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Lords plea for a digital minister with teeth



Ad hoc inquiry into digital skills throws down challenge to the next government

Whoever forms the government after the general election should put a Cabinet minister in charge of the entire digital agenda rather than entrusting it to at least four separate ministers, a high powered parliamentary committee urges today.

In a call for an ambitious cross-cutting digital programme, the ad hoc House of Lords Digital Skills Committee says that the UK is at a make or break moment in embracing a challenge that could threaten 35% of jobs over the next 20 years. "The country is not addressing its significant digital skills shortage and an incoming government urgently needs to resolve this," the report says.

One sector being transformed through technology is health, the report notes, pointing to the potential impact of regenerative medicine and remote treatment and self-monitoring.

While it commends the current government's "digital by default" programme, the committee says that wider efforts lack coordination. "We were told that the current digital 'activity' the government is responsible for includes four government ministers, a taskforce, a committee, a unit and 'various other random issues'," the report says.

It calls on the next government to place an ambitious digital agenda in the hands of a "Cabinet minister in the Cabinet Office, who would assume ultimate responsibility for driving the digital agenda across all government departments". The proposal will revive memories of Margaret Thatcher's appointment of Kenneth Baker as information technology minister in 1981, or Tony Blair's creation of the e-Envoy in 1999. The first did not have Cabinet rank and the second was a civil service appointment.

Committee chair Baroness Morgan of Huyton (Sally Morgan) said: "This report is a wake-up call to whoever forms the next Government in May. Digital is everywhere, with digital skills now seen as vital life skills. It's obvious, however, that we're not learning the right skills to meet our future needs.

"The committee also found that internet provision in the UK needs a boost. It's unacceptable that some urban areas still experience 'not-spots', particularly where the lack of internet directly affects the UK's ability to compete. Also, in some parts of the UK, as many as 20% of the population has never used the internet. Only when the Government treats the internet as a utility, as important and vital for people as water or electricity, will these issues be addressed.

"Our overwhelming recommendation is that the incoming government creates a digital agenda, with the goal of securing the UK's place as a leading digital economy within the next five years. Digital skills can no longer be dealt with by individual departments - this must all join up. We are at a make-or-break point for the future of the UK - for its economy, its workforce and its people."

Pictured: The Palace of Westminster by Paul Clarke

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