PICTFOR was delighted to be joined by Digital Infrastructure Minister, Matt Warman MP, Vice-Chair of the APPG on Social Mobility, Siobhain McDonagh MP, CEO of event Co-sponsor Jisc, Dr Paul Feldman, CEO of Good Things Foundation, the event’s second Co-Sponsor, Helen Milner OBE, and Group CEO of Moneypenny, Joanna Swash. Panelists joined PICTFOR’s Co-Chair Baroness Neville-Rolfe DBE CMG who chaired the event. Each of our speakers discussed how the tech sector can further support Parliament and the Government in ‘levelling up’ the nation.
Please see below for minutes of the session. You can catch up on the event in full, here.
- The Minister began by stressing how levelling up is now more important than ever, as divides in the UK have been emphasised by the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that levelling up must include not just providing people with connectivity, but also providing them with the means to pay for this connection, as well as ensuring that areas or individuals reap the maximum reward for being online. He identified the massive challenge that this presents to the Government, as it requires multiple departments working in tandem. The Minister pointed to Stoke as an example of an area where an improvement in connectivity has led to genuine economic growth and high-quality jobs. He closed his speech by exalting the Department’s desire to see everyone in the UK online and enjoying the full benefits of the internet.
- Dr Paul Feldman focused on levelling up in education, pointing out the significant digital poverty that he had witnessed in student populations over the last year, as well as some of the positive aspects that have arisen from the pandemic. He warned that digital access remains the key barrier to the next stage of education and that while there have been some effective interventions to remedy this, they have often not benefitted adult or Higher-Education learners. Dr Feldman closed by highlighting the possibilities presented by AI in future teaching, as digital teachers could ensure a democratisation of education, while also maintaining the UK’s worldwide technological credentials.
- Siobhain McDonagh MP highlighted the importance of technology for many people in the past year but warned that this lifeline hasn’t been available to all. She too focused on the digital divide in education, saying that it cannot be right in our society that some children have to rely on charities to provide them with internet access. She noted how the digital divide had only been further exacerbated by the pandemic, and that it continues to give children from the wealthiest backgrounds an advantage over those less fortunate. She closed by stating that the digital divide will not pass along with the pandemic, and that she will attempt to introduce a bill to tackle it, proposing to provide internet access and an adequate device at home for all children on free school meals.
- Helen Milner OBE spoke about the huge overlap between digital and social policy, noting that it is a common misconception that the majority of people unable to get online are the elderly, when it is actually largely those from low incomes and attainments. With regards to affordability, she believed that the work of Good Things Foundation in partnership with Nominet to launch a National Data Poverty Lab could end data poverty by the end of this Parliament. She noted that while the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a lot of businesses step up to tackle the digital divide, the country requires more long-term sustainable solutions. She said that she thought the Government needed a coherent plan for digital inclusion, and that a paper on this would go hand in hand with a national plan for levelling up.
- Joanna Swash talked about her experience of using tech and the levelling up agenda as the owner of an SME. She spoke about how a greater reliance on tech had allowed her business in Wrexham to compete with those in London or New York, allowing them to level up on a national and global level. She had no doubt that hybrid working was the future of work and that working from home has created a more level playing field nationally, thereby advancing the levelling up agenda. She closed by saying that tech has allowed people to work in different markets in different ways, which is a positive for everyone.