Our thoughts

The Government “does not have a credible strategy to tackle digital exclusion”

Our response to the Lords’ roadmap for action. Today the urgent need to fix the digital divide is all over the media, due to the publication of the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee’s digital exclusion report.

By Good Things Foundation · 29/06/2023

Today the urgent need to fix the digital divide is all over the media, due to the publication of the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee’s digital exclusion report. The cross Party committee, chaired by Conservative Baroness Tina Stowell, said: “The scale of the problem is a direct consequence of the Government’s political lethargy.”

The report does not hold back on its criticism on the Government’s lack of action:

“The Government’s contention that digital exclusion is a priority is not credible. Its flagship digital inclusion strategy is almost a decade old. Formal cross- government evaluations seem to have stopped. Working groups have been disbanded. Interventions to help with internet access are too timid. The Government cannot be expected to solve everything but it can achieve much by showing interest in driving change against clearly defined objectives. We have no confidence that this is happening.”

House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee’s digital exclusion report

Digital exclusion is a complex, intersectional issue that cannot be disentangled easily. In my day-job as Group CEO at Good Things Foundation, I wholly commend the Committee’s well-researched response, which not only acknowledges the challenges of the issue but provides pragmatic recommendations to address them.

This issue is so critical the Prime Minister must get involved – immediately.

“We further recommend that the Prime Minister’s Office takes a direct interest in tackling digital exclusion and establishes a suitable mechanism to oversee progress on a refreshed digital inclusion strategy.”

I got up early to hear Baroness Stowell on BBC 4’s Today Programme talking about the report: “The Government needs to deal with the less sexy end of digital skills … We’re calling for more digital hubs in towns .. there are few places for people to go to learn essential things that they now need to do.”

The Committee’s recommendations align with the evidence I gave orally to the Committee as well as the written evidence we submitted and published. I am pleased to see that Good Things Foundation’s policy asks are recommended in the report:

  • Government to co-invest in digital inclusion
  • Government to stop taxing those most in need and reassess VAT on broadband social tariffs
  • Government to reuse all tech for good

It was great that Baroness Stowell and other Peers from the Committee saw the National Digital Inclusion Network in action when they visited one of our partner Digital Inclusion Hub in East London. This enabled Peers to see first-hand the role and benefits of trusted community organisations tackling the digital divide and got an understanding of how harnessing local digital inclusion hubs into a national movement where the impact of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

One of the main recommendations made by the Committee is the establishment of an updated Digital Inclusion Strategy (last updated in 2014) focusing on decisive action to tackle digital exclusion, especially during the ongoing cost of living crisis.

Immediate and decisive action on removing barriers to internet access

The Lords encourage the Government to immediately cut VAT on broadband social tariffs. We know that industry is willing to take action on this, ensuring people living on lower incomes benefit from the savings. I remember speaking passionately about the shocking situation that the Government currently takes 20% of VAT tax from the very people most affected by the cost of living crisis, and I’m delighted that this is a key recommendation in today’s report.

DWP should promote social tariffs to all the people on Universal Credit. The report says:

"We were told that public service providers could play a greater role in raising awareness, for example through more prominent advertising in job centres, and ensuring customer support staff are aware of social tariffs and how to access them. The Government could also help improve awareness. Helen Milner noted that the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs "interact with everyone on benefits, so they could just ... ask whether they are struggling with affording the internet [and] tell them about social tariffs".

House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee’s digital exclusion report

But it’s not only the charity sector and industry that needs to take action, initiatives should be led by the Government as well: such as donating old and disused tech devices to the National Device Bank – benefiting not only digitally excluded people, but also enabling the UK to reach its Net Zero targets.

“Some of our evidence highlighted how digital inclusion could support the UK’s environmental commitments. .. Gains are available from donating used devices to initiatives like the Good Things Foundation National Device Bank.”

Prioritising basic digital skills

Likewise, prioritising investment into basic digital skills – away from qualifications and towards sustained, community-level delivery – is imperative. This was recognised by the Lords.

It’s evident that the Committee listened attentively to the evidence presented by us and our allies, as it astutely highlights the financial pressures faced by individuals and households today. If left unaddressed, digital exclusion will have far-reaching consequences – research tells us that without action, 5.8 million people will remain digitally excluded by 2032. Our competitiveness will be hindered and the issue will prevent us from reaping the economic benefits associated – every £1 invested in basic digital skills could generate an overall return of £9.48 by 2032.

The Committee does not hold back. They acknowledge how, if digital inclusion and skills had received the same level of attention and investment as core subjects like mathematics, our position today would be vastly different. Positively impacting millions of people’s lives and the economy of the nation.

Government has taken its eye of the ball

The Government must recognise that it has taken its eye off the ball regarding digital inclusion. We hope that this report will serve as a wake-up call, prompting the Government to reclaim its attention and act in a pragmatic, proportionate, and joined-up manner.

The recommendations put forward by the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee provide a roadmap for action. It is now up to the Government to take the lead and implement these recommendations effectively. By doing so, we can ensure that no one is left behind in an increasingly digital world, both now and well into the future.

Let’s seize this opportunity to build a fair and inclusive society where digital exclusion is a thing of the past.

Helen Milner

Helen Milner OBE

Group CEO, Good Things Foundation