16.Our inquiry focused on those aspects of our lives that are known to have an impact on our wellbeing: mental and physical health, social interaction, work and education. However, witnesses raised other, overarching, issues which will be critical to the Government’s new hybrid strategy:
17.Unless comprehensive action is taken to address these issues, with government interventions to maximise the opportunities and mitigate the risks, our hybrid world will neither achieve its full potential nor serve the interests of all, and instead will leave many behind.
18.There is no simple, universal definition of digital inequality, and many organisations have moved from defining individuals as simply internet ‘users’ or ‘non-users’ to exploring different levels of internet use and digital skills. Many organisations use the term digital exclusion which, at its most basic level, describes the experiences of those people who lack full access to digital technologies. We prefer to discuss digital inequality, as we believe that it captures the wider implications, for issues such as health, education and work, of inadequate digital access.
19.Tackling digital inequality is vital to ensure that the hybrid world is accessible to all. Without adequate broadband access, digital devices, digital competence, confidence and skills, there will be no really inclusive hybrid world and existing inequalities will be exacerbated. Moreover, it is also vital to acknowledge that people’s past experiences of public services will impact their willingness and ability to access digital services. Those who are digitally included will be able to access services both offline and online, and those who are digitally excluded will be left behind. This cannot be allowed to happen. The Government’s new hybrid strategy must urgently tackle digital inequality.
20.The Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research (CCHPR) emphasised that rather than thinking of the digital divide as a binary issue, it is better to think about digital inclusion and exclusion as a spectrum of digital engagement from internet access, to skills, to being able to make use of online resources for beneficial outcomes. It explained that even where people have the necessary skills to use online resources, access to the internet is differential, with some people restricted by their broadband speed, and others restricted by the type of device they own: using a phone to write essays or write job applications is almost inevitably less effective than using a desktop computer. Douglas White, Head of Advocacy at Carnegie UK Trust, agreed, emphasising that “digital exclusion/inclusion is not a binary thing; if it ever was, it certainly is not now.” Douglas explained that there are multiple different aspects to digital exclusion, and that different aspects will be more or less important for different households:
“For some households, getting access to work will be critically important. For others, it might be getting access to education, or being socially engaged.”
21.The CCHPR also highlighted the links between digital inequality and wider inequalities, stating that of the eight million people in the UK who do not use the internet, 90 per cent suffer from other kinds of economic or social disadvantages. It went on to explain that those people who experience digital inequality are more likely to be in the lowest income bracket and/or be disabled with long-standing health conditions.
22.Ian Macrae, Director of Market Intelligence at Ofcom, stated that “11% of households do not have internet access” (which equates to 2.8 million households) and of these approximately 10 per cent or 280,000 households, cannot afford internet access. Ian went on to explain that over 95 per cent of the population live in areas where superfast broadband is available, but that take-up is relatively low, with approximately two-thirds of those with broadband having superfast broadband. Professor Jason Whalley and Dr Volker Stocker explained that some premises are unable to receive ‘decent’ broadband:
“At the end of 2019, Ofcom reported that 610,000 premises fall into this category, with 449,000 of them being in rural areas. This equates to 10% of all rural premises. While the number of premises unable to receive ‘decent’ broadband has fallen to 590,000 in May 2020 it remains stubbornly high.”
23.This variation in people’s ability to access the internet is also seen in the data that shows that one in five households with one adult aged 65 and over does not have an internet connection, and only half of households earning £6,000–10,000 a year have access (approximately 2.3 per cent of households earn between £6,000–10,000).
24.Having an internet connection does not stop someone being digitally excluded. In 2018, 10 per cent of the adult population were “internet non-users.” One recent analysis suggested 9 million people are unable to access the internet by themselves and 11.7 million lack the digital skills for everyday life. Again, these overall figures mask significant variations between different sections of the population: people with an annual income of £50,000 or more, for example, are 40 per cent more likely to have basic digital skills than those earning less than £17,499, and nearly half of ‘non-users’ have a disability or long-standing health issue.
25.To be able to fully participate in a society where work, education, healthcare, banking, council services etc are accessed online, each individual needs access to a suitable device. Nine per cent of households with children only have access to the internet through a smartphone, and a survey by the Sutton Trust found that 15 per cent of teachers in the most deprived schools said that more than a third of their students did not have adequate access to an electronic device for home learning, compared with 2 per cent of teachers in the most affluent schools.
We have found that technological ways to connect digitally have been an absolute lifeline to many of the people we have supported throughout Covid, and it has been completely devastating for people who have not had digital access … Many of the people we have supported have said that they do not know where they would be without WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom or whatever it is. Honestly, they really worry that they would not be here any more, that they would not have been able to cope and survive and get through this.
[Refugees and asylum seekers] living on £39 a week, you often cannot afford data or access to digital devices, and the people we are supporting are often choosing between food and digital access. They see the two as equally important throughout this pandemic, and it is pretty shocking that people are having to make that decision.
Children from disadvantaged households or poorer households have less access to digital devices and a quiet place to study, they are participating in fewer hours of online learning, and they have less face-to-face online contact with teachers than their peers. So across a range of indicators we are seeing the gap widening between disadvantaged children and their peers.
26.While those from marginalised and less advantaged groups are more likely to lack digital access, digital inequality also compounds marginalisation and disadvantage. As Helen Milner, Group Chief Executive of the Good Things Foundation, explained, digitally excluded individuals cannot apply for work online and so are excluded from the majority of employment opportunities, and cannot manage their finances online and are excluded from the financial and advice services that are made available online. A number of witnesses, including Parkinson’s UK, the Addressing Poverty with Lived Experience collective (APLE) and the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) raised concerns about unequal access to healthcare, leading to further exacerbation of existing health inequalities. Being unable to access the same online learning resources as their more advantaged peers will also widen the educational attainment gap for disadvantaged students.
Three groups of rural residents are more likely to be digitally excluded than others. The first group are those older residents who have not had the opportunity to acquire digital skills, though this is a group which is diminishing in size … The second group are residents on a low income who find it hard to afford IT equipment and connection charges … The third group is young people who continue to be the most isolated/lonely members of our communities generally and this is amplified further in rural areas where there are less things for young people to do.
Source: Written evidence from Rural Services Network ()
27.While the trend for digital-only payments existed pre-pandemic, this has been exacerbated both by a wariness of cash for hygiene reasons and an increasing reliance on digital technology more generally. Any increasing reliance on digital technology for shopping, such as online shopping and contactless payment methods, may lead to those who are restricted to cash payments having narrower and more expensive choices. This is a serious issue, as a survey by Which found that 10 million people in the UK rely on being able to pay with cash and 1.2 million people do not have a bank account.
29.Throughout our inquiry, we have heard concerns that our increasing reliance on digital technology is having a detrimental impact on certain groups and communities, and is leading to some people being left behind. This cannot be allowed to continue. There are more analytical tools for Government to measure the unequal impact of digital technology than ever before, and we believe that the Government must use these analytical tools to understand which groups and communities are, or are not, using digital technology. This data must then be used to develop specific programmes to ensure that all groups and communities have the opportunity to benefit from the increasing use of digital technology, and that the hybrid world is one that tackles, rather than exacerbates, existing inequalities.
30.The Government should ensure that using digital technology to tackle existing inequalities is a key strand running through its new hybrid strategy. It should also publish a detailed equality impact assessment alongside its strategy, explaining the effect of its plans on different communities and how it will mitigate any negative consequences identified.
31.The most obvious way, perhaps, to tackle digital inequality is to ensure everyone has access to an internet connection and a suitable device on which to use it, and providing universal and affordable access to the internet is one of the targets for developed countries in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. While we welcome the UK Government’s consultation on Improving Broadband for Very Hard to Reach Premises, we believe that much more needs to be done to ensure that everyone can access the internet.
32.The Centre for Ageing Better suggested that national government and local authorities should commit to universal access to the internet by working to expand access to broadband, data/telephone packages, and to computer and IT packages, in particular for individuals and families on low incomes who have the greatest need and are most likely to be digitally excluded. Dr Merten Reglitz, from the University of Birmingham, Professor Abigail Marks et al, and the CCHPR all argued for the internet being a universal entitlement and for financial support from Government to provide access to those who cannot afford it. Parent Zone argued Child Benefit should be adapted to include a grant to enable families to pay for internet access, and Helen Milner stated that a quick solution to tackle digital inequality would be to ensure that people receiving Universal Credit have an element added to their welfare benefit to pay for broadband access.
33.As reflected above, providing everyone with an internet connection will not be enough to tackle digital inequality; as the Centre for Ageing Better stated:
“Making sure digital services are accessible and providing access to equipment and the internet will not be effective if people cannot use the technology or if they see tech as a barrier.”
34.The Good Things Foundation noted that a Great Digital Catch Up, costing £130m over four years, could help 4.5 million people to get online and get the skills they need for work, effectively halving the digital divide. It explained
“This would be run through our existing network of hyper-local partner organisations, so it could be rolled out quickly at scale by people who know—and are trusted by—their communities. Many of our centres already work with users from disadvantaged backgrounds, but they require more funding so that they can reach more people.”
35.Richard Hart, Deputy Head of the Library Service at Leeds City Council, noted that the council is exploring how to take a public library and turn it into a digital hub. Richard explained that:
“Currently, on average, only 60% of the slots that are available on our public access PCs are utilised, so there is capacity there to increase their use. For me, it is then about the advocacy of getting more people in, pushing and promoting the service that is available, and the motivations for people to engage.”
36.CCHPR also mentioned using libraries, community centres, education settings, volunteers and local digital champions to provide digital access and support for people to begin to develop their digital skills. The Good Things Foundation has worked with the NHS to establish ‘digital health hubs’ embedded in local communities, providing advice, support, and training specifically around digital healthcare.
37.DCMS told us that, in August 2020, the Government introduced a new legal entitlement in England to fully funded digital qualifications, at entry level and level 1, for adults with no or low digital skills. The new entitlement mirrors the existing legal entitlements for English and maths, with DCMS stating that it will provide adults with the digital skills needed for life and work. It went on to explain that alongside the entitlement, the Government has introduced new essential digital skills qualifications (EDSQs) based on new national standards for essential digital skills.
38.In today’s society, home broadband is an essential utility in the same way as water or electricity: without it, people are excluded from employment opportunities and access to vital services. No one should be without access to the internet for reasons of cost or location.
39.We urge the Government to consider introducing a legal right to internet access and digital infrastructure, which is regulated in a way that gives individuals a suitable right to redress. We note that the Digital Economy Act 2017 included the creation of a broadband Universal Service Order, giving all premises in the UK a legal right to request a minimum standard of broadband connectivity.
40.However, to tackle the immediate lack of digital access we believe that just as those in receipt of income-related benefits can access social tariffs and additional payments to help cover water and electric bills, as part of its new hybrid strategy, the Government should work with internet providers to develop a scheme to provide affordable internet, and suitable, safe devices (not necessarily just a smartphone), on which to use it, to those in poverty and on low incomes.
41.We welcome the UK Government’s introduction of a legal entitlement to digital skills training in England, and agree that such skills are now as essential as basic literacy and numeracy. Undertaking formal qualifications, however, will not be the right solution for everyone.
42.The Government must make a commitment (and an ambitious target) to improve digital literacy central to its new hybrid strategy, and work with charities, skills providers and local authorities to deliver a comprehensive digital skills programme, informed by the knowledge these organisations have about how to meet effectively the varied needs of different communities.
43.Moving beyond basic literacy, witnesses repeatedly emphasised the need to address the ‘digital skills gap’ in order for individuals and businesses to perform successfully in the hybrid world.
44.The Lloyds UK Consumer Digital Index 2020 highlighted that half of the current workforce lack digital skills in the workplace. The Good Things Foundation emphasised that, as 82 per cent of jobs advertised now require digital skills, this “urgently needs to change” and the Open University agreed, arguing that the current and future workforce require access to training that covers both basic and more complex digital skills needs.
45.Witnesses highlighted how a variety of digital trends were radically reshaping the types of jobs available in different sectors (an issue we return to in Chapter 5), and the skills required by employers. Verity Davidge, Director of Central Policy at Make UK, told us that employers were keen to support those whose jobs would be lost to retrain and take on the new, more highly-skilled roles, being created, but that this would require the right policy levers to be in place and recommended a lifelong digital skills account for individuals. Verity noted that, at some point in their lives, all workers will need access to digital skills, and that while there are a range of Government initiatives aimed at addressing this—intensive training courses, lifetime skills guarantees—what individuals and employers need most is the ability to tap into a set pot of funding at the point that they need it. The Sutton Trust stressed the need for young people heading into the workplace to be adequately prepared, arguing that the changing skills requirements of employers should be reflected in what young people are taught. It emphasised that the combination of learning and ‘on the job’ experience provided by an apprenticeship is particularly effective when it comes to adapting skills training to the needs of a fast-moving economy, and stressed the importance of such opportunities being open to people from all backgrounds.
46.Scope highlighted that only 38 per cent of disabled people have the digital skills needed for work and that disabled people were 40 per cent less likely to have received digital skills support from their workplace. Combined with the fact that they are more likely to be working in the sectors most vulnerable to technological change, this suggests that specific action is needed to address this skills gap.
47.We also heard how the pandemic has exposed an urgent need to increase digital skills in a number of professions, as an increasing amount of their work moved online for the first time. Dr Farah Jameel, Executive Member of the General Practitioners Committee at the BMA, for example, told us that its members believe that “training is a huge problem”. Dr Jameel described how:
“Training in the use of simple tech, the day-to-day stuff that we use, is put to one side: you sit in a quiet place and complete a module, and then just crack on with it. If I cast my mind back to when I was learning as a GP trainee, I had exposure to one system, but actually there are four key GP systems out there. Using it is very different from being able to draw helpful insights, to be able to gain maximum support and advice and derive the best out of that system.”
48.Professor Kate Cavanagh, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Sussex, also emphasised the importance of digital training for healthcare professionals:
“there are also barriers such as the limited rollout of training for healthcare staff on digital working and a need for greater support, upskilling and confidence-building in that area. NHS colleagues have been remarkable during the Covid pandemic, but that is an acute response to meet the needs of the communities they serve. In a slightly longer timeframe, more deliberate and planned training and support are needed.”
49.Richard Sheriff, President of the Association of School and College Leaders, suggested that there was a need for digital skills to be a core requirement in the training of teachers as “you cannot be a teacher unless you are a digital teacher.”
50.The Government should put investment in digital skills at the heart of its new hybrid strategy and ensure that both the school curriculum and adult skills provision adequately meets the needs of the hybrid world. One element of this should be the development of a new Digital Skills for Work Framework for England (and ideally in agreement with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), to tackle the radically altered employment landscape resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Framework must consider the different requirements of different communities and include specific action to tackle the low levels of digital skills amongst disabled people.
51.While we understand that many workplaces, including health settings and schools, were required to introduce online services urgently during the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe that it is unacceptable to expect people to continue to provide digital services without adequate training and resources.
52.The Government should work with training providers and professional bodies to ensure that both the initial training of workers such as teachers and medical professionals and their Continuing Professional Development reflects how digital technology will be an integral part of their working lives.
53.Just as digital inequality will prevent individuals and society from realising the potential benefits of a hybrid world, unless we have a robust evidence base to help us understand the impact of digitalisation on different communities, and the effectiveness of different digital services and interventions, we will not be able to make the most of the digital future. Throughout our inquiry, we have identified a lack of research on certain topics, particularly in analysing the experiences of different communities. This lack of data and research is particularly problematic when we consider that people from Black and Asian communities and disabled people have been disproportionality affected by COVID-19 and suffered from COVID mortality rates that have been significantly higher than that of the general, working age population.
54.There is a lack of detailed data about the workplace experiences of various communities, for example. In response to a question from the Committee asking about data on the experiences of Black and minority ethnic people, and the extent to which they may be disadvantaged by technological developments in the workplace, Josh Abey, a researcher at the Fabian Society, noted that:
“One of the surprising things about the ONS dataset that I have referenced, which picks apart some of these inequalities, is that it did not have an accompanying analysis of the breakdown of risk for different ethnic minority groups.”
55.Responding to a question from the Committee about research on the impact of different working conditions on people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, Anna Thomas, Director of the Institute for the Future of Work, stated that “there certainly needs to be a lot more research,” and Fabian Wallace-Stephens, Senior Researcher at the RSA, suggested that:
“It would be very interesting to explore in your recommendations how we can improve data collection in understanding the challenges for this group of workers.”
56.We were also struck by the lack of evidence about women’s experiences during the COVID pandemic, outside of data relating to employment. The research that has been done suggests that women’s well-being was more negatively affected than men’s, and that women who are parents have faced particular challenges (an issue we will be considering as part of our next inquiry).
57.Another significant research gap flagged by witnesses was the lack of a robust system for evaluating digital healthcare interventions in England. Tom Foley, Honorary Senior Clinical Lecturer at Newcastle University, emphasised the importance of evaluating the impact of digital interventions, and how this impact can change over time:
“Evaluation is huge. In the case of drugs, for example, in the past we could say that a drug was a drug, it was the same here as it was there and it was not going to change over time, whereas these digital interventions are evolving over time.”
58.Tom Foley explained that if a large randomised control trial of a digital intervention, such as an app, was undertaken, by the time the results were published, the app might have changed completely and the trial would not show if it was still safe or effective. As a result, Tom suggested that new methodologies are required for assessing the effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness of digital interventions. Tom went on to explain that as digital interventions often generate data, that data could be harnessed to run more agile clinical trials, allowing researchers to develop a quicker system for learning from the patients who have used these interventions. Professor Cavanagh agreed that agile clinical trials are vital to evaluate the impact of digital interventions, but also noted that:
“In digital mental health research, we already have quite a rich history of high-quality evaluation of individual tools in a research context. Where we see the gap is in taking that evidence base and implementing it in broadly disseminated real-world practice.”
59.Professor Cavanagh went on to explain that the key missing piece in the evidence base at present was the evidence to support the implementation of digital interventions at scale and suggested that more research is required on ensuring that the implementation of digital interventions is effective in practice.
60.Throughout our inquiry we identified a lack of research on specific issues. We noted that there was insufficient evidence about the experiences of women, and that there was a striking gap in research on the experiences of Black and Asian communities. These communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and we cannot allow people to be further marginalised because policies and interventions designed to prepare for the hybrid world have not been developed to meet their needs. It is only by having comprehensive data, and using the right analytical tools, about the experiences of different communities, and particularly Black and Asian communities, that the Government can formulate policies that are inclusive and deliver for all. As such, we must emphasise that the Government’s new hybrid strategy can only be effective if there is sufficient, accurate data and research to underpin it.
61.The Government should work with UK Research Councils and Higher Education funding bodies to identify and address gaps in the evidence base for both how our increasingly hybrid world is impacting on different communities, and on the effectiveness of policies and interventions developed in response to the digital future. The lack of data on Black and Asian communities’ experiences, alongside those of other minority ethnic communities, should be a particular priority.
62.There is no doubt that digital technology is playing an increasing role in the provision of healthcare services, and will continue to do so. While we welcome the potential for digital technology to allow patients to monitor their own health and for the NHS to develop innovative medical treatments, witnesses consistently told us that there were no clear processes in place for developing, evaluating and implementing these digital healthcare interventions. Without a robust evaluation method it will be very difficult to decide which interventions should be scaled-up and rolled-out nationally, risking some ineffective interventions being rolled-out and some effective interventions not being rolled-out.
64.A common theme across all our evidence sessions was the very different impact that increasing digitalisation has on different people and that the Government’s response to the hybrid world cannot assume ‘one size fits all’. In recognition of this, many witnesses emphasised the importance of actively working with communities to produce policies and interventions that meet their specific needs.
65.Douglas White emphasised the importance of taking an approach based on co-operation to develop interventions to tackle digital inequality, stating that it is vital to work with individuals, communities and organisations that have been supporting those communities. Douglas explained that as the impact of digital inequality will be different in different communities, the solutions will also be different, and the most suitable solutions can only be developed in collaboration with specific communities.
66.Witnesses argued that digital healthcare services should be co-designed with patients, with Chris McCann, Director of Communications, Insight and Campaigns at HealthWatch England, emphasising the importance of ensuring that new systems are designed for everyone, and that any new system is as inclusive, legible, readable and accessible as possible. Chris went on to note that “the people who need the services the most are often the people who find them the hardest to use.” As such, Chris suggested that a key factor when scoping and designing new processes or applications is to consider the needs of those who will be using the new services. Dr Pritesh Mistry, Policy Fellow for Digital Technology at the King’s Fund, suggested that “there is a lot of value in co-developing our tools at a local level.” Dr Mistry explained that local co-operation is a vital opportunity to consider local demographic needs, how the demographic will change in the future, and to ensure that the digital tools can react to those changes. The Ada Lovelace Institute believed that it would be valuable to reach out to communities who are likely to disproportionately face health inequalities and to be under-represented in existing policy spaces e.g. Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, LGBTQ+ and disabled communities, to actively solicit their opinions alongside wider public engagement.
67.We agree with those witnesses who emphasised the importance of working with the intended audience when developing new skills initiatives and new technology, as well as the innovative use of existing tools and technologies. A single approach to tackling digital inequality or the digital skills gap is bound to fail. Communities have a wealth of knowledge about what will work best for their members, and it is by listening to their views and experiences that we can ensure that interventions will have the biggest, and best, impact.
69.Beyond merely reflecting the reality of the post-lockdown world, we believe that the hybrid approach can also be a cornerstone for building resilience into the economy, as a strong, vibrant economy will naturally develop a reliance on a mix of face-to-face and remote employment, service provision and trade. While market conditions may determine the balance of remote and workplace working for individual firms and individual employees, companies will need to build resilience to market disruption by a further pandemic or local lockdowns. For example, if a company usually has 40 per cent of its staff working remotely and 60 per cent working in an office, it should be able to move seamlessly to have 80 per cent or more of its staff working remotely if required.
70.Our increasing reliance on digital systems and infrastructure makes their resilience increasingly important. Much of the evidence below discusses the resilience of large-scale digital infrastructure, but for most of us, the resilience of our home broadband or mobile data is just as important. At an individual level a platform worker whose internet connection goes down cannot work and loses that day’s pay. A small business or service delivered online cannot operate if its internet service is interrupted. At the other end of the scale, financial transactions rely on internet services almost universally and during the COVID pandemic most organisations relied on staff being able to connect online. There are a variety of threats to this digital infrastructure. The UK Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy recognised the importance and vulnerability of undersea critical infrastructure (the cables that connect the internet across continents). At the start of the pandemic as so many services moved online, there was concern about the capacity of the system to cope with the volume of data being sent through the internet. In addition, there is the constant vulnerability to cyber-attacks from malign actors or hostile nations (the WannaCry cyber-attack was not specifically aimed at the NHS, but nonetheless led to the cancellation of 19,000 appointments, the loss of patient data and £72 million being spent on restoring IT systems).
71.Professor Helen Margetts, Programme Director for Public Policy at the Alan Turing Institute, emphasised that our increasing reliance on digital technology will mean that digital resilience also becomes increasingly important, stating that:
“We really need to think about our digital resilience and how to protect it. A key part of that will be keeping it safe. We have to think about protecting digital infrastructure … in the same way as we would protect our water system.”
72.On the other hand, Benedict Evans suggested that digital technology is already more resilient than other communication and information networks:
“Of course, as the cliché goes, the internet was designed to withstand a nuclear attack. The internet is much less a point of failure than a TV network and half a dozen newspapers. It is thousands of companies and thousands of networks.”
73.The Lords Select Committee on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning has taken evidence on the importance of broader digital risks and resilience, particularly compared to other national and international risk, with John Thornhill, from the Financial Times, stating that “the issue that I would most focus on is our vulnerability to cyberattack, because that can degrade so many other functions of our societies.” On the other hand, Dr Simon Beard, from the Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and Environment, emphasised that “we can have cyber vulnerabilities due to naturally occurring disasters, normal accidents and bugs in the system.” However, for those reliant on digital connections, the cause of any interruption of service is less important than the fact that the service has been interrupted.
74.As digital services become more complex, more universal and more interconnected, that complexity may become a source of instability and there is little doubt that the Internet of Things will potentially create more points of access and vulnerability. Dr Stephen Cave, from the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, explained that new technological innovations can also lead to new risks:
“The new and emerging digital technologies are creating new forms of dependency on the internet, even specific applications like Google, or on infrastructure like the cell phone network. There is one thing in particular that I want to highlight … which is the way in which AI and related technologies might exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. As we use AI to automate processes in the healthcare system, the energy grid and other critical systems, we might be making those systems more complex, more opaque and difficult to oversee.”
75.Dr Cave went on to warn against considering risks too narrowly, and instead suggested that we should focus on whether:
“undesirable outcomes, like the collapse of critical infrastructure, civil unrest or failure of the democratic process, become more likely because of the development of technologies like AI and the transformations it will bring.”
76.In discussing how the Government should mitigate against technological risks, Dr Beard explained that the national security risk assessment:
“considers risks only in the immediate future. It is really looking at the things that we are expecting to happen now. Technological risks are risks that we need to act on now, but they are not going to reach their full extent for years to come … One of the really important things about the national security risk assessment is that it gives a lot of attention to attacks, a reasonable amount of attention to accidents and very little attention to systemic risks. A lot more attention needs to be given to systemic risks within this context.”
77.In the hybrid world, a safe and reliable internet will become increasingly important for everyone—individuals, businesses, Government—and any threat to digital infrastructure will threaten our ability to work, access essential services, buy groceries online, and access our money through online banking. As such, it is vital that the Government takes action to protect our digital infrastructure from threats, such as cyber-attacks, in the same way that other aspects of Critical National Infrastructure are monitored and protected.
78.As part of its new hybrid strategy, the Government should commit to reviewing the resilience of the UK’s digital infrastructure every two years and to report to Parliament on this review and the action being taken to ensure it is adequately robust for the hybrid world.
79.Benedict Evans suggested that “we should think of the internet as critical infrastructure in the same sense as the water system, the power system or the radio broadcasting system.” This dependence also speaks to the need for greater regulation, with Professor Margetts suggesting:
“We have to be braver about it. We are very afraid when it comes to regulation and I think it comes back to the earlier cyber-utopian dreams about the internet, which was presented as something that should not be regulated. The digital platforms have far too much power in this space and it is something that we have to do …”
80.We agree that as part of our critical infrastructure, the regulation of the internet is vital, and we suggest that the internet should be regulated in such a way as to ensure that it benefits us all, not just technology companies.
81.Beyond regulation, witnesses also emphasised the importance of considering “whether there are such things as digital rights.” In discussing digital rights, Hanna Johnson, Chief Operating Officer at Public, explained that: “We need to find a way to make sure that people are protected and can receive the public services that they should.”
82.We agree that providing individuals with digital rights is vital as we become increasingly reliant on digital technology to provide essential services. We believe that the Government must consider how to safeguard our digital rights, and how these interact with our ability to access the internet and digital devices, and access those services that will increasingly be provided digitally. As Professor Margetts noted:
“You will not achieve digital rights just with internet access and the resources to access it, but digital rights should involve some kind of right to online access.”
83.We have not received much evidence on regulation and digital rights and these issues have not been considered in detail throughout our inquiry. We do not underestimate the complexity of digital regulation and digital rights, but believe that these issues, including digital rights, must be considered by the Government in developing its hybrid strategy.
84.Treating the internet as an essential utility will include regulating it in the same way as other utilities. This will involve challenging the international private sector internet corporations and their supply and pricing policies. Until now, European and North American governments have achieved very little in this area, but the United Kingdom should use its ‘soft power’ strengths to take the lead in developing a new strategy.
85.As part of ensuring the UK is ready for, and can embrace all the advantages of, the hybrid world, the UK Government, the devolved administrations and local authorities must be alive to the risks that exist online, especially for children and vulnerable people.
86.Witnesses emphasised that the research on the impact of digital technology on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people was mixed. Dr Bernadka Dubicka, Chair of the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych), stated that the question of how much technology has to do with the worsening mental health of young people in the UK is “a hotly contested issues amongst academics” and that the research has been extremely limited, and has not focused on the most vulnerable. The Children’s Society referred to its research which found that high intensity social media use (defined as more than four hours per day) is associated with lower life satisfaction, but that there is no evidence that low and medium intensity usage is linked to lower wellbeing.
87.Witnesses explained that while the internet has been hugely beneficial for many young people during the pandemic, allowing them to continue with their education and keep in contact with friends, they also explained that some vulnerable children and young people with mental health problems struggle with the more pernicious effects of digital technology. The RCPsych also emphasised the importance of recognising that the potential harms could be particularly damaging to certain vulnerable groups, particularly children and young people with mental health difficulties, whose offline vulnerabilities can transfer to the online world.
88.Dr Dubicka recommended greater regulation of online content and the way algorithms expose children and vulnerable people to potentially harmful content and suggested that social media companies should be expected to warn users about potentially harmful content. Dr Dubicka went on to recommend that technology companies should ensure that default privacy settings are in place on all accounts to protect vulnerable users, and that users should have much more power over their digital footprints, allowing them to take down content that may affect or damage their future prospects.
89.Given the ever-increasing prevalence of the internet in our lives, there is an urgent need for comprehensive research to explore the relationship between digital technology and wellbeing, particularly amongst children and young people. This research must go beyond screen time alone, and must also consider the experiences of marginalised and vulnerable young people.
90.There is a vast framework of legislation and policy designed to keep us safe in the offline world. Part of preparing for the hybrid world must involve considering how to ensure the same levels of protection in the online world, particularly for children and vulnerable adults. This needs to encompass issues such as child protection, privacy and safeguarding.
91.We welcome the Government’s commitment to publishing an Online Harms Bill and urge it to bring this legislation forward in the next session of Parliament. It will need to reflect the central role that the internet plays in our education, work and social lives, and ensure that provisions are put in place to protect children and vulnerable people online which are at least as robust as those in place offline.
19 (Douglas White)
22 (Ian Macrae)
26 Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning, ‘Pay the WiFi or Feed the Children: Coronavirus has Intensified the UK’s Digital Divide’: [accessed 11 February 2021]
27 Office for National Statistics, ‘Average Household Income UK: Financial Year 2020’ (21 January 2021): [accessed 22 March 2021]
28 Office for National Statistics, ‘Exploring the UK’s Digital Divide’ (4 March 2019): [accessed 11 February 2021]
29 Lloyds Bank, UK Consumer Digital Index 2020 (May 2020): [accessed 11 February 2021]
33 The Sutton Trust, ‘COVID-19 Impacts: School Shutdown’ (20 April 2020): [accessed 3 March 2021]
34 (Helen Milner)
36 ‘More than a third of UK shoppers blocked from paying with cash in Covid-19 crisis’, The Guardian (19 January 2021): [accessed 22 March 2021]
37 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Improving Broadband for Very Hard to Reach Premises (19 March 2021): [accessed 22 March 2021]
40 Written evidence from Professor Abigail Marks et al ()
43 (Helen Milner)
47 (Richard Hart)
52 Lloyds Bank, UK Consumer Digital Index 2020 (May 2020): [accessed 12 February 2021]
55 (Verity Davidge)
57 Written evidence from The Sutton Trust ()
59 (James Taylor)
61 (Dr Farah Jameel)
63 (Professor Kate Cavanagh)
64 (Richard Sheriff)
65 ‘Higher COVID Among BAME People ‘Not Driven By Health Issues’’, The Guardian (16 October 2020): [accessed 1 March 2021]
66 (Josh Abey)
67 (Anna Thomas)
68 (Fabian Wallace-Stephens)
69 European Parliament, ‘Understanding COVID-19’s Impact on Women’ (1 March 2021): [accessed 13 April 2021]
70 (Tom Foley)
73 (Professor Kate Cavanagh)
74 (Professor Kate Cavanagh)
76 (Douglas White)
77 (Chris McCann)
79 (Dr Pritesh Mistry)
81 HM Government, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, CP 403 (March 2021): [accessed 13 April 2021]
82 New Statesman Tech, ‘The WannaCry Ransomware Attack Left the NHS with a £73m IT Bill’ (12 October 2018): [accessed 1 March 2021]
83 (Professor Helen Margetts)
84 (Benedict Evans)
85 Oral evidence taken before the Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee, 13 January 2021 (Session 2019–21), (John Thornhill)
86 Oral evidence taken before the Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee, 13 January 2021 (Session 2019–21), (Dr Simon Beard)
87 Oral evidence taken before the Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee, 13 January 2021 (Session 2019–21), (Dr Stephen Cave)
88 Oral evidence taken before the Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee, 13 January 2021 (Session 2019–21), (Dr Stephen Cave)
89 Oral evidence taken before the Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee, 13 January 2021 (Session 2019–21), (Dr Simon Beard)
90 (Benedict Evans)
91 (Professor Helen Margetts)
92 (Professor Helen Margetts)
93 (Hanna Johnson)
94 (Professor Helen Margetts)
95 (Dr Bernadka Dubicka)
97 (Dr Bernadka Dubicka)
99 (Dr Bernadka Dubicka)