Digital exclusion Contents

Summary of conclusions and recommendations

Digital exclusion

1.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. (Paragraph 26)

2.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. (Paragraph 32)

The case for intervention

3.The economic case for tackling digital exclusion is clear: it would improve productivity, support economic growth and alleviate pressure on some public services. Yet the Government does not appear to have conducted a single assessment of the economic impacts of digital exclusion in recent years. (Paragraph 43)

4.The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology should work with the Treasury and external stakeholders to publish (a) an assessment of the likely economic impact of digital exclusion over the next 10 years; and (b) value for money assessments of interventions to narrow the digital divide. (Paragraph 44)

5.Tackling digital exclusion would support a range of high-profile Government commitments, notably levelling up, improving public health and achieving net zero. There is also a strong civic case for addressing digital exclusion. It would help ensure many of the most vulnerable in society have a voice at a time when political debate and engagement are increasingly moving online. (Paragraph 52)

Evaluating the Government’s work

6.The Government has taken its eye off the ball. It has not refreshed the digital inclusion strategy since 2014 and seems to have ceased formally monitoring progress on it. The principles set out in the strategy may endure but the contention that digital exclusion is a Government priority is not credible. (Paragraph 61)

7.The Government should publish a refreshed digital inclusion strategy within six months of responding to this report. In the meantime it should provide an update on progress against the 2014 strategy objectives in response to this report. (Paragraph 62)

8.We have no confidence that the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) is making digital exclusion a priority in cross-Whitehall policy-making. There do not appear to be adequate formal structures for co-ordinating policy, updating targets, or reviewing progress at either an official level or ministerial level. (Paragraph 65)

9.DSIT should establish a cross-government digital exclusion unit. It should have a mandate for co-ordinating external stakeholders and working across departments to embed digital exclusion in priority policy areas, notably economic growth; levelling up; public health; education and skills; and employment and welfare. (Paragraph 66)

10.We further recommend that the Prime Minister’s Office takes a direct interest in tackling digital exclusion and establishes a suitable mechanism to oversee progress on the refreshed digital inclusion strategy. (Paragraph 67)

11.The Government must show leadership on tackling digital exclusion. This is a complex task and the Government cannot solve everything, but that is no excuse for inaction. Incremental progress against clearly defined targets is possible. The extent of Government intervention should be guided by three core principles: pragmatism, proportionality, and joined-up working. (Paragraph 79)

Affordable internet access

12.We welcome recent improvements in the availability and awareness of social tariffs. But take up stands at just five per cent. (Paragraph 95)

13.We urge internet providers to do more to increase social tariff uptake and review whether their current promotional strategies are delivering results. Ofcom should provide a clearer expectation of what constitutes a social tariff and work with providers, consumer organisations and comparison websites to make it easier for customers to compare deals. Ofcom should be empowered to regulate how and where companies advertise social tariffs, and hold them accountable. (Paragraph 97)

14.Most social tariffs are still too expensive for the most financially vulnerable. (Paragraph 102)

15.The Government should remove VAT from retail social tariffs and from the wholesale broadband used to provide them. The Government must then work with Ofcom to monitor social tariff prices to ensure these savings are passed on to consumers. (Paragraph 102)

16.Removing VAT may not be enough to lower prices to an affordable level for those on the lowest incomes. Lowering the wholesale price floor for sales of social tariffs is one way to address this. (Paragraph 103)

17.We recommend Ofcom consults on requiring Openreach to offer a wholesale social tariff. (Paragraph 103)

18.We welcome the introduction of alternative voucher and discount schemes. These provide flexible ways to help people afford internet access. (Paragraph 105)

19.The Government should work with industry to explore options for expanding these schemes during cost of living challenges to help wider groups at risk of digital exclusion. (Paragraph 105)

20.Mid-contract price rises are partly a result of legitimate investment needs and economic constraints for providers. But their scale is concerning, with many exceeding already high inflation rates. The rises compound existing cost of living pressures. And the level of exit fees is often unjustifiable. We therefore welcome Ofcom’s review of how mid-contract price rises are formulated and communicated to consumers. (Paragraph 109)

21.We encourage Ofcom to set out options for providing greater certainty to consumers throughout mobile and broadband contract lifetimes. We further encourage Ofcom to review how exit fees are calculated and investigate options for reducing their cost. (Paragraph 110)

22.Device distribution schemes cannot solve digital exclusion on their own. But they are a practical way of reducing barriers to getting people online. These initiatives should be scaled up. (Paragraph 116)

23.The 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. (Paragraph 117)

Connectivity and coverage

24.The rollout of broadband and mobile data infrastructure has progressed well over the past five years. However, areas of poor connectivity persist. Rural and remote areas are particularly affected, though pockets of poor urban connectivity are also notable. (Paragraph 125)

25.The Government’s focus on connecting poorly served areas through Project Gigabit and the Gigabit Voucher Scheme should continue. (Paragraph 125)

26.Expectations of what constitutes a “decent broadband service” will continue to change as the internet becomes ever-more embedded in personal and working lives. We are concerned that the Universal Service Obligation minimum standard is not keeping pace with modern requirements for digital inclusion. (Paragraph 126)

27.We recommend that Ofcom reviews the adequacy of the Universal Service Obligation and definition of a “decent broadband service”, taking into account the potential impact on private and Government investment that would arise from any changes. (Paragraph 126)

28.Altnets deliver important competition to larger broadband providers and valued services for underserved communities—particularly in rural areas. Many altnets provide extra support, for example connecting digital inclusion hubs and providing doorstep help to customers. (Paragraph 133)

29.The rollout of full fibre may lead to some altnet consolidation. While this is a feature of a competitive market, the loss of altnets would mean fewer digital inclusion benefits that arise from their social enterprise-based work. (Paragraph 134)

30.Much attention has been paid to broadband rollout. More attention should be paid to take-up rates and the implications for competition and the health of the telecommunications market. (Paragraph 135)

31.In setting strategic priorities for Ofcom, the Government should prioritise the long-term benefits to consumers of market competition and recognise the benefits to digital inclusion provided by altnets. Ofcom should have regard to the levels of take up of full fibre products and the breadth of infrastructure competition when reviewing the state of competition in the telecommunication market. (Paragraph 136)


32.Millions of people still lack the most basic digital skills for work and life. This problem affects a range of age groups. Addressing it should be a Government priority but there is insufficient leadership to make this happen. (Paragraph 148)

33.The Essential Digital Skills Framework provides a good basis for driving improvements but it is not being used to its full potential. (Paragraph 149)

34.The Department for Education should use it to set basic digital skills targets at different education stages, including for school leavers. Apprenticeships and adult education courses offer further opportunities to test and provide basic skills training for people already enrolled on education programmes. The Department for Education should encourage a consistent cross-government approach to using the Framework. (Paragraph 149)

35.Formal qualifications are not always the best way to help adults obtain basic digital skills. Local interventions and more informal engagements delivered through community hubs can provide a key way of reaching digitally excluded individuals, and building the motivation, confidence and skills needed to get online. But many smaller organisations find it difficult to access the resources to deliver such work, particularly when funding schemes are designed for larger institutions. (Paragraph 159)

36.The Government should ensure community-level interventions feature prominently in its digital inclusion strategy refresh. This does not mean they need to offer formal qualifications. The Government should work with funders and local authorities to review the criteria and systems for distributing funding for basic skills support to ensure that smaller organisations are not prevented from accessing the resources needed to deliver local-level interventions. (Paragraph 160)

Accessible services

37.The shift towards digital by default public services has not been accompanied by commensurate support for those who struggle with digital access. Libraries and community organisations have taken on additional responsibilities to fill these gaps, but without sufficient resources and training. (Paragraph 169)

38.The Government’s digital inclusion strategy refresh should include support for place-based in-person initiatives to help those who cannot navigate online access to essential services. This could include boosting the role of libraries, community centres and local amenities as inclusion hubs, in partnership with businesses. (Paragraph 170)

39.Not everyone wants to be online, or online all the time. And some services are better in person. Private and public service providers should avoid viewing digital as a cheap substitute for good customer service. Adequate provision must be maintained for those who cannot or do not wish to use online services. (Paragraph 171)

40.Too many online services have poor accessibility for those with additional needs. (Paragraph 176)

41.As part of the strategy refresh, the Government should audit public sector websites for compliance with accessibility standards and regulations. (Paragraph 176)

42.The Government should encourage private sector organisations to adopt website design accessibility standards used by the public sector. This could start with the most significant public-facing services, for example in healthcare, finance and housing. (Paragraph 178)

43.As public-facing services become increasingly digitised, machine learning tools and predictive analytics are likely to influence policy choices and service delivery. Digitally excluded groups are at risk of being poorly represented in key datasets, and hence face further marginalisation. (Paragraph 182)

44.The Government should commission a review to understand the extent of predictive analytics in public-facing services, their likely trajectory over the next five years and the effects on digital exclusion policy. In the meantime the Government should require public service providers using predictive analytics to consider the use of data and the impacts on those who are digitally excluded. (Paragraph 183)

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