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Moving public services online could isolate the elderly

‘Silver surfers’ should become ‘silver sidekicks’ to help older people get online

The government’s plans to digitise public services could prevent 5.4million older people – over half of all people aged 65 or above - from accessing vital services such as their state pension. 

A new report by think tank Policy Exchange supports the greater use of the internet to deliver more personalised, cheaper and speedier public services but says that the government must pay special attention to older people who often prefer face-to-face contact when carrying out activities such as paying bills, grocery shopping or banking.

The report – Simple things, done well – notes that four out of ten people aged 65 or over do not have access to the internet at home.  5.4million have never used the internet with two thirds citing a lack of interest in or need for the internet as their main reason for being offline. Only 5% of those aged 65 or above own a smartphone compared to nearly three quarters of 16-24 year olds.

It recommends setting up a UK wide network of ‘silver sidekicks’ – older, tech savvy people - who would be paid to go into peoples’ homes and community centres to teach them how to use the internet to make digital transactions such as renewing a driving licence or paying a utility bill.

The report estimates that the creation of 1,000 paid roles would be sufficient to reach up to 4.5million people not on the internet over five years. If just one in ten of this group can be persuaded to go online, the net savings for government from cheaper transactions could be worth up to £120million in the same time period.

The research follows a warning from Citizens Advice last week that the introduction of the Universal Credit, which will see claimants access their benefits online, risks affecting the most disadvantaged in society who are either IT illiterate or have no access to the internet.

Sarah Fink, author of the report, “Moving to an era of online public services is hugely exciting and would reap huge savings for the government. However, there are real concerns that people who have never used the internet before or who face barriers to getting online such as a disability could be left behind.

“It’s vital that we set up a network of support for older people to guide them through the benefits of the internet. It’s also important that this network is made up of people who are able to relate to the particular needs of someone who has never used the internet before. That’s why the government should encourage ‘silver surfers’ to become ‘silver sidekicks’.”

Annika Small, CEO of Nominet Trust says: “It’s more important than ever that all groups of people are supported to use the internet and understand its benefits. From alleviating social isolation, bringing together communities, paying bills and now accessing public services, online can improve lives.

“The introduction of a scheme such as ‘silver sidekicks’ would ensure that people over 65 receive a better chance of accessing the internet with confidence.  As such, as part of our mission to find ways of using digital technology to readdress social challenges, we hope we can work with policy makers to respond positively to the recommendations set out in this report.”

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