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Digital Inclusion

Volume 801: debated on Thursday 23 January 2020


Tabled by

To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport whether digital inclusion is a priority for Her Majesty’s Government; and what plans the Secretary of State has to incorporate it in future Government policy.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Lucas and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper, and I welcome my noble friend to the Dispatch Box for the first time.

My Lords, before I answer the Question, as this is the first time that I have addressed your Lordships’ House, I extend my sincere thanks to all noble Lords and particularly to the staff of this House, who have given me such a warm welcome since my introduction.

Moving to the Answer, digital inclusion is a priority for this Government, since almost 12 million people do not have the full complement of essential digital skills needed for day-to-day life. From August, the Government will introduce a legal entitlement for adults with no or low digital skills to undertake new digital qualifications free of charge.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. During the original digital revolution, government and agencies made a lot of effort to ensure that people were not excluded by a lack of facilities, or age, and so on. The great thing about the technological revolution is that it is moving at an ever-faster pace, but there is, therefore, a risk that people who were included are now at risk of being excluded from the digital revolution. Can my noble friend ensure that all government departments and agencies make efforts to keep included those who are at risk of being excluded?

I thank my noble friend; he is absolutely right. My department has launched a digital inclusion innovation fund, designed to tackle digital exclusion among older and disabled people, and I have just talked about the qualifications. What he also hinted at is that, for many people, it is a case of simply finding it difficult to go online or to complete government forms. We want to make sure that there is support available; for example, in our network of around 3,000 libraries, in accessible locations, there are trained staff and volunteers and assisted access to a wide range of digital public services.

My Lords, I add my welcome to those of others to the Secretary of State and refer the House to my interests in the register. Does she agree that inclusion is about more than getting the greatest number of people online as quickly as possible, and depends on the digital environment being designed in a way that respects the needs and rights of users, be they women in public life, vulnerable users, or children and young people? In particular, can she take the opportunity of welcoming the age-appropriate design code, published by the ICO yesterday, and tell the House when she expects to lay it before Parliament?

I thank the noble Baroness. She and I had a brief conversation recently about some of these issues, and I look forward to discussing this further with her. She is absolutely right to say that the digital and tech environment is very exciting, but that it of course brings new challenges, not just about the new technology itself but about behaviours online. That is why the Government will legislate following the online harms White Paper and will develop further legislation. I welcome the publication yesterday by the Information Commissioner’s Office of the age-appropriate design code, and I hope that all parliamentarians will have the opportunity to take note of it.

My Lords, I offer my words of welcome to the noble Baroness. The last time that we were in the same place, she was on the receiving end of a 25-minute sermon from me; I promise that my question will be shorter. We have heard some reassurances, but there are really two questions regarding inclusivity: spreading the availability of the service and deepening the skills required to take advantage of what is available. The noble Baroness has indeed answered the first question I would challenge her with by saying much of what was in my mind. But what about the users of universal credit—a service that I understand is entirely online? How do we measure the impact and the way that service is proceeding to be sure that people are not disadvantaged and marginalised because of the technology that they have to master?

One of the briefs I received in preparing for these questions said that answers should be short, so the noble Lord can be assured that my answer will not be 25 minutes long—it may be 25 words long. He is absolutely right to say that digital inclusion matters particularly for those accessing government benefits and services, as I know from my service in the Commons and from supporting constituents in accessing universal credit. I mentioned access through libraries, but there is also access through job centres, and citizens advice bureaux provide a service to support people who have never been online. Colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions take this very seriously, because there is obviously no point in providing support for people if they find they cannot access it or update their records.

My Lords, I too welcome the Secretary of State, who has now made more comebacks than Frank Sinatra. I hope she will be there long enough to follow the parallel to the ICO code, which was the work of this House and of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in particular. Will she support my paving Bill for a duty of care on online harms, which will allow Ofcom to get ahead with preparation for such legislation?

I thank the noble Lord. He will be pleased to know that since my singing voice is nothing like Frank Sinatra’s, I will not inflict it on your Lordships’ House. I was very interested to read about his Bill. As he will know, the Government have done a significant amount of work on the online harms space, and I hope we will be able to work together. The Government intend to develop legislation, so while I might not support his Bill, I think we can absolutely make common cause on this very important issue.

My Lords, I also welcome my noble friend to the Dispatch Box and declare my interests as set out in the register. She has rightly highlighted the digital divide. In the light of that, can I ask her to have a gentle word with the BBC, while obviously respecting its independence, to ask about its plans to switch off the red button teletext service, which is a vital source of news and information for many older and disabled people, and others who find themselves on the wrong side of that digital divide?

I thank my noble friend, who has raised a very important issue. I am having a number of words with the BBC at the moment—we may come on to that in another Question in a moment. I take what he has said. This is obviously a matter for the BBC but he is absolutely right that, whether it is the BBC, the Government or other institutions, be they private or public, accessibility for everyone is very important regardless of disability, experience or anything else. The Government have of course legislated to make that clear.