A House of Lords committee has criticised the government’s response to its digital exclusion report after the government indicated it would not create a new strategy to address digital exclusion within the UK. 

The House of Lords’ Committee on Communications and Digital said in a press release that the government’s response to its recommendations were “lacking ambition and failing to engage with the concerns raised by the Committee’s inquiry and subsequent report”.

In its June 29 report, the committee recommended that the government “act decisively” to help with the cost of living to prevent digital exclusion; invest in basic digital skills; boost digital inclusion hubs; prioritise competition alongside local benefit; and future proof public services. 

On Friday, the committee released the government’s official comments on the report, in which it said that the principles underpinning its 2014 digital inclusion strategy “continue to inform our current thinking”.

The government also indicated that it does not plan to set up a dedicated digital inclusion unit within government and is not supportive of VAT removal on social tariffs or the removal of VAT on wholesale broadband.

Additionally, the government indicated that it did not plan to give Ofcom powers to ensure social tariffs are appropriately promoted, embedding digital skills targets across education life stages and expanding internet voucher schemes to more people in need. 

There has been a commitment to setting up a cross-ministerial committee, involving all the major government departments that are looking at digital inclusion. 

Criticism from Lords, advocacy groups 

Reacting to the government’s comments, Baroness Stowell, chair of the Communications and Digital Committee, said: “Digital exclusion is not a problem that will solve itself.  It is an ongoing challenge and we need clear direction from the government about how they will prioritise making sure people are not excluded or left behind when it comes to enjoying the benefits of being online. 

“Our report set out a series of key areas where the government could take the lead in tackling the digital divide, including in developing digital skills and confidence among those with the lowest level of digital capability.

“In their response the government have reasserted that digital exclusion is a priority, but their actions do not live up to the words. It is simply not credible to claim it is a priority when the key strategy for helping people keep pace in such a fast-moving area is over a decade old.

“It is disappointing that the government’s response has not taken up the Committee’s positive challenge and signalled the ambition needed to close the digital divide for the UK to thrive as a tech superpower.” 

Elizabeth Anderson, Interim CEO of Digital Poverty Alliance, expressed disappointment with the government’s decision not to develop a new strategy to tackle a problem that she said was increasingly urgent as more essential services moved online. 

“It is positive to see the creation of a cross-ministerial committee and we will be very keen to engage with them to address digital inclusion, and we support activity to review what more government departments can do in terms of device donation,” she said. 

“However, we believe more must be done to demonstrate that digital inclusion is a government priority. Millions of people are still experiencing digital poverty, and the consequences of not being online are becoming more pronounced. Government needs to adopt a long term and strategic approach to ensure that the millions of people offline do not get left behind – with new ideas and innovation.” 

A Digital Health Intelligence report, released at the end of July and based in a survey of 110 NHS staff across different areas of healthcare services and in-depth interviews with 10 digital leaders, found that 11.1% cited digital exclusion as a major obstacle to the implementation of digital patient communication systems.