The digital divide: many older people struggling to access public services 

Most local authorities now strongly encourage people to access services digitally and in some cases do not offer offline alternatives at all, or not in a way that makes them easy to find and access.

A new report from Age UK has set out the difficulties older people face when trying to apply for a Blue Badge and other local public services if they are not ‘computer savvy’ and warns that local councils need to do more to improve access to and provision of public services for those not online.

Applying for a Blue Badge and other council services if people are not online overwhelming found that most local authorities now strongly encourage people to access services digitally and in some cases do not offer offline alternatives at all, or not in a way that makes them easy to find and access.

Following concerns raised by some of its local partners, Age UK carried out a survey of local Age UK organisations in England and local Age Cymru organisations in Wales to find out about the processes for applying for a Blue Badge and for seeking other local authority support in their areas. 

The Charity received feedback from 61 organisations – around half of all local Age UK organisations in England and Wales and found that:

• In most areas there is now strong encouragement to access council services digitally.

• While most councils have alternative ways of applying for the Blue Badge, these are often not promoted. Only 13 organisations said it was easy for people who are offline to find out about and apply for a Blue Badge in their area.

• Many councils signpost people who are not online to seek help with Blue Badges from voluntary organisations such as Age UK, without any suggested recompense, which places additional strain on local voluntary services that are already hard-pressed. 

• Around two-thirds of organisations responding reported that older people are also having difficulties accessing other council services if they cannot do so online. Housing related services were mentioned most frequently although some said all council services were hard to access offline.

The scale of the digital divide

Around one in five (22%) of people aged 65 plus – equivalent to 2.7 million of this age group – do not use the internet, while others only use the internet in limited ways. Among those who are online, some may carry out tasks such as emailing, making video calls, or searching for information on the net, yet this does not mean they have the confidence and skills to safely apply for support online which might involve inputting personal information and uploading photos or other evidence.

Although many older people fully embrace the digital world, digital exclusion increases with age and disability and these are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010.  In an increasing digital world, Age UK urges Councils to consider their equality considerations in the design of policies and the delivery of services. The Charity warns if councils are not providing suitable non-digital alternative ways to apply for services it can be argued that they are not fulfilling their duties under the 2010 Equality Act, potentially opening them up to legal challenge.

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: “The digitisation of local services is accelerating but it’s important for councils to remember that not everyone is online. In fact, millions of older people are not computer users at all and are at serious risk of being excluded from services and support to which they are just as entitled as everyone else, unless really good offline alternatives are made available and properly publicised to them.

“We did hear of some examples of good practice in this survey but, overall, most of the 61 local organisations that responded reported that older people are facing serious difficulties applying for a Blue Badge and some other forms of support from their local authority, unless they are quite computer savvy or have a friend of family member to help. We are also conscious that a survey of this kind will only ever tell us about those older people who seek help from Age UK – there are likely to be many more who have found the process too difficult and have given up entirely.

Financial pressures

“We know that local authorities are under great financial pressure and that going digital saves money, but they need to make sure that their services continue to be fully accessible to all, whether they are online or not. This is all the more the case with those services which are especially likely to be of use to older people, of which Blue Badges are an obvious example since the prevalence of disability increases with age.

“We hope that our findings will encourage councils across England and Wales to review their systems and work with local organisations to ensure they are open to all, because at present in some places older people who don’t use computers are undoubtedly losing out.”

“We are also pleased to say that when we shared our findings with the Local Government Association they agreed to work with us to raise awareness of the findings among their members and help share good practice.”

While there will always be a need for suitable alternatives to online access, some older people may be interested in gaining digital skills with appropriate support.  Locally and nationally Age UK works to increase digital engagement and around two-thirds of the local Age UKs who responded to its survey said their organisation provided digital inclusion services to help older people gain digital skills.

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