Can the Net solve the problem of social exclusion?

Labour education and technology minister Michael Wills believes the Internet can solve social exclusion - but getting it wrong...

Labour education and technology minister Michael Wills believes the Internet can solve social exclusion - but getting it wrong means widening of the skills gap. He spoke to Ruth Winchester

When Tony Blair launched the UK Online strategy in September, he lined up three Government heavyweights on the platform: e-minister Patricia Hewitt, e-envoy Alex Allan and Michael Wills. Wills, Labour MP for Swindon since 1997, is officially parliamentary under-secretary of state for learning and technology. But as Blair has staked his e-strategy on a long-term skills and education revolution, the junior education minister could best be described as "minister for the digital divide".

For Wills, the Internet is an opportunity to combat social exclusion and for Britain to turn around decades of failing to compete economically. "We're living through another technological revolution. It's changing the economy and the way we do business. It's altering the way government delivers services. It's going to metamorphose education. We have evidence that when children learn on screens, they learn better. They're more motivated, disciplined and confident," enthuses Wills.

He brushes off criticisms from the dotcom fraternity who say the best thing the Government can do to help the e-revolution is nothing. "The Internet is taking off. You've got a third of homes online. We know there will be a minority that will not get access if the Government stands aside. We risk what the Americans call a digital divide. Children that have a computer at home could learn online at home and school. What happens to children who don't and can't? Inevitably, you know they're going to fall behind. What happens to people who can't get cheaper books, records or services because they can't purchase off the Internet?

"We're going to have divisions and inequalities in our societies reinforced and rooted because of lack of access to technologies. It is a real problem. It will reinforce all other inequalities, so it is critical we deal with this."

Moore's Law is where the processor capacity famously doubles every 18 months. It crops up in Wills' many public speeches. For him, the upward curve of technology is the biggest challenge to those who wish to close the divide.

"Every time you get doubling of capacity, you get more powerful applications and you acquire new skills to make use of them. Unless you're up-to-date, you're falling behind."

Obstacles to universal access

Wills' convoluted ministerial title is testimony to the fact that education and technology have been covered by different kingdoms within Whitehall. "I'm the first minister for learning and technology. It didn't exist before. It's important we make sure everybody does have access to technologies in terms of hardware, [and the] capability and confidence to use it.

Wills is aware of obstacles that stand in the way of his and Blair's vision of a new-technology Jerusalem. "We have an unequal society. It has grown more unequal recently because of the politics of the previous Government, changes in society and the economy. As a society, we have not conquered these challenges."

As part of the war against digital poverty, the Government is setting up local UK Online centres. "These will not be in libraries," Wills explains. "They will be in places everybody goes: shopping centres, pubs, fairgrounds. There will be some mobile centres, which can go into playgrounds. For example, the mother's taking children to school. [They can] pop in, [have a] cup of coffee and have a go."

Lurking within customer management departments of various online banks and retailers are teams whose mission is to root out low-value customers and bump them off the customer base. So what chance does the Government have in a commercial environment geared to exploiting - and perhaps increasing - the digital divide?

"There's a danger there. The way businesses make profits, they don't care where you come from unless they can make a profit from you. We have to make sure the skills base and employment opportunities are there so everybody is a customer. We don't want people who are so excluded and poor, no business wants them. Our job as a Government is to make sure everybody has a job who wants it. Most people should want it - they earn good money and improve themselves."

That said, he thinks giving business incentives to join the crusade rather than penalising those who don't is the way forward. "I remember talking to a chief executive of a very large bank about this once, and saying how important it was everybody has access to banking services. He said, 'Look, we can make a bank profitable anywhere' - and mentioned one estate in Scotland. 'What do you want us to do for that money? If you want a full range of banking services, then we're going to need people with more than £50 in the bank. If you want a basic service, we can do it. New technologies make it possible'."

Wills insists the problem is not new or specific to online commerce. "You come with me to deprived estates," he says. "You'll see how much fresh food is sold. How much fresh fruit you can buy? None. It's not a question of something new. People are excluded. We have a section of the population un-banked now. These technologies are our first opportunity to remove that."

Is there a possibility that all the skills taster courses, cheap PCs and Internet access will disappear into thin air? "We don't think so. There are initiatives that go on putting computers into deprived communities. The experience is when you trust people and go into communities that have some organisation or community capacity, people value it and police themselves.

"If we don't have confidence in these communities, how are they going to change? You have to believe these communities can turn themselves around. The will is there. What has not been is support."

Wills insists the private sector's role in this new social vision is going to be "fundamental". "I've had three meetings [with private businesses] today, all enthusiastic," he says.

But are they there for philanthropic or business reasons? "There's no difference. They are going in the same direction. The philanthropic reason is we want to give these communities a chance. The business reason is they need the skills base. We have a huge skills gap. You can't bridge a skills gap if you exclude parts of the population. So the two things come together. These communities are markets for all products. Once you've made a community more prosperous, they are more profitable. There's a virtuous circle."

With business changing so quickly, can ordinary people hope to keep up? "The capacity for humans to change is enormous. We did it in this country in the 19th century. We forget how quickly people's lives can be transformed in the right circumstances. There are deeply entrenched problems in these communities. I'm not pretending it's easy, but it's not an impossible dream. If we've got the will, determination and energy, all things are possible."

So what is the Wills sales story when he's faced with IT supplier executives who, with the best will in the world, will not have social exclusion on the agenda? "We're saying - you have an interest in getting the skills base in the country. You have an interest in developing the market and showing what technologies can do to transform education and employment opportunities. You have an interest in making sure you have the widest, most knowledgeable market and that means everybody. If we can do it in these communities, it can be done anywhere. That's the proposition. They all recognise that.

"I say to [the public] - come to us with a proposition you want to prove. Come in and tell us what you want, whether it's money, kit, people or software. Let us know."

So is the Government happy to let suppliers treat poorer communities as development for products? "We're happy for them to do that," says Wills. "The only things we want and are insisting on is in the area of deprivation. We're insisting over the whole project, we pilot different forms. I wouldn't want it all delivered by cable. I want a variety of platforms. We want it to improve employment and educational. We're also prepared to be flexible."

Although the Government only announced its wired-up communities initiative in September, it is determined to stick to the e-business world's tempo of development. "We want to get it running early next year," says Wills.

Skills crisis

While he is keen to set a pace for the Government's flagship initiatives, he is aware that solving the skills crisis is going to be a long game. "We came into power three years ago. One primary school in six had access to the Internet. We've now got five in six." He says the aim is to have Internet access in every school by 2002 or earlier. "We now have a new generation of technologically sophisticated children in the market."

Taking the horse to water and making it drink are two different things. Wills is aware the new generation of 16- to 18-year olds will have prejudices against an IT career. His solution is to "feminise" IT. "If we could make the profession attractive to women we've got huge possibilities. It's not all geeky and anoraks. It is a very exciting industry. We need to get that message across."

Wills explains the new Cabinet Office task force for women in IT will have a key role in doing that.

At the time of this interview, the Government was recovering from the fuel crisis and on the receiving end from sections of the press about political correctness. Does Wills feel persecuted? "No I don't feel persecuted. You don't get these opportunities [very often]. It's the only chance I'll get. It's the only chance a government will get. Previous Governments blew it - they didn't understand or do anything. But we've got to be prepared to take risks and to do things faster, courageously and more imaginatively. Of course, my head's on the block."

How is progress of e-government? "It's going well," laughs Wills. "We've started from a standing start. There was nothing done. We've made real progress."

He promises the UK Online portal will be impressive. "There are huge advantages for the Government and citizen. Instead of going to an office, queuing up, waiting and queuing again to fill in forms, you can just bang it in on Sunday afternoon and back it comes.

"The huge cost savings will be returned to the taxpayer. A banking transaction costs £1 in the bank, 50p over the phone and 1p over the Internet. Those are the margins and savings. Now these aren't cost free, there has to be significant investment; there has to be a massive culture shift in Whitehall. There are issues of privacy to be resolved."

Did Labour really begin from standing start? Was there nothing online when it took over? "It was patchy," says Wills. "Even last year, just looking at the Department for Education and Employment Web site, it's got better. Just the front end where you go into all government sites has been transformed in the last nine months. It's good now. It was clunky recently.

"There's effort going into it because of the Prime Minister's concern. There's always been a barrier to finding anything out from the Government. Not that the Government kept it secret. It was difficult. You had to go to offices, phone or post; it was cumbersome. This makes us more open to scrutiny. People expect to find it on the Web. If it's not there, they'll demand it."

Wills thinks this is the factor that will transform Whitehall culture. "I ran a small business before I came into government, where you live on the edge," says the former TV executive.

As the interview draws to a close, I ask Wills to be "monumentally pessimistic" and imagine what could go wrong with the Government's vision. "Lots of things," he answers. "Speed. We'll get there but that is no good. Because if other countries are there quicker, we will lose the opportunity. The slower we are, the worse people will fall behind.

"We've got inequalities in society as it is. If they get worse, that will be a damning indictment. Technology either bridges the gap or makes it worse. It doesn't stay still. All technological change brings new distribution of power. We've got to make sure we manage it effectively so it's equitable, fair and makes us a productive country. It's either all win or all lose. You ask what frightens me: we don't move fast or effectively enough and then it's all lose."

MPs and technology

For every New Labour believer in the Internet revolution is there, somewhere in Parliament, a technophobe who thinks it's all hype? "We're middle-aged men in suits - a very conservative bunch. The truth is, MPs are like the rest of us. They're catching up with the Internet. We have huge problems with legacy systems and patchwork provision that has grown up over the years. It's the convergence of information and communications technologies at an enormous rate. We've got clunky old systems that have been around for years."

At the mention of outmoded systems, Wills becomes party political. There are just two or three Conservative MPs who are experts in e-business, he says. "It's not that they're bereft: they just don't understand it. The Liberal Democrats are better. But it's frightening when you realise there's a whole political party like it."

If Labour loses the next election, can we kiss goodbye to the e-government revolution? "That is bleak and is what worries me. Under the last Government, only one primary school in six had access. If that's the approach they take, this country is in desperate straits. They would not care about social exclusion or gender. They didn't care when in government. They show no sign of interest in equity or fairness. I would be pretty worried."

What else does Wills feel strongly about? "If you go to some areas to see the difference the Internet makes - it's an extraordinary difference - it is inspiring.

"It's about making information and knowledge available to everybody, it is empowering," says Wills, who effortlessly switches from politics to poetry. "It's like Keats' poem about reading Homer."

Keats was the son of an 18th century stable-hand who became a surgeon, then one of the greatest poets in the English language. The Homer poem tells of the epiphany that took place when the "cockney poet" first read an English translation of the classics. If Wills has his way, the Internet will have the same effect on millions of underprivileged children and solve the skills shortage in the 21st century. We can only live in hope.

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