The growing digital divide in the UK should be addressed through a mix of better communications infrastructure, IT education courses, employer initiatives and improved government web sites, delegates at an IT skills event yesterday were told.
The event was held at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills to mark the beginning of e-Skills week.
Digital Britain minister Stephen Timms opened the debate, saying that 11 million adults in the UK have not used the internet recently.
Stephen Dobson, a government advisor and director of DC10Plus, a collaborative network of over 1,000 local authorities, said that seven out of 10 companies conduct business online, and that the government considers ICT to be the "third skill for life" after literacy and numeracy, yet 33 per cent of UK households do not own a PC.
DC10Plus highlighted research showing that 800,000 children are unable to go online at home, and nearly one in three adults does not use the internet.
Dobson maintained that digital exclusion could be addressed through " communities building" and "21st century infrastructure".
European Commission principal administrator André Richier, meanwhile, explained that his first objective in tackling digital exclusion would be to improve e-government web sites, many of which are poorly designed and lack basic search functionality.
"People are not going to go on IT courses every month, so we have to make life easier for them and more intuitive," he said.
Richier added that some countries have impressive e-skills strategies, but still manage to let down a significant number of citizens.
"One country that is doing very well, but that is also a cause for concern, is Denmark. It is about to move to full e-government online, but those who lack online access are likely to be excluded," he said.
Peter Skyte, a national officer for Unite, the UK's largest trade union, foresees similar problems in the UK because a large part of the government's digital exclusion strategy will be carried out online.
Timms defended the government's approach, pointing to its Online Basics course which offers a free introduction to computers and the internet. He also said that the government is making an extra £30m available over the next three years to get a further one million people online.
British Computer Society chief executive David Clarke said that his organisation is helping to address the growing digital divide with the Savvy Citizens programme.
"Savvy Citizen tries to help people to do things online they have heard of, but don't know how to do," he said.
Clarke also maintained that digital exclusion could be improved by increasing the accessibility of IT.
"We have to make IT appear simple. For example, games could be used to get people used to working with IT," he said.
However, Clarke acknowledged that investment in such initiatives is tough in the current economic climate.
Margaret Sambell, deputy chief executive and head of strategy at e-Skills UK, explained that her organisation meets regularly with unions to address digital exclusion, and that larger employees can help.
"For example, we work with British Airways and its baggage handlers to address digital skill shortages," she said.
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