Digital exclusion is now a top issue in tackling poverty.

Digital poverty is everyone’s issue, and unless we address it, we will not be able to ‘end poverty in all its forms everywhere’ – number one on the list of the UN’s sustainable goals.

It is also impossible to deliver against most of the other SDGs in the next ten years unless we tackle access to digital head-on – and do it now. 

Covid has hit the poorest hardest.  One silver lining is the narrowing of the digital divide.  By the end of 2020 – 94% of UK, homes had internet access, up from about 89% in 2019. 

BUT for those in digital poverty the effects of digital exclusion have been magnified.  

While most of us benefited from online services, lockdown had a greater effect on people who are digitally excluded. Six per cent of households don’t have home internet access, and 14% of adults still access the internet only infrequently.  One in ten families rely on no more than a mobile phone or similar for internet access. Even among those with easier access to the internet, 5% say they are not confident in using it, again with higher proportions among over-64s (9%) and lower socio-economic households (10%).

Equally, technology doesn’t stand still. 

The rapid advancements of technology only help increase the gap between the haves and the have-nots. It is the latter ever-growing group that needs the support & focus of combined efforts. They hail from across society – from young people, families & schools in deprived communities to the unemployed; older generations and care homes through to the forces’ veterans; asylum seekers and those for whom English is their second or third language. 

The saying – no one left behind – is more accurate than ever – we need to increase the opportunities for millions of excluded people to have an equal gateway to life opportunities, health, and financial wellbeing. 

It is time for collective action; it is time to share best practise, and it’s time to get things done.

In some ways I have been here before. 

In September 2008, Gordon Brown was Prime Minister and announced to Labour Party conference an intervention that enabled thousands of children from low-income families across the UK to receive home access to technology. It was a proud moment for me as schools minister to see my policy as the centre-piece of his speech.

The Home Access Scheme did what it said on the tin. We worked hard on motivating and supporting people to be able to claim the benefit. In collaboration with the finance and retail sectors, we enabled people benefitting from the scheme to use a payment card like any other retail transaction. We took a holistic approach to the family, using user centre design before the term was invented, and we worked with parents to design the application form, so we got optimum uptake. 

The scheme got 500,000 children online at home.  Sadly it was not continued by the new government in 2010.

In the intervening 11 years, the demand for digital has surged.  It now underpins our life, and it is now time to finish what we started.

This is why I am proud to chair the newly formed Digital Poverty Alliance, that is born out of the need to create a structured eco-system for the individuals, organisations, cities & devolved nations doing great work in this area.  In short, the Digital Poverty alliance is a not-for-profit community of organisations and individuals tackling digital poverty. A new organisation created by members for members. 

We believe, despite best efforts, that we cannot continue to do what we have always done, keep asking for things to change, keep issuing more reports with recommendations that there is no impetus or framework to pick up. 

We also believe that we have much to learn and much to share, from one another,different sectors, regions and even from other countries tackling this, maybe from different starting points, but all united behind a common cause. 

Our aim is to create a community for people and organisations to collaborate, share best practices, raise shared issues, and agree on practical action and clear delivery plans. 

The UK benefits from many brilliant organisations such as the Good Things Foundation, the Learning Foundation, Futuredot.Now and Digital Access for All.  They are working nationally alongside those doing great things locally, such as Power2Connect, Catch22, local LEPs & council bodies.  Through all our work, we also recognise the hundreds of like-minded individuals on the ground who want to volunteer, informally and formally & help those in need. There are also countless organisations working with those in poverty.  They want and can help with technology; with the skills, with access, with the confidence and motivation – and to drive collective efforts to make a real difference.

Our aim at the Digital Poverty Alliance is to bring together the eco-system.  We want to ensure the resources, support, advice, and introductions are available and that communities of interest flourish to share best practice, policy, & advocacy to those on sustainable and scalable solutions. 

Together we can do this – this is everyone’s opportunity and we need everyone to help fix it.

In summary:

  • Government policy is crucial to the issue of access, but 
  • Digital Inclusion is not just about access, skills, or motivation but how we live our lives, it is about our society.  
  • We must tackle the “system”. We must recognise how digital poverty is everyone’s opportunity and issue, not just Government policy and not just the third sector.
  • Digital Inclusion helps EVERYONE, not just those without access or skills, but everything improves when we all have fair life chances. 

So we need everyone to help fix it.  

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