Yesterday, the Chancellor presented his Spending Review for this year. His ambition was clear – Rishi Sunak wants to protect and create jobs, and help those out of work to retrain, restart their careers, and help reboot the economy. I hope the 9 million people in the UK who can’t use the internet without support will see some of the £100 billion extra capital spending help them to gain the skills they need and feel part of the digital recovery.
Whether those people in the places and communities who feel left behind and who would like some levelling up remains to be seen, but the initial details of the Spending Review show promise. The Chancellor announced the Government’s prediction that next year there will be 2.6 million people unemployed, and many of those will end up being unemployed for more than a year. That was a shock moment for me. A new £3 billion ‘Restart’ scheme will be put in place in the new year by the Department for Work and Pensions to help people who’ve been unemployed for over a year. This offers a fantastic opportunity for comprehensive retraining programmes, such as engaging with the basic digital skills so that people are prepared for the future and more confident in their life and their work.
We also saw a renewed push in funding digital infrastructure, with the Government reiterating its commitment to 4G coverage in 95% of the UK by 2025, and a concerted effort to boost broadband access. These are laudable goals which we clearly support. But without investment in boosting people’s digital skills, the proposals look to me like someone firing the starting gun before some of the athletes have even arrived at the track. Of course, let’s invest so we all have brilliant broadband, but I didn’t see investment to help the 9 million people who can’t use it. What we need is a Great Digital Catch Up.
Earlier this year, the Chancellor declared that he and the Government would “not leave anyone without hope and opportunity.” This is the approach people need right now – a compassionate approach – particularly for those who have lost their jobs, and for everyone left behind due to the compound effect of digital exclusion and social challenges. People need support to get back into work, to learn new digital skills, and restart their careers. Let’s hope the Government keeps their word, provides that help, and doesn’t ignore the need to fix the digital divide.