A new report by the LITRG calls for urgent action to ensure government digital services take greater account of people having difficulty using the Internet or being unable to go online.
The report draws on LITRG’s general observations of working with older people, disabled people and low income and vulnerable persons as well as face-to-face, telephone and online research carried out by the group, TaxAid and Tax Help for Older People between October 2015 and February 2016.
In this report, LITRG considers and uses a range of complementary and supporting evidence to comment on whether government digital services such as GOV.UK, GOV.UK Verify and HMRC’s digital tax accounts and their supporting material meet the needs of people who are:
- willing and able to interact digitally but who face the four recognised barriers to doing so, namely access, skills, motivation and trust.
- unable to transact digitally.
LITRG strongly urges the Government to act on its own research that shows that 10 per cent of the population will never be digitally engaged and more than five million adults have never used the internet. Many older and disabled people are still not online, with two-thirds of women over 75 having never used the internet. LITRG said the onset of mandatory digital reporting in HMRC’s Making Tax Digital project from 2018 adds to the need for urgent action to help the most vulnerable in society – such as older people, disabled people and those on low incomes – to remain tax compliant and not fall foul of the tax authority.
LITRG’s wide-ranging recommendations to both HMRC and wider government include:
- The use of digital services should be voluntary and not mandatory.
- Digital services should be made so easy to use that those who can will naturally migrate.
- For the millions who will never be able to go online, reasonable and necessary adjustments must be made and alternatives that are as good as the digital equivalents must be easily accessible.
- The four main barriers people need to overcome before they will go online (access, skills, motivation and trust) must be addressed in the design and architecture of digital services as well as in the help and guidance that supports people to use them.
- Help and support to enable people to develop the digital skills they need must be readily available across a range of channels and at the point when people need it.
- To instil trust and motivation, HMRC need to improve the way they communicate and share information about the security measures they have in place. This will help reassure people that their information is secure and the quality of any pre-populated data is accurate.
- More must be done to publicise the benefits of going online so that those who can feel motivated to do so.
LITRG cautions against making easy assumptions
While it is tempting to assume that cheaper broadband and increased use of smartphones and tablets mean that everyone can use online services, the stark reality as outlined in LITRG’s report is that there are still millions of people who find it difficult to access the internet or lack the basic literacy, numeracy and digital skills to do so. Those who do not routinely go online struggle to see the benefits it can bring and others do not want to because they do not feel it is safe. As more and more services move online, such as the ability to make new Tax Credit claims online as announced in the Autumn Statement, LITRG urges HMRC and wider government to look at their digital drive very seriously in light of the report and address real-life issues faced by a significant number of people in the UK, often the most vulnerable in society.
Need for improvements to access, and need for help and support
Access to the Internet must be improved so that it is available to all, no matter where people live or what their circumstances are. It remains to be seen whether the Autumn Statement plans to invest £1billion to support the roll out of full-fibre connections and future 5G communications will address this issue. Better signposted and more consistent help and support must be available to enable people to develop the digital skills they need. More must be done to publicise the benefits so that people feel motivated to use digital services. The current inconsistency in the look and feel of digital services hinders people’s understanding of what they should look for and how to differentiate between plausible fake and genuine-looking websites, leaving them susceptible to fraud.
There must also be recognition in Whitehall that digital capability is a moveable feast and even those who are digitally savvy now may, because of changes in life circumstances such as age, bereavement or illness, in the future no longer be able to use digital services.
Need for alternatives
More must be done to provide alternatives for those people and for the 10% who will never be able to go online. Crucially, these alternatives must be as good as the digital equivalents. It is not right that those who cannot go online should receive an inferior service.
LITRG strongly feels that by addressing the barriers and developing services that are better than any alternative, those who can do so will naturally migrate online. To force people through mandation would almost certainly be too much for some to deal with and runs the risk of pushing those unable to comply into the hidden economy.