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?

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.

Why address the digital divide?

Recently I wrote a series of posts looking at some of the data in relation to the digital divide and which groups in society are most affected by a lack of access to the internet. However, whilst identifying the nature of the divide and which groups could be identified as ‘information poor’, the reasons for addressing the depth of the divide have not really been addressed. There is a divide, but why does it need addressing and why are attempts to address it under threat?

As the data in my previous posts confirmed, it is generally (but not exclusively) the low paid and the most vulnerable in society who are presently on the wrong side of the digital divide and can be therefore described as ‘information poor’. Differences in income certainly play a crucial in consolidating the depth of the existing divide. Those with gross weekly earnings below £200 per week are significantly less likely to have accessed the internet at all compared to those earning over £500 per week. Likewise, the over 65s and the housebound are significantly less likely to have ever used the internet than other sections of society. Furthermore, it would appear that whilst many within these groups would state that the costs of having an internet connection at home are too high, it seems logical that many would also fall within the 50% of those who claim that they “don’t need the internet”.  Not to mention the proportion who believe they lack the skills. But why specifically should we be concerned about this?

Access to information is a key requirement for a fully functioning democracy. Without such access it is difficult for the electorate to know what our elected representatives are doing in our name at the heart of government. The growth of the internet, particularly sites such as They Work For You and What Do They Know, has made more information about the political process available than ever before.  This means, of course, that there is far more information to be consumed by those wishing to get engaged in the political process or to better understand political issues.  A report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in 2004 found that:

Those with high-speed internet connections at home are more reliant on the internet for news on the average day than dial-up users. Broadband users have a more varied mix of news media than other respondents. Of the news sources we asked about, broadband users seek out about 3 on the average day, while dial-up users turn to 2.7 sources, and non-users try 1.7 sources.

The implication is clear. Those that are connected seek more information on current affairs than those without. With the range of news sources available at a click of the mouse, it is perhaps unsurprising to know that those with a connection investigate more resources. Those without will rely on their (often entirely one-sided) daily newspaper or the broadcast media, neither of which will obviously present a comprehensive range of views, opinions or, indeed, facts. Greater access to the internet means a better informed electorate. Or does it?

Another study by Pew back in 2007 revealed the following (via Walk You Home):

Whilst there has been increased knowledge in certain areas, certainly very many areas demonstrated that the %age of Americans who knew certain key political facts had actually declined. The key difference between 1989 and 2007 being the growth of the internet of course. It would not be unreasonable to assume that with the growth of the internet would come greater awareness of a range of political issues. Keeping in mind, of course, that the earlier Pew report in 2004 (three years before the above survey) revealed that those with a broadband connection consulted almost twice as many news sources as those without a connection. However, there is one key difference between 2004 and 2007: the growth of social networking. Is it possible that the development of Facebook, Twitter et al have impacted upon the range of news resources any individual consults? Are they spending less engaging and more time networking?  Or is engagement in social networking leading to individuals being exposed to far more sources than they would have otherwise?  The internet of 2004 was very different to that in 2007. Of course, this is entirely speculation but one wonders what the impact of social networking has actually been on engagement in political issues and the extent to which it has enhanced or diminished exposure to a variety of news sources.

There are also, of course, economic benefits available to those with an internet connection. As anyone reading this will know, online retailers such as Amazon and Play have allowed people to purchase goods at much lower prices than those offered on the high street (which in turn has led to many high street retailers collapsing, impacting upon those who are not connected and have no option but to rely on the high street). And it is not just retailing, price comparison sites have enabled consumers to make substantial savings on insurance and utilities with one study in the US suggesting as much as 20% savings. Obviously it goes without saying that with such savings available those that earn less than £200 gross weekly income would substantially benefit from access to the internet. They are, without doubt, saddled with higher costs than perhaps could be available to them if they had access to an internet connection.

As well as economic benefits, there are substantial educational advantages available to those with an internet connection. A report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, for example, revealed that there is a significant “positive relationship” between pupils’ use of ICT and educational attainment. Furthermore, The e-Learning Foundation claimed that:

…children without access to a computer in the evening are being increasingly disadvantaged in the classroom. Research suggests that 1.2 million teenagers log on to revision pages every week and those using online resources were on average likely to attain a grade higher in exams.

The charity cites BBC research in which more than 100 students used the BBC Bitesize revision materials before their GCSE examination. The children were found to have achieved a grade lift compared to those who did not use the online revision guides. The BBC study says: “This is compared to factors such as teacher influence, which was found to produce no significant difference.”

There is, therefore, a clear link between education attainment and home internet access.

What we see, therefore, is a clear divide between those children who have an internet connection at home and those who do not. Given that, as the figures revealed, a significant proportion of those on the lowest incomes either do not have an internet connection at home or have never used the internet, it is difficult to see how the children of those on lower incomes can break the cycle. With the potential impact a lack of access will have on their educational attainment, it is likely this will have a subsequent effect on the development of their skills which will then have a knock-on effect in terms of their ability to make use of the internet, even if they were to obtain a home connection in adult life. For without basic literacy skills how can we possibly expect an individual to be able to utilise the internet to their advantage? Indeed, the current literacy levels in the UK suggest that there are a great many people out there that need skilled support in order to take full advantage of the internet.

These are just a few reasons why there is (still) a pressing need to address the digital divide. It is depressing that after over ten years since the launch of The People’s Networkwe are still reflecting on the gap between the information haves and have-nots. Of course, a significant reason why we still need to consider these factors is that public libraries, for so long a key institution in getting people online and closing the digital divide, are under serious threat of closure. And not just closure, many libraries are being forced on community groups to be staffed by volunteers. There is not only a divide in terms of access, but also a divide in terms of skills. What is required is skilled support to ensure that the unconnected can get connected and reap the benefits the rest of us take for granted. Of course, there is still a degree of persuasion required. When many still do not consider that they need the internet (despite the various advantages outlined here) there is a need to convince them of the benefits access to the internet provides for them. Race Online 2012 also attempted to address this question, but there is still much work to be done, particularly when 5.7 million households do not have an internet connection.

Libraries have always been primarily concerned with providing free access to information. As such, they have a key role in providing access to the internet for the general public, ensuring equality of access to information across the board. If libraries do not provide this service what institution will? Sure, corporate providers may offer internet access to the general public, but that will be at a cost and those on the lowest incomes who are currently excluded are not likely to divert resources to use an internet cafe or equivalent. If substantial support is required (don’t forget 56% of working-age adults have literacy levels below a good GCSE pass) who will provide it? The commercial provider? If so, at what cost? No, if we want to ensure that the digital divide is closed and opportunities are truly available to all, our public libraries must remain in the front line. It is arguable that they have fallen short to a degree, but they still offer the best opportunity for providing the support required to close this divide. This means properly funded libraries with skilledsupport to ensure that those that need it have it. It is only through proper funding and support that we can close this divide and, with it, enrich our democracy, raise educational attainment and strengthen our economy. Bridging the digital divide not only benefits the excluded, it benefits society as a whole.

The income divide and its impact on digital exclusion

The internet has massively changed the information landscape.  It’s development has led to an explosion in the availability of information.  There is more information available to the average citizen now than there has ever been.  However, whilst it is accessible for many, there is still a significant proportion of people who either do not have the equipment or the skills required to take advantage of this development.

Take, for example, the most recent Internet Access Quarterly Update for Q4 published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).  These quarterly reports produce a wealth of information about the state of the digital divide in the UK and if you are interested in understanding the extent of this divide, they make essential reading.  Included amongst this report are internet access statistics in relation to age, gender, disability and earnings.  If you believe that everyone has access to the internet, these statistics provide a welcome reminder that this is far from the case.

The statistics in relation to earnings particularly demonstrate the extent of the divide between those that can be defined as ‘information rich’ and ‘information poor’.  As you can see from the graph below, there is a stark difference between higher and lower wage earners.  As you move up the scale from low to high earners, the proportion of those who have never used the internet (not just do not have access at home, but have never even used the internet) drops dramatically.  So much so that the proportion of people earning over £800 per week who have never accessed the internet dramatically drops to virtually 0% in each subsequent pay scale.

%age of those who have never used the internet by gross weekly wage.

Now, 8% of low earners may not seem a significant figure, but it is still a sizeable proportion considering this represents a section of society that has never accessed the internet. And when it is compared to the proportion of higher earners it is clear that there is a very substantial divide.  But, of course, the higher you go up the payscale the more likely you are to have the funds to be able to afford the equipment.  It is particularly easy for higher earners to assume that everyone has access to the internet or has at least used it.  After all, if everyone around you is connected, why should you believe that there are people out there who are not?  Which perhaps explains why it is always middle-class commentators who argue that libraries are irrelevant in the age of the internet.  Their friends all have a connection so of course that meanseveryone has.

The nature of this divide raises a number of concerns.  For example, given that 8% of very low earners have never utilised the internet, what is the likely impact of transferring the benefits process online?  In these times of increasing unemployment, this is likely to be a very real issue for many.  Whilst assurances are made that a “minority” of claimants will be dealt with face-to-face, can we be sure that those without access will not be severely disadvantaged due to both a lack of access and skills?  As I mentioned in a previous post, literacy and numeracy levels are such that, even if access was provided there are still barriers to overcome.

This also raises questions about the programme of library closures that are taking place across the country.  For those earning less than £200 per week there are a multitude of concerns that take priority over the ownership of a computer and an internet connection, not least putting food on the table.  As long as their gross income remains so low, it is highly unlikely that they are going to invest in the technology required to connect to the internet.  Furthermore, given their restrictive budgets, it is highly unlikely that they would be prepared to spend any of their money on making use of high street internet facilities if doing so requires payment, no matter how seemingly insignificant the fee.  Which is where libraries come in.

Admittedly, public libraries probably haven’t been as successful as they might be in attracting users from the lower end of the income scale.  However, they do provide free internet access (in most cases) and trained staff to support them.  For people on such a restrictive budget, the local public library is their best and most feasible means of connecting to the internet.  Take that away and there is nothing left for them.  Yes they can pay for access via another service provider (as the free market would expect them to), but when you have a choice between paying the bills and putting food on the table or connecting to the internet, it is not hard to see which side they would come down on (despite the economic benefits of access to the internet – which I’ll come to in a later post no doubt!).

The question for public libraries and library authorities is how to address this problem and how to ensure that they do not further exclude entire communities (and yes, it is depressing that this question is still being posed).  Closing libraries certainly isn’t the answer and will not only lead to entrenching the digital divide, but will also kick the ladder away for many making it harder for the currently disconnected to join the ranks of the “information rich”.  Furthermore, there is a risk of this being entrenched across the generations.  As has been demonstrated, children with internet access at home are at a significant advantage to those without, achieving better grades and, therefore, enhancing their prospects.  For those on low incomes then, the impact of the divide will also be felt by the next generation, destined to remain excluded from the connected majority, harming their future prospects and consolidating their isolation.

Clearly, if as many as 8% of low earners have never used the internet, public libraries have been unsuccessful in getting this particular section of the community connected.  But the failure to attract the socially excluded is something that libraries have particularly struggled with for many years (sub required).  Despite the intentions of the People’s Network to connect the socially and digitally excluded, it is clear that many remain excluded.  But if libraries are closed, how will this problem be addressed?  Will it just result in permanent isolation of the unconnected? Condemning generations to digital exclusion.  Shouldn’t more effort be put into public libraries getting the “information poor” connected?  And, if so, how?  Sophisticated social networking marketing will clearly not have any impact on this section of society.  So what strategies can and should be employed?  Public libraries are in the ideal position to connect the unconnected.  Closing them suggests we have given up and are prepared to accept there will always be the connected and the excluded.