Government plans to be a “science and technology superpower” do not take into account the extent of digital exclusion in the UK, according to a report from the House of Lords.
The report claims the government “does not have a credible strategy” for closing the digital inclusion gap, which will not only prevent the UK from reaching the level of technological prowess the government is aiming for, but is also preventing a large percentage of the population from participating in day-to-day activities where digital connection and savvy is increasingly required.
Elizabeth Anderson, interim CEO at charity Digital Poverty Alliance, said: “We live in a digital economy where participation in basic daily activities, that many of us take for granted, requires access to or skills relating to technology.
“For many, this is a given. However, there are 11 million people across the UK who are experiencing digital exclusion, and this means lacking access to equipment, connectivity and skills.
“For the UK to achieve [its] goal of becoming a tech and science superpower, more must be done to support those who lack access, which will not only provide them with increased opportunities, but will help support the growth of our economy.”
Digital exclusion relates to those who do not have access to digital technologies, either because they do not have devices, internet access or the skills to use digital devices and services.
Being digitally excluded for any reason can prevent people from properly participating in life, especially when digital is becoming the norm for so many tasks such as banking or shopping, and most jobs now require some level of digital skill.
According to research by the House of Lords, 1.7 million households in the UK have no internet access, which has been further exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis.
One of the suggestions outlined in the Lords’ report coincides with evidence presented by Thomas Lowe, head of policy and communications at the Digital Poverty Alliance, suggesting the government develops a new Digital Inclusion Strategy to replace the current one which is now nearly 10 years old.
There are a number of programmes and efforts aimed at making sure there are equal opportunities for digital access – for example, the government has been supporting training initiatives to increase digital skills, investing in tech to help as many areas as possible have access to broadband, and supporting cheaper tariffs for internet access.
But these efforts to address digital exclusion in the UK do not match the rapid pace of digital adoption the UK is currently seeing, and the Lords claimed the government’s current approach, which was termed “political lethargy”, is what has led to the problem becoming so difficult to solve.
A one-size-fits all offering is also not suitable to fix the problem, as different areas have different issue that need addressing, with some solutions working better in some areas than others.
“The government’s contention that digital exclusion is a priority is not credible,” the report claimed. “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. Senior political leadership to drive joined-up, concerted action is sorely needed.”
There are a number of areas the Lords Communications and Digital Committee, which was responsible for the inquiry that led to the recent guidance, suggested should be covered as part of a new government strategy for digital inclusion.
Since the cost-of-living crisis has had an impact on people’s digital access, the government has been advised to make it easier for the public to access the internet and devices, as well as offering help to education providers to increase people’s digital skills across all levels and walks of life.
More support should be given to community hubs such as libraries to help ensure there is a place people in the local area can easily access digital technologies and the internet, and the government should diversify its support of inclusion initiatives in the telecoms sector to ensure smaller providers, which may be the best solution for access in some areas, are not overlooked.
As technology changes, more should be done to reduce the risk of further digital isolation of particular individuals by making sure ongoing efforts to increase digital inclusion take into account how developing technologies may impact the day-to-day life of the public in the near-future.
These suggestions focus on the government working alongside businesses, communities and education providers to make sure actions taken suit the communities they are trying to serve as part of a multi-pronged approach that addresses both the lack of access to devices, internet and skills that prevent millions in the UK from properly participating in modern life and work.