Skip to main content

Digital Technology: UK Labour Market

Volume 757: debated on Tuesday 9 December 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of new technology and the digital revolution on the United Kingdom labour market.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interests as set out in the register.

My Lords, digital is a major contributor to the economy. Since 2008, output for the sector has grown more than three times as fast as the overall economy. Growth is expected to continue, with a predicted 1 million new digital jobs to be created in the next decade. The Government are committed to ensuring a strong, digitally skilled workforce to meet the challenges of our digital age.

My Lords, the digital revolution is well under way, with the potential to make the agricultural revolution and the Industrial Revolution seem somewhat small beer. Does my noble friend agree that, across the whole of Whitehall and across the whole of local authorities, we need a relentless focus on digital if we are to realise every opportunity and every job for the UK labour market?

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. We have made a good start with a ministerial digital task force, which shows the Government’s relentless drive. Activity under way includes even top-level support: yesterday, the Prime Minister launched the National College for Digital Skills, which will start in London next year and spread to centres right across the country. That is in addition to all that we are doing in schools, training and higher education.

My Lords, people who are deaf or autistic may require ongoing support to access the spoken word, for example, through online captioning systems such as the one offered by Ai-Media, which improves access for people whose disabilities are not necessarily physical. How will the Government promote the take-up of innovative new technology within the Access to Work scheme for people whose challenges are not related to mobility?

My Lords, I agree with the sentiment of the noble Baroness’s point. We published a digital inclusion strategy in April and we are working with lots of different partners across the UK, including Age UK, which has done terrific work to help older people access the internet and get savings. This is an enormous subject, and I very much look forward to the work of the Digital Skills Select Committee on all these points.

Does my noble friend agree that central government has a cross-departmental responsibility to mitigate the risk of the future incidence of higher inequality as a result of our increasingly digital economy?

My Lords, I agree that we have a huge role to play. The key thing is to use the digital revolution to grow and improve the curriculum so that, for the long term, you tackle inequality and help people to access the improvements in digital that will make such a big difference to their lives, while, of course, helping those who find it difficult. That is important, as this House knows.

My Lords, only 30% of small and medium-sized businesses in this country are using the web to buy or sell products online, leaving 70% of the life-blood of our economy unable to take the benefits of being online. Would the Minister like to expand on what the Government are doing specifically for small and medium-sized businesses?

I thank the noble Baroness for the opportunity to talk about the programme that we have set in train—the small business capability programme —which is helping 1.6 million small businesses to transact online by 2018; the work we are doing in employer-led reformed apprenticeships at every level, including the higher level; and, of course, the whole programme of reform that she has helped so much to push forward in Whitehall.

My Lords, the Prime Minister said:

“It is our ambition to make the UK the most digital nation in the G8 and it is my mission to show the world that we’re getting there”.

I ask the Minister, in the words of the five year-old in the back of the car: are we there yet? What are we doing next? What is on the Prime Minister’s wish list?

I always think it is important not to boast about progress, but in Europe we are widely regarded as being very much at the leading edge. Interestingly, on some scores, we are even doing well versus the sacred San Francisco and Silicon Valley, with London emerging as a premier location for digital entrepreneurs, people choosing London for IPOs and UK venture capital markets improving. Our programme, led by my honourable friend in the other place, Ed Vaizey, is moving forward the strength we have in digital anyway. The jobs that we are creating in this sector are growing at an even faster rate than the rest of employment.

My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister update the House on the progress that has been made with the GOV.UK website and digital government intervention, particularly the simplification and standardisation of how people access government websites? For example, passports and driving licence renewals are all getting much simpler.

My Lords, my noble friend puts it perfectly. All noble Lords just need to use GOV.UK to see the extraordinary improvements that have been made.

My Lords, many homes and businesses still lack access to basic broadband, especially in rural communities. Despite the Government’s strategy and commitment of £1.2 billion, the programme will be completed 22 months late. Can the Minister assure us that the rural communities will not be placed at an ongoing disadvantage in the current distribution of broadband, and in any future similar plan?

My Lords, as someone who used to campaign for the rollout of broadband, I am glad to say that good progress is now being made in the rollout of superfast broadband. In November, 1.5 million premises had access to it, and the number of homes and premises gaining access has doubled from 20,000 per week to 40,000 per week in August. Rural broadband has had a special scheme, which has allowed an extraordinary degree of investment in some very important rural areas, including Northumberland, where I holidayed, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Cumbria.

My Lords, this is a wonderful story about how skills will be increased, and how various businesses will have access to broadband. What about the 1.7 million people who do not have access to broadband and do not have access to a computer? The fact is, no matter how skilled they become and however many digital lessons they have, they will not be able to use those skills. Can we just have a programme for the extension of broadband so that everybody in this country has this opportunity?

My Lords, I have talked at length with my noble friend during the passage of the recent Consumer Rights Bill on this very issue. Of course, alternative means of access—including paper—remain extremely important.