THE BLOG

What The Country Needs To See In Tomorrow's Digital Strategy

28/02/2017 16:49
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Our burgeoning digital economy is the largest in the world and growing at a rate we could hardly have expected even just half a decade ago.

There are now more than one million employed in everything from tech start-ups in Sheffield to creative industries and our digital economy takes up an ever growing chunk of Britain's entire GDP. At its best, this disruptive force is bringing unprecedented benefits to millions. But too often workers will find themselves overworked, underpaid and exploited by bosses they never meet and who do not even fulfil their basic duties as an employer; and people across the country will suffer from digital exclusion because our infrastructure is second rate and our digital skills programmes well behind the times.

Months of delay and a pitiful Digital Economy Bill have tempered expectations about the Government's Digital Strategy released tomorrow and many are wondering whether they really have anything like the vision this sector needs.

That's why tomorrow, above all else, we have to see ambition. That ambition should envisage the UK leading the world in automative technologies, advanced manufacturing research and the onshoring of high-level, high-paid jobs across the country. But we also must see concrete proposals on two key principles: Access Anywhere and Access for All.

Access Anywhere - that means the Government must finally commit to universal superfast broadband for all. The pathetic minimum speed they want to set will leave 400,000 small businesses, swathes of rural Britain and even some of our bustling urban centres in the digital slow lane. The Government are uniting rural farmers, urban coffee shops, and business park start-ups in a coalition against them. They want ambition and the Government is telling them 'be happy with the bare minimum well into the next decade'.

In recent times the extent of the Government's ambition on digital infrastructure has been a broadband investment fund, which they have now re-announced on three separate occasions. It would be laughable to do so again tomorrow. It was trailed by the former Chancellor during the Autumn Statement in 2015 and will only take the UK from the current 2% full fibre coverage to just 7% by 2020, or the same figure Latvia and Lithuania reached in 2012. Not good enough.

And on 4G coverage as Lord Adonis' report showed the UK is well behind much of the developed world; many A-roads, rural areas and even city locations struggle to access it for all networks.

The target the government set industry is weak to say the least and if the Government are still only aiming for 90% voice and text 2G coverage by 2017. Again, not good enough.

The Government's approach to infrastructure is hopelessly outdated. We're spending upwards of £60billion on HS2, transporting people around, when they won't commit to £1.7billion to deliver superfast broadband and transport data around the country faster and more efficiently. Likewise, I have seen no acknowledgement of the importance of data as infrastructure - a tool not only for transparency but as an engine of efficiency and growth.

And on Access for All - we need to see a real commitment to digital skills and skills retraining, so those communities that were left behind when the manufacturing industries collapsed in the 1980s aren't left behind again as our digital economy starts to boom.

By 2022 there will be a shortage of three million people to fill 15million high-skilled jobs in the UK. Conversely nine million will be chasing three million low-paid jobs. Therefore we need to push for as close as possible to 100% digital literacy in a country where 12.5million still lack basic digital skills. And for older workers we need to back a Second Chance Career Fund so those left behind as our economy changes have the chance to reskill and begin a new career.

So skills training in schools, in the existing workforce but crucially a commitment to re-skilling those that have lost their jobs. This strategy has to be as much about Sunderland as it is Shoreditch.

If the Government's strategy, after over a year of delays, and repeated blockings by No 10 doesn't deliver meaningfully on skills, infrastructure and address the financing of start-ups outside London and the South East it will have failed. The answers to the fourth industrial revolution are not as complicated as many would have us believe, the thinking is happening all over academia, in the industry and in the Labour Party, I hope the Government meets our expectations.

Louise Haigh is the Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley and Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy

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