Digital Inclusion in Wales - Welsh Affairs Committee Contents

2  The extent of digital exclusion in Wales

Access to technology in Wales

10.  For some people, low income can be a barrier to accessing technology.[13] Some of the digital inclusion projects in Wales have provided free or subsidised access to technology to disadvantaged groups. For example, BT has provided computers and broadband connections at the homes of families caring for looked after children.[14] The Open University in Wales has consulted with students and enquirers who had experienced difficulties in accessing ICT for study, as part of a project on widening participation and e-learning. As a result of this research, it recommended the provision of cheaper or subsidised basic IT hardware for target users and a better provision of ICT support and increased free wireless provision for target groups.[15] It also recommended that the Welsh Assembly Government should extend its free laptop for schoolchildren pilot to include families and communities for educational and economic reasons.

Barriers to take-up of technology in Wales

11.  Although broadband is potentially available to over 99% of the population in Wales, the actual take-up of services is much lower. The Broadband Stakeholder Group stated that as at June 2008, "broadband penetration in Wales stood at 55% of households, which made it amongst the worst performing UK nations and regions" but that "although relative performance may be worse than other UK nations, Welsh performance on the whole is still above the EU average of 48% of households".[16] Dr Ben Anderson, Essex University, explained the factors which influence the take-up of internet services:

In general, irrespective of region or country, high income and educational levels as well as the number of children and high employment status are all significant predictors of having household internet access. More recently income, as with mobile telephony, has become less important as has age. However low employment status and other indicators of deprivation such as social renting remain strong indicators of low internet uptake.[17]

The Welsh Assembly Government identified age and social deprivation as relevant factors stating that "There is a strong body of evidence that the market is failing to engage particular sectors of the population including older people; those in the more deprived communities; people from the lower social classes, or vulnerable and marginalised groups."[18]

12.   Dr Neil Selwyn, London Institute of Education, described a research study which had compared six communities in Wales with six communities in England and examined why people did or did not use technology. He explained that the results indicated that there was a "very complex set of factors that influence people's engagement with technology and that there were not necessarily differences between England and Wales, [but] there were differences between the communities". Dr Selwyn added that:

We found the usual variables which are associated with social inclusion such as class, economic background and age were all very, very important. In terms of Wales in particular I would say geography; topography in terms of the coverage of wireless and wired connections; and rurality as well, and the fact we have got isolated rural communities … and also of course language in particular areas. The relevance of content to people was very, very important. … Obviously for first language speakers you need to have Welsh language content.[19]

Dr Selwyn explained that digital inclusion was not always the same as social inclusion, and that some digitally excluded people, such as older people, might have high level educational background, be highly literate, and/or have a high income and still be digitally excluded.[20]

13.  The Broadband Stakeholder Group pointed out that the reasons why people chose not to use technology were "complex and diverse": in some cases people would simply not see the value or relevance of broadband to their lives and in others social exclusion factors would be contributing causes.[21] It suggested that demographics and geography were the most pertinent issues for Wales:

The reasons for digital exclusion are varied, but are exacerbated within Wales by its more rural geography, which impacts citizens' ability to access digital services, and its lower income per capita. However, by the same measure Wales has much to gain by addressing digital inclusion.[22]

Ofcom found that 42% of adults without internet access at home saw little need to use technology (many of these were older people) and 30% could not afford it. Ofcom termed these groups the self-excluded and the financially excluded. BT suggested that specific targeting of areas in Wales, such as the South Wales valleys, with low broadband take-up could be the most effective means of increasing digital inclusion, and stated that it as working with the Bevan Foundation to develop a research project "pinpointing reasons behind low broadband take-up in these South Wales valley communities".[23] Leighton Andrews, Deputy Minister for Regeneration, Welsh Assembly Government agreed that "Broadly speaking the issues that matter are pretty much the same in Wales as they are in the rest of the UK".[24]

14.  In terms of confidence and IT skills, the UK Government drew our attention to the Ofcom Nations and Regions Report 2008, which indicated that non-users in Wales "were slightly more likely to be demotivated, seeing no need to use the internet".[25] The 2007 Oxford Internet Survey indicated that Wales was doing comparatively well in terms of how internet users rated their skills and their breadth of use of the internet. However, people in Wales had a lower take-up of different devices in their homes (cable TV, digital cameras, MP3 players and mobile phones) compared to England and Scotland. The UK Government stated that Welsh non-internet users "tend to have greater barriers to use than their peers in other regions - being more likely to cite lack of skills, costs, poor access and lack of motivation as reasons for not using the internet".[26]

15.  We are encouraged to note that the proportion of households with internet access in Wales is good compared to other European nations. There is no evidence that digital exclusion is significantly greater or different in nature in Wales compared to the rest of UK, but there are clearly factors which are of particular relevance. People living in hilly or sparsely populated areas are more likely to encounter a problem with access to broadband and mobile networks, and older people and those on lower incomes are less likely to choose to use the internet and other digital technology. In addition, there is some evidence that the take-up of other devices in the home, such as digital cameras and mobile phones, is lower in Wales than in the other UK nations. Further research is needed to understand the specific reasons for low take-up in particular communities in Wales and how best to overcome these and we recommend that this is undertaken by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Welsh language

16.  There is no mention in the Digital Inclusion Action Plan of the needs of Welsh language speakers. We heard from the Welsh Language Board that there a number of UK digital services which are not available in the Welsh language. The Welsh Language Board stated that "In Wales, high standard service provision is considered dependent on offering services in both Welsh and English, in accordance with the 1993 Welsh Language Act. The principle that both languages should be treated on the basis of equality when providing public services was established by that Act and that principle is relevant to all discussions about the development of digital technology."[27] The Welsh Language Board told us that:

Unfortunately, the standard of Welsh language digital service provision is inconsistent. It may be argued that past failures to give the Welsh language appropriate consideration when planning and providing digital services has led to the social exclusion of Welsh speakers - the very effect digital inclusion is meant to prevent.[28]

It provided examples of public services where this had occurred, including both UK-wide and devolved services[29] and stated:

We ask that all tiers of government in Wales, and in particular, UK Government departments, ensure that the Welsh language is taken into account from the outset when planning, designing and providing digital services so that they can be offered in accordance with the principles of the Welsh Language Act 1993.[30]

17.  The Minister for Digital Inclusion, Rt Hon Paul Murphy MP accepted that there were UK-wide services which affected Welsh people:

Of course the responsibility for the Welsh language in so far as it affects devolved services, clearly, is one which Leighton Andrews would have made reference to and which needs attention from the Welsh Assembly Government perspective, but of course there are UK services that are applicable obviously to Welsh people.[31]

Leighton Andrews stated that "the action plan … focuses rather more on issues concerned with the activities of government departments in England, and perhaps therefore there has been something of an oversight on the Welsh language side".[32]

18.  We were disappointed to note that no account had been taken with regard to the needs of Welsh language speakers in the Digital Inclusion Action Plan. We recommend that both the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly Government give careful consideration to the needs of Welsh language speakers and to the recommendations made by the Welsh Language Board with regard to the role of the digital inclusion champion and the implementation of the action plan.

Digital inclusion projects in Wales

19.  In the course of our inquiry, we heard about some of the wide range of digital inclusion projects running in Wales and throughout the UK. Many of these involve commercial organisations working collaboratively with government.[33] The Welsh Assembly Government provided an overview of some of its many digital inclusion projects. These include a number of initiatives to develop access to ICT facilities in education institutions; to provide easier access to online public services; and to increase the availability of facilities and increased uptake of services by hard to reach groups. Its Communities@One programme ran between January 2006 and March 2009, with the support of European funding, and aimed to help people use technology in the communities that needed it most in Wales. The project provided support to community groups and voluntary sector organisations, enabling them to engage with technologies in ways that were relevant to their lives. It included a grant fund to help community and voluntary groups access the technologies that would benefit community members.[34] Leighton Andrews, Deputy Minister for Regeneration, Welsh Assembly Government, told us that:

We have had in place for some years our Communities@One digital inclusion programme which has spent £10.7 million over the last four years and has funded a series of community brokers around Wales who themselves have been … digital inclusion champions in their communities and have been working with community groups and others to develop initiatives to encourage people to take up the use of the internet, the use of computers, the use of other digital technologies.[35]

The Communities 2.0 programme started in April 2009. The Deputy Minister for Regeneration told us that it would be "a nearly £20 million programme over the next five years, again seeking to engage people at a local level in activities to promote the use of internet, broadband and so on".[36]

20.  The Deputy Minister for Regeneration told us that Wales had benefited from some "very successful and indeed award-winning projects".[37] The Communites@One programme was short-listed as a finalist in the European e-Inclusion awards, a European Commission initiative to recognise the achievements of projects which have overcome disadvantages of living in remote areas. Dr Gail Bradbrook, Citizens Online told us that "Wales has done really well, particularly through Communities@One in doing that work form a community development perspective".[38] However, she also pointed out that it was difficult to make wider sense of the remaining extent of digital exclusion in Wales:

Some of the data from ONS and the Oxford Internet Institute says that Wales is doing the best in the UK and at times I believe Wales should be shouting from the rafters about the great successes they have had in the last two years, probably on the back of programmes like Communities@One, and then you look at Ofcom data it seems to be saying that Wales is behind. As well as that you have a higher proportion of C2DEs in Wales, which would suggest you have a bigger hill to climb, so if you are doing so well you should be extra pleased.[39]

21.  There is a wide range of digital inclusion projects already running in Wales, with good cooperation from commercial and other organisations. The Assembly Government's digital inclusion programme has been recognised as a model of good practice. A successor programme is now underway, with the support of European project funding. In the longer term there will be a need to collect more accurate data about the extent of remaining exclusion in Wales and to make sustainable plans to address whichever issues remain outstanding.

13   Accessing the internet at home, Ofcom, June 2008 Back

14   Ev 110 Back

15   Ev 219 Back

16   Ev 98 Back

17   Ev 88 Back

18   Ev 260 Back

19   Q 4 Back

20   Qq 23 and 24 Back

21   Ev 98 Back

22   Ev 98 Back

23   Ev 110 Back

24   Q 271 Back

25   Ev 227 Back

26   Ev 227 Back

27   Ev 271 Back

28   Ev 271 Back

29   Ev 271 Back

30   Ev 271 Back

31   Q 473 Back

32   Q 273 Back

33   Ev 110, Ev 94, Ev 254, Ev 224 Back

34   Ev 260 Back

35   Q 267 Back

36   Q 269 Back

37   Q 276 Back

38   Q 301 Back

39   Q 297 Back

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