‘Digital by default’ public services not suitable for all

Councils are being urged to make their online public services more accessible in light of new research by Age UK showing that many older people are struggling to access vital support as a result of today’s shift to ‘digital by default’.

Through surveys and research taken from the Office for National Statistics, the charity found that only 71% of people aged 65 to 74 have recently used the internet, compared to 99% of young adults. For those aged over 75, this drops sharply to just 33%.

There are clear links between internet use, age and socio-economic status, with poorer older people most likely to ‘be offline’. Four out of five of people aged over 75 and in the lowest socio-economic groups do not currently use the internet at all, for example, compared to two out of every five in the richest groups.

As a result, many older residents feel like they are missing out on essential services and benefits, claiming £3.7bn less pension credit and housing benefit every year than they are entitled to.

The report also found that many older people are naturally averse to the idea of claiming benefits, either because they don’t realise they are entitled to them, are too proud or embarrassed to claim them, or because they believe the claiming process is too complex.

While telephone services remain the main access point for important public services, councils are increasingly moving towards the digital age, creating an even larger barrier for older people obtaining support. Unless suitable and easily accessible alternatives are put in place, the charity said, older residents will lose out.

An example of this, it said, is the new marriage allowance, launched in April as an exclusively online service. It was recently expanded to a telephone option, but this was not publicised, despite over one-third of its claimants being pensioners.

Caroline Abrahams, the charity’s director, said: “Digital technology is transforming our lives and for growing numbers of older people it’s a boon. We are worried that while many of those older people who are offline don’t see this as a problem, they are at risk of becoming seriously disadvantaged. We want to increase the numbers of older people benefiting from digital technology, while ensuring that those who are not online do not miss out on, or find it harder to access, essential goods and services.

“Amidst the government drive towards ‘digital by default’, the needs of older people who are not online and who probably never will be must be taken fully into account.

“In order to ensure that those who do not use the internet are not disadvantaged by digital transformation in the public and private sectors, we need three complementary approaches: greater support from government and the industry to increase digital inclusion, great user-friendly technology and design, and appropriate alternative access for people who are not online.”

Responding to the study, the LGA’s community wellbeing spokesperson, Cllr Izzi Seccombe, said the report was a valuable reminder of the importance of giving everyone the choice of contacting their council in the way they see fit.

“Councils work hard to ensure that information and advice is accessible to everyone, especially people who may need support to access vital care services. We recognise that not all residents have access to broadband or wi-fi and that some council services require over the phone or face-to-face contact,” she said.

“Through the Care Act, councils have a duty to ensure that information and advice on care and support is accessible and in proportion to people’s needs and many local authorities are working with residents and voluntary groups in the community to assist people who want to use new technology available.”


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