Tackling digital exclusion: a national imperative for the UK

By Patrick Adams, Consultant

The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee has cautioned the UK government about the rising issue of digital exclusion, stating that "millions of citizens" are being left behind in their recent report. The Committee found that many individuals lack the necessary skills and resources to operate in the rapidly expanding digital space. The report states that digital divide is expanding, with services such as banking, benefits, and job advertisements moving increasingly online.

Currently, approximately four million individuals cannot complete a single basic digital task to go online, while seven million households lack access to either broadband or mobile internet. This problem is predicted to worsen. By 2030, there will be an acute shortage of basic digital skills among 5 million workers. The UK economy suffers a staggering annual loss of £63 billion due to widespread digital skills shortages. In the last year alone, affordability issues have forced 1 million people to reduce or cancel their internet packages. This comes after a 2022 Ipsos report revealing that a minimum of 10.2 million adults are bereft of the basic skills required for internet access.

Despite aspirations of leading in AI regulation, the UK government appears to lack a comprehensive strategy to combat digital exclusion.  Since the last digital inclusion strategy was formulated in 2014, the digital divide has deepened, primarily due to challenges such as the rising cost of living. This problem is further amplified as both public and private sectors increasingly rely on machine learning, thereby causing those digitally excluded to become more marginalised. This segment of the population, often underrepresented in datasets, faces an escalating risk of being left behind in a world rapidly shifting towards digital reliance.

Digital inclusion is a challenge that requires consistent efforts to bridge the gap. As the pace of technological change quickens, the divide between those who can access and use digital services and those who can't expands. To combat this crisis the Committee suggests a comprehensive approach. They urge the government to demonstrate leadership, publish a new digital inclusion strategy, and establish a cross-departmental government unit connected directly to Number 10.  The Committee proposed a comprehensive approach to tackle the digital divide, which includes:

  • Abolishing VAT on social internet tariffs: This means eliminating VAT on internet plans designed for low-income or socially disadvantaged individuals, thereby making internet access more affordable to those in need.
  • Expanding internet voucher schemes in partnership with the private sector: The suggestion here is to increase the availability of internet vouchers, which are essentially subsidies that help cover the cost of internet services. This initiative could be scaled up to reach a broader section of the population.
  • Advocating for public sector organisations to donate old devices to digital inclusion initiatives: Public sector organisations often replace their electronic devices regularly. The Committee proposes that these used devices, instead of being discarded or sold, should be donated to initiatives that refurbish and distribute them to those who cannot afford new devices. 

The Committee emphasised the necessity of investment in basic digital skills, now considered as critical as maths and literacy, and suggested that digital skills should receive greater focus in schools, apprenticeships, and adult learning courses. Furthermore, this would also require enhanced support for digital inclusion hubs, such as libraries, and 'future-proofing' public services by reassessing the use of predictive machine learning tools. 

Baroness Stowell of Beeston, Chair of the Committee, said: "Digital exclusion is a moving target. As technology develops, people currently confident using IT at work and home will need to keep refreshing their skills to avoid being left behind. We can't assume younger people are digital natives who won't need to develop new skills. We need to ensure everyone and all age groups have the digital skills they need to operate and the opportunities to keep developing those skills as technologies change."

The cost of addressing this issue will be significant, but the potential financial returns are estimated to be substantial. Research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research suggests that every £1 invested in basic digital skills could generate a return of £9.48 by 2032. Filling digital skills vacancies could contribute £2.7 billion to UK businesses, plus additional earnings and tax revenue.

That’s not to say the Government has done nothing to tackle digital exclusion. The Government has introduced social broadband and mobile tariffs, starting from as low as £10 per month and accessible to 99% of the UK. Furthermore, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has entered an agreement with regulators, including Ofcom, to secure consumer rights and aid those burdened with payments. As part of this plan, Ofcom is set to prompt suppliers to adopt social tariffs, enhance transparency in pricing, and potentially fortify regulations. Additionally, ongoing government initiatives such as the Digital Skills Partnership and Digital Skills Bootcamp, combined with the tech-savvy Prime Minister and the Government's dedication to digitalising the UK, suggest further proactive steps can be anticipated. Yet, as the Committee suggests, if current efforts are not maintained and intensified, digital exclusion will only become an increasing challenge with serious economic consequences. 

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