27 January 2023

Why councils should worry about digital exclusion

Why councils should worry about digital exclusion image
Image: BlurryMe/Shutterstock.com.

‘I am old, and I am trying hard, but I feel completely excluded from life by all the digitisation,’ a woman in her 70s told Age UK London.

Our world is increasingly becoming an online one. This is cause for concern for those who do not use digital technology and as a result can feel they are being left behind or excluded from society. At Age UK London we are calling for urgent action to address the profound challenges of digital exclusion that affect the daily lives of thousands of older Londoners, especially when trying to access local council services.

There is an assumption that during lockdown many older people began to start using the internet for the first time. This is true for some, but there are many older Londoners who do not use the internet at all, either out of choice or because it’s inaccessible or unaffordable to them.

Research by Age UK London in 2021 showed that while 20% of those over 60 in London started using the internet more during lockdown, 10% used it less. The research also showed that there are more than 200,000 Londoners over the age of 75 who do not use the internet at all.

There are, of course, very good reasons why councils are moving more and more services online. One of the main reasons is cost, and this is understandable given the huge financial pressures on local authorities and that online services are often far more affordable than delivering them over the phone, by post or in person.

However, there is a growing understanding that online-only provision excludes many residents from services to which they should have easy access. The London Recovery Board’s A Fairer City report published in 2022 included as one of its actions: ‘Make digital services accessible and provide alternatives for people without digital access’.

Sadly, few councils in London have acted on this recommendation. Our latest report Access Denied: accessing council services without the internet, based on Freedom of Information requests, revealed that older people who do not have access to the internet whether by choice or otherwise, are excluded from accessing important services.

Our research revealed that one in three councils in London only accept online applications for Housing Benefit or Council Tax Reductions, and one in four only allow online applications for Blue Badges.

Age UK London also carried out a mystery shopping exercise which revealed that even when councils had stated that they offered offline alternatives to online systems, in reality these alternatives simply didn’t exist. In just under half of all cases, our mystery shoppers were not able to obtain the information they sought about how it would be possible to apply for either housing benefit or council tax reduction without using the internet.

Applying for services or support online requires residents to use the local authority’s website, complete online forms and often upload identification documents. This can be challenging for people without digital skills or who lack confidence in using the internet. It completely excludes the 200,000 Londoners over the age of 75 who have never been online.

It’s especially concerning that so many councils in London are excluding offline residents from applying for Housing Benefit or Council Tax Reductions during a cost-of-living crisis. This digital exclusion will be preventing older residents from accessing vital support to which they are entitled. A quarter of older Londoners live in poverty; councils with no offline alternative to accessing services are exacerbating this severe problem even further.

Councils need to ensure that everyone can access their services and offer non-digital options so that their residents who are not online can access their services and claim benefits to which they are entitled. We also urge them to assess the impact that providing services online has for different groups protected by the Equality Act and Public Sector Equality Duty, including older people.

Abigail Wood is CEO of Age UK London

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