With almost 10 years elapsed since ministers last set out a dedicated plan, a parliamentary report recommended various measures – some of the most significant of which have seemingly been rejected
Advocates have expressed disappointment in the government’s apparent rejection of the recommendation to set out a new national strategy for tackling digital exclusion and create a dedicated Whitehall unit.
The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee this summer published a report examining digital exclusion and warning that, without swift and targeted action from government, the issue could cause “profound consequences for individual wellbeing and multibillion-pound implications for UK productivity, economic growth, public health, levelling up, education and net-zero objectives”.
The report’s headline recommendations urged government to create a new nationwide strategy to tackle digital exclusion – replacing a plan set out in 2014 – and establish a dedicated unit in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to lead its implementation, working closely with Downing Street.
In its formal response – published a month later than peers had requested – the government appears to have rejected both of these measures.
“The principles underpinning the 2014 digital inclusion strategy continue to inform our current thinking in so far as access, skills, motivation and trust remain key barriers facing digitally excluded people,” the response said. “The government does not consider digital inclusion as a stand alone issue, but rather something that is considered in all policy areas where applicable.”
It added: “The broad and cross-cutting nature of digital inclusion policy means that a dedicated unit risks separating inclusion from dedicated policy expertise and diluting departmental ccountability. Our aim is to ensure that digital inclusion remains embedded across every aspect of government activity, which makes it a challenge for any single unit within Government to be comprehensively responsible for digital inclusion.”
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Although there are no plans to create a team of officials, the government said that it will establish a “dedicated cross-Whitehall ministerial group chaired by the minister for tech and digital economy”.
Other recommendations were also rebuffed, including calls to provide a clearer definition of what constitutes a ‘social tariff’ for mobile or internet connectivity, and to remove VAT on such products.
Peers also recommend that government should lead by example “by encouraging public sector organisations to securely wipe, refurbish and donate old devices to digital inclusion device distribution schemes. It should encourage businesses to do likewise”.
While this was not completely ruled out, government’s response claimed that previous attempts donate departmental devices have concluded that doing so was not possible, owning to security issues.
“DSIT has explored the option of donating end of life government devices to digital inclusion device distribution schemes,” the response said. “Significant security and data privacy concerns associated with providing Government devices, even when they are fully wiped, as well as requirements for contractual compliance, prevent DSIT from doing so at this moment in time. We are aware there are differences in the approach to end of life device recycling across the public sector dependent on existing contractual requirements. We will conduct a substantive review of DSIT’s current position to identify a potential roadmap to future donation. We will use the newly established cross-Whitehall ministerial group to encourage other government departments and public sector bodies to do the same. “
Charity Good Things Foundation – whose evidence to the committee was widely referenced in its final report – runs a device donation scheme, which has received machines from various public sector organisations, as well as commercial firms such as Ocado and Microsoft.
‘Wrong side of the divide’
The charity’s chief executive Helen Milner said that the government’s response to the peers’ report “isn’t good enough”.
“Millions of people are on the wrong side of the digital divide,” she added. “The government recognises the risks this poses to our economy, society, and ambitions – the country is missing out on billions of economic benefits. It’s time to be bold on action on digital inclusion, and even in a tight fiscal environment the Government could be promising so much more.”
Chair Baroness Stowell of Beeston was similarly underwhelmed by the government’s response to her committee’s report.
In a letter to Paul Scully, minister for tech and the digital economy, Stowell said that peers are “disappointed at the lack of further ambition indicated by the government response [which] does not engage substantively with the extent of some of our concerns”.
The chair reiterated the committee’s recommendation for the creation a new dedicated strategy, and urged ministers to belatedly heed this call by rethinking its response: “The government still has time to demonstrate its commitment to this issue by developing a new digital inclusion strategy. We urge you to take this opportunity.”
“We struggle to understand why your response maintains that digital exclusion is a priority when the government’s flagship strategy is nearly a decade old, its public-facing monitoring systems appear to have ceased, key partners no longer exist and expert witnesses throughout our inquiry deemed the strategy out of date,” Stowell said. “One of the links in your strategy invited readers to purchase the domain name of an apparently defunct website, while others refer to long-discontinued programmes. This hardly inspires confidence that this area is kept under regular review.”
She added: “We note your suggestion that the principles remain relevant. But the relevance of principles is not the same as the enduring relevance of an entire strategy. Most areas of government, for example national security and defence, have long-standing principles but regularly update their strategies and action plans. The government’s refusal to do so for digital exclusion suggests a reluctance to dedicate political attention and departmental resource to this matter. We reiterate our conclusion: the Government’s contention that digital exclusion is a priority is not credible.”