I’m proud to be a co-sponsor of today’s backbench debate on digital infrastructure, connectivity, and accessibility. Digital inequalities, which consist of unequal access to devices that connect to the Internet, insufficient Internet connections, and a lack of skills to make the most of those connections, lead to much more inequality. It fuels existing educational and health inequalities, affects our employment and job prospects, and in turn holds back our economy.
During the pandemic, when personal connections became less possible, moving online was quick and surprised many. Offices were quick to order equipment to allow employees to work from home, services went online to continue serving customers, and classrooms were switched to Zoom or Google Classroom.
This opened up a host of digital difficulties to a much wider audience than before, but the problems were not new. Those who were digitally capable and could read and write digitally could adapt, and those who were not could not adapt. Homes previously thought to be digitally connected because they had broadband and a laptop suddenly found themselves in a situation where the four household members were forced to share a laptop for all of their educational and work purposes.
Many services were also brought online. While one can usually go to the job center, community center, library, or even school to access services such as universal credit or bill payments over the Internet, suddenly that access was impossible. I recently had a constituent who was contacted by her energy company to pay bills, but only web links to access. Although this was eventually sorted by a phone call, it is an example of digital exclusion that is repeated across the country.
The Good Things Foundation, a charity that supports the socially excluded, found that around nine million people in the UK cannot use the internet independently and more than one in ten people in the UK do not have internet access.
While it is a national problem, it is also an example of the north-south divide. Almost half of the people in the south east of England can use the Internet fully, compared to just a fifth in the north east. For Sunderland, where I represent, and its neighboring constituencies, this means that just under 150,000 adults have limited or no internet access.
That just has to change. When the world of work changes, our employees have to be able to move with it, otherwise we risk leaving communities behind. Up to eight in ten jobs currently require digital skills to get the job done, but less than half of people have the digital skills required.
That’s why I joined the Good Things Foundation as chairman of the all-party digital literacy group to call for a great digital catch-up process. It is important that we give the unemployed the opportunity to get further training, give workers the opportunity to develop their skills and give teachers the skills they need to pass them on to our young people.
In Sunderland, as in many other places, we had a successful visit to the Google Digital Garage, where the participants could take part in training courses. Organizations like BT and City and Guilds already have online training courses to improve their skills. But we just need to see a combined, cross-departmental approach by the government, taking advantage of the already extensive resources that are available in the communities to ensure that everyone has equal access to such training.
The economic benefits are obvious. Every pound sterling invested in digital skills and inclusion will generate a return on growth of £ 15. At a time when the government needs to invest rather than cut, when the government needs to help the people rather than freeze their wages, this is an investment opportunity that simply needs to be seized.
While we may now be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel with Covid restrictions, these inequalities will continue into the future. Investing in physical broadband infrastructure is welcome – although it is alarming that it was slowed down by the government in its recent spending review – but unless it comes with expanded access to skills and connections, it only serves the internet for them accelerating those who already have access widen the gap between those who do not. The government just has to do better.
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