7m people have never used the internet, so why is Universal Credit ‘digital by default’?

Unusually, the recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) regarding internet access made a lot of headlines upon their release (and a lot of tweets, far more than I usually notice when the quarterly figures are released, particularly from journalists). I say unusual as these figures are part of the ONS’s quarterly update figures and I am fairly sure they haven’t received this much coverage in the past. But these figures are important, particularly in the context of the government’s changes to the social security system and the drive to make all claimants do so via the internet.  As I have repeatedly warned before now, this drive is likely to leave many isolated and, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argue, trap many in poverty. So what do the figures actually tell us about the digitally excluded?

Well, in light of the government’s Universal Credit and Universal Jobmatch, they certainly raise serious concerns. Take, for example, the age ranges of those that have never accessed the internet. The divide by age is split as follows:

Unsurprisingly, the 75+ group dominates, whilst the younger age groups are relatively small. But what about if we split this chart up between working age and non-working age to make it a little clearer:

Now it is clear from the chart that those of non-working age (ie 65+ and, of course, some people in this group may well still be in employment) far outweigh those of working age in terms of never having accessed the internet, but the working age segment is still quite significant (to be clear on this, “working age” will also include those who cannot work – but they will still be required to access Universal Credit, so the substantive point still stands). Over a quarter of those who have never accessed the internet are of working age. In fact, when you look at the hard figures, over 2 million people of working age have never used the internet. Whilst significantly lower than the overall figure (7 million) this is still quite a sizeable chunk of the population, and perhaps a little surprising too. I focus on this aspect particularly as quite often those who aren’t online are widely assumed to be the elderly, but it cuts across all age groups.  It is also worrying as this group of people are those most likely to be affected by the move to digital by default for benefits claims and seeking work should they be (or become) unemployed. To be clear, 2 million people have never used the internet and are likely to be affected by the government’s “digital by default” policy when it comes to social security.

It is also worth reiterating that all of these figures refer to the numbers of people who have never used the internet, not those who do not have the internet at home. The chances are that the figures for those without internet access at home are slightly higher than the figures for those who have never used the internet.  I think it is important to keep that in mind when looking at these particular statistics.  Furthermore, it is also worth keeping in mind that a recent survey suggested that 16m people lack basic online skills. So even if there are a majority who have accessed the internet, this does not mean to say that they have been able to do so without support or without difficulty.  The divide itself is drawn along two distinct lines: access and skills.  Whilst the divide between those without skills cuts across social boundaries (impacting open rich/poor, young/old etc), the access divide appears to be starkly drawn along income lines.

Dividing those who have never accessed the internet by income raises some serious cause for concern in terms of the government’s “digital by default” policy. This is how the divide stacks up across income groups:

Again, unsurprising that the numbers of those who have never accessed the internet tends to be higher the further down the income scale you go.  For those at the very top, it is incredibly rare to encounter anyone who has never accessed the internet. But, again, what if we divide this up further?  According to the ONS, the average weekly wage in the UK is £444. Unfortunately, this figure falls slap bang in the middle of one of the income groups above. As it is impossible to know how many are immediately above and below £444, I’ve made £400 the dividing line:

The vast, vast majority of those who have never accessed the internet and are of working age, therefore, are clearly among the poorest in society (approximately 600,000 fall in the under £400 bracket – which therefore does not include those earning £400-443 who are also below the average wage). Now all of this is pretty much as one would expect, but I think it is worth laying this all out so we can see clearly to what extent a divide exists between those who have accessed the internet and those who have not.  Indeed, when you look at the hard figures, approximately 5% (616,000/12,515,000) of all of those earning below the average wage have never accessed the internet compared to 1% (133,000/11,878,000) of all of those earning above the average wage. You are, therefore, nearly five times more likely to have accessed the internet if you earn above average wage, than if you earned below.

Furthermore, a sizeable proportion of the disabled have never accessed the internet:

According to the figures, around 3.7m of those defined as DDA disabled have never accessed the internet (DDA disabled refers to those who self-assess that they have a disability in line with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) definition of disability). Again, this is a not insignificant number of people who will be adversely affected by any “digital by default” policy.

What is clear beyond any doubt from these figures is that the poorest in society will clearly suffer as a result of the move to make Universal Credit and Universal Jobmatch “digital by default”, the very group of people the social security reforms are supposed to benefit. With two million people of working age never having accessed the internet before, the consequences of sudden unemployment are stark.  They will need a great deal of support both in terms of claiming benefits and in terms of seeking work, and the current mechanisms in place are not fit for that purpose.

There is a very real and very clear divide here in terms of access to the internet, and the move to digital by default will clearly entrench one aspect of the divide between the haves and the have-nots. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation concluded, Universal Credit could very well trap people in poverty. For those two million people of working age who have never used the internet, unemployment could have disastrous consequences.  With a lack of skills and access to the internet, they could find themselves trapped in poverty and find it very difficult to climb back out.  “Digital by default” for those claiming social security or seeking employment is simply not a sensible policy.  It is time for Iain Duncan Smith to acknowledge the trap he has created and to reverse a policy that is going to increase poverty rather than reduce it.