UK gov "hasn't invested a single pound" to adults below the digital divide

Chief executive of the Good Things Foundation, Helen Milner

Millions of adults in the UK are being digitally excluded due to a lack of government support and investment into internet access, a charity has warned.

The issue has been exacerbated by the pandemic and may also last beyond it, according to Helen Milner, the chief executive of social change charity, The Good Things Foundation.

The focus of the digital divide has mainly been on children since going into a third lockdown. So far, the government has provided over 500,000 devices to schools, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson stating on Wednesday that a further 50,000 devices have already been sent this week.

The move has been heavily criticised by MPs for being too little too late, but although there has been some action for school children during the pandemic, the same cannot be said for adults on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The outbreak of the coronavirus has pushed society even further towards digital transformation, remote working, and a greater need for cloud-based skill sets. This disruption has disproportionately affected low-income households, the disabled, and also black, Asian and minority ethnic people, according to Milner.

"The government has done quite a lot around the child part of the digital divide," Milner tells IT Pro. "But for adults, the government have not invested a single extra pound on adult digital inclusion, be that around devices, or be that around skills."

"From an internet access point of view, half of the households with an income of fewer than £10,000 a year, don't have internet access," Milner said. "Whereas 99% of households with an income of over £40,000 a year do have internet access. So this digital divide is also a real social divide."

Milner added that it "feels very strange" that the government makes efforts to get services and schemes online when there are nine million adults who are unable to use internet without support, and seven million households still without an internet connection.

"These were things that were incredibly significant before the pandemic," Milner said. "Now, during it, they're even worse and these exclusions are going to last beyond the pandemic as well."

While there hasn't been much investment for adults, MPs did meet on 3 December for the 'Digital Infrastructure, Connectivity and Accessibility' debate which was led by Conservative MP Esther McVey and Labour MP Julie Elliot. Politicians from both parties discussed the issue with many raising concerns about the affordability of both hardware and internet access.

The Good Things Foundation have a programme called 'Devices Now', which has been able to offer 12,000 people with devices and data. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has offered some support, with MP Caroline Dineage urging industry leaders and large businesses to engage with the charity.

However, that effort has to produce results, according to Milner, with just a few thousand pounds and some refurbished devices donated to date. Investment, she said, would have been "so much more useful".

"MPs do care, they absolutely do care," Milner said. "We've been running campaigns and we've got a lot of support from MPs, it's just that it hasn't been met with investment."

Bobby Hellard

Bobby Hellard is ITPro's Reviews Editor and has worked on CloudPro and ChannelPro since 2018. In his time at ITPro, Bobby has covered stories for all the major technology companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, and regularly attends industry-leading events such as AWS Re:Invent and Google Cloud Next.

Bobby mainly covers hardware reviews, but you will also recognize him as the face of many of our video reviews of laptops and smartphones.