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What is digital exclusion?

Digital exclusion refers to a person being unable to use the internet in ways that are needed to engage full in modern society. The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, in its June 2023 report on digital exclusion, heard evidence about digital exclusion affects people. Individuals who struggle to access or use the internet may, for example:

  • Miss out on employment opportunities.
  • Struggle to find or apply for government support and services, including health services, social housing, and benefits.
  • Struggle to access services and sources of advice that are moving online, such as banking.
  • Miss out on educational opportunities and resources.
  • Pay more for goods and services because they cannot access price comparison sites or shop around for deals.
  • Be at greater risk of loneliness and social isolation.

What are the causes of digital exclusion?

Ofcom, the communications regulator, describes the causes of digital exclusion in terms of three inter-related aspects:

  • Access – people may be digitally excluded because they do not have adequate internet access at home or elsewhere. An estimated 7% of UK households do not have internet access at home.
  • Ability – people may lack the skills, confidence, or physical ability to get online and navigate the online environment safely and knowledgeably. According to Lloyds Bank’s 2023 Digital Index survey, 16% of UK adults (around 8.5 million people) lack basic digital skills. Around 18% of the UK labour force lacks the essential digital skills needed for work.
  • Affordability – people may struggle to afford access to the internet or an internet-enabled device (such as a PC or smartphone). Ofcom has estimated that 10% of UK households (2.4 million) struggled to afford their broadband service in October 2023.

Government policy on digital exclusion

There is currently no government strategy specifically aimed at promoting digital inclusion. The government says that it “does not consider digital inclusion as a stand alone issue, but rather something that is considered in all policy areas where applicable”. Different aspects of digital inclusion are covered by different departments, and each department is responsible for promoting digital inclusion within its own policy areas. The government say that it is promoting digital inclusion by:

  • Supporting the rollout of broadband to underserved areas.
  • Encouraging the industry to off cheap broadband and mobile deals, called social tariffs, for vulnerable households.
  • Supporting libraries to offer free public wifi and computers.
  • Promoting digital skills through initiatives including Essential Digital Skills Qualifications, which are available free of charge for people with low digital skills.

In addition, there are regulations in place that require public sector websites to meet accessibility standards. The government says that efforts to investigate the accessibility of private sector websites have been delayed by legal challenges to the government’s national disability strategy

In its report on digital exclusion the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee called on the government to publish a strategy. While it acknowledged the range of initiatives that successive governments had introduced, the Committee said that without a strategy there was “no coherent approach” to these activities.

In its response to the Committee’s report, the government said that it had set up a cross-ministerial group which it says will “will drive progress and accountability on digital inclusion priorities across Government, setting clear objectives, monitoring delivery, and engaging with relevant sector experts to seek input and advice”.

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