Our research proved that the people who need help most are not online. Collating evidence was tricky because (a) we published the survey online and so it was difficult to judge how this skewed results and (b) someone posted on moneysavingexpert.com that anyone could access the survey and stand the chance of winning £400. So, how do we know people online are better off? Well, there was a clear picture that almost everyone who responded online (before the posting on MSE) was relatively okay compared to those who responded by post. And as for the surge of online interest we had after the MSE mention, we had to ditch the lot – 50% of all our responses – because it was blatantly not the people we write Quids in! for.
There is no doubt in our minds that the digital by default agenda, notably attached to the introduction of Universal Credit, introduces an element of exclusivity to welfare. There is part of me that recognises the benefit of forcing people to go online if they cannot be won over by the ‘what’s in it for me?’ argument but this is no time to apply the coercion of use it (IT) or lose it (your benefits).
Despite the spin, Universal Credit is far from properly piloted. The numbers migrated to it are unfeasibly low and roll out has been woefully slow. There are some good ideas behind UC, mostly around the ‘better off in work’ pledge. But the mechanics behind it have been oversold – it is not a simplified system, it’s just a single name for a range of entitlements and the resulting IT complexities have hampered progress behind the scenes. More importantly, though, out in communities, among real people, it still remains to be seen if they can engage with UC by PC.
Our research found that only 39% of readers who responded by post had a PC at home. Only 19% of postal and 26% of online respondents said they were prepared to access benefits online. Only a fifth of postal and a third of online respondents were willing to go online for debt advice or banking. We also have close ties with employment support agencies and they all report that the single biggest challenge to long-term unemployed people is around IT, where employers are increasingly expecting people to apply online and be able to use a computer once they start a job. Whatever the job.
SPP’s Access Granted campaign, run in partnership with Clean Slate Training & Employment, highlights four issues that need to be addressed if the Government and other stakeholders want or need people in poverty and on low incomes to engage online:
- Truly accessible online IT facilities in communities, not restricted by firewalls that don’t even allow access to Facebook, unreasonable time restrictions for people finding their way, or security settings that prevent jobseekers uploading their CV, for example
- Support on hand wherever possible to guide people who cannot navigate the internet or struggle with literacy and online information
- Web content designed for, and promoted to, people who are new to IT and the web or who may struggle with literacy or English as a second language, including sites that provide accessible information and links to more detailed information when they’re ready. (See our pilot website www.accessgrantedbath.org)
- A clear and coherent ‘what’s in it for me?’ message advertising the benefits of getting online – from access to benefits, grants and services to finding employment (and finding better paid employment) and shopping around or finding deals
We’d like to see the brakes applied a little among local authorities closing neighbourhood offices as access to their services transition online. Yes, in principle, these changes take services into people’s homes but unfortunately not for poorer households who might need those services most. We’re also calling for landlords considering online publishing of tenant newsletters to think carefully about who this might exclude. There needs to be a ‘third way’, not an all or nothing false assumption that the world wide web reaches a world wide community. Conventional means must continue to ensure no-one, (let alone the poorest), gets left behind as the world goes online.