Essential services websites in UK ‘should be accessible to all’

The design of websites and apps vital for daily tasks, from car parking to booking NHS appointments, should be regulated to prevent digital exclusion among millions of people struggling with life online, campaigners say.

The Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA), a coalition of charities, is calling for greater help for an estimated 11 million UK citizens lacking digital life skills and believes “basic, inclusive design requirements must be enforced for all essential services”.

The DPA is calling for tech companies to sell devices with operating systems that go out of date less frequently, low-cost “social tariffs” from all broadband providers and for digital access to be classed as an “essential utility”.

The call comes as frontline advisers warned growing numbers of people feel “lost in a digital world”. Age UK has estimated that 40% of over-75s don’t use the internet. People faced with choices between heating and eating are first cutting online access, a Citizens Advice Bureau manager said.

New figures also show the number of people only accessing the internet by mobile phone – which is slower, more expensive and less effective at handling complex online transactions – doubled between 2019 and 2021. A study by the Fabian Society and backed by BT found that 5.8m households now rely on mobile coverage, forcing families to ration time spent online.

Lord Knight, a former Labour schools minister who chairs the DPA, said: “We should regard digital access in the same way we regard other utilities. You can’t apply for jobs, you can’t get discounts on your bills, you fall further into debt and end up becoming much more isolated.

“It is reasonable that we should have a standard that public sector websites should meet.”

In response to the widening digital divide, BT will offer 2,500 financially vulnerable households free devices and connectivity through Home-Start UK, a charity.

Symone Smith, 30, from Greater Manchester, who is now on a £15-a-month “Home Essentials” social tariff, was previously forced to ration the internet to 30-minute mobile data slots. Her seven-year-old daughter had to rush to finish her homework “against the data clock”.

“When everything is online and you’re not, life becomes very limited,” she said.

Sally West, policy director at Age UK, said regular problems their clients encounter included online parking payments and applying for council tax and housing benefits.

Joyce Williiams, 86, who blogs about ageing in Glasgow, described using IT as “a constant struggle”. “There are too many passwords,” she told the Guardian. “Plus software updates regularly disrupt what I have learned to use. It is created by nerds for nerds, old people’s issues are not in mind at all.”

Samantha Briggs, who works at the charity Spark Somerset, said: “Some people we work with report feeling embarrassed, ‘old’ or ‘stupid’ because they can’t use the technology they assume everyone else can use. They can be avoidant, and even visibly anxious.”

David, 85, a retired railway worker with neurological problems affecting his hands, said: “If I touch a smartphone screen it just goes mad. It just turns over and over, goes left and right. I don’t have a computer for the simple reason I couldn’t work a mouse.”

Martin Garrod, 64, a retired accountant from Portsmouth, said he cannot access software updates for his computer because the system uses text messages to verify his identity and he doesn’t have a mobile phone.

He said it was as if “you take your car to the garage to get your tyres checked, but the mechanic can’t [help] because you don’t own a vacuum cleaner”.

Chris Philp, a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport minister, told parliament last week that “the government is focused on building a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone”.

“A range of low-cost social tariffs are available to those on universal credit, and a number specifically include individuals on pension credit,” he said, adding that free basic digital skills courses were available.

“Public libraries play an important role in tackling digital exclusion. About 2,900 public libraries in England provide a trusted network of accessible locations with staff, volunteers, free wifi, public PCs, and assisted digital access to a wide range of digital services,” he added.

Kellie Dorrington, operations manager at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Haringey, north London, said advisers were increasingly dealing with unpaid parking tickets for people who “can’t do the online thing”.

“Department for Work and Pensions advisers tell people to use the wifi in Costa or McDonald’s but if they have no money they can’t afford the coffee or happy meal to do that,” she said.