This is the summary of a report I worked on for the Alliance for Full Employment, AfFE, on digital inclusion. The full report was published in April 2021 and includes forewords from Gordon Brown, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Baroness Martha Lane-Fox and more detailed arguments behind the recommendations.

The Alliance for Full Employment was co-founded with the Metro Mayors of Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle City Regions, the First Minister of Wales and the Mayor of Bristol to encompass all regions and nations of the United Kingdom and to bring people together in support of for nationwide economic recovery policies that can prevent rapidly rising redundancies and unemployment.

To build a UK that is fit for the 21st century we need to fix the digital divide and support everyone to get online.

The statistics are stark. 17.1 million adults in the UK lack essential digital skills in the workplace, 11.7 million adults lack essential digital skills for life, and 9 million adults cannot use the internet without help.

Over the term of this parliament we can get 4.8 million more people online. This will create benefits for individuals, communities, businesses, the UK economy and society.

The pandemic showed us that things many had assumed would never go online in fact can go online and work well when they do. It brought more motivation for people to go online, but also exposed the amount of children without access to devices for remote learning, and drove more people into data poverty as they could not afford internet access.

Amidst the tragedy there has been incredible grass roots digital ingenuity to help people in need. We need to keep building on this, not slide backwards, and continue the momentum to bring the rest of the country online.

Because despite years of effort too many people in the UK are still digitally excluded. They cannot use the internet because they lack internet access, data, an appropriate device, or essential skills. While much has been done, some critical parts of the puzzle have been missed.

This has left a social and economic problem that affects millions of people, making it harder for them to lead fulfilling lives and get into good jobs. It reduces the impact of the government’s investments in 21st century technology and public services. It hinders attempts to tackle the UK’s productivity problems and weakens the UK’s businesses, both large and small.

It will make it harder for the UK to build back after the pandemic, and it weakens our ability to respond to the next one. Ten years ago it might have been acceptable to think that not everyone needed to be able to get onto and use the internet, that is not the case now. This last year has taught us that we cannot move fast enough to bring people online in an emergency, we need to tackle the digital divide in normal times so that we have a stronger, more digitally capable society and economy when it is most needed.

There is no single magic fix for digital inclusion. Including people is not a one-off activity that can be completed and then forgotten about. People’s situations are different and will change over time. If someone does not keep using digital technologies then their skills and motivation can fade. A project that works for one group of people in one location might be unsuitable elsewhere.

Governments at all levels, in all of the nations of the UK and of all political colours agree with the need to fix the digital divide. Yet we lack a guiding framework within which to achieve this. 

Within such a framework all four nations of the UK need to work together to build a sustainable and broad response in every place of the UK. A response that provides support to help everyone get online as, where, and when they need it.

This needs vision, leadership and funding from all four nations. It needs a mix of activities in national governments, devolved administrations, city-regions, communities, and across the public, private and third sectors that forms a structural response meeting people where and when they need support.

The UK is not alone amongst democracies with this problem. The USA, Canada and Australia all have profound issues. The prize for the UK is to lead the way to a 100% digitally included nation and reap the competitiveness and social benefits that it will generate. 

This report sets out 10 recommendations for the UK’s national governments.

Let’s tackle the digital divide. It will benefit us all.

£130m investment programmeThe upcoming Shared Prosperity fund should support a £130m programme of national and local digital inclusion projects that are designed to meet local needs and priorities
Improved social broadband tariffsOfcom should take the lead in improving social broadband tariffs by harmonising the eligibility criteria, working with operators and government to improve the customer journey, and mandating that all operators offer a social tariff to an agreed level of service
Essential public services should be free to access onlineGovernment Digital Services (GDS) should work with other government bodies, Ofcom, telecoms service providers, and a range of civil society organisations – including specialists in digital inclusion and specialists in digital rights – to explore zero rating for essential public services and implement a long-term solution. This will allow citizens to access essential public services even if their data has run out.
The Plan for Jobs should include
a digital inclusion strategy
The Plan for Jobs includes programmes like Kickstart, Restart, T-Levels and Apprenticeships that need to cater for people who are not currently digitally included. They should take advantage of the opportunity to get people online. Where regional or local initiatives, such as Connecting Scotland or the GMTech Fund, exist then these programmes should coordinate with those activities
Digital inclusion strategies for education in schoolsAll four nations should develop and implement digital inclusion strategies for education in schools which ensure every child has an appropriate device and that place essential digital skills targets on the same footing as numeracy and literacy
Commitment from all four UK nations to fix the digital divideAll four nations of the UK need to fully commit to fixing the digital divide, developing a strategy and accompanying programme of activity
New delivery groups to halve the digital divide by 2025These delivery groups will take responsibility for halving the digital divide over the next four years and persistently eliminating it in the next four
Improve the evidence baseThe UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) should assess the evidence on digital inclusion and recommend how to both fill immediate gaps and develop better evidence gathering methodologies for the future.
75% of employees to receive digital skills training from their employersGovernment should set a target of 75% of employees receiving digital skills training from their employer. BEIS should work with business groups and trade unions to achieve this target.
New digital inclusion design guidelines for public servicesTo help create a sustainable environment where the need to fix the digital divide is built into new public services and programmes, advice on how to support and fund digital inclusion should be built into appropriate government guidance and checked during governance processes.