More and more of the economic and social life of our country is moving online. Access to high speed broadband is now widely recognised as an essential service alongside water, electricity and gas. It has been a challenge to this, and previous, governments to roll out broadband in the countryside. We therefore welcome the Government commitment, expressed in last week's Autumn statement to invest £1 billion in broadband and mobile technologies.
However, though investing in digital infrastructure is of great importance, it is not in itself enough to ensure the future prosperity of rural communities. A key challenge that needs to be addressed is the lack of skills and confidence to use digital technology within rural communities. This is a key stumbling block that unless addressed will prevent rural communities from making the most of the opportunities that will come about as a result of the Government's £1 billion investment in digital infrastructure.
Digital skills are now necessary life skills and we must aspire for the whole population to achieve the level of digital literacy needed to fully participate in social and economic life. Worryingly, a recent Parliamentary Inquiry reported that "there is a digital divide where up to 12.6 million of the adult UK population lack basic digital skills. An estimated 5.8 million people have never used the internet at all. This digital skills gap is costing the UK economy an estimated £63 billion a year in lost additional GDP."
Despite the aim of creating a leading digital economy, a recent Government report concluded that "currently, 72% of large companies and 49% of SMEs are suffering tech skill gaps... There is an increasing range of activities and occupations where digital skills are needed but supply is not adequate."
Two months ago, the Government announced plans to make the UK one of the most digitally skilled nations. The proposals, to be included in the Digital Economy Bill, will mean publicly-funded basic digital skills training being offered free of charge to adults in England who need it. The question still remains about how this training is going to be delivered, particularly in rural areas.
The reality is that our social and economic life is moving online faster than people are able to use the internet. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the countryside. In order to prevent the digital divide between town and country growing ever wider we must address how this exclusion can be tackled, and challenge whether "digital by default" is the best approach.
The importance of this debate to rural communities should not be underestimated. This isn't just about economic prosperity, but increasingly social prosperity as well. There is a growing consensus regarding the importance of rural connectivity to tackling social isolation amongst the elderly. I am glad that there are figures within the Government who recognise the significance of this agenda, Sheryll Murray MP, PPS to the Secretary of State for DEFRA being one.
It is also pleasing to see some of the work being done in the private sector with regard to the digital skills agenda. Mobile provider Three's digital skills program 'Discovery' has been providing digital training for people of all ages and backgrounds. But the private sector cannot carry all the responsibility alone. The Government needs to stop seeing the digital skills agenda as a "fringe issue", if it is not addressed then the Government will not achieve the results it desires through its £1 billion investment into digital infrastructure.
What is clear is that If the Government's pledge to invest £1 billion into digital infrastructure is going to have the transformative impact the Government intends, then it needs to be married together with a coherent strategy for tackling the deficiency of digital skills within our rural communities. If our rural communities are to flourish it is vital that those who live and work in those communities have the confidence and the skills to exploit the opportunities provided by such a significant investment.
Developing a coherent strategy for taking forward the digital skills agenda may not be as sexy as expanding "full-fibre connections" and 5G but without one the Government will fall well short in its goals for our rural communities.