Digital exclusion is a national social and economic crisis. In the UK there are 10.2 million people who lack the very basic foundational skills needed to participate in our digital world which threatens to deepen existing inequalities, affecting education, employment, and social participation.
In June, the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee published their report on digital exclusion. It is safe to say that the report did not hold back on its criticism of the UK Government's limited action to date, stating that ‘the scale of the problem is a direct consequence of the Government’s political lethargy’. I had hoped the government would have used this report as a stark wake-up call to implement a new strategy, investing in essential digital skills and providing more support for digital inclusion centres. Sadly, I came away from reading the Government's recent response to this disheartened and disappointed.
Whilst the response agreed that no one should be left behind in the digital age, there was no clear vision of how to go about fixing this. Too much of the report focused on what has already been delivered whilst not enough focus was placed on what needs to be done. As well as this, much of the Lord's recommendations were rejected or flat out ignored.
I was glad to see the Government did acknowledge the pressing issue of digital inclusion affecting millions of people, identifying this as a top priority across various ministerial departments. Citing the 2022 UK Digital Strategy, they suggested the HMG has a “vision to enable everyone [..] to benefit from all that digital innovation can offer”, pointing that digital inclusion will 'Level Up' the entire UK.
This being said, a sticking point in the House of Lords report was the lack of a current digital inclusion strategy. Given the last strategy was published in 2014, it is undeniable that technology has advanced significantly over the past nine years, with new technologies such as AI coming to the fore. The UK needs a new strategic approach which reflects these innovations, and it was disappointing to see this had not been taken into account by any means. A clear strategy should be based on the needs of different groups, in consultation with stakeholders who are seeing the challenges faced by those who are digitally excluded daily in the modern world.
Another key recommendation to be disregarded was the revaluation of VAT on broadband social tariffs. At Good Things Foundation, we've been advocating for the elimination of VAT on such services for several years. Lowering VAT from 20% to 5% would generate a substantial £2.1 billion fund annually, which could be dedicated to supporting the Digital Inclusion Strategy. This move would significantly enhance the affordability of broadband services for those who need them most, ensuring that more people can access the benefits of the digital world. It was disappointing to see the Government had no intention of putting this into action.
Without government action, the digital divide will inevitably deepen. With just £24.4m per year co-investment from the UK Government and businesses, we can half the digital divide by 2030. It is clear that we need a plan to move forwards, one that includes a well-defined proposal outlining the UK Government's vision for a digitally inclusive nation and how they will commit to achieve this. This should provide clarity regarding the government's role in achieving this vision over the next 12 months.
To create a truly inclusive society, the Government needs to do more to treat this as a social issue, to prevent widening inequality. With the next General Election on the horizon and huge levels of public support behind this, with our data revealing that 80% of Brits are urging the UK Government to make investments to address digital exclusion in the UK, the time for the government to step up and take action to fix the digital divide is now.
Helen Milner OBE is Group CEO of the Good Things Foundation