Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the Report from the Digital Skills Committee (Session 2014–15, HL Paper 111).
My Lords, I am delighted to introduce this debate today, and I look forward to the speeches from all those participating.
This was one of those Select Committees where it is fair to say that collectively we started with a reasonably limited, though variable, amount of knowledge. It was an intense deep dive. For my part, I found the eight months stimulating, illuminating, fascinating and, yes, even enjoyable. This was in no small part due to the indefatigable work of our great team: our clerk Aaron Speer, our policy analyst Emily Greenwood, our assistant Thomas Cheminais, and our specialist advisers, Dr Carl Frey and Professor Andy Westwood. It was also due to the enthusiasm of my fellow committee members.
On a personal basis, I particularly valued the visit to the Hartree Centre at Daresbury near Warrington, where I properly understood the sheer scale and power of big data for the first time, but the whole range of visits and the huge amount of evidence that we received gave us real insight into the opportunities and challenges presented by fast-changing digital technologies. Every day we heard about new reports and read articles and—in the case of my noble friend Lord Giddens, who sadly cannot be here today—new books on the subject. In fact, it was possibly the first Select Committee where we received a book list from one of our committee members.
Whenever the digital economy or digital impact are discussed, two things also follow as night follows day: huge numbers are quoted of potential jobs lost, jobs to be created and the impact on the economy, and the Government of the day, of whatever make-up, have a slight tendency to puff out their collective chest and spout lists of taskforces, initiatives and pots of money being spent. What is clear is that the world is being transformed by the digital revolution, and all aspects of our lives—work, home, society, services and politics—will be touched. Citizens, users of services, as well as the wider workforce, need to be digitally capable. This is both exciting and frightening—a time of great opportunity and great risk—and the role of government in realising the opportunities and managing the risks is fundamental.
In the UK we are rightly proud of our innovators and inventors, creative talents and scientists. We are less good at scaling up our breakthroughs and initial investments and properly harnessing their value for the UK economy. Recent Governments of all colours have taken digital seriously but have also had the tendency to become captivated by their own hype, obsessed by Hoxton and hard hats and running away from anything that could properly be called a strategy or a system. Initiatives—some great—are launched, but do not join up sufficiently or are too short term and key personnel move on quickly. Often by their nature these people are restless innovators and entrepreneurs; they find the experience of government unappealing and their contribution can get lost.
The world is being transformed by a series of profound technological changes: the second machine age. Economists vary in the magnitude of change they envisage. Some believe that as many as 35% of jobs may be automated over the next two decades, while others put it closer to 10%, but all acknowledge that many jobs will change fundamentally, and a huge number and range will have a significant digital element. For example, in health we know of a huge range of new technical jobs and data at every level within the health service, and our experience as patients is changing too and is more reliant on digital. We heard of projected huge numbers of new digital jobs in future decades. Every employer to whom we spoke talked of there already being skills shortages now and of the desire to find employees with digital competence on top of strong basics, and with the softer skills of thinking creatively, working in a team and questioning.
At its most basic, all the changes in work and daily life need superfast broadband—the hard infrastructure. Explanations based on a percentage of the country that is better than it used to be will not do. The internet needs to be viewed as a utility, which means that it must be readily accessible to all or we will neither maximise our economic potential nor avoid increasing inequality. A huge range of goods and services are already cheaper or only available online, and many jobs already expect digital capability. The proportion will only increase at an exponential rate. Throughout our work we received less than convincing promises of internet solutions.
I promised the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, who is a member of the committee but currently engaged on the HS2 Bill, that I would emphasise that she in particular was very unimpressed by progress; we heard not only of rural locations with difficulty but many challenges even in London—the so-called not-spots.
On soft infrastructure, in broad terms the committee agreed strongly that the Government have a responsibility to accelerate the level of digital literacy across the whole population. We found the UK Digital Skills Taskforce’s three-band definition of relevant skills very helpful; namely, digital citizens, digital workers and, at the top of the scale, digital makers. We need to upskill and expand the numbers in all those categories. We were acutely aware of the imbalance between girls and boys at school, and women and men in the workforce, who are interested and engaged in technology. I am pleased that women are well represented here today.
We had good ideas about harnessing the potential of girls. We need better careers advice, role models, parental engagement and much more; the media have a huge contribution to play here, too, if we look at the recent rather good initiatives on girls and sport, which have had a real impact.
Government needs to scrutinise education and training from primary school right throughout adult life. It all has to be joined up. I will give one illustrative example. The introduction of coding in the curriculum is great, but it cannot be delivered without the necessary trained teachers—bluntly, the gap will not be filled by a bit of CSR, however good, in parts of a few of our cities. The committee was told by the National College for Teaching and Leadership that it had funded a total of 121 scholarships in computing in 2014-15, and the previous year 360 new computing teachers had entered the profession. By the way, there are 25,000 schools in England alone. I was with a group of excellent head teachers last week who cannot introduce the new computer studies courses in their secondary schools as they simply cannot recruit suitable teachers. This was in London—try recruiting in Hull. So what is the plan to sort this out nationally?
We suggested the introduction of a module into all teacher training going forward and potentially into all degree courses to enhance digital confidence. In parallel, we heard too of severe shortages in maths, physics and other subjects. At the same time, the Government are trying—correctly, in my view—to extend the amount of maths studied in schools and colleges, but this all needs to be sorted out properly as a whole.
We felt that post-school there needed to be a fundamental shake-up. We got the picture of a pretty slow-moving, underfunded and rather clunky skills infrastructure in many FE colleges and beyond. Of course there are notable exceptions—the new coding college, starting in the autumn, is great, but how can that approach be rolled out more quickly? The current area reviews of FE colleges are really just looking at the finances, not at quality and innovation in the FE sector. The vocational qualifications currently offered are not necessarily what business wants, nor are they fully understood by business.
New models of learning—online, short courses designed with employers—and new types of quality qualifications need to keep pace with evolving technology and technological change. Apprenticeships, high-level vocational courses and degrees need to deliver general digital capability across the piece and to develop specialists. All adults need ways to upskill throughout their lives. As in successful competitor countries in the EU, for example, there needs to be a sort of social contract between government, business and individual employees to share responsibility for this going forward.
We were also acutely aware of the need to ensure that the benefits of the new technological era were felt throughout the UK, and this will need government to be nimble in identifying potential, intervening when, for example, a particular local enterprise partnership is not working, connecting universities and business more effectively, and standing back when there is successful momentum.
Government has a huge responsibility to take a proper grip. It does not mean that government should do everything—far from it—but it needs to own the whole digital agenda. Sometimes the role of government means convening, pushing, investing, advocating and reallocating resources. At other times, it means knocking heads together across departmental and geographical boundaries. It means making hard choices and reforming long-established organisations. It means sticking at it, resisting the excitement of announcements and reviewing progress regularly.
We produced a far-reaching report back in February 2015 but we deliberately did not produce a long string of recommendations. Rather, we focused on the vital role of government and produced an illustrative blueprint of all that we believed needed to happen. We recommended that the Government use this as an aid in producing their own digital agenda, properly pulling together work across Whitehall and beyond. We stressed that this work could not be static: the pace of change is such that there needs to be a restless and relentless focus at the heart of government.
For that reason, we saw the need for a Cabinet Minister at the centre of government, wholly responsible for the work, rather than continuing with myriad Ministers, departmental briefs, teams, working parties and committees. We deliberately did not cast blame or dwell on what had happened in the past. Indeed, we were clear that the then Government, and previous ones, had done much that could be applauded, but it was rather piecemeal, often short term, tending to initiative-itis and not comprehensive. However, we were optimistic. Why not produce a report, we thought, aimed at the incoming Government of whatever make-up? The committee urged the new Government to seize this agenda, really get stuck in and not worry overmuch about defending the past. This was the chance to stop being either complacent or defensive—a tendency of all Governments.
We deliberately called out report Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future, not to be melodramatic but to be clear that this is a moment of such colossal change and of such opportunity and risk that we saw it as a call to action. It is always easier for a new Government to be bold, and we wanted this one to be so.
The Government’s response has been somewhat patchy. On the plus side, responsibility for the Digital Economy Unit has been transferred from joint ownership of two departments to sole ownership of the DCMS. Whether this is quite the high-profile, centre-of-government location that we urged may be open to question. I do not need to tell many Members of this House that location in government really does matter, and clearly the Government’s own digital delivery is still owned by the Cabinet Office.
I was surprised by omissions in the Government’s response, which made me concerned that the necessary co-ordination is not yet there. For example, we were concerned that without sufficient attention to cybersecurity and internet safety, citizens and businesses may be too worried to exploit the benefits of digital technology. I happen to know that good work is happening on both. For example, I am aware of the good work being undertaken by the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, and others on internet safety, and yet this was not referred to in the response from the Government, so presumably is not understood as part of the overall government approach.
There have been some announcements relating to the hard infrastructure and internet access. These are welcome, but the details will definitely need careful scrutiny in this House to make sure that the reality meets the headlines, and Ofcom will need to demonstrate that it has been sufficiently radical in its approach.
The other day, I received a briefing from the DCMS, for which I was very grateful. However, I confess that my heart sank somewhat when the first sentence read, as usual:
“The UK is a well-connected nation”.
So we should be and so we must be, especially when our competitors are investing so heavily. But what is meant by “well-connected”? The briefing then stated that:
“9 out of 10 homes and businesses can access superfast broadband and this will reach 95% by the end of next year”.
The report urges that superfast internet provision should be viewed as a fourth utility. I believe that the Government share this view, but that means a very fast progression to 100% coverage.
As to our proposal for a comprehensive government digital agenda, I was very pleased to hear that the Government were proposing to produce such a strategy. Indeed, I was happy for this debate to be delayed to be able to see the Government’s proposals, and, as I said, bits have already been announced. Our committee recommended the production of a new digital agenda as a top priority for the incoming Government—that was last summer—and a report to Parliament this summer on progress on that agenda. But we cannot have a progress report as we still have no strategy.
On 29 December 2015, the DCMS said that a new agenda would be set out “early next year”. Then, at a Select Committee session in the other place on 8 March this year, the honourable Ed Vaizey MP said:
“We have written the digital skills strategy. When you can expect it to appear is anybody’s guess. I thought we would publish it in February. It was in the famous Downing Street grid. It fell out of the Downing Street grid for reasons that I cannot fathom. If you were a theologian, you would have better ways of understanding how the Downing Street grid works. There is a rumour that it may appear in the Budget and there is a rumour that it may not appear in the Budget”.
It did not appear, and it has not yet.
Can the Minister tell us when the digital strategy will be published? Does she share the committee’s sense of urgency? Does she believe that there is proper co-ordination across government, including the Treasury? Has every relevant department fed into the production of the strategy? Specifically, will it include full details of soft infrastructure—education and skills—as well as hard infrastructure? Will that input come from the DfE as well as BIS? Does she support the idea of updates to Parliament rather than, as Mr Vaizey said, “updates to the PM”, so that the digital strategy, when produced, does not become fossilised on a shelf alongside previous similar publications?
I urge the Minister to reply to this debate in as open a way as possible. I know that the upskilling of young people and the wider workforce, for example, is of real interest to her, but unconnected initiatives will not deliver what we all know is needed. There is commitment on all Benches to this agenda, but to move forward successfully there needs to be openness and honesty about what is and what is not yet working. There is no room for complacency. That point was underlined by the report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on digital skills, which came out today. It reiterates the urgency of this agenda.
I am sure that the Minister’s brief will have a mass of detail of current government action. However, our committee is urging a step change—as we said, a call to action. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and ask the House to note our report.
My Lords, www.chrisholmes.co.uk: if I am not in the Chamber, that is where you will find me. That underpins much of what our report was about. There is no separate world of digital. What we all need to be completely seized of is the “everythingness” of digital.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, for securing this debate and for her excellent chairing of the Select Committee. My only slight disappointment comes this afternoon, when, in the light of her previous incarnation, she was not able to share with your Lordships’ House any insight into the operation of that Downing Street grid. I also express sincere and heartfelt thanks to everybody who supported the committee in its work, not least the clerks, policy advisers, experts and everybody who enabled us to cover such a significant amount of written and oral evidence during our enquiry.
The title of the report says it all: “Make or Break”. It is that significant; it is that serious. There can precious be any issue more significant, or that more underpins every element of every issue society currently faces, than the digital opportunity or the potential consequences of not realising that opportunity. I will restrict myself to just a few areas. I know many noble colleagues will cover other elements within our committee’s deliberations.
There will be no digital economy and regular economy: there will just be the economy, with digital underpinning it all the way through. As we have already heard, up to 35% of jobs could be in danger of automation. Whether that figure is 10% or 35%, there is a really significant underbelly to that number: the kind of jobs that will potentially disappear as a result of automation are many of those which, for the past 40 to 50 years, have been the guarantors of social mobility. It is not only that 35% of existing jobs may disappear; it is a question of the kind of jobs and the impact that will have on our society. We have already seen the positive impact the legacy of the work we did with the Digital Skills Select Committee has had on the Social Mobility Select Committee, which I was lucky enough to be part of in the last Session.
While 35% of jobs may be in danger of automation, by the same token, around 1.1 million new jobs in digital could be required just by the end of this decade—jobs we currently might not even know the name of. That demonstrates the disruptive nature of the process we are engaged in: that this is not just about the labour market and the impact on the economy, but how it feeds back into education, careers guidance—the “everythingness” to which I referred. If we get this right, UK GDP could increase by £63 billion. Even if that figure is contested or somewhat overblown, it is still a massive potential boon for Britain.
Turning to the internet—the hard infrastructure that will enable this—we have seen a significant rollout of superfast broadband, but what about the 5% who still will not be covered? What plans are there to ensure that everybody, wherever they may be across the United Kingdom, will have potential access? Similarly, what plans are there to ensure not only superfast broadband, as measured at the top end, but reliability, so that you can access broadband at high-demand peak points—the so-called golden hour between teatime and bedtime, or, for the more middle-class among us, between suppertime and bedtime—when your provider may tell you that you can experience superfast broadband, but actually you experience no broadband? It is not just about speed; it is also about reliability and consistency, whatever the time of day or night.
Turning to inclusion, we will see the benefits of this technology—this revolution—only if everybody can participate in it. We cannot afford to artificially build steps in cyberspace. For disabled people, it is understandable—though increasingly unacceptable—that buildings built 400 or 500 years ago may in parts be inaccessible. It is utterly unacceptable if websites are still being designed that are inaccessible to millions of users. What is being done to ensure that accessibility is a key part of all and any training for web developers and web designers?
Our report found that, of the 4,000 young people who took the A-level computer science exam in the summer of 2014, fewer than 100 were female. There can be no greater example of what needs to be done to ensure inclusion and diversity to enable the country to benefit from this digital opportunity. If we do not do that, we will only half-achieve and lag behind other nations that have inclusion more firmly hardwired throughout their societies.
On data, in recent years, taking the example of the NHS, all parties have done precious little more than “big up” the spending figures: “£8 billion? We will do £9 billion!”. That is all very well if it means more money going into the NHS, but one thing that truly has the potential to drive and potentially save the NHS is the use of data, not just to reflect and represent but, crucially, to plan and predict—and across not just the NHS but the whole of Whitehall and local government. The opportunities available now were not available even two years ago, never mind 20 years ago. What are the Government doing to ensure that, wherever and whenever, big data and little data underpin every decision across Whitehall?
Will there be an economic boom? Will there be increased connectivity, collaboration and creativity? Will there be an inclusive, internet-underpinned modern digital Britain? The opportunity is there, but it will not happen merely as a matter of course. When will the digital skills strategy be published? What will be in it and how much of it will address the recommendations set out in our report? Similarly, what is likely to be in the digital economy Bill, particularly on internet infrastructure, to which I referred earlier? What will be addressed in that Bill?
The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said that, as with many things, night will follow day. Who can say what the next decade will be like? But I can assure noble Lords that when I sit down, Knight will follow Holmes.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my friend the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond. He was my friend even before he chose to join the wrong political side when he came into this House. I agree with much of what he said and I pay tribute to this fine report and the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Morgan. I was especially pleased to see the emphasis on hard infrastructure in the report. I personally think that it is a higher priority for us to connect everyone with reliable high-bandwidth broadband than to connect a couple of urban areas through High Speed 2.
I was particularly pleased to see mention of soft infrastructure. I am the chair of the Tinder Foundation, which has an amusing name these days and delivers digital inclusion largely on behalf of government but for other people as well. We try to get online those people who currently do not have the skills and confidence to be online. We get about £6 million to £8 million-worth of government money to do that, for which we are very grateful.
I also certainly endorse the call from the Science and Technology Committee of the other House today that we need to continue our efforts to ensure that the 10 million people in this country—the committee puts the figure at 12.8 million, but that is probably overegging it—who at the moment are excluded from the digital world. That costs them dear financially, culturally and socially.
I will focus most of my comments on education, and the implications for that in the report, where perhaps I would have hoped for the committee to be even more radical than it was. I shall start with some statistics from the Tech Nation 2016 report prepared by Tech City in partnership with Nesta to remind noble Lords of quite how important this area is. There is some easy stuff around the digital tech economy being worth 1.5 million jobs with job creation between 2011 to 2014 running at 2.8 times the rate in the rest of the economy, and that digital tech industries had a turnover of £161 billion and grew 32% faster than the rest of the economy in that time. But what particularly struck me is that 41% of digital tech economy jobs exist within traditionally non-digital industries. That underscores a really important perspective for noble Lords, which is that this is not a sector. We cannot think of digital as just another industrial sector; it is universal and is of universal importance.
The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, talked about digital jobs growth and the deskilling effect of digital at the same time. I know a number of roboticists and I am full of wonder, trepidation and fear at what robots can now do. I am excited by the potential of artificial intelligence to help us mere humans be more effective in what we do, but I am nervous that technology is and will continue to take jobs of brain as well as brawn and will continue to hollow out the labour market. But I am also one who thinks that the dystopian future is a choice and that we can chase after a more utopian one in the labour market. There will be enough work, but in terms of the effect on unemployment the key will be to have in any particular geography the right mix of the supply and demand of skills to service the labour market.
I was interested in the publication a couple of weeks ago by Professor Lynda Gratton, professor of economics at the London Business School, and a colleague who is a professor of economics at Oxford, of a book entitled The 100-Year Life. In combination with the debate around the effect of technology, it is significant to start thinking about the fact that in this country, a child born today has a more than 50% chance of living to 105. What that means is that a child starting school in September is likely to continue in work until the turn of the century, because there is no way that we will be able to finance the long retirements that many of us understood as being the promise when we went to school: work hard, get a decent qualification, go to a good university, choose a career, get a final salary pension scheme, get a 25-year mortgage, pay it off, retire early and look after our kids—great. That is clearly over.
Before my noble friend leaves that point, there are those who predict that the age of 105 is way out and that the first person who will live to 150 has already been born and is probably in their mid-30s.
My noble friend may well be right, but the point I am making is that we need to think about this in the context of 60-year or 70-year working lives—possibly longer—and of continually having to reskill as we are continually deskilled by technology. That has profound implications for our education system. I think it will mean that qualifications as proxies for skill will become increasingly inadequate, and that increasingly we will need employers to credential skill because we cannot wait for our cumbersome qualification system to keep up. Apprenticeships are part of the solution, but they, too, can be cumbersome. We need much more agility in our skills system. We need more modular skills badging so that we click through digital badges and see the portfolios that are behind that of the skills that people have and what they are able to deliver with them.
I also believe that we will shortly move on from the traditional CV, with employers being able to click through into those portfolios and, essentially, sift through data mining. If employers start to move away from sifting using qualifications, the fundamental basis on which our education system is built starts to erode quite rapidly. That means that we need to think carefully about each stage of education and the consequences in this century as the digital revolution starts to explode.
On higher education, it is starting to feel insane for a young person to frontload their very long working life with a huge amount of debt by going to university in their early 20s when they need to have a lifelong relationship with university that could last 60 or 70 years. For further education, working out the closer relationship with employers that the report talks about and reflecting employer-accredited qualifications rather than waiting around for awarding bodies is key. For both those sectors—if it does not cause my noble friend Lady Morgan too many nightmares—we should revisit the principle of individual learning accounts and see whether there is a system of financing skills that is individualised, and that is an entitlement that we may all have and can draw on through a long working life.
For schools, we need to profoundly challenge a system that is so content-heavy and geared around our ability to regurgitate and memorise content, and move to a system that gives us the resilience to work freelance, because that is the nature of this economy, to start and to close businesses and charities, and to deal with having to reskill as we are deskilled constantly through life. We need a school system that is less about the standardisation of an industrial age and more about designing learning around individuals. We now have the technology and the tools. We can use the technology we are talking about to deliver a more individualised education.
I see a radical agenda that is non-negotiable. The report’s title gives us a hint that its authors perhaps think the same. I will close by quoting from a blog published in March last year on Medium, a blogging platform. It says:
“As the waves of digital disruption wash across our shores, we need to ensure that our government, our institutions and our teachers are not applying old norms and ways of thinking to new technologies, new business models and new economic realities ... We need to ensure that we focus our resources not on protecting the past from the future, but protecting the future from the past. This isn’t simply about learning to code. It’s about learning new skills. New ways of thinking. New ways of learning”.
I am very happy to say that the author of the blog is in government. It is the noble Baroness, Lady Shields. I hope that the education department is talking to her and listening to her wise words.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, who is doing extremely valuable work. His participation in debates of this kind is extremely valuable to the House and his contribution will repay careful study.
I was one of the willing flock of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton, in the committee. I enjoyed the experience; I cannot say that about everything I do here, but we who served at her feet, under her chairmanship, observed a master class in getting Members of the House of Lords in committees to agree to only five recommendations on a subject as wide digital skills. She deserves a parliamentary award of some kind and she did it without offering any physical violence that I could see. It was an extremely useful and interesting experience.
A couple of things occurred to me which follow on from what the noble Lord, Lord Knight, was saying. Digital matters move so fast, and are so disruptive and transformational that our policy-making in the political process struggles to keep up. That is a problem for everyone. Change moves at such a pace that we need to make an even bigger effort to stay on top of it and its consequences for our citizens.
Another couple of things struck me forcefully in the course of the committee’s work. I remind colleagues that this is a United Kingdom responsibility. Although there are devolved legislature responsibilities in some of these matters, we need to bear in mind that there is a United Kingdom dimension to this, so the co-ordination of what is going on in other parts of the United Kingdom is important. For example, the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, referred to reporting requirements. There is an annual report in Scotland on exactly this subject and has been for a number of years, so there is best practice in other legislatures. Some of them are newer, so they have had a chance to start some of these things with a clean sheet. We can learn from what is happening in other parts of the United Kingdom.
The other thing which astonished me, because I did not know about it and I am ashamed to admit that now, is the imbalance in gender in the digital skills domain and the paucity of women students coming through and taking up careers. The imbalance is scandalous and something serious and urgent needs to be done about it.
My interest in being on the committee was really quite different. It was based on something that the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, rightly mentioned in his concluding remarks. I could see from my interest in social protection and social policy that the exclusion issue was starting to have an impact, for example, in the rollout of universal credit, where the government service, rightly, is being mounted on a digital-by-default basis and therefore the 10%—or 12%, or whatever it is—of the client group applying for universal credit are at a signal disadvantage. I have come to the conclusion, working closely with the people who are rolling out the new universal credit system, that it is unrealistic to expect everyone to be able to cope with digital by default without personal assistance and support. The Government have put some work in hand to attend to that; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Knight, is part of it—that is another important part of the work he does.
If that was the interest that stimulated my membership of the committee, my view was completely changed on the importance of soft skills and the digital agenda. It is not just about making sure that digital exclusion is eliminated, although there is absolutely no justification for the level of digital exclusion we have in this country at this time. We have to look at a future in which the children who are taking up their education at primary school now have been educated for jobs that simply do not exist: that is how dramatic the changes that we face are. I learned an enormous amount about that and have a new interest in the subject as a result.
This report is absolutely realistic and grounded in what is possible. Of its five recommendations, the fourth is addressed to the Liaison Committee of this House. I do not know whether anybody has written to the chairman of the Liaison Committee to warn him about this. To reiterate what I said earlier, we make the point that our processes in this House need to start appreciating the significance to everything that we do, politically, of changes in the digital world.
The report’s recommendations are entirely realistic and rightly accept that there is financial constraint. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said in her excellent speech, the report recognises that much has been done, that connectivity has been a priority and that the Government can claim to be doing lots of things. However, as regards advances that have been made since the publication of the committee’s report just before the last election, the Government’s manifesto was far too focused on connectivity and hard infrastructure. That was followed by the Budget in 2015, which was the first opportunity for the new Government to come forward and advertise the priority they were prepared to give to the digital agenda, particularly the digital skills agenda. The 2015 Budget allocated a little more money for ultra-fast broadband in Cornwall, some extra money to the Cabinet Office for the excellent work it has done in the Government Digital Service and some money to notable hubs. We are lucky to have such well-developed hubs in the United Kingdom.
There was not very much in the Budget, but what disappointed—if not astonished—me was the November comprehensive spending review. It was full of all sorts of stuff such as northern powerhouses and this and that but, despite planning the United Kingdom’s financial expenditure profile for the next three years, it made no reference at all to a co-ordinated digital strategy. It is astounding that the Government did not take the opportunity provided by the comprehensive spending review to put in place a co-ordinated, joined-up strategy, given that they had the committee’s report and had obtained information from the people who came to us as witnesses. That was followed by the 2016 Budget, which concentrates on government efficiency, although I am not against government efficiency through digitalisation.
My charge, therefore, is that we have wasted two years trying to get something that demonstrates the Government’s direction of travel and the priority that they are prepared to give to investing in this work. The Minister has the possibility to remedy some of these issues by going back to the department and arguing the case for the digital economy Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech to have a long enough Title to enable us to address some of these strategically important aspects. My spies in the department tell me that there is quite a restrictive approach to getting broadband out, although the noble Lord, Lord Knight, is absolutely right to say that connectivity is important.
However, we need the opportunity to hold proper discussions in this House. I am not suggesting that the Minister goes looking for a Christmas tree Bill to hang everything on. I promise her that we will approach it with the same discipline that we showed in achieving the five recommendations. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, will be sitting behind us to see that we do not get out of hand. There is a clear opportunity here to give the House more confidence that the Government know what they are doing, are committed to the agenda and are willing to take this issue forward with the urgency suggested in our report and that of the House of Commons. It is neat that the chairs of both reports were women; that gives me some encouragement and is the way it should be. I hope the Minister will take that ask seriously so that we can have a continuing discussion on this important subject in your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. Like him, I had the privilege of being a member of the Select Committee. I join him and others in paying tribute to our chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and our advisers and staff. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, really drove the committee, and it was a huge pleasure, privilege, learning experience—everything else—to be part of that team.
Briefly, I will draw attention to two issues in what was a very wide-ranging report. Before doing so, I, too, would like to mention a bit of the context in which we are operating, because I will return to this point of urgency at the end. In our lifetimes we are seeing all sorts of megatrends—globalisation, demographics, climate change, et cetera—but the trend that is undoubtedly having the largest and most direct effect on our daily lives is the second machine age, the digital revolution. Our lives are being and will increasingly be transformed by the increasing processing power and interconnectivity of the mobile world: big data, the internet of things, advanced robotics—artificial intelligence that will lead to the automation of knowledge work as well as physical work. It is not for nothing that these are described as disruptive technologies.
These technologies present opportunities as well as challenges. The opportunities to manage old age, to encourage innovation and enterprise, to address issues of productivity, and to improve social interaction are all part of the life that we are seeing evolving. But the challenges are huge, and they were identified in our report. I draw particular attention to the infrastructure challenge to provide digital access to all and the whole question of skills—to produce, in the very useful terminology of the UK Digital Skills Taskforce, the,
“digital makers … digital citizens and digital workers”,
who we will need now and in the future to ensure economic and social progress. It is very timely for this House to focus on how we can meet these challenges on the day that the Science and Technology Committee in another place has issued its report on what it describes as the “digital skills crisis”.
The two issues from our report that I want to focus on are the importance of lifelong learning and the role of the Government. Both have been well touched on, not surprisingly, by other speakers. The report has much to say on the demands of the educational system, and I listened very carefully to the expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, on this issue. We spoke about the importance of seeing digital literacy in the same way as maths and English: as the core of the educational curriculum. We looked at how you provide teachers to do that—who teaches the teachers? Others have made the crucial point about the importance of encouraging more women into the digital world.
The point I want to focus on is that in this new digital age we must recognise that formal education at school and, indeed, university will probably prepare many people only for their first job. As the report suggests, if something like 30% of the jobs currently around will not exist in 20 years’ time, many in the UK workforce will have a massive need for opportunities to reskill throughout their working lives. When we talk about digital skills, the question of lifelong learning needs to be addressed with urgency, and I would like to highlight what the report says about this.
First, there is a need for a cultural shift to prepare learners to learn for themselves. Is there scope for more activity from the behavioural economists and nudge units to work out how to bring this about? Part of that is the importance of online learning. Many excellent sites exist, but much more can be done, so the whole question of how learners can learn for themselves needs to be addressed. Secondly, there is the importance of the further education sector in making lifelong learning accessible, in the redesign of courses, in ensuring that digital skills are part of any reskilling package, and in making shorter, more targeted and modular courses available in new ways and at new venues. In looking at how further education can cope with this reskilling process, there must be closer involvement of business in the design, delivery and funding of courses. It is recognised that the debate about digital skills is about not just schools and universities; it is a lifelong learning process that will now be part of all our lives.
My second area is the Government’s leadership role, as I mentioned. It was a constant theme of our report that the Government have a role as the conductor of the orchestra. They are the essential enabler in bringing together their efforts, business, education and the third sector—we should never forget the third sector in all this—to orchestrate what they are doing to reskill or upskill, to have a skills agenda and to solve the skills challenge. As other speakers have mentioned, our recommendations therefore focused on the Government producing a digital agenda to have that orchestrating role of bringing together other actors to ensure that we address the skills challenge. We mentioned the need for senior ministerial oversight at Cabinet level. Above all, we stressed the importance of priority and urgency.
It was a little disappointing that the Government’s response to our 144-page report, published five months later, was four and a quarter pages long and that we have had to wait until now for news of the digital economy Bill, which will undoubtedly be important in addressing some of the infrastructure challenges. However, we are still waiting for the digital strategy. It is very good news that it is in the pipeline and we all look forward to what the Minister may or may not say in trailing its publication.
We owe it to a huge number of people to get this right. We in the post-war generation have been brought up to believe in linear change—that yesterday is probably a good guide to tomorrow. But the second machine age means that we are living in a completely different world of disruptive change. There is therefore a question of how we produce the flexibility and pragmatism, the imagination and innovation and the willingness to take risks in an age of change and uncertainty that this skills challenge will require. A lot of people are going to need a lot of help. The Government have a crucial role in orchestrating the response, the way to address this problem. I look forward hugely to hearing that sense of priority from the Government in how they will address it.
My Lords, I begin by declaring my interest as the chief executive of TalkTalk, an internet service provider, and as a trustee of Doteveryone, a digital charity set up by my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox. It is a huge privilege to speak in this debate, not least because of the fantastic work the committee has done shining a light on Britain’s digital skills challenge. It is an excellent report and I am only sorry that my own endeavours in the digital world have meant that this is the first time I have been able personally to participate.
It will not surprise your Lordships to learn that I am passionate about the ability of the internet to change lives for the better. At its best, the digital world can advance human knowledge and understanding, enable business to thrive and spread prosperity, and bring families and communities together—not just digitally but physically. It can be a tremendous force for good. It is also something Britain can be brilliant at. We are already firmly established as one of the leading global clusters for the tech and digital sector, and are sucking in talent and innovation from around the world. That is fuelled in part by our insatiable demand for digital services, whether click and collect retailing, takeaway apps that link SMEs to consumers, or innovative transport apps that link open source data to allow us to transit London faster.
Britain spends more online per head of population than any other country in the world. That is testament to the dynamism of our digital economy, which is driving job creation and prosperity. Research from Tech City UK and Nesta showed that between 2011 and 2014, the tech and digital sector created jobs nearly three times more quickly than the wider economy. Crucially, they are fantastic jobs: the average salary in the sector is £50,000 a year, 36% higher than in the rest of the economy. It is also making our public services more efficient and responsive. The Government’s digital by default programme is transforming how citizens interact with the state, making it easier for people to get the support they need and saving nearly £2 billion a year that can be reinvested in front-line services.
We can be proud of what Britain is already achieving, but we cannot unlock our full potential as a digital nation if we allow that digital revolution to not be an inclusive one. As the committee’s report highlights, the unequal distribution of digital skills means we are at risk of leaving some groups behind. The report forensically sets out the detailed picture, but in the interests of brevity, and not wishing to repeat what other noble Lords have said, I will highlight a couple of areas that particularly concern me.
The first one is the disadvantaged groups. As the noble Lord, Lord Knight, pointed out, 10 million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills as defined by Doteveryone. That means they do not know how to send an email, do a web search or fill in a job application online. However, those 10 million people are not evenly spread across the population. Nearly half are in disadvantaged socioeconomic groups. The disabled and women are disproportionately likely to be offline. As workplaces and public services become digitised, we risk exacerbating existing social divides, making it harder for vulnerable groups to find work or to access the services they most depend on.
My second concern is gender. The committee is right to highlight that women are disproportionately likely to lack digital skills or to pursue technology careers. Believe me, I feel it: as a female chief executive of a digital company, I am quite a rare breed. Sadly, it came as little surprise to read in the report that just 10% of app developers are women. Without more young women studying STEM careers at school and university and being encouraged into technology careers, that is simply not going to change and our digital future will be one-sided.
The third concern is business. The transition to online is a challenge for any organisation. I run an internet service provider, and we are still learning how to use the very product we sell. No organisation makes the transition from nondigital to digital without assistance. This is particularly true of Britain’s SMEs. Research by Lloyds shows that more than a quarter of SMEs do not think that the internet is relevant to them. That is despite the fact that the most digitally mature SMEs are a third more likely to be growing.
Put simply, the digital revolution is at risk of being a partial one. Without addressing the growing gulf in digital skills, we risk permanently disadvantaging some groups. That would be a tragedy for those individuals but also artificially cap Britain’s potential to be the world’s leading technology and digital economy.
I believe that universal digital literacy will be every bit as important as basic literacy was during the industrial revolution and that if we do not grasp that now, it will be too late and other countries will get ahead of us. What should we do about it?
Too often, debates about the digital economy and digital skills focus on infrastructure. I run an infrastructure business, so of course I think infrastructure is important, but it is not the only thing that will drive basic digital literacy and skills. We must not conflate the supply of infrastructure with the ability to use that technology.
The vast majority of the 10 million people without basic digital skills have access to superfast broadband today if they want it. Many live in households with superfast broadband connection, but they do not know how to use it. They are scared of it; they think it is not for them; they lack the skills to make use of the digital world, not the infrastructure. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that extending coverage is a substitute for tackling the digital skills deficit.
The committee is absolutely right to call for more robust intervention to address the digital skills challenge. I welcome the vast majority of the report’s recommendations, and I hope they find support from all sides of the House. I want to highlight three specific things to focus our efforts on universal basic digital literacy.
The first is a strengthened government strategy, perhaps to take advantage of the fact that the strategy has not yet been published. I encourage my noble friend to ensure that the digital strategy contains a detailed plan for universal basic digital literacy. We will never turn people from digital citizens to digital workers to digital makers if they do not have the basic digital skills. Co-ordinating that—the role that government can play as the convener, the challenger, of the private sector and the third sector—is hugely valuable.
I defer to the great experts in this House on education, but it is also essential that we focus on equipping our young people with the skills they will need in tomorrow’s economy. That can be done together with the private sector, so I welcome the proposals for greater contact between tech companies and teachers, including industry support to reform FE courses and to roll out industry-endorsed qualifications. That will be essential.
Finally, I focus on one essential as a businesswoman, which is money. We have to be honest in acknowledging that eradicating digital exclusion will not be free. I am mindful of the pressures on very limited government resources, but I feel that there is scope to review the case for investing in universal basic digital skills.
The Government expect to save £8 billion over the lifetime of this Parliament by moving services online. That will not be possible if 10 million adults remain digitally excluded. It is not expensive to teach people to use the internet. Research from the Tinder Foundation has shown that it can cost as little as £47 to open up the digital world to someone, to give them those skills. Clearly, that investment would reap rewards for the individual but also by unlocking that efficiency for government, and set us on the path to becoming a proper digital leader. We are willing to invest in higher-end digital skills development; why are we not so keen on investing in basic universal digital literacy?
I conclude with a note of optimism. We have a digital skills challenge, as all nations do, but I am hopeful that if we embrace the digital revolution, as we embraced the industrial revolution a century or more ago, we can emerge as one of the strongest digital nations—not just for the few, not just for one sex, but for everyone. I believe that digital skills can play a role in uniting the country and helping us all to prosper, and that is a prize worth striving for.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, on her chairing of our Select Committee and her excellent introduction to the debate. Much will have changed in the ever-expanding digital world in the 16 months since our report was published. We offered our conclusions to, and drafted a digital agenda for, whichever Government might be elected at last year’s May general election. As the noble Baroness said, at the end of last year DCMS promised that a five-year digital strategy would be published in early 2016. Apparently, it was completed in February but has since been stuck awaiting approval from No. 10, quite the opposite of the urgent action called for in our report. I therefore take this opportunity to remind your Lordships of some of the reasons why the committee recommended that an ambitious government-led digital agenda should be given a high priority.
Our report, Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future, advised the new Government to establish a single cohesive digital agenda. The need for a more cohesive approach was emphasised by many of our witnesses, who complained not of government or public service inactivity but of the bewildering number of old and new initiatives, good, bad and indifferent. We were also told that a shared vision was lacking of what the digital revolution might mean for people across the country, for their families and their jobs, for the economy and, indeed, for the future security of the UK.
We heard from respected economists that an estimated 35% of current jobs in the UK could be automated over the next two decades. Since then, that prediction has been given widespread coverage in the media. A recent headline in the Times claims that,
“Robots could exterminate the middle class”.
Another warns of,
“The robot coming to take your job”,
with the strapline underneath:
“We are on the cusp of a techno-revolution that could make us all redundant”.
According to the Financial Times just last month, we are completely unprepared for the “robot revolution”.
The digitalised transition is happening so quickly that millions are being stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide, especially the elderly, the unskilled and the underqualified. At the higher end of education, an increasing number of graduates cannot find stable or rewarding jobs. Parents worry about how to guide their children towards a career path with prospects. Research published today by Citizens Advice reveals that 800,000 workers are on zero-hour contracts, 1.1 million more are on temporary contracts, and another 2.3 million are working variable shift patterns, making a total of 4.5 million in insecure jobs, feeding public anxiety about the changing economy and the impact of the digital revolution.
Add to all that social and personal insecurity the threat of cybersecurity; business data are stolen and banks are robbed by cybercriminals, while financial scams go unreported. Terrorism, money laundering and all kinds of criminality thrive anonymously on the so-called “dark web”—and, we are told, it could get worse. Last week Robert Hannigan, the head of GCHQ, said that the arrival of quantum computers inside the next decade will crack even the most sophisticated encryption and undermine the foundations of internet security.
In these increasingly unpredictable times in international affairs and democratic politics, the internet and social media add to the growing public anxiety. Given the disruptive potential of the digital age, with its novel technologies and unintended consequences, our report encouraged the UK Government to take a much stronger leadership role. Our committee voiced concern that the UK might be left behind in the new digital era and that we were at a tipping point. With exquisite timing, an updating of our February 2015 report is published today by the Commons Committee on Science and Technology. Its findings reinforced our concerns. Some 90% of jobs now require some degree of digital skill. The UK needs another 745,000 workers with digital skills by 2017. The digital skills gap costs the economy £63 billion a year in lost income, and the Commons committee reckons that 12 million British adults lack basic digital skills and that 6 million have never used the internet. Those are alarming statistics, but, sadly, the Commons committee says that it doubts that the Government will give,
“sufficient weight to the vital areas for change that we have highlighted”.
As a member of your Lordships’ Digital Skills Committee, I share these doubts. I hope that in his reply the Minister will tell us whether the Government’s digital strategy, when it is finally published, will reflect the priorities of the Lords and Commons committees and will actively promote the cultural change required to meet the challenges of the new digital age.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, who served as a member of the committee—or the flock, as my noble friend Lord Kirkwood put it. I begin by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, on the work she has done and acknowledging that in a brief contribution it is simply not possible to do justice to such an excellent and wide-ranging report.
One thing is clear from the contributions we have already had, and it will no doubt be echoed in those which are to follow. There seems to be unanimity in your Lordships’ House that we are living in a rapidly changing world and a rapidly changing world of work, a world in which skills, and digital skills in particular, are the currency of the 21st-century labour market. As we deal with that digital revolution and the revolution in artificial intelligence that is coming rapidly up behind it, it is clear that we need people with digital skills to help UK plc keep pace and thrive. Frankly, we simply do not have enough of them. That is why we need that digital skills revolution and, as the report so eloquently puts it, a single digital agenda without which the economic future looks rather bleak.
The noble Lord, Lord Knight, referred to the Tinder Foundation, which he chairs. He will be well aware that, together with Go ON UK, it carried out research which demonstrates not only the scale of the task but the real benefit of us tackling it. It looked into the social and economic impact of a lack of digital skills on both the individual and the country as a whole. The report calculated that the cost of investment in skills and devices would be £1.65 billion up to 2025, but it showed that the benefit to individuals and the country would amount to £14.3 billion over the same period; a cost-benefit ratio of almost £10 for every £1 invested. Clearly it is an investment worth making.
There is no shortage of suggestions about how we should move forward or of reports. As we have already heard, only today the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee issued its report Digital Skills Crisis, which talks of the need for a step change to halt the digital skills crisis and bring an end to digital exclusion once and for all. It clearly echoes the views of your Lordships’ Select Committee.
The timing of our debate is particularly fortuitous because it precedes the publication of the Government’s long-awaited digital strategy. I suppose we can only hope that the only reason it has not yet appeared in the Downing Street grid is that Mr Ed Vaizey was determined to hear the pearls of wisdom from your Lordships before finalising it. I hope we will see it soon. That is what so many of the reports say. They all have a number of common threads. They all say that currently we have a pretty good record. For instance, they recognise that, helped by our amazingly successful creative industries, we have the largest digital economy in the G20. As the Government’s response states, we are a founding member of D5, the network of some of the most digitally advanced Governments in the world, and we are also becoming a major attraction for inward investment. Venture capital in London’s tech companies is now 20 times what it was just five years ago. However, all the reports are clear: that record is at risk. We have heard many statistics today showing that, for instance, 16% of the population remain offline; 23% of adults, half of them working age, do not have the required level of basic digital skills; 90% of all new jobs require digital skills, not just in some niche area, as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said, but across all sectors; and, crucially, nearly three-quarters of large UK companies say they are suffering from a gap in digital skills.
The reports are all clear that this is a constraint to growth and must be addressed. Rightly, they all point to some excellent work that is already being carried out by Google’s Digital Garage Academy, Creative Skillset, the BBC and many others, on which we can build. However, they all point to work that needs to be done right across all sectors, in schools, colleges, apprenticeship schemes, universities and businesses, not forgetting the work with SMEs in attracting more women, as we heard, and in ensuring that we have the digital infrastructure. As we heard earlier, from the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, there is also the whole issue of lifelong learning.
I have time to touch on only two subjects, schools and infrastructure. In schools, while I welcome our new world-beating computing curriculum, of which we should all be very proud, we should also acknowledge that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said earlier, we need to achieve universal digital literacy. That means we need to place digital and technology skills alongside literacy and numeracy as the three building blocks of all education and employment.
There is another matter that is not touched on enough. Here I echo the remarks by other Members about our education system, which is currently so content-heavy. There is a real problem in our schools at the moment. We still have the industrial revolution model of,
“Ram it in, ram it in!
Children’s heads are hollow.
Ram it in, ram it in!
Still there’s more to follow”.
We need to be concentrating on creativity, imagination, innovation and risk-taking. One great thing we can do is to use the digital revolution and the technologies that it has presented in our schools to help us to achieve that, with much more individualised learning. An individualised learning approach could, for example, go out of its way to help children with special educational needs. However, we also have to pick up the point made by others about the chronic shortage of qualified confident ICT teachers, and recognise that many of those who are in post do not have appropriate qualifications. We need to recruit and train more specialist ICT teachers, and to provide those already in post with improved continuing professional development.
The Commons report today makes another important point not covered in your Lordships’ report:
“Given that digital skills are of the highest priority to the future of the UK economy and the future chances of young people, we find it surprising that computing is not explicitly considered in Ofsted’s schools inspection framework”.
The committee goes on to recommend that it should be. I agree, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to this idea. I certainly hope she will respond supportively.
On my second chosen area, infrastructure, I am concerned that we have a lack of ambition. Clearly so is the committee, referring to the claim of 10 million UK premises, homes and businesses currently unable to access superfast broadband, and quoting the Times, for instance, saying that the UK’s broadband speeds are stuck in the slow lane. The response that we currently have from the Government seems very limited: a universal service obligation of just 10 megabits per second, way behind what some other countries are offering. We need to do better and to be more ambitious, and we need to adopt the approach of the committee, which defines the internet as a utility service available for all to access and use. To achieve that, we need to pick up a point, which again was raised by other noble Lords—we need to concentrate on demand stimulation. If more people understood the benefits they can get from high-speed broadband, more people will take it up and the unit costs will go down. There are many ways of doing that: one great example is the BBC iPlayer, which has driven up demand.
I want to end by asking the Minister two questions about the BBC which are relevant to this debate. Earlier the Minister announced that there was a settlement for BBC money that would be earmarked for assistance with broadband rollout. Yet more recently she announced in your Lordships’ House the establishment of a contestable fund for programme production which will use £20 million of unallocated funds from within that earmarked BBC money. Money that was originally earmarked for broadband rollout will now be used for what I have to describe as a pet government project. Can the Minister explain why the Government have put that pet project ahead of getting on with the vital issue of broadband rollout?
My second question is on upskilling and demand management. The existing BBC charter has within it a digital purpose. Part of that requires the BBC to take,
“a leading role in the switchover to digital television”.
Clearly, that has been done very successfully and does not need to be replicated in the new charter. However, the other part of the digital purpose says that the BBC,
“in promoting its other purposes”,
“helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services”.
The recent BBC White Paper makes no reference to any similar purpose for the BBC in the future. Can the Minister explain why not and will she at least confirm that the BBC will continue to have a role in research and development and technological innovation, and that nothing in the new charter will prevent the BBC continuing its excellent work to drive digital take-up and skills with developments and initiatives such as Make it Digital, which has reached 23 million people so far, or its digital traineeships for young unemployed people?
I hope that the excellent Select Committee report, and several others that echo its recommendations, will have significantly influenced the Government’s digital strategy, and I hope that we will not have to wait much longer to find out.
My Lords, it was both a privilege and a great pleasure to serve on the Digital Skills Committee, which was brilliantly chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton, with a first-class support team. I echo the tributes already paid to them. I also pay tribute to my colleagues on the committee, including the noble Baroness, not least for already saying just about everything that I had planned to say myself.
The widespread concern about and importance of the issue we were addressing was indicated by the fact that, in our relatively short existence, we received oral evidence from 59 witnesses, together with 111 written evidence submissions. I share the disappointment that the Government’s response to our 144-page report was a mere five pages long, with few specifics relating to skills as opposed to hard infrastructure. The fact that we have had to wait until today, a full 16 months after publication, to debate the report is also disappointing—although, in trying to refresh my memory of it, I have found its recommendations even more relevant and urgent now. Of course, our findings have been strongly reinforced by the just-published report of the Science and Technology Committee in another place, which is appropriately entitled Digital Skills Crisis.
The digital economy represents both opportunity and crisis for the UK. If we get it right, it can give a powerful boost to UK productivity and competitiveness, and to our future economic success. If we get it wrong, we will inexorably be left behind in the global race. There are two essential elements to getting it right: access to digital services—which essentially comes down to broadband and mobile coverage and speeds—and having the skills needed to understand, use and develop those services effectively and securely, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, emphasised.
We are reasonably well up with the field at present in terms of our broadband and mobile infrastructure, our wide take-up of digital technology, especially among the young, and our traditional strengths in creativity, design and innovation, as well as in sectors such as financial services, science and education. At the same time, we have heard that up to 9.5 million people in the UK lack even minimum digital skills, and 30% of SMEs do not have a website. The “make or break” challenge for government is to ensure that we keep pedalling fast enough to stay up with the peloton—there are plenty of other countries competing in the race.
Nowadays, almost every occupation requires digital skills, from baking to banking, construction to chemistry, farming to fashion and healthcare to hospitality—I could go on. These skills, especially at the higher levels, are in seriously short supply, with 72% of large companies and 49% of SMEs suffering from technical skills gaps, and skills shortages being cited by employers as their number one risk. According to techUK, unfilled roles requiring digital skills are already costing the UK economy some £2 billion a year.
I will comment on just three aspects of what is needed, two relating to skills and the third to broadband connectivity. The first is the education and training challenge presented by the digital revolution. If we are to be a leading digital nation, every single aspect of our approach to education and training will need to be adapted to reflect the needs of the digital economy and to develop the skills that employers will need—from primary school through to university and beyond. As we have heard, digital literacy must be recognised as on a par with English and maths, to be addressed appropriately by all educational courses and providers. I shall give a couple of examples from the report of what that might involve.
First, there is likely to be a growing need and demand for new sorts of learning: shorter, more modular and more targeted courses, including at further and higher education institutions; greater focus on creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship; online and self-learning options—for example, via MOOCs, massive open online courses; a greater focus on “learning to learn”, as the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, pointed out; and much greater engagement with employers in both the design and delivery of courses. Every school should have an employer governor with digital awareness.
There is also a need for more digital apprenticeships. According to techUK, there are currently not enough new apprenticeship standards in areas such as cybersecurity, big data analytics and programming. All apprenticeships, in whatever field, should include a digital skills element. The Government’s commitment to 3 million new apprentice starts in England by 2020 is welcome, and the new apprenticeship levy should ensure continuing availability of funding. The process of defining new apprenticeship standards is, rightly, employer led, but how will the Minister ensure that it requires minimum levels of digital, as well as literacy and numeracy, skills and that the new standards are up and running faster? The report from the other place makes some useful suggestions on how to enhance digital skills through apprenticeships. Indeed, it echoes many of the points made in our report with equal force and, if anything, even greater urgency.
My second comment relates to cybersecurity. This often seems something of a poor relation in the glamorous digital world, but it is crucial not just in terms of national security matters, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, but to tackle the growing threat of cybercrime—there were 44 million reported cyberattacks in the UK as far back as 2011—to protect online safety, whether from scams or online bullying or pornography, and to maintain personal privacy through security of data and transparency about how it is used. Everyone who uses digital services needs to be aware of these issues and to have the skills needed to assess the risks of digital systems and to use them safely and securely—another education and training challenge, not least for SMEs. Beyond that, there is an opportunity for the UK, with its expertise in this area, to gain commercial advantage through developing and marketing advanced cybersecurity skills. How will the Government seek to promote the culture shift that is needed—yet another one—in attitudes to cybersecurity?
Thirdly, I come to broadband. It became clear in the inquiry that good, reliable broadband access should be recognised as a utility service as essential as electricity or water. So I welcome the broadband universal service obligation proposed in the Government’s planned digital economy Bill, with its guaranteed access to at least 10 megabits per second broadband.
The UK currently has reasonably good broadband coverage and speeds, but it was something of an eye-opener to find that, in a table of average broadband speeds in 33 European capitals, London came only 26th. Countries ranked above us for overall digital proficiency include Switzerland, Singapore, the USA, Finland, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong and the Netherlands. I ask the Minister: are we trying just to keep up or even to catch up, or are we seeking to get ahead of the field in order to fully capitalise on our digital strengths? Should not we be pushing for fibre connections to every home, for example, rather than just to the nearest street cabinet? In that way, even in rural areas, such as where I live in Wales, everyone would have access not just to superfast but to ultrafast broadband, with speeds of 100 megabits or more; or even to hyperfast or gigabit broadband, with speeds up to 1,000 megabits, in line with the Minister Ed Vaizey’s ambition to become a “Gigabit Britain” over the next five to 10 years. South Korea has already announced plans for a national 5G wireless network offering 1 gigabit speeds by 2020.
That leads me finally to the Government’s role. As we have heard, the digital strategy, promised in a number of debates from last autumn onwards, has still not appeared. Whether or not that is because of the mysteries of the Downing Street grid, I am not sure. However, what does this say about the priority being given by government to this absolutely essential aspect of our future national competitiveness, whether in or out of the EU—although I believe that the challenges of meeting our digital skills needs would be considerably greater outside the EU? The inquiry recognised that the Government cannot address this issue on their own. There are essential roles for education, employers, third-sector bodies, local and devolved government, and the regions—indeed, for all of us. But somebody needs to set the tone, or to act as “conductor of the orchestra”, as the report puts it. That can only be the Government. At present, the tone seems to be disappointingly muted.
The brief response in July has little specific to say about skills. It focuses on the formation of a new digital infrastructure and inclusion implementation task force, mentioned no less than four times in the five pages. I understand that this body has been constituted as a Cabinet sub-committee and will include eight Ministers. This might go some way towards meeting the report’s central recommendations for the Government to develop an ambitious digital agenda for the UK, driven by a Cabinet Minister and regularly evaluated and reported on. However, where is the vision for the future? Where is the transparency about what the Cabinet sub-committee is doing? Where is the trumpet-blowing about the key importance of digital skills? Where is the leadership to drive and encourage the vital contributions of all the other players in the orchestra?
The Government’s approach to grasping the opportunity presented to the UK by the digital economy seems to me, on current evidence, to be half-hearted, even though their heart is in the right place and they are undertaking and supporting numerous worthwhile, albeit piecemeal, initiatives. I hope that the Minister will be able to convince me that I am wrong, and that the long-awaited digital strategy this summer will really get to grips with issues such as those I have mentioned, while demonstrating a new level of commitment and urgency in addressing this “make or break” challenge.
My Lords, I share my colleagues’ thanks to the most excellent staff and the support that we had on the committee and to all who contributed to our deliberation. Most of all, however, I thank our chair, who did a superb job in holding the committee together and getting it somewhere sensible—she really should be chair of Ofsted. I also share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, on the Government’s lack of response. There really is a role for the Government to play in taking leadership and steering the country into and through the digital age. However, when you find out that HMRC still does not have email, you realise that there is a bit to do. We have an Investigatory Powers Bill coming to this House soon which has been drafted without any concept that perhaps the individual citizen needs protecting too in their daily life on the internet. There really is a lot to do, and to have a directed and centralised will in Government to push this through in all departments is a change which is needed. I am very disappointed that the Government have yet to pick this up.
I hope it will be uncontroversial if I say that the Government, when dealing with IT and the consequences of IT for the country, need fewer national, top-down rules and more principles that get worked out locally, with users, so that they actually work on the ground. We are seeing too much centralised thinking, creating a set of rules that the rest of the country is meant to go by. When you come to put this into place, given the local job picture and the training facilities available, it just does not fit. I very much hope that the Government will take the opportunity to support local digital skills partnerships as they emerge. I know that several are under way.
I was very impressed by what the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, had to say, not that I agree with him entirely on the subject of the role of knowledge in the curriculum. There is a great deal to be said for knowing things before one spouts opinions but, when it comes to education bearing on digital skills, we have to take a very radical view of what the right structures are. There are university courses out there which are teaching Flash, for goodness’ sake. People are paying good money to be taught something which is certifiably useless to their future career.
Education for the operational level of IT is naturally much shorter than a degree. A lot of the jobs available are essentially technician-style jobs: you need maybe six months of intensive education, a couple of eight-week bursts of blended learning and a bit of experience in between. With that, you can take someone who is NEET and turn them into a useful employee. You do not need long courses, and anyway what is the point of them? The whole of someone’s life when they are in IT is going to be learning and relearning. I am sure it has happened to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, just as it has happened to me. I am having to learn another computer language now because the ones I know are out of date. This is the same for everybody involved in IT: it is an absolutely non-stop, continuous package of learning. To think that you can learn three years of it at the beginning is just mistaken. There are some things about computer education that are permanent: the way to program well; the way to manage a project. Those things change slowly, but the individual packages, programming languages and sets of data that you work with change all the time. That needs to be much more directed towards a lifelong process.
In the report, we call for learning to be based much more on industry requirements—on a fast, up-to-date response to real demand. One example of the way in which the Government are standing in the way of that is the prohibition on funding industry-designed courses. In large chunks of IT, industry courses—things from Cisco, Microsoft, Apple or whatever—are the way that the industry operates. They are what employers want. That is the currency out there. It is a global industry. We cannot change that by fiat in the way that we can change a GCSE spec. We have to fit in and work with the way the world works. If we are educating an apprentice in some generic course that does not focus on an industry-understood capability, all we are doing is turning out people who are not fit for work. They will have to be retrained as soon as they are hired. The industry response to that is to say either, “Hire someone from India if we can”, or, “Export the work to India, because we need the capability and we need the thing done now”. We have to look at how we are working within the realities of the industry and we need short, sharp, totally up-to-date courses, which cannot be devised through the standard ways of Ofqual and slow government processes. They have to be what is accepted by the industry now.
The other thing that distresses me in the way that the Government are proceeding at the moment is how apprenticeships are evolving into myriad tiny compartmentalised qualifications, with job descriptions that probably will not be there in two years’ time. We are in danger of breaching the 1,000 barrier in the number of apprenticeship qualifications out there. It is looking to be worse than the qualifications pattern that underlies it. In IT, few digital jobs do not access other parts of the world. Most of the jobs that we are creating are not just IT but tied into other bits of the real world. Teaching a motor mechanic how a car works, for example, is half IT at the moment.
There is an idea that you can compartmentalise things. The committee visited an entirely undecorated computing department at Imperial where you would think that the arts did not exist at all. That is not where IT belongs. It is part of all our lives. Apprenticeships specifications that are too narrow and rigid will not last. They will not have value for the people who take them because they will be out of date and irrelevant in two or three years’ time. We have to write the specs broadly and allow them to be things that will last. They probably need to last 10 years before someone’s experience in life outlives the fact that they started as an apprentice. They have to have more breadth and reliability than they do now.
Beyond that, I very much hope that the Government will support the efforts of the Tech Partnership to help people initiate an interest in IT careers. It is wrong to think that we can do it through the educational system. It is too slow and it misses too many people. An awful lot of people out there, particularly women, could have taken an IT career early on but did not take the right route. There are lots of people who want to change career, who have got bored with what they are doing or are returning to careers after a period out of work or doing other things, who will have no great concept that a career in IT might be for them. A short introductory course that they can do, and at the end of it have confidence that IT might be for them and that it might be worth taking up an apprenticeship or longer course, is enormously important. TechFuture badges, to echo something that the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said, will become a way in which people’s skills are judged and evaluated by future employers. The Government are getting behind that through the Careers & Enterprise Company and the enterprise passport initiated by my noble friend Lord Young. That is an important way to go, as are the two-day back-to-work courses. People who have never done IT before are given a chance to see if that is a skill set that they might have. The Government need to find ways to make such opportunities easily available to people all through their lives because we will not tackle the skills shortage we have in IT just through education. We need to recruit an awful lot of people who think that they are past that stage but now find they need to do something else.
My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lady Morgan—or “Sally”, as I would call her—for the excellent report and for the way she introduced it. I am not the only noble Lord to speak who is not a member of the committee, but I am certainly one of the few, and I hope that noble Lords will therefore allow me to range a little wider than the report itself.
First, I have a confession to make. I know that in this House I am considered to be something of an expert with my iPad, iPhone and computer. I can use them. I know that people laugh at me when I pull my iPad out of my pocket in the Bishops’ Bar. I produced it at the dinner table and played one noble Lord a song on YouTube that he had asked for.
I have not had a chance to thank the noble Lord. As I remember, he kindly played “Stardust” by Nat King Cole for me.
Exactly. That makes the point that I am considered to be almost a nerd by some people in the House of Lords, and certainly I describe myself as the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. But my confession is that while I know exactly what I want to know and how to use a computer, I do not have the foggiest idea of how a computer works. I know how to work it, but I do not know how it works. I can drive a car. I know how to drive it, but I have no idea how the internal combustion engine works. I can turn my television on. By the way, I can even record a programme at home in Hamilton from my iPad or my iPhone from here. I can stand here and record a programme at home. I can do all that, but I have no idea how a television works.
The point I am trying to make is twofold. First, there are two elements to the educational programme that we require. I think that the report highlights that, but so far the comments have been about education in IT skills rather than how to use IT. That is an educational process which ought to cover the whole of the population, not just the few who will be involved in IT skills. We have to ensure that everyone has the computer skills that are required. They do not have to have the actual coding skills that are needed by some experts. It is something that is now desperately important. In fact, my own view is that as a democracy and as political organisations, we are failing to keep up with what is happening in the world of technology.
It was not entirely a joke when I intervened on my noble friend Lord Knight and said that the first person who will live to 150 has already been born and is probably in their mid-30s. That happens to be the case if the developments in genetic engineering continue. We are likely to find genetic cures, which by the way require the use of the internet and computers in order to bring everything together—otherwise it would take hundreds of people years to develop genetic engineering. But those cures are just around the corner. Are we designing our political structures around the fact that people will live to 150? No, of course we are not.
On education, are we talking about the use of computers in education, rather than training people in the skills required in terms of computers? No. I have not picked up a book in the last three years. Why? It is because I read all my books on a Kindle. I read quite a lot, but I read on a Kindle. Why are we not introducing Kindles in schools? Why are we not showing children how we should be doing certain things in schools? Why are teachers standing in front of a class telling children something that they could find out from their iPad by asking the question on Google?
Why do we still vote by putting a cross on a piece of paper with a pencil when we could be using the internet to cast our votes electronically? To be honest, our younger people now laugh at the fact they have to go to a school to vote. That is one of the reasons they do not vote. If they could vote electronically by using some form of ID to ensure safety, they would.
So we are in danger of our democracy failing to keep up with where we are going in technology, with smart cards. We are failing to keep up with the way technology is moving. We have to try to ensure that we move forward all the time and that we keep up with technology. We should educate people in two ways: first, we should educate all people to use the technology; secondly, we must have a skilled workforce. We need to have both education systems working, but the second one does not require everybody receiving the same education as everybody else.
My Lords, I too did not take part in the Select Committee, but I will speak on some of the issues raised in the very comprehensive and excellent report, in particular developments in my city of Bristol. I have been told by key members of the digital community that the city council, through its Bristol Futures division, provided leadership, support and space for partnerships between business, the universities and the voluntary sector to make impressive progress on the digital agenda. This community has harnessed the energy and imagination of individuals’ enterprises to bring a creative and innovative culture to the city that has resulted in national and international recognition as the UK’s leading smart city alongside London.
Some time ago, the council had the foresight to acquire a 75-kilometre-long fibre and communications network from Rediffusion, a cable TV pioneer. This is known as the BNet. It is currently managed and maintained by a consortium and supports the council’s ICT requirements, including telephony, data, traffic-related network communications and CCTV. The consortium will use spare capacity to offer new superfast and ultrafast broadband services to Bristol’s businesses. This, of course, will generate revenues for council services. It is hoped that the consortium will also develop the additional 60 kilometres available to expand broadband and superfast broadband to more SMEs.
As I have said, Bristol, with London, is the UK’s leading smart city. The city has achieved this accolade through the use of the BNet, Bristol University’s £12 million computer, and a new city operating system that stores and analyses data. Bristol is sometimes described in publications as a giant laboratory for a range of innovative projects using big data, including how to solve problems such as traffic congestion, air pollution and assisted living for the elderly. These systems are also used to collect and analyse data from the city’s trial of self-driving cars.
In terms of regional clusters, Bristol-Bath is one of the UK’s leading centres for technology businesses, according to a Tech City and NESTA report published earlier this year. Bristol and Bath outperform London as the most productive cluster, producing £296,000 of sales per employee, as against London’s £205,000. It is important to many of us in cities in England, particularly, to point out just what can be achieved outside as well as in London. This progress has been achieved by very strong collaboration and close working relationships between the world-class universities, businesses, local councils and the local enterprise partnership. It is fair to refer to my noble friend Lord Foster’s plea about the BBC: it is no secret that the BBC in Bristol has also driven the digital agenda here and added to this culture of innovation.
However, this success is not evenly shared across all the neighbourhoods and communities of the city. Bristol City Council has developed a digital inclusion programme to improve access to skills, connectivity and equipment. A computer reuse scheme was launched in 2011, through which redundant council PCs are refurbished and made available to those most at risk of being digitally excluded. More than 3,000 PCs have been made available over the last five years. Training and software packages were provided by local firms, by which I mean firms within the deprived communities of the city. Between 2011 and 2015 the council ran a digital skills programme providing 10 hours of basic training to older people and disabled adults and their carers. Citizens Online and BT supported the programme and with the help of 66 volunteers more than 2,100 people were helped to get online. In addition there are a number of very innovative local projects, again run in the city’s most deprived communities, particularly through the Knowle West Media Centre.
The results of this work are now becoming visible. Official data from ONS show that in the first quarter of 2015 91.3% of Bristol adults—that is, 328,000 adults over 16— stated that they had used the internet in the last three months. The percentage of people who have ever used the internet has been rising faster in Bristol than nationally, and Bristol has the lowest percentage of people who have never used the internet of all the English core cities. So in terms of the objectives of the report there are practical trials and practical experience that need to be shared and I believe that collaboration and sharing, together with autonomy and freedom to innovate are key if we are to drive the digital agenda forward.
However, despite the need for basic digital skills—I hear the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, in her plea for these—there is also a need for increased access to tailored IT skills for different groups. Basic IT skills are vital for those who are not yet digitally included, but many young people, particularly those in deprived communities looking for work in digital, creative or IT, would benefit from access to affordable, accessible training in more advanced and marketable skills, such as data analytics and coding. These, however, can be very expensive and if they were available in local venues and priced attractively, this might increase the pipeline of young people entering the workforce from more deprived areas. I hope that the Minister will take on board some of the experiences from Bristol and that we will work on sharing some of these experiences.
I welcome the report’s recommendations, particularly the need to support existing successful university/business/LEP and local authority partnerships. I believe that there is the imagination, creativity, energy and enthusiasm in our cities and regions to achieve a step change in developing the digital economy at a pace that would enable us to catch up with international competitors. However, that needs support, encouragement, the sharing of good practice, space and autonomy without the dead weight of some of the conditions and restraints that are sometimes forthcoming from government, which usually inhibit creativity and slow momentum. As the report says, we are at a tipping point and the Government need to play their part in ensuring that the UK is not left behind.
My Lords, as many noble Lords have said, this report was inspired by the speed at which our lives at work and at home are being digitalised. We started work two years ago and reported eight months later, which was before the last election. The new Government, in their brief response, agreed with all our five modest recommendations. That is good, but we are still waiting.
In essence, we said that our economy called for national self-improvement in understanding the digital world and in acquiring the skills to deal with it. We also called for better infrastructure. Today, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee confirmed our view in its report. I hope that the digital economy Bill will deliver on these reports. However, as I say, we are still waiting.
This was a fascinating committee on which to serve. I am grateful to all our witnesses, who were evangelists for the cause of digital education. I am also grateful to Emily Greenwood and Aaron Speer, my noble friend Lady Morgan, who led us, my fellow committee members and our specialist advisers.
As my noble friend said in her excellent introduction, this is a huge topic, so we tried to deal with it in logical steps. We looked at learning digital skills at school, then the pathway from schools to work and higher education and helping those already at work to acquire these skills so that they could become more productive and employable, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said. When we looked at the world of education, I think we were rather surprised and encouraged by the number of initiatives. Since we wrote our report, these have multiplied and developed. In the debate on polytechnics a month ago, several noble Lords spoke about the importance of teaching digital skills at school. What came out of that debate was that many schools have discontinued design and technology in favour of digital skills. Apparently, this is partly because of teacher recruitment. We need both; it is not either/or.
However, there is good news. Since we started on our report, some 8 million schoolchildren have been given a BBC micro:bit or Raspberry Pi or something similar. Presumably, this is part of the BBC’s digital purpose, about which the noble Lord, Lord Foster, spoke. All this is being done to encourage children to learn coding and acquire digital skills. The ambition must be for this to be part of the school education of every child under the age of 16. However, it needs to be part of an overall scheme. Our report and that of the Commons both emphasise the importance of this hands-on skill becoming an integral part of education.
Helping this along is the European Space Agency—there is no escape from the referendum. Schoolchildren and adults are inspired by space travel. Thanks to the European Space Agency, every day you can see pictures of Tim Peake in his orbiting space capsule, which are specially prepared for his primary school’s project. He has become not only an astronaut but an educator, sending our children messages of encouragement. This is worth any number of lessons. Both he and the founder of Raspberry Pi—which is, incidentally, a charity—were both in the Birthday Honours List, and I hope noble Lords will join me in sending them congratulations.
As my noble friend Lady Morgan said, we also emphasised the importance of teaching the teachers. We welcomed the initiatives to provide this help, but recruitment is obviously a problem and we suggested solutions. The Commons report also speaks of recruiting problems. Reluctantly, I fear we may find that testing for these skills may be the way selected to help with teacher recruitment because testing always helps with recruitment.
In our report we spoke of the complicated and confusing pathway for non-academic students from school to work. This has been mentioned on many occasions in your Lordships’ House. The most recent was the report in April by the Select Committee on Social Mobility, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, and what a good report it is. It describes the transition as,
“complex and incoherent, with confusing incentives for young people and employers”.
This is no way to ensure that these young people are properly equipped with digital skills—skills they are going to need whatever they do—and this transition needs urgent attention.
As other noble Lords have said, we made the point that these skills will be the basis of many new jobs. Indeed, since we wrote our report, estimates have been made that some 60% of the jobs that people will be doing in 10 years’ time do not even exist today. The Commons report speaks of 750,000 workers with digital skills being required in the next two years. We all agree that the way to future-proof our young people must be to teach them digital skills, so I welcome the new National College for Digital Skills, which starts work in the autumn—a nice but rather rare example of evidence-based policy-making, if I may say so—but more is needed. The Government need to appoint a Minister to bring all this together—a conductor, as the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, put it.
We spoke about including a digital element in all apprenticeship schemes. Since then, a target of 3 million apprenticeships has been set and there is to be a levy. I hope the levy will encourage employers to see that the digital skills relevant to their particular industry will be included, but are these skills included in the quality standards that the Government are setting for these apprenticeship schemes?
In our report, we spoke of the way companies, especially small and medium-sized companies, will use digital skills to become more productive, innovative and market orientated. We also saw some routine accountancy and financial work and medical diagnostics being done by machines programmed by clever experts. This has progressed far more quickly than I expected, using big data techniques. Indeed, the Management Consultancies Association says that one-third of its members’ work, both public and private, is now digitalising products and services, so they, too, need digitally skilled recruits. All this reinforces our argument about the changing nature of work and the need for digital skills—again, confirmed by the Commons report.
Like my noble friend Lord Knight and the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, what surprised me is the rapid development of artificial intelligence. The visit to Hartree hinted at this and what the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, just told us about Bristol confirms it. If artificial intelligence continues at the same speed of travel, as I am sure it will, perhaps we should have given more thought in our report to the moral, social and ethical values of these digital skills. These same skills can find the connection between our genes and a disease to cure our illnesses, as my noble friend Lord Maxton told us, but they can also send autonomous weapons into battle—a chilling thought. So let us learn from the campaign on the public understanding of science, in which many noble Lords participated. People want to understand as well as to benefit from these new digital skills, and we must explain as well as provide. We have learned that if the public do not want it, the technology becomes discredited.
Another area within the social aspect of digital skills that requires careful thought is the so-called world of transactional employment—that is, casual work done over the internet. Thousands of people now work full-time or part-time in this way. Upwork alone has 20,000 on its list. You would certainly need digital skills to operate on these work platforms. However, together with digital skills, the Government need to ensure that these people could work inside the social safety net, rather than outside it as they seem to be doing at present.
Ours was a timely report, hugely relevant to the modern worlds of education and work and backed up by today’s Commons report. But these worlds are moving on and developing fast, so the time cannot be far away when another committee will have to continue the work where we left off. Perhaps the time for the next committee to start work will be after the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, reports on technical education and after we have seen the details of the promised digital economy Bill. I think that it will require a committee of this House to ensure that society and digital skills keep in step and develop together, so that we will all benefit.
My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and all her colleagues on an excellent report and on today’s debate, which has been so excellent and thought-provoking. At times, in fact quite frequently and understandably, it has been underscored by considerable impatience. It is a shame that it has taken quite so long to debate this report.
In his contribution the noble Lord, Lord Knight, emphasised that digital is not really a sector any more but all-pervasive. This is illustrated by a recent report by McKinsey, saying that some 50% of the world’s traded services is already digitised and that 12% of global trade is conducted via e-commerce. Moreover, 3D technology will ensure a huge impact on physical trading flows in the years to come. I have just come back from China, and it is sometimes worth looking at how the UK is perceived from the outside. The UK’s digital economy is recognised as a world leader, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said. At 10% of GDP, its percentage is larger than that in any other G20 country.
The noble Lords, Lord Aberdare and Lord Haskel, lightly touched on the European Union aspect. In that context, I have considerable concerns that Brexit would have a major impact on our digital sector, including our software industry, particularly in respect of its inability to take full advantage of the European digital single market. Furthermore, Brexit could easily shrink the talent pool available to companies in the sector.
I hope that many of the points made by the committee’s digital future report will be incorporated in the forthcoming digital economy Bill. We all look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. For example, there is still time to rethink the ambition for the universal service obligation. At present, rollout will happen only on request and may not mean 100% coverage. Superfast broadband of at least 25 megabits per second is a utility, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said. It should be universal and the Government should be investing in it. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said, this is not just about infrastructure. My noble friends Lord Kirkwood and Lord Foster and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, emphasised that exclusion is also a major danger, with 10 million people possibly being excluded. I very much like the emphasis placed on universal basic digital literacy, which we must emphasise in our public policy. The case for the investment payback was illustrated very well by my noble friend Lord Foster.
The report rightly places emphasis on the importance of regional clusters for digital development. It is not only the northern powerhouse; as my noble friend Lady Janke made clear, Bristol is also leading the way in becoming a smart city. Links with local universities are crucial in each case. But as the committee also points out, there is a great need to link industry and local government far more effectively with further education institutions as well. I welcome the funding of incubator facilities in Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, but I hope that, when elected, each of the mayors in those cities will appoint digital champions for their city regions and combined authorities to work with education and research institutions and private sector organisations.
There is so much interest outside the UK in the digital developments taking place in our cities that a point of clear contact is absolutely crucial. I hope that, following the Nurse review, the new UK research and innovation body under the leadership of Sir John Kingman will have a major impact on digital research strategy by building links between business and the research base, as he says. Will the Government set up a ministerial committee to provide oversight and co-ordination, as recommended by the Nurse review? Many noble Lords in this debate have asked for a much better method of co-ordinating government efforts in this area.
Above all, however, the Digital Skills Committee’s report draws attention to our major digital skills gap that, more dramatically, was called a crisis by the Commons Science and Technology Committee. Perhaps the Government have been guilty, as in the words of an advertisement, of turning a drama into a crisis. Recent estimates suggest that the UK is already losing a potential £2 billion a year from unfilled roles requiring digital skills, as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said. The scale of the growing gap over the next decade cannot be underestimated. In that context I welcome the recognition in the Birthday Honours List of Eben Upton, a pioneer of the Raspberry Pi computer that has helped so many young people to acquire digital skills.
More generally, however, is the DfE satisfied with the implementation of the computing curriculum? Is it really making an impact on growing the pipeline of digital talent in the UK, especially in the light of the committee’s finding that,
“Many teachers are not confident or equipped to deliver the new curriculum”?
The committee rightly stressed the importance, as did many noble Lords today, of encouraging women to enter the tech sector to bridge our digital skills gap, while techUK recommends that tech businesses, LEPs, local authorities and schools should collaborate to support organisations that provide events to show young girls the opportunities that digital and tech can offer. There are many other ways of introducing young women into the tech sector, such as the Government’s Your Life campaign, which a number of noble Lords commended. There is also techUK’s important back to work programme, which provides women returners with the tools and assurance they need to apply for tech sector roles. We need to redouble our efforts in that respect.
I accept that agility of education and training is needed, as emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Knight. The noble Lords, Lord Janvrin and Lord Lucas, used the phrase “lifelong learning”, which must be one of the lessons learned from the committee’s report. However, there is a great need for more digital apprenticeship. What progress is being made by the new Apprenticeship Delivery Board? The apprenticeship levy could have significant unintended consequences for the tech sector: techUK has pointed out that tech companies will be some of the largest contributors to the levy but under current proposals will struggle to find relevant apprenticeships to train their workforces. I entirely take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that these apprenticeships should not be too narrow in their scope. What are the Government doing to address this?
Again, seen from outside the UK, are we doing enough to exploit our knowledge and research? We have a competitive edge in many areas, not least e-government. I would have been more fulsome about the Government Digital Service were it not for last week’s events, but the fact is that across government something has been created that other countries want to emulate. In 2013, the Government set out their strategy for their own digital services, but we now need a much broader strategy for how we as a nation can capitalise on our digital services and skills worldwide. I welcome the move of the Digital Economy Unit into a single department, but it needs to be much more assertive in promoting UK digital services and know-how internationally. I have almost lost count of the number of noble Lords who mentioned this, but when can we finally expect the digital strategy paper to be forthcoming? Will it be this summer, as promised in the Government’s response to this report, or slightly later? I look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness has to say on that.
The committee did not dwell on the intellectual property aspects, and the noble Baroness will be pleased to hear that I will not dwell on them today. Nevertheless the protection of intellectual property in this context is extremely important. Looking at the impact of digital, this is just a first step. Like a number of noble Lords, I am beginning to be concerned about how little planning for the next stage—that of artificial intelligence and robotics—we are doing. The pace of change is speeding up. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, used the phrase “failing to keep up”, and I entirely agree with that. The combined impact of digitisation and robotics, with AI, will mean the hollowing-out of many low-skilled jobs but also of many professional and managerial jobs. How much attention are we giving to educating our young people to enable them to benefit from this new world and adjust to it? We need to become expert in the use of information and data in making judgments. We will need to excel in creativity and the use of our imagination: EQ will be as important as IQ. Like my noble friend Lord Kirkwood, I look forward to a Select Committee on that subject to build on the work that this committee, and I very much hope the Liaison Committee will take note.
My Lords, we in this House are rightly proud of our committees. We understand that the reach of their work goes much beyond these four walls, and it is important that we support them and continue with them. Nothing could give me more pleasure than to introduce as excellent a report as the one we have been discussing this afternoon. We must thank my noble friend Lady Morgan and her committee for undertaking this very substantial piece of work, and thank the committee members for their individual contributions. It is quite clear from listening to the debate today that although these things take a lot of time it was quite a pleasurable gig: you can tell from the remarks that people enjoyed being gathered together by my noble friend Lady Morgan. The description of her as organising her flock is perhaps the key to how they have managed to come up with such an excellent report.
However, as has been said, the report has not been matched by the Government’s response, which I will come back to later. It is not just length that matters—although it is interesting that the discrepancy in page numbers is so large—it is the fact that it was delayed, did not deal in detail with the very large number of recommendations and failed completely to engage with the revolution that the report suggested is necessary if we are going to tackle the digital future that we face as a country and as individuals.
The report, taken as it stands, is still highly relevant despite being published in February 2015. It is refreshing because of its wide reach and the fact that it made every attempt to look in depth at the issues that it addressed, not just in its analysis of the problems but in the possible solutions. It has blue-sky thinking, which we always want to see in these reports, and has very practical proposals about how the recommendations could be made to stick. Of course the basis for that—as it is for all good policy-making—was the evidence that they sought. They not only sat here and received papers and presentations but went out and learned what was happening on the ground. That has all come out in this excellent report. It was supplemented by another good idea, which might be taken up more generally, which was to ask those who submitted evidence to put down a list of key asks. In other words, it made them do some of the hard work that often has to be done in government by refining the broadness of the thoughts so that there was a specific list of ideas from each of those who gave evidence. I think anybody who needs their thinking on this area gingered up could read those key asks and have a very good idea about the temperature out there and what people want to see happen.
When my noble friend Lady Morgan was asked about her report in an interview, she said:
“This report is a wake-up call to whoever forms the next Government in May”—
this was prior to the last general election.
“Digital is everywhere, with digital skills now seen as vital life skills. It’s obvious, however, that we’re not learning the right skills to meet our future needs”.
Interestingly, the newspapers picked up three of the main recommendations in the report. The first was the recommendation that runs throughout the report—although it is in no sense the totality of it—that the current approach in the UK to educating people of all ages needs a radical rethink. Secondly, current internet provision in the country needs a step change—a major boost not just in speed, although that is important, but in bandwidth. An important point was made in the opening speeches—for example, that made by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes—about the danger that if we do not consider coverage and inclusion, not just in physical terms but in terms of groups, gender and previous experience, we are all going to be the losers. I want to come back to that point.
The third point that the papers picked up, which is important and the key to this debate, is that the Government have a key role here. Two very interesting points were picked up in the reports I have read; indeed, they were picked up in the report from the Select Committee in the other place today. A digital agenda goes way beyond what any individual department can achieve in Whitehall. We are talking about a radical rethink of the basic structure under which we undertake education and training and operate our industrial capacity. That cannot be done by any one department, however well resourced: it has to be done by the Government as a whole taking a vow that they are going to do something significant and do it with vigour and for the long term.
Listening to the debate today, I was interested to hear what individual Members of your Lordships’ House picked out and wanted to support. It is in some sense demeaning to pick just a few things from the report because, as I have already said and others have mentioned, it is a very rich resource for people interested in this area. We are talking about very complex issues, but it is interesting to see how the key issues have come to the surface for a number of those who have responded. The first, which again underlines so much of this, is the way in which the economy is changing. Many jobs are going to change. Automation is a risk but may also be an opportunity, given how many jobs will have to change and become different. My noble friend Lord Knight said that he was confident that brawn as well as brain would be required in the future economy, but I think we all feel that in some sense we would not be doing the best by our country if we could not provide opportunities for people to engage themselves in improving the quality of the work that they undertake and how they do that.
This takes us into the question of skills, which the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, just mentioned and which was picked up my noble friend Lord Knight. In thinking about skills, we have a tendency to do two things. First, we apply it sector by sector, which as has been said will not work in this situation. Secondly, we tend to build a skills infrastructure to operate as if it were some object to be applied in the pursuit of an operation. I do not think that is right in this situation. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, picked this up. I may not go all the way with some of the things he said, but he certainly had the right idea that we are missing a big trick if we do not understand how industry wants training to happen and how those who have skill needs may need to tap into it in a way that is not currently seen in the system.
Other points were raised that make this a very important area. There is a need for more agility in training schemes. In a click-through world, we need to think differently about how the outputs of training applied to people will affect their resilience to cope with a changing world, the portfolio of skills they may need, the fact that people will often be operating in a freelance as well as an employed capacity, and reskilling being the norm, not just occasional.
Many noble Lords mentioned schools and the need to think through the implications in that area. Of course, trying to change school curricula is, as we all understand, an extremely difficult ask. I hope that, when the Minister responds, she will give us a sense of how that battle is going, because I suspect it will be a battle royal right across Whitehall.
The idea that one should raise digital literacy to the same level as numeracy and literacy, which I absolutely support, goes against everything that professional educators seem to want out of the education system. That does not mean to say that it is wrong, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, also picked up. We have to think this through, because if we are right about how we will operate in a future world, we have to regard that as the central nut to crack, and therefore apply all the force required, and to think through the implications and the collateral damage that may happen.
Curiously, the innovation and creativity that will probably be key to that is absolutely what occurs when one works in the digital world, but the report is right to pick up how difficult it will be to get the teaching force up to the level required, and, I would say, although it is not mentioned specifically in the report, the need to ask parents to think again about how they support their children.
I had a very good example of that around the dinner table at the weekend, when my wife and I discovered to our considerable dismay that the emails that we had finally got around to sending to our children to get them to do even things as simple as coming downstairs for dinner are no longer applicable as they have not read emails for years. They said, “What are you doing? It is all instant messaging”—and other apps that I could not possibly mention for risk of being sued. If we cannot even do this in our home when we are quite computer literate, we are obviously a long way from the place of this debate.
A lot of noble Lords talked about the internet and the infrastructure that will be necessary to support this work. A lot of good things were said today to which I hope the Minister will respond. The internet as a universal service obligation is what is being proposed, but the questions remain: about speeds and bandwidths, reliability, whether it will really get out to the final 10%, and, if it is to be cost-constrained, what the cost will be and how it will it be justified.
As I said, accessibility is not just about hardware, it is also about making sure that those who might otherwise be excluded by background, gender or previous experience also get the chance to be part of the information society. The underlying question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare—a very good one—was: will we be playing catch-up in this game or do we really intend to lead?
The report is very strong about women’s difficulty in getting digital jobs and how they are therefore being excluded. The problem is not just at school, although that is highlighted, the lack of career paths or the way in which subjects are differentiated between schools that teach mainly boys or girls. There is a wider concern here about making sure that we all understand what is important about the technologies and where we are going.
Those seem to me to be the key points that have been picked up today. They are important and we look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. The Government’s initial response was very weak; I hope that she will be able to remedy that today. As was said at the beginning of the debate, the Government are rather good at being captivated by their own rhetoric and failing to deal with the detail. This is not a time for rhetoric; this is the time for real understanding of what is in the digital agenda paper that we are promised. Will it be optimistic and inclusive of all the issues that have been raised today? Will it really tackle the question of how the whole Government can move on this, or will it fall into the problem well illustrated by our current difficulty, which is that the Government appear happy to resist the committee’s call for a Cabinet-level Minister to be responsible for driving this agenda forward? They say that it is perfectly okay to have a Minister of State reporting to two Secretaries of State, because that means that the effort is well resourced at the top level. It will not work; you need powerful committees and departments to make this work and get it through.
I raise some minor but important issues. Will Parliament be consulted on this, will we get updates, or will we have to wait for periodic responses and debates? When we get to the crunch, will there be a commitment to our people to make a real step-change in skills and infrastructure? Will we make it or break it?
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, for calling this debate and for her lively and interesting speech. I share in the heartfelt thanks of my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond to the Select Committee, its staff and advisers for a very perceptive and wide-ranging report on the digital future. I have very much enjoyed the comments today of so many of the committee’s members and other noble Lords. You all know how passionate I am about digital, so to spend an afternoon listening to experts on the subject is for me a delight.
Moreover, last week, the European Union published a paper on digital skills and this very morning—with exquisite timing, as the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, said—the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report on related issues. All this attention shows the widespread realisation that this subject is of major importance, and the urgency of the issues before us all today. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, rightly mentioned digital progress in other parts of the country. I was very impressed by the work done in Glasgow on digital health when I was lucky enough to attend the Commonwealth Games.
The fact is that digital skills are of major and increasing relevance to everybody’s lives. As far as work is concerned, they underpin increases in productivity, but that is by no means all of it. Social life is increasingly dependent on digital, as we have heard and, as the report said, the impact of new digital technology is all-encompassing. Opting out is not possible. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, rightly said that the Government have a key role.
The truth is that almost everyone—all those below retirement age and many above it—need to improve and develop their digital skills. Necessarily, many institutions, organisations and businesses—in fact, probably most of them—must be involved. Of course, the Government are a key institution.
Digital is also a key driver of UK growth and innovation. As my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe said, we spend more per head online than any other nation and—which I had not heard before—we have the largest positive digital balance of payments in the world. Digital also accounts for more than 8% of exports and for 1.4 million jobs. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, gave a Tech City figure that was higher than that, but they are probably both underestimates, as an extraordinary process of convergence is taking place. Traditional industries such as consumer electronics, healthcare, domestic heating and banking are now adding as much value in their computing as in the original product.
Our work on the digital single market in Brussels recognises this revolution, in which the UK can achieve a lot, an experience which our revived car industry has already shown. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, that the UK should be at the helm of this digital revolution. Indeed, only a month ago I was in Rome, hosting a UK-Italy conference with 60 SMEs, ensuring that the UK is at the forefront of shaping this sort of industrial change. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, there is so much interest in UK experience overseas—and next week I am at an OECD meeting on the subject.
Since the Committee published its findings in February 2015, we have taken action which addresses key recommendations from the report. The committee called for greater government co-ordination. After the election, in May 2015, we created a digital skills epicentre—maybe it could be more proactive—in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with my colleague in the other place, Ed Vaizey, leading the charge. My noble friend Lady Shields, who was here earlier, brings her huge experience to the piece, not only in changing the Government’s approach to internet safety but, as we were hearing, reaching parts that others do not reach with her blog. We have support from the Secretary of State, who is more experienced on culture, media and sport matters than many others before him. Of course, I have my own experience of business—some of you may have heard of Tesco clubcard—and international experience of digital.
This set-up was further strengthened in November by transferring responsibility for digital inclusion, now known as digital engagement, to my colleague, Ed Vaizey, in his role as Digital Minister. Because the Government have recognised the critical importance of digital skills and infrastructure, we have established a cross-government digital inclusion and infrastructure taskforce. Chaired by Ed Vaizey, it is tasked with making sure that we deliver on our digital policy commitments, such as rolling out universal broadband and better mobile phone connections, and actively tackling digital exclusion.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, asked amusingly and graciously when we would be publishing our long-awaited digital strategy. We will be publishing it shortly—and I mean shortly, not at the end of the year. The Government have been working with numerous stakeholders to build this strategy. We have been working extensively with other government departments, as noble Lords would expect, including BIS, DfE and the Treasury—actually, right across Whitehall, in all its nooks and crannies. We will set out a clear digital agenda for government over the course of this Parliament, which will include soft infrastructure with skills and education as key strands. So we will present a joined-up strategy and provide more information on how we intend to report progress, since, as several noble Lords have said, regular evaluation is important. We will set out the Government’s ambitions for this Parliament on the whole digital agenda, including on skills and infrastructure, which we have debated today.
We are clear on the scale of the task we face; it is large. This debate, to my mind, could not come at a better time. Finalising our strategy, we can take account of the expertise of noble Lords and, of course, of the Commons Science and Technology Committee report, published today and chaired by another talented woman, Nicola Blackwood, as has been said. I shall personally make sure that my friend Ed Vaizey reads the “pearls of wisdom”, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath.
Most importantly, the report called for the Government to share their digital agenda. We will do just that through the publication of our digital strategy, which will set out Government’s ambitions for this Parliament for the whole digital agenda, including on skills and infrastructure. We believe this will help to secure our position as a digitally innovative nation.
I move on to infrastructure. To make the most of the internet, people must be able to access it. I have often spoken myself about the importance of this fourth or fifth utility. We are on track to reach our aim of 95% broadband coverage by the end of 2017.
On the question asked by my noble friend Lord Holmes about the last 5%, we have given more funding to areas with coverage below 90% to increase their coverage levels to at least 90%. In very hard to reach areas, we are running pilots with suppliers to identify the best way to reach those, and which will inform future government investment. Through the digital economy Bill we will be introducing measures to implement a broadband universal service obligation by 2020. This will oblige providers to provide households and businesses with a broadband connection of a minimum speed, regardless of location. I am sure there will be many opportunities to debate the detail.
To respond to my noble friend Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope and my noble friend Lord Holmes, the Bill we have in mind will be wide-ranging. In addition to measures to increase connectivity, including the USO, there will be changes to the electronic communications code to make it cheaper for operators to acquire land, which will help with internet rollout, and there will be measures to enable us to use government data to deliver public services.
The UK needs digital skills at every level. There are the basic digital skills needed by all individuals, which my noble friend Lady Harding described so convincingly, making the business case in her inimitable way, for more investment. Then, there are the higher-level skills already required by many jobs—I would say most—and, thirdly, specialist and advanced skills required by experts. There about 1 million of them needed by 2023.
My noble friend Lord Holmes asked me a lot of questions. We certainly recognise the importance of ensuring that the internet is accessible to all, which is why all new digital services from the Government must meet the digital-by-default service standards. There are also many vital business initiatives in this important area.
It is widely recognised that basic digital skills may soon become as important as maths and English. Accordingly, many people have upgraded their skills in recent years and the Government have provided funding to help. Since 2010, we have provided £36 million to partners to support 1.5 million people to gain basic digital skills. That includes the Tinder Foundation, which the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, chairs, and which we should not compare or confuse with the dating website of the same name!
Of course, we have more to do. Data from Ipsos Mori and Go ON UK suggest that 23% of adults lack basic digital skills. To meet this challenge, the Government are working with a network of private and voluntary organisations to develop initiatives that will reach as many people as possible. For example, Lloyds Banking Group is training 20,000 digital champions to support the digital skills of customers and the wider community. That is a good example of corporate philanthropy.
As acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, we have reformed the school computing curriculum, so that it provides young people with computational thinking skills needed for the future of work. The number of students taking the computer science GCSE has risen markedly, and we should not forget the totemic and substantive importance of every new primary school child, including my own granddaughter, now learning coding.
I shall reflect on the wider points made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, about the balance in the curriculum. Certainly, digital is extremely important to the curriculum, which is acknowledged in all the countries that I travel in and in our own work in the Education Department.
Reforms to technical education will be announced in our post-16 skills plan, to be published later this year, and feature in the Higher Education and Research Bill, already introduced in the other place. Reformed apprenticeships, which several have mentioned, will enable employers to collaborate to create standards that are relevant to the digital revolution and meet their needs. As a former employer, I believe that that will be a priority in the new employer-led apprenticeship environment. So I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Aberdare and Lord Clement-Jones. Ten standards have already been created for digital, with more in the pipeline, and of course we have set up the Institute for Apprenticeships to safeguard quality.
The noble Lord, Lord Knight, asked about the cost of debt to students. The innovative digital degree apprenticeship is two-thirds funded by government, with one-third and a wage paid by the employer, so this route is providing high-level digital skills at no cost to the apprentice and enables young people from all backgrounds to gain digital skills. I hope this will be a new avenue to the digitalisation of our workforce. We have already established the Ada National College for Digital Skills, which opens in Tottenham Hale in September 2016, and aim to reach 5,000 students within five years, 40% of them women.
In higher education, Professor Shadbolt’s review has provided some important recommendations on improving the employability of computer science graduates. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will be interested to know that we are working with stakeholders to take these employability success factors forward. I fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, about the importance of equipping people with the digital skills they need throughout their lives. We are holding a summit on lifelong learning in July, which will explore this important area further.
Several noble Lords mentioned diversity. It is vital that girls and boys recognise the opportunities digital skills offer. I will not repeat all that has been said, but I should add that my honourable friend Ed Vaizey chaired a summit recently with industry better to understand the issues which might be limiting the numbers of women in digital roles. We will be taking that further. We recently announced our ambition to see a 20% increase in the proportion of girls’ A-level entries in maths, science and computer science by 2020.
The Government are also taking action to ensure we are developing the specialist digital skills that are so essential to the economy, which includes the work the Government are doing on data and artificial intelligence. On cyber, there is a £1.9 billion programme over the next five years with a lot of opportunities being proposed.
In the interests of time, I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, on the BBC. It is something that we discuss often in this House, and I would like to answer the questions he raised.
In closing, I repeat my thanks to the committee and to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton, for their excellent contributions on a vital topic. As the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, I think it was, implied, the report has matured, rather like good wine, and it feels even more relevant today than it was in February last year. What about that for an excuse for taking time to provide time for a debate?
Since the report’s publication, we have further improved government co-ordination on digital skills and have continued to make our education and training systems more relevant to the needs of employers. While on most measures we compare well with other EU countries of a similar size, there is a vast amount still to do, and that is why we will shortly be setting out our ambitions in our digital strategy and explaining how we can seize the current and future opportunities that the digital revolution offers.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in an excellent debate. I thank the Minister for her reply and for the spirit in which she replied. These speeches have shown, as ever, the wealth of expertise and experience in this House and the strong consensus that exists across all Benches. I hope that this debate gives power to her elbow to get a comprehensive, practical, agile agenda published and moving. It is crucial to the UK’s future success. Finally, it is important that as a House we return in future to this subject to assess progress.