Digital Skills and Careers

– in Westminster Hall am 4:30 pm ar 16 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Ceidwadwyr, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow 4:30, 16 Ebrill 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of digital skills and careers.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Caroline, and to welcome the Minister to his place.

The Government have set out an ambitious vision of establishing the UK as a science and tech superpower. The Chancellor has also said that the UK is

“on track to become the world’s next silicon valley.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2024;
Vol. 746, c. 843.]

While the UK is well placed to harness the opportunities presented by the growth of the digital economy, considerable preparation and investment in education, training and skills will be needed to make the most of those opportunities and to ensure that the UK has the necessary talent pipeline to help it to realise its goal of becoming a tech superpower. It is vital that we ensure that right across all stages of education, from early years to higher education and throughout workplace training, people are given the necessary digital skills to succeed in their career.

Last year, the Prime Minister announced a bold new plan to cement the UK’s place as a global science and technology superpower by 2030, from pursuing transformational technologies such as artificial intelligence and supercomputing to attracting top talent and ensuring they have the tools they need to succeed. We also hosted a successful AI summit that was internationally renowned. The Government have said that they want to be at the forefront of emerging technologies in key high-growth industries, such as cryptocurrency and digital assets, blockchain technologies, Web3 and AI. I have been learning a lot about that as chair of the crypto and digital assets all-party parliamentary group, where I have had to be taken with baby steps through the whole process so I could understand it. It is very complicated. Those new and developing technologies have such potential and they could be the key driver of growth for the UK economy moving forward.

One of the issues raised when speaking to the sector is how many employers say they cannot find the talent they need. If we are to realise the vision, we must ensure the UK is investing in our talent, ensuring that future generations are equipped with the digital skills they need to take advantage of the new career opportunities for what I would probably call a digital Britain that we will all work together to help create.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

It is a fact, I think, that many people who are autistic have huge potential to contribute in terms of information technology skills. They are often at the cutting edge, but those same people often do not get any help at all when leaving school. It seems to me that we are missing a trick here, and on the intelligence front we could really use these people. I hope the hon. Lady agrees with me that we should do something for them.

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Ceidwadwyr, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

I totally agree; the hon. Member makes an excellent point. Indeed, I have just come from a meeting with DFN Project SEARCH, which works with young people with special needs to give them placements in a variety of industries, including in digital industries and in this Parliament. We must harness everyone’s potential, and everyone should have the opportunity to realise their potential. We should particularly focus on making sure the transformation is inclusive, including of people with special needs.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate; she always brings interesting and sensible debates to Westminster Hall and elsewhere. From the time I have known her, she has always been astute and assiduous on these issues, and I thank her for that.

We should teach the importance of having sound digital skills, especially for most modern jobs, which require that we understand information and communications technology. I say that as one who probably does not, to be truthful—but it is important for young people coming through that they do.

Lloyds Bank found that 18% of adults lack the necessary essential digital skills. Does the hon. Lady agree that consideration should be given to teaching a mandatory ICT lesson within careers classes in all schools across the United Kingdom to ensure that young people have the skills needed to obtain employment in all types of industries? In my constituency, we need young people with those skills. I think the hon. Lady would probably agree that she needs them in her constituency as well.

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Ceidwadwyr, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

I totally agree. Digital skills are going to be an integral part of the curriculum for everybody moving through the school process, and for people at all stages of their lives; some people might want to change career and move into the digital posts of the future.

If I may give a small anecdote, when I attended one of the APPG’s sessions, the Children’s Parliament came to speak to us. We were talking about the metaverse and a person from Roblox was there. I spend a lot of money on Roblox, as a mother, because children are so interested in it, so I was desperate to speak to this person about what Roblox was really about. He asked a question of those in the room—Members of Parliament; Members of the House of Lords; and Members of the Children’s Parliament, who are aged from about eight to 14— “Who understands the metaverse?” All the children put their hands in the air, but not very many MPs or Lords Members did.

Digital skills should be part of the curriculum, but younger people are quite digitally native; they are quite used to it. I therefore think there must be across-the-lifespan development so that older adults who are in careers in which they have not had the opportunity to gain digital skills can gain them if they would like to. Certainly, we in Parliament have a way to go to catch up with the children in terms of digital understanding. I include myself in that.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

The hon. Member makes a really important point. I am concerned by the lack of digital skills among parliamentarians and legislators, particularly as we are trying to catch up legislation and regulation with the online space and the digital world. That is imperative, given the recent stories about what has been happening to parliamentarians, be that cyber-flashing, sextortion or honey-trapping. It is really important, when we are talking about this area, that our legislators have advanced digital skills.

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Ceidwadwyr, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

I totally agree. For over two years, the APPG has held sessions for MPs who are interested in this particular sector to try to upskill ourselves. As I said, I totally include myself in that.

We have come quite a long way. When I started about two and a half years ago, we had not had any debates in the House of Commons about cryptocurrency, yet over 2 million people in the UK were engaged in the sector. In some ways, Parliament itself is playing catch-up to what has become quite mainstream in our society but there are risks, as you say. To create competent legislation, we need to be involved and to understand the risks.

The children from the Children’s Parliament said that Web3 and the metaverse have extraordinary potential to change their education. For instance, they can understand, through a headset, what it is like to be at the precipice of a volcano. But they said, very clearly, “You have to make it safe.” They also wanted additional research on the impact of being online for long periods of the day on mental health and wellbeing, and where the limits and the cut-offs are in that regard. They were really sensible; I was very impressed by them.

A 2022 report by Tech Nation showed that just under 5 million people were working in the UK tech economy, which was an increase from under 3 million in 2019 but more than double the 2.18 million working in the tech economy in 2011. We can see the potential that is growing exponentially. There were also 2 million vacancies for tech roles between May 2021 and 2022, which is a huge amount, from a total of 14.85 million vacancies across the economy as a whole.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

The hon. Lady mentioned skills, on which we have failed to move forward. I will give an example, and I hope she agrees with what I am about to say. Even industries such as diesel mechanics, which relates to heavy goods vehicles, require a lot of digital skills. Unfortunately, our technical colleges are still teaching students about diesel engines that were operating in the 1950s, so they have not moved with the times. The new emissions checks are totally digital, so people need IT skills to achieve some of the emissions regulations. We need flexibility within our education system to integrate digital skills into every aspect of careers.

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Ceidwadwyr, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

I totally agree. The digital transformation affects every sector. I think about finance, given that I chair the crypto and digital assets all-party parliamentary group, but it also affects health and even international aid. Payments transformation means that we can reach the most vulnerable without intermediaries and get payments to them faster and more seamlessly. It is changing almost every sector, and all our educational establishments need support to develop programmes that give people the skills to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

The UK digital assets sector has the potential to boost economic growth, jobs and skills right across the UK. According to King’s College London, in 2021 there were more than 14,000 jobs advertised on LinkedIn in the blockchain industry worldwide. UK-based firms provided almost a quarter of those job advertisements, even though the UK houses less than 7% of the firms worldwide.

A report by Access Partnership and Amazon Web Services published at the start of this year showed that 51% of employers consider hiring talent with AI skills and experience to be a priority, and that boosting AI skills could increase salaries by up to 31% and accelerate career prospects. However, nearly three quarters—71%—of employers said, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, that they still cannot find the talent that they need, and that it is not incorporated where it should be.

The UK already has a strong track record as a leader, and we want to maintain that leadership and be at the helm of this transformation. We want to be seen as a destination for innovation and businesses that want to start up and scale up across the United Kingdom. We also have to level up. I hear a lot in my role about businesses starting up in London, and that is absolutely fantastic, but that has to be levelled up to give people opportunities right across the UK. The UK boasts some of the most respected universities, and the largest financial services sector and tech ecosystem in Europe. In 2023, the UK tech sector reached a combined market valuation of more than £1 trillion.

Focusing on education and boosting digital skills will therefore be central to the success of the Government’s vision and will ensure that people have the skills they need to pursue careers in digital economy transformation. To turn that vision into reality and make the UK a digital and technology superpower, we must not only attract the right talent but build the talent base here through teaching and training in every sector and maximising our talent pipelines.

Last month, the Government pledged more than £1 billion to train millions in high-tech skills in order to cement the UK’s place as a technology superpower by 2030 and to create the high-paid jobs of the future. That would be a really positive step in the right direction. We have to be aware that we are facing fierce competition from other countries, so it is vital that we keep the momentum and continue to capitalise on the good base that we already have. We must really maximise the potential here at home.

The International Institute for Management Development, which measures economies on a world digital competitiveness ranking, last year ranked the UK 20th out of 64 economies, so although there has been a good start and we have made progress, there is scope for improvement. In order to become a tech superpower, the UK will need to look at how we boost digital skills from early years through higher and further education and workplace training. I would welcome the Minister’s views on what more we can do to embed digital skills training in schools and throughout all stages of education.

Higher education will be crucial in that regard, too. A recent report by techUK highlighted that despite having less than 1% of the world’s population, the UK boasts four of the top 10 digital universities. That is a real credit to the work that has been done. We also have 14% of the most highly cited academic publications in the world, which is a huge achievement for the Government and for the United Kingdom.

Ensuring that the UK remains an attractive destination means that we also need to attract people from other countries with the skills that we want to develop here. It would be helpful to look at how to attract people—either to university courses or into jobs—who could then train our leaders and innovators of the future in certain parts of the sector where we do not have the talent that we need already established. Industry leaders say that digital technology continues to become an even more essential part of business, so we need to help our small, medium-sized and large businesses to make sure that digital skills are embedded in the work that they do.

Employees can, I think, be worried. I know that when I worked in the NHS, every time there was a digital change, I worried about whether I would be able to do it. Employers need to give people the self-confidence and managers must ensure that there is continuing professional development for staff in businesses across the UK in this sector.

Before I bring my speech to a close, I would like to mention diversity. Having attended a number of conferences looking at digital assets in the UK, I have seen quite a lack of female engagement in the audience, and certainly on the panels that I have taken part in. It was quite stark to me that we are perhaps not making the digital transformation as inclusive as it could be in terms of people from different backgrounds, age groups and ethnic minorities or in terms of the gender gap. That is borne out by a recent study by Forex Suggest, which found that women are vastly under-represented in leadership positions across the blockchain industries, with only 6% of CEOs being women, while men held 94% of the top executive positions. That shows how much work has to be done.

I have two girls who are digitally native. In fact, if my iPad breaks, I often ask my daughter, who is only 10, what to do, and she can fix it very quickly: she just does something and it works again. Children—both girls and boys—are becoming much more confident. However, we need to make sure that that confidence continues through the classroom, through their education and into the workplace, so that women take up those posts and work to the top of those professions that will be so pivotal for the future.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

The hon. Member is being very generous in taking interventions. She is making a really powerful point. The tech for the future needs to be built by everybody who will be using it. It needs to be inclusive, particularly generative AI and AI large language models. What they are learning from needs to be appropriate, responsible and inclusive. I know we have both worked hard on things like tackling antisemitism. If we want the technology to be taken seriously, it has to be built by everybody who is going to be using it.

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Ceidwadwyr, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

Yes, it is fundamental to the work going forward to make sure these systems are inclusive and are not built by certain people with certain views that perhaps exclude important sectors of the community. These systems are going to be pivotal for the economy and our lifestyles. Everyone has to be included in making sure that this works and in shaping it in a positive way.

I recently visited RoboThink, an innovative business delivering STEM coding, robotics and engineering programmes in the UK, and in 20 other countries around the world, for children as young as three or four and up to age 10 or 12. They were building and coding robots. It was amazing to see. It struck me that the more we have those projects in local communities—in kids’ spare time external to the curriculum, built into it, or a bit of both—the more we can harness kids being positively engaged and, critically, prepared for the workplace of the future. I can assure hon. Members that those young children were building robots that I could not build. I was very impressed by them.

As chair of the crypto and digital assets APPG, I really feel that this is an important time. We should also work in partnership with business to make sure that, educationally, we are in the leadership position to achieve the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s aims. I was interested to hear that Ripple launched a university blockchain research initiative in 2018 in collaboration with top universities around the world, including UCL and others, to support technical development, innovation, cryptocurrency and digital payments. Circle, a leading financial technology firm and issuer of USD Coin, partnered with academic institutions through its Circle University to provide education courses to improve digital financial literacy—another really important aspect, particularly for those who perhaps feel digitally excluded.

In February of this year, Tether announced the launch of Tether Edu, a global education initiative dedicated to improving education skills in blockchain, artificial intelligence and coding. Much of this will be a partnership between Governments and industry for the future, so I would welcome the Minister’s views on the role of industry in helping to improve digital skills and, in particular, on the potential for further partnerships between Government, educators and private industry.

These days, most jobs are going to be developed with a digital element. We should be ensuring that our education system is able to equip people with the digital skills they need to succeed in their careers and to help to drive economic growth and innovations of the future, and to meet the skills needs that UK and international business leaders say are currently lacking.

The UK has a really solid foundation. Parliament should work cross-party and through the APPGs, with business and educators, not only to make sure that the UK maintains its leadership of the digital Britain I want to see developed, but to create digital innovation for the next generation—I include my own children in that—making sure that they can meet their potential in this new digital world.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding) 4:53, 16 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Caroline. I will be brief. It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate; I congratulate Dr Cameron on securing it. We share many concerns, but we also see the potential for the future and what the UK is capable of—not just for our young people, but for everybody.

As the former shadow Minister for technology and the digital economy and the proud chair of Labour Digital, I am passionate about that potential and the potential for technology to transform all our lives for the better. With that potential comes an abundance of opportunity, and it is essential that it is grasped with both hands—by individuals and by businesses—so that we can all reap the benefits that are available. We have all heard and felt the concerns about technology and AI having a negative impact on skills, opportunity and careers, but there is a lot to be excited about if we approach this right.

People’s lives have become more and more digitalised. Individuals have begun to grasp the digital opportunity with both hands. Conventional ideas about how and where work is undertaken have also transformed as people are able to adapt to the digitalisation of our world. We have all seen that, from a rise in social media influencers to marketing careers, online food and clothing delivery services, and more and more opportunities for growing small businesses online. While technology and AI have been smeared as threats to career opportunities—and of course we need to have regulations in place—we are also seeing the need for adaptation to embrace the potential that this can bring to our economy.

Central to that adaptation is, of course, the need for internet access. We have to get the basics right. When so many millions of people in our country still do not have access to reliable, affordable internet, how can we possibly teach people the digital skills that they need to take advantage of those opportunities? That is why I and the Labour party believe that access to the internet should be a right and not a privilege.

As our world and our economy become more and more digitally dependent, we have to take our people with us to take advantage of those opportunities. We can only achieve that if we ensure that people are fully equipped for that transformation. Of course, assisting people and enhancing their digital skills will also look different for every individual and for every community up and down our wonderful islands. From those in school to those retiring, improving people’s digital skills will span a variety of people of different ages, backgrounds, circumstances, and needs, as the hon. Lady has already pointed out.

Someone in their 80s who wants to be able to access healthcare information on an app needs entirely different resources and support from a young individual wanting to improve their coding skills, for example. I hear regularly from older members of my constituency in particular their concerns about being left behind in this transition, but it is not just individuals who fear being left behind; it is wider communities too. From my role proudly chairing the all-party parliamentary group on coalfield communities, I know that stronger policies are needed to grow local economies of our former mining towns. We use the phrase “from coal to code”. Forget the silicon valleys—we have the coal valleys, and that is where we need to be investing.

Our recent report, “Next Steps in Levelling Up the Former Coalfields”, emphasises the recommendation that growing the economies in those towns is dependent on an investment in skills and training. As I said, we have to get the basics right. Digital skills and digital career training must be at the heart of any plan the Government bring forward to ensure that our communities are meaningfully involved in the economy of the future.

Former mining communities such as the one I represent know exactly what exclusion looks like. Whether it is delayed delivery of fibre-optic broadband services or the reliance that even the Government place on having a smartphone to access basic public services, if the economy of the future is to be online focused, industrial communities like mine need the support to adapt to the change. Cross-departmental working is also crucial to achieve that and to ensure that different people are given different support when necessary. I urge the Minister to ensure that a holistic approach is taken across Government when speaking to the Department for Health and Social Care, the Department for Education and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to ensure that we have a joined-up approach to tackle the issue head-on.

I am proud that the Labour party is committed to that collaborative working in all our policy areas, not just technology. I know from my current role as shadow Minister for domestic abuse and safeguarding, as well as from my work on what is now the Online Safety Act 2023, that adaptation in the face of developing technologies also means equipping people with the knowledge necessary to protect themselves from those who—disgustingly—weaponise technology as a misogynistic and violent tool.

As a woman in politics, and as the first woman to represent my constituency of Pontypridd, it is essential that I point out that technological advances go hand in hand with an advancement in the way that perpetrators can offend, something that will disproportionately affect women. These are gendered crimes, so we need to make sure that women are equipped with the necessary digital skills to deal with them. We have all seen them, from AI-generated porn to deepfakes, online harassment and the rise of incel ideology. We need to be educating people to ensure they are equipped to deal with what is sadly an inevitable feature of our increasingly digitalised society.

I really welcome the announcement from the Government today on making a new offence of the creation of deepfake pornography—I think it is long overdue—but it is as an amendment to a Criminal Justice Bill that has no confirmed date for its return to the House. We do have to wonder where the priority is. I am also concerned about the nature of these new offences that have been created. They look to be intent-based rather than consent-based, again prioritising the right to banter ahead of a woman’s right to feel safe online. We have to get this right. We are all too aware of the impact of AI-generated porn and image-based abuse, both fuelled by misogyny. Tackling those issues, working with the Department for Education, has long been a frustration and motivation for me across the briefs that I have held.

Another big concern I have is about the number of elections this year—hopefully a general election will not be too long coming—and the issue of deepfakes, AI-generated images and videos of potential candidates that could do real harm to people if they do not know what they are looking at and cannot verify their sources. Again, with the rise of misinformation and disinformation online, people need to be confident in what they are reading. They need to be able to be confident in their candidates and that what they are seeing, hearing and watching is true. I really am concerned that elections are coming and people do not have those necessary digital skills, and about the impact that that could have on democracy.

Yes, people need the digital skills to be able to take full advantage of the great and positive things that are to come, whether that is growing our economy or boosting our place on the world stage, but they also need these skills more than ever to ensure that they can combat the unfortunate dark side that accompanies the digital world. Let us be clear: we have to protect people against the digital dangers caused by perpetrators, but equally we must never shy away from the potential that technology holds.

That all requires enhanced support to help with online literacy in every single aspect of people’s lives, so I am keen to hear from the Minister exactly what the Government’s digital media literacy strategy is. Sadly, we have seen very little of it of late. It has been left to Ofcom and to the platforms themselves to provide that for people, so I really would like to see some political leadership on this. From careers to education to retirees who just do not want to be left behind, digital skills are essential for our future and must be available to all.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Llafur, Wirral West 5:00, 16 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Dame Caroline. I congratulate Dr Cameron on securing this important debate.

It really is important that we, as a country, ensure that we have a digitally literate population. If we do not, we deprive people of opportunity, particularly in employment. So much of what we do today relies on us using the internet, whether that is applying for jobs, accessing education and training, banking, paying bills, and accessing other services and leisure opportunities. It is far easier nowadays to find employment online than by using other, traditional means, because there are just so many websites that advertise jobs and so many social media sites where professionals can network.

However, when we look at the statistics, we can see that there is a lot of work to do to ensure that people can take advantage of the job opportunities provided by having good digital skills. Last year’s consumer digital index, which is run by Lloyds bank and commissioned by the Department for Education, reported that there are about 13 million people in the UK with very low digital capability, which means that

“they are likely to struggle interacting with online services”.

That is about a quarter of the UK’s adult population. The index also found that 7.5 million people, or 18% of UK adults, lack the essential digital skills needed for the workplace. That is over 7 million people who are missing out on opportunities to progress in work, which is a form of deprivation that must be recognised and addressed. That is vital both for the individuals concerned and for the economy.

Despite the Government’s rhetoric about us becoming a tech superpower, it is immensely disappointing that the UK ranks poorly in comparison with other countries when it comes to digital skills. According to the International Institute for Management Development’s world digital competitiveness ranking, the UK was ranked 20th in 2023 out of the 64 economies ranked, but we were 16th in 2022, so our performance clearly dropped. I would be interested to hear why the Minister thinks that was the case.

Older people are much more likely than younger people to struggle with digital skills, according to the consumer digital index. For example, in the 45-to-54 age bracket, 10% of people are below foundation level, which consists of the most fundamental tasks needed to set up an individual for success online. In the 55-to-64 bracket, 16% of people were found to be below foundation level. In the 65-to-74 bracket, that goes up to 29%, and it is higher still for the over-75s, at 37%.

We must bear in mind that adults who have been doing a job, perhaps of a physical nature, may come to a point where they are unable to continue doing it, either because it is no longer available where they live or because of a workplace injury or health condition. They may well then have to consider new types of employment, so we need to ensure that there are opportunities available to allow them to acquire the digital skills they will need to access that employment. That is particularly important for people who live in rural areas, where digital access, ironically, is sometimes weakest; of course, poor public transport can make finding work harder as well. We must ensure that the provision is there so that adults have the chance to improve their digital skills.

We also need to provide adults with a chance to improve their literacy skills. The National Literacy Trust estimates that more than 7 million adults in England—16.4% of the adult population—are functionally illiterate. The Government need to address that as a matter of urgency. We cannot hope that people will improve their digital skills if they do not already have good literacy skills. I have raised that issue numerous times in this place. For example, I tabled an amendment to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill that would have required the Government to include the reducing of geographical disparities in adult literacy as one of their levelling-up missions, and to review levels of adult literacy in the UK during each mission period, to publish the findings of that review and to set up a strategy to improve levels of adult literacy and eradicate illiteracy in the UK. It was immensely disappointing that the Government voted against that, because if we want to address a problem, it is important to understand its extent and make-up.

Adults need greater opportunities to learn and to improve their literacy and digital skills, yet adult skills spending has been cut under the Conservatives. Last December, the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out that

“total skills spending in 2024-25 will be 23% below 2009-10 levels.”

That is really shocking and comes despite an increase in total spending on adult skills in recent years. The IFS goes on to say:

“Spending on classroom-based adult education has fallen especially sharply”,

driven by falling learner numbers and real-terms cuts in funding rates, and will be more than 40% below 2009-10 levels in 2024-25. That is very damaging to our economy, and the situation needs to be reversed. We need to see a significant increase in investment in adult skills so that those adults who struggle digitally or with literacy can acquire the necessary skills to help with their career prospects and in everyday life.

We need to ensure that everyone has reliable and affordable access to the internet. In relation to employment and careers, that is particularly important for people who rely on working remotely, who could live in rural areas, have caring responsibilities or be in ill health. It is also important for people on low incomes and those living in poverty.

There are some good initiatives to try to help digitally excluded people get online. I would like to mention the work of the Good Things Foundation national databank, which provides free mobile SIM cards to help digitally excluded people get connected. Those are distributed by churches and community groups. I encourage MPs across the House to look at the work that the foundation does and to consider how it might be able to assist people in their constituencies. According to the foundation, 2.5 million households in the UK struggle to afford the internet, and one in 14 households have no home internet access at all. Clearly, poverty is also a barrier to digital literacy.

It is important that the Government ensure that everyone is able to reach their potential. In today’s jobs market, confidence in digital skills has an important part to play in helping people to do that. We need a commitment from the Government to extend access to adult literacy and digital skills training in our communities, especially in areas of deprivation. We need action on the provision of broadband right across the country so that no one and no area is left behind.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Education) 5:07, 16 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Caroline. I welcome the Minister to his new role, and I congratulate Dr Cameron on securing the debate. She has hit on one of the important and strategically significant issues of our day, and made the point that there is a whole set of issues and new disciplines that policymakers need to catch up with.

The subject of digital skills covers a range of disciplines. It could mean digital literacy for engagement with services; accessing information online; office-based skills, such as creating spreadsheets or presentations; or new digital social media tools. It also covers business software use and development; confidence with hardware, including mobile phones; social media for businesses; data analytics; and so much more, as has been highlighted. Indeed, the hon. Lady talked about how Britain becomes a science and technology superpower and leads the way in cyber-security, AI and so much more.

Digital skills are crucial for the future of our economy, businesses and workforce. That is why a core pillar of Labour’s industrial strategy is to harness data for the public good and to transform digital skills. Database technologies are already transforming our economy. For example, AI is being used to prevent fraud, enable search engines and develop vaccines and medicines.

Hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) and for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), have made powerful points. The key point about inclusion—whether by place, demographics, needs, disabilities or the gender divide—is how, not by accident but by design, we can create and work towards the future in terms of how Britain performs.

As a nation, we are way behind where we need to be. The Government have failed to equip young people and the existing workforce with the digital skills they need. That has been demonstrated in some of the research that has been quoted today. Fewer than half of British employers believe that young people have the right digital skills, and we do much worse in computer skills than most of our economic rivals.

As has been mentioned, the 2023 Lloyds bank report commissioned by the Department for Education found that about 13 million people in the UK had the lowest level of digital capability, which means they are likely to struggle to interact with online services. That is an enormous number. The digital skills gap is estimated to cost the UK economy £63 billion per year, and 46% of businesses struggle to recruit for roles that require hard data skills. That also absolutely has an impact on our productivity, such that we sit 16% below international competitors such as the US and Germany.

The Digital Skills Council has found that the barriers to the uptake of digital skills courses include opportunity barriers such as lack of encouragement, restricted options, low teaching quality or even the capacity to access courses in local areas. It also found that those barriers hinder early-career switches for those aged between 27 and 35 and prevent those people from upskilling digitally. That is critical, given the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West made about people being able to move from job to job or from career to career in a changing economy. We also know that the total number of information and communications technology-related apprenticeship starts has fallen by almost 30% since the start of this Parliament. There are core structural and strategic issues that have not been dealt with effectively by the Government.

There need to be solutions that are commensurate with the challenge. The last Labour Government introduced the statutory digital entitlement for adults with low digital skills. Similarly, boosting digital skills will be a national priority for the next Labour Government. That work will be led by a new national body, Skills England, which will drive the skills needs of our industrial strategy and the green prosperity plan, making sure that we deliver those things in line with what is needed on the ground through the local skills improvement plans, working with employers, unions and civil society. We will also reform the apprenticeship levy so that employers can use up to 50% of their total levy contributions on more flexible course, which, as the Minister will know, was called for by the Manufacturing 5, UKHospitality, techUK and so many others.

The system needs to work together. Young people need to understand developing technologies, to be able to use and shape them, and to understand the opportunities and risks. That is why our curriculum review will embed digital literacy and skills throughout children’s learning and ensure that the curriculum keeps up with technological change.

In conclusion, I have some questions for the Minister. Will he outline what steps the Government are taking to reduce the barriers to uptake of digital skills courses and to address digital literacy gaps? Why are the Government not sufficiently addressing the significant gender disparity in the uptake of computing GCSEs and A-levels, with 92% of those starting A-level courses being male students? That critical issue needs addressing. Finally, how is the Minister working with businesses to understand the digital skills needs of the future, how skills needs can best be met now and what we can do to future-proof our courses? Ensuring that the workforces of today and tomorrow have the digital skills they need is vital for our citizens, our economy, our industry and our public services.

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Minister of State (Education) 5:13, 16 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Cameron on securing a debate on this vital subject.

We live in a digital age. Digital skills are essential to support a successful economy and to ensure that people of all ages have the skills they need for their chosen careers. In the UK, we have a world-leading digital economy. To enhance that position, we need to ensure that people can develop digital skills throughout their lifetime—a point that has been made throughout the debate. Such skills will benefit individuals and employers.

Now is the time for us to act and to deliver our ambitions by investing in digital education and skills and building a diverse pipeline of future talent. If my hon. Friend is happy for me to do so, I will set out some of the work that the Government have been doing and the context for it, and then I will pick up on some of the points that she and other colleagues have raised during the debate.

We need that pipeline of talent because, quite simply, digital skills are needed in nearly all careers in our country these days. There are more and more digital jobs and careers in which the digital element of skills is absolutely central to the role.

We know—I think every Member raised this point in the debate—that there is a digital skills gap to address. As the shadow Minister, Seema Malhotra, said, that gap has been estimated to cost the UK economy £63 billion a year. That was a key theme of today’s debate, and it is one that the Government do not take lightly.

Digital jobs grew by 9% last year and are projected to continue to grow by 9% to 2030 and to a significantly higher level thereafter. Sixty per cent of all businesses believe their reliance on advanced digital skills will increase over the next five years, and analysis that the DFE will publish imminently highlights the importance of digital skills across sectors. Of those that are most relevant to critical technologies, the four with the highest levels of employment all relate to digital and computing. That analysis shows how reliant we are on computer science graduates to fill relatively entry-level occupations. We need to ensure that employers and learners are aware of the high-quality technical routes that are available to gain those vital digital skills.

At a local level, digital was one of the top five sectors in which skills needs were identified across the local skills improvement plans. That is a key part of the work that we are doing to engage with businesses and local authorities, bringing together the sector to ensure that we are delivering the right sorts of jobs and entries into the workplace.

It is clear that we have to address the issue in our economy, and we are taking action to do so. One of our beliefs is that the digital skills journey for so many people starts in our schools. To address the growing demand for people with computing and digital skills, we introduced computing as a statutory national curriculum subject back in 2014 across key stages 1 to 4. To provide a basis for further study and careers in digital—including in AI, as was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow—the computing curriculum ensures that pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, how digital systems work in the modern era, and how to put that knowledge to use through programming.

To ensure that pupils receive a high-quality computing education, we invested over £100 million in the National Centre for Computing Education, providing primary and secondary teachers with the support that they need to drive up participation in computer science at GCSE and A-level. Over 13,000 teachers have engaged with subject knowledge courses, boosting their confidence to teach engaging and effective lessons in this area. Crucially, in post-16 education, the computer science A-level further develops students’ understanding and application of the principles and concepts of computer science, whether that is abstraction, decomposition, logic, algorithms or data representation.

Digital T-levels are also supporting progression to occupations such as software development technician. I went on an incredible visit a couple of weeks ago to Bridgwater and Taunton College, where I met some digital T-level students who were hugely passionate about the work that they were doing. The college has a really positive partnership with different digital technological providers, including Apple, to ensure that students not only have good work and engagement placements, but have the technology that they need as their opportunities on those courses develop. It is not just occupations in the digital sector where good digital skills are needed; relevant digital skills are built into every T-level qualification.

Points were quite rightly raised during the debate about the workforce. One of the steps we have taken to boost teacher retention is investing £100 million a year—this year and in the next financial year—to ensure that every early career teacher of STEM and technical subjects, including computing and digital courses, receives up to £6,000 annually on top of their pay. The investment is targeted at teachers in their first five years of teaching in disadvantaged schools and colleges, ensuring that we help to tackle some of the hotspots with particular challenges. We already offer those levelling-up premium payments to computing teachers in their first five years, but the expansion will double the payments and extend the scheme to eligible further education teachers.

We are also funding flexible skills bootcamps at level 3 and free courses for jobs, which include a range of in-demand digital qualifications and provision such as network architecture, data analytics and coding. I met representatives of the Institute of Coding last week at the University of Bath, one of our digital skills bootcamp providers. I will return to diversity in the sector more generally in a moment, but one of the incredible statistics was that more than 44% of starts in the digital skills bootcamp now are from women. There is a huge amount more to do, but that shows that having different avenues into the workforce and different types of training interventions can have a massive impact and be one part of tackling the issue.

At levels 4 and 5, the first higher technical qualifications were in digital occupations, and 56 HTQs are available for teaching, with a further 10 approved for first teaching in September. Employers in the digital sector have developed 32 high quality apprenticeships from level 3 to degree level in exciting fields, including cyber-security, software development and AI. In 2020, we introduced a digital entitlement, funding adults with low digital skills to study essential digital skills qualifications and digital functional skills qualifications, developed against new employer-supported national standards, which provided learners with the essential skills they need to participate properly and actively in the workforce.

We have also introduced institutes of technology, which are employer-led collaborations—another theme that has been raised several times in this debate. They are bringing together the best existing FE provision with HE partners to build a high-skilled workforce to respond to the needs of the employer, which is crucial. Of the 21 IOTs, 19 have been launched already, and they all include a digital specialism.

Higher education is a key pipeline for digital jobs—a point that was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow. Through the strategic priorities grant, we are directing funding towards strategically important subjects, including computing and IT courses. From 2025, the lifelong learning entitlement will transform access to further and higher education so all adults have the equivalent of four years’ worth of student loans to use flexibly on a quality education and skills over their lifetime.

My hon. Friend and other hon. Members have shown strong interest in ensuring that we embrace the opportunities and advances that AI offers and that we make use of technologies such as blockchain, which is fundamental to the future of our digital economy in some ways. In schools, the computing curriculum as a foundational subject for all key stages ensures pupils have a broad knowledge of the skills they need to specialise in later, for example in AI, facilitating further study. At the other end of the pipeline, we have an AI data specialist apprenticeship standard approved for delivery at level 7. That highly skilled role champions AI and its applications, promoting the adoption of novel tools and technologies.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Llafur, Wirral West

The Minister is putting an awful lot into his speech, which is good. Can he tell us what the Government are doing to look at which areas of digital jobs will be under threat with the development of AI? Today’s landscape will not be the same in five years’ time. What work has his Department been doing on that? Is it informing the courses that are being provided? We do not want people to invest a lot of time and money in training for something, only for AI to come and wipe it off the map.

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Minister of State (Education)

I thank the hon. Member for raising that issue. Let me make a couple of points. First, yes, we are absolutely looking at the matter as a Government Department. Secondly, we are working with external partners and providers too, whether that is through the LSIPs or other mechanisms, to forward-look at what skills are needed as part of our economic model, not just now but in the years to come. We are doing that in multiple ways; perhaps I can write to the hon. Member with more information. I can assure her that work is under way through LSIPs and in other ways.

The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston and my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow raised points about female participation in digital skills. I mentioned the importance of using digital skills bootcamps as a lever and a mechanism to tackle that issue, but we know that there is a lack of diversity, particularly gender diversity, within the digital skills pipeline. Only 15% of the UK’s programmers and software development professionals are female. That is why we are supporting programmes to widen participation in digital and wider science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers, including through the National Centre for Computing Education’s “I Belong” programme.

We are also putting £30 million into an AI and data science conversion course programme, funding universities to develop masters-level AI and data science courses suitable for non-STEM students. There are up to 2,600 scholarships for students from backgrounds under-represented in the tech industry. Of course there is more to do, and we look forward to working with my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow to tackle that challenge.

Alex Davies-Jones spoke passionately about some of the challenges facing her own community, as well as some of the opportunities that digital advancements and AI can bring. I took particular note of a couple of her points. First, she was absolutely right to highlight that this area cuts across all Departments and all layers of government, including local government, the devolved Administrations and the Government here at Westminster; I can assure her that I will certainly tackle that issue wherever I can. She also highlighted her work with the APPG and the report she has produced on coalfield communities; I would love to meet her and talk more about the recommendation in that report. I look forward to reading it and will be happy to discuss it further.

Jamie Stone, who is no longer in his place, made an intervention about the importance of ensuring that individuals with special educational needs have the right level of access to digital skills. That is a crucial point, and I want to assure all hon. Members that we are taking action in that area. We are ensuring that all colleges have a named person with oversight for SEND, that colleges have due regard to the SEND code of practice, that apprenticeships have diversity champions and that institutes of technology are looking at a diverse workforce. I am always happy to talk to colleagues about that important issue.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow again for securing this debate. There is a clear, unanimous voice on the importance of digital skills, ensuring that everybody in our country has equal and clear access to those skills, and future-proofing our workforce. I have set out our offer to ensure that the UK has the digital skills to remain a science and technology superpower. That is just the start. Every individual, business, employer and part of our economy needs digital skills. Of course there is more to do, but I am sure that by working together, including with providers and employers, we will deliver the digital skills that our country needs for the future.

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Ceidwadwyr, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow 5:27, 16 Ebrill 2024

I thank everybody who has taken part in this debate on a very important issue. I am pleased that we have been able to work together to identify the key challenges for those from rural areas and minority backgrounds, and in terms of the gender gap. We have talked about a holistic approach and why it is important to level up across the UK and right across the lifespan.

I thank the Minister for a comprehensive response. I think that the future is positive for the UK in this regard. We have an innovative workforce and there is a digital generation up and coming; I see it all around me. We are fortunate to have a Prime Minister who has a clear and proactive vision for digital Britain moving forward.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the matter of digital skills and careers.

Sitting adjourned.