Q. Why does Francis Maude hate the elderly?

“So, you see, either buy one of these or we will ensure you cannot access the services you require and have paid for.” (Image c/o The Cabinet Office on Flickr.)

There is nothing wrong with moving government services online. Undoubtedly it has made a whole range of services much easier to use and access for the majority of citizens. I can now go online and purchase my car tax disc in a matter of seconds rather than having to dig out a load of paperwork, complete a paper form and stand in a long queue at the Post Office. I can access information about a range of government services relatively quickly and painlessly (well, considering it’s gov.uk), and I wouldn’t swap that for doing things the ‘old’ way for anything. However, this is where Francis Maude and I depart in terms of understanding the digital world (obviously in broader political terms we depart much earlier than that). Because I understand that it’s a majority not because the minority can’t be bothered to get online, but because for many it is simply not possible to take advantage of digital services.

It’s for this reason that Francis Maude appears to have launched a rather bizarre crusade to get the elderly online. Rather than persist with a mixed approach to government services (ie digital and ‘analogue’ in tandem), Maude is determined to move towards an online policy and if the elderly or the poor are unwilling to get on the internet, then they will lose access to key government services. It is unclear how exactly his government will then provide these people with the support they need, he appears to believe that they can be sidelined and ignored without having an impact on society in general.

There are any number of things wrong with Maude’s rather blinkered approach to digital services. The most obvious is, of course, that to get online costs money. Not only does it cost money to buy the initial start-up equipment (computer and other equipment), but it also costs money every month to have a connection to the internet. When one considers that Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures demonstrate that 13% without an internet connection point to equipment costs as the reason and 12% say access costs are too high (all age groups), it’s clear to see that the reason why they are not online is not down to a proportion of citizens being, as Maude terms it, computer “refuseniks”. They are not refusing, they are unable to choose to get online. Quite a substantial difference, and one that is often overlooked by the comfortable middle classes who assume that, because they have a computer and an internet connection, everyone must be online (it’s this same middle-class assumption that leads to the old “we don’t need libraries anymore because everything is online” nonsense).

And it’s not just the cost of getting online that prevents pensioners from getting online. The ONS figures also reveal that 20% claim that a “lack of skills” is the reason why they are not online. Again, these people are not “refuseniks” they are people who simply do not have the skills to get online and make use of the many services the rest of us take for granted. If we are going to effectively force these people to get online, where is the support going to come from (aside from the paltry ‘one-off’ ‘assisted digital option’ proposed by Maude)? Public libraries seem to provide the most obvious mechanism for addressing this lack of skills but, well, they are being closed, hollowed out and stripped of their ability to provide the kind of support that would benefit those that are digitally excluded.

All of this rather begs the question: what will the government do about those that are excluded? It’s all very well talking ‘tough’ as Maude occasionally likes to do, but what does this mean in real terms? For those who cannot afford to purchase the equipment or to obtain the skills necessary to get online and utilise public services, what are their options? Will they just be left, excluded from important government services with the subsequent knock on effects and additional costs to the taxpayer (to adopt standard Tory terminology for a second…I promise it won’t happen again)? Or will the government purchase the equipment and the connection for those without in perpetuity (highly unlikely given the ongoing costs)? Nowhere in Maude’s grand scheme does he explain how the government will ensure that those who cannot afford the equipment will not be left behind. Perhaps he doesn’t care.

But there’s another element to this that is deeply troubling. The switch to digital also puts the emphasis on the citizen paying to access government services – government services that they have paid for through taxation. Whereas accessing government services would have come at no cost to the citizen but would be met by the government agency (eg leaflets, consultation time etc etc), the cost is now borne by the citizen. Twice. Once through taxation and once in accessing the government service online (which although does not require payment in and of itself, requires the citizen to make a payment to a corporate entity in order to access those same services). Now, that might be fine for people like myself and Maude, but I would argue that the most vulnerable and the poorest in our society should not have to expect to pay twice to access government services. They should be free and accessible to all in whatever format suits their needs. This may cost the government a bit extra, but better that than costing the citizen extra. Government services must be free to access, not effectively placed behind either state or corporate paywalls.

For some time now Maude has been pontificating about the need to drive government services online. Of course it is of great benefit for the majority of us that these services are available online and facilitate quick and easy access to government services. However, there remains a minority who, should the move towards a digital only policy take effect, will be marginalised and excluded from our society. The needs of the people must take precedence over the need to save money, the consequences of getting these priorities in reverse order will be felt for decades to come. The government would do well to remember that, not just in terms of the move towards digital only but also in terms of their broader economic and social policies. But I won’t hold my breath.

Is the neutrality of the internet under threat in Europe?

It certainly seems that way following the vote yesterday by the European Parliament’s Industry Committee. Jim Killock of The Open Rights Group (ORG) argued that:

‘By allowing ISPs to charge more for “specialised services”, the Regulation would enable telecoms and other companies to buy their way to a faster internet at the expense of individuals, start-ups and small businesses. This threatens the openness and freedom of the internet.’

Effectively, a two-tier internet would ensue, where the big players dominate and control the flow of information online. As Marietje Schaake of the Netherlands (a country which enshrined net neutrality in law in 2012) explains:

“Without legal guarantees for net neutrality internet service providers were able to throttle competitors. And existing online services can make deals to offer faster services at a higher price. This could push players without deep pockets, such as start-ups, hospitals or universities, out of the market.”

Of course, the increased corporatisation of the internet was always likely. The internet is (still) too wild and free a place for corporates and they see greater influence over the way information is delivered as necessary to protect their interests and drive profits.

As is to be expected, the legislation proposed is also rather loose with its wording (what legislation related to technology isn’t?) which raises concerns about the potential for increased internet censorship:

Also of concern are proposals that would allow “reasonable traffic management measures” to “prevent or impede serious crime”. On these, Killock added:

‘It is unclear what “reasonable traffic management measures” are but potentially they could allow ISPs to block or remove content without any judicial oversight. Decisions about what the public can and can’t see online should not be made by commercial organisations and without any legal basis.’

The full European Parliament will vote on this Regulation will take place on 3rd April. It’s still not too late to take action against the proposals. A good place to start is the Save the Internet campaign. And if you want to find out more about net neutrality and what it means, you could do worse than watch the short video below.

Internet access in prisons – a step too far?

(Image c/o gianni on Flickr.)

Just a quick post to say that I had an article published on the Informed website yesterday on the digital divide. Specifically it looks at one aspect of the divide that is never really discussed – that between society and those excluded from it (ie prisoners). It’s an area that I admit I have often overlooked when writing about the topic, but it is an important area for discussion. Should prisoners have access to the internet? If so, to what extent? Or should prisoners be provided with no access to the internet whatsoever as they lost their rights when they were imprisoned?

I’m guessing you can probably work out that I fall in the “yes, they should have access” camp. But I have to concede I am not sure to what extent and what restrictions should be in place. I personally believe that it has the potential to help reduce re-offending rates and for that reason alone it should be investigated. Of course, the problem here is that much of our media would be up in arms at the very thought of internet provision in libraries. More proof that our prisons are luxurious ‘holiday camps’. Speaking as the son of a prison officer, I know that this is untrue but there will be many that believe it.

Anyway, do have a read over at Informed (and if you would like to contribute something to the site, please get in touch!). Feel free to add your comments over there or over here. I’ll be interested to hear your perspective.

Universal Jobmatch – “the system is hopelessly broken”

Universal Jobmatch is “badly designed, badly implemented and a complete shambles”.
(Image c/o Department for Work and Pensions on Flickr.)

A further update on one person’s experience using Universal Jobmatch hosted here anonymously…

In early March this year I was very suddenly made redundant (i.e with 2 days notice), and cast into the gentle arms of the benefits system for the first time in my life. As my employer had entered administration this meant that their financial liabilities had transferred to the State, and to get the statutory redundancy and notice pay that I was owed I needed to register as a Jobseeker. Being a Jobseeker also meant that I would get Jobseekers Allowance: an amount so small that if I had to live on it (rather than doing as I did and using my emergency savings) would rapidly have seen me becoming homeless due to unpayable debts. I was shocked at how little support there was for Jobseekers, both in the Job Centres, and through the Government online jobs portal Universal Jobmatch.

During this period of unemployment, I wrote both an initial post and also a follow up post on this blog, which detailed the many inadequacies that I had encountered when first using Universal Jobmatch. I described its extreme slowness; its inability to understand localities smaller than a whole country; it being incapable of refining job alert results to only the required sector or location; and the jobs advertised on it being outdated, spam or potentially illegal. The many comments following the initial post have outlined the various problems that other Jobseekers are also having using it, many of which are leading to unfair sanctions and hardships for those individuals.

We’re now 7 months on from those original posts, which feels like a long enough time to have given the UJ site a full test. So, what have my experiences with it been in that time, and did it proven to be a useful job-hunting tool in the end?

To begin with, a quick update since my initial tests – I gained new employment in mid-May, but the job was utterly awful*, so I returned to job searching, working full-time in the day and spending 2-3 hours every night looking for and applying to vacancies. I have applied for 100 skilled professional posts since March 2013 (although I have taken a temporary break over the past month), and I have multiple email alerts and RSS feeds set up to ensure that I am able to find relevant vacancies as soon as they become available. I think it’s safe to say that I am very aware of what potential roles there are being advertised in my sector and location.

In the 7 months since I originally registered with UJ, I have not logged in to the UJ system. Not once. There was no need for me to do so, because I had set up email alerts for my areas of experience/skills which would send relevant vacancies direct to my inbox. This is the same method of disseminating information that commercial job sites and professional recruitment agencies use. However, reading the comments on my first post it appears that if I was currently registered as a Jobseeker, not logging in at some level of frequency would lead to sanctions and loss of Jobseekers Allowance for a period. Why is the action of logging in to a site seen as more important than the action of productively looking for jobs, wherever they may be? Luckily, as I was in full-time employment after May I was not subject to monitoring by a Jobseekers advisor of my use of the site, but I find this a worrying approach for current claimants.

OK then, even without logging in, has Universal Jobmatch done what it’s allegedly designed to do, and been successful at connecting me with vacancies? During the last 7 months of receiving daily email alerts sent by the system, there have been approximately 12 jobs sent that are relevant for my stated skills areas, and which I could apply for with a realistic prospect of actually being considered for the role. On clicking through to view the adverts on UJ, all of those jobs were actually previously advertised on one or more of the job sites that I had alerts set up for, and all of them were on those sites long before they were send from UJ. As an added bonus, some of those jobs were being advertised for the first time on UJ after their closing date had passed. As most vacancies have an application period that’s open for at least 2 weeks, if not a month, I cannot understand what UJ is doing so wrong that it’s displaying these vacancies many weeks after they were initially advertised. This delay in notifying users of available roles is minimising the time which people have to apply, and reducing their chances of success…or removing them entirely if they were relying on UJ to identify current vacancies for them. If I had been relying solely on UJ for my job search, I would have missed the rare opportunities that arise to apply for professional posts in my sector.

Of course, there’s also the additional problem of vacancies being advertised without the information that allows you to actually apply for them. For example, one advert recently stated “To apply and to access more information relating to the vacancy scroll down to Job Packs and click on the link.” But there was no Job Pack area on the page, and no link to apply via on the page, purely because this is a direct lift from the employer’s website, with no check if it was actually coherent and useable when placed on UJ. The advert on UJ gives an individual’s email address under the “application methods” section, but the body of text gives a different, corporate email address to contact to request application forms: this is confusing. On the employers website there are indeed Job Packs, and further information about the vacancy on the page, again showing the corporate email address and with no mention of the person with the individual’s email address. I had to locate that recruitment website and vacancy information for myself, using my own, previously gained knowledge of how that specific employer advertises vacancies, and my belief that there would be Job Packs available on their site for immediate download. A site which advertises vacancies which aren’t actually available unless you do your own search outside it, or which advertises closed vacancies is not being successful in its core requirement of enabling Jobseekers to apply for jobs.

Another aspect of those UJ email alerts that I set up is the sheer volume of completely inappropriate job adverts that I’m being sent, rather than notifications of relevant roles being advertised. When my UJ profile has been created with settings meaning it should only send information on roles within 25 miles of my location, in Library and Information Science or Social Media, the massive amounts of irrelevant vacancies I get emailed to me is ridiculous: MOT tester. Sous chef. Mobile care assistant. Pensions consultant. Personal carer. Recruiter. Tax manager. Dodgy “work from home” roles. Engineer. Customer service adviser. Parts inspector for the oil industry. Jobs 50 miles away. Jobs 100 miles away. Jobs in Germany and Spain.

The UJ emails contain between 5-12 vacancies per email, every day. As I’ve been registered for around 230 days, this means that if I average the irrelevant alerts to be coming in at the rate of 8 a day, I’ve had a minimum of 1840 entirely useless vacancies identified and sent to me so far. As stated above, approximately 12 of those roles were actually ones I’d signed up to be alerted about, which means that only around 1 in 153 vacancies emailed to me by UJ may actually be one I’d requested. That’s not an inspiring statistic, especially in comparison to the accurate and targeted alerts I get from “proper” job websites like indeed.co.uk.

Luckily, I am actually an experienced information specialist. I have the skills that enable me to quickly sift through information and discard irrelevant material, yet the fact that I am forced to do this daily with UJ email alerts is hugely frustrating. Why can the system not actually use the settings I established? The ability to restrict job searches to location, and sector is one of the most basic functions this site should be able to perform, and which all commercial job search sites provide, yet it simply cannot do it. I am being bombarded with hundreds of useless emails, which I must sift for any hidden, relevant jobs. I am being sent notifications of vacancies after the application deadline has passed. I am gaining nothing of use from this website, and it has played absolutely no part in the fact that I have been able to find and apply for so many jobs over the last 7 months. To me, it is of no practical use at all.

Yet I am lucky. All of this is only an inconvenience for me: I currently have employment so I’m not required to use UJ, I can use other websites to monitor vacancies, I have reliable internet access, and I have the skills to sift through those emails for the occasional useful bits. I don’t need to use the site to apply directly for jobs to prove that I’m actively trying to find employment. What if I didn’t have internet access? What if I was being forced to travel every day, just to get internet access, to prove that I had logged in to a system that doesn’t even hold any jobs I can apply for, and doesn’t even send out my CV to employers when I do use it to apply for a role? What if I didn’t have the IT skills to use a computer, the knowledge of where to look online for reliable job adverts, or a literacy level that meant I could skim those emailed job titles and know not to waste my time, as they weren’t the jobs I was looking for? What if I didn’t have the experience to know that I could do some research and go directly to the source site for adverts to get immediate access to required application forms, rather than have to request that they be emailed to me, and lose valuable time that could be spent filling out the application? What if I have a visual impairment and have problems using online resources? None of these reasons constitute an attempt to avoid looking for employment, yet due to the system being incompetently implemented, they are being regarded as such, and Jobseekers are being sanctioned and punished as a result.

What would my advice be if you were “encouraged” to use Universal Jobmatch? Refuse. The system is hopelessly broken, yet as shown by the comments on my previous posts, the only ones who are suffering are not the people who designed an unusable system, but the often vulnerable people who are forced to use it. This is not an example of a core government service being provided using a system which is fair and equitable. This is a badly designed, badly implemented and completely unsupported shambles of a website. Frankly, the designers and those faceless government bodies who approved it and are forcing vulnerable claimants to use it should have their membership cards for the human race revoked.

Or even better – force THEM to have to use it in order to claim their salaries.

*No matter how awful a job is (and in this case it involved mismanagement and bullying) you cannot leave a role, as this is classed as making yourself voluntarily unemployed. That means you’re not entitled to Jobseekers Allowance. It also means that individuals are forced to stay in work situations so bad that it affects their mental and physical health.

Cameron says “go online” if unhappy with energy price rises. 7m people say “huh?”

Image c/o @ARRGch on Flickr.

There’s no two ways about it, the Tories’ energy policy is looking pretty feeble in the face of Labour’s commitment to freeze prices should it win the election in 2015. Ever since that announcement it has been clear that the Tories have absolutely no idea how to respond. This is perhaps unsurprising when one considers that not only is there very strong public support from the public for a prize freeze, there is also widespread support for the nationalisation of energy firms (approximately 69% of the population are in favour).

Of course, this failure by the Tory party reveals their traditional priorities. They may claim to be on the side of “hard-working families” (ie everyone) but the reality is, obviously, that they are the party of big business, not the average working family. This is so obvious as to be barely worthy of comment, but their response has certainly underlined the extent to which they are unwilling to help mitigate the failure of the energy market.

Take, for example, David Cameron’s response to the price hike announced by British Gas:

“I think a lot of customers find it utterly baffling how many tariffs they have.

“But there is something everyone can do, which is look to switch their electricity or gas bill from one supplier to another. On average, this can help people save sometimes as much as £200 on their bill.

“So I would encourage customers who are not happy with the service they’re getting, are not happy with the prices, to go to the switching sites online and see whether they can get a better deal.”

That’s right, swap to another supplier who, more likely than not, will also increase their prices in the near future. Not only is switching a relatively futile gesture, it doesn’t actually solve the cause of the problem. Indeed, the sticking plaster solution offered by Cameron isn’t even an option for millions of people in this country. Why? Because it relies on:

  • Everyone having an internet connection.
  • Everyone having sufficient skills with which to use the internet effectively

As we know, those least likely to have internet access are also those most likely to be seriously affected by a rise in energy prices. For them, Cameron offers nothing. You may be hard-working, you may pay your taxes, but if energy companies raise their prices, you are on your own. Never has the social consequence of the digital divide seemed more stark than at times like these. Energy prices are on the rise and millions of people have no option but to take the hit, all because they do not have an internet connection at home.

Cameron may think the answer to the energy crisis is to “go to the switching sites online”, but seven million voiceless people will be asking themselves: “how?”.  Voiceless, at least, until 2015.

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.

The experiences of one jobseeker in using Universal Jobmatch – a worrying sign for Universal Credit?

I recently wrote an article for The Guardian exploring some of the ramifications of Iain Duncan Smith’s plans to make the Universal Credit system online-only.  As I have demonstrated here many times, there remains a very real digital divide for many millions of people; a divide not simply in terms of a lack of access, but also in a lack of skills to make full use of the technology. Unsurprisingly, many of those of working age caught on the wrong side of the divide tend to be the poorest in our society.  As a result, the intention to push the social security system online led to some very serious concerns, which in turn led to my article for The Guardian.

Since writing that article, I have spoken to a number of jobseekers who have personally experienced this drive to force them to use government web portals in order to seek out employment.  Their experiences are worrying and underline the fears raised by so many about the impact of forcing jobseekers online.  So I thought, rather than just repeat my concerns borne out of my understanding of the impact of this system, I should just ask one of them if they would be willing to write about their experiences for this blog.  They agreed. The following underlines, in my view, that neither Universal Jobmatch, nor the Universal Credit System, is fit for purpose.  The government needs an urgent rethink of its policies towards jobseekers because the danger is that government policy will trap them in poverty, not help them back into employment.  I only hope that the Opposition wake-up and challenge the poverty trap being created by the Coalition.

Anyway, here is one jobseeker’s experience of the new systems introduced by the coalition government…

Do you want to know how easy it is to become unemployed, and fall into that delightful category so beloved of this government of “skiver”, and be tagged with all the implications of laziness and fecklessness that it implies? It’s simple: all it takes is for your employer to make some bad business decisions, and there you go – you and everyone you work with can become instantly unemployed. In my case, this was done within 2 days, and we were all out the (securely locked behind us, hope you carried out everything you needed already) door, with the joyous additional factor of being given no notice or redundancy pay. What do you mean, you have financial commitments dependent on that pay packet you were expecting this month? Well: tough luck, you’re a Skiver now. A New Skiver.

Trying to struggle through the numbing shock in order to leap into action to fill out endless forms and kick off various processes was horrendous, but the good thing is that I’m pretty well educated, and I have the skills that mean that although the whole experience has been traumatic, I’m fairly confident that I’ve given the right information to the right people, at the right time, and I have the skills to find the right places to look and apply for jobs.

Now, I registered as a Jobseeker using my laptop, and my home internet connection, and I printed out confirmation materials and other documents that I needed using my own printer/scanner. I was lucky: I could do this comfortably at home, but it was a demanding process in many ways, asking me for information I either had to dig out of my household file folders, or that I had to log on to other sites to get, like the details of my bank savings and current accounts. It’s not something I would have wanted to do with strangers around, or in a public space. But what are your options, when you aren’t lucky enough to have these facilities at home? You go to a library, and make use of the facilities there…if you have a library…and if they have public computers…and if you can get time on them…and if you can input the information needed within that time…and if you have the computer skills to be able to understand what’s being asked of you by the forms, and how to respond appropriately. That’s a lot of elements that need to come together, in order for you to be able to get online.

What about the people who don’t have computer skills?

There is a current assumption in government that absolutely everyone has a computer, an internet connection, and the skills to use these together to gain access to information. This year, Universal Credit will replace various benefits, and there’s an expectation that recipients will manage their information online. But from my experience of government websites, it’s just going to be a horrible, painful mess, and the people who’ll suffer are the ones who’re least able to cope: those without internet access, and those without computer skills. Like the man I overheard while in the Job Centre, telling his advisor that he can only get internet access at his girlfriend’s house. What happens if that relationship breaks down? What about the people who don’t have computer skills?

As for the government websites that are meant to be getting people into employment…oh my!  Universal Jobmatch is the official government website for Jobseekers. It’s useless. Utterly, utterly useless. To start with, you have to be able to log in. As I’m writing this, it’s spent 25 minutes NOT logging me in, and I’ve had to give up and leave it. Ok, that’s not a huge problem for me, sitting at home, but what if you’re using a computer that you only have limited time on? That’s 25 minutes that could have been put to better use, but instead has been wasted waiting for a clunky website to decide to let you log in.

…jobs are still advertised long after their closing date…

The biggest problems that I’ve found with the jobs being advertised on Universal Jobmatch is that jobs are still advertised (and the system is allowing you to use it to apply for them) long after their closing date, and the fact that the system is inviting Jobseekers to apply for jobs in an utterly inappropriate manner. For example, I found a relevant post, and did as it requested, and used the site to send the employers my CV. I heard nothing further, and when I checked the progress of the application a few days later, the job was marked mysteriously as “closed”. Soon after this, I found the same position newly advertised on the site of the employer, where it specifically stated that CVs would not be accepted, and their own application process must be completed. Universal Jobmatch was giving the completely wrong information, and if I hadn’t known to follow this up at the source, I’d have lost the chance to apply for that position.

The site also insists on sending me alerts for jobs that haven’t even a tenuous link with the categories I have marked as my interests (the suggestions of a telesales role or a care home assistant are my personal favourites, when I’m looking for information professional or social media work), yet when I log in to look at them, and it asks me why I’m not applying for them, there’s no option to say “because this is utterly irrelevant to my requirements, your system is awful”. I’m waiting to see how long it is before I get told off for not trying hard enough in their systems. It’s actually so bad that I refuse to use it if I don’t have to, but that’s because I have other, better job sites available to me to use. What about the people who’ve been told that they MUST use the site, and don’t have the skills to know where else to look, or how else to do things? The site is so bad it’s almost certainly losing people the chance of employment, rather than helping them to find it.

So, what’s the future for us New Skivers? Apparently, one where we’re fighting for space in a library, wedded to a computer, spending frustrating and pointless hours wrestling with the Universal Jobmatch site, wasting time trying to get into a site that we can use to apply for jobs that closed weeks ago, using a format that the potential employer won’t accept. That’s definitely going to help people move from Skivers to Strivers….right? And anyone who doesn’t think the Universal Credit and Universal Jobmatch are amazing must just be happy being a skiver, and they’re loving the decadent lifestyle that their £71.70 a week Jobseekers Allowance enables them to live on.

Update

I have also been sent the following which I felt should be attached to the bottom of this post. It’s taken from a booklet called “Jobseekers Allowance: your responsibilities” and appears to be rather authoritarian in tone:

jobseeker

Note: you must tell us if you leave your home, even if only for a day.  Seems rather unnecessary to report on your whereabouts if out for the day…

Why the digital divide and not the welfare state is the real poverty trap

Just over eighteen months ago, a report was released by the e-Learning Foundation claiming that children were being increasingly disadvantaged in the classroom.  The report referenced research conducted by the BBC that demonstrated that use of their revision materials online led to a grade lift when compared to those who did not use them.  The implication was clear.  Those without internet access at home (there are over seven million peoplewho have never used the internet according to the most recent figures and 20% of households have no internet connection) will suffer in terms of educational attainment.

I was particularly interested in this research as it formed part of the literature review for my dissertation on community libraries and their relationship with the digital divide.  In researching this area, it was clear that those that are on the wrong side of the divide suffer economically, politically and educationally.  In some respects this divide is nothing new.  For centuries a divide has existed between rich and poor, this is simply another manifestation of this historic divide.  But, of course, just because it is part of an historic trend, does not mean there shouldn’t be a concerted attempt to address this particular area.

Underlining the extent to which school children’s lack of access to the internet impacts upon their educational attainment, Oxford University’s Department of Education recently foundfurther evidence to support the claims made by the e-Learning Foundation.  According to their study:

Teenagers who do not have access to the internet in their home have a strong sense of being ‘educationally disadvantaged’, warns the study. At the time of the study, the researchers estimated that around 10 per cent of the teenagers were without online connectivity at home, with most of this group living in poorer households. While recent figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest this dropped to five per cent in 2012, the researchers say that still leaves around 300,000 children without internet access in their homes. 

That’s 300,000 children who will not achieve what they are capable of due to the lack of access to the internet. And not only 300,000 children, 300,000 children from the poorest households.  Furthermore:

The researchers’ interviews with teenagers reveal that they felt shut out of their peer group socially and also disadvantaged in their studies as so much of the college or school work set for them to do at home required online research or preparation. One teenager, whose parents had separated, explained that he would ring his father who had internet access and any requested materials were then mailed to him through the post. 

Never mind what Iain Duncan Smith says regarding state benefits “trapping” the poorest in society (whatever that means), educational attainment provides the best opportunity for the poorest in society to escape the “poverty trap”.  Consequently, those that do not have the full range of tools available at their disposal are doomed to remain trapped in poverty.  Ensuring there is a level playing field for all pupils must surely be a higher priority for eradicating poverty than the pernicious and unnecessary cuts to the welfare state that we all pay into and all benefit from (it’s always worth remembering that a cut in benefits has an impact on those in work – after all, some of our taxes are paid to ensure that should we lose our jobs, we have paid into a safety net).

Of course for many children the public library is the one place where they have an opportunity to close the gap on their peers and level the educational playing field.  Access to the internet complemented with skilled support can help to close the gap and ensure that those from the poorest backgrounds are not penalised.  However, whilst the existing support is vital, it is being severely limited in a number of areas.

As The Guardian reported last month, 200 libraries were closed during 2012 meaning that for many of the poorest households in those communities the only place that they could access the internet was taken away from them, trapping them in poverty (we might as well stick with the Tory rhetoric).  Trapping them because access to the internet provides the educational support their children need and the economic benefits provided by cheaper services online. Not only are closures an issue, but those libraries that remain can often leave a lot to be desired in terms of access.  Take Barking libraries for example.

Last year, Barking libraries announced, with great pride, that they were introducing a charge for internet access – £12 for residents, £25 for non-residents per year.  Such charges are hardly likely to encourage the poorest households to make use of the internet access provided by the local library service (yes, I am well aware that it amounts to £1 a month and therefore isn’t a huge amount…but it is still a cost that is unnecessary and, as pointed out here, rather goes against the ethos of the People’s Network).

Furthermore, the growth of community libraries are certainly not going to help the 300,000 children disadvantaged by a lack of internet access.  As my research into them revealed [pdf], providing support in accessing the internet is not a key concern.  Whilst they will certainly provide access (and often free of charge), they do not provide the level of trained support that a library run by a local authority can provide (‘can’ because even libraries run by local authorities sometimes fail in this regard).  If they do not have access to the internet in their own homes, the chances are that they will require the skilled support as they obviously will not have the same degree of experience as some of their peers.  It is, therefore, essential for this group that there is both a local library providing free internet access and skilled support.  Without both those from the poorest households will remain “educationally disadvantaged”.

If this government is serious about eradicating the poverty trap (and they go on about it often enough to make one assume that they are serious – or maybe they are just playing cynical politics…), then they need to address this disparity.  If we continue to overlook the 300,000 children disadvantaged by a lack of internet access we will continue to condemn another generation to the poverty trap.  There are steps the government can take to ensure that the playing field is levelled. The question is this: are the government serious about lifting the poorest in society out of the poverty trap, or are they just employing empty rhetoric? I suspect we all know the answer.

Universal digitisation – the infrastructure is there, it’s just being dismantled

Those of you who read this blog and follow me online know that two things that really annoy me are the belief that everyone has the internet and therefore we no longer need libraries, and that simply providing access to the internet is enough to ensure an informed populace.  Of course, the reality is far more complex than the media and politicians often present. Providing access to the internet is part of the battle (see all my posts here), but the development of skills is also a key component to reducing the digital divide.

At the back end of last week, a report commissioned by Go ON UK revealed that around 16 million people in the UK lack basic online skills (the full report is available here – pdf).  Titled “This Is for Everyone” The Case for Universal Digitisation, the report makes the following claims:

There are 10.8 million people in the U.K. who do not use the Internet, and they are consequently more vulnerable. As Booz & Company shows, this is no longer something we can dismiss as somebody else’s problem. We gain the full benefits ourselves only if everyone is online. The lack of basic digital skills for millions means “digitisation” is unbalanced—we will increasingly fall short of the U.K.’s potential if we do not start to address the problem.

A 79 percent usage figure means that about one-fifth of the population—including 10.8 million people 15 and older—do not use the Internet at all.  In addition, the e-Learning Foundation estimates that 800,000 of the most disadvantaged schoolchildren in the U.K. lack home access to the Internet. [A] BBC study found that of non-users, 71 percent are categorised among the three lowest socioeconomic groups, 51 percent are older than 65, and 50 percent have no formal qualifications.

Using the Internet requires only the most basic digital literacy, yet lack of skills is cited as a key reason many people are not online. Indeed, 63 percent of working-age non-users and 78 percent of retired non-users state they do not know how to use the Internet.

Nowhere in the report, however, is there any mention of the key role libraries (or librarians for that matter) can play in enabling “universal digitisation”.  And yet, the provision of internet access in the local public library is the only way many can get connected and take advantage of the full range of services available online.  Libraries provide (in most cases) free access, skilled support and can often provide a certain degree of ‘training’ for those who simply do not have the skills or confidence to navigate the internet.  They are, therefore, crucial in encouraging people online and moving the country towards universal digitisation.

A little while ago I wrote a post explaining what I think needs to be done to address the digital divide in the UK. One of the key points I made is that public libraries should play a key role in getting people connected and enabling the economic benefits that the above report claims will come with universal digitisation.  The basic infrastructure already exists to reach the goals outlined in the report, unfortunately local authorities are dismantling it and the national government is standing by and letting it happen.

Broadband for all? Or the entrenchment of a three tier divide?

This morning, the Communications Committee released its report on the government’s broadband strategy. The report, “Broadband for all – an alternative vision“, was rather mixed to say the least. There was some welcome criticism of the government’s existing strategy as well as some worrying suggestions about what the future might hold for broadband in the UK.

In terms of the criticising the government’s strategy, the committee were particularly unimpressed by Vaizey’s focus on speed rather than spread. Indeed, the (Tory) chair of the committee raised these concerns on the Today programme this morning (Monday). Rather than focus on the provision of super fast broadband for those that can afford it, the committee suggested that it would be more appropriate for the strategy to focus on widening access. A reasonable and welcome suggestion given that there are parts of the country without access at all. It doesn’t seem particularly radical to suggest that maybe we should ensure everyone has access before we start improving the speed of the connection.

Under a section entitled “Principle 1: Reducing the digital divide“, the committee argues that policy should be driven “above all” to (paragraph 64):

“…arrest and ultimately eliminate the digital divide, creating the opportunity to unleash its social benefits for all UK citizens.”

It goes on to highlight the two distinct divides that need to be addressed: access and skills (or first and second order effects).  The two together are absolutely fundamental to the concept of the digital divide.  A focus purely on access would not reduce the impact of the digital divide unless measures are taken to ensure that the equipment can be used “effectively”.  It is encouraging that both aspects of the divide are referred to in the report as policy-makers seem to have a fixation with access alone.  However, the inquiry itself focuses on the issue of access rather than skills, so whilst the need to address skills is referred to, it is not a significant component of this particular report.

The report goes on to outline the benefits of closing the first order divide (paragraph 65):

“..the potential benefits of reducing this divide are inestimable, with effects on, among other things, the ability of individuals to work from home, on the ability of socially isolated people to stay in contact, and ultimately the ability of national and local government to provide public services, even to far-flung, remote communities.”

Furthermore, it goes on to note the evidence provided by Suvi Lindén, former Finnish Communications Minister and Special Envoy for the Broadband Commission for Digital Development (paragraph 66):

“We just cannot afford to provide the same level of care as we are doing now and that people are used to having in Finland. I have quite often said that, for some municipalities that have these elderly people living, for example, 80 kilometres from the centre of the municipality, ‘It is cheaper for you to build up the fibre to this old lady than to take her to live in the city centre in the nursing home.’ It costs what it would cost for the municipality to have her living in the public-provided nursing home for two months.”

However, the report goes on to criticise existing government policy (paragraph 67):

It is not clear, however, whether the Government’s strategy will eliminate the divide between those communities who can and those who cannot enjoy these benefits. This is because, on the one hand, there is no guarantee that the Government will meet their targets; and on the other, the targets themselves are inherently divisive. In concrete terms, they set a course for a UK in which “virtually all homes will have access to a minimum level of service”[55] and in which “superfast broadband should be available to 90% of people in each local authority area.”

As a result (paragraph 68):

Existing government policy will, in effect, widen the digital divide in terms of the first order effects (access).  The relentless focus on providing high speed internet is not the answer to the issue of the digital divide.  Indeed, the likely impact is a widening of the divide and the entrenchment of a three tier divide (I say entrench as there as still some who connect using dial-up – although that figure is rapidly diminishing).  A three tier divide because there will be those that can afford high speed access, those that can afford broadband and those that cannot afford either option, thus developing a two tier internet service.  Those that have access to the high speeds will be at a significant advantage to those who have an internet connection but cannot afford to upgrade.  And as for those without a connection at all, well, they will be left even further behind.  Indeed, the reports hints as much in its final conclusions (paragraph 251):

However, this doesn’t seem to have prevented Ed Vaizey from announcing that superfast broadband will be available to 90% of the UK by 2015.  Presumably in an attempt to distract attention from the criticisms of the report, Vaizey told the Today programme:

“We have set ourselves a target that by 2015, 90% of the country will have superfast broadband,” said Vaizey. “Generally speaking most people define that around the 35 megabits a second (Mbps) speed but we have said that 100% of the country should have access to 2Mbps. To put that in context, for example, if you want to watch the iPlayer on your computer you would need about 1-1.5Mbps.”

He went on to add that he believed that this target would be met, contrary to the conclusions of the Lords committee.  This determination to provide faster broadband comes despite the fact that there are 5.7 million households without an internet connection [PDF] at all.  It is clear that, at present, the focus should be on those without an internet connection at all – something that the closure of public libraries (who play a key role in addressing this divide) will not help to address.

Whilst rightly critical of government strategy, however, the committee also came up with some unusual recommendations for future policy.  In paragraphs 141-143, the committee recommends:

141. We recommend that the Government, Ofcom and the industry begin to consider the desirability of the transfer of terrestrial broadcast content from spectrum to the internet and the consequent switching off of broadcast transmission over spectrum, and in particular what the consequences of this might be and how we ought to begin to prepare.

142. As and when this occurs, and particularly if Public Service Broadcasting channels begin to be delivered primarily through the internet, the case for a USO (Universal Service Obligation), echoing that for television and radio, will become, in our view, significantly stronger.

143. While we do not support the introduction of a USO at present, we do believe that broadcast media will increasingly come to be delivered via the internet. As and when that happens, and particularly in circumstances where this applies to PSB channels, the argument for recommending a USO becomes stronger. The Government should begin now to give this active consideration.

This seems at odds with what is odd with the nature of the digital divide as noted later in the report.  As has been previously established, cost is asignificant inhibitor in having an internet connection at home.  The transfer of all broadcast content to the internet would result in a number of issues that would need resolving.  What would this mean for the licence fee?  But, more importantly, what would this mean for those who cannot afford an internet connection at present? Such a transfer would rely on superfast broadband which the committee argues would be out of the reach of many.  How would we ensure that moving broadcast content online would not financially penalise those who cannot afford such a move?  Would it be subsidised by the state?  Or would the old divides be further reinforced?  It’s hard to argue, given the existing state of the digital divide, that this is a desirable move.

There is no doubt that the committee’s report delivers welcome criticism of existing government strategy and underlines the importance of reducing the extent of the digital divide.  It is clear that the current strategy would entrench the divide and, in effect, entrench a three tier divide – those with superfast broadband, those with a standard broadband connection and those without a connection at all.  However, the proposal to move broadcast content online is troubling.  The implications for such a move are many and there will be particularly concerns in terms of forcing the public to pay for an internet connection to watch broadcast content.  When many are put off from a broadband connection due to the related costs, it is not clear what the outcome would be should such a move take place.  What seems clear is that the digital divide will not only remain a problem that needs tackling, it is likely to get very much worse and increasingly complex.