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From online deals to job searches: How digital exclusion makes the cost of living even higher

Costs are high for everyone right now. But if you're not online, you're likely missing out on cheaper offers, jobs or access to financial support. Campaigners want the government to ensure everyone has access to low cost internet

Kalpana Somasundraram at a Skills Enterprise training scheme. Image: Skills Enterprise

As the cost of living rises and budgets tighten, many of us are searching online to find better deals, new jobs or help and support. It’s almost second nature. But digital exclusion means millions of people in the UK aren’t able to do that, and they’re being hit harder.

Some 14 million people in the UK still have the lowest digital capability, meaning they struggle to interact with online services. But digital inclusion is not simply about skills; a lack of affordability and accessibility is exacerbating exclusion and making it even harder for people to make ends meet. 

Currently, two million households are struggling to afford their internet bills. Despite this, providers are failing to help their customers. Citizens Advice found only three providers offer an affordable tariff, meaning the internet currently acts as a gated community, as opposed to an essential service available to all.

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“Financial worries make it even tougher to afford internet access for people who were already struggling before the crisis,” says Helen Milner, CEO of Good Things Foundation, a UK charity that aims to make digital technology more accessible.

“Devices and the internet can be expensive if you’re counting every pound, and rising costs only make it more difficult for people. The cost of living crisis is driving people who were not previously affected into digital exclusion; many people are having to choose between things like the internet and heating or food.”

This isn’t a matter of want, but need. Access to the internet can mean the difference between making ends meet, or losing out. Research by YouGov and Development Economics found that missing out on deals online can cost families £286 per month, pushing them further into hardship at a time when inflation is at a 40 year high. 

“We are seeing people who are digitally excluded miss out on vital deals on price comparison sites, resulting in them spending significantly more money on things like food and household items,” says Malathy Muthu, CEO of Skills Enterprise. “The healthy start scheme is another great initiative that many families depend on, but since its application process has shifted online, digitally excluded families can’t access these vouchers to buy essential healthy food items.”

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Skills Enterprise is an organisation offering support with digital skills and welfare access to people in east London. Since the cost of living crisis began, it has noticed a sharp increase in the number of people coming to the centre for support. 

“During Covid, we saw a great increase in the number of users coming to ask for help with digital skills, because everything was shifting online,” says Muthu. “People were struggling without digital support, some had a lack of digital skills and some couldn’t afford digital devices. Now with the cost of living crisis, we are seeing people unable to access the grants available to them, whether that’s for bills, rent, universal credit or other types of support.”

Research by Age UK published earlier this year found nearly a third of London councils do not offer a way to apply for housing benefit or council tax rebates that doesn’t require internet access. This is a trend unfolding across the country. 

“Without access to technology and the internet, people may have difficulty finding and applying for jobs, accessing government services, and staying connected with friends and family. This can lead to a further disadvantage in terms of education and job opportunities, perpetuating a cycle of poverty,” says Elizabeth Anderson, COO of the Digital Poverty Alliance.

Last year Big Issue-commissioned polling by YouGov found more than 90 per cent of the public believed digital inclusion is crucial for people looking for work.

Research in December by Currys and the Digital Poverty Alliance found one in three adults are cutting back their spending on digital access in order to save money, with 27 per cent switching to a cheaper broadband or phone plan and 19 per cent downgrading their phone or laptop to save cash. Amongst those who have reduced their spending on tech, more than half worry they could miss out on essential services like accessing doctors appointments, and over a third are worried they’ll find it harder to find work. 

Digital exclusion impacts marginalised communities in different ways, with those who are already excluded by society bearing the brunt. James Tweed, founder of Coracle, a digital learning company that provides inmates with access to education on laptops in their cells, believes that digital inclusion remains far behind on the agenda.

“Our world is becoming digital on every front, yet digital inclusion continues to be understood as a niche issue, despite the benefits it has for society as a whole,” says Tweed. “Being able to access the internet means being able to find work, boost life chances and fight poverty. Low cost internet and fair access is a vital right for all.”

In 2019, former leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn proposed broadband ought to be made free for all UK homes and businesses, but his idea was scoffed at, with then-prime minister Boris Johnson calling the policy a “crazed communist scheme.” 

In the last year, however, the government has rolled out a gigabit broadband voucher scheme for people in rural areas, as well as a cheap broadband initiative for benefit claimants through the Department for Work and Pensions. 

For single mum Ivy Osei Gyeke whose two-year-old son is autistic, digital training was the key to being able to find and apply for a house that was safe for them to live in. With more landlords giving tenants the bleak choice between rent increases or eviction notices, digital support organisations like Skills Enterprise are helping people to find new homes. Not only this, but Gyeke has been able to do extra qualifications, and can now complete course modules using a laptop whilst looking after her children.

Another who has benefited is Kalpana Somasundraram. English is not her first language, so she initially struggled to find work and make ends meet after arriving in the UK. The digital classes at Skills Enterprise have taught her how to apply for jobs online and create a CV, and she has recently landed a job interview as a result.

Not only do digital skills empower people in practical ways, but they also improve our mental wellbeing.

Nicholas Humphries, 61, attends upskilling sessions with Starting Point, a community partnership in Stockport that offers free digital skills training to those in need. Since October, he’s been learning computer skills, which have helped him find new hobbies online.

“I’ve not been working for a year, but since attending the sessions I’ve learnt how to use YouTube, which has stopped me from getting bored, as I love motorbikes and football,” he says. “Having a device and knowing how to use it has made a huge difference to my mental wellbeing.”

Organisations working to end digital poverty and digital exclusion on the ground level are now calling for the government to step up.

“Signposting eligible claimants to social tariff options, investing in community support for digital skills and scaling up the availability of free digital devices are all part of the solution,” says Anderson of the Digital Poverty Alliance.

“More needs to be done to coordinate the range of support that is available to tackle digital exclusion, and this is why the DPA is working towards the development of a national delivery plan for release in summer 2023, which will set out a roadmap to end digital poverty by 2030.”

The Good Things Foundation is also campaigning for the government to #FixTheDigitalDivide by scrapping VAT on broadband social tariffs and invest in bridging the digital skills gap, saying that each £1 invested produces a £9.48 return.

Only through collaborative efforts at every level can we hope to eliminate this new and growing form of social inequality.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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