Greg Wright: The steps we must take to destroy digital divide that is tearing Britain apart

WHEN I first started in journalism the only information superhighway was the street where they parked the mobile library.

Peter Estlin Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

The world moved at a slower and, on the whole, much less efficient pace. Today, we assume that everyone has developed sophisticated digital skills which allows them to stay on top of our ever changing world.

In reality, many people still lack a firm grasp of the digital rules of engagement. Fears of fraud, cyber bullies and data leakage are scaring many people away from participating in the digital revolution.

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This will lead to fear and mistrust of big corporates who are driving ahead with digital expansion. This point was underlined when I met Peter Estlin, the Lord Mayor of the City of London, when he visited Leeds this week.

He is keen to use his influence to ensure that nobody is left behind.

He said: “Whether it’s pure financial services or the wider industry as a whole, we have a responsibility as we digitise more and more of our industries to take people with us.

“We are at risk at the moment..of creating a society where we have potentially, through a lack of clarity, ended up with digitally excluded communities.

“And that is not healthy. And that in itself will lead to more distrust.

“In practice we have got more work to do collectively. There are some great examples of what is being done but we need to do it on steroids.”

There are tangible grounds for concern. According to a report into the UK’s digital divide from the Office for National Statistics, last year there were still 5.3 million adults in the UK, or 10.0 per cent of the adult UK population who were described as digital non-users.

To quote the ONS report: “In an increasingly digital age, those who are not engaging effectively with the digital world are at risk of being left behind.

“Technological change means that digital skills are increasingly important for connecting with others, accessing information and services and meeting the changing demands of the workplace and economy.

“This is leading to a digital divide between those who have access to information and communications technology and those who do not, giving rise to inequalities in access to opportunities, knowledge, services and goods.”

The ONS report found that a digital disparity persists across areas of the UK.

London has the lowest proportion of internet non-users (7.0%) while Northern Ireland continues to have the highest proportion (14.2%), followed by the North East of England (12.1%).

The study found that the most common reason for not having internet access in the household is a perceived lack of need, followed by a lack of skills.

The ONS report added: “The barriers to digital inclusion suggest part of the education for digital skills may need to start by highlighting the benefits of being online and overcoming any apprehension to engagement.

“However, the fact that people remain digitally excluded also highlights the importance of ensuring that non-digital alternatives continue to be made available to enable everyone to participate fully in society.”

This neatly sums up the problem. We need to win over the hearts and minds of people who are reluctant to go online, by telling them about the benefits; it can speed up financial transactions and improve your career prospects.

But at the same time, we must be sensitive to the fact that non digital services must remain until we have destroyed the barriers to digital inclusion.

So that means retaining staff at bank and district council offices, for people who still value the human touch.

An abrupt loss of these services causes alarm and fear, particularly for elderly people who are often nervous about using online transactions.

At the same time, we must raise our game in fighting cyber crooks and fraudsters. One of the best ways of ensuring more people go online is to show that cyber crime does not pay. Heavy sentences and effective measures to combat these types of crooks will help to destroy a digital divide that must worry us all.