The Universal Credit (UC) is set to be the first Digital by Default public service - but those most likely to need it are the least likely to be online.
A press release issued today by the Local Government Association (LGA) begins,
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 from 2013. The target is that from 2015, the default way to claim will be online.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 8.2 million adults in the UK, 16 per cent of the adult population have never used the Internet. Disproportionately represented within this group are older people, disabled people, unemployed people, people in poverty and/or on low incomes, all of whom are more likely to apply for benefits such as the Universal Credit.
To help councils prepare for the implementation of universal credit, the LGA is working with the Government to launch pilot areas beforehand. However, to ensure those in need are able to claim once it goes online, 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.
Race Online 2012 are driving some great initiatives, encouraging everyday Internet-users to help someone they know to get online. This is certainly a good approach. The digital divide runs a lot deeper than simply not having access to a computer with an Internet connection. The biggest barriers for people are lack of confidence, skills and seeing no reason to make the effort. An introduction to something new is often daunting but far more effective when it’s with someone you know and trust.
Research by the National Housing Federation (and others) has shown that digital exclusion is part of the wider problem of social exclusion, with the potential to magnify and entrench it still further. The biggest challenge in getting people online is getting access to them. People suffering from social exclusion are usually, by definition, hard to reach but housing and care providers have a rare and privileged access to these people who depend on them.
As I have argued before, housing and care service providers should intervene here because no-one else is likely to be able to and this call from the LGA is a stark reminder of this.
Race Online 2012 have identified 1.8 million people in the UK ‘new to life online since 2009′ but my concern is that the ONS only count people who have never been online. Learning any new skill requires time, effort and persistence and this measure offers no indication of how many people are now competent and confident Internet users with the proficiency necessary to intuit how to, for instance, find out about and apply for the Universal Credit. Here too, I think housing and care providers have a responsibility because they have the resources to arrange and facilitate the ongoing support needed for people to continue their development.
Councillor Flick Rea, Chair of the LGA’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, said:
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.
“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.”
(If I’ve neglected to include a worthwhile link here, please let me know)