The expectation that Universal Credit and job searches be conducted in the virtual world rings hollow to the 5.9million – or 11% – of UK adults that have never used the internet according to latest Government statistics.
Housing professionals and money advisors will be wondering if such a huge mismatch can be real. And, if it is, whether there is going to be a queue of people needing support at their doors that's as long as the ones outside some libraries offering scarce IT resources for people who need them. After all, there's a short distance from falling foul the new benefits system and needing help with rent and sustaining a tenancy or dodging debt crisis.
MOST VULNERABLE MOST LIKELY OFFLINE
Some 27% of these non-users are disabled adults and just over half are aged 75 or over, both demographics surely in need of convenient online services? And once you finally make it online, age, language barriers, mental health, housing and other factors will also determine how much form-filling and information-gleaning you can actually manage.
Obviously not all non-users are interested in digital but increasingly the world will leave them behind. Those without web access are also missing out on other benefits – cheaper shopping and utility bills; easier banking; more health information; and connecting socially.
And as editor Jeff Mitchell has pointed out, it’s all very well saying most people have smartphones, but how many MPs file tax returns on their phones? (Read his latest blog, Digitally Disabled, here.)
LIES, DAMNED LIES AND STATS…
But statistics can paint a deceptive picture. The Government measuring online access in terms of usage over the last three months does not mean that those who have recently used it – maybe at a relative’s house or community centre – have necessarily got easy, fast and regular access to computers.
What can be done? Public access to IT needs to be ramped up. With jobseekers being threatened with docked benefits unless they spend 35 hours a week trawling the web and proving their job searches, the sanctions are harsh.
There is now a new cross government, digital inclusion champion in the form of Jon Rouse, who’s also director general of social care, local government and care partnerships.However, he could improve his digital prowess given his last blog post was in March. His Twitter's slightly better @RouseJonDGDH. The shadow minister for digital government, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central Chi Onwurah, has blogged more recently here on the importance of universal digital suffrage and tweets here @ChiOnwurah.
There have also been steps to increase rural broadband access in Northern Ireland
WIRED UP COMMUNITIES
But the digital biggest innovations are within the community. Libraries take the full whack of users seeking computer access. Yet provision is patchy and users are often limited to a couple of hours per day because of a lack of equipment. Broadband is frequently slow and the staff are not trained to help users fill forms – they are library staff being migrated to social workers, as this piece by a library insider shows.
Hammersmith & Fulham Citizens Advice Bureau, which runs its own library service, offers free 1-to-1 digital support through its programme Learn My Way. Local users can continue with their training in the library, becoming digital champions if they progress.
An excellent blog post documents how a worker at Community Links struggles to help people fill online forms in the first place. What's often overlooked is that job applicants will first need an email account – something many people still don’t have. And never mind setting up basics – many cannot even use a mouse. Advice North Yorkshire, comprising eight local Citizens Advice Bureaux, has explored this.
And there are some cracking digital inclusion projects already out there to fill the chasm that libraries can’t fill. Intelligence source Digital by Default has been compiling a list of the best.
These include housing provider Link Group which is trialling a laptop loan scheme for tenants who don’t have access to a device, enabling them to test out tablets before buying.
Another is Discover IT by Leonard Cheshire Disability which gives disabled people access to computers.
The UK online centres network comprises 5,000 grassroots providers and has been managed by The Tinder Foundation since 2005. It aims to make digital technology accessible to the most excluded in society.
The Tinder Foundation provides funds to community groups offering digital access. There will be further rounds later in 2015 so watch this space.
Housing associations looking for a connectivity solution for their tenants can contact Digital Unite here.
Explore Digital Housing Hub here – a brilliant resource where social housing providers explore how to connect their residents to the web.
Turn2Us is a charity that helps people in need access grants and benefits. It includes a handy benefits calculator.
Click here for a wider, more global view – and if you want to help internationally close the digital divide.
In case you want to see what the official line is, here is the Government’s digital inclusion strategy.
And here is a fun and touching trailer of documentary Cyber-Seniors which tracks a group of American OAPs learning to cross the digital and generational divide.