Government's social exclusion of internet shirkers

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Not having a computer or access to the internet isn't a crime. It might be a lifestyle choice, or a financial decision. Surely it's up to you whether it ought to be part of your life or whether you'd rather save the cash, avoid the confusion of new technology, and continue to do things in the ways that always seemed perfectly reasonable up until now.

The problem is that if you make this perfectly reasonable choice, the government will cut you off.

Cut off

The Low Incomes Tax Reform Group has published a report showing that the government's gradual move online is cutting off some of the most vulnerable people in society - and estimates there are about eight million people who will suffer the consequences.

Its research found that nearly half of those seeking help on tax and tax credit issues did not have access to a computer. Those who are most likely to face digital exclusion are the elderly. However, those on low incomes, people with a disability or learning difficulties, and those who do not speak English are also at risk of being cut off. Of course these are often the groups who are most in need of state assistance.

Lack of inclination and expertise were the top two reasons for not wanting to carry out personal business online. Doubts over security and affordability were also key concerns.

Those who do not have internet access are already finding harder to get assistance with tax credits and benefits. Those who work for themselves are also struggling with a tax return system designed for online filing, and are more likely to face a fine or a delay of a refund than those who submit their returns online.

Risks of move online

You can understand why the government is moving online: it's going to save them a small fortune. Anthony Thomas, President of the Chartered Institute of Taxation and Chairman-Designate of LITRG, commented:"Doing business online wherever possible makes good economic and administrative sense for both state and citizen. So it is understandable, and welcome, that a central strand of the Government's public services agenda is to encourage people to do their government business online – the 'digital by default' strategy. There are several segments of the population, though, who are either unable to engage digitally or who struggle to do so – the 'digitally excluded'.

"These are the people who are losing out as more and more government services and transactions are only available – or only easily available – to those with computers, who are IT-literate and have a decent internet connection. Older people are particularly affected."

He is calling for more help for these groups to get online, but also for offline options to remain. He argues: "Government digital policies must plan for groups who won't ever be able to cope with digital services. Government should continue with a multi-channel approach, encouraging and supporting people to transact with government online but continuing to offer alternatives. 'Digital by default' should not mean digital is the only option."

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