Spring Budget 2023 needs a digital focus

Dr Richard Whittle, Y-PERN Chief Policy Fellow and Academic Policy Fellow at the University of Leeds

We are in turbulent times, the pandemic and transformation of our economy is a very recent memory and continues to be a pressing threat. Inflation is tearing through the UK economy hitting savings, the purchasing power of our incomes and derailing future investment. Our fraught exit from the EU has increased barriers to trade and increased political tensions. Our resilience is at rock bottom and people can be forgiven for not focussing on the long term when they are choosing between heating and eating today. It is our politicians’ job to focus on both. When a future crisis hits it should be mitigated by action from the past. Energy price rises should be less impactful because of precious investment in renewable technology, wages should allow a person to thrive day to day and secure their future, unexpected bills should be cushioned by savings, house deposits should be affordable and obtainable.

The list of problems is now huge because of a culmination of short-term approaches, myopic budgets and debates about balancing the books. These led to a fragility in our economy which current issues have exposed, and we must not continue making that mistake. This budget should of course help today – and this help should be significant – but it and subsequent policy must ensure that the UK economy is robust and resilient enough to dynamically respond to future events. I would urge an exceptional budget for exceptional times, with at its heart a focus on digital skills, growth and inclusion.

In terms of immediate issues then, then childcare costs should be lowered to be comparable to our European counterparts, and this should be coupled with rapid investment in early years provision with results seen in our communities within the year. Businesses and households need increased support with their energy prices coupled with long term strategic investment in renewables. Businesses and households need support now above the level already granted which is seeing the small businesses which serve our communities disappear. Housebuilding and renter support both with cost and terms should be a priority.

As regards the longer term, I would like to focus in this blog on digital and AI. I would like to see in tomorrow’s budget a significant push toward creating that holistic digitally savvy, technologically adept economy. This is in line with current thinking as regards significant strategic investments in Artificial Intelligence, advanced manufacturing, robotics. However, my focus is on (for want of a better phrase) ‘digitally levelling up’ the whole of society. This means targeting the millions who do not have digital access or digital literacy, in a programme of digital inclusion that may not be as glamourous as high tech investment but will have higher and surer returns. The benefits, if such a programme is done properly will be innumerable. Countless small productivity gains in the traditionally low productivity microbusinesses which dominate our economy. Time saving labour enhancing tools not making these businesses world leading (or any other political buzzword), but simply helping them run a little better, a little more efficiently and generating a little more reward for their usually sole employee. Booking an appointment online goes from being a difficult thing to do to an effortless time saving process, accessing services online becomes second nature and all of society benefits from the provision of labour saving online tools. Perhaps we join more technological societies in judging appropriate telehealth services as conveniences rather than with suspicion and cries of ‘return to work’. Likewise a technologically comfortable populace is better able to navigate the pitfalls of our ‘digital by default’ economy. Misinformation and Dark Patterns may cause less misery, our susceptibility to online scams can decrease.

Given their recent experiences people rightly worry about technological change as in their experience it frequently represents the replacement of an existing service with a less good digital one, rather than supplementing an already great offering. This needs to change. AI should not be met with fear for our jobs, but with an exploration of the possibilities as we have a digitally aware, technologically comfortable population. I would urge the Chancellor to pay attention to the now without forgetting the long term and offer a budget with hope. Not the vague hope of sunlit uplands but tangible hope of a slightly better tomorrow and again the day after.

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