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Digital Strategy

Volume 747: debated on Monday 15 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have following their digital strategy to enable adults to acquire the necessary skills to make use of digital services.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and, in so doing, declare an interest as chair of Go ON UK.

My Lords, we are setting up a cross-government team to lead and co-ordinate the Government’s work on digital inclusion. This will help offline adults and businesses to develop their digital skills. The team will work closely with Go ON UK, as the noble Baroness is well aware.

Design of assisted digital provision is in the early stages. This is how offline adults will access central government digital services. We are considering how to include an element of learning in that provision to encourage offline adults to use digital services independently in future.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, and I commend the Government’s use of digital services. However, as he will be aware, all the data show that it is the lowest income households who have the most to gain from those services but are often the hardest to reach. I wonder what steps the Government are taking to ensure that this complex problem is addressed and that no one is left behind.

My Lords, I was visiting a large housing association in Bradford on Friday morning and was happy to learn that it provides for its tenants centres where people who do not have the skills can go to be helped to use the internet. That is very much part of what is in line. The noble Baroness will be aware that there is a joint DWP-DCLG scheme, which is working with the private sector to provide that for social landlords. That is one way in which one reaches one of the harder areas of the population which we must reach.

My Lords, as regards the Government’s digital strategy, the NAO has recently pointed out that there are slipping projections for superfast broadband to rural areas, a lack of competition and the need to change the procurement model. Are not these serious criticisms, and is not the plan not to implement the Digital Economy Act until 2015 another disappointment?

My Lords, I am something of an expert when it comes to which parts of the Yorkshire Dales National Park one cannot get mobile access. I am conscious that there are all sorts of contradictions in wanting to develop rural broadband, with national parks resisting having mobile phone masts put up all over them.

Some weeks ago, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced, as part of the Investing in Britain’s Future package, that there will be an additional £250 million match-funded to extend superfast broadband to such hard-to-reach areas.

My Lords, are the Government aware that more and more councils are going online? In fact, they are offering a bribe—a reduction for people who pay their bills online—thus penalising the millions of older people who are not willing or able to go online themselves. Surely the health cost of isolating more and more older people from the free running of society and their councils is something the Government should take into account.

My Lords, the Government very much take that into account. Incidentally, the statistics do not show that all older people are incapable of using digital services. The assisted digital scheme is precisely a means of helping people who do not find it easy to access the internet. They are given incentives to encourage them to ask their friends and others in care homes and elsewhere to help them to access the internet. I admit that the only government service that I have yet used online is renewing my driving licence. I understand that the most complex procedure that you can currently do entirely online is the enduring power of attorney, which I suspect one needs younger people to help with.

My Lords, instead of a subsidised TV licence or free television licence for the elderly, might not subsidised broadband be a good idea?

My Lords, is the Minister aware—I doubt whether he is yet—that one way to acquire digital skills is to have as many grandchildren as possible?

Yes. I have also discovered that one of the ways to go backwards in digital skills is for your son to emigrate. You cannot then ask him to help in the middle of the night.

My Lords, the disconcerting element of the Minister’s Answer to the noble Baroness in the first case was that this is at an early stage. We are now decades into the internet. We are at least a decade on from envisaging digital services. Whether it is a matter of the social justice of excluding people who cannot use this, of hygiene and security on the internet or, indeed, of the chronic shortage of skills that we have as regards cyber for the future, will the Minister reassure us that, while he may be at an early stage in this process, rapid progress will be made? I declare an interest as a twice-over grandfather.

My Lords, things are actually moving quite fast. This is not simply something that central government are attempting to impose. I am encouraged by how much is being done at the local level by voluntary organisations and by partnerships between the public and the private sectors. The assisted digital scheme is intended to pull a number of these together and make sure that they are encouraged to help precisely in those areas of the country where digital skills are least well developed. The speed at which people are moving over to digital as mobile smartphones expand is very rapid.

My Lords, I am sure my noble friend is aware that according to the Office for National Statistics, 3.8 million disabled people have never used the internet. How are those people going to claim universal credit when the applications have to be made online? If they all go to the centres that he mentioned, will they not be completely overwhelmed?

My Lords, that is precisely what the assisted digital and digital inclusion schemes are intended to deal with. They encourage people to learn how to use the internet themselves and, where they find it difficult to do so, to assist them and advise them on how to gain the access they need.

In the last quarterly report of the GDS, the figure of 20% of the population needing some sort of assistance is quoted. I make that about 10 million people. Will the Minister comment on the fact that in the recent report on the rural broadband programme, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee said that only 9 of 44 locally managed programmes are expected to meet the 90% superfast broadband coverage target? The programme now will not be delivered until March 2017—nearly two years late. What is plan B?

My Lords, things are actually changing very rapidly. I am fed up in Saltaire with the number of letters Virgin has put through my door telling me that it has now wired the entire village. The speed at which superfast broadband is being expanded is very rapid. This is not a matter simply for the Government. One of the things that worries me about the current statistics of where the Government need to catch up is that 60% of the population have shopped online and continue to shop online but less than 30% have accessed government services online. That is where we hope to catch up.