businesses.

Onwurah went on to criticise the government for not prioritising action against racism, misogyny, or homophobia in its Online Safety Bill, drawing on Nominet’s Digital Youth Index that highlights the extent of online hate speech.

We were thrilled to have our National Databank referenced as an initiative addressing data and device poverty. Onwurah finished by reminding the Minister that “it should not be up to charities to ensure digital equity” – instead, she said, there should be a dedicated Minister who focuses on digital inclusion entirely. 

Julia Lopez (The Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure)

The Minister’s first response to the debate was to describe the successes of broadband infrastructure delivery initiative, Project Gigabit. She explained how it is overcoming challenges in its delivery, from procurement processes to capacity constraints. She also touched on bringing the £5m funding earmarked for the roll-out forward if possible.

The Minister also described the various digital skills training projects and funds initiated by Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, such as: local digital skills partnerships across the country; a fast track digital workforce fund; and our own Digital Lifeline work with DCMS to distribute free devices, data, and digital support to over 5,000 people with learning difficulties earlier this year.

The Minister finished off the hour by recognising the issue’s gravity and reinforcing the government’s efforts to address it – through working to deliver fantastic digital infrastructure, designing accessible services, and investing in digital skills

“The pandemic has made the online world ever more integrated with the offline one, and I hope that Members of Parliament will work with me to ensure that every citizen can be taken along on this journey, so that people from every part of our country and from all walks of life feel that technology is ultimately an empowering force.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated society’s need for digital, as the backbench debate made evident. Whilst we wait for the government’s updated digital strategy – one which provides adequate recovery for those on the wrong side of the digital divide – the Good Things Foundation will continue advocating those with responsibility and changing lives through digital. Like what we do? Donate today.