The NPC General Secretary, Jan Shortt, has written to Oliver Dowden Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, Jo Stevens Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and Caroline Dinenage, Minister for Digital and Culture about digital inclusion / exclusion. The letters were sent individually, but read the same to all three. You can read the letter below and download the letter at the bottom of the page.
Dear Oliver Dowden,
Re: Digital Inclusion and Exclusion
The National Pensioners Convention is the largest campaigning organisation for older people in the UK. Our founding principles are that: ‘every pensioner has the right to choice, dignity, independence and security as an integral and valued member of society.’
Our policies and principles are defined by our members who have asked us to contact you with a view to working towards a better outcome for them and others who are not connected to the digital world. Our research shows that our members are suffering exclusion in a variety of areas through the drive to online only services. Whilst this may be a worthwhile exercise for business and indeed the government, it would appear that customer choice does not feature in any of those decisions.
For many older people there is a real decline in accessible information and opportunities to have their voices heard. From moves to a cashless society to being able to make an appointment either with your GP or a hospital is becoming a minefield of baffling technology.
If we may, we would like to outline the ways in which the government can assist those older people who wish to become digitally connected and those that, for whatever reason, cannot or do not wish to engage with technology. Given that a number of websites do not even have contact details, we can understand the frustration, angst and the lack of engagement by older people.
Age UK recently produced their research into online activity among older people during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, it shows that rather than a large increase in the number of older users, their individual use of the internet changed with some actually stopping their activities in certain areas.
The NPC gains from this an understanding that the older generation and technology remains a critical area for government investment and assistance. It also lays out very clearly that the cost of broadband and equipment is only one of many reasons why older people do not engage with technology.
There are many broadband packages available and choosing the best one needs an understanding of technical terms, not just reliance on a broadband provider customer service person selling one package or another. In some cases, the value for money is questionable with packages changing frequently.
The efficiency of broadband is not universal. There are various parts of the country where reception is poor or even non-existent at particular times. Until everyone has the same access to the best possible service, then broadband (and mobile phone) providers must be encouraged to apportion their costs in terms of value for money. Cutting edge technology is out there, and the UK must make use of this along with understanding the cost inhibitors for older people and those on low income.
The pandemic and lockdown was, for many older people, the first time they needed to be online to access groceries and other essential items. Over 4 million older people have become victims of internet fraud or cybercrimes. There must be an obligation on broadband providers, the government and other platforms to ensure safety and security online with a resulting penalty once someone has been defrauded.
The ONS regularly reports on internet usage by age, gender and other criteria. Statistically, the largest group joining the internet in any one quarter were over 65’s. However, the largest group leaving the internet in the same quarter were over 75. Our NPC Digital Inclusion Working Party’s research showed that the older a person is the less likely they are to be digitally connected
Whilst we understand there are some providers who supply broadband to those on means-tested benefits, many of our members do not fall into that category. That does not mean they can afford the equipment or broadband payments as they have other calls on their income such as paying for care. It has also become clear that many of those over 75’s now having to pay for their TV licence have made a decision to close down their broadband contracts or not to purchase them in the first place.
NPC members have made suggestions that we would like the DCMS and the government to consider as a way of making access to the internet easier and safer. These are:
a) Platform providers understanding the need for older people to receive advice, training, support and encouragement offline as well as online, with a cost that is appropriate for the services offered. There are a few platforms on offer, but often the internet speed is not great.
b) Exploring a simple ‘plug-and-play’ model which does not necessarily give the user full access to the internet, but would enable them to have visual contact with family, friends, local council officials and others who provide a service to them. There is less opportunity for fraud on the ‘plug-and-play’ models whilst still giving the user much needed contact.
Digital inclusion is a fundamental human right. The right to access information, be consulted on important issues affecting every-day life is paramount. We need to recognise that being digitally connected is part of a necessary infrastructure, in the same way that it is to be able to get electricity or gas – it is that important. Discriminating against those who are unable or do not want to connect with technology is unacceptable and we look to you to use your powers to ensure that this does not happen.
There are many areas that exclude older people and others who are not connected to online services. Here are some of the many examples below:
a) The recent Census process: A member telephoned to ask for a paper copy of the Census form as she was not online only to be told she had to go online to ask for one!
b) Inability to access better fuel deals. If cheaper deals can be had online, then they should also be available to off-line customers.
c) The cost of equipment and broadband is not affordable on a fixed pension income.
d) Digital First is dangerous to older people’s health. GP appointments should be enabled by telephone and surgery visits with safety in mind during pandemic restrictions. Being asked to take a photograph of an injury and send to the surgery is no earthly good if you don’t have the equipment to do so. We are concerned that those not online may not receive the appropriate diagnosis and treatment to help them stay well.
e) The NHS computer systems do not talk to each other or GPs. This is a crucial part of making online engagement safe and appropriate.
f) Access to information is a human right and those without technology are being excluded by the drive to digitalise everything from newspapers to ticket purchases to access to doorstep milk and every-day goods deliveries.
g) Local and central government services, consultations and outcomes are all on-line. Some do have access to paper copies, but this is not a service offered across the board.
h) Digital banks and a cashless society make every-day life difficult for older people. Businesses must cater for all their customers. As we age, we often need the help and assistance of a real person more not less to enable us to access services and to buy the goods we need.
i) We are compiling a dossier of one company and their exclusion of older, vulnerable people from doorstep milk deliveries. We will send this to you under separate cover when completed.
The Equality Act 2010 has age as a characteristic within its remit. The Goods and Services section of the Act is one that we see as important to avoid discriminating against older people and those with disabilities. We refer to the outcome of the case against HMRC in October 2020. This found that HMRC had discriminated against older and disabled customers not online by insisting that VAT returns must be done only online. We believe that the areas listed above could well fall into that category of discrimination. The expectation that older people can afford or want to be online is not appropriate and choice must remain with alternatives provided.
We would also ask you to consider that those generations online today are not necessarily going to be online as they grow older. To take away alternatives for individuals now will create a massive exclusion zone in their later life. We should not assume, or expect, that everyone’s life is totally enhanced by technology, expensive smart phones and a plethora of Apps.
We realise that digitalisation is something that is inevitable, but the process by which it takes place can be approached differently. We would value the opportunity to engage with your department to take a positive view of how we can all ensure that our older generation are given choices on how services are delivered to them.
We look forward to hearing from you.
The letters can be downloaded below
Letter to Oliver Dowden
Letter to Caroline Dineage
Letter to Jo Stevens