UK essential service websites ‘must be accessible to all’

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The design of websites and apps vital to everyday tasks, from parking to scheduling appointments on the NHS, must be regulated to prevent the digital divide among millions of people struggling with life online, activists say.

The Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA), a coalition of charities, is calling for more help for around 11 million UK citizens lacking digital life skills and believes that “basic and inclusive design requirements should apply to all essential services”.

The DPA calls for technology companies to sell devices with outdated operating systems less frequently, low-cost “social tariffs” from all broadband providers, and for digital access to be classified as an “essential utility.”

The call comes as frontline counselors warn that a growing number of people feel “lost in a digital world”. Age UK estimated that 40% of people over 75 do not use the internet. People faced with choices between heating and feeding are first cutting off online access, said a manager at the Citizens Advice Bureau.

New figures also show that the number of people accessing the internet only on mobile – which is slower, more expensive and less effective for handling complex online transactions – has doubled between 2019 and 2021. A study by the Fabian Society and supported by BT found 5.8m households now have mobile coverage, forcing households to ration time spent online.

Lord Knight, former Minister of Labor Schools, who chairs the DPA, said: “We must consider digital access in the same way that we consider other utilities. You can’t apply for jobs, you can’t get discounts on your bills, you get even more into debt and end up being much more isolated.

“It is reasonable that we have a standard that public sector websites must meet.”

In response to the growing digital divide, BT is to provide 2,500 financially vulnerable families with free devices and connectivity through Home-Start UK, a charity.

Symone Smith, 30, from Greater Manchester, who now has a social tariff of £15 a month, has been forced to ration the internet to 30-minute mobile data slots. Her seven-year-old daughter had to race to finish her homework “against the data clock”.

“When everything is online and you’re not, life becomes very limited,” she said.

Sally West, policy director at Age UK, said regular problems her customers encounter include online parking payments and applying for council taxes and housing benefits.

Joyce Williams, 86, who blogs about aging in Glasgow, described IT use as “a constant struggle”. “There are a lot of passwords,” she told the Guardian. “Also, software updates regularly break what I learned to use. It is created by nerds for nerds, the problems of the elderly are not on the mind.”

Samantha Briggs, who works for the Spark Somerset charity, said: “Some people we work with report feeling embarrassed, ‘old’ or ‘stupid’ because they can’t use the technology they assume everyone can use. They can be elusive and even visibly anxious.”

David, 85, a retired railroad worker with neurological problems affecting his hands, said: “If I touch a smartphone screen, it goes crazy. It just spins and spins, goes left and right. I don’t have a computer for the simple reason that I can’t use a mouse.”

Martin Garrod, 64, a retired accountant from Portsmouth, said he can’t access software updates for his computer because the system uses text messages to verify his identity and he doesn’t have a cell phone.

He said it was like “you take your car to the garage to have your tires checked, but the mechanic doesn’t [help] because you don’t have a vacuum cleaner”.

Chris Philp, minister in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, told parliament last week that “the government is focused on building a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone.”

“A range of low-cost social tariffs are available for those with universal credit, and a number specifically include individuals with pension credit,” he said, adding that free courses in basic digital skills were available.

“Public libraries play an important role in fighting the digital divide. Some 2,900 public libraries in England provide a reliable network of accessible locations with staff, volunteers, free Wi-Fi, public PCs and digital assisted access to a wide range of digital services,” he added.

Kellie Dorrington, operations manager at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Haringey, north London, said consultants are increasingly dealing with unpaid parking tickets for people who “can’t do the thing online”.

“Department of Labor and Pensions advisers tell people to use Wi-Fi on the Coast or at McDonald’s, but if they don’t have the money, they can’t afford coffee or happy hour to do that,” she said.

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