Even MPs are despairing about the Government’s response to the nation’s growing digital divide

A Parliamentary report at the back end of June may have slipped your notice. It certainly went unmentioned in the majority of the UK media. The thrust is that, as the rest of the world moves increasingly online, a large swathe of our citizens are being left behind… way behind… and accuses the Government of doing precious little to solve the issue. By Tony Watts OBE

When Parliament’s own cross-party Communications and Digital Committee determines that the Government has “no credible strategy” to tackle digital exclusion, it’s a pretty damning indictment – particularly when you realise just how high the stakes are.

For those of us who have been battling for years to encourage and enable more older people to take advantage of digital technology, it’s one more body blow, as it’s clear this is a long way down the Government’s list of priorities; moreover, continued inaction will cut both this generation of older people (and future ones) increasingly adrift.

But it’s not just older people losing out. It’s the whole nation.

The report concludes that the Government’s declared ambition to make the UK a technology superpower and boost economic growth is being undermined by high levels of digital exclusion. The Committee even goes as far as to say that the scale of the problem is a “direct consequence of political lethargy”.

“Despite aiming to make the UK the centre of AI regulation internationally the Government does not have a credible plan to tackle digital exclusion. The last digital inclusion strategy was published in 2014. The problem is being exacerbated by the cost of living crisis which is forcing more households to cut back or cancel their internet packages.

“By failing to take decisive action to tackle digital exclusion the Government is allowing millions of citizens to fall behind – with multi-billion pound impacts on economic growth, public health and levelling up. Overall digital skills shortages cost the economy up to £63bn a year.

“Digital inclusion,” it says, “is a moving target. The report makes clear that without effective Government action the digital divide will widen. As the pace of technological change accelerates, the gap between included and excluded groups deepens and even those who can get by today may struggle in future. The Government should not assume digital exclusion will be solved as older generations leave the workforce or die.”

The stats are chilling:

            • 4m people are still unable to complete a single basic digital task to get online.

            • 5m workers will be acutely under skilled in basic digital skills by 2030.

            • 7m households have no broadband or mobile internet access.

            • £63bn is lost each year to the UK economy each year due to overall digital skills shortages.

            • 1m people have cut back or cancelled their internet packages in the last year due to affordability issues.

To tackle the crisis in digital exclusion the Committee says the Government must demonstrate leadership, urgently publish a new digital inclusion strategy and establish a cross-departmental government unit with a direct line into Number 10.

Time is running out for many to take advantage of the huge potential benefits of taking part in a technological revolution that was meant to bring our citizens closer together… not driving them apart.

Meeting the needs of older people must figure high in any future strategy. And for those who aren’t able or confident enough to join in, alternatives to vital online services must be retained.

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