The annual Conservative Party Conference took place in Manchester last week, with some substantial policy announcements dominating the media for the past week. From a digital inclusion perspective, there were some relevant discussions that took place at fringe events, delivered by organisations such as the Centre for Social Justice, Virgin Money, Nacro, The Trussell Trust and the Educational Research Foundation, not forgetting our very own Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA) event with Currys, which considered the approach to ending digital poverty across all four nations and the responsibility of all sectors for doing so.

Many panels, including our own, had ministers present and provided a unique opportunity to ask them questions in front of a room full of onlookers, in some cases leading to instant policy promises. A subject that was high on the agenda was the need to upskill and meet the changing demands of the UK’s workforce. Many also touched upon the need to motivate and reassure older people who are reluctant to interact with the digital world that it is safe to do so. Other digital inclusion conversations discussed the need for greater coordination between organisations who work to end digital poverty, and between government departments, as well as the need to devolve power to local authorities to deliver digital inclusion initiatives, allowing them to be targeted to the needs of local citizens.

The Digital Poverty Alliance’s event at Conservative Party Conference

Our event called ‘A digital future- a UK wide approach to digital inclusion’ featured some great panellists including Paul Scully MP, Minister for Tech and Digital Economy, Kirsty McIntosh, Head of Partnerships, Scottish Tech Army, Moira Thomas, Director of Sustainability and ESG, Currys, Matt Robinson, Head of Nations and Regions, TechUK, Sarah-Jane Sewell, Director, Digital Tories, and was chaired by our Interim CEO, Elizabeth Anderson. The panel facilitated an important discussion on the priorities of the government, third sector organisations and industry in ending digital poverty. Whilst panellists called for an updated digital inclusion strategy, Minister Paul Scully argued that the four pillars that construct the 2014 Digital Inclusion Strategy remain the same, despite the technology landscape changing drastically over the last 10 years. Other proposals highlighted to the Minister were the need for a designated Digital Inclusion Minister and improved collaboration between the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) and the Department of Education (DfE) to improve digital literacy in the UK.

Long term digital skills, for a brighter future

Many events on digital upskilling focused on the need for more advanced digital skills to enable innovation in the UK’s tech sector and to propel the UK forward as a ‘Technology Superpower’. It was discussed, however, that there is a need to modernise the national curriculum to keep up with technology, and the need for a system to facilitate conversation between industry and schools to ensure the needs of the future workforce are met adequately through the UK’s education system.

Did you know that more than 50% of working-age adults do not possess all the essential digital skills needed for work? 

(FutureDotNow, 2022)

The need to ensure people have essential digital skills was disappointingly low on the agenda. The absence of these vital conversations reemphasises the importance of the first mission in our National Delivery Plan: to raise awareness of digital poverty, both with policymakers and the public.

Social Tariffs and the cost-of-living

Conversations concerning the cost-of-living crisis were inevitable, with prices rising exponentially over the last year. High prices have led to less people being able to afford broadband bills and 1 million consumers cancelling their broadband contracts in the last year (Citizens Advice, 2023). Various internet service providers have responded by introducing a social tariff, but amongst panellists on our fringe event, there was a consensus that these more affordable rates are not being advertised effectively. Paul Scully MP, Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy, stated that awareness of social tariffs needs to increase, and that he is working with industry to make this happen, which was welcome news.

Other suggestions for improving the effectiveness of social tariffs heard around the conference included scrapping VAT on social tariffs to make them more affordable or using the VAT collected through social tariffs to fund government digital inclusion initiatives. Neither of these were supported or opposed by MPs that were present.

Did you know that since social tariffs have been introduced, only 5% of eligible customers have taken these up?

Finally, our Head of Policy and Communications at the DPA, Thomas Lowe, gave his take on the events and announcements concerning digital poverty:

“It appears unlikely that a new digital inclusion strategy will be introduced in the near future. However, we hope to see it included in the conservative manifesto for the upcoming general election. It is evident that the Conservative Party recognises the importance of addressing this issue, and we must continue to advocate for its significance in supporting various strategic priorities, including maintaining the UK’s status as a science and tech superpower. The establishment of a cross-departmental group focused on digital inclusion is a promising start, and we look forward to actively engaging with this group.

The standout education announcement from the Prime Minister’s speech was the introduction of the Advanced British Standard, which will have profound implications for the education sector. Expanding the curriculum to facilitate greater integration between academic and technical qualifications is a positive step forward. While the inclusion of English and mathematics education up to the age of 18 is welcome, it’s essential to incorporate compulsory digital education as well. We eagerly anticipate the release of the white paper and further policy details.”

Thomas Lowe

Head of Policy and Communications, Digital Poverty Alliance

Written by Adele Kersey, External Affairs Coordinator