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New evidence suggests that older people living in Britain are at risk of being excluded from claiming crucial social security benefits, because of a growing shift to online-only applications.

A new report by Age UK, titled ‘Everything is online nowadays’, highlights how nearly four million older people in Britain do not have access to the internet, at a time when the Government are increasingly expecting people to claim benefits and other support online.

Age UK is calling on the UK Government to ensure offline access remains available for those without an internet connection at home, with two-fifths of councils (41%) warning that Housing Benefit and Council Tax Reduction can only be claimed online.

The charity sent out people in a “mystery shopping” exercise after receiving messages from older people and their families who were unable to access benefit services online.

A hundred councils in England, picked at random, were asked about the options people have if they need help with housing costs and council tax. Results showed that local authorities typically pushed older people towards claiming via the internet, even after being told the person doesn’t have internet access at home.

Worryingly, one in seven councils said they would only accept online claims and did not offer a face-to-face service that would enable someone to claim offline. Age UK says this leaves some older people and their families at risk of being locked out from requesting financial support.

In its new report published today (Thursday 24 May 2018), the Charity recommends that:

  • Councils should ensure that everyone can access their services and offer offline options so that people who are not online can still claim vital Housing Benefit and Council Tax Reduction
  • Councils should provide websites and online systems that are easy to use, including by those with limited digital skills, and provide digital training or make appropriate referrals for those who want to learn to use the internet
  • National Government should ensure that local councils have sufficient funding to meet their statutory requirements, including the proper administration of benefits.

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: “It is totally unacceptable that millions of older people who are not online are effectively being screened out of accessing benefits to which they are legally entitled, and often badly need, because they cannot use the online application methods that are increasingly the default.

“Age UK is fully aware of the intense financial pressures on councils, but this can be no excuse for working in ways that risk depriving older people of their due.”

“What we have found in this research is, we are sure, just the tip of a much bigger iceberg, since we know that in many walks of life online methods are becoming the norm.

“This may be fine for people who are confident computer users but it is wrong to discriminate against those who are not, including the nearly 4 million older people in our society who do not use computers at all.

“The shift to our routine transactions and interactions with public bodies taking place online is becoming so pronounced that the question arises as to whether we need new legal duties to ensure they continue to offer alternative methods of access, whether that’s by telephone, letter or face to face.

“We think this debate is now needed if we’re to protect the interests of the substantial numbers of older people – about 1 in 3 of the entire older population – who do not use computers and who are at huge risk of exclusion as a result.”