Charity says emphasis on claiming through websites is depriving many of the financial support to which they are legally entitled
Charity Age UK has warned that many older people are being hindered or even blocked in efforts to obtain benefits because claims to some local authorities can only be made online.
It has highlighted the issue in a report, Everything is online nowadays, which includes the results of a mystery shopping exercise in which its researchers phoned 100 councils to ask what options people have if they want to claim help with their rent and council tax but are not online.
Two-fifths (41%) said housing benefit and council tax reduction – two key benefits to which older people may be entitled - can only be claimed online or by downloading a form from their website. One in seven councils said they would only accept online claims and did not offer a face-to-face service that would enable someone who had never been online to claim.
This is despite there being nearly 4 million older people in this country without access to the internet.
While councils often told the mystery shoppers that they could provide help, in some cases this was very limited. One said the caller could come to the office “where they will put her on a computer by herself”. Age UK pointed out this is useless to someone who has never used a computer before.
The charity said this leaves older people at risk of missing out altogether on financial help to which they are legally entitled and may badly need. Some may have a computer literate friend or relative who can help, but not everybody is happy to share the personal information required. Also, a significant proportion of older people live alone.
The researchers also found that even speaking to someone at the council to find out about claiming housing benefit and council tax reduction could involve a long wait, a series of complex push-button menus and, on a few occasions, being cut off for no reason and having to call again. While some staff were very helpful, others were less forthcoming and heavily encouraged online claims, only mentioning other options when prompted.
The report calls for all public bodies to provide offline options such as paper forms and telephone claims to be available for those who need them.
It also says that councils should provide websites and online systems that are easy to use, including by those with limited digital skills, and provide digital training or make appropriate referrals for those who want to learn to use the internet
In addition, the Government should ensure that local councils have sufficient funding to meet their statutory requirements, including the proper administration of benefits.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “It is totally unacceptable that millions of older people who are not online are effectively being screened out of accessing benefits to which they are legally entitled, and often badly need, because they cannot use the online application methods that are increasingly the default.
She added: “The shift to our routine transactions and interactions with public bodies taking place online is becoming so pronounced that the question arises as to whether we need new legal duties to ensure they continue to offer alternative methods of access, whether that’s by telephone, letter or face to face.
“We think this debate is now needed if we’re to protect the interests of the substantial numbers of older people – about one in three of the entire older population – who do not use computers and who are at huge risk of exclusion as a result.”
Age UK also pointed out that an estimated £3.8 billion in pensioner benefits, including housing benefit, goes unclaimed each year and there are still 1.9 million pensioners living below the poverty line, with around a million more just above the threshold.
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