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Stop excluding vulnerable Brits from digital agenda - MPs

'Is digital by default not simply digital exclusion by diktat'

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MPs are pushing for a parliamentary debate on the large number of elderly, disabled and poor Brits who don't have access to the internet.

So far, 44 politicos from all sides of the House - but heavily weighted towards Labour MPs - have signed an Early Day Motion in support of airing their views with the government in the Palace of Westminster.

Whitehall is obsessed with a digital-by-default agenda first championed by soon-to-be House of Lords peer Martha Lane Fox. The Cabinet Office has claimed that billions of pounds of taxpayer money will be saved by shifting public services online.

However, recent government figures revealed that 7 million UK citizens had never used the internet. And unsurprisingly, most of those people are the more vulnerable members of society.

Worse still, the Tory-led Coalition appears ill-equipped to address the matter, preferring instead to say that the government needs to deal with what it considers simply to be a skills gap. Yet very little has been said about the expense of buying computers and paying for a monthly broadband connection in homes across Britain.

In fact, Whitehall appears to be in deep denial about the number of poor, elderly and disabled who could - in the very near future - be excluded from accessing public services if the plan to frog-march the nation towards carrying out government transactions online goes ahead.

The EDM was tabled by Labour's Glasgow North West MP John Robertson. It reads:

That this House notes recent Ofcom figures that show that the UK has the highest internet usage in Europe; further notes recent Office of National Statistics figures showing that nearly 90 per cent of people who have used the internet are aged under 65 and that 53 per cent of people who have never used the internet have a disability; further notes that only 74 per cent of existing jobseeker's allowance claimants have a home broadband connection.

Highlights how many public services rely on using the internet, including universal credit; further highlights how those who are confident in using the internet are able to access better deals on necessities such as energy; expresses concern that those who would benefit most from internet usage appear to be those who have never used it.

Further notes that while 81 per cent of UK households use the internet once a week, disadvantaged groups are the least likely to be within this 81 per cent; further expresses concern that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has made no assessment of the free community internet access points in the UK; and urges the government to initiate a strategy for increasing internet take-up and internet provision amongst vulnerable groups, such as elderly people, those on low incomes and disabled people.

The motion is a popular one so it's likely that a debate will be heard in the House soon.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd was pressed by MPs to justify the government's digital agenda, given the number of people potentially excluded from accessing public services online.

"By introducing new digital services and redesigning old ones, we expect to save the taxpayer and service users around £1.2bn by 2015, and at least £1.7bn a year thereafter," he said.

"Of course, that is not just about saving money," he continued, "it is also about the opportunity to change totally the way the public engage with the government and radically improve that experience."

Hurd added that the Coalition was looking to "digitise" 600 government transactions in the near future. But when asked about the people who remain offline, the minister claimed that no Brits would be "excluded from this process."

He went on to speak about "assisted digital provision" projects, dodging questions about taxpayers without computers and broadband connections who would be unable to access public services once they are pushed online.

Labour MP Chi Onwurah retorted:

The opposition know that ICT can make government more accessible and save money, but the government have abandoned the universal broadband pledge and failed on digital inclusion, so 75 per cent of over-75s and a third of people with disabilities are still not online. In those circumstances, is digital by default not simply digital exclusion by diktat?

The first big test of Whitehall's digital by default agenda will come with the Department for Work and Pensions' introduction of the Universal Credit system this autumn. However, the project has been repeatedly hampered by a perceived IT management crisis that the DWP has strongly denied.

The dole office has also backed away from answering questions put to it by The Register about when work on the £25m identity assurance contracts it awarded to eight suppliers - including eBay's PayPal and credit report outfit Experian - would begin. ®

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