Cost of living challenges have made a bad situation worse for people who struggle to afford internet access.
Earlier this year, the House of Lords (HOL) Communications and Digital Committee commissioned the inquiry into digital exclusion – and that’s a direct quote from their report. And in talking to some of the peers who sat on the committee, and received the slew of evidence, we heard after its publication that they were as disappointed as we are at the growing scale of digital poverty in the UK. Rather than an ever more connected Britain, the cost of living crisis is driving people offline.
The Digital Poverty Alliance was part of this crucial process and inquiry, which coincided with the release of our National Delivery Plan. The editor of that plan, Thomas Lowe – our Head of Policy and Communications – was able to join the evidence session and highlighted the need for urgency in finding solutions, and the need for joined up working across every sector, followed by a host of digital inclusion experts from across the charity, industry, government and media sectors.
The need for a digital inclusion strategy
One of the key recommendations from the HOL report is the need for a refreshed digital inclusion strategy, which resonates with our own call for a UK wide long term strategy. The Committee also highlight an issue found by digital inclusion workers across the country – there is no single government department working across departments to tackle digital exclusion – they call for this to sit with DSIT or with the Prime Minister’s Office, which remains fundamental. There is no single home within government tackling the root causes of digital poverty – something which impacts all ages and backgrounds in the UK.
The Committee also makes strong calls to government and industry to ensure that social tariffs meet the needs of those they target, and that messaging is stronger around this. Where some telephony companies actively promote these, others require their customers to be digitally savvy in order to find out about these, and we need much greater promotion of these money saving opportunities.
Device recycling and redistribution
It’s also great to see the Committee calling for government and industry to wipe and donate “old” devices to the many charities that can redistribute these to those in need. If you are in a position to do this, the DPA is able to accept donations through a cost-free model – so find out more. Devices that employers discard as too old can be truly transformational for children and families across the country. We know from Nominet research that 1 in 4 children lacks a device suitable for learning – which means they don’t have access to a laptop or tablet within their home. I regularly hear the impact that such devices have on children – helping them write their homework (which frequently can only be submitted online), find healthcare and be socially included with their school friends.
Emphasising the importance of basic digital skills
The Committee also emphasises the need for basic digital skills – amidst the focus on AI and tech, these basic skills to be able to use a keyboard, a mouse, even turn on the computer, are essential. And millions lack these fundamental abilities. The report pulls out the “relative” use of internet as being more important as a measure than whether someone, strictly speaking, has the tools to access the internet. Ofcom terms “narrow users” as those with limited use of the internet – and finds that 29% of internet users fall into that bracket. These may be people who only ever use the internet for a couple of tasks, or rely on others to use it on their behalf. And we see this ourselves – is an adult who only uses a smartphone to talk to family and friends truly digitally skilled and online?
We believe more has to be done to ensure that children and adults are able to develop the basic skills they need to be online – and this means more than being able to use a smartphone and social media.
The report also notes the reality that in-person support remains essential for those who are offline. Until every service is truly accessible, exclusion is exacerbated when online only services are poorly designed. We believe that place-based hubs, providing face to face support for every day services, could also be an access point to gain skills and support to get online, through signposting.
We know that the Committee are waiting for government’s response – which we also await as we enter the summer holidays, and party conference season in autumn.
The Digital Poverty Alliance is working to ensure that every family in the UK has the opportunity to get online. Being online is no longer “nice to have”, but essential to access homework, job opportunities, healthcare, essential services – and entertainment. It’s a fundamental of society and being offline is exclusionary. As a charitable initiative we can only do this work with support for our campaigning missions and our direct delivery of machines to those who need them. If you care, consider finding out how you can help us – by donating tech, fundraising, partnering with us, or even just sharing this blog. We can’t do it without you.
Written by Elizabeth Anderson, Interim CEO at the Learning Foundation and Digital Poverty Alliance