On 6 September 2023 the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion:

Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho to move that the Grand Committee takes note of the report from the Covid-19 Committee ‘Beyond digital: Planning for a hybrid world’ (1st Report, Session 2019–21, HL Paper 263).

1. House of Lords Covid-19 Committee report

The House of Lords Covid-19 Committee published its report ‘Beyond digital: Planning for a hybrid world’ on 21 April 2021. The committee concluded people’s increased dependency on the internet during the pandemic had accelerated many pre-existing digital trends. This included a growth in online shopping, online GP appointments, the automation of some jobs and increased remote working. While the committee noted some individuals, businesses and organisations had adapted relatively easily to this change, it argued many had not. The committee concluded the first year of the pandemic had exposed “huge inequalities”, including those experienced by:

[…] the children who have lost a year of schooling for want of a laptop and an internet connection; the businesses that could not move their trade online because they lacked the skills or broadband access to do so; those who have spent the year isolated and alone, not able to join an online community group or religious service because they have never used the internet and would not know where to start.

The committee said many found digital technology a “poor substitute for ‘in person’ services and interactions”. It also noted those who could not afford a computer or an internet connection were severely disadvantaged during the pandemic. However, it also found some people had benefited from the shift to digital. The committee argued these benefits should not be lost as a result of the expected “return to normal”.

1.1 Recommendations

The committee made recommendations across a variety of different policy areas, including health, education and employment. Its recommendations included:

  • Overall responsibility for the government’s digital policies should sit with the Cabinet Office rather than with the then Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The committee argued this was necessary because the impact of digital technology and the speed of change affected all areas of government policy.
  • The government’s planned digital strategy should be a “hybrid strategy” which builds a “cohesive relationship” between online and offline services. The committee also argued the digital strategy should address the gap between the “digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’” and there should be a detailed equality impact strategy published alongside it.
  • The government should work with service providers to ensure those in poverty and on low incomes were provided with the means of accessing the internet. The committee also recommended the government should consider introducing a legal right to internet access and digital infrastructure.
  • The government should set an ambitious target for improving digital literacy and increasing investment in digital skills, both in the school curriculum and adult education. The committee also recommended the government should work with training providers and professional bodies to ensure teachers and medical professionals had the necessary digital skills.
  • The government should work with the UK research councils and higher education funding bodies to address the lack of data available concerning the impact of the increasingly hybrid world on different communities, including Black and Asian communities and other minority ethnic communities.
  • The government should review the resilience of the UK’s digital infrastructure every two years and report its findings to Parliament.
  • The government should develop a “genuinely” hybrid healthcare service, supported by professionals with access to the correct equipment and training. The committee recommended there should be a code of practice for the NHS in England, giving patients the right to receive services either offline or online. It also recommended there should be a robust process in place to test, develop and evaluate new digital health interventions.
  • The government should prioritise mitigating the impact on children’s education of the disruption during the pandemic, including the growing attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils. The committee’s recommendations included that the government should work with local authorities and schools to ensure all children had the means to effectively complete online homework assignments.
  • The government should recognise that remote working impacts people differently and can bring “both benefits and risks”. The committee recommended the government should work with employers and trade unions to ensure people were not excluded from employment opportunities as a result of their living situation.
  • The committee noted the impact of the pandemic on people working for online platforms, such as Uber. It recommended the government should introduce new legislation to provide platform workers with “defined and enhanced” employment rights.
  • The government should consult on strengthening the current legislative framework for employment rights. The committee said this should include measures to regulate the use of workplace monitoring and surveillance.
  • The government should use the ‘Future high streets fund’, ‘Towns fund’ and additional funding to protect the future of physical and communal spaces to avoid a future “pandemic of loneliness”. The committee also recommended that the government should ensure its hybrid strategy complimented the existing loneliness strategy for England, published in 2018.

2. Government response

The government issued an initial response to the committee’s report, published by the committee in July 2021. Alongside this response, the committee published a short report in which it described itself as “extremely disappointed” by what it had received from the government. The committee said the government had not acknowledged eight of the committee’s 24 recommendations. This included the recommendations concerning the evaluation of digital health interventions and employment rights. The committee called on the government to publish a further, “more considered” response to its recommendations.

The committee argued the missing parts of the government’s response proved why it was necessary for digital strategy to sit with the Cabinet Office rather than with the DCMS:

We suspect that part of the problem with this particular response was that our report cut across the remits of a number of government departments. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) therefore needed to seek input from a number of other departments, who may have felt that (as a report ‘about digital’) this was not really their responsibility. This highlights the importance of the central recommendation of our report: that as our world becomes an increasingly hybrid one, with a blend of on- and offline interactions affecting all aspects of our daily lives, responsibility for how to respond to the challenges and opportunities this poses should sit with the Cabinet Office rather than siloed in DCMS.

The government published a second, more detailed response in October 2021. The government said it welcomed the committee’s report and agreed with the committee that no one should be “left behind by the digital revolution”. It also said it believed digital technology had the capacity to tackle existing inequalities. However, it did not commit to publishing an equality impact assessment alongside its planned digital strategy. The government also said it believed the current departmental structures adequately supported its digital policies and the DCMS should remain the lead department for digital. However, it said responsibility for government digital services sat centrally in the Cabinet Office with a newly created organisation, the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO).

Responding to the committee’s recommendation on supporting more people to access digital services, the government said it had committed to improving access to the internet by delivering nationwide gigabit connectivity “as soon as possible”. As part of this commitment, it said it had consulted on measures to improve broadband access in hard to reach places. The government also said it introduced a legal right to request a minimum standard of broadband connectivity in March 2020 through the universal service obligation. It said it had worked with the UK’s major mobile and broadband operators at the start of the pandemic to agree a set of commitments to support vulnerable consumers, including those in financial difficulty as a result of the pandemic.

The government said it would address digital literacy through measures including supporting the establishment of digital skills partnerships in local enterprise partnership and combined authority areas. It also said digital literacy was a key priority for the national curriculum in England. It said it had published an ‘Essential digital skills framework’ in 2018, establishing essential digital skills for the workplace. The government committed to reviewing this framework in the light of the developments in digital technology during the pandemic. It also said it would ensure new teachers received adequate training as part of the initial teacher training core content framework. The government noted this framework did not include specific subjects. However, it said it expected providers to address all the needs of trainees, and this may include digital skills. The government also said teachers received statutory safeguarding guidance which included guidance on online safety.

Responding to the committee’s recommendation concerning assessing the impact of the increasingly hybrid world on different communities, the government said UK Research and Innovation funded several projects looking at the impact on different communities of increased hybrid working and living. This included “groups such as women workers, workers from varying socio-economic backgrounds and workers of varying ethnicity”.

In response to calls from the committee for the government to report on the security of the UK’s digital infrastructure, the government said Ofcom would be required under provisions in the Telecommunications (Security) Bill (now the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021) to report regularly on the improvements made by the telecoms sector to the public telecoms networks. The government also said the resilience of the networks was monitored by the cross-government and telecoms industry forum the Electronic Communications Resilience and Response Group. Finally, the government said the UK’s resilience more broadly would be addressed as part of the government’s planned comprehensive national resilience strategy.

The government said it wanted to support greater innovation in digital health technologies (DHTs). It said it was working with various government agencies and other bodies to develop a framework for evaluating and adopting DHTs, including NHS England, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (now the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence).

The government acknowledged the impact on education and attainment of the restrictions placed on schools and colleges during the pandemic. It said it had provided additional funding to support extra tuition, including for summer schools in the summer of 2021. The government also said it had provided a “recovery premium” worth over £300mn, which was focused on disadvantaged pupils and had increased the pupil premium to £2.5bn.

On the issue of platform working and employment rights, the government said it did not intend to follow the committee’s recommendation to introduce new legislation concerning the labour market. However, it said it was considering options to clarify the rules concerning employment status, to ensure employers and employees knew which rights may apply to particular kinds of work.

On funding for communal spaces, the government said the ‘Towns fund’ had now been allocated and included funding for projects “designed to deliver communal physical space for business, education or community use purposes”. The government also said funding for physical and communal space would be made available through the ‘Community ownership fund’, launched in July 2021. The government restated its commitment to the 2018 tackling loneliness strategy. It noted the DCMS had worked with a cross-sector group of organisations as part of the tackling loneliness network to published a loneliness action plan in May 2021.

3. Subsequent government announcements

Since the publication of its response to the committee’s report, the government has made the following policy announcements:

At the time of writing the government had not published a review of the 2018 digital skills framework.

4. Communications and Digital Committee: Digital exclusion report

In June 2023, the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee published a report on digital exclusion. The report found that 1.7mn households had no broadband or mobile internet access in 2021. It also found 2.4 million adults were unable to complete simple tasks to get online. The committee argued the government did not have a “credible” strategy for tackling digital exclusion. It also argued successive governments had failed to ensure their policies to combat digital exclusion kept pace with changes in technology. At the time of writing the government had yet to publish a response to this report.

5. Read more

Cover image by Compare Fibre on Unsplash.