Boroughs must act to end “digital exclusion” of older Londoners from council services, says report

Boroughs must act to end “digital exclusion” of older Londoners from council services, says report

Many older Londoners struggle to access local authority and other services because they do not use the internet and alternative communication channels are inadequate, according to a new report.

Age UK London, which has compiled the report, is calling for “urgent action to address the profound challenges of digital exclusion that affect the daily lives of thousands of older Londoners especially when trying to access local council services”.

Pointing out that some services provided by the capital’s 32 boroughs can only be applied for via websites, the report says this continues to cause problems for older people who don’t use digital technology or lack confidence when dealing with it.

Answers to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests about accessing particular named services revealed that five of the 29 boroughs that responded did not provide “offline access”, such as a telephone line or face-to-face contact, to any them, eight did not provide it for applications for disabled parking Blue Badges and nine did not offer for people seeking council tax reductions or housing benefit.

In a follow-up “mystery shopping” exercise, whereby people phoned the council or visited their libraries saying they were asked about services on behalf of a relative or friend, just under half found they couldn’t find out what they needed without using the internet. Over half of the mystery shoppers reported having negative experiences, such as having to wait a long time before phones were answered. In two instances they were told the opposite of what the FoI reply had said.

“The lack of an offline method to apply for benefits to supplement a low income is a particular concern given the increasing cost of living,” the Age UK London report says, adding: “Being on a low income may itself be a contributing factor to why some older people do not have access to the internet”. Research Age UK London conducted in 2021 showed that there are more than 200,000 Londoners over the age of 75 who do not use the internet at all.

The report welcomes a plan of action published last year by the London Recovery Board – a group of public bodies, business representatives, charity organisations and others jointly chaired by Sadiq Khan and Georgia Gould of London Councils – which pledged to “make digital services accessible and provide alternatives for people without digital access” and makes five recommendations to councils including providing websites and online systems that are easier to use, offering training course to people who like to become better at using the internet and providing non-digital options.

Abigail Wood, chief executive of Age UK London, said: “Councils across London have a duty to ensure that all their residents have access to their services and the benefits to which they are entitled, and this is especially important during a cost-of-living crisis. I highlighted in an article published by On London last year that a quarter of Londoners over the age of 50 live below the poverty line. Ensuring that those without access to the internet can apply for support to boost their income is a vital element of tackling poverty amongst older Londoners. We are calling on local authorities to take positive action on this issue and we are asking them to take it now”.

Solace, a charity working to end the harm done through gender-based violence, expressed concern about the Age UK London report’s findings, citing what it calls “an increase in the barriers to older women getting access to council services” with the lack of offline provision making it harder “to apply for housing benefits and to make housing applications to get to a place of safety”.

Image from Age UK London report cover.

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