As Head of Policy and Communications at the Digital Poverty Alliance, I recently appeared before the House of Lords Digital and Communications Committee to discuss the issue of digital exclusion in the UK.

It is great that the committee is looking at this issue and the Digital Poverty Alliance will await the outcomes of the inquiry with great interest. We are always enthusiastic about efforts to understand and bring awareness to the issue of digital exclusion and digital poverty.

The committee was interested in learning more about what we mean by digital exclusion and how it affects people’s lives, particularly in terms of connectivity and access to essential services. The salient point, as reflected by me and other panellists, is that digital poverty needs to be understood as existing on a continuum. It extends beyond the provision of devices and connectivity and relates to whether individuals are sufficiently capable and skilled to navigate the online world and whether they can use the internet to create tangible personal, social and economic benefits.

Given the context of the cost-of-living crisis, the committee was particularly interested in the affordability of communications services. It is evident that squeezes on incomes are having an impact on digital access. A survey conducted by the DPA, Currys’ and YouGov in December 2022 found that 36% of adults had cut back their spending on digital access due to cost-of-living pressures. Ofcom has also found a slightly lower but still significant 32%, finding that the proportion of households struggling to afford communication services has doubled in the past year.

The committee were keen to understand what could be done to help individuals and families struggling with their bills, so a big focus of the discussion was around social tariffs. We are supportive of social tariffs but take up remains low at 3.2% of eligible households. I and other panellists discussed a range of factors that could explain low sign ups. First is the issue of price. Research conducted by Ofcom estimated that a more affordable social tariff for universal credit recipients would be closer to £4-£7 range, rather than the typical £15-£20 rate currently offered. Secondly, there is the issue of perception. Research indicates that people may have concerns about whether a social tariff, generally offered a lower speeds, would be sufficient for their data needs. This may be a particularly salient concern for larger households. Finally, there is the issue of awareness. A new API for broadband providers to check the eligibility of customers directly is a step in the right direction, but more can be done to promote these packages to eligible customers including through direct signposting within government services.

The committee was also interested in ideas to tackle digital exclusion. One big thing is the need for a new national government strategy on digital inclusion—especially given that the previous strategy was created in 2014! But this was also an opportunity to highlight the work of the DPA in preparing a National Delivery Plan which we hope will provide the basis to unite the digital inclusion community around a common vision for collective action. Given the cost-of-living crisis, access to the internet should not be contingent on the ability to pay. Particularly as it is so crucial to our everyday lives.

We thank the committee for the opportunity to provide evidence and look forward to see what they find. 

Author: Tom Lowe, Head of Policy and Communications at the Digital Poverty Alliance