On 8 February 2024, the House of Lords is due to debate a motion in the name of Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Conservative), the chair of the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, to take note of the committee’s report ‘Digital exclusion’, published on 29 June 2023.

The report is the outcome of the committee’s inquiry into digital exclusion, its economic and social impact, and its relationship with the cost of living.

According to the committee, there is no universally accepted definition of digital exclusion. However, they note that it “typically refers to sections of the population not being able to use the internet in ways that are needed to participate fully in modern society”.[1]

1. What did the committee find?

The committee found that digital exclusion was a “serious problem”, with basic digital skills “set to become the UK’s largest skills gap by 2030”.[2] It argued that cost of living challenges had made a “bad situation worse” for people who struggled to afford internet access.

The committee argued the need for government action was “becoming increasingly urgent”, and set out a “case for intervention”:

The economic case for tackling digital exclusion is clear: it would improve productivity, support economic growth and alleviate pressure on some public services.


Tackling digital exclusion would support a range of high-profile government commitments, notably levelling up, improving public health and achieving net zero. There is also a strong civic case for addressing digital exclusion. It would help ensure many of the most vulnerable in society have a voice at a time when political debate and engagement are increasingly moving online.[3]

The committee stated the “government had taken its eye off the ball”, highlighting that it had not refreshed its strategy since 2014.[4]

The committee identified various barriers to greater digital inclusion, and discussed where policy interventions were likely to have the greatest impact:

  • Affordable internet access. The committee welcomed improvements in the availability of social tariffs. However, it said the tariffs were still expensive for the most financially vulnerable. It also suggested that internet providers and Ofcom needed to do more to promote social tariffs, highlighting that there was just 5% uptake by eligible customers.
  • Connectivity and coverage. The committee argued that while the rollout of broadband and mobile data infrastructure had progressed, areas of poor connectivity persisted. It also expressed concern that the ‘universal service obligation’ minimum standard was not keeping pace with modern requirements.[5]
  • Skills and motivation. The committee found that millions of people still lacked the “most basic digital skills for work and life”.[6] It argued that the government’s ‘Essential digital skills framework’ provided a good basis for driving improvements but that it was not being used to its full potential.[7]
  • Accessible services. The committee found that the shift towards digital by default public services had not been accompanied by adequate support for those who struggled with digital access. It argued that libraries and communities had taken on additional responsibilities but had not been given sufficient resources or training. It concluded that too many online services had poor accessibility for those with additional needs. The committee also argued that adequate provision needed to be maintained for those who could not or did not wish to use online services. The committee warned that digitally excluded groups were at risk of being poorly represented in key datasets used to influence policy and service delivery, and therefore faced further marginalisation.[8]

The committee concluded that the groups affected by these barriers faced “deepening isolation as society becomes increasingly digital”.[9]

2. What did the committee recommend?

The committee argued the government’s “contention that digital exclusion is a government priority is not credible”.[10] It said the government must publish a new digital inclusion strategy within six months of responding to the committee’s report and establish a cross-departmental government unit with direct input from the Prime Minister’s Office. The committee said the new strategy should focus on:[11]

  • Help with cost of living. To prevent more people becoming digitally excluded over the next 12 months the government should cut VAT on social tariffs and work with businesses to help to scale-up internet voucher initiatives. It should ask public sector organisations to donate old devices to digital inclusion initiatives and encourage businesses to do likewise.
  • Investment in basic skills. The most basic digital skills are now as important as maths and literacy. They should feature more prominently in schools, apprenticeships and adult learning courses. This is about teaching people the basics, not coding. More attention also needs to be paid to interventions that do not involve qualifications—community organisations in particular are key to delivering local-level interventions. Businesses must be engaged to help equip employees with the most basic skills.
  • Boosting digital inclusion hubs. There is inadequate support for community-based digital inclusion hubs. Domestic and international evidence suggests place-based inclusion support works. The government should build on existing examples in the UK, focusing on libraries and other local amenities.
  • Prioritising competition alongside local benefit. The government is backing vital telecommunications upgrade programmes. But smaller providers may be crowded out. This would mean less market competition and fewer digital exclusion benefits provided by local alternative networks who connect and support poorly served communities. This trade-off deserves more attention from Ofcom and the government.
  • Future-proofing public services. The government must review the increasing use of predictive machine-learning tools in public services. Digitally excluded groups are likely to be poorly represented in some datasets that inform algorithmic decision-making. They face a growing risk of marginalisation as a result.

Commenting on the report, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, chair of the committee, said:[12]

The government has bold ambitions to make the UK a technology superpower and centre of AI development, but we can’t deliver an exciting digital future when five million workers are under skilled in digital and nearly two and half million people still can’t complete a single basic digital task […] We have found a distinct lack of leadership in government to tackle this issue. It is shocking that a digital inclusion strategy has not been produced since 2014 and the government sees no need for a new one. It is vital we get a grip of this now. The cost of living crisis has made access to the internet unaffordable for many. We need urgent action to ensure people aren’t priced offline.

3. What was the government’s response?

The government’s response to the committee report was published on 20 October 2023.[13] Addressing the committee’s call for a new strategy focused on digital exclusion, the government said it didn’t regard the matter as a “stand alone issue” but rather something that was “considered in all policy areas where applicable”.[14] The government argued its 2022 ‘UK digital strategy’ reflected the government’s approach to the range of aspects that impact digital inclusion, such as access, skills and online safety.[15]

On the matter of a digital exclusion unit, the government said that setting up a dedicated unit would risk “separating inclusion from dedicated policy expertise and diluting [government] departmental accountability”.[16] However, the government said that, noting the importance of better coordination, delivery and accountability, it would establish a dedicated cross-Whitehall ministerial group chaired by the minister for technology and digital economy.

The government agreed with the committee that digital exclusion was affecting “millions of people in the UK and impeding economic growth, productivity and social inclusion”.[17] The government said it had been “clear” that digital inclusion was a priority and that “credible steps” had been taken. However, it said it recognised that there was “more to be done”.

Reacting to the government’s response, the committee described it as “lacking ambition and failing to engage with the concerns raised” by the committee.[18] The committee concluded that the government’s “claim that digital exclusion is a priority is not credible”.

In a letter to Paul Scully, the then minister at the department for science, innovation and technology, committee chair Baroness Stowell said she was disappointed that the government’s response did “not engage substantively with the extent of some of our concerns”. She argued the government’s “refusal” to update its digital exclusion strategy “suggest[ed] a reluctance to dedicate political attention and departmental resource to this matter”.[19] Paul Scully wrote to the committee in November 2023 to update it on the activities of the new cross-Whitehall ministerial group. Mr Scully said the group had discussed activity across government to promote digital inclusion and the need to raise public awareness of the support available. He said the group had agreed to six monthly meetings to “drive progress and accountability”.[20]

4. How many people are using the internet?

Lloyds Bank publishes an annual consumer digital index, which is a study of digital and financial capability across the UK using the behavioural and transactional data of 1 million consumers. The ‘2023 UK consumer digital index’ is the eighth in its series. Key figures in the report included:

  • Number of people online. 96% of the UK have been online in the last three months—the second highest level since 2016. However, overall internet usage has reduced since 2022 (99%).[21] The report stated this is being driven by reduced usage in individuals over the age of 60.
  • Number of people offline. 4% of people are offline (2.1 million).[22] The report states that “for the first time, the proportion of people offline has increased”. 15% of those offline are under 50 years old. Around 4.7 million people cannot connect to WiFi and 10% of the offline did not have access to a device.[23]
  • Digital capability. 14.1 million people (27%) now have the highest digital capability, an increase of around 1 million people in 12 months. However, there are 13 million people with ‘very low digital capability’ (25%). This group are most likely to be of the older age group with 50% of this group being 70 years old and over.[24]
  • National variations. Wales and Scotland represent the nations with the highest number of people offline, with 8% and 6% respectively compared to the UK average of 4%. This is mirrored when looking at those with the lowest digital capability, with Wales and Scotland 28% and 26% in the lowest group. The UK average is 25%.
  • Cost of living. Around 12.2 million people (23%) have had to look for cheaper internet or mobile data plans due to rising costs. The report found that “access to data and connectivity more broadly remained a challenge”.[25]

Ofcom also publishes annual data on internet usage across the UK. Its 2023 report on adults’ media use and attitudes found that 7% of households in the UK did not have access to the internet at home.[26] Among this group, 69% said they did not want or need to be online; 20% cited concerns about complexity and 20% said they were concerned about cost. Ofcom found that those more likely to not have access to the internet at home were aged 65 years and over. Ofcom concluded that this created an “important distinction between the types of people who are offline and the support they may need”. It stated:[27]

[…] there are those who are not online and don’t want to be, but may need support to avoid being left behind in an ever-digitised world; there are those who want to be online but may need support in overcoming barriers to access such as cost; and there are those who are online but lack the confidence to navigate the online world safely and may need support in building their online skillset.

5. Read more

Cover image by Freepik.


  1. House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, ‘Digital exclusion’, 29 June 2023, HL paper 219 of session 2022–23, p 8. Return to text
  2. As above, p 5. Return to text
  3. As above, p 53. Return to text
  4. As above. Return to text
  5. The government introduced the universal service obligation in 2018. It granted people in poorly connected areas the right to request a “decent broadband service” of at least 10Mbit/s download speed and 1Mbit/s upload speed. An industry fund subsidises installation costs up to £3,400. See: Ofcom, ‘Your right to request a decent broadband service: What you need to know’, 8 August 2023. Return to text
  6. House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, ‘Digital exclusion’, 29 June 2023, HL paper 219 of session 2022–23, p 55. Return to text
  7. The framework sets out five categories of essential digital skills for life and work: communicating; handling information and content; transacting; problem solving; and being safe and legal online. It was designed to support providers, organisations and employers who offer training for adults on essential digital skills. It is measured annually by the Lloyds Bank consumer digital index. Return to text
  8. House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, ‘Digital exclusion’, 29 June 2023, HL paper 219 of session 2022–23, pp 53–7. Return to text
  9. As above, p 53. Return to text
  10. House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, ‘The government has “no credible strategy” to tackle digital exclusion’, 29 June 2023. Return to text
  11. House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, ‘Digital exclusion’, 29 June 2023, HL paper 219 of session 2022–23, p 6. Return to text
  12. House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, ‘The government has “no credible strategy” to tackle digital exclusion’, 29 June 2023. Return to text
  13. House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, ‘Digital exclusion: Government response to the committee’s third report’, 20 October 2023. Return to text
  14. As above, p 2. Return to text
  15. As above, p 3. Return to text
  16. As above. Return to text
  17. As above. Return to text
  18. House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, ‘Digital divide will deepen without government action: Committee criticise government response’, 20 October 2023. Return to text
  19. House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, ‘Letter from the chair to Paul Scully MP, then parliamentary under secretary of state, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology’, 19 October 2023. Return to text
  20. House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, ‘Letter to the chair from Paul Scully MP, then parliamentary under secretary of state, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology’, 10 November 2023. Return to text
  21. Lloyds Bank, ‘2023 UK consumer digital index’, November 2023, p 10. Return to text
  22. As above, p 17. Return to text
  23. As above, p 4. Return to text
  24. As above p 12. Return to text
  25. As above, p 4. Return to text
  26. Ofcom, ‘Adults’ media use and attitudes report 2023’, 29 March 2023, p 25. Return to text
  27. As above. Return to text