Digital Exclusion (Communications and Digital Committee Report) Debate

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Department: Department for Science, Innovation & Technology

Digital Exclusion (Communications and Digital Committee Report)

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
Thursday 8th February 2024

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston
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To move that this House takes note of the Report from the Communications and Digital Committee Digital exclusion (3rd Report, Session 2022-23, HL Paper 219).

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, it is a great privilege to open this debate, just as it is a privilege to chair the Communications and Digital Committee of your Lordships’ House. I am hugely grateful to all members of the committee who contribute so much through their expertise and dedication to our work. I know that they would all want me to pay the greatest tribute to the team who support us and deserve so much credit for the quality of our output: Dan Schlappa, Rita Cohen, Owen Williams and, until last autumn, Emily Bailey Page, who left us on promotion and has recently been replaced by Anna Herzog. They are all brilliant and work so hard. On behalf of all members of the committee, I put on record our sincere thanks to them.

It has been a busy week for tech policy. On Friday, the committee published our report on large language models and generative AI, looking at what needs to happen to ensure that these new technologies benefit people and our society. On Monday, the Government published their AI White Paper response, and, on Tuesday, we took evidence from the Secretary of State for DSIT about AI digital exclusion and skills. On Wednesday, I spoke at a conference emphasising the importance of ensuring that technology benefits us all, not just the big tech firms. Today, we are debating my committee’s report on digital exclusion. Some of us, including the Minister, have also been busy on the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill.

I say all that not to complain—I love my work and I am privileged to have the opportunity—but to illustrate how quickly developments in technology are happening, how wide-ranging the impacts are for all sectors of society, how closely they are all connected and how difficult it is for us all to keep pace with the vast array of issues. The pace of change, and the huge social and economic implications, underscore the need for more action on digital exclusion. Technology policy, particularly on AI, is a major government priority; the consequences of those changes must be, too. Digital divides are deepening, and basic skills gaps persist, yet our inquiry found that the Government are not paying nearly enough attention.

It is important to see the big picture here. Digital exclusion is not just about old people, although many of them are seriously affected. It can affect people from all age groups and all walks of life. Some 2.5 million people in the UK cannot do a basic digital task. Digital exclusion is not about asking for government handouts or about giving everyone free internet. It is about making sure that everyone benefits from technological change and ensuring that people are not left behind. It is about ensuring we do not create second-class citizens who cannot use online banking, NHS services such as making a GP appointment, or any public service such as submitting tax returns, applying for benefits, a new passport or a blue badge parking permit. It is also about making sure that there are not some people who cannot apply for jobs, 90% of which are now only advertised online.

Digital inclusion is about ensuring that we do not exclude people from things that most people take for granted but which require basic digital skills, a working device and a decent internet connection. It is also about economic prosperity and efficiency. We cannot hope to become a science and tech superpower if 5 million employed adults are unable to complete all the main digital tasks expected at work, and the same number are expected to be acutely underskilled by 2030. It is worth pausing to reflect that the shortage of digital skills is costing the UK economy £63 billion a year.

We cannot hope to achieve public sector efficiencies by digitising services without simultaneously addressing digital divides. Otherwise, we will end up creating a two-tier system where digitally engaged citizens get increasingly better service than those who struggle.

The main recommendation from our report was for the Government to acknowledge the challenge by updating their digital exclusion strategy, last published a decade ago. The strategy’s delivery partners have not existed for years, and updates to it now sit in the National Archives, none of which inspires much confidence.

On Tuesday, the Secretary of State for DSIT told us she was not a fan of updating strategies, saying that they consume government time which could be better employed delivering progress. That would be fine if there had been a lot of progress. However, the Government’s response to our report declined to give a structured update or set out clearly defined targets. I can sympathise with the Secretary of State if officials spend time writing strategies, believing a document is an end in itself. However, I do not agree that they are a waste of time if the point of the strategy is to bring together all the disparate parts of government and to make sure they are delivering valuable work.

DSIT has plenty of strategies for other things, so I am afraid that we suspect its reluctance to publish one for digital exclusion is because there is not much to put in it and it is not a priority. This is odd, because digital exclusion is linked to deep-seated structural challenges and is holding back progress on key government pledges, on levelling up, education inequality, digitised healthcare and productivity. Having a joined-up plan to get to grips with this would be helpful. We heard that there is now an interministerial group to consider digital exclusion across government, which is good, but we were not entirely clear what outcomes this had achieved, and without high-level political attention and clear objectives, it will not achieve very much.

If the Government are averse to strategies, perhaps we could push for a public action plan instead, which could start by covering the recommendations we made in our report. I will go through the headlines. First, it should tackle basic skills gaps. Schemes offering certificates and qualifications get lots of the attention, but these are often poorly suited to the target demographic. Instead, there should be more focus on long-term support for community organisations.

Secondly, more effort is needed to create place-based local digital inclusion hubs, with basic facilities and people on hand to help. Libraries are bearing the brunt of this expectation but they cannot solve everything. Demanding that high-street banks accelerate the long-promised banking hubs, which are becoming increasingly urgent in towns losing bank branches, and working with the banks to make them digital hubs would be my personal suggestion. I raised this idea with the Minister, my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, during an Oral Question in December; I would be interested to know from the Minister today, my noble friend Lord Camrose, what discussions there have been in government on this topic since then.

Thirdly, the Government should be much more proactive in ensuring that public services are not excluding people. Often, it is the people who need help the most who struggle to get it; helping them early on saves on costs later down the line. The same is true for the private sector. Of course, offline alternatives remain essential—I will come back to this later.

Fourthly, the Government should cut VAT on social tariffs to make them more affordable. Too many people struggle to afford internet in the first place; cutting VAT would help. The Government could also do more to ensure that telecoms firms are advertising their social tariffs prominently.

Fifthly, the Government should do much more to help scale up existing good ideas. The public sector has vast numbers of devices that, with a bit of imagination and security work, could be donated. Internet voucher schemes are a great way to help people, in particular jobseekers, get a temporary boost if they are struggling. There are plenty of other good ideas out there, including something called wifi in a box.

Sixthly, the Government should keep paying close attention to the value of alternative network providers. These are smaller, local internet providers that deliver huge value to poorly connected communities, including plenty of doorstep support to people who need it most. They are a good demonstration of what can be achieved when companies put people first. They must not be forgotten as Openreach continues to build out its network.

Lastly, I emphasise that the whole point of new technologies is supposed to be making life better. Making services digital is not an end in itself; it should be about improving the experience for users, not a cost-saving exercise that benefits bosses but leaves everyone else dissatisfied. I recently read an article by Jamie Bartlett on the website UnHerd about something that he calls techno-admin. He coined the phrase; it captures this issue well. He said that it is

“a pervasive phenomenon, whereby we customers are forced into infuriating, confusing, absurdly time-consuming and bleakly unrewarding tasks by a machine”.

I am sure that we all have experienced the same more often than we should. Moreover, the Post Office scandal shows how important it is for new technologies to be designed and used in ways that benefit people, and to have humans in the loop rather than putting blind faith in automated processes. To avoid becoming strategically reliant on a small number of tech firms, with no alternative providers, we must prioritise open-market competition and diversify our service providers. I am optimistic about new tech but we need to ask companies and government to ensure that their systems put people first.

I would like to conclude by emphasising the need for joined-up thinking across government, particularly on AI policy and digital exclusion. AI is introducing major changes to our society. Large language models, such as ChatGPT in particular, will drive ground-breaking scientific advances, provide huge boosts to productivity and fundamentally reshape our relationship with machines. Widespread AI-related unemployment is not likely. That said, some industries and sectors will inevitably be disrupted and some people will lose out, but new jobs will also be created. The problem is where those new jobs will be. Unless we invest much more effort in supporting disrupted sectors to transition and upskilling those who are losing out from the AI boom, we will create a whole set of people who see technology as a threat rather than an opportunity.

If they lack the skills to get one of the new jobs which the economic experts promise are coming, or to use the fancy new chatbot services, then why would they feel positive about technological change? Digital exclusion is the flip side of all the good things about technological progress. Being included is a constantly moving target. People who have the skills to get by today may struggle in the future.

I hope that the Minister can provide reassurance today on these matters. In particular, I would like to know why the Government are so averse to having a coherent public plan about what they are going to do. The sad fact is that we are not confident that the Government are taking this seriously, and that is unlikely to change until we see an updated plan or strategy. I would also welcome reassurance about how the Minister is ensuring that the teams working on AI policy and digital exclusion are working together and engaging other departments to ensure a properly joined-up approach to this challenge. I look forward to not only my noble friend’s response but all the contributions from noble Lords participating in today’s debate. I beg to move.

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister. I have not envied him this afternoon, knowing that he would have to respond to a series of quite hard-hitting and critical speeches on this important topic. I will speak briefly, because I know noble Lords’ patience will be tested if I go on too long.

We have heard some very powerful illustrations of what being digitally excluded means for those who are. To be positive for a moment, it is important to acknowledge that, on a macro level, there has been an awful lot of progress since the time when the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, was a Minister in the Cabinet Office. On the micro level, I agree with some of what the noble Lord, Lord Young said. My own parents, who are well into their 80s, are testament to the fact that we must not fall into the trap of believing that all old people are incapable online. In fact, they were very early adopters of iPads and iPhones. The other point worth keeping in mind is that, as that technology develops and becomes much more intuitive to the user, it is in fact easier than it might otherwise have been for people to become included.

As has been stressed in the course of this debate, the point is that digital exclusion is a moving target. Inclusion is not something that will ever be completed; it is an ongoing and critical foundation to everything that any Government must do, never mind what they might want to do. The Prime Minister is ambitious about the potential for technology to be the solution to so many problems and for the UK to be a technology superpower. My noble friend the Minister has delivered a similar message today, and it is one that I agree with and support. But as my noble friend has also said—and as has been the very clear message from everyone who has contributed today—we cannot leave people behind. This is not an ambition from which only some people can benefit and enjoy, while others feel that they are not part of it or that it is happening at their expense.

We cannot will the ends without the means, and, as my noble friend made clear in her contribution, real leadership has to be shown here. My noble friend the Minister compared the ministerial group meeting every six months with the frequency of a board meeting. I point out to him that we expect this ministerial group to drive action. Any committee that is responsible for driving progress and action does not meet only twice a year—it meets more often than that. I urge my noble friend, following this debate, to take back the message to the department that the emphasis we have put on the need for progress is because we want the Government to deliver on the ambitions that they have set out. We know how important this is. As my noble friend Lady Harding said, this is about prioritising addressing digital exclusion because it makes economic, social and political sense. It is critical to everything that we are trying to achieve.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken today and to my noble friend the Minister. I ask him to deliver the powerful message that has come from all of us in this debate.

Motion agreed.