Time for Ministers to turn words into action on digital inclusion

The pandemic has seen conversations about digital inclusion grow ever louder, especially in government. But our Group CEO Helen Milner says this talk must now start to create real change.

As we enjoy some longer, lighter, warmer days, the dark wet and cold of a locked-down Winter may now seem a distant memory. But 3rd December 2020 is still a day that burns bright for me and for Good Things Foundation’s ambition for a world where everyone benefits from digital.

MPs Esther McVey (Conservative) and Julie Elliott (Labour) joined forces to bring a Commons Backbench Business debate to Parliament; and how heartening it was to hear politicians from across the spectrum speak passionately about the need for more action to tackle digital exclusion.

Conservative MP Danny Kruger called for ‘a great national mission to get as many of those 9 million people who want and need it online, working through trusted local organisations’. Fellow Conservative MP Andy Carter spoke of the need for a digital inclusion programme to ‘support some of those hardest-to-reach groups in society’.

Labour MP Wes Streeting spoke of a great digital catch-up being “desperately needed”. Shadow Digital Minister Chi Onwurah called on the Government to lead a plan where ‘everyone can be an active participant in our increasingly digital world’.

SNP MP Richard Thomson described the ‘yawning chasm of the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots’, while Liberal Democrat MP Jamie Stone highlighted how people being online had helped tackle loneliness during the pandemic.

Just re-reading the transcript of the debate lifts my spirits – but it reminds me that six months have now passed and I’m worried that as the pandemic comes under control and people start getting back to a life that is some-kind-of-normal the digital exclusion will be forgotten.

It’s still not OK that millions and millions of people are being excluded and denied the opportunities that the majority of the UK population are benefiting from. While the 2021 Lloyds Banking Group’s Consumer Digital Index indicates some signs of progress, it also tells us there are 14.9 million people who still have very low digital engagement – meaning the group of people we usually call ‘limited users’ (use the web in a small way but unlikely to use email) is still far too high. And 2.6 million people are completely offline, 39% of whom are under the age of 60. We still have a long way to go.

Business and industry are increasingly doing their bit to help find solutions; we’ve seen our partner BT announce a new social tariff for broadband, while Nominet are working with us to explore sustainable solutions with our Data Poverty Lab. We’re also partnering with Capita to help leaders in devolved regions find what works for achieving digital inclusion in their communities. All this is exciting and shows the potential of what impact could be achieved, at scale.

During the recent Loneliness Week, Digital Minister Caroline Dinenage spoke in Parliament about the success of the £2.5m Digital Lifeline project we have been delivering with AbliityNet, Digital Unite, Learning Disability England and Voluntary Organisations Disability Group. Thanks to the hard work of our amazing hyperlocal partners (the Online Centres Network) and others, 5,500 people with learning disabilities have been supported with devices, data and basic digital skills.

I know Minister Dinenage is taking a strong interest in the project and will be moved by stories of people like Maisie, whose mental health and work situation have improved as a result of the support she has received. In her own words: ”Things are getting better and I’m excited for the future.” You can hear more about Maisie’s inspiring story here.

We see that business clearly wants to play its part in fixing the digital divide. Now is the time for Ministers to build on the success of Digital Lifeline, and make a real commitment to ensuring mass digital exclusion quickly becomes a thing of the past.

We need projects that build into programmes that grow into culture change so that in the next decade digital inclusion is built into every policy area, every rollout of services, everything we all do. This is a fixable problem, so we must and should fix it.

With the Government’s leadership, we can set a bold ambition – a national, coherent plan to completely close the divide by the end of the decade. This can be achieved through a visionary Digital Strategy, which puts a digital inclusion hub in every community, supporting those most disadvantaged by the pandemic, driving recovery and levelling up opportunity.

In his closing remarks in that memorable December debate, Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman said he was impatient to ‘get the job done’ when it comes to digital inclusion.

I really hope this is still true; we can’t afford to let another six months slide by without serious investment to close the digital divide, nor can we allow the opportunity for an ambitious and inclusive Digital Strategy to be missed.

It’s not okay that as a country with the fifth biggest economy we are still leaving people behind. At Good Things, we look forward to seeing those Ministerial words translate into real, life-changing action in 2021. Let’s fix the digital divide by the end of this decade!

Helen Milner

Helen Milner OBE

Group Chief Executive

Helen has over 30 years experience of working in and leading organisations creating and delivering education over and about the internet. She was awarded an OBE for services to digital inclusion in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. In 2017, she won the title of Digital Leader of the Year (UK) and was named by Computer Weekly as the 14th most influential person in UK IT in 2020. Working with British Parliament, Helen was a member of the Speaker's Commission for Digital Democracy and an Advisor on Digital Engagement to the Public Accounts Committee. She is a Board Member of FutureDotNow, a member of the Minister’s Digital Skills Partnership Board, and is on the Adult Advisory Group for MaPS (the UK’s Money and Pension Service).