The Digital Opportunity: Make or Break Britain

Today, the Digital Skills Select Committee, of which I have been fortunate enough to be a member for the past year, published its report and recommendations.

The everythingness of the digital opportunity is the fundamental point which we must get across:  training or trade, schooling or skills, education, health or employment, digital will change it all, not in minor, round the edges ways, but fundamentally, irreversibly, often mind blowingly.

To face this opportunity we need the hard and soft infrastructure to enable us as individuals and as a nation to thrive and fulfil our potential.

One of the key infrastructure issues is access to broadband. Currently this is not just flawed by a lack of coverage, particularly in rural areas, there is also a real question of capacity not least in our cities where demand continues to outstrip what service providers can offer.  Broadband must be seen as a utility, be taken as seriously as other utilities and regulated in the same way.

Similarly, in our schools we need to continue our relentless focus on numeracy and literacy but alongside this, as important, we need to set digital skills, digital literacy if you will.  We need the next generation to be numerate and literate but we also need them to be creative, innovative and flexible in this digital landscape.

There is, as ever, a problem with inclusion.  Women, disabled people and older people have a real opportunity but one which is not being realized. One shocking figure is that out of the 4,000 young people studying computer science at A level, fewer than 100 are female, this can’t be allowed to continue. This must be addressed and it is not only about equality and fairness, the report finds that universal digital access could be worth up to £63 billion in additional GDP growth.

Alongside this, apprenticeships, training, careers advice [better termed employment advice or employability] must all stress the digital imperative.

The report calls on the Government to play a leading role, drawing up an ambitious ‘Digital Agenda’ to enable Great Britain to be in the best position to rival the world.  This can’t be overstated and should be led by a Cabinet Minister based in the Cabinet Office.

I have written before about youth unemployment and skills and the importance of overall responsibility for a specific agenda cutting across departments. The success of London 2012 showed what we can achieve when we cut across Whitehall departments and invest responsibility in one person to allow them to achieve a clearly defined goal.

That same level of commitment, pride and passion needs to be sustained if we are to draw up that ‘Digital Agenda’, drive the opportunity and enter an age of innovation, an age of creativity, of production, of leadership, a brilliant bright future for Britain.

Two eyes in inclusion?

Ever had a bonkers idea, you know, the sort that arrive in the wee small hours, they seem marvellous at the time; rubber feet to stop shoes and socks getting wet, chocolate beds in case you get the munchies… that kind of thing?

When we wake most of us rightly smile, then neatly fold and place these ideas in the locked drawers of our dreams, dazzling in the dark but when such magic is exposed to the gathering light of day….

Well, here’s the thing, some of these dazzlements make their way into the dystopic day and the dream becomes the nightmare it always would.

One such idea is “shared spaces”, innocuous sounding I agree until I set out its central proposition; put buses and blind people, white cane users and white vans, guide dog owners and gas guzzlers, toddlers and tankers in the same “shared space” and see what happens. The proposition is predicated on the belief that everyone will behave better, have a more inclusive, interactive experience if all those tedious traffic signals, pelican and zebra crossings, pavements and street markings were all swept away. I mean, whoever came up with such a lunacy as lights to tell vehicles or pedestrians when to stop or go, audible signals to enable blind and visually impaired people to have the comfort and the confidence to cross- crazy huh ?

There is nothing ”shared” in this “space”. There is nothing inclusive in the concept. I’m all for innovation and improvement but a scheme which relies exclusively on eye contact means that I can’t use it, and neither can millions of others. Even if I could are we really suggesting that a driver looked at by a plaintive pedestrian will behave better, slow down and wave them across? In reality, research has shown that in streets with high volumes of traffic, pedestrians are more likely to give way to vehicles. The same research showed women and older people also felt intimidated by the shared space and preferred previous road layouts and conventional crossings.

This was the subject of the short debate last Thursday [read debate here] to question the government and draw public attention to just what is going on out there in this “shared space”. It is pleasing to note that a scheme in Gloucester is being reconsidered and local authorities in Blackpool and Warwick have already performed well executed U-turns. I strongly suggest that all others follow suit.

Employer engagement essential to ending youth unemployment

One of the policy areas I am particularly interested in is youth unemployment. Today, as part of the Westminster Education Forum, I chaired a panel discussion on course development in higher education. One of the key questions was about engaging employers in the design and delivery of courses. Getting employers involved at this stage will ensure graduates leave with the necessary skills required for employment.

Currently, although youth unemployment figures are down to an almost all time low of 14.9%, the not so great news is that young people are disproportionately unemployed, trapped in the bottom half of the skills hourglass and less likely than previous generations to acquire new skills once they’ve got into work. Young people need careers, not just ‘any job’ but sustainable employment.

What can be done? There is significant consensus among organisations and charities on some key elements and particularly on the importance of employer engagement. We need a joined up, local approach. Education must be joined to the workplace. Local employers should work with schools to give experience and information about the local labour market. We also need greater ‘employer ownership of skills’. This means employers and industries need to agree and communicate which skills and qualifications they value and need. In a digital age this is particularly important for ‘future proofing’ not just our young people but the economy as well.

Clearly, thinking about different ways of engaging employers is important and in the Lords I asked if the government would insert a condition into all public procurement requiring bidding businesses to offer high-quality apprenticeships. This would serve to ensure more companies offer the kind of decent in work training opportunities our young people need. Greater collaboration between business and government should also aim to create more middle-ranged jobs, so there can be genuine progression up a career ladder and less of a trap in the low skilled ‘any job’ bulge at the bottom.

Another area that needs to be ‘joined up’ is overall responsibility for the problem across departments. The Department for Education, Department for Work and Pensions and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills all have accountability for some of the services which can transform a young person’s transition from school to work, but they all work to different objectives, and the young people most likely to end up in the unemployment statistics fall through the cracks. The success of London 2012 shows what we can achieve when we cut across Whitehall departments and invest responsibility in one person to allow them to achieve a clearly defined goal. The growing consensus, that we can completely eradicate youth unemployment, points toward the opportunity to create an even greater legacy – if it can be grasped.

Terrible idea halted just in time!

Earlier this month South West Trains told passenger groups it was suspending the audio announcements of train information at Waterloo Station for a two-week trial. This was a particularly strange decision given that just two years ago they had spent almost £3million on a new 90-decibel system, comprising 1,000 speakers, which it said would deliver “better and clearer” information.

Suspending audio announcements would have had a devastating impact on blind and visually impaired train users, not to mention thousands of others who benefit from this service. It would have forced people to seek out assistance from information points and made it much harder to be independent. It was a terrible idea, the RNIB campaigned against it and Caroline Pidgeon from the London Assembly described it as “one of the most absurd decisions by a train company I have ever come across”.

The positive news, however, is that South West Trains listened to the outcry and changed their minds. I am pleased to report that audio announcements will remain at Waterloo. If this is an optimistic tale of people power then it is also a reminder that we should never assume that anything, no matter how sensible and seemingly beyond question is necessarily forever. It is down to us, as communities and individuals to ensure that better is the benchmark and never let anything simply slip away.

At a time when much is written about voter apathy and community disengagement it’s good to be reminded that people do care and actions can change things.

What do Select Committees do?

As a relatively new member of the House of Lords I was delighted to be appointed to the Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills. Unlike select committees in the House of Commons, which are generally responsible for overseeing the work of government departments and agencies, those of the Lords look at general issues. They can be permanent, or, like this one on Digital Skills, ad hoc. We will report by March next year.

This select committee has been formed to look at the UKs digital landscape and particularly competitiveness and skills. It is a timely and important investigation. The UK is at the forefront of digital skills in Europe but the digital landscape changes so quickly it is essential to look constantly at how well equipped we are to keep up with developments. In particular how will jobs be effected and how fit for purpose is the current education and skills training system?

Technology is likely to dramatically reshape labour markets in the long run and to cause significant changes to the types of skills that workers will need. There is debate as to how drastic these changes will be but some studies suggest that jobs vulnerable to computerisation range from 45-60% of the current labour force. Whilst government priority is obviously boosting employment, it would be short sighted indeed not to consider how to adapt to a jobs environment that requires different skills.

The Committee meets weekly to hear from expert witnesses and consider various evidence. So far we have heard from Microsoft, Google, academics and industry experts. Most meetings are public and available to watch live via Parliament TV.

In July we published a call for evidence. This is an appeal for a public response to the questions we are considering, particularly: skills training, support for the digital sector, industry and infrastructure. What are the challenges? What should the government be doing? Please see the full text of the call for evidence here.

It is a significant amount of work and an important task. We will absorb and process a vast amount of information, cross examine witnesses, draw out the key elements and make concrete recommendations. I sincerely hope that our work will improve the nation’s connectivity, competitiveness and enable us together to be increasingly tech fit for the future.

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