Cuts Watch #317: Internet-only services
This week Francis Maude is due to announce plans to make the internet the only channel to access government services, with Post Offices helping people without internet access. Campaigners have raised concerns about the position of elderly people, especially those in rural areas. The implications for other public services could be very significant.
Age UK has pointed out that there are 6 million older people with no internet access, many of whom depend on public services. According to the Commission for Rural Communities, while “almost 60% of urban areas are able to receive a cable-based broadband service – in villages and hamlets this drops to 1.5%.” High-speed broadband will be essential for people who need to download forms and make secure payments.
Student loans are likely to be the first internet-only services, with benefit applications following soon after. The government’s plans for Securing The Post Office Network In The Digital Age have already outlined a number of “opportunities” for Post Offices, including verifying people’s identities when they apply for benefits and other services, carrying out assisted applications, allowing people to make and receive payments.
There are a number of possible problems ahead. If most people are able to make payments from their homes, the ‘footfall’ in Post Offices could be reduced, with knock-on effects on sales of groceries and other goods. The viability of the nation’s 12,000 Post Offices could be as seriously threatened by this as by the last government’s closure programme. If local Post Offices close, vulnerable people will find it harder to get to services as they are less likely to have their own transport – and cuts to bus subsidies will probably make it harder to get to a Post Office. On top of all this, there could be reductions in jobs administering the services that become internet-only (such as in Jobcentre Plus).
Now, I have to admit that I don’t know for certain that the outcome will be fewer Post Offices and serious problems for poor and isolated individuals. It’s also possible that Post Offices will make sure no-one is left behind and that helping the most excluded to access services will give them a new lease of life. What worries me is the nagging fear that the government doesn’t know either.