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Citizens should have new ‘minimum standards of access’ to digital, says think tank

New IPPR North research sets out the challenge of digital exclusion in the North East, and provides a blueprint to tackle it

Digital access is now a requirement for modern day life. Prior to the pandemic people increasingly needed access to devices, connection, and the skills needed to use them, and this has been accelerated by the pandemic. However, research published today by the leading think tank for the north of England finds that the North East is likely to have higher levels of digital exclusion than the rest of England.

The reasons that people find themselves digitally excluded are varied, however today’s research shows that some of the groups that are disproportionately affected include people experiencing poverty, disabled people, asylum seekers, and those living in rural locations.

It also shows that there is no ownership of coordinated, collaborative efforts to tackle digital exclusion across the nation, the North East, or locally. So while digital becomes ever more essential, there is no cross cutting strategy to prevent the consequences of digital exclusion.

Following an in depth study including interviews with people across the region, researchers at IPPR North have identified the need for a strategy to tackle digital exclusion in the north east of England – and their report sets out a blueprint with which to develop one. It recommends the introduction of new rights, including:

  • The right to access a minimum speed connection at home regardless of income: This means including the cost of broadband in social security payments, allowances for asylum seekers, and provision for those in state accommodation. Researchers also recommend the expansion of public wi-fi networks, and that internet companies establish ‘data banks’, through which individuals could transfer their excess data to the bank, to be accessed by those at risk of digital exclusion.
  • The right to essential digital skills: These skills include having the ability to access health data, pay bills online and communicate with others. To achieve this, it would be essential that individuals are guaranteed support until such skills are secured.
  • The right to affordable access to suitable devices: People who need to use laptops and tablets should be able to access them. This could be delivered through loan-schemes at libraries or through re-distribution of unused devices to those who need them. It can’t be assumed that smartphones, despite being increasingly affordable, can solve this problem.

Today’s research explains that the strategy to tackle digital exclusion should be more ambitious than providing infrastructure alone and should consider the range of reasons that people may have for needing support, and that everyone – from government departments, to employers, tech companies, local government and others – should play a role in delivering it.    

Report co-author Erica Roscoe said: 

“Digital exclusion has been thrown into the spotlight during the pandemic. However, it predates Covid-19 and, without action, the pandemic may have set the country, and the North East in particular, backwards. We must see urgent help to get people the digital access they need.

“Digital access is not simply an IT issue. It is likely to impact a range of areas such as productivity rates, mental health, wellbeing and educational attainment in the region. This is an issue of social justice.

“There is a wealth of enthusiastic and committed individuals working across the North East to support those who need help, and the infrastructure therefore exists to address digital exclusion. However, no one has a clear responsibility for driving digital inclusion. The time has come for minimum standards of digital access, delivered as part of a cross cutting strategy for the north east of England”.

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