Digital Exclusion

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 28 February 2024.

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Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections) 4:30, 28 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered digital exclusion.

Prynhawn da, Mrs Harris; it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon. It is abundantly clear that we are living in an increasingly digital world where technology has become essential to the way we socialise, work, shop, learn, manage finances and gain access to vital services. Digital skills, connectivity and equipment are all now essential to enabling an individual to fully participate in modern society. For the majority of the population, that has made life easier.

Tasks that would have required someone to leave the comfort of their own house in the past are now performed at the tap of a screen or the click of a button. Information that might once have required significant research can be recovered instantaneously. For the most part, those trends do not pose problems for people, but for the minority who might lack the digital skills or confidence to gain access to those services, it can make the world more and more inaccessible.

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

Many of my constituents cannot work the system. They do not know how to or they give up, which means they miss out on vital NHS appointments and so on. Does the hon. Member agree with me that a back-up, offline system with a real voice at the end of a line would be a good idea?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

I agree. I will say no more about that because of the number of people who want to speak.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has clearly touched a nerve, given the number of people here. I think digital exclusion is often about rationing. I came across that with the legal aid cuts, where a lot of services are online and not accessed by people. It is now happening with GP services. There are 2 million people in north-west London who, from April, might have to go through a GP hub to access where they go. Already we have practices deciding that people have to send an online form and photographs before they can even get access to a GP. It excludes so many people from basic services.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

I thank my hon Friend for his intervention. He is right. Age UK conducted a survey in 2022 on the trends in digital technology for those over 65. It found that in total there are about 2.7 million people over the age of 65 who do not use the internet, which is about one fifth of that population group. Similarly, it was found that over 40% of the over-75s were unable to turn on their device and successfully log in, and 47% were unable to find and open programs. Those are people who had internet access. That aspect is sometimes overlooked. For someone who has grown up in the world of computers, using them seems like second nature, but to some people it is something that they just cannot deal with.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, International Trade Committee, Chair, Energy Security and Net Zero Committee, Chair, Energy Security and Net Zero Committee

The hon. Gentleman has really touched on what a lot of people feel in their daily lives: digital exclusion. So much of life today talks about inclusion. Is it not time the Government and business looked for strategies to enable digital inclusion for the wider public? We know from our postbags and everything else that people have real difficulty with this. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman for taking this matter forward because it is something that touches so many.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I will come on to some questions and challenges for the Government. The fact that we have so many Members here suggests that many things that we deal with as Members of Parliament are a result of digital exclusion.

Photo of Maggie Throup Maggie Throup Conservative, Erewash

I thank the hon. Member for giving way. I can give a live example of digital exclusion in my constituency. The local council is introducing a charge on emptying garden bins from 1 April. It has an early bird offer of £20 rather than £37, but that is available only to residents who pay online. That not only excludes people, but impacts them financially. Will he join me in condemning Erewash Borough Council and its blatant digital exclusion?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I suggest she talks to the leadership of the council to see whether an accommodation can be reached. Services should be available at the same price to everyone, regardless of their digital access.

I will not take any more interventions because I realise others wish to speak, but I will talk briefly about the banking sector, which has seen many branches close across the country, including in my own constituency of Ellesmere Port and Neston. In Neston there are no banks any more and Ellesmere Port has lost some. The nearest offline options for customers of the banks are often a significant journey away. With public transport the way it is, it is not always easy. Banks now expect customers to switch to online provisions, but that is not possible for some people. Even if they can do that, there is increased hesitation because of concerns about online fraud. Being able to access banking facilities readily should be a basic tenet of our society. At the moment, it is too difficult for too many people.

Car parking payment is another area that has increasingly moved online. App-based payment systems are becoming commonplace, but those without smartphones can find that difficult. Even when they have a smartphone, they may not have the knowhow or mobile data to download the app, meaning they can sometimes struggle to pay for car parking. One of my constituents, Keith, said:

“My problem is with car parking. Everything is done through the phone, and if you have an old phone it is a problem downloading an app while standing in the rain, with an impatient queue behind you.”

He is, no doubt, not alone. This is mainly a problem with private parking outfits. To be fair, my local authority does offer the alternative of paying in cash for the machines, but they do not always work. In relation to local authorities, Age UK has highlighted the difficulties in making applications for blue badges, housing support and council tax reductions.

In London, Age UK used a combination of freedom of information requests and mystery shopping to see how offline services were provided. It found that 17% of those responding did not offer any of those services offline. One quarter did not offer online access to blue badge applicants, and almost one third did not offer council tax reduction services offline. It also found that half of those claiming to offer those services offline were unable to point the mystery shopper to the information that would enable them to access those services. There were problems with waiting times in phone queues, as well as call handlers not being aware of the offline offer for services.

I want to be clear that this should not be misconstrued as an attack on local authorities. I know the level of cuts they have had to face since 2010. I am delighted that my local authority, Cheshire West and Chester, has introduced a call-back service, which is available for those unable to complete online forms. It directs people to a number to secure assistance. That is an example of best practice that should be spread across the whole country.

Before I wind up, I want to touch on the impact that the issue can have on people. Age UK has noted that this trend has a profound impact on older people. It causes many more people to feel lonely, frustrated and overlooked. Those feelings are completely understandable. It is about time that society realised that not everyone walks around with a smartphone, nor has the confidence to use one. It is all well and good saying people can use their rights under equality laws to ensure they are not denied access, but even that is dominated by online processes.

I suggest that most services do have an offline option, but it can be extremely difficult to access. We have heard that many of the organisations offering those services do not tell people they exist. In reality, that could be taking someone to a computer and taking them through that system. That is not really offering an offline service; it is just pointing people to a computer. Will the Minister advise whether any consideration has been given to providing local authorities with some support, practically and financially, to promote best practice, to ensure that people are able to access services offline?

Charities, businesses and interest groups have long been calling for an updated digital inclusion strategy. The previous one is rapidly approaching its 10th birthday, and was due for an update in 2020. These calls were also heard resoundingly by the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, which said last year:

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

It had no confidence that it remained a priority.

In defence, the Government claimed there was no need for a new strategy and that the principles remained relevant. I disagree: it is clear that the digital landscape has altered massively in the past decade, since the strategy was first written. Putting to one side the rapid changes in technology, the strategy has no mention of affordability, which is still a huge issue. It cannot have considered the rapid shift we are seeing to online services. Do the Government now accept that a new strategy needs to be created? Can the Minister update the House on whether they are considering doing so?

Will the Government also reconsider their approach to providing training? They do offer the essential digital skills qualification to provide some training free of charge. Organisations, such as the Good Things Foundation, believe those courses are too big a step, and are not meeting the needs of the digitally excluded. Many people are not interested in gaining formal qualifications. They just want to be able to undertake basic functions and access services in a community setting.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, International Trade Committee, Chair, Energy Security and Net Zero Committee, Chair, Energy Security and Net Zero Committee

It is not just those who are digitally excluded. There are various levels of digital exclusion. The other week I was in touch with my mobile phone company and I felt digitally excluded from EE, trying to get through the gates. The issue is not just about those who we assume are digitally excluded in all areas; some of us are digitally excluded in some areas, given the levels of sophistication that are coming in. As the hon. Gentleman says, things have changed so much over the past number of years.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. As my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter said, sometimes organisations will use that as a way of rationing access. Many hon. Members who have tried to cancel a contract will know that it is very difficult and they have to go through a series of gateways.

I will conclude because I know many other hon. Members want to speak. I do not want to stand in the way of progress, but we must be careful not to leave people behind. We need cast-iron, enforceable commitments that all services, whether public or private, can be accessed in person. There will always be people who, for whatever reason, will not be able to access services online, and there will always be situations where individual circumstances need to be explained in person. That right needs not just to exist on a piece of paper but to be exercisable in reality. Signposting to in-person options should be clear and easy to use and not something that should be squirreled away just to fulfil a duty that is not actually accessible in practice. We would not tolerate people being denied access to services on any other basis so we should not tolerate it on this basis either.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

Order. As hon. Members can see, the debate is oversubscribed and there will therefore be a two-minute time limit. I remind colleagues of two things: if they wish to speak, they need to bob; and any interventions taken will cause other colleagues to lose time further on in the debate.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines Conservative, Derbyshire Dales 4:41, 28 February 2024

I congratulate Justin Madders on securing this important debate. Digital exclusion is a social, economic and increasingly political issue. I came into politics to preserve what we should all be preserving in this place: the freedom of the individual. Sadly, those rights are being diminished day after day. I am not a luddite and I am not against the technological age—indeed, I welcome it. Yet with every advance, we must also make sure that the rights and freedoms of the individual advance at a similar pace.

Derbyshire Dales, where I live, is particularly affected because of the geography. We have had a lot of money from the Government and they have upheld their promises in a large regard. However, we still have patches of poor connectivity. I remind everybody of what Lloyds bank said in 2021: as many as 10 million people do not have the basic foundation skills to be able to access the digital world. That is one in six individuals. Putting aside other things that might disadvantage them, such as not having a smartphone or, as in Derbyshire Dales, not having technology that can work in the dales because of the difficulty with signals, that is a huge number of people.

Digital exclusion disproportionately erodes the rights of our elderly and disadvantaged people, along with the basic tenets of society such as small businesses. I have seen that quickly in Derbyshire Dales and with my experience in the campaign against the National Westminster Bank. The chief executive was not available to see me for months, so the managing director told me he was committed to helping people transition. He said, “We have 60% of the people in your area connected to our online app.” I said, “I am talking about the 40%; that is what I am concerned about.”

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines Conservative, Derbyshire Dales

Thank you very much. I am very pleased that I was able to raise these issues because we have to protect the rights of the individual.

Photo of Sarah Dyke Sarah Dyke Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome 4:43, 28 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris. I congratulate Justin Madders on securing this debate.

As we have heard today, the modern world is digital. We need digital technology to study, access banks, make health appointments and use local services and Government resources. However, in rural areas such as Somerton and Frome, access to the digital space is limited by poor broadband and mobile connectivity. Rural areas such as Somerset have an ageing population that is more reliant on diminishing in-person services and Somerton and Frome has an average age of 54 compared with the national average of 40. In Somerton and Frome, only around 40% of houses have access to full fibre broadband and 75% of my constituency is a partial 5G notspot.

I often hear from constituents that they feel disenfranchised from the modern world due to their poor broadband and mobile connectivity. A constituent in Sticklinch told me recently that they have a download speed of only 6 megabits per second on their broadband. For comparison, the shared rural network, which aims to roll out 4G to 95% of the country, estimates that the average download speed in rural areas when using mobile data will be 7 megabits per second. My constituents tell me that they want to be “dragged into the 21st century” and not left “isolated from modern communications”. Although we have seen some improvements in that area, we need to go further and faster.

A recent report from the National Audit Office on the shared rural network stated that it is behind where it is meant to be, and I know that my constituents are frustrated that they will be let down and left behind yet again. Rural areas have watched the modern world move online. They have been instructed to join in, but far too often they have been left without the tools that they need to participate. They feel excluded, they are let down and they are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 4:45, 28 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I congratulate Justin Madders on securing the debate.

In terms of digital exclusion, it really matters that we try to have digital by default; it is a modern way of doing business. However, the key request of many constituents who have emailed me is that Government services in particular always have an offline option, and that we continue to try to ensure that we roll out broadband in as many ways as possible, including on a mobile phone. There is good progress on the shared rural network, but I encourage the Minister to publish a map of where masts will be in the future, as well as where masts have already been placed, and to make it as easy as possible to get planning permission or whatever consent is needed.

On some of the other aspects, I must confess that I set up an email address for my mother. I do not do anything on behalf of my mother, because I do not have the legal powers to do so, but that is the way in which I facilitate somebody who is not used to using a computer in accessing the services that they can. We cannot rely simply on other members of the family doing that all the time. However, it is important that that does not become a barrier to getting the help that is needed by people; it is often in an emergency that they end up not being able to get that help.

I will also give some credit. During the time of the covid pandemic, in the Department for Work and Pensions we kept jobcentres open right around the country. That was done deliberately because we knew that not everybody would have access to digital. We know that online is not the only way that people can do that, and I commend the work coaches who came in and helped the most vulnerable. This issue really matters to our constituents: I know that the Minister cares, and I am sure that he will share that today.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Labour, Liverpool, West Derby 4:47, 28 February 2024

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Harris. I thank my good and hon. Friend Justin Madders for securing this important debate.

Members of this House, charities and trade unions have been warning for years that increasingly essential digital services are becoming out of reach for many. According to a survey for Citizens Advice, 1 million disconnected their broadband in the last year because they could not afford it, and people on universal credit were more than six times as likely to be disconnected. Age UK also told me that 6 million people aged 65+ are either unable to use the internet safely or successfully or are not online at all. Thatcher’s ambition for there to be “no such thing as society” is unfolding before our very eyes due to digital exclusion. Isolating and disengaging huge swathes of the public is not how we build a fair, equitable and equal society.

I have no doubt that one of the drivers of digital exclusion is the 14 years of brutal austerity imposed by this Government. The situation cannot continue. All public services, including the NHS and council services, must offer and promote an affordable, easy-to-access and offline way of using them. The Government must provide local authorities and public services with the funding to do that. Banks, including Lloyds, Barclays and HSBC, made record profits last year. They must provide face-to-face banking for many constituents and avoid leaving communities to become banking deserts. There is no excuse to continue closing branches with such profits being made.

As we have heard in this debate so far, broadband is an essential utility, and I was extremely proud to stand on a manifesto in 2019 that recognised that. It could and should be made free and available to every home in the country as a universal public service, if only the Government had the political will to do so. I hope that the Minister takes note.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 4:49, 28 February 2024

I am a Member of Parliament for a very remote rural constituency, and when I was elected our broadband roll-out was definitely behind the curve. I am delighted that we have seen dramatic improvements in North Devon during my time in this place, but our digital skills have been left behind the curve. Indeed, my constituency is home to the train station with the highest face-to-face usage in the country, and I am delighted that our ticket office is staying open.

I was approached at my constituency surgery on Friday and told that it was unacceptable that a Government agency did not have a phone app—that there was not enough digital availability. We need to bring people along with us on these digital changes, so that people are part of them and are not excluded from society. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on broadband and digital communication, which is looking to put forward a campaign to explain some of the coming changes in the digital landscape, as we did with digital TV switchover.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk

On that point, when the Minister sums up, perhaps he can address BT’s plans for the switchover from analogue to fibre lines for phones. That will cause huge problems in constituencies that still have power cuts and poor mobile signal, such as my North Norfolk constituency.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That is a huge concern for rural constituencies that lose power at the time when they need landlines the most.

As we move forward, there is a need for education. I very much hope that people will take up offers at public libraries. An Age Concern report looked at digital availability for the over-70s and found that people who went to the library were far more able to get online. I thank Lloyds Bank, which is bringing its online training to Barnstaple library; anyone who would like to join should contact my office. In her mid-70s, my grandmother went on a digital training course at the bingo hall, so there is training out there. I know that it is difficult—my parents are digitally unavailable at this time.

If anyone does not get the opportunity to say everything that they wanted to this afternoon, I encourage them to join the all-party parliamentary group. We are putting together a digital manifesto, which we will send to all parties ahead of the election. I thank Justin Madders for securing this important debate.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 4:51, 28 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Harris. On the subject of digital exclusion, we should also look at the opposite: digital literacy. When I go home on a Thursday or Friday, I am struck by how very digitally literate the next generation is. My children and their peer group are way in advance of anything that I can do online or with computers. I make that point because we tend to think that it is older people who are digitally excluded. Yes, they are, but lots of other people are also less digitally literate. Recent years have seen a rush, even a stampede, in company boardrooms towards moving services online at the expense of doing things in person. That has been to the detriment of many older people, particularly in rural and coastal communities, such as those I represent.

I want to highlight one specific example and give voice to a constituent. Brian, who lives in Weston, a small coastal hamlet that is tucked away on the beautiful east Devon coastline, wrote to me to explain how he lives somewhere where there is such poor 4G mobile phone signal and internet access that he is completely and utterly dependent on a landline. As has already been said, losing copper will have a profound effect on some people in our rural constituencies.

Finally, another constituent, who lives in the village of Luppitt, has no mobile signal or fibre broadband connection, and is concerned about the landlines being phased out. He writes:

“Think of all those who are unaware, infirm or technically naive. Will we be cast adrift and simply forgotten?”

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives 4:53, 28 February 2024

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. Many will remember that I secured a debate on loneliness, isolation, and digital and financial inclusion back in December, and I want briefly to pick up on some of the topics that were raised then. On the digital phone switchover, which is supposed to be completed next year, what assurance can the Minister give us that communication will be possible in a power outage, particularly in rural and very isolated areas?

Since that debate, the Government have confirmed that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency will continue to offer licence renewals in post offices. What further Government services can the Government return and put into post offices, so that we can provide the inclusion for which we are arguing today?

Finally, what can the Minister say about the ongoing cross-departmental, inter-ministerial work that was spoken about in the last debate? How is bringing all those Ministers together working to ensure that loneliness, isolation and exclusion are things of the past and can be addressed?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:55, 28 February 2024

I congratulate Justin Madders on bringing this debate forward. Whether or not this is a generational issue, we cannot hide from the fact that there are people unable to use the internet in the ways necessary to engage fully in modern society. I will make three quick points on accessibility and affordability. On access, sufficient broadband is a requirement for people to be digital, and I have at least three ongoing cases in my office where broadband provision is the issue. As a quick example, my constituent runs a business from an address in an area in which he cannot get sufficient broadband, and that ultimately means that he cannot take card payments, issue receipts or invoices, and place online orders. Digital exclusion could be the ruin of his business.

Secondly, electoral registration has become increasingly online in the last couple of years, and the Northern Ireland Office is now offering a digital registration number for online applications. At the time of registering, many were unaware that that number should have be noted or required. As a result, people are being disenfranchised because they cannot vote digitally: maybe the Minister will come back on that one.

Thirdly, there is the issue of elderly people being forced to use online banking by the persistent closures in villages. They do not find it easy, with no access to broadband, no smartphone, and no community hubs available, and they are becoming financially excluded through no fault of their own.

I have done this in record time, with my voice, and I think I have got a ten-minute speech down to two. It is particularly our elderly generation who perhaps do not have the necessary support system, and it is important that they are reminded that our MP offices are there to help. The Government must do more to address issues such as rural broadband connectivity, so our constituents across this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have the opportunity to be digitally included.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee 4:57, 28 February 2024

I congratulate Justin Madders on securing this debate. Digital exclusion is a really important issue, and like other Members, I have been contacted by lots of constituents as part of the Age UK campaign on this. While it is of course true that the older generation are particularly affected, we should remember that young people can also be affected by digital exclusion. During the pandemic, we saw a big move towards digital education online, and ensuring that the right devices and broadband access were provided to young people was a key part of the challenge. In areas of digital notspots, those people would not have been able to receive the support they needed.

I have to say that the situation in my constituency has improved a great deal over the last 15 years. We have gone from having a number of areas that did not have digital access to now having 5G pilots and universal high-speed access in the city of Worcester. But it is a city, and I recognise the challenge for more rural colleagues.

I want to sound one note of caution about the drive to go ever more digital. The Education Committee are currently carrying out an inquiry into the impact of screentime on young people, and there are serious concerns about their mental health and the impact of too much screentime in that respect. We are often told that part of the challenge with telling young people to reduce their screentime is the modelling they see from adults—we are all walking around staring at our phones the whole time. The youngest children see their parents spending a lot of time online and in front of devices. UNESCO has recently changed its advice from a big drive towards digital education worldwide, and particularly in developing countries, to sounding some warning notes on the risks of too heavy a focus on digital. In this debate, we absolutely need to focus on eliminating digital exclusion and ensuring that there is support and offline services for those who need to access public services. We also need to think about the balance that adults, as well as children, need to strike between their digital lives and real lives.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 4:58, 28 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Harris, and I give a huge thanks to Justin Madders for securing this debate. I simply want to talk about rural connectivity. Digital exclusion for many of us in rural communities is simply about not being connected at all. Let me focus on Project Gigabit in particular, which is a good thing and the Government are to be commended on its roll-out. However, it is important that we do not think that one size fits all. Project Gigabit is very good, but there will hundreds of communities in Cumbria, even those within scope, that will not be connected as a result of it. There is no sign so far of the Government having a plan to connect those houses and communities, which are often isolated properties such as hill farms.

I am also very concerned about properties, businesses and communities in what is referred to as deferred scope when it comes to gigabit. I will mention a bunch of places: parts of Sedbergh, Kaber, Murton, Long Marton, Winton, Warcop, Ormside, Hilton, Hartley and Bleatarn. If the Government restored the broadband voucher scheme to those few parishes, we would be able to connect every single property within them with gigabit upload and download speed with our work through B4RNBroadband for the Rural North—which would be able to take up the slack. I encourage the Minister to intervene in those specific communities to restore the voucher scheme so that those places will not be excluded.

My final word is about Digital Voice, which others have mentioned. During Storm Arwen, we saw places and communities such as Coniston, Torver, Flookburgh, Allithwaite, Backbarrow and Haverthwaite completely disconnected from every kind of communication simply because if the copper wire has been lost, when the electricity goes down, so does the phone. It seems wrong that Digital Voice has been rolled out without thinking about the isolation and lack of communication available as a fallback for communities such as ours in the lakes.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 5:01, 28 February 2024

Thank you for your work chairing this debate, Mrs Harris. I congratulate Justin Madders on bringing forward such a popular and important debate.

I will focus my comments on the skills required to access digital. The access issues have been raised, and are incredibly important—I do not want to take away from that. However, on the issues with skills, by 2030, 5 million workers will be acutely under-skilled in basic digital skills. That is a significant number, and it must be a massive concern for the Government.

The skills that people require to access digital must be considered. There is a generational issue: younger people are better at accessing these things. However, that is not true across the board. There is an intersectionality of issues. People are less likely to be able to have digital skills if they are more vulnerable, older, or in poverty, or if they do not have the capacity or time to access them. Given the cost of living crisis, I am increasingly seeing constituents working multiple jobs who just do not have the time to work on their digital skills because they are too busy trying to make ends meet. That is a really big concern for me.

Covid and the roll-out of accessing things online were mentioned. During covid, the Scottish Government provided 72,000 devices and 14,000 internet connections to individuals, children and families that were at risk of being digitally excluded. That has massively increased—the number of devices was up to 280,000 in 2022. We are increasing that as we go in order to ensure that young people are not digitally excluded and are able to spend time typing up documents in Microsoft Word, Google Sheets, or whatever the school prefers them to use when they are at home, because it is so important that digital skills are available for people and that the workforce of the future has digital skills.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I recognise the good work the Scottish Government, and indeed the English Government —the UK Government—did on getting devices out to people. However, UNESCO highlighted to us, among other things, the cost of devices: having gone out to people, they need to be maintained and their security needs to be upgraded. One of the things we need to think about very carefully in all our Government budgets as we go forward is how to ensure that there is ongoing investment in the digital technologies that are needed both for the people receiving them and those distributing them.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I agree. On continual access to the internet, a universal credit social tariff is available for people. Every time I meet with my local jobcentre, I make clear how important it is to stress that the social tariff is available so that people can access that reduced-cost internet access. It is important that we have that and that people know that it exists so that they can take it up.

Within my constituency, I have spoken to Virgin Money, which provides access to internet services. There is also an organisation called Silver Surfers, which provides older people with access to the services and advice they need to access the internet. We have heard about some of the negatives of the internet and some of the positives of online life. It is important to be able to access services online, particularly for people in rural communities who are a long way away from those services. It is important for tackling loneliness to be able to access communities online.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am really sorry but I will not; I am just going to finish.

As I was saying, it is really important that people can access those things, and like-minded individuals. When my son had Kawasaki disease, it was something that hardly anybody had ever heard of, but I was able to access other parents whose children had been through the same thing to find out how my son’s disease might progress and how things might change—so access to the internet is really important.

Lastly on disenfranchisement, if someone wants to get a voter authority certificate, the main way they can do that is online. It is possible to get a certificate by post, but the process of proving their identity in order to access a certificate—a requirement that the UK Government have brought in—is mainly online. Therefore, people who are disenfranchised and unable to access those services are even more disenfranchised by the fact that the service is mainly online. I encourage the Government to ensure that particularly things like voter authority certificates are as available as possible to people, and that they are not just available online.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy) 5:05, 28 February 2024

At this moment I would usually thank everybody who has spoken, but because of time constraints I will have to hurry up. Far be it from me to suggest anything to the House, so I hope I am not out of order, Mrs Harris, in suggesting that maybe some Back-Bench MP would like to make an application for a debate on this issue to the Backbench Business Committee, because I believe it is of such importance that it requires more than just an hour. Like many others, I congratulate Justin Madders on securing what has been a very over-subscribed debate. Even though we have had a number of very fast speeches, we have had some very good contributions.

Digital exclusion is real for so many people, whether in work, education or access to online services—from banking to benefit applications. Failing to take action here would be to say that digitally-excluded people are not as worthy of the opportunities enjoyed by people who have the skills, confidence and income to regularly get online. Some 7% of UK households do not have an internet connection at home. That figure rises to 23% when we look at households with an annual income of under £10,400.

In 1924 the challenge of lawmakers was to ensure that everyone could read and write; the challenge in 2024 is to ensure that everyone has the digital skills they need. As we have heard, full participation in modern life often requires a suitably fast internet connection, a reliable device and an evolving skillset. That reality does not mean that digitisation should be stopped; we cannot be like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. It means we need to take the necessary action to ensure that everyone is empowered to access what they need.

It is also important to recognise that not everyone falls neatly into the groups of “digitally excluded” or “online”. Lloyds Bank’s consumer digital index uses the Department for Education’s essential digital skills framework to establish how many people can do certain types of task. Such tasks include communication through email, buying goods and services, staying safe and avoiding scams, and using search engines to find information. The index identifies various skillsets and knowledge gaps, and a wide range of confidence levels.

Moreover, digital skills and confidence are not always the reason why someone is partially digitally excluded. As we have heard from many hon. Members today, someone’s broadband may not be strong enough in rural areas for them to fill out a form or stream educational content. People with particular disabilities face many barriers to accessing visual or audio content that does not support screen-reading or full captions.

The range of challenges demands a range of solutions that are centred around skills, affordability and accessibility, and—crucially—ensure that the individual is at the heart of the process. Such solutions can, where appropriate, involve ensuring the availability of an in-person equivalent to digital services. That can include community banking hubs where high street banking is no longer available—something that has affected me and you personally, Mrs Harris, in south Wales constituencies such as ours. Such solutions can also include financial support or the offering of skills. Public libraries in particular are brilliant; they do essential work by providing computers and a helping hand to their communities, but they cannot help in all cases, and they need funding and support to meet demand.

However, no amount of community-based upskilling can get suitable devices and quality broadband into the hands of young or elderly people at home. One in five children do not have consistent home access to a device suitable for completing schoolwork, and the potential consequences for their learning and their futures are rather obvious. Practically every week I have a conversation about how good tech policy needs to be nimble and up to date, and I find that sometimes we speak in clichés. Sometimes it feels as though we go to the doctor and say we are sick, and the doctor turns around and says, “Yes, you are sick, but what are you going to do about it?”

The last Government’s digital inclusion strategy was published a whole decade ago. We often talk about how fast technology moves on; that is now ancient history, and something must be done. In less than half that time, people have been through a pandemic, a cost of living crisis, and countless technological developments that all completely reshaped our relationship with the internet for work, school, leisure, our finances and access to public services. As somebody once said, we cannot act in an analogue manner in a digital world. It is vital that digital exclusion is given as much importance as we gave to literacy in schools over a century ago. Much has changed, but we are at a stage now where people are at a massive disadvantage. We have to do something to change that.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) 5:10, 28 February 2024

I thank you for your excellent chairmanship, Mrs Harris, of this over-subscribed debate on an important topic. I thank Justin Madders for securing the debate. I am grateful to him and other speakers for their insightful contributions. I am conscious of time, so I will be limiting the interventions I take, as I want to try to address as many of the issues that have been raised as I can.

Digital technologies offer extraordinary opportunities; if we take full advantage of them, we can grow our economy, create new jobs and improve lives for British people right across the country. They can have other benefits too, such as connecting communities, reducing loneliness and making public services easier and faster to access. All those points have been very well made today. Right now, though, too many people across the country cannot experience those benefits.

Digitally excluded people are less likely to be in well-paying jobs, and they have worse health outcomes and an overall lower quality of life. As a result, digital exclusion does not just create new inequalities, but exacerbates existing ones, making it more difficult to fully participate in society. That is why, even as we look towards investing in the transformative technologies of tomorrow, from AI to quantum, the Government remain resolutely committed to ensuring no one is left behind in today’s digital age. If Britain is to be a real science and tech superpower, our superpower status has got to deliver tangible benefits for every British person.

We are under no illusions: this is a difficult task that requires work right across Government to address the many complex barriers we face. That is why the 2022 digital strategy outlined work across Government that will promote digital inclusion, from accelerating the roll-out of gigabit broadband to delivering landmark legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. By doubling down on the four key principles we set out 10 years ago in the digital inclusion strategy—access, skills, motivation and trust—we believe we have the foundations in place to succeed. I will now take each of these principles in turn.

First, on access, we understand the importance of staying connected in the modern age. That is why we have prioritised access to fixed and mobile broadband, including wifi, affordable tariffs and access to suitable devices. To ensure everyone has the access they need, the Government introduced the broadband universal service obligation in 2020, which gives everyone the legal right to request a decent and affordable broadband connection of at least 10 megabits per second. To ensure the USO remains up to date, in October 2023 we launched a consultation to review the obligation and will be publishing a Government response later this year. In March 2021 we launched Project Gigabit, our £5 billion mission to deliver lightning-fast, reliable broadband to the hardest-to-reach parts of the UK, areas that would have otherwise been left out of commercial gigabit roll-out plans without Government subsidy.

Last week we announced that 1 million premises across the UK have received a gigabit-capable connection thanks to Government investment. The majority of these premises are in hard-to-reach locations where previously many people would have struggled to stream TV shows, access online services or run small businesses. I am happy to report that, as I am sure the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston already knows, his constituency benefits from excellent broadband connectivity. In his constituency, over 99% of premises can access a superfast connection, while 93% can access a gigabit-capable connection.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

I thank the Minister for giving way. I am very envious of Justin Madders for having such high levels of connectivity. Those of us who find ourselves in the Project Gigabit type C contract are now seeing that the voucher schemes have been turned off. Would the Minister agree that we need that procurement system to be speeded up so that we can all get to at least 99%?

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point and I will come on to some of the issues that she has raised; I am also happy to have a conversation with her about what support her community needs.

We know that, in addition to excellent coverage, we have competitive pricing in the UK. The cost of a gigabyte of data is 50p in the UK; that is less than half the average price in the EU, which is £1.18. We have also worked closely with the telecoms industry to ensure the availability and provision of low-cost, high-quality fixed and mobile social tariffs in the market. In total, 27 operators now offer social tariffs across 99% of the UK to those on universal credit and some other means-tested benefits.

We have seen social tariff take-up increase by almost 160% since September 2022. Although this represents just 8% of the total number of eligible households, progress is being made and we will continue to work with telecoms providers to increase awareness of this provision. We have also supported access to devices and wi-fi. Around 2,900 public libraries in England provide a trusted network of accessible locations with free wi-fi, which is funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

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. To support those seeking work, our Jobcentre Plus work coaches can provide support to eligible claimants who are not online, with financial support to buy six months’ worth of broadband connection. This scheme is administered by the Department for Work and Pensions through the flexible support fund, and I thank my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey, who did excellent work through the pandemic. I am sure that I must have written to her on behalf of my constituents during that very uncertain time, and I will certainly take away her points and ideas.

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I will make some more progress, if that is okay.

That package, which includes free wi-fi, access to devices and affordable fixed and mobile tariffs for 99% of the UK, supports access to the digital products and services that are needed for modern life.

Now I turn to the issue of digital skills. As well as working to provide the right access, we are working to ensure that everyone has the right skills to be able to navigate their personal and professional lives. On a personal note, this is a particular passion of mine and something that I wholeheartedly believe in. My hon. Friend Miss Dines mentioned digital skills in her contribution, as did other Members in theirs.

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 will be crucial to meet the UK’s ambition to be a global science and tech superpower. We are supporting skills development at every level—or, as I like to say, at every age and at every stage.

The Department for Education supports adults with low digital skills through the digital entitlement, which fully funds adults to gain essential digital skills qualifications, based on the essential digital skills framework. Since the introduction of the digital entitlement in 2020, the Department has supported over 40,000 learners to study for a qualification in essential digital skills. We are working closely with the Department for Education, industry and academia through the digital and computing skills education taskforce, which was launched last summer to increase the numbers of students choosing digital and tech educational pathways into tech careers.

To inspire the next generation of tech professionals, we have also launched two initiatives: the Cyber Explorers platform for 11 to 14-year-olds, which has reached almost 60,000 students; and the CyberFirst Girls competition, which supported 12,500 12 and 13-year-old girls in 2023 alone.

The Department for Education also funds digital skills provision through Community learning, which is an important stepping stone for learners, particularly post-19 disadvantaged learners, who are not ready for formal accredited learning or who would benefit from learning in a more informal way.

In June 2022, the Government launched the Digital Skills Council, which I co-chair. It brings together Government and industry to strengthen the digital workforce. Last year, the Digital Skills Council partnered with FutureDotNow to fund the publication of the digital skills roadmap, which lays out collective commitments to ensure that all working-age adults have basic digital capabilities.

Finally, we are also supporting people to develop advanced skills in our priority technology areas. We have established the £30 million data science and artificial intelligence conversion programme course to broaden the supply of AI talent in the UK. It funds universities to develop masters level or data science courses suitable for non-STEM students and up to 2,600 scholarships for students from under-represented backgrounds. Just last week we launched a pilot advertising campaign designed to generate awareness of the benefits of learning advanced digital skills and to drive people towards a new website that has details on Government-funded digital skills bootcamps. These bootcamps are 16-week courses that are fully funded, with a guaranteed job interview at the end.

To support workers to understand and apply AI in their jobs, last year, in partnership with Innovate UK and the Alan Turing Institute, we published the first version of a new guidance document that helps businesses to identify what skills their non-technical workers need to be able to successfully use AI in the workplace.

The secondary barriers of trust and motivation, which I mentioned at the start, must be tackled to have a truly positive impact on digital inclusion, but those are harder to measure. We recognise that some people are hesitant to access online services because they fear they may become victims of fraud or that it is an unsafe environment for their personal data. We are taking a number of steps to improve the safety and trustworthiness of the online space, including through the Online Safety Act 2023. The Act will ensure that technology companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users online, particularly children. It is a major step in protecting UK citizens from the scourge of online scams. The motivation barrier requires influencing decision making and motivation at the individual level. That challenge is difficult to overcome and is best addressed through ensuring that access, skills and trust are in place, which is why those remain our focus. That is why we have supported work through libraries, charities and communities, including the digital lifeline fund, and why we continue to fund free public wi-fi in libraries across the UK.

There are many community-based initiatives at the local level, including work through libraries, as I have mentioned, and from the third sector, such as the National Digital Inclusion Network, run by the Good Things Foundation, which is a vital resource to many working in this space. The excellent work done by the Good Things Foundation, Age UK and others plays an important role in providing support with technology and the internet. Those charities supplement Government engagement by offering guides, training courses and volunteers to help people make the most of the internet.

I will address some of the issues raised around financial services. The Government recognise that digital payments play an incredibly important role for businesses and individuals, with many making payments faster, easier and cheaper. However, the Government also believe that all customers, wherever they live, should have appropriate access to banking and cash services. It is imperative that banks and building societies recognise the needs of all their customers, including those who still need to use in-person services. The Government legislated through the Financial Services and Markets Act 2023 to protect access to cash for individuals and businesses. The Act establishes the Financial Conduct Authority as the lead regulator and provides with it responsibility and powers to ensure that reasonable provision of cash withdrawal and deposit services is made, including free services for individuals.

The FCA recently consulted on proposals for its regulatory regime and expects to finalise its rules in the second half of the year. An alternative option to access everyday banking services can be made by telephone banking and via the Post Office or banking hubs. The Post Office allows personal and business customers to carry out everyday banking services at 11,500 Post Office branches across the UK, and banking hubs are a shared initiative that enables customers of participating banks to access cash and banking services in shared facilities.

The issue of local authorities was also raised. Digital inclusion interventions are included in a UK shared prosperity fund prospectus. That has allowed local authorities to allocate funding to digital inclusion interventions. That is because we know from key stakeholders that digital inclusion interventions work best when they are tailored to local needs and when support is provided in the community on an ongoing basis. I was surprised to learn of the issues raised by my hon. Friend Maggie Throup, who spoke about the disparity in non-digital access and cost discrimination. I did check, and I know that her Labour-led council are the ones in charge of this matter. I hope they are listening to this, and realise and appreciate that this is a priority for Government and that it should be a priority for them, too.

My hon. Friends the Members for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) raised some important points about the switchover from the public switched telephone network. There was a wonderful plug for the all-party parliamentary group that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon runs, and I am sure that has been heard loud and clear. The fact is that the way that landlines work in the UK is changing. Communication providers, such as BT and Virgin Media, are upgrading their old analogue landline network—also known as the PSTN—to a new digital technology that carries voice calls over an internet connection, which is also known as Digital Voice. The decision to switch off the analogue landline network was made by the telecoms industry, and a transition to Digital Voice networks is an industry-led process, which is expected to conclude in 2025.

However, the Government were made aware of some serious shortcomings in how the telecoms industry managed the PSTN migration. As a result, the Technology Secretary convened a meeting in December 2023 with the UK’s leading telecoms providers to discuss ways to improve the protection of vulnerable households through the migration. In response, the major telecoms providers have now signed a charter committing to concrete measures to protect vulnerable households, particularly those using telecare alarms. That is a positive step, which we hope will ensure that safety continues to be at the heart of the nationwide switchover.

Let me turn to next steps. Digital skills permeate through every aspect of policy. I view it as part of a cross-Government agenda to integrate digital inclusion into all policy decisions, rather than a stand-alone issue. My hon. Friend Derek Thomas mentioned the cross-Whitehall ministerial group for loneliness; I can assure him that I attended a meeting last week. I chair the group on digital inclusion, and I will be addressing some of the issues that have been raised there. All Departments are considering the needs of people who are digitally excluded in their policymaking.

The ministerial group on digital inclusion first met in September. It discussed issues such as parking payments, website accessibility and device donation schemes. I am looking forward to hearing updates on those areas from my ministerial colleagues at our next meeting in three weeks’ time. Since our last discussion, the Department for Transport, which leads on the national parking platform, has already said that it expects the full features of the NPP to be available from late 2024, making parking simpler and less stressful. The group also agreed to undertake a departmental mapping exercise and to review the viability of each Department joining donation schemes. This work is an important step forward in our joint efforts to tackle digital inclusion, and I look forward to building on these conservations.

In closing, I again thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston for raising such an important issue. I am hopeful that we can work together. We are working hard on this issue across Government and we have made some credible steps to tackle it. As the digital transformation picks up pace, we know that there is more to do to ensure that no one is left behind in our digital age, but we are already rising to that challenge. Departments forming the cross-Whitehall ministerial group will work hand in hand across Government, as well as with industry and our partners in the third sector, to deliver the benefits of a better digital future for communities all over the country.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections) 5:27, 28 February 2024

I thank all the Members who have spoken today. As the Opposition spokesperson, my hon. Friend Chris Evans, indicated, there is clearly a lot of interest in this area. A much longer debate would probably be in order, because we did not get enough time to fit in all the points that we wanted to.

It is worth referring to the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee report last year, which said:

“Digital exclusion arises from a complex interplay of factors including age, socio-economic status, disability, geography, educational attainment, literacy and language, and housing circumstances.”

I think that covers most of the points that Members have raised today. In response, the Minister talked a lot about what the Government are doing in terms of access, skills and affordability, but the central point that I and a lot of other Members made was missed: some people, no matter how much the Government invest in these areas, will not be able to access services online, and there needs to be an offline, in-person option.

There is a significant group of people—whom we have all been talking about—who are in that category at the moment. They feel excluded from fully participating in society. It affects their independence and finances, and it can actually affect their health. What I ask for is a clear statement of principle from the Government, which we can all get behind, that all services—public or private—should be provided in-person where there is the opportunity to do so. Whatever we do here, there will always be those people who, for whatever reason, need to have that in-person dialogue.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered digital exclusion.

Sitting adjourned.