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Moving public services online without improving access ‘wouldn’t be right’

Wednesday, December 31st 2014 by Ellen Branagh

Moving government services online is a good idea, as long as the “small core” of people who can’t access the internet are not left out, the chair of the House of Commons science and technology select committee has said.

Andrew Miller said there would always have to be a back-up way of helping the small number of people who cannot access services digitally. The government is pursuing a “digital by default” agenda that will see most services moved online.

They include the system for applying for EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funding for farmers, which will switch to digital-only next year.

Campaigners have previously voiced concerns that the UK’s broadband rollout programme has left some “hard-to-reach” people unable to access digital systems, while others lack the necessary skills to use online systems.

Mr Miller (Lab – Ellesmere Port and Neston) told Cable.co.uk that many people will learn how to use the internet and digital systems if they need to, but some people will still be left out.

He said: “This is not hard stuff. But we shouldn’t leave out that small core of people from equal access to public services.”

Left behind

His comments echo those of applied futurist Tom Cheesewright, who previously said the hardcore of people who refuse to get online are going to be left behind.

Speaking to Cable.co.uk on the issue, Mr Miller said the gaps in those who use the internet will not necessarily be age-based.

He gave his late mother as an example of how people will often learn digital skills if they need to. She learned to use a computer at the age of 88 after her husband died so she could shop online without leaving the house.

“If you have a need, people learn,” he said. “The idea that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is wrong. It’s the willingness of the old dog and that’s often driven by need.

“And if there is a need, people will back down and learn.”

But it is vital to solve the problems of those who cannot access the internet, and those who do not have the necessary skills, he said.

He added: “Digital by default is fine in principle as long as you solve the problems of the can’t-get sector which, as I say, ought to be a soluble problem, and you solve the problem of the can’t-do sector which will be an increasingly small fraction of society.

“But nevertheless you can’t have a public service that isn’t fairly available to every citizen. It wouldn’t be right.

“There will always have to be some back-up mechanism to deal with what will be a shrinking number of people, nevertheless a real number of people.”

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