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Written Statement - Statement on the progress being delivered through Digital Wales to make Wales a Digital Nation

Julie James, Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology

This statement meets our Programme for Government commitment to report regularly on progress being made in Delivering a Digital Wales.  We wish to be transparent and accountable for our actions, I have therefore published the latest progress report today.

Published in 2010, Digital Wales is the Welsh Government’s ten year strategy for making Wales a truly digital nation.  It sets out five key objectives - to tackle the digital divide, to grow our digital economy, to improve digital skills, to provide better online public services and to deliver faster broadband across Wales.  

We have made substantial progress in all these areas however; this is a complex and fast moving agenda in which activity across all five themes is highly cross-cutting.  For example decisions on which public services should be enhanced through digital delivery needs to consider both the availability of broadband and the digital skills of people wishing to access those public services.    This makes the need to closely track progress and continually refresh our plans in the light of developments all the more important.  

This approach was exemplified in June when the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty published a revised Digital Inclusion Delivery Plan.  We have made real progress in tackling digital exclusion over the last 3 years with the percentage of adults in Wales not regularly using the internet falling from 34% in 2010 to 21% in May 2014.  Our part European funded digital inclusion programme, Communities 2.0, has played a key part in this, helping over 52,000 of our most digitally excluded people to get online.  Communities 2.0 has worked in partnership with organisations across the public, private and third sectors to embed digital inclusion in their working practices, enabling more people to benefit from digital inclusion support.  Additional European and Welsh Government funding has also allowed the programme to be extended to cover all of Wales in its final year.  The revised plan sets ambitious new targets for the next three years and highlights the need to continue to identify and bring on board partners across all sectors to ensure everyone has the opportunity to benefit from the digital world.

The digital economy has continued to grow throughout the economic downturn.  It accounts for over half of UK GVA and technology will underpin the majority of future job creation across all sectors of our economy.  Encouragingly, the percentage of SMEs in Wales with a website has increased from under 50% in 2004 to 72% in 2014 (UK average is 69%), with a majority (81%) using the internet to order goods and services.  However, we still need to help our businesses make more sophisticated use of the internet as a minority of them are using the internet for marketing and sales or integrating digital capabilities into their core processes.

We have strong and vibrant ICT and creative industry sectors in Wales, recent announcements include CGI bringing 620 jobs to Bridgend and Alert Logic’s new Security Operations Centre launch in Cardiff.  These inward investments to Wales act as an important enabler of the digital economy.  

To support this growth it is vital we ensure the supply of people with digital skills into all parts of the economy.  The 2013 UK Employer Skills Survey found that many Welsh employers are still reporting a significant lack of both basic computer literacy and advanced IT skills amongst their employees.  That is why the new Skill Implementation Plan that was announced in July prioritised the improvement of ICT skills of working adults to at least level 2.  This will build on existing measures that are supporting the growth of digital skills such as the Learning in Digital Wales Grant and Hwb programmes.

Through the Learning in Digital Wales Grant over £39 million has been invested in uplifting the internet connection to our schools.  I can confirm that 987 primary schools, pupil referral units, middle schools and special schools have been connected at 10Mbps, whilst 179 secondary schools are connected at 100Mpbs allowing safe, secure and fast broadband services.

The Hwb, our National Digital Content Repository for Wales and Hwb+, a secure online virtual learning environment is being provided free of charge for every school in Wales.  Hwb+ has been made available to 1,615 primary, special and secondary schools in Wales.  Over 1,845 teachers from 1,334 schools have received training to ensure they can effectively use it.

Of course the digital economy is not just about the private sector, the public sector also has a huge opportunity to use technology to provide better and more cost efficient services.  Many parts of the public sector are doing just that.  A prime example is the digital transformation of the rural payments system which was used by 32% of the 18,000 customers to apply for annual payments in the first year of operation and aiming to be 100% digital in 2016.

However, as highlighted in the recent report from the Commission on Public Service Governance our long-term goal must be to work together and to act as ‘one public service’, rather than as separate organisations.  Technology has a huge role to play in achieving this ambition both as a driver of change, for example through the introduction of shared services such as HR and finance services and, more importantly, as an enabler of innovation whereby technology is used to transform the delivery of public services.

We should not underestimate the challenge this presents.  There will be both technical and cultural barriers to overcome including getting autonomous bodies to collaborate and to commit to common ICT standards, improving digital skills across the public sector workforce and developing a national capability to create solutions to shared ICT problems.  I want Wales to be the first part of the UK to tackle these barriers and in doing so transform the delivery of local online services.  This will make Wales one of the best and most innovative providers of online services in the world.  

Finally much of the focus in the first three years of Digital Wales has been on infrastructure and our Superfast Cymru programme investment is key to supporting future economic growth in Wales.  I can report that the roll-out, which began in January 2013, has already reached in excess of 278,000 premises and is on target to enable superfast broadband access to 96% of premises by 2016.

The combined investment in fibre broadband in Wales, including the Superfast Cymru programme and BT’s commercial roll-out is around £425m comprising £90m from the European Regional Development Fund, £58m from the Welsh Government, £57m from BDUK  and £220m from BT.

We announced on 16 October that work will have started in every telephone exchange in Wales by the end of September 2015 bringing superfast internet speeds to even more villages and towns across the country.  Communities where work is set to begin before the end of September 2015 as part of the Superfast Cymru programme include Aberdaron in Gwynedd, Capel Curig and Dolgarrog in Conwy, Brechfa in Carmarthenshire and Skenfrith in Monmouthshire. Take up figures for cabinets that have been in place for over one year is around 19% and the current average speed resulting from the programme is 61Mbps – more than twice the contractual minimum speed and 44Mbps above the UK Broadband average.

The rollout of Superfast Cymru, has in itself, created over 250 new skilled jobs, over 110 new apprenticeships, is providing work experience opportunities to 900 people and protects over 300 existing jobs in Wales.

It is perhaps no co-incidence that the telecoms industry has recently decided to build an internet exchange in Wales. This critical piece of infrastructure will transform the way in which Welsh businesses connect to the internet.

Going forward, the challenge facing us all is the need to rapidly exploit our infrastructure investment.  Making Wales one of the best connected countries in the world is just the start.  The time is right to build on this infrastructure to grow our economy, to expand R&D and innovation, to transform public services and to improve the lives and prospects of the people of Wales as we deliver a truly digital nation.