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Online access: vulnerable excluded at risk of second class citizenship

Digital word cloud
All efficient and convenient (with online access).

Online access is now all but essential. Everyday tasks are harder without digital skills or devices. So is playing a full part in society. As society races on to the internet problems are likely to multiply.
2023 Campaign Reflection 3) Digital Exclusion   

At CAEE we know this from our work with clients. Whatever the issue (housing perhaps or debts or benefits) digital exclusion often makes it more difficult.

While the move online is providing efficiency and convenience to the majority, a sizeable minority is left behind. They may not have a smartphone or laptop, may lack digital skills or just prefer non-digital alternatives.

Nationwide an increasingly digital world is affecting the lives of millions. A basic example is the progressive replacement of cash with online payment. Obvious on efficiency grounds, a more rapid decline in use and availability of notes and coins will make it harder for many to cope.  

Digital exclusion is putting vulnerable and older people at risk of becoming second class citizens.

Looking back

In 2023 we focused on everyday local services including branch banking, car parks and train ticket offices and sales. It’s our argument that providers who are understandably keen to drive their business forward must not take people for granted.   

This year, at CAEE, we have been campaigning against the potential impacts of headlong digitisation:

  • Supporting a faster and bigger roll-out of banking hubs to provide an alternative to bank closures.
  • Providing and promoting digital support services in Epsom and Ewell.
  • Raising awareness of moves towards online-only services such as the closure of station ticket offices and parking machines.
  • Highlighting the danger of a cashless society.
Looking forward

In 2024 we will continue to question policy and practice that exclude people by ignoring them; and just as important, we will strengthen links with local organsations to help develop skills and access.

Poor practice

In looking out for poor practice the aim is to reduce harm caused by digital exclusion of all kinds. We know service suppliers in finance, utilities, transport and other sectors are aware of the importance of inclusive policies. Equally government services, including health, education and social security. Yet examples of exclusion still come to our attention.

Of course we appreciate that technical innovation moves fast. Opportunities arise for organisations to offer a better service and firms to benefit commercially. In a vibrant economy this is as it should be, but providers (and regulators) ought to be aware of their responsibility to more vulnerable citizens. There are obvious risks for example in the rapid uptake of artificial intelligence. As members of the House of Lords said in June last year:

……the Government must review the increasing use of predictive machine-learning tools in public services. Digitally excluded groups are likely to be poorly represented in some datasets that inform algorithmic decision-making. They face a growing risk of marginalisation as a result.*

Working together

Epsom & Ewell is fortunate in having independent groups and public services committed to improving online access. Success means enhancing skills, confidence and motivation but also increasing the availability of digital equipment.

At CAEE we have dedicated Digital Support Advisers who help clients get online while helping with other problems. Volunteer DS Adviser Alison says: ‘The issues they need help with cover a vast range. They could relate to housing, benefits, council tax income discounts, blue badges or parking permits.’

Epsom and Ewell Libraries (part of Surrey County Council) supported by Epsom & Ewell Borough Council run regular free support sessions. In 2024 SCC will ‘continue its work in providing digital skills support in the form of one to one help, free online courses, access to services such as computers and free wifi, and the Digital Welfare Support Project’.

This year we also look forward to working more closely with Good Company group, Nescot, Age Concern, Sunnybank Trust and others. In different ways all are improving online access and stopping the creation of second-class citizens.
2023 Campaign Reflection 4) Health & Disability

* Digital Exclusion Report, House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, June 2023

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