How “austerity” will exacerbate the effects of the digital divide

Image c/o Derek Bruff on Flickr.

During the last parliament, the Coalition government introduced a number of changes to the benefits system, one of the key changes for the unemployed was the introduction of Universal Jobmatch and the requirement to use the service to seek employment. The problems with this service were obvious (to all apart from the government it appeared). Despite the perception that we are all online in this digital world, there remains a significant proportion of the population that have either never been online or do not have internet access at home.

The latest figures by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) underline that despite a decline in numbers of people that have never used the internet (down 1% to 5.9m people in total), lack of connectivity remains a significant hurdle for a sizeable proportion of the working age population. Whilst there has been positive talk in the media about the steady decline of those that have never been online (whilst noting with some surprise that even in this day and age there are people who have never opened a web browser), there has been little exploration of the impact this divide has in terms of government policy (Sky hints at it in their sub-headline – “despite the internet being a key part of everyday life” but doesn’t go beyond that).

According to the estimates provided by the ONS, approximately 1.4m people of working age have never used the internet (ie people aged from 16-64). Although the figures are not available with regard to internet access within the home, we can safely assume that there are more than 1.4m people of working age that do not have an internet connection at home. That said, the ONS does report that around 1.1m people overall last used the internet more than three months ago which would lead us to estimate approximately 6-7m do not have internet access at home. We’re probably getting on for nearly 2m people of working age that do not have the internet at home (although that’s a guess based on the available data, rather than evidence based). How many of those are also currently unemployed is difficult to say as the ONS report doesn’t provide this level of data.

Estimates for number of people that have never used the internet by age (%age).

Percentage of people that have never used the internet by age.

Furthermore, the figures are particularly stark when it comes to disabled people. According to ONS estimates, 3m people “who self-assess that they have a disability in line with the Equality Act definition of disability” (to use the ONS terms) have never used the internet – approximately 27% of disabled adults. Furthermore, of the 1.1m who had last used the internet more than three months ago, 0.5m were disabled adults. For the 16-24 age bracket, 95% were recent users of the internet compared to 99% for non-disabled users.

The estimates for both those of working age and disabled people underlines the difficulties many will suffer due to government policy towards benefits and unemployment. Both those that have never used the internet and those who do not have access at home face significant barriers in terms of seeking employment. They are at a disadvantage anyway due to the increasing expectation by employers that applications will be submitted online, the government’s reinforcement of this by requiring the use of Universal Jobmatch simply exacerbates the problem. That the areas where the numbers of people that have never accessed the internet also tend to be areas of the country with high unemployment simply underlines the difficulties many will face.

According to the ONS, the ten regions with the highest proportion of the population that have never accessed the internet are:

Counties %age never been online
Northern Ireland 18.8
Highlands and Islands 16.9
Cornwall and Isles of Scilly 16.8
West Wales and the Valleys 15.7
Lincolnshire 15.2
Merseyside 14.8
South Western Scotland 14.6
South Yorkshire 14.4
Lancashire 14.3
West Midlands 13.3

The regions with the lowest proportion of people who have never used the internet:

Counties %age never been online
Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire 9.8
Dorset and Somerset 9.6
Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire 9.5
Outer London 9
Kent 9
Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Bristol/Bath area 9
North Eastern Scotland 8.5
Inner London 8.2
Surrey, East and West Sussex 7.9
Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire 6.7

It hardly comes as a great surprise to see southern counties with a low proportion of people that have never used the internet, whilst the north has significantly higher proportions in some cases (there’s an 8.5% difference between Berkshire et al and Lincolnshire for example). It’s also not surprising to discover that the areas with high levels of non-internet use also seem to match up with areas of high unemployment.

The most recent statistics for unemployment provided by the ONS aren’t broken down in quite the same way as the figures for internet use, rather than counties they are broken down by region:

Region %age unemployed
North East 7.5
Wales 6.7
Yorkshire and Humber 6.6
West Midlands 6.4
London 6.2
Scotland 6
North West 5.7
East Midlands 4.9
East 4.4
South West 4.3
South East 4.2


Although it’s hard to draw substantive conclusions with data pulled from two distinct datasets, it does seem that areas of high unemployment coincide with areas where higher numbers of people have never been online. More investigation would need to be conducted to see exactly what proportion of those that have never used the internet in areas of high unemployment are unemployed (or in employment with limited job security – eg zero hours contracts). That said, it’s highly likely that those 1.4m people of working age that have never used the internet are in a particularly troublesome position. With an increasing demand to use the internet to seek employment, those 1.4m are clearly disadvantaged as they do not have the skills or access enjoyed by those that are online. Without a level playing field in terms of internet access, many of them will find it difficult to obtain secure long-term employment.

It’s also worth noting that within those areas of high unemployment and relatively high numbers of people that have never been online, public libraries provide an absolutely crucial service. By providing free internet access and trained members of staff that can provide the support required, they can make a huge difference in closing the digital divide for the 1.4m of working age that have never been online. Without a public library in which they can access the internet, it is difficult to see how those who are unemployed can get online and seek work. In the areas of high unemployment listed above, the public library will be a vital service in terms of getting individuals back into work. Any library closures in these areas will hit the unemployed particularly hard.

Unfortunately, with a mandate to further pursue a programme based on voodoo economics (ie “austerity”), it is hard to believe that libraries won’t be hit hard over the coming five years. However, you cannot both cut funding to statutory services (like public libraries) and expect to reach “full employment”, because those statutory services will be the mechanism by which people get into work because they do level the playing field, ensuring “opportunity for all”. As cuts to funding accelerate over the coming years, it seems fair to say that the consequence of the digital divide will be increasingly grim for the unemployed as support services are stripped right back, leading to increasing numbers of sanctions and, quite possibly, an ever growing demand for food banks. The consequences of the digital divide during a period of austerity are clear: precarious employment, poverty (in employment as well as for the unemployed) and a “recovery” that seems even further away than it did in 2010.

Unemployment unchanged since formation of the Coalition in 2010

A quick post with some quick stats that I stumbled across this morning. From the Office for National Statistics website:

“Number of people employed on a “zero-hours contract” in their main job was 697,000 for October to December 2014…”

That’s nearly 700,000 people on contracts where the work is not guaranteed and they have an insecure income and, of course, zero employment rights (they are “zero” in terms of more than just hours). Effectively, these people are not employed as we know it. They are neither full-time nor part-time. They have work purely when the employer deigns to instruct them to work – often at very short notice (I know, I’ve worked in retail in a management role and know exactly how it works). So, it seems reasonable to me to package up the zero hour contracts with the figures for unemployment, because they aren’t employed in any real sense.

The latest employment figures suggest that 1.91m people are unemployed. If we tack on the zero hours contracts, we get a grand total of 2.6m unemployed (ok, let’s call it underemployed, or 2.6m people not fully employed). But if we have to do this for the Coalition period, we also have to do this for the period immediately before they came to office. You know, to be fair and all that (we all know Cameron likes to bore on about fairness).

In May 2010, when the Coalition was formed, unemployment stood at 2.48m. According to the (revised) figures from the ONS, there were approximately 190,000 zero hour contracts [PDF] in 2009 (last full year of the Labour government) and 168,000 in 2010 (the first year of the Coalition). If we split the difference and say that there were 179,000 zero hour contracts, and add it to the unemployment figure for May 2010, we get…a grand total of 2.6m unemployed/underemployed/not fully employed. So the figure is unchanged.

Despite the rhetoric from the Coalition (and particularly the Tories), the employment situation has remain largely unchanged in the sense that there are still 2.6m people in this country who are not full employed in the sense that they have stable hours, a stable income and proper employment rights. The only significant difference is that increasing numbers of people are being forced off the social security that they have been paying into, and into insecure employment. Well, that seems fair doesn’t it?

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.

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.