UK’s essential services must prevent digital exclusion

The Alliance for Digital Poverty (DPA), a coalition of charities committed to ensuring everyone has access to online resources, has called for website and app design to be regulated to prevent digital exclusion among the millions of people in the UK struggling with online lives .

The DPA says that “fundamental, inclusive design requirements must be maintained for all essential services.” Essential services include things like booking NHS appointments and paying for a parking space – services that are increasingly moving to online-only.

The group estimates that 11 million Britons have no digital life skills or equipment and are experiencing difficulties performing these tasks online.

In addition to striving for better accessibility, the DPA is urging tech companies to offer devices with operating systems that stay up-to-date for longer; affordable ‘social tariffs’ from all broadband providers; and the classification of digital access as an ‘essential utility’.

The DPA’s vision is ‘living in a world where everyone has access to the life-changing benefits that digital brings’. The goal is to end digital poverty once and for all by 2030.

The latest call from the Dutch DPA comes after warnings from frontline advisers that an increasing number of individuals are ‘feeling lost in a digital environment’.

According to Age UK, 40% of people over 75 do not use the internet: a growing problem with the UK’s aging population.

According to a study by the socialist group Fabian Society, the number of people using only their mobile phone to surf the internet doubled between 2019 and 2021. Mobile internet services tend to be slower, more expensive and less efficient at handling complicated online transactions compared to desktop or laptop access.

The Fabian Society’s research, supported by BT, found that nearly 5.8 million homes now rely on mobile coverage, forcing families to ration their online time.

“We need to think of digital access in the same way as other utilities,” said Lord Knight, a former Labor Schools minister who chairs the DPA.

“You can’t apply, you don’t get a discount on your bills, you get further into debt and eventually become much more isolated. It’s reasonable that we have a standard that public sector websites have to meet.”

IT is “a constant battle,” according to 86-year-old Glasgow blogger Joyce Williams.

She complained that there are “too many passwords” to remember, and regular software updates mean the services she had learned to use are being disrupted.

Martin Garrod, 64, an accountant now retired and living in Portsmouth, said he can’t receive software updates for his computer because the system needs text messages to verify his identification, and he doesn’t have a cell phone.

The problem is not limited to the older part of the population. Last year, leading public figures in the UK wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging him: helping hundreds of thousands of students on ‘the wrong side of the digital divide’ by providing them with the devices and internet connectivity they lacked for distance learning during the pandemic.

The letter, coordinated by Labor MP Siobhain McDonagh, referred to data from the Office for National Statistics which showed that only half of UK households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 are internet access

Chris Philp, a minister in the Ministry of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, told Parliament last week that the government is committed to creating a leading digital economy that works for everyone.

“A range of low-cost social rates are available to people with universal credit, and some specifically include individuals with retirement credit,” he said.

“Public libraries play an important role in tackling digital exclusion. About 2,900 public libraries in England provide a trusted network of accessible locations with staff, volunteers, free Wi-Fi, public PCs and supported digital access to a wide range of digital services.”

This obscures the fact that 800 public libraries closed between 2010, when the Conservative Party first came to power, and 2019 – the last date for which figures are available.

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