I listened to George Osborne’s budget speech today with interest, as I always do, but this year’s one was actually a bit disappointing for the digital inclusion sector - there was no mention of digital skills or even adult skills at all. In fact, the only mention came from Jeremy Corbyn in his response to the Chancellor when he highlighted that the current government has cut the adult skills budget by 35%.
Reading the whopping 148 page supporting document which provides more detail on what the budget actually means for the sector has helped to understand far better what the implications are.
Putting the next generation first has been a key theme running right the way through the Chancellor’s eighth budget, and here skills are mentioned - with a commitment to ensuring the next generation has the skills they need to succeed in the future.
On a broader scale, it was also great to see a commitment to supporting opportunities for people to retrain and upskill for those requiring basic digital skills, right up to those at PhD level. I was disappointed, however, that there was no mention of digital skills in particular. There are still 12.6 million people who lack the basic digital skills to succeed in our increasingly digital society and I’d like to have seen some specific commitment to supporting them for them. Perhaps the government is feeling comforted by the UK’s pole position amongst the G7 economies for internet usage (indeed, it includes a graph to illustrate this within the budget document) but we still have some way to go before we match internet usage in the Scandinavian nations, and we certainly can’t rest on our laurels with other countries snapping at our heels.
As ever, the focus seems to be on digital infrastructure at the expense of skills, with key proposals including:
- A new broadband investment fund, to encourage the development of alternative broadband networks by providing greater access to finance
- Clearer pricing for broadband, with the Advertising Standards Authority to develop proposals to ensure adverts for broadband don’t confuse or mislead consumers
- A government panel, chaired by De-coded CEO Kathryn Parsons, to oversee a £20m pot of funding for the Institute for Coding competition
- A strategy for 5G to be developed.
The most promising of these proposals is the one about clearer pricing for broadband. We welcome a drive to make purchasing broadband clearer for consumers as we, and our local UK online centres, see on a daily basis just how confusing and off-putting it can be for people on low incomes to get their first broadband deal.
As a (very newly registered) charity, we also welcome the announcement of £57m of new funding in charities through income from banking fines and the Tampon Tax. However, it’s a real shame that charities won’t be able to bid for this funding through open competition, and its heavy allocation to hospital charities suggests that this funding is propping up statutory institutions.
We were also disappointed that the axe will fall on the Money Advice Service, a partner of ours, and one which many of our beneficiaries use to manage their money. It’s likely that our local community partners and other services such as Citizen Advice Bureaux will feel the strain, and it’s currently unclear what, if anything, will replace it.
Lastly, we were also pleased to see the Making Tax Digital programme, which we’ve been working on with HMRC supporting individuals and SME’s to get to grips with their tax affairs better, get a mention by the Chancellor.
Reactions to the budget are still coming in, but so far the big-hitting headlines are focussing on the sugar levy, and on the transition of all schools to become academies.
Sadly, the reputation of adult skills as the ‘cinderella’ sector appears to be ringing true under this government, as we’ll continue to work hard to remind them that of the huge economic benefits an investment in digital skills will provide, and how it must go hand-in-hand with funding digital infrastructure if the UK is to become a truly global leader in digital technology.