Internet access is key to tackling poverty

Digital exclusion and deprivation go hand in hand, says Jeff Salway

It can be difficult to shop around for the best deals without internet access

‘Radical action” is needed in Scotland to prevent even more households from being left at a financial disadvantage because they don’t have access to the internet.

Digital inclusion is “one of the great social challenges of our age” and “critical to the future of a fairer Scotland”, according to a wide-ranging new report from the Carnegie UK Trust.

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Its study, based on Ipsos Mori analysis of the Scottish Household Survey, is the biggest insight yet into the links between digital exclusion and social deprivation in Scotland.

It found that people who are older, on low incomes, live in social rented accommodation or live in poorer neighbourhoods remain significantly less likely to have digital access than the rest of the population.

They are also the groups that could benefit most from being online, through access to improved employment and educational opportunities, public services and financial savings.

The report comes months after the Lloyds Bank consumer digital index revealed that over three million people in the UK are classed as having low levels of both digital and financial capability, said Douglas White, head of advocacy at the Carnegie UK Trust.

“Being online can provide access to better deals and makes it much easier to shop around to find the best price. More practically, digital access enables people to interact with financial service providers when and where they want to, making for a much more responsive customer experience,” he said.

“Being online also provides those experiencing financial difficulties access to advice, information and support from organisations such as Citizens Advice.”

The analysis highlighted clear links between internet access and a range of factors related to social inclusion. Those without internet access are less likely to have access to a car, have a driving licence, been to a cultural event or taken part in sport in the past 12 months or used council services in that time, for example.

The rapid evolution of online technology means that while those who already have internet access and who are confident using it will benefit as more public and financial services move online. But the gap between those who are digitally engaged and those who are excluded will widen unless concerted action is taken to address the problem.

“Digital and financial exclusion are often closely intertwined,” said White. “Those on the lowest incomes are the most likely to be offline. It’s therefore essential that charities, public service providers and the financial services industry ensure that the right support measures are in place so that people don’t get left behind.”

The Scottish Household survey on which the Carnegie UK study is based found that while 98 per cent of Scottish households with incomes over £40,000 have home internet access, the proportion falls to just 60 per cent of households with incomes of £15,000 or less.

But access is just the start. Many adults, particularly those with incomes below £20,000, those aged over 60 and those in social housing are less likely to understand which websites to trust or use the internet to use public and financial services.

That leaves them unable to access some of the best deals on services such as banking, utilities and insurance, and at greater risk of falling victim to scams.

A third of people who seek support from Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) never or rarely use the internet, the charity revealed earlier this year. Its Bridging the Digital Divide study, published in May, reported that more than half of clients said they were unable to apply for benefits or jobs without assistance. Yet the UK government wants the vast majority of job applications and benefit claims to be made online by next year.

Fraser Sutherland, spokesman for CAS, said: “While the digital world is a great enabler and provides opportunities for many, there is a significant minority of individuals who face difficulties in engaging in this way, and whose needs should not be forgotten.

“We would encourage providers of public services to remember these groups when designing or redesigning services, and that individuals who are facing difficulty can go to their local CAB for help.”