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UK Government to Make More Services Online Only and Ignore Internet Notspots

Posted: 24th Nov, 2010 By: MarkJ
uk mapThe UK governments Cabinet Office Minister (Francis Maude) has revealed plans to make the majority of applications for public services online-only by 2013. The move aims to save £112.5m but appears to ignore the fact that roughly one third of the country still has no broadband ISP / internet access, not even dialup, at home.

According to the governments own Office for National Statistics (ONS), 19.2 Million Households (73%) now have internet access (here) and 30.1 Million adults use it to go online every day. However 9.2 Million adults (7 Million Households) have never used the internet.

Similarly, the government's plan to make a minimum broadband download speed of 2Mbps available to everybody (Universal Service Commitment) will not be completed until 2015. This does not itself guarantee that everybody will actually get access. The Race Online 2012 initiative is doing a good job but we doubt it can get EVERYBODY online by 2012, unless it goes physically door to door and gives everybody a free computer, education and internet access. That won't happen.

However forcing more services into an "online-only" mode seems to be dangerously premature when such a significant portion of people either cannot afford, cannot obtain, lack the necessary knowledge or simply do not want to go online in the first place.

Francis Maude said yesterday:

"There have been concerns raised that this shift to 'digital by default' will disenfranchise citizens from services. I cannot state emphatically enough that this is not the case. This does not mean that if you can't access the internet, you can't access the services. We will leave no one behind."

Farmers and other businesses have already been forced by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to fill out their monthly or quarterly VAT returns on-line (here). The situation is causing no end of trouble since many such locations reside in isolated rural villages with no or poor broadband ISP provision.

According to ZDNet UK the HMRC now wants to put even more tax functions into the 'online only' mould, such as registering for self-assessment and corporation tax. Employers will also have to put Pay As You Earn (PAYE) scheme numbers online.

Elsewhere even Companies House plans to introduce digital-only filing, including incorporation, accounts and annual returns. However this is subject to an Impact Assessment and requires secondary legislation, which might hopefully identify some of the incredibly obvious problems.

It doesn't stop there though. Applications for jobseekers' benefits will also be going online by 2013, which is fine just so long as people can still do it offline too (phone services should still be available for some applications). Somebody without a job might not be able to afford internet access.

The new Universal Credit (Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Income Support, income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, and Employment and Support Allowance) system will also become largely online-only.

Overall a whole heap of new departments and public services, most of which we haven't mentioned, will soon be going the digital rout and many may not have an offline solution (paper form, phone). It's certain to save money, after all, people won't be able to claim for the cash in the first place if they don't have internet access and that often affects the most vulnerable groups.

It should be said that the government does plan to setup new UK Online Centres, such as alongside various Post Office branches, to help people get online. However this style of forced internet access is unlikely to solve the problem for everybody.
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