Digital Exclusion (Communications and Digital Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords am 3:27 pm ar 8 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Baroness Stowell of Beeston:

Moved by Baroness Stowell of Beeston

To move that this House takes note of the Report from the Communications and Digital Committee Digital exclusion (3rd Report, Session 2022-23, HL Paper 219).

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

My Lords, it is a great privilege to open this debate, just as it is a privilege to chair the Communications and Digital Committee of your Lordships’ House. I am hugely grateful to all members of the committee who contribute so much through their expertise and dedication to our work. I know that they would all want me to pay the greatest tribute to the team who support us and deserve so much credit for the quality of our output: Dan Schlappa, Rita Cohen, Owen Williams and, until last autumn, Emily Bailey Page, who left us on promotion and has recently been replaced by Anna Herzog. They are all brilliant and work so hard. On behalf of all members of the committee, I put on record our sincere thanks to them.

It has been a busy week for tech policy. On Friday, the committee published our report on large language models and generative AI, looking at what needs to happen to ensure that these new technologies benefit people and our society. On Monday, the Government published their AI White Paper response, and, on Tuesday, we took evidence from the Secretary of State for DSIT about AI digital exclusion and skills. On Wednesday, I spoke at a conference emphasising the importance of ensuring that technology benefits us all, not just the big tech firms. Today, we are debating my committee’s report on digital exclusion. Some of us, including the Minister, have also been busy on the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill.

I say all that not to complain—I love my work and I am privileged to have the opportunity—but to illustrate how quickly developments in technology are happening, how wide-ranging the impacts are for all sectors of society, how closely they are all connected and how difficult it is for us all to keep pace with the vast array of issues. The pace of change, and the huge social and economic implications, underscore the need for more action on digital exclusion. Technology policy, particularly on AI, is a major government priority; the consequences of those changes must be, too. Digital divides are deepening, and basic skills gaps persist, yet our inquiry found that the Government are not paying nearly enough attention.

It is important to see the big picture here. Digital exclusion is not just about old people, although many of them are seriously affected. It can affect people from all age groups and all walks of life. Some 2.5 million people in the UK cannot do a basic digital task. Digital exclusion is not about asking for government handouts or about giving everyone free internet. It is about making sure that everyone benefits from technological change and ensuring that people are not left behind. It is about ensuring we do not create second-class citizens who cannot use online banking, NHS services such as making a GP appointment, or any public service such as submitting tax returns, applying for benefits, a new passport or a blue badge parking permit. It is also about making sure that there are not some people who cannot apply for jobs, 90% of which are now only advertised online.

Digital inclusion is about ensuring that we do not exclude people from things that most people take for granted but which require basic digital skills, a working device and a decent internet connection. It is also about economic prosperity and efficiency. We cannot hope to become a science and tech superpower if 5 million employed adults are unable to complete all the main digital tasks expected at work, and the same number are expected to be acutely underskilled by 2030. It is worth pausing to reflect that the shortage of digital skills is costing the UK economy £63 billion a year.

We cannot hope to achieve public sector efficiencies by digitising services without simultaneously addressing digital divides. Otherwise, we will end up creating a two-tier system where digitally engaged citizens get increasingly better service than those who struggle.

The main recommendation from our report was for the Government to acknowledge the challenge by updating their digital exclusion strategy, last published a decade ago. The strategy’s delivery partners have not existed for years, and updates to it now sit in the National Archives, none of which inspires much confidence.

On Tuesday, the Secretary of State for DSIT told us she was not a fan of updating strategies, saying that they consume government time which could be better employed delivering progress. That would be fine if there had been a lot of progress. However, the Government’s response to our report declined to give a structured update or set out clearly defined targets. I can sympathise with the Secretary of State if officials spend time writing strategies, believing a document is an end in itself. However, I do not agree that they are a waste of time if the point of the strategy is to bring together all the disparate parts of government and to make sure they are delivering valuable work.

DSIT has plenty of strategies for other things, so I am afraid that we suspect its reluctance to publish one for digital exclusion is because there is not much to put in it and it is not a priority. This is odd, because digital exclusion is linked to deep-seated structural challenges and is holding back progress on key government pledges, on levelling up, education inequality, digitised healthcare and productivity. Having a joined-up plan to get to grips with this would be helpful. We heard that there is now an interministerial group to consider digital exclusion across government, which is good, but we were not entirely clear what outcomes this had achieved, and without high-level political attention and clear objectives, it will not achieve very much.

If the Government are averse to strategies, perhaps we could push for a public action plan instead, which could start by covering the recommendations we made in our report. I will go through the headlines. First, it should tackle basic skills gaps. Schemes offering certificates and qualifications get lots of the attention, but these are often poorly suited to the target demographic. Instead, there should be more focus on long-term support for community organisations.

Secondly, more effort is needed to create place-based local digital inclusion hubs, with basic facilities and people on hand to help. Libraries are bearing the brunt of this expectation but they cannot solve everything. Demanding that high-street banks accelerate the long-promised banking hubs, which are becoming increasingly urgent in towns losing bank branches, and working with the banks to make them digital hubs would be my personal suggestion. I raised this idea with the Minister, my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, during an Oral Question in December; I would be interested to know from the Minister today, my noble friend Lord Camrose, what discussions there have been in government on this topic since then.

Thirdly, the Government should be much more proactive in ensuring that public services are not excluding people. Often, it is the people who need help the most who struggle to get it; helping them early on saves on costs later down the line. The same is true for the private sector. Of course, offline alternatives remain essential—I will come back to this later.

Fourthly, the Government should cut VAT on social tariffs to make them more affordable. Too many people struggle to afford internet in the first place; cutting VAT would help. The Government could also do more to ensure that telecoms firms are advertising their social tariffs prominently.

Fifthly, the Government should do much more to help scale up existing good ideas. The public sector has vast numbers of devices that, with a bit of imagination and security work, could be donated. Internet voucher schemes are a great way to help people, in particular jobseekers, get a temporary boost if they are struggling. There are plenty of other good ideas out there, including something called wifi in a box.

Sixthly, the Government should keep paying close attention to the value of alternative network providers. These are smaller, local internet providers that deliver huge value to poorly connected communities, including plenty of doorstep support to people who need it most. They are a good demonstration of what can be achieved when companies put people first. They must not be forgotten as Openreach continues to build out its network.

Lastly, I emphasise that the whole point of new technologies is supposed to be making life better. Making services digital is not an end in itself; it should be about improving the experience for users, not a cost-saving exercise that benefits bosses but leaves everyone else dissatisfied. I recently read an article by Jamie Bartlett on the website UnHerd about something that he calls techno-admin. He coined the phrase; it captures this issue well. He said that it is

“a pervasive phenomenon, whereby we customers are forced into infuriating, confusing, absurdly time-consuming and bleakly unrewarding tasks by a machine”.

I am sure that we all have experienced the same more often than we should. Moreover, the Post Office scandal shows how important it is for new technologies to be designed and used in ways that benefit people, and to have humans in the loop rather than putting blind faith in automated processes. To avoid becoming strategically reliant on a small number of tech firms, with no alternative providers, we must prioritise open-market competition and diversify our service providers. I am optimistic about new tech but we need to ask companies and government to ensure that their systems put people first.

I would like to conclude by emphasising the need for joined-up thinking across government, particularly on AI policy and digital exclusion. AI is introducing major changes to our society. Large language models, such as ChatGPT in particular, will drive ground-breaking scientific advances, provide huge boosts to productivity and fundamentally reshape our relationship with machines. Widespread AI-related unemployment is not likely. That said, some industries and sectors will inevitably be disrupted and some people will lose out, but new jobs will also be created. The problem is where those new jobs will be. Unless we invest much more effort in supporting disrupted sectors to transition and upskilling those who are losing out from the AI boom, we will create a whole set of people who see technology as a threat rather than an opportunity.

If they lack the skills to get one of the new jobs which the economic experts promise are coming, or to use the fancy new chatbot services, then why would they feel positive about technological change? Digital exclusion is the flip side of all the good things about technological progress. Being included is a constantly moving target. People who have the skills to get by today may struggle in the future.

I hope that the Minister can provide reassurance today on these matters. In particular, I would like to know why the Government are so averse to having a coherent public plan about what they are going to do. The sad fact is that we are not confident that the Government are taking this seriously, and that is unlikely to change until we see an updated plan or strategy. I would also welcome reassurance about how the Minister is ensuring that the teams working on AI policy and digital exclusion are working together and engaging other departments to ensure a properly joined-up approach to this challenge. I look forward to not only my noble friend’s response but all the contributions from noble Lords participating in today’s debate. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee 3:41, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. Until very recently, I served on the committee. I pay tribute to her and all the other members, from whom I learned a great deal. I also join in her praise for the excellent staff who supported the committee. Today, I want to underscore the urgent need for more government action in this area.

The committee produced some excellent reports, including the one that we are debating today. However, highlighting the importance of today’s topic, I point out that the report that preceded it on the creative industry and the one that followed on AI also stressed the importance of addressing digital exclusion. In the AI report, for example, we reference a large language model that was supporting computer vision programmes for people with visual impairment, but the ability to benefit from these would be far less for those with low or no digital skills. Indeed, the digitally excluded miss out on so many things, such as online banking, which 40% of over-65 year-olds do not use. Yet as more bank branches close, unless people can arrange long-distance round trips to the nearest bank, online banking becomes the only viable solution. I avoid the problem of a 50-mile round trip to my nearest bank as I am online, but that is not an option for those without digital skills.

Nor can such people connect with family and friends through video calls, access health information or apply for jobs online. Digital exclusion increases social isolation, hindering community participation and civic engagement. As technology permeates every aspect of our lives, the inability to access and use digital resources creates a significant divide in our society. It exacerbates existing inequalities, disproportionately affecting older adults, people with disabilities and those on low incomes but, as the noble Baroness said, it is not just an old-people problem. It affects people from all walks of life and of all ages—far too many people. Even when people have affordable access to the internet—still not enough do—2.4 million cannot do a single basic digital task, while 5 million employed adults cannot do all the basic digital work tasks. More starkly, three years ago the Good Things Foundation talked of over 10 million people lacking the digital foundation needed to function in today’s digital world.

As well as exacerbating inequalities, the lack of digital skills holds back the ambitions we all have to make our country a tech superpower, level up the country, boost economic growth and make public services more effective. A digital skills shortage means those ambitions will not be realised. Addressing digital exclusion is both a social and an economic imperative. We cannot become a tech superpower when basic digital skills are projected to become the UK’s largest skills gap by 2030. Failing to bridge this gap will hinder productivity and economic growth, yet tackling the problem would have significant economic value. The CEBR estimates that it would cost £1.4 billion to upskill excluded groups by 2032, but the return, in the same timeframe, would be around £12.2 billion gross value added—a great return on investment.

Despite a few random measures, such as £8 million for digital skills boot camps during the pandemic, there are social and economic imperatives to do far more. The committee came to the clear view that:

“The Government has taken its eye off the ball”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, suggested in a letter to the Minister that the Government were showing a distinct lack of leadership. This is especially concerning given, as a Lloyds Bank report recently showed, that the proportion of people offline has for the first time increased.

Details of the committee’s recommendations have already been outlined by the noble Baroness, but it worth summarising the implications of them, because they require a new strategy, fronted by a digital exclusion unit, with the aim of boosting digital skills so that everyone can use the internet for life and work; developing place-based digital inclusion hubs, starting with libraries, so that everyone has somewhere local to go for internet help; and ensuring the availability of affordable internet, so that everyone has the access they need.

Sadly, while acknowledging that more needs to be done, the Government have rejected most of the recommendations, most significantly the call for a new strategy. Although it is not a silver bullet, a new strategy would signal that the Government are prepared to dedicate time and resources to fixing the problem. Their previous strategy is 10 years old and is now in the National Archives—its main delivery partners have not existed for years. Instead of a new unit, the Government have established a cross-Whitehall ministerial group—they have opted for second best. I hope the Minister can, at least, tell us the details of that cross-Whitehall ministerial group’s work to date, its achievements and its plans for future action, and explain how it will be accountable to Parliament.

Digital inclusion is not a luxury. It brings huge social and economic benefits. No one should be left behind in the digital revolution. However, the Government’s response to the committee’s report does not give any confidence, frankly, that they have gripped these issues.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Ceidwadwyr 3:48, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and I declare my technology interests as set out in the register as adviser to Boston Ltd. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Stowell, not just on this report but, as she rightly set out, quite a week for the committee. It shows how all these issues touch so many elements of our society and our economy.

I will pick out the most significant recommendation from the committee’s report, and that is the need for a strategy. Some 10 years ago, I sat on my first House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills. We began our work in 2014 and we finished in 2015 by talking of a strategy, and yet the strategy that was published before we began our deliberations is still the strategy we have today. There are clearly good examples of operational delivery happening across the country and across Whitehall, but without a strategy it is de facto non-strategic. Does the Minister not agree and see the urgent and pressing need to have a strategy so that we can be strategic about our approach?

A lifetime ago, EM Forster entreated that we should “Only connect!” These words can be helpful on our journey through digital inclusion, because we have never been more connected. Yet look at the rise of populism, nationalism and retreatism—horrific geopolitical outlooks. We have never been more connected and yet we have an epidemic of isolation and a mental well-being crisis.

Why? There are many factors, but a significant one is that this is connection without inclusion, enablement and empowerment. Those who find themselves at the sharpest end of digital exclusion are often those who would have the most to gain—older people, disabled people and those in lower socioeconomic groups. Even when they manage to get online, for want of information only 5% of those who could take advantage of social tariffs do so.

Take the example of a grocery shopping app. Imagine how you place your order and it comes to your door. Many people are familiar with this and the convenient offers within it, and it is a great way to shop. But imagine that you are not online, and so you cannot use that app; imagine that you have the app but do not have the digital skills to transact, and so it is not working for you; imagine that you have the skills but have no or low internet connectivity, and so the app is not working for you. For want of digital inclusion, more than a few folks are not getting their food.

Digital inclusion is about the stuff, the kit, the skills and the learning. It is about enabling people to have the comfort and confidence that come through digital inclusion in all aspects of their lives. It needs leadership at a national and local level. The hubs are an excellent suggestion, where they exist, but we need more of them on a strategic basis.

Everything starts with education. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, if we are really to enable digital inclusion, and enable and empower our young people to take all the advantages of the fourth industrial revolution, we need a complete overhaul of our school curriculum? Great stuff happens, if you are lucky, but it is not strategic and it is in pockets.

The PISA results on numeracy and literacy are impressive. We know how to take this performance approach, but alongside numeracy and literacy we need data literacy, data competency, digital literacy and digital competency. They are equally important. Then young people will be enabled and empowered, with all their talent unleashed through digital inclusion and education.

Taking this broader, we have nothing short of an opportunity to completely reimagine our economy and society and the very social contract, transformed into a digital social contract between citizen and state, for the benefit of both.

I finish on the essence of all this—inclusion and innovation. More than that, it is inclusion for innovation. That must be the mission of us all.

Photo of Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Llafur 3:54, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I enter the debate with some trepidation. I am not a member of the committee, but I think the report is very important. I bring to the debate that in 2007-08, when I was at the Cabinet Office, we had a look at digital exclusion. One of the big issues then was coverage: the fact that there was so little connectivity and internet access around the country.

Also, when I chaired the Public Services Committee in this House, it became very clear in many of our investigations just how important digital inclusion was, but also that we really could do things if people got working on it. For example, when we looked at access to public services and other things during Covid, we heard from some older people that they got support from Age Concern to do precisely what the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, talked about—access internet shopping—but they could not afford the minimum level of shopping they needed to commit to in order to order goods. We wrote to and engaged with those companies to get them to lower the rate for those people whom the local authority had identified as vulnerable. So we can do it; we did lots of those sorts of things during Covid that have now got lost. I really want the Government to think about that.

Since I first looked at this with my very good junior Minister, Pat McFadden, in 2007-08, we have seen change at an unprecedented rate in the use of digital internet opportunities across the board, in virtually every area of activity—and we know for certain now that that will change much more quickly in the future. If the Government do not have a strategy or a plan, or do not feel that they can keep up with what is happening, then we will leave a lot of people without the basics that will be necessary for everyday life in the future.

There are new and urgent demands for government action. It is clear that the development and improvement of public services can be made only with much more use of digital tools. On health, the Times Health Commission signalled this week that we need digital passports. Of course we do: folk get frustrated when they go from one bit of the health service to another and have to tell their story again and again, with nobody keeping the stuff together. The patient, if nobody else, should be able to keep all of that together.

There are other things, such as prevention of hospitalisation through contact with the relevant health worker for people with certain conditions. Those people need to be given a particular gizmo that will track their diabetes or their heart and give direct messages to somebody located in the primary care or community care workforce. These things are now automatic in other parts of Europe. We must make sure they are automatic here, but that means an absolute sea-change in how people access these things.

Other people will talk about education in more depth, but I have seen AI being used by a teacher to keep in contact with what on earth is going on in the different groupings in the classroom, so that they can keep up with who is falling behind and who has finished and is bored. We need to make use of the benefits of things like that. The north-east has the highest rates of digital exclusion. That inevitably correlates with us having among the highest rates of poverty and child poverty in the country.

With the right messaging and the right support, even without the VAT on social tariffs being changed, in one of the social tariffs, on water, we have been able to increase access up to 47%, when nationally it is 17%, because Northumbrian Water was persuaded by others that it had to take action to use the data it had on who was vulnerable to contact them and help them to get access to the tariff. There is still a lot further to go, but that is an example of where, by using the data you have effectively and by actually contacting people, you can increase their participation. If it can be done with a water tariff, it should be done for the broadband social tariff. The estimate at the moment of the unclaimed broadband tariff in the north-east is about £36 million per year—so there is something the Government can get on to straight away that will transform the lives of a lot of people in our region.

So the Government do have a role to play. The Government have a role to play themselves, but they also have a role to play with others in the marketplace. I give the Government the example of the Trussell Trust, which has identified that one in six people who attend food banks regularly has no access to the internet. They cannot afford wifi. I ask the Minister to think about what that meant for children in Covid when, even if they were given a laptop, they could not get access to what was needed, and it refers to lots of other things. The Trussell Trust has done a deal with Tesco where, by 2025, Tesco Mobile will connect 50,000 people facing hardship through the Trussell Trust network. That is the sort of thing the Government should be encouraging, that is the sort of thing we need in a plan and that is the sort of action that will make sure that everybody is able to live by the new era of digital inclusion.

Photo of Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho Crossbench 4:02, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I, too, thank the committee for its work on this important subject, although I must confess to raising my eyes to heaven when I saw that it was still necessary to do this work. I studied ancient history, so forgive me a minute, but my ancient history has a very deep connection with this important topic. In 2009, I was asked by the then Prime Minister to become digital inclusion champion for the United Kingdom, and I continued my work under the next Government as digital champion—it was perhaps telling that “inclusion” was taken out of my title at that point. I mention that because I feel such a failure in that work. So often, I have been presented with appalling and horrific facts, many of which noble Lords have talked about this afternoon. I would like to share three which perhaps present the complexity of this problem and show why it has not changed as much as it should have over time.

The first place I visited when I was appointed in 2009 was a drop-in centre in Leeds. It was a day much like today, with catastrophic rain, and I thought, “I cannot quite face this; I’m going fall over with my walking sticks”. But I went there and I met a young man—the first person I talked to on this whole journey—who said to me, “The internet saved my life”. I looked at him and thought that it probably was not the internet but something else, such as shelter or food—but no. He said, “It saved my life because I learned how to make music online. I had been found with a terrible drug problem, but now I have a purpose, I have skills I did not have. I credit completely the internet with saving my life”. I have told that story a lot over the past decade because it sits on my shoulder. I tell it mostly when I go to tech conferences, where there is a shocking lack of appreciation of the scale and challenge of this issue.

I fast-forward to 2020, when I was chairing the committee on the long-term implications of Covid, which was a complex task for many reasons. One of the threads we looked at was digitisation and how it leapfrogged over the course of the pandemic. I will never forget a woman who came on to our Zoom inquiry when we were looking at the role of technology in a very broad way, who told us, “I’m choosing right now between data and food”. This was in 2020 in one of the richest countries in the world. She was having to decide on a daily basis whether her three children would be able to access the one smartphone the household shared in order to do schoolwork or whether they would have supper. That was a pretty horrific choice to have to make.

Fast forward again to 2023: I am proud president of the British Chambers of Commerce. I was at a round table in Doncaster with a bunch of businesses—big and small, all kinds of things. The boss of one very impressive insurance company looked at me and said, “My company is going to be completely different in 18 months. I’m going to deploy GPT technology to take out half my workforce”. Another, a founder of their business, sitting next door to me said, “I haven’t got any digital software in my company at all”. Digital exclusion is a hugely knotty problem and I really welcome the committee’s work on it, including in trying to put parameters around it.

It is not just about individuals; it is also about businesses. We know that 20% of small and medium-sized businesses, which make up 85% of our economy, do not use basic digital skills. We know that it affects people hideously if they do not have access, as many noble Lords have documented this afternoon, and I really welcome the suggestions that the committee has made. I would just like to double-click on one of them: community interaction and how you bring community groups together.

Everything happens in this country, in my experience, and I do not think we need to invent anything new. As the committee has said, we should double down on the things that are going well. There are many community groups that know how to solve this problem, but they are not co-ordinated. They are not joined up or sharing best practice and the Government are not aware of all of them. Yet every time I travel to somewhere, I have found another amazing little project—in a post office or a care home, wherever it might be. I really urge the Government to think about how we can lift up all these amazing projects, exploit the best of them and maybe help some of the less good to slowly come to an end, and to have much more community-based innovation at a very local level. That is how this next wave of the issue will be solved.

I want to finish with a more macro point, which is how we pose this question. I have been thinking about this a lot over the past decade and it is framed completely wrong. We will never make the progress that all noble Lords clearly want if we do not reframe the question. This is about the economy: “It’s the economy, stupid”. I have tried with the human stories. I have told that story about the young man in Leeds literally thousands of times but that does not seem to have worked. We will not be able to level up, as the noble Lord, Lord Foster, mentioned, we will certainly not be able to build back better and I do not believe we will build a country that works for everyone unless we put a deep understanding of connectivity and internet access and skills, and the ability to afford them, at the heart of how we do that. It is not that complicated; it just needs to be a priority.

I have sat next to multiple Culture Secretaries. They shall remain nameless but one of them looked at me once with incredulity when I got on my soapbox again about this issue. They said to me, “No, we’ve got over 95% of people in this country on the internet. This is not a priority for me”. Therein lies the rub: 95% sounds pretty good, does it not? I aspire to getting that mark sometimes—my children certainly do not give me anything much above a 50%—but 95% is not good enough. It does not unpick the problem well enough.

I heard the noble Baroness on a “Money Box” podcast. It is not one I often listen to but I caught it when she was talking about this report that she had done. The response from the Government, as part of that “Money Box Live” special on the digital divide, was, “But 95% of people have access to some kind of broadband infrastructure”. That was completely missing the point. We need politicians to prioritise this but to do so in the right way. We need one of the next 200 Culture Secretaries to appreciate that this will make their life easier. We also need a plan, as everybody here has rightly said. Most of all, we need to remember that it is impossible to function right now in our country if you do not have these basic skills, and the ability to afford them in your life. You can save £1,000, you can get work and it is unacceptable that, in a country which aspires to be one of the most digital in the world, we have not put this as a core ambition.

Photo of Baroness Harding of Winscombe Baroness Harding of Winscombe Ceidwadwyr 4:08, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I knew it would be impossible to follow my friend the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox. I begin by thanking the chair of the committee that I sit on, my noble friend Lady Stowell, for introducing our report so brilliantly. I add my voice to thank all the team who support the Communications and Digital Select Committee so brilliantly, on this and the other reports that they have been doing for us. I should also declare my interests as set out in the register, but also as a former trustee of two organisations chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, Go ON UK and Doteveryone, and obviously as the former chief executive of TalkTalk.

I too have worked on this—perhaps not as long as some in this Chamber, but for a good 14 years—and I too have rolled my eyes when I felt we had to look at this issue again. Fourteen years ago, people used to say to me that we just needed to wait for people who were not online to die. We now know some things. First, we all live longer and, the longer we live, the more important digital is to us. Secondly, as noble Lords have said, young people are also digitally excluded. Thirdly, one of the key things we learned in this inquiry is that digital literacy is a moving target: it is not just about learning to read and then you are done. Because technology is changing so fast, it is highly likely that some of us will suffer from digital exclusion, as technology moves faster than we can, as we age. Societies will have to think about and work on this for ever. The job will not just be done; it will be with us for ever.

A few days ago, I read with despair, if I am honest, an article in an online magazine called Digital Health. It is a niche magazine for those of us who are interested in health and digital, as befits the name. The article was about a pilot in north-west London to engage the very community organisations that the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, references, to bring people online to access health services in the last two years. Unsurprisingly, the pilot has been a success. It set out how, for a relatively small amount of money—I think it was just over £1 million—not only had a number of people in the community come online but they all reported that their mental and physical health had improved, because they had been able to access services that they were previously excluded from. The really depressing thing is that those studies have been in place for 14 years.

Like others, I have been trying to answer the question of why this is a Cinderella issue. Why does it not capture the imagination of not just the current Government but every leadership of this country in the last 14 years? I, too, have sat beside many Secretaries of State who have not shown much interest in this issue—why? One reason is that this is actually quite a wicked issue to solve. When you really address it, this is about delving deep into the underlying causes for exclusion—full stop. Many of the people who are digitally excluded are excluded on other dimensions as well. These are complex problems to solve, and the awful truth is that digital exclusion exacerbates existing inequalities. The only way to address it is locally—bottom up, rather than by top-down fiat, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, set out—and central government finds that hard to do.

This is an issue not about money but about leadership. We will spend a lot of time this afternoon discussing the absence of a strategy, but I would like to raise that one level and talk about the absence of leadership. I will describe this in the context of an oft-vaunted example of leadership in this country: the Vaccine Taskforce. We achieved some extraordinary things during Covid, and the Vaccine Taskforce is often, quite rightly, pointed to as one of the greatest things that the country has done in recent times. Obviously, somewhat selfishly, I would like to think that there are some other things that we did at scale during Covid that also moved some mountains, but let us look at the Vaccine Taskforce. It had a strategy, and it published its plan. I have yet to find any leadership textbook that says that not having a strategy is a great start in a leadership journey. But it is not the end of the journey.

The task force had really clear top-down sponsorship from the then Prime Minister, the Cabinet and all of us in society. It was properly resourced, it had clear milestones and the people working on it were held to account every day, and at least every week by the then Prime Minister himself. That is how you lead change in society on complex and wicked issues, even though the delivery of the vaccine was done by local groups. The real success of the vaccine delivery in the UK was through the national leadership and genuinely local delivery. It was small community groups reaching into parts of society that are most scared of getting vaccinated where we did so brilliantly as a country.

There is a huge amount that we as a country can learn from that experience in respect of digital inclusion. The sad truth, comparing where we are now with the past 14 years, is that we have a Government who genuinely insist that a strategy is not necessary, and a body looking to oversee that non-strategy which, according to its own terms of reference, is going to meet twice a year. I do not know how you can ever really monitor the implementation of something as complex as this by meeting twice a year. Earlier this week, in front of our committee, the Secretary of State not only argued vehemently that a strategy was not necessary but did not know when the next meeting of the oversight group was, and does not have a dedicated team focused on delivering it—let alone any time with the Prime Minister and Cabinet leadership to really drive change. So, there is a stark contrast. We will not really address this issue unless we address the leadership gap.

The next question to ask is why the leadership is not interested in this. Partly, it may be because it is not a sexy issue; it is about really difficult, on-the-ground, inch-by-inch improvement—the sort of operational delivery that national policymakers do not particularly enjoy. But it does not need to be like this. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, talked about it being “the economy, stupid”. I would add that this would make political good sense, which is why I am so baffled that no one has taken it up. The Good Things Foundation conducted a poll just after Christmas; sadly, it was an online poll, like every other poll. It found that 76% of people think that the Government should invest in fixing the digital divide, and 21% of people—who were online—feel left behind by technology.

This is an issue that makes economic and social good sense—and political good sense. How are the Government going to turn this around and show us the leadership we need to fix it?

Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Llafur 4:16, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow three noble Baronesses, one after the other, and particularly wonderful to hear the passionate pleading from the Conservative Benches about the lackings of the present Government. At the same time, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, who chaired the committee admirably. I approach these bipartisan things with an open mind, to see just where I am being led by the nose. However, genuinely, the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, encouraged views across the board, welcomed pertinent comments quite critical of the party she belongs to, and indeed gave voice to some herself. Her leadership—and we are talking about leadership—has been splendid. I need to have a cup of coffee with her and talk about other matters, but that is not for now. We were supported, of course, by a truly astonishing bunch of people in the secretariat, whose skills have been wondrous.

The noble Baroness began by simply saying what is incontestable—that technology is changing very quickly. Let us test that hypothesis. The report was published in June 2023. Eight months later, we are debating it and responding to it here in the Chamber. But on 7 August 2023, the newspapers, because of the astute handling of the report with the press and other communication outlets, picked up on the major themes in a very big way. I have in my hand an article that I clipped because it was so informative, principled and punctilious. It is an editorial in one of our leading newspapers, headlined: “Britain is isolating people who are digitally excluded and at a very high cost”, as many of us have said. But the fact is that the newspapers were saying it in August. The Government, and those who plan the use of our time here, have given us the last fag-end of a day’s business to look at this report, which contains important things that need to be heard, and with urgency.

I want to know what influence the Minister can bring to bear on those who are faced with the fact that we are not content with the lack of a strategy for 10 years. We need more focused leadership. Not only this report from the Communications and Digital Committee, but all our reports talk about the skills base that needs to be improved for the whole gamut of national life and our economy. We lament time and again, as we have in this report, that so much of what we look at throws responsibility on to one government department after another—education, business, communications and so on. No one seems to pull it all together, which is of course what a strategy would do. It would bring together the places where these needs are identified and forge a path that shows practically what can be done.

I was very taken by the comment from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, that we have never been so connected but not included. It has a lovely shade of meaning and nuance that bears thinking about—indeed, it could initiate a debate in its own right. It is wonderful to have my noble friend Lady Armstrong here. Not only did she recognise the need when she was in government, but she saw that something was done to address the need. Her words—that things can be done—also need to enter our soul and change our way of thinking and approach to these things. Technology is going to change at a terrible rate, and our legislation will never keep up with it, but we must be able to act in such a way that greater attention is given to the people who will be excluded by the very advances we will all praise.

When we were meeting, I was surrounded on the committee by people whose brains are not like mine and who can handle the intricacies of technology in a way that my poor Plato and Aristotle brain cannot. I have spent my whole life not running things, not organising corporations, nor being a political leader, but just being a pastor to people who live on ordinary streets and have their problems and so on. The most important part for me was the visit that we undertook to Newham, when we went to Skills Enterprise. We sat with people in a little hub as they talked to each other about their problems and showed each other how to manage a particular problem that each was faced with.

It has been mentioned that libraries offer hubs of that kind. Churches also offer hubs of that kind. It is very important that they use their space in this way. Ordinary people, dealing with ordinary problems, who feel more and more distant from the ability to solve, or even address, their problems, are helped through these street-level initiatives. Would that our corporations and the great institutions in our national life never lose sight of the plight of the ordinary person in this particular field.

I am delighted to step down from my membership of the committee—I know they will miss me terribly—and, with this blast from the past, I say: keep focused; this has to be done. I say to the Minister: please get a sense of the urgency of this and give us a little hope.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 4:24, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths. Like him, I find myself largely in agreement with many of the contributions from the Conservative Benches, which is not always the case, although I disagree with him that a knowledge of Plato and Aristotle should be seen as mutually exclusive with knowledge of STEM subjects and digital skills; I am always very keen to see these joined together and working cross-disciplinary in the broadest sense.

I join other noble Lords in thanking the committee for its excellent report, and join it in expressing disappointment with the government response. What I will seek to do today, however, is mostly to add some different points, some of which I take a slightly different perspective on and some of which the committee perhaps felt were outside its scope but none the less, I think, have a significant impact on its work. The report talks throughout, quite rightly, about confidence—the word “confidence” appears all the way through—but there is very little discussion of fear. I think we need to acknowledge that people have a rightful fear of going on the internet.

Because I do joined-up-ness, I work in many different areas in your Lordships’ House, but last night I was unable to take part, due to another commitment, in a debate on the Victims and Prisoners Bill, on Amendment 112 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, about compensating victims of financial fraud. A great deal of financial fraud happens online, of course, and its scale is terrifying. People are frightened to go on the internet because of the scale of that fraud. They are often being warned, rightly, about that, and we need to acknowledge that it is a genuine problem; it is not just a case of giving people confidence. To cite a couple of figures I was looking up, the City of London Police says that courier fraud, affecting particularly the over-70s, cost £12.6 million last year. Romance fraud, which affects people of all ages, cost £93 million.

It is not just fraud that makes people fearful of going online. I happened to see one of our national newspaper consumer champions addressing the case of a pensioner who was left without any money over Christmas because, using telephone payment, she had accidentally pressed one extra zero and paid £1,000 instead of £100 for a service. That got fixed only when a national newspaper champion got involved. People are fearful of engaging with these services, with good cause, and there is an urgent need for much more to be done, to have regulation and protection, to ensure that companies react very promptly and rightly and do their absolute best to set up systems that do not go wrong in that manner.

I slightly disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell. We want everyone to have access. The noble Baroness said there should be no digital exclusion, but I am with the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, in acknowledging that this is not something we are going to miraculously make disappear. At different stages in our life, we will have different levels of capacity to engage with digital. Many of us, at some point in our life, might find ourselves without the skills to deal with digital. This is where I pick up the point of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, about libraries. I put to your Lordships that we will always need to have everyone able to access a facility where they can go and say, “I have a real problem; can you help me sort this out?”. Libraries are a very obvious place, and the collapse in the provision of libraries is a huge tragedy. It is a logical place. The noble Lord identified other places as well, such as churches, but we need libraries as a place that people can go when their digital skills are not adequate for the task at hand. I stress too that many voluntary groups do great work. I know many people who have learned their digital skills through the University of the Third Age, but lots of those groups need a bit of government funding to enable them to function.

I want to pick up some points about digital exclusion because of poverty. Figures from Ofcom show that 7% of households now do not have internet provision, and 20% said it is because of the cost. Also, currently 23% of people, 12.2 million people, are looking for cheaper data plans because of the cost. Perhaps we need to coin a new phrase here. Because of the cost, people are going to see their data flows squeezed down; they might maintain a trickle of data but they will have data starvation. We all know that digital provision is using more bandwidth all the time. We need to think about whether there are low-bandwidth options available that people are actually able to afford.

Good things are happening, but they urgently need to. As noble Lords may know, the UK is the second-largest producer of electronic waste in the world per capita. This is a huge environmental issue but also a huge prospect in solving some of the problems we are talking about. Liverpool City Region has just signed up to the National Device Bank, a recycling network run by the Good Things Foundation that is looking to take some of what could go into electronic waste, repurpose it and give it to people who cannot afford to buy computers and high-tech mobile phones. It also operates a national data bank, which is like a food bank but for mobile data. These are very good things that the Government, with a bit of funding, could help enhance.

We need to look at austerity. I declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Local government has to be at the core of providing and funding these services, but its lack of funding means that it is struggling to do so. The head of 100% Digital Leeds has recently been focusing on it, and Leeds is leading the way. Many others would like to follow but simply do not have the funding to do so.

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Llafur 4:31, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I apologise for the frightful coughs coming out of me; I can assure those sitting near me that the house doctor has said that I am not infectious, so they have a few more years to go.

Let me introduce the House to Joe Soap. He is a perfectly ordinary bloke, but he has no computer. He does not even have an iPhone. He has no kids who can do things for him and is not in a job that would allow him access to digital resources. It is really hard for us as Peers, with our computers provided and the excellent back-up from digital services, to imagine what his life must be like—but let us have a go. He wakes up in the morning feeling poorly, but his doctor’s phone is constantly engaged. He would love to get a job, but applications now have to be made online so there is no chance. He has heard that the tyre he needs for his motorbike can be bought cheaply online, but not by him. According to the Good Things Foundation charity, he will spend an extra £228 a year on things he needs through lack of access to digital markets. He has often wondered about doing a course to equip him with practical skills, but none is local to him and all the rest are online. That is no good, because being online is precisely the problem. In other words, Joe Soap is stuffed.

Being offline, however, in some ways has even more profound effects. It is a morale drainer. Even if he could find the cash to get online, he lacks the confidence to do so. What if his few pennies are snatched by fraudsters? He hears about that every day on the local news and reads about in the local paper. What if he makes a mess of his tax form or benefits claim? In trying to deal with all this, he is particularly handicapped because the help is mostly online, which is precisely where he is not. The world of digital is alien territory to Joe. A high fence excludes him.

Our Communications and Digital Committee report—I was delighted to serve under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell—identifies a whole series of reasons why digital exclusion happens: lack of devices; nervousness about using digital; fear of fraud; and physical or mental disability, as digital is not so easy for people who have lost their sight or are autistic.

Older people like me are pre-digital; 25% of over-75s do not have it officially, and I should think at least a third of the rest of them do not have it either but do not like to tell that to people who are interviewing them.

Finally, of course, there is cost. Most people who lack digital will be financially unable to run to the price of it—it can easily be 5% of the wages of somebody at the lower end of the scale.

If we did not have an NHS, and everybody had to pay in full to get medical treatment, this would be a poorer country. If we did not have state education, whereby education is free, this would be a poorer country. If we did not give any benefits to anyone, this would be a poorer country. Yet here is something which is fast becoming at least as essential to living a normal life as those services that we take for granted, and it can be ignored no longer.

What are we doing? Not enough. There is something called the social tariff, for which 4.2 million people are eligible, but of these only 380,000 are signed up. Many of the excluded—one in 10, it is estimated—are so ill off that they cannot afford even the subsidised social tariffs.

The structure of social tariffs is pretty bizarre. They are paid for by the telecoms firms, which means that they have to impose higher charges on other users or decrease investment in further improving the networks. There is a second major flaw: although they claim to be something for the less well off, if you actually look at the detail you find that they extend quite a way up the scale, with quite a lot of money going to people—for example, a couple with a son at home who is earning well will get their social tariff. That seems to me as close as you can get to a waste of public money.

I would scrap social tariffs and put some of the money that the big telecoms companies saved in that way into providing cheap, or even free, internet services, devices and broadband. Perhaps access could be automatic to those on certain benefits. As it is the state’s duty to provide for the poor, there could be a state contribution to such costs, though I do not underestimate the present pressures on the public purse. Enders Analysis, a consultancy group, recently published a report for BT on digital exclusion, which sets out some of the ways forward.

Above all, I would like to see the Government set out a new strategy on digital exclusion. I would like to see them set up a body of stakeholders, including government, telecoms firms, charities working in the field and academics—Enders Analysis and the Social Market Foundation, which have just produced reports on this subject, have a huge amount of knowledge. That body, in my blissful world, would produce a holistic plan on digital exclusion, coming into being in the next Parliament. I could get quite excited by this vision, except that I cannot help but remember that, since 2014, the Government have failed to do any such thing.

Photo of The Bishop of Bristol The Bishop of Bristol Bishop 4:38, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, whose speech imaginatively took us into the life and world of Joe Soap. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, on securing this timely debate—timely in one sense—and I offer my thanks to all members of the Communications and Digital Committee for a thorough and wide-ranging report. I also lament the lack of a government cross-departmental strategy.

Today, I focus my comments on digital inclusion and exclusion in and around schools, about which I have a little knowledge. In 2021, UNICEF produced an excellent report on the effect of digital exclusion on schoolchildren. That report said that

“digital inclusion must be seen as the cornerstone to ensuring social justice and equitable life chances for every child”.

Those words were written while the pandemic was at its peak and the long-term impact on education was still difficult to predict.

We know today that, while the pandemic certainly played a major role in accelerating this trend, the impact will long outlast the pandemic, because digital schooling is here to stay. The question then is how we make sure this new status quo works for all children. Given this debate, I hardly need to convince noble Lords of the importance of children being able to access the tools they need to make a success of their schooling. I particularly noted the input of digital exclusion expert Kat Dixon into the committee’s report. She described how, for people of all ages, not having internet access

“prevents access to modern life”.

How much more wide-ranging are the impacts of lack of access for children, who will be missing out on the building blocks of their education?

Ofcom’s 2022 digital exclusion review set out three key tenets of digital inclusion: affordability, access and ability. Today, I consider how these might apply to digital exclusion for children and young people at school. First, on affordability, we know that inflation has been at a 40-year high, and many families are still struggling with the cost of living, particularly families with children. Those who are from less advantaged backgrounds are much more likely to face digital exclusion than their peers from affluent backgrounds. Where children who already face disadvantage cannot access the digital resources they need for school, that disadvantage is compounded and can become entrenched. This, in turn, entrenches generational disadvantage.

In his response, I would be grateful if the Minister could include what steps the Government are taking to increase the affordability of digital inclusion for children of school age, particularly for the express purpose of full participation in schooling. During the cost of living crisis, many internet packages have become more expensive, by as much as 17% in some cases. We have heard about the proposal for social tariffs and their demerits. I call on the Government to make broadband much more cheaply available to families who need it, particularly where a child’s participation in school is at stake.

The second tenet of digital inclusion is access. In my own patch, research carried out by the University of Bristol showed that only 47% of those in Knowle West—much in the news recently—who needed a laptop or PC for home schooling had access to one. Even where there is a device in a household, it is often not appropriate for participating in school. Families of five might share a single phone, or might not have access to reliable wifi, meaning children have to complete their homework in distracting settings, such as on public transport. Fully 8% of children aged five to 15 do not have access to an internet-enabled desktop computer, laptop or netbook at home. It is not just the children—more and more data about school is delivered to parents digitally. Almost all teachers are using technology to communicate with parents and carers about safeguarding. What happens when you cannot access that important data about your child?

As we have heard, churches have been used as hubs, first for broadcasting to not-spot areas—which has worked well in remote rural areas such as Dartmoor—and in urban areas as church-based warm spaces. I wonder whether this might be encouraged more broadly. I too lament the demise of libraries because of costs for local authorities.

The final pillar of digital inclusion is ability. This is where schools can really make a difference, rather than just firefighting the impacts of entrenched digital disadvantage. Training the whole population in basic and advanced digital literacy will be fundamental to addressing that digital divide. Improving digital literacy from the start, by embedding this into the curriculum, will be fundamental. Although this report rightly focuses on how we can get adults digitally literate where they currently lack the skills they need to get online, for a long-term plan this really has to be embedded in the life of schools.

Finally, my comments today have focused on ensuring that children can access technology for their education. Technology can augment and enhance education, but it should also be noted that technology carries inherent risks, and we must not lose sight of those. Technology must enhance human contact, not replace it; and technology must serve students, not exploit or manipulate them, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, indicated earlier. Considering affordability, access and ability, we must keep ethics as well as safeguarding at the heart of this conversation and when considering our investment in the future of all our children.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Llafur 4:45, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I, too, echo the praise to our support team for our committee. You hear a lot of criticism of civil servants recently, but we can only speak from experience, and they were superb. We were well chaired, too. It is true to say that there was a wide disparity of views on our committee. Listening to the debate, I reflected on whether I am “glass half full” about this matter rather than “glass half empty”—and I think that I am. There is a danger that we will emphasise too much of the negative. Of course, we need to consider both aspects of the debate.

Demographics interest me. When we talk about older people, I presume that I am included as I am now an octogenarian. Am I brilliant with technology? No, but I am not too bad. I have a consultant—my son, who is highly paid in IT—so I suppose that I have that luxury. I will reflect on what happened during Covid, which was a very interesting scenario. Thousands and thousands of people started to learn how to Zoom, especially among the older generation, including grandparents. Why? People wanted to contact their grandchildren, who became their educators. That was a positive thing.

I will also reflect on my now late—unfortunately—stepmother-in-law, a wonderful woman called Wyn, who purchased an iPad. About six months later, my wife and I visited her, and we asked her how she was getting on with her iPad. She replied, “That bloody thing? I wish I’d never bought it”. I asked where it was; she said it was in the box; and I said that they do not work very well if they are in the box. We got it out of the box, and we spent probably two hours with her, at the end of which she learned how to email and take photographs and she enhanced her life considerably. There are thousands, if not millions, of what were once known as silver surfers—elderly people who are managing to cope with the technology. But it is not all of them: we are in a society in transition, and we have to recognise that; for example, some people still want to use cash, and we need to take that into account.

I have mentioned Covid already. I could not help but think about it when the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, referred to the strategy. I commend to her an article in the Times on 5 February by Helen MacNamara, a former senior civil servant who sat in on the Cabinet meetings. I will start with the good thing: I absolutely agree with her that the vaccine strategy was brilliant; it saved thousands and thousands of lives. But she comments on the fact that there was a slight problem with the Cabinet meetings: they were all men. She said that the worst decision they made was to shut down schools. She is absolutely right; that was the very worst decision that could possibly have been made. Young people desperately needed their school; it was their refuge and the place where they got at least one hot meal and access to technology and where they socialised with their schoolmates. That was an unfortunate decision, and the Government have been trying to deal with the backwash from that.

What did that mean? If you talk to people in education, they will tell you. It meant that young people come into school now and they are not potty-trained, have no social skills, do not know how to use a knife and fork, and they are so badly dressed that they have to have spare sets of clothes, and so on. So it is a huge problem.

The Government employed somebody to look at that problem—I think his name was Kevan Collins. He recommended to them that they needed to spend a huge amount of money—£15 billion—to retrieve that situation. They put in £5 billion, and he resigned as a result of that. He got it right. We know that if we do not get it right in early years education, it costs a lot more; those children will be digitally excluded. As somebody already mentioned, when they were at home, sometimes the only piece of apparatus in the house would be one phone. It would be cheaper if the Government distributed laptops to everybody—to children at least—to stop that kind of deprivation.

I wholeheartedly endorse one of our committee’s recommendations, and I hope the Minister will give it some positive response, although I will not hold my breath. It was:

“Removing VAT from social tariffs would be one of the most straightforward ways of reducing the cost. Helen Milner”— one of our witnesses—

“said it would cost the Treasury £151.2 million per year if every Universal Credit recipient took it up. Current take-up rates suggest it would cost around £7.5 million per year. Both BT and Vodafone committed to passing any such VAT cut onto their customers”.

We did not get a very positive response from the then Minister, Paul Scully, so I hope that minds might be changed on that issue.

Your Lordships will see that I am wearing my badge; it is National Apprenticeship Week this week, in case you were not aware—a very important week. I was interested in a company called Metaverse Learning, which specialises in trying to help underprivileged young people become digital apprentices. However, it has recently started to look at the age range of 50 and above. That is interesting, because if we are talking about the importance of reskilling and upskilling in today’s society, we know that people will probably have to do that two or three times more in their life or they are likely to be digitally excluded from employment.

On community activity, I was interested in what my noble friend Lady Armstrong said about the benefit of taking local action. My noble friend Lord Griffiths reminded me about Newham—I was struggling to remember where we went to—and a wonderful experience we had there. A local group was helping people get to grips with the new technology—I have to finish now; I will be very quick—and they demonstrated the benefit that had to people, plus there was the positive involvement of the DWP.

I look forward to the ministerial response; I am sure the Minister will give us 101 reasons why the Government really have a strategy.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology) 4:53, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I first declare an interest as chair of the board of the Trust Alliance Group, which runs the Communications Ombudsman service.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for setting out the committee’s stall so cogently, and thank the committee for its excellent report. As she said, it has been a busy week for it, and we all look forward to debating its recent report on large language models. Trying to catch up with digital developments is a never-ending process, and the theme of many noble Lords today—the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, herself, the noble Baronesses, Lady Armstrong and Lady Harding, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths—has been that the sheer pace of change means we have to be a great deal more active in what we are doing in terms of digital inclusion than we are being currently.

Access to data and digital devices affects every aspect of our lives, including our ability to learn and work; to connect with online public services; to access necessary services, from banking, which my noble friend Lord Foster highlighted, to healthcare, which the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, highlighted; and to socialise and connect with the people we know and love. For those with digital access, particularly in terms of services, this has been hugely positive—I chime with what the noble Lord, Lord Young, said about the glass being half full for those with the right connectivity—as access to the full benefits of state and society has never been more flexible or convenient if you have the right skills and the right connection.

However, a great number of our citizens cannot get take advantage of these digital benefits. They lack access to devices and broadband, and mobile connectivity is a major source of data poverty and digital exclusion. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, mentioned—she chaired the committee, of course—this proved to be a major issue during the Covid pandemic. The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, mentioned the mental health impacts of a lack of data connection; I was very taken by his phrase, “connection without inclusion”. Of course, as the right reverend Prelate mentioned, the digital divide has not gone away subsequently—and it does not look as though it is going to any time soon.

There are new risks coming down the track, too, in the form of BT’s Digital Voice rollout. The Select Committee’s report highlighted the issues around digital exclusion. For example, it said that 1.7 million households had no broadband or mobile internet access in 2021; that 2.4 million adults were unable to complete a single basic task to get online; and that 5 million workers were likely to be acutely underskilled in basic skills by 2030. The Local Government Association’s report, The Role of Councils in Tackling Digital Exclusion, showed a very strong relationship between having fixed broadband and higher earnings and educational achievement, such as being able to work from home or for schoolwork.

To conflate two phrases that have been used today, this may be a Cinderella issue but “It’s the economy, stupid”. To borrow another phrase used by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, we need to double down on what we are already doing. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and the committee emphasised, we need an immediate improvement in government strategy and co-ordination. The Select Committee highlighted that the current digital inclusion strategy dates from 2014. The noble Baroness was supported in calling for a new strategy by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Foster and the noble Lords, Lord Holmes and Lord Lipsey; all of them called for a new strategy, despite the Government’s reluctance. We need a new framework with national-level guidance, resources and tools that support local digital inclusion initiatives.

The current strategy seems to be bedevilled by the fact that responsibility spans several government departments. It is not clear who—if anyone—at ministerial and senior officer level has responsibility for co-ordinating the Government’s approach. My noble friend Lord Foster mentioned accountability, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, talked about clarity around leadership. Whatever it is, we need it.

Of course, in its report, the committee stressed the need to work with local authorities. A number of noble Lords—the noble Baronesses, Lady Armstrong, Lady Lane-Fox and Lady Harding, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths—have talked today about regional action, local delivery, street-level initiatives: whatever it is, again, it needs to be at that level. As part of a properly resourced national strategy, city and county councils and community organisations need to have a key role.

The Government too should play a key role, in building inclusive digital local economies. However, it is clear that there is very little strategic guidance to local councils from central government around tackling digital exclusion. As the committee also stresses, there is a very important role for competition in broadband rollout, especially in terms of giving assurance that investors in alternative providers to the incumbents get the reassurance that their investment is going on to a level playing field. I very much hope that the Minister will affirm the Government’s commitment to those alternative providers in terms of the delivery of the infrastructure in the communications industry.

Is it not high time that we upgraded the universal service obligation? The committee devoted some attention to this and many of us have argued for this ever since it was put into statutory form. It is a wholly inadequate floor. We all welcome the introduction of social tariffs for broadband, but the question of take-up needs addressing. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, may not be a fan of social tariffs, but the take-up is desperately low at 5%. We need some form of social tariff and data voucher auto-enrolment. The DWP should work with internet service providers to create an auto-enrolment scheme that includes one or both products as part of its universal credit package. Also, of course, we should lift VAT, as the committee recommended, and Ofcom should be empowered to regulate how and where companies advertise their social tariffs.

We also need to make sure that consumers are not driven into digital exclusion by mid-contract price rises. I would very much appreciate hearing from the Minister on where we are with government and Ofcom action on this. The committee rightly places emphasis on digital skills, which many noble Lords have talked about. These are especially important in the age of AI. We need to take action on digital literacy. The UK has a vast digital literacy skills and knowledge gap. I will not quote Full Fact’s research, but all of us are aware of the digital literacy issues.

Broader digital literacy is crucial if we are to ensure that we are in the driving seat, in particular where AI is concerned. There is much good that technology can do, but we must ensure that we know who has power over our children and what values are in play when that power is exercised. This is vital for the future of our children, the proper functioning of our society and the maintenance of public trust. Since media literacy is so closely linked to digital literacy, it would be useful to hear from the Minister where Ofcom is in terms of its new duties under the Online Safety Act.

We need to go further in terms of entitlement to a broader digital citizenship. Here I commend an earlier report of the committee, Free For All? Freedom of Expression in the Digital Age. It recommended that digital citizenship should be a central part of the Government’s media literacy strategy, with proper funding. That might be described as the digital social contract that the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, spoke of. Digital education in schools, which was very much subject of what the right reverend Prelate had to say, should be embedded, covering both digital literacy and conduct online, aimed at promoting stability and inclusion and how that can be practised online. This should feature across subjects such as computing, PSHE and citizenship education, as recommended by the Royal Society for Public Health in its #StatusOfMind report as long ago as 2017.

Of course, we should always make sure that the Government provide an analogue alternative. We are talking about digital exclusion but, for those who are excluded and have the “fear factor”, a term almost used by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, we need to make sure and not assume that all services can be delivered digitally.

Finally, we cannot expect the Government to do it all. We need to draw on and augment our community resources; I am a particular fan of the work of the Good Things Foundation, FutureDotNow, CILIP—the library and information association—and the Trussell Trust, and we have heard mention of the churches, which are really important elements of our local delivery. They need our support, and the Government’s, to carry on the brilliant work that they do.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology) 5:05, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I thank the committee, so ably chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and all those who have spoken on this totally compelling and hard-hitting report. It is fair to say that they did not mince their words, and quite rightly, when you look at the statistics that have been produced on the extent of digital exclusion. I will not repeat them here, but it is clear that a lack of skills, equipment and finances has left a minority of the adult population with no digital access and a worryingly high minority having access only via a smartphone, which is fine for texting your friends or using TikTok but not so good if you want to access public services, or engage in public life in a meaningful way.

The report identified the socioeconomic, age and regional disparities that underline these figures. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, pointed out, it is those very people who could gain the most from an effective digital inclusion policy. This is a huge challenge if we are serious about embracing the exciting possibilities that AI and the latest technology can bring to improving our public services and making them more streamlined, faster, and more responsive. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, said, this is also fundamental to our economic prosperity, and we need to reframe the challenge on that basis. This will work only if everybody has the same opportunities to engage in this bright new world of high-tech systems. That is why we need to ensure that everybody participates, including through localised initiatives such as those described by my noble friend Lady Armstrong and others.

The report quite rightly identified “political lethargy” at the heart of the Government’s approach to what the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, described as a Cinderella issue. I was first alerted to the lack of action on this whole issue by an excellent contribution on the King’s Speech in November by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell. She pointed out that the Government’s digital strategy was 10 years old and so out of date that it had been archived, and she repeated that point today. I followed that up and looked at the UK digital strategy that was published in 2022, which the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, said was the updated policy. But any reading of that document shows that digital exclusion hardly gets a mention and that it is certainly not at the heart of the Government’s thinking.

As a further aside, I subsequently tabled an Oral Question on digital exclusion that was passed not to DSIT but to the Cabinet Office, and the Minister asked to meet with me before the Question was debated so that I could explain what the problem was. This is not the sign of a Government taking the issue seriously.

We now have the Government’s response to the committee’s report, and, among other things, they have announced a new cross-departmental ministerial group, chaired by the Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy. I was shocked to hear—I think from the noble Baroness, Lady Harding—that it is due to meet only twice a year: is that correct? Can the Minister update us on how many times this group has met; when we will see the clear objectives that have been set; and how we will be updated on the delivery of any targets? Also, how many people in his department are working exclusively on the digital exclusion programme? He will have seen the figure in the report that this was one and a half full-time equivalents when responsibility for this issue was led by the DCMS, so has that figure improved?

Like others, I am not impressed with the Government’s overall response to the committee’s report. It still has the tone of complacency and lack of drive for change that the committee identified in the first place. I would like to highlight some key themes that have come out today.

A number of noble Lords raised the basic challenge of improving digital skills. It was good to hear that computing is now a statutory part of the national curriculum and that teachers are becoming better trained to teach computer science. This is a fast-changing knowledge sector and it is crucial that teachers are equipped to teach courses of a required standard and are at the cutting edge of technology, so that young people go into the workplace with relevant and up-to-date skills.

However, it is a mistake to assume that the next generation will have been taught the skills that make the digital exclusion debate redundant. A number of noble Lords made this point, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol spoke passionately about the issue. While young people are becoming more adept at using smartphones for basic communication and social media, this does not mean that they have the skills to manage AI in the workplace or to access the raft of public sector services that are going online. As we know, we are currently facing a growing challenge of school refuseniks who are dropping out of school at an early stage, so will not have the benefit of a well-run computing curriculum. Does the Minister accept that there will always be a percentage of young people who will reach school-leaving age without the requisite digital skills to navigate the workplace and society’s demands successfully? What plans do the Government have to address that education gap specifically?

The Government’s response also puts great emphasis on the provision of adult courses based on the new national standards for essential digital skills, but does the Minister accept the conclusion of the committee’s report that:

“The Essential Digital Skills Framework provides a good basis for driving improvements but it is not being used to its full potential”?

Can the Minister explain how the Government plan to address their recommendations on that and how there should be a cross-government approach to using the framework?

Sadly, it seems that the Government are placing too much emphasis on formal courses for adult learners, but we have to remember that adults without digital skills will often have suffered a traumatic experience of formal education the first time round and will not be keen to rush back to the classroom. It was good to see the Government’s response recognising that formal skills are not for everyone, but the provision of alterative community support is patchy, to say the least. Can the Minister update the House on the provision of alternative community-based support? How much additional funding is being made available to deliver an effective basic skills programme?

I was also pleased to see the committee’s recommendation that workplaces have a role to play in improving digital skills. One of my first successes as a trade union official was to organise workplace literacy training in the University of London’s halls of residence, where it turned out that the majority of cleaning and catering staff were unable to read a simple written instruction from their employer. When we face the challenge of addressing digital exclusion, we need to bear in mind that many individuals without digital skills also lack the underlying literacy and numeracy skills to make sense of this. Does the Minister accept that employers have a role to play in training all their staff with the skills for the future? What discussions have been held with employers’ organisations to deliver a meaningful digital training strategy?

The committee quite rightly identified the cost of internet access and affordable devices as a major barrier to creating digital inclusion. One thing is certain: until those barriers are overcome, there will need to be high-class, localised hubs to support those who need to access public services and enter the job market. Free use of equipment and wifi, supported by trained mentors, is vital to ensure that we deliver a universal digital service. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Griffiths for reminding us of the role that churches can play in all this. They can also address the understandable fear of digital engagement, which was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, my noble friend Lord Lipsey and others.

However, as the report points out, while demand is increasing, libraries and citizens advice centres are closing through lack of funding. It points out that the LGA statistics show that, between 2009 and 2019, there has been a 43.5% net decrease in expenditure on libraries. This is a rather crucial failing, so I was interested to read in the Government’s response that the noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson, was appointed to help develop a new public library strategy over last autumn and winter. As this is rather urgent, could the Minister update us on the progress of that review and when we might see its outcome? Can he confirm that the review is considering what extra resources will be necessary to ensure that libraries deliver the Government’s ambition for them?

So many questions arise from the Government’s response to the report that I have been able only to scratch the surface of them. I hope the Minister takes to heart the many concerns that have been raised today. I am sure he will do his best to answer them, but I also hope he will take the message back to the department that the problem of digital exclusion is not going away. It needs leadership and effective cross-departmental working to bring about the scale of change the problem deserves. In the meantime, I look forward to his response.

Photo of Viscount Camrose Viscount Camrose Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) 5:15, 8 Chwefror 2024

I start by sincerely thanking my noble friend Lady Stowell for tabling what we must all agree is a deeply important debate on this far-ranging and critical subject of digital exclusion, which we know affects millions of people across the UK, with costs to them as individuals and, as has been pointed out, to all society. I hope to be able to reassure noble Lords on most of the very wide range of points that were made, but I look forward to continuing the dialogue. As has been observed, this is not a problem that will go away overnight, but I hope some of the things I will put forward will provide some reassurance in the meantime.

Let me take a step back by way of introduction. Our transition to the digital age in the last two decades has brought with it a period of extraordinary change. The fourth industrial revolution has transformed our economies, our public services and our day-to-day lives. We can expect that change to continue as technology continues to develop, bringing with it opportunities that would have been unimaginable for previous generations.

On the whole, the UK is well positioned to seize those opportunities by taking the lead in technological innovation. We are able to do this because, among other things, we are building on a proud history of technological development that takes us right up to the present day, from Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the world wide web to pioneers such as Dr Katalin Karikó and Dr Drew Weissman, who led the world in the development of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Across the country, we have a wealth of science and tech expertise. We are home to four of the world’s top 10 universities, and in 2022 we became only the third country in the world to have a tech sector valued at over $1 trillion. It is important that we continue this tradition of leading technological development through digital transformation. Not only will it help us boost productivity and increase all kinds of operational efficiency but, if we manage the transition properly, these innovations can deliver wider social benefits too: we can connect communities, reduce loneliness, and make public services easier and faster to access.

But—and there is always a but at this point—we absolutely must recognise the deep, genuine concern that some will be left behind. This is something that I personally, and the Government overall, take very seriously. That is why we do not want just to drive progress in tech; we want to do so responsibly and ensure that the tech we develop improves all lives across the country. Tackling digital exclusion is a fundamental part of this and a complex issue. No one department can solve this challenge; it will require close collaboration across government.

Digital exclusion negatively affects people’s lives. Individuals who are digitally excluded are less likely to be in well-paying jobs. They have worse health outcomes and overall lower quality of life. As a result, digital exclusion creates new inequalities and exacerbates existing ones, making it difficult to participate fully in society.

Rising living costs have also made it more difficult for people to afford devices and internet access, which will increase digital exclusion. Some 18.7 million people—that is 35% of us in the UK—feel that increases in the cost of living are impacting their ability to go online, and 11.5 million—22% of people in the UK—have already taken steps to reduce the costs associated with going online by seeking alternative solutions such as libraries, community centres or, indeed, as we heard, churches for free access.

The Government have been clear that ensuring that no one is left behind in the digital age is a priority and consider that credible steps have been taken to offer needed support. Encouraging more people to engage and stay online requires overcoming the barriers to access, skills, motivation and trust. Digitally excluded people also require continued support to ensure that these barriers remain lowered, and this is what we continue to focus on across government.

I thank noble Lords on the Communications and Digital Committee for their important work on the digital exclusion inquiry last year. Since the committee’s report was published, we have established, again as a number of noble Lords observed, a new interministerial group to drive progress and accountability on digital inclusion priorities across government, to set clear objectives and to monitor delivery. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and can confirm that the Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy, Saqib Bhatti, is responsible for digital inclusion and that is why he is in the position of chairing the group. The group met for the first time in September, and departments agreed to undertake departmental mapping exercises to drive work on digital inclusion. With the group meeting, as has been said, every six months, this is the first step of many in a cross-government effort.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

Does the noble Lord believe that meeting once every six months is adequate?

Photo of Viscount Camrose Viscount Camrose Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The crux of the work is done at departmental level and that feels to me more like a board meeting. So, yes, I think that set-up makes logical sense, but we will watch with interest and adapt as necessary.

Many noble Lords raised points about a new digital inclusion strategy. As the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology said to the committee on Tuesday, the Government are focusing their resources on delivery—on the doing rather than on the writing of the new strategy. The key themes for the last strategy on digital inclusion—access, skills, motivation and trust—are still relevant today. I will point to some of this action as I go through my speech.

I agree with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Foster, made very well: the digital strategy should and does include the basis for digital inclusion. The 2022 digital strategy outlined work across government that will promote digital inclusion, including broadband rollout across the UK, essential digital skills support and legislation to tackle online harms, now the Online Safety Act. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for raising the issue of who in government is working on digital inclusion, and my noble friend Lady Stowell for asking about the relationship between teams working on AI. My department has various teams, from the newly named Responsible Technology Adoption Unit, formerly the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, to AI skills feeding in to work on digital inclusion. This is alongside teams working on telecom skills and the tech sector. Given its varied nature, there are teams across government that work on policy linked to digital inclusion, including the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s work with libraries, the Department for Work and Pensions’ work on unemployment and the Department for Education’s work on digital skills. There is a new official-level working group that sits across government to support this cross-cutting work.

Starting with the issue of access, I will focus on the affordability and availability of telecom services. UK consumers have access to one of the most competitive telecom markets in Europe. The cost of a gigabyte of data, at 50p in the UK, is less than half that of the average price in the EU, at £1.18. The headline cost of an average broadband package and mobile service has actually decreased since 2019.

Prices have fallen, but usage has increased: the average household broadband connection uses 53% more data today than it did in 2019. Mobile data consumption has increased 25% year on year. We have been working hard to ensure that people have the access to the internet and broadband that they need. In March 2021, we launched Project Gigabit, our £5 billion mission to deliver fast, reliable broadband to the hardest-to-reach parts of the UK, areas that would have otherwise been left out of commercial gigabit rollout plans without government subsidy.

In 2021, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in partnership with the charities AbilityNet and Good Things Foundation, launched the £2.5 million digital lifeline fund. The fund aimed to reduce the digital exclusion of people with learning disabilities by providing free devices, data and digital support to over 5,000 people with learning disabilities who cannot afford to get online.

To support children with access to devices, the Department for Education has also delivered over 1.95 million laptops and tablets to schools, trusts, local authorities and further education providers for disadvantaged children and young people since 2020. This is part of a £520 million government investment to support access to remote education and online social care services.

Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for his valuable contribution and for raising the broadband universal service obligation, which the Government introduced in March 2020. This gives everyone the legal right to request a decent and affordable broadband connection of at least 10 megabits per second. The broadband universal service obligation is a safety net, providing a minimum level of service to participate in society and the economy, based on information provided by Ofcom. Given the significant changes to the broadband market since the USO was designed in 2019, we want to take this opportunity to review the broadband USO and ensure it remains relevant and up to date with the current technical standards required in practice, reflects the current and future market environment, and delivers on the policy principles set out by the Government when it was established. In October last year, the Government published a consultation on reviewing the broadband universal service obligation, and a response to it will be published in due course.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, and the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for their thoughtful contributions, which noted the importance of social tariffs provided by telecoms companies, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol for her well-made point on affordability. We recognise that cost is a barrier for many. As I have noted, prices in the UK are falling and the Government have worked closely with the telecoms industry to ensure the provision of low-cost, high-quality fixed and mobile tariffs, also known as social tariffs, for those on universal credit as well as other means-tested benefits. There is of course a balance to be struck between ensuring investment in UK telecoms infrastructure and ensuring that services remain affordable.

We have established a pro-investment, pro-competition environment and remain committed to the idea that a competitive market will deliver the best outcomes for all consumers. Social tariffs are now available from 27 providers, up from 10 in November 2022, from the likes of BT, Sky and Virgin Media and across 99% of the UK. We have seen an increase in uptake of almost 160% since September 2022, but I am afraid to say that this represents just 8% of total eligible households. I absolutely acknowledge that we need to make more progress and we will continue to look at how to accelerate that.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

Perhaps the Minister can give us just a little more detail. Is there any movement towards auto-enrolment and the kind of ideas that have come out of the committee?

Photo of Viscount Camrose Viscount Camrose Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

Yes, but I am going to have to write because that would be a multi-bullet point communication.

There is also the timely issue of contract price rises. We appreciate that households across the country are struggling with their bills because of the rise in the cost of living, and that price rises in any services will be unwelcome. That is why it is essential that important clauses within telecoms contracts, such as in-contract price rises, are clear and transparent. Consumers need to be aware of what they are agreeing to when taking up a broadband or mobile contract.

In December, Ofcom completed its review of inflation-linked in-contract price rises and launched a consultation that would end CPI and RPI increases, replacing them with a clear pounds and pence figure for what consumers will pay. For the avoidance of doubt, social tariffs do not incur in-contract prices rises.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to the commitments made by industry bosses in June 2022 to support their customers. The sector agreed to allow consumers facing financial difficulties to enter into affordable payment plans or move to cheaper plans without penalty. We have been clear that any customer who believes they are facing digital exclusion can contact their provider to discuss the support that might be available.

On VAT, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Young, it is important to remember that decisions to deviate from the standard VAT rate of 20% have to be considered carefully and based on clear evidence, as lowering tax in one place can mean raising tax in another. Taxation policy is kept under review, and we would be happy to receive evidence of the benefits of reducing VAT on social tariffs.

In addition to the provision of social tariffs, we have increased access to gigabit internet. Approximately 80% of UK premises can now access gigabit-capable broadband—a huge leap forward from 2019, when coverage was just 6%. We are on track to meet our target of 85% coverage by 2025. We will continue to expand our mobile network too. By 2025, we will have 95% coverage through the shared rural network, and we are aiming for the majority of the population to have access to 5G signal by 2027, via the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme.

Government cannot, and should not, be expected to tackle the issue of digital inclusion alone. We call on private sector organisations to prioritise digital inclusion in their business, which they could do by joining device donation schemes, for example. We encourage telecoms providers to continue to provide social tariffs and advertise them to eligible households. We encourage companies to adhere to the public sector bodies accessibility regulations and other government accessibility guidance, which are published and freely available online, for their websites and other publicly available information.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and my noble friend Lady Stowell for their thoughtful contributions and for raising the important issue of high-quality localised hubs, including libraries and banking hubs. Banking hubs are a voluntary initiative provided by the UK’s largest high street banks. I agree that it is imperative that banks and building societies recognise the needs of all their customers, including those who need to use in-person services. Over 100 banking hubs have been announced so far, and the Government hope to see these hubs open as soon as possible.

Around 2,900 public libraries in England provide a trusted network of accessible locations, with staff, volunteers, free wifi funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, public PCs, and assisted digital access to a wide range of digital services. My noble friend Lady Sanderson’s An Independent Review of English Public Libraries, published in January, called for the establishment of formal links between digital-by-default public services, particularly health services and libraries, to ensure the provision of one-to-one support. In his response to my noble friend Lady Sanderson, my noble friend Lord Parkinson committed to exploring her recommendations further, as part of the development of the Government’s libraries strategy, due to be published in 2024. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked for a date for that, but I will have to come back to her with the timelines, as I do not have that detail.

On access to support for those seeking work, Jobcentre Plus work coaches can provide support to eligible claimants who are not online with financial support to buy six-month broadband connections. This is administered by the Department for Work and Pensions through the flexible support fund. This cross-government approach is working to reach millions of people across the UK and to provide necessary access for the digital age.

We know that, in addition to access, the right skills are needed, as many noble Lords rightly pointed out, to be able to use and take advantage of digital content and services. Digital skills are central to the jobs of today and the workforce of tomorrow. Ensuring that the workforce has the digital skills for the future is important to meet the UK’s ambition to be a global science and tech superpower.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for raising the skills gap. Tackling the digital skills gap and the shortage of digital workers across the economy cannot be done by government alone, which is why the Government launched the Digital Skills Council in June 2022, bringing together government and industry to strengthen the digital workforce. The council is focused on addressing industry’s current and future demand for digital skills, including through digital apprenticeships and by increasing the amount of business-led upskilling.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for raising also the role of the employer to support training staff. More than 80% of those who will be in the 2030 workforce are already in the workforce today. Given the need to continually refresh digital skills, upskilling existing workers with workplace training be essential. We have put employers at the heart of our apprenticeship system, empowering them to design the standards they need. Employers in the digital sector have developed 30 apprenticeship standards in digital. These high-quality apprenticeships are in a wide range of occupations and emerging technologies, including data scientist, software developer, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence specialist.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, also raised investment and support for young people. For children and young people, we are supporting and inspiring the next generation of technologists. It is crucial that we challenge perceptions of what being in a tech career is all about if we are to attract diverse and high-quality talent into our digital workforce. To achieve this, we are working closely with the Department for Education, industry and academia through the Digital and Computing Skills Education Taskforce, launched last summer to increase the numbers of students choosing digital and tech educational pathways into tech careers.

We are also working in partnership with industry and other government departments to inspire and engage students before they make key subject choices at GCSE and A-level—for example, through the CyberFirst programme, which encompasses technology-focused initiatives, from free online extracurricular learning to national competitions and bursaries. This includes DSIT’s Cyber Explorers programme, launched in February 2022, which seeks to support the teaching of computing in schools and to inspire young people aged 11 to 14 to take up computer science for GCSE and the opportunities that a career in cybersecurity can offer. Over 60,000 students are registered across nearly 2,500 schools.

I thank my noble friend Lord Holmes for his question on the national curriculum. In addition to the programmes that I have just outlined, the DfE introduced computing as a statutory national curriculum subject in 2014 from key stages 1 to 4. In addition to this, we are investing a total over the Parliament of £3.8 billion in skills in England by 2024-25 and, in October, we quadrupled the scale of skills bootcamps.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for raising the essential digital skills framework. The Department for Education has used that framework as the basis for the national standards for essential digital skills of 2019, which set out the skills that the qualifications funded and that the adult digital statutory entitlement must cover.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for her important question on the links to community groups. These really are an important part of the digital inclusion landscape. The Department for Education funds community learning and other non-regulated learning, such as building confidence in essential digital skills for learners who are not ready to take a qualification.

I reassure noble Lords that I am almost at the point of closing. The secondary barriers of trust and motivation must be tackled to have a true, positive impact on digital inclusion, but these are harder to measure. We recognise that some people are hesitant to access online services for fear that they may become victims of fraud, or that it is an unsafe environment. We have introduced the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Act, which will come into force in April this year.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee

My Lords, I know that time is very short, but I asked about the accountability of the cross-Whitehall group being set up. We know that it is going to meet only once every six months. One assumes that it will receive at each meeting a report of progress that has been made in a wide range of areas in the preceding six months. Could the Minister at least agree that copies of the report that will be received by the group will be made public to Members of Parliament?

Photo of Viscount Camrose Viscount Camrose Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I can take that up with the chair of the group, my colleague Minister Bhatti, to understand his intentions for assuring accountability.

I once again sincerely thank my noble friend Lady Stowell for securing today’s debate, and all noble Lords who have spoken so well and clearly on this absolutely critical subject. With that, I conclude my remarks.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee 5:40, 8 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister. I have not envied him this afternoon, knowing that he would have to respond to a series of quite hard-hitting and critical speeches on this important topic. I will speak briefly, because I know noble Lords’ patience will be tested if I go on too long.

We have heard some very powerful illustrations of what being digitally excluded means for those who are. To be positive for a moment, it is important to acknowledge that, on a macro level, there has been an awful lot of progress since the time when the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, was a Minister in the Cabinet Office. On the micro level, I agree with some of what the noble Lord, Lord Young said. My own parents, who are well into their 80s, are testament to the fact that we must not fall into the trap of believing that all old people are incapable online. In fact, they were very early adopters of iPads and iPhones. The other point worth keeping in mind is that, as that technology develops and becomes much more intuitive to the user, it is in fact easier than it might otherwise have been for people to become included.

As has been stressed in the course of this debate, the point is that digital exclusion is a moving target. Inclusion is not something that will ever be completed; it is an ongoing and critical foundation to everything that any Government must do, never mind what they might want to do. The Prime Minister is ambitious about the potential for technology to be the solution to so many problems and for the UK to be a technology superpower. My noble friend the Minister has delivered a similar message today, and it is one that I agree with and support. But as my noble friend has also said—and as has been the very clear message from everyone who has contributed today—we cannot leave people behind. This is not an ambition from which only some people can benefit and enjoy, while others feel that they are not part of it or that it is happening at their expense.

We cannot will the ends without the means, and, as my noble friend made clear in her contribution, real leadership has to be shown here. My noble friend the Minister compared the ministerial group meeting every six months with the frequency of a board meeting. I point out to him that we expect this ministerial group to drive action. Any committee that is responsible for driving progress and action does not meet only twice a year—it meets more often than that. I urge my noble friend, following this debate, to take back the message to the department that the emphasis we have put on the need for progress is because we want the Government to deliver on the ambitions that they have set out. We know how important this is. As my noble friend Lady Harding said, this is about prioritising addressing digital exclusion because it makes economic, social and political sense. It is critical to everything that we are trying to achieve.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken today and to my noble friend the Minister. I ask him to deliver the powerful message that has come from all of us in this debate.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 5.44 pm.