Seven percent of Londoners are digitally excluded. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) statistics show that despite a large reduction in “internet non-users” over the past ten years, 5.3 million adults nationally have never used the internet or not used it for the past three months. (ONS, 2019). Poor connectivity, unaffordability and a lack of digital skills are significant barriers for too many Londoners. Coronavirus has made us more reliant on digital technology than ever before, but this poses a big risk of leaving the digitally excluded behind, and with it a full recovery.
Two of the biggest challenges to overcoming digital exclusion are that for many people access is unaffordable, and that many simply do not have the skills to use digital technology. But we should not forget that connectivity still poses an issue – London’s download speeds were ranked a poor 26th out of 33 surveyed European cities. (GLA, 2017).
Digital exclusion disproportionately affects people with fewer resources, with 47% of offline people living in a low-income household. (CCHPR, 2017). Connection to the web is an important part of developing your CV, accessing services like Universal Credit, and ultimately being able to find a job. With the number of people on a UK payroll in May down by 600,000 from March, and this disproportionately impacting lower paid sectors, its important these people are able to find local employment support schemes and work quickly – not being able to access online provision a major obstacle for their recovery.
However, a connection is not the only thing a person needs to be digitally included. 20% of surveyed non-users said they were not connected because of a lack of digital skills. (ONS, 2019) There are five basic skills that enable an individual to use devices and the internet properly. The skills involve simple tasks such as being able to search for websites and knowing how to complete a webform. It is estimated 8% of people in the UK have zero digital skills and 12% are missing at least one. (Lloyds Bank, 2019) Considering that 90% of jobs will require some digital skills in the next 20 years, and that Coronavirus is only likely to accelerate this, we need to equip people with digital skills so they are not squeezed out of the labour market.
National and local government need to work together with wider stakeholders to tackle these two issues to aid our Coronavirus recovery. Local government has provided internet access to the general public for years through our libraries, but Coronavirus has limited their accessibility. We need to start thinking about increasing the use of laptop loan schemes, and providing internet access through other methods – loaning dongles is an easy way to temporarily provide internet access for an individual. These initiatives should be particularly focused on those who need it most, for instance people on Universal Credit, 14% of claimants in London are digitally excluded. (Lloyds Bank, 2019) Providing digital access improves their chance of finding work. A number of CLF boroughs such as Tower Hamlets have already set up similar schemes. (Tower Hamlets, 2020).
We need to work together to start providing more digital skills learning provision. Only 36% of people with no formal qualifications are equipped with the five essential digital skills, compared to 91% of people with a degree level qualification, (Lloyds Bank, 2019) meaning those who will most benefit from skills provision are also the most likely to need digital training. With this in mind, we should look at improving our further education digital skills provision, expanding the use of Level 1 and 2 qualifications and tailoring the learning to cover the five digital skills. An increased use of short courses focused on digital skills, and the availability of digital skills learning materials for people doing any course would further help tackle the problem.
Coronavirus has left many people disconnected from friends, work, and the services they need. With more initiatives aimed at tackling the challenges affordability and lack of skills present to digital inclusivity, we can help stop digital exclusion, and get more people into work in the process.
Chris Haley, 16th July 2020