John bird, now a cross bench peer held an excellent debate on the causes of poverty in the U.K.
I spoke about the digital aspects to the question. Here is my short contribution.
“My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing this debate. I posit that if he had started his great invention now, he would have started it around the internet. The internet has transformed how we think about everything in our society, but I challenge that it has not yet disrupted, encouraged and inspired us to think about brave new solutions in tackling the causes of poverty.
I feel immensely lucky. I have been an entrepreneur and worked in technology my whole life. I did this based on the most incredible luxuries of privilege and education that you could imagine. However, I believe most deeply that the internet enables people of any background to have access to the same opportunities of education and entrepreneurship for the least cost with the simplest mechanisms, but we are not putting it at the heart of how we think about addressing some of these complex challenges.
Both data and stories point to these ideas. First, on data, as many noble Lords may know—I feel I have become like white noise with these statistics—there are still 12.6 million adults in this country who do not use the internet on a regular basis and cannot get the benefits of being online. It is not only some noble Lords in this Chamber but many millions of people from many different backgrounds. If you map the rates of low internet usage with the areas of deepest deprivation, they are practically layered on top of each other. I cite Torbay, Boston and East Lindsey as places where there is extreme digital disadvantage and social isolation.
Not only this, but women, who often tend to face the brunt of many of the complex aspects of poverty, also tend to lack basic digital skills. Therefore, while being faced with the multi-challenging dimensions of, perhaps, addiction or family disruption, they also face a lack of ability to use any technology to help them.
In addition, families who are using the internet are saving up to £516 a year. We all heard our new Prime Minister talk most boldly about helping people who are just getting by, and I cannot think of a quicker weapon than to give people access to saving £516 a year using the internet. It is fundamental and important.
The charity I founded, Doteveryone, has worked out what we call the social return on investment for tackling the digital deficit. We looked at all the indicators that improve when you help people use technology: you are more likely to find a job—90% of jobs are only advertised online—and yet 1 million unemployed people cannot use the internet; the things that happen when you gain confidence; health outcomes; finding relevant information to help in your daily life; and some of the savings that I have talked about. We have valued what people gain from being online, and what we gain from them being online, at £1,064 per person. If you were to wrap that up in a number for the economy, it would be about £76 billion. These are not trivial numbers.
However, it is not only the data but also the projects and the places that I feel lucky to have seen, most particularly since I started doing work on digital skills in 2009. I should like to talk briefly about Knowle West in Bristol, which was one of the first places I visited when I was appointed digital champion by Gordon Brown. I thought I was going to find things to be very different from what I actually took away from there. When I arrived, the local buses into Knowle West had just been stopped. It was the poorest ward in Bristol. I was going to see the media centre. Even I, an internet entrepreneur, thought, “Really? A media centre? Is that what they need in Knowle West? Surely they need transport links”.
More fool me. The media centre had led to a massive upskilling of the local population. On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, the skills crisis was being addressed through a tenacious local entrepreneur and they were building websites. The lack of buses had led to them campaigning online to have them reinstated.
I am not a techno-Utopian. Not every problem is solved by using the internet. However, I could see from that experience that it gave the local people the tools to empower them to build the things that they wanted—local websites selling vegetables from the gardens that they were creating in the area, and campaigns to bring back the buses. It was a powerful and relatively low-cost way of addressing the massively complex challenges that that community faced.
I have two suggestions for the Government. First, having wildly failed to secure much money from them to build basic digital skills in this country, I would like to throw in the mix that 58% of charities in the UK still do not have basic digital skills, and these are the very organisations that we are relying on to help address the causes of poverty. I implore the Government to help the charitable sector itself become digitally robust. Secondly, no other organisations have more to gain from more people being online than some of the large platform-based technology companies—Google, Facebook and others. We need them to do more to address skills in this country, and to help the internet reach the places it is most failing right now. I also implore the Government to put pressure on Google and Facebook to help us become a more connected country. We need it now more than ever.”