Sponsored by Experian

No internet, no opportunities: Addressing the challenges of digital exclusion in the UK

Limited access to the internet has meant that thousands of people in the UK are unable to find jobs, access benefits, and save on bills.

A cartoon of a woman browsing her phone with a dog at her feet

Image by Ben the Illustrator

Sponsor from Experian

Limited access to the internet has meant that thousands of people in the UK are unable to find jobs, access benefits, and save on bills. Digital exclusion is a huge issue, especially during a cost of living crisis. According to the latest Ofcom research, 1.6 million UK households, or 6 per cent, lack internet access at home, leaving them at a financial and social disadvantage in an increasingly digital society.

For many, devices, broadband or data are too expensive. And there are barriers online if English isn’t your first language, for disabled people who need assistive technology, or those who aren’t confident using computers or smartphones.

Internet access in homes has increased since Covid pushed life online, but those who remain disconnected report that the disadvantages have become even more acute.

The digital exclusion catch-22

It creates an inescapable catch-22 of financial and social. Offline people on low incomes have fewer opportunities to increase their incomes or get debt support, while those forced to rely on others to navigate online tasks on their behalf lose independence.

And it might not be obvious where or how to get help accessing a utility so many of us take for granted – particularly if you can’t Google it.

Empowering people to navigate the online world

It was a challenge facing 75-year-old Evelyn [not her real name] in Hackney. She lacked confidence going online, had no devices and relied on family and friends to support her during the pandemic. But by late last year she felt reluctant to keep asking for help for simple things like completing digital application forms.

So she began attending digital support sessions held in the community centre of Pembury Estate. When she arrived, she told centre manager Yola: “I want to be able to do these things for myself now. I have been asking people for too long. But I don’t know how to start.”

Quickly becoming a regular at the sessions, Evelyn learned how to use email, search for the information she wants online and grew less intimidated by online forms. She received a tablet through her local council’s digital inclusion programme to ensure she could start using her newfound skills independently.

And during the cost of living crisis, being able to search out and compare costs has, she says, been “invaluable”. She no longer feels in the dark about support schemes and benefits she could be entitled to, and feels more connected to the world around her. It has made a huge difference.

Experts urge those facing similar problems to seek support. “Financial worries make it even tougher to afford internet access for people who were already struggling before the crisis,” explains Helen Milner, group CEO for Good Things Foundation, which works with thousands of homelessness charities and community centres and also provides grassroots groups with devices and free data.

Where to get help

  • If you need help to access or use the internet, call or visit local support services like Citizens Advice, which can let you know about digital inclusion schemes run by your council 

Digital inclusion at The Big Issue

Big Issue vendors are among those more likely to be digitally excluded. That’s why Big Issue Group is working to cut digital inequity. 

Ramping up rapidly as a result of Covid, our cashless programme saw more than 1,000 vendors across the country given card readers and training. Now, in collaboration with Citi Foundation, the Connect scheme aims to help 200 vendors develop essential digital skills by November this year. 

Vendors take part in short coaching sessions – designed for all levels of confidence and literacy – covering topics such as using a smart device securely and managing apps. 

The scheme works alongside the Financial and Digital Toolkit created in collaboration with vendors and frontline teams, which has been funded by Experian. Created by Big Issue frontline support and outreach teams, with support from charities and organisations including Good Things Foundation, the toolkit helps vendors get to grips with what the digital world has to offer, as well as guiding them through things like online banking and budgeting – essential skills for Big Issue vendors who manage their own magazine sales every week.  Vendors have also been able to manage benefits like universal credit better, access money-saving offers only available online and apply for work. But some of the simplest parts of technology make the biggest difference, said Laurie Oliva, director of service development for the Big Issue Foundation. She recalls a vendor with low literacy who struggled to stay in touch with family by text who then learned how to use voice notes. 

“Suddenly, his world opened up,” Oliva said. “Perhaps my favourite story of Connect so far, though, is that to show a vendor how to use apps, one of our team downloaded a music streaming app as an example and set them up with a free account.  

“This led to many other requests from vendors in the area to have the app added, and a perfect chance to deliver some on-the-spot digital skills training while connecting vendors to the joy of unlimited music.”

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

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