City livery company webinar calls for action to end the UK’s embarrassing digital poverty

During a City of London webinar that took place last week, entitled, “How do we end digital poverty?“. Helen Milner OBE, CEO of the Good Things Foundation, said: “Digital Poverty is embarrassing and not OK. Fixing it will boost the economy, improve health and well-being and level up opportunity.”

The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists (WCIT) attracted an audience of 400 people to this online event making it one of the largest events, physical or virtual, ever organised by the WCIT. Panel

members, who were some of the UK’s leaders in finding solutions to Digital Poverty, emphasised that business had major role to play in the ending of Digital Poverty and it was in their interest to bring this about.

Sir Kenneth Olisa, the Lord Lieutenant of Greater London and a Past Master of the WCIT, started the webinar saying, “Digital Poverty is soluble if we can harness Britain’s conscience, its sense of community and its willingness to help strangers. This willingness was brilliantly illustrated by the public’s support for Sir Tom’s run-away fundraising.“

Phil Smith CBE, Co-Chair of the Digital Skills Partnership and former UK Chair and CEO of Cisco UK & Ireland, appealed to the audience, ”We have to solve this. Everyone here tonight should find a way to become involved, be it locally, regionally or nationally, wherever you have the capacity to make a difference. What

is needed is not new initiatives but making the existing ones sustainable.”

Some shocking figures were revealed about the digital divide. There are around 7 million households with no access to the internet and 1.8 million children don’t have access to an internet device. Like many other problems in Britain there is a north/south divide with more than half the population of the North East living in digital deprivation compared to only a third of the population in London and the South East.

Like so many other things, Covid-19 has amplified inequalities. Remote working and lockdown have meant even more services being exclusively available online exacerbating the problems faced by the Digitally Deprived. School classes are online but not every pupil has a computer, nor every household access to the Internet. Although it is possible for claimants of Universal Credit who don’t have internet access to apply over the phone,job applications have to be submitted largely online but too many people have no means of access. Moreover, many people lack the skills required to utilise online information, with lockdown making any potential help more distant than ever.

The speakers were clear that there are ways to solve this problem. Perhaps surprisingly the easiest part is the provision of the equipment but more difficult is the provision of connectivity to the internet. The meeting called for the creation of the equivalent of the freephone system for the internet, where certain channels would not consume customers’ data allowances. There were also calls for connectivity to be treated as a utility.