Digital exclusion Contents

Chapter 2: Digital exclusion

What is digital exclusion?

6.There is no universally accepted definition of digital exclusion. It typically refers to sections of the population not being able to use the internet in ways that are needed to participate fully in modern society.2 Ofcom’s 2022 Digital Exclusion Review sets out some of the key issues and barriers relating to:

7.Digital exclusion arises from a complex interplay of factors including age, socio-economic status, disability, geography, educational attainment, literacy and language, and housing circumstances.4 It can take different forms, vary by degree, and fluctuate according to circumstance and life stage.5

8.Internet access at home is one measure of digital exclusion. Around 1.7 million households (roughly six per cent) had no broadband or mobile internet access at home in 2021. Some 77 per cent of this group did not own a connected device. Affordability and limited access are likely to be key factors, while others may choose not to pay because they do not see the value.6

9.Absolute internet use is another measure of exclusion. In 2022, around 500,000 people in the UK were classed as being completely “offline”, according to Lloyds Bank.7 For some, the reasons listed above will be the most salient. Others may have access to good internet connections and devices but lack the skills to use them. Some say they avoid using the internet because they are concerned about fraud or privacy issues.8

10.Relative internet use is a broader way of considering digital exclusion. Many people conduct limited or infrequent online activities, or rely on others to use the internet on their behalf.9 This often means they cannot participate fully in modern life online. Around 29 per cent of internet users are classed as ‘narrow users’ by Ofcom, meaning they have only ever undertaken no more than four of 13 online activities, such as finding employment opportunities or watching TV.10 There have also been initiatives to define a minimum digital living standard based on the digital goods, skills and services needed for a certain quality of life.11

11.A fourth measure focuses on basic digital skills. Around 2.4 million adults are unable to complete a single basic task to get online, such as connecting to wi-fi or updating a password. Around 10.2 million adults cannot complete all eight of these basic tasks.12 As we set out in chapter 7, the benchmark for basic skills is likely to evolve as technology advances and society becomes more digitally connected.13

12.We refer to all these measures in this report. The list provides an indicative, not exhaustive, way of characterising digital exclusion.14 The measures are not mutually exclusive and people referred to in one may or may not be captured by another. It is not always possible to determine overlap or to draw direct comparisons between different sources as the data on digital exclusion are extensive, varied, and subject to different collection methods and analysis.15 For the avoidance of doubt we refer to the measure in question where possible and identify the citation in footnotes.

Key demographics

13.Digital exclusion can affect people from all backgrounds and age groups, not just the elderly.16 The list below summarises some of the key factors.

Age

14.Age remains one of the most significant predictors of digital exclusion. Around 3.9 million people over 65 (31 per cent of this age group) do not use the internet at home, compared with just 320,000 (4 per cent) for those aged 35–44. More than 3.8 million internet users over 65 are categorised as ‘narrow users’.17 Of the 2.4 million adults with zero basic digital skills, more than half are over 75.18 But younger groups are also affected. More than one in five users (approximately 1.8 million people) aged 35–44 are ‘narrow users’.19 During the pandemic which began in 2020, one in five children did not have access to an appropriate device for home study in 2021, according to the Digital Poverty Alliance.20

Socio-economic status

15.Socio-economic status is another major factor. Among households from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds, around 2.4 million (21 per cent) do not use the internet at home, and 3.6 million users (38 per cent) are classified as ‘narrow’ users.21 By contrast, the numbers for those in the highest socio-economic group are 690,000 (six per cent) and 2.7 million (22 per cent) respectively.22

Disability

16.People with disabilities account for a disproportionately large number of internet non-users and are more likely to report lower levels of confidence.23 Disabilities may involve physical or mental impairments which pose different barriers to inclusion.24 The Lloyds Consumer Digital Index suggests individuals with disabilities are twice as likely to lack the basic digital skills needed to navigate life online.25

Region

17.There are significant geographical variations in digital access. Despite progress on broadband and mobile rollout in recent years, rural areas remain more likely to face difficulties accessing a decent internet connection.26 The Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index shows that London and the South East have among the highest digital capabilities, Scotland remains slightly behind England on average, and the North East has the second lowest, just ahead of Wales.27 Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) from 2019 classified 12.2 per cent of the population in the North East as “internet non-users”, compared with 7 per cent for London.28

Figure 2: Internet use by age

Source: Ofcom, Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report (2023), p 5: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0028/255844/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2023.pdf [accessed 24 May 2023]

Figure 3: Internet use by socio-economic background

Source: Ofcom, Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report (2023), p 6: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0028/255844/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2023.pdf [accessed 24 May 2023]

Interrelated problems

18.The root causes of digital exclusion are often structural and reflect longstanding social, economic and regional disparities.29 People are rarely digitally excluded for a single reason. For example, economic deprivation can prevent people from being able to pay for the internet, but deprivation is also associated with skills.30 People with disabilities may struggle with the accessibility of websites, and are more likely to experience financial strain and lack basic digital skills.31

19.While some over 65s are regular internet users, many in this group face barriers in particular relating to confidence and skills. Age is also associated with higher levels of disability. This suggests age-related barriers to inclusion will remain relevant for a long time as the UK’s population ages.32 Many individuals also say they simply do not wish to use the internet. Among internet non-users, some 86 per cent say it is a personal choice,33 but other evidence suggests a range of factors influence this view, notably a lack of confidence or skills.34

Trajectories

20.On some measures, digital exclusion has been improving in recent years. The proportion of over 75s using the internet nearly doubled between 2013 and 2020.35 Internet use has also increased more widely. In 2016, around 89 per cent of the population had used the internet in some form in the past three months. By 2020 that figure had risen to 92 per cent, and then 99 per cent by 2022 as the pandemic shifted more people and services online and many elderly individuals learned digital skills from younger relatives.36

21.But millions of people remain unable to access the benefits of an increasingly connected society.37 And the experiences of pandemic lockdowns showed that many people who had not considered themselves digitally excluded faced significant difficulties when required to share internet connections and devices with others in the same household. Tackling digital exclusion is also not a static target: standards will continue to change as society becomes more connected, skills requirements change, and services and personal lives move online.

22.The consequences of being offline are becoming more acute. The Good Things Foundation Data Poverty Lab identifies 81 broad areas where the internet has become integral to daily lives.38 The Government’s 2022 Roadmap for Digital and Data sets out “ambitions for widespread digital transformation” in at least 75 public services.39

23.Such shifts mean key resources are increasingly inaccessible to those who would benefit from them most, from health advice and medical appointments to debt support and housing resources.40 Many councils provide no offline access to housing benefit, council tax reductions, rebates, or Blue Badge applications.41

24.High street bank closures make it harder for people to manage money without digital tools.42 Customer helplines are being replaced by chat functions or online contact forms requiring email addresses, leading to poorer service for those unable to use them. Over 90 per cent of jobs are reportedly advertised only online.43

25.These examples represent a small fraction of the society-wide shift towards life online.44 As the digital exclusion expert Kat Dixon told us: “not having [internet] access … prevents access to modern life”.45

26.Digital exclusion remains a serious problem. Although there has been progress in recent years, millions of people still cannot access the internet or use it adequately. For some, skills and motivation are the main barriers. For others, affordability is the key obstacle. Others face barriers around accessibility, or poor mobile and broadband coverage. These groups face deepening isolation as society becomes increasingly digital.

Cost of living

27.The annual rate of inflation reached 11.1 per cent in October 2022, a 41-year high, before easing slightly in subsequent months.46 For those who are excluded because of affordability, these price rises compounded existing hardship. 47 Digitally excluded groups have less access to online deals, money advice and savings tools.48

28.Many internet packages have become significantly more expensive. Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy for Which?, told us most providers were raising mid-contract prices by around 14 per cent in April 2023.49 Some rose by 17 per cent.50 Even before these changes, around 1.4 million households were struggling to pay their broadband bills and 2.3 million struggled with mobile bills, according to Ofcom’s January 2023 data.51 Citizens Advice estimated up to a million people cut back or stopped paying for broadband because of affordability challenges last year.52 The Good Things Foundation expected price rises would result in widening inequality and greater burdens on friends, family and public amenities to provide internet-related support.53

Cause for concern

29.We asked witnesses how digital exclusion compared to other challenges requiring Government attention. Tom Lowe, Head of Policy and Communications at the Digital Poverty Alliance, said it was a “massive issue” requiring urgent solutions.54 Liam Halligan, a columnist at The Telegraph, and Economics and Business Editor at GB News Limited, thought the problem was less serious than energy poverty but still “a lot more serious than the Government make out … being on the internet is not an optional extra”.55

30.We heard that immediate responses are needed to prevent financial pressures making more people digitally excluded over the next year, alongside longer-term plans to address the root causes of exclusion.56 Several witnesses emphasised the need for interventions that differentiate between the needs of different demographics, and address multiple barriers facing a single individual at once.57

31.Paul Scully MP, Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said the Government treated digital exclusion as a “high priority” and was committed to ensuring “no one is left behind”.58 However, Liz Williams, CEO of the business coalition FutureDotNow, questioned whether the Government was taking digital exclusion seriously: “it is everybody’s and nobody’s responsibility at the moment. We do not have a clear national ambition”.59

32.Cost of living challenges have made a bad situation worse for people who struggle to afford internet access. The need for Government action is becoming increasingly urgent.


2 Written evidence from the Good Things Foundation (DCL0042); Digital Poverty Alliance and the British Computer Society (DCL0052); Ofcom, Digital exclusion review (2022): https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/234364/digital-exclusion-review-2022.pdf [accessed 11 May 2022]; Digital Poverty Alliance, UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review (2022): https://digitalpovertyalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/UK-Digital-Poverty-Evidence-Review-2022-v1.0-compressed.pdf [accessed 11 May 2023]

3 Ofcom, Digital exclusion review (2022): https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/234364/digital-exclusion-review-2022.pdf [accessed 11 May 2023]

4 Written evidence from Good Things Foundation (DCL0042)

5 Written evidence from the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (DCL0061); Emma Walker (DCL0064); Good Things Foundation (DCL0042); The Sutton Trust (DCL0047)

6 Ofcom, Media use (2022): https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/234362/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2022.pdf [accessed 8 June 2023]. The groups more likely not to have internet access at home are those aged 75+ (26 per cent), those in DE households (14 per cent) and those who are most financially vulnerable (10 per cent). See Ofcom, Digital exclusion (2022), pp 7-11: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/234364/digital-exclusion-review-2022.pdf [accessed 8 June 2023]

7 The definition of being “offline” is not using the internet in the past three months at the point of questionnaire surveys being undertaken. This is based on definitions from the Office for National Statistics. See Lloyds Bank, 2022 Consumer Digital Index (2022), p 15: https://www.lloydsbank.com/assets/media/pdfs/banking_with_us/whats-happening/221103-lloyds-consumer-digital-index-2022-report.pdf [accessed 11 May 2023]

9 Ofcom, Digital exclusion (2022), p 11: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/234364/digital-exclusion-review-2022.pdf [accessed 11 May 2023]; Simeon Yates et al., ‘Who are the limited users of digital systems and media?’ (2020): https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/10847 [accessed 16 May 2023]

10 Ofcom’s list includes online banking or paying bills; paying for council tax or another local council service; looking for public services information on government sites; finding information for work/ business/ school/ college/ university; looking or applying for jobs; finding information for leisure time; completing government processes; signing a petition or using a campaigning website; using streamed audio services; listening to live, catch-up or on-demand radio through a website or app; watching TV programmes/ films/ content; watching or posting livestream videos. See Ofcom, Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report (2023), p 4: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0028/255844/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2023.pdf [accessed 9 June 2023]

11 University of Liverpool, ‘Minimum Digital Living Standard launched to reduce digital exclusion in UK households with children’ (15 March 2023): https://news.liverpool.ac.uk/2023/03/15/minimum-digital-living-standard-launched-to-reduce-digital-exclusion-in-uk-households-with-children/ [accessed 12 May 2023]

12 These are separate to the activities cited by Ofcom in footnote 10. The eight tasks include using a device controls (such as mouse or keyboard); opening an internet browser to use websites; turning on a device and entering login information; keeping login information secure; updating passwords; finding different applications or programmes on a device; adjusting device settings to make it easier to use (such as adjusting font size or volume); and connecting to a wi-fi network. See Lloyds Bank, 2022 Consumer Digital Index (2022), p 38: https://www.lloydsbank.com/assets/media/pdfs/banking_with_us/whats-happening/221103-lloyds-consumer-digital-index-2022-report.pdf [accessed 11 May 2022]. Chapter 7 provides a detailed discussion on basic digital skills frameworks.

13 See chapter 7 for further detail.

14 Other key concepts include data poverty and device poverty. See Digital Poverty Alliance, UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review (2022): https://digitalpovertyalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/UK-Digital-Poverty-Evidence-Review-2022-v1.0-compressed.pdf [accessed 11 May 2022]

15 In some cases we were not able to determine accurately comparable absolute population values on the basis of percentage estimates provided by some survey data. For a discussion data availability see Q 5 (Helen Milner). See also the Digital Poverty Alliance Evidence Review which summaries seven reports providing different analyses of digital exclusion: Digital Poverty Alliance, UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review (2022): https://digitalpovertyalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/UK-Digital-Poverty-Evidence-Review-2022-v1.0-compressed.pdf [accessed 11 May 2022]

17 Ofcom, Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report (2023), p 5: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0028/255844/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2023.pdf [accessed 11 May 2023]. Absolute figures based on the central estimate (between upper and lower bounds) of weighted assessments of 2011 and 2021 Census data.

19 Ofcom, Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report (2023), p 5: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0028/255844/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2023.pdf [accessed 11 May 2023]

20 Digital Poverty Alliance, UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review (2022), p 9: https://digitalpovertyalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/UK-Digital-Poverty-Evidence-Review-2022-v1.0-compressed.pdf [accessed 11 May 2023]

21 Ofcom, Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report (2023), p 6: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0028/255844/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2023.pdf [accessed 11 May 2023]

22 Ibid.

23 Office for National Statistics, ‘Exploring the UK’s digital divide’ (4 March 2019): https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/articles/exploringtheuksdigitaldivide/2019-03-04 [accessed 22 May 2023]

24 Government Equalities Office, ‘Disability: Equality Act 2010—Guidance on matters to be taken into account in determining questions relating to the definition of disability’ (February 2022): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/equality-act-guidance/disability-equality-act-2010-guidance-on-matters-to-be-taken-into-account-in-determining-questions-relating-to-the-definition-of-disability-html [accessed 6 June 2023]

26 Written evidence from the Rural Services Network (DCL0028)

27 Lloyds Bank, 2022 Consumer Digital Index (2022), p 12: https://www.lloydsbank.com/assets/media/pdfs/banking_with_us/whats-happening/221103-lloyds-consumer-digital-index-2022-report.pdf [accessed 11 May 2023]. Digital capability refers here to the Lloyds Bank terminology. Lloyds Bank benchmarks UK digital engagement using a behavioural dataset of more than one million people. Digital capability is measured by three weighted categories, each with its own set of variables. See page 58 of the Lloyds Bank report for further detail.

29 Written evidence from HM Government—Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DCL0057), p 3

31 Written evidence from Mencap (DCL0027); Q 35 (Dr Christopherson); Ofcom, Digital exclusion (2022) https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/234364/digital-exclusion-review-2022.pdf [accessed 11 May 2023]

32 House of Commons Library, UK disability statistics, Library Note, No 09602, July 2022 [accessed 23 May 2023]

34 Ibid. See also Digital Poverty Alliance, UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review (2022), p 69: https://digitalpovertyalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/UK-Digital-Poverty-Evidence-Review-2022-v1.0-compressed.pdf [accessed 11 May 2023]

35 Office for National Statistics, ‘Internet users, UK: 2020’ (7 August 2020): https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/itandinternetindustry/bulletins/internetusers/2020 [accessed 19 May 2023]

36 Lloyds Bank, 2022 Consumer Digital Index (2022): https://www.lloydsbank.com/assets/media/pdfs/banking_with_us/whats-happening/221103-lloyds-consumer-digital-index-2022-report.pdf [accessed 12 May 2023]. Classification refers to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) definition of ‘recent internet user’. See ONS, ‘Internet users data’: https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/itandinternetindustry/bulletins/internetusers/2020#internet-users-data [accessed 12 May 2023]

38 Good Things Foundation, ‘Local communities and the internet ecosystem’ (2022): https://www.goodthingsfoundation.org/insights/data-poverty-lab-local-communities-internet-ecosystem-kat-dixon/#why-does-data-poverty-matter-a-periodic-table-of-internet-elements [accessed 15 May 2023]

39 Central Digital and Data Office, ‘Transforming for a digital future’ (9 June 2022): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/roadmap-for-digital-and-data-2022-to-2025/transforming-for-a-digital-future-2022-to-2025-roadmap-for-digital-and-data#foreword-from-the-parliamentary-secretary-for-the-cabinet-office-heather-wheeler-mp [accessed 15 May 2023]

40 Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, ‘COVID-19 and the digital divide’ (17 December 2020): https://post.parliament.uk/covid-19-and-the-digital-divide/ [accessed 15 May 2023]

41 Age UK, ‘Access denied’ (16 January 2023): https://www.ageuk.org.uk/london/about-us/news/articles/2023/access-denied/ [accessed 7 June 2023]

42 Written evidence from the London Borough of Southwark (DCL0077) and Ross Oliver (DCL0019)

43 Q 2 (Helen Milner)

46 Office for National Statistics, ‘Consumer price inflation’ (November 2022): https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/bulletins/consumerpriceinflation/november2022 [accessed 15 May 2023]

47 Research commissioned from YouGov data by Vodafone. See Vodafone, ‘A million families at risk of falling the wrong side of the digital divide due to rising cost of living’ (19 October 2022): https://www.vodafone.co.uk/newscentre/press-release/cost-of-living-million-families-risk-falling-wrong-side-of-digital-divide/ [accessed 15 May 2023]

48 Written evidence from the Good Things Foundation (DCL0042)

50 MoneySavingExpert, ‘Broadband and mobile users to be hit with price hikes of up to 17.3% in April—here’s what you need to know’ (11 April 2023): https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/news/2023/january/april-broadband-price-hikes/ [accessed 15 May 2023]

51 Ofcom, Affordability of communications services, (April 2023) p 8: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/260147/2023-april-affordability-of-communications-services.pdf [accessed 11 May 2023]

52 Citizens Advice, ‘One million lose broadband access as cost-of-living crisis bites’ (May 2023): https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/about-us/about-us1/media/press-releases/one-million-lose-broadband-access-as-cost-of-living-crisis-bites/ [accessed 18 May 2023]

53 Written evidence from the Good Things Foundation (DCL0042)

54 QQ 13–15, Q 19




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