ONS statistics: We’re getting there, but a bit slowly for my liking

Yesterday was that time of year again – the release of the ONS’s quarterly statistics on internet access. I was really pleased to see the announcement getting lots of media coverage, which I think shows digital inclusion really is back on the agenda – always a positive thing!

The headline figure released yesterday is that there are still 7.1 million people – or 14% of UK adults – who have never been online before. This represents a decrease of a million over the past year, but is still a pretty big figure. As you might expect, 99% of people aged 16 – 24 have been online before, but this decreases to just 35% among the over 75s. Even more shockingly, 53% of the 7.1 million people who are offline have a disability – a figure that is rising with every quarterly release from the ONS. I hope at Online Centres Foundation we’re beginning to provide a solution to these figures, establishing specialist Disability and Older People’s networks that can offer the tailored support these groups need, but this kind of support doesn’t come cheap, and significant investment will be needed to scale it up to address anything like the size of groups detailed yesterday.  

As I say everytime I see the ONS release pop up, the figures are definitely moving in the right direction – but they’re not moving fast enough. I’ve blogged a lot recently about investment for digital inclusion – and I want to avoid sounding like a stuck record – but I think yesterday’s announcement just goes to show we need to do more and more quickly. Let’s not forget about the size about the prize here. Investment in supporting these hard to reach groups will not just lead to significant cost savings for the government, but will be an investment for the good of the nation, for a competitive advantage for companies big and micro, and most importantly, for people – who will be able to save money, who will be able to better access information and who will feel more connected, all as a result of their new digital skills. This is why I’m still impatient for bigger and quicker results.  

Big Lottery Fund announces £15 million of funding for digital skills

This morning, I attended Go ON’s Digital Skills summit, alongside a number of high profile digital leaders, as well as Skills Minister Matthew Hancock, and Danny Alexander – Chief Secretary to the Treasury. One of the things that impressed me most was the commitment from private sector organisations who really want to be part of the solution. As not-for-profits, we need to work out what we should be asking for in order to have the biggest impact possible, and working closely alongside these partners to ensure we can all achieve our shared goals.

One exciting things to come out of the event was the announcement by the Big Lottery Fund that they are making £15 million available for digital skills as part of a fund that will open in the Autumn. The fund will support a small number of large projects, and they are really keen to support partnerships that can have a massive impact in their communities.

The news comes neatly on the heels of my blog last week where I said that funding is vital to ensuring we can support the final 7.4 million people in the UK who have still never been online before, as well as upskilling the 8.5 million who don’t have the skills to get any benefits from the internet, so I’m really pleased the Big Lottery Fund are getting behind digital inclusion in a serious way. Since I wrote last week’s blog and heard the announcement, I’ve been thinking about what the right co-ordinated plan is – what would it do? And what would it cost if we’re aiming to get 95% of the population online? I’ll admit that I don’t have all the answers, but we know that the lowest-hanging fruit is getting higher and higher up the tree and that inspiring and persuading people that the internet could be for them is a really tough job. To be successful, this new programme has to be about targeting the very hardest to reach people in local communities, as well as collecting robust evidence on the impact the activity has had.

I’ll certainly be keeping a keen eye out for more announcements from Go ON UK and the Big Lottery Fund about this fund, and I’m sure the UK online centres network will have a key role to play in ensuring its success – and I hope that this investment will have a huge impact on finally closing the digital divide.

Labour to invest £75m in a digital skills programme (if elected)

As a (some would say) tireless campaigner for digital inclusion, I was pleased to hear  Helen Goodman MP announce yesterday (9 May) that, if they were to be elected, Labour will invest £75 million in a new digital skills programme, funded by halving the size of the current super-connected cities programme.  I’m well known for being on the side of the people in the pipes vs people debate, and so while I can see the economic argument for investing in these ten cities, I actually think the economic benefit of supporting the hardest to reach to access services online can have an equal – if not far greater – impact. Those in the most deprived communities are least likely to be online as well as being the most likely to be the heaviest users of public services.

Helen Goodman MP said in her announcement: “A Labour government would invest £75 million to ensure that people in Britain are able to get online and are able to perform basic tasks like sending an email. The Conservative-led government has done virtually nothing to help these people and instead has focused on using public money to subsidise ultra-fast broadband in areas that already have very high broadband speeds. This is yet another example of the government getting its economic priorities wrong. A One Nation Labour government would be about ensuring everyone was able to benefit from the advantages online access can bring.”

It’s good to have some more ‘skin in the game’ or another ‘voice in the debate’ on digital inclusion. The support that Online Centres Foundation receives from the current Government is fantastic and enables us and the UK online centres network to help over 100,000 people a year. However there isn’t a debate at the moment on how much money needs to be invested to help the final 16 million people to get the motivation and skills they need to take part in a fully digital Britain, and accelerate growth with a better skilled nation. Helen Goodman seems to be kicking off that very conversation.