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7 March 2012
The Government's rush to make the benefits system only available online risks leaving millions of vulnerable people being lost in the digital divide, council leaders are warning.
Latest figures reveal that more than eight million people – 16.3 per cent of the UK's adult population – have never used the internet. In its recently published Digital by Default strategy, government is proposing to deliver public services online by default. This will start with the proposed universal credit, set to replace child tax credit, housing benefit, jobseekers allowance, income support, working tax credit and part of the social fund.
The target is that from 2015, the only way to claim would be online. The number of people getting online has been increasing steadily each year. However, the social groups least likely to be connected are the elderly, disabled, poor and unemployed, precisely the ones who could benefit most from information and services available online, and those who will be applying for government benefits.
The LGA is warning that through the rush to get public services exclusively online, the people who need them most could miss out by government too swiftly cutting the cord on telephones, paper and pens. This could lead to Whitehall's efficiency-boosting digital revolution backfiring as queues of confused claimants or those without a computer turn up at council front desks, fill in online details incorrectly or fail to claim benefits at all meaning bigger problems further down the line.
To ensure those in need are able to claim as well as avoid potentially huge and unforeseen knock-on costs of a failing online system, the LGA is calling on all public bodies to make digital inclusion a key part of their work with the vulnerable, from transforming adult social care to helping problem families.Delegates at the LGA's annual Culture, Tourism and Sport conference, which begins today in Cardiff, will be discussing the issue of digital inclusion.
Cllr Flick Rea, Chair of the LGA's Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, said:
“It's alarming that more than eight million adults have never used the internet, let alone updated their status on Facebook, Tweeted or downloaded the latest smartphone app. We're forever told we live in a digital age, but actually for millions of people this is another world to which they aren't connected. What's worse is that it's the people who would benefit the most in practical terms, such as the elderly, disabled, poor and unemployed, who have the least access.
“Getting vulnerable people online is something we must work hard to achieve as it can change their lives for the better in so many ways. Moreover, it is now becoming essential as Whitehall moves towards a fully online system. Government must make sure it doesn't jump the gun and cut millions of people off in a rush to meet benefit reform targets. Doing so could have catastrophic consequences for vulnerable people and the agencies which support them.
“Digital inclusion needs to be at the heart of everything we do, from transforming adult social care to supporting problem families. It's not just about the hardware, getting people computers and supplying superfast broadband, it's also about educating people that it's worth getting online. There's already a lot of great work out there locally which we must share and build on.”
Some of the main reasons for people not being online is not being able to buy or access a computer/broadband connection, fearing they won't understand how the technology works and then how to engage with cyberspace, or that there's nothing of value for them on the internet.
Liverpool City Council, alongside economic regeneration body Liverpool Vision, launched the Go ON it's Liverpool campaign in October. An estimated 100,000 people in the city have never used the internet, and the aim is to get an extra 25,000 online by March 2012 – supported by 'digital champions' across all sectors of the community. As well as 'digital champions' helping out their less internet-savvy family, friends and colleagues, a whole range of events have taken place to engage communities across the city in the benefits of getting online.
More than 1,000 digital champions have been recruited and latest ONS figures show there has been a drop of 20,000 in the number of digitally excluded people in the city. Hertfordshire County Council is offering a beginner's guide to computers and the internet across its libraries with a series of hands-on taster sessions for adults. The introductory classes are aimed at people with little or no experience of using a computer.
They offer a one-to-one introduction to computing and cover everything from the basics of using a keyboard and mouse, to the internet, email and more. As well as introductory classes on computers and the internet, there are also sessions available about word processing and family history research.Improving internet provision is one of Wiltshire Council's key areas for investment. It's investing £16 million in digital inclusion and access to super-fast broadband to support homes and business throughout the county. It has set up a Wiltshire Online website which supports individuals and businesses who have an internet connection to get the most of the online world.
As part of this, Melksham Library will this month be hosting free computer advice sessions over tea and coffee for people of all levels of computing ability. The Wiltshire Online team along with The Learning Curve and IT Can Help will be offering the free advice and one to one support.