The way older people have to claim for essential benefits could mean more than 30% are missing out each year. So, is having to claim welfare benefits online actually screening out the elderly?
AGE UK REPORT: A leading charity says millions of older people might be losing out on vital benefits. They claim the reason could be having to apply online.
The charity 'Age UK' expressed most concern about the elderly in an age of having to claim online. But, they also identified other vulnerable victims in the transition to digital applications.
The so-called flaw exists in the way councils offer some key benefits - especially for the elderly. The most vulnerable, an estimated four million, could be missing out on entitlements.
This means four million older people may get 'screened out' of benefits each year. They either have no access to the internet or they struggle to use a computer.
In fact, recent figures released by the government found that one in ten people are not online. Around one in five of all disabled adults said they had never used the internet.
A string of complaints encouraged Age UK to carry out a mystery shopping exercise. Their report targeted one hundred local councils, chosen at random, in England. They wanted to check what happens for people who are unable to access welfare services when they are only available in a digital format.
The mystery shopping exercise had one main objective. The question was; what options do I have to claim help with my rent and council tax because I am not online?
Age UK published the results in their report titled 'Everything is Online Nowadays'. The outcome showed that many of councils pushed people into making a claim online. Very little changed even after callers explained that they were not computer users.
In response, some of the councils said they could offer help to the mystery shoppers. But, the help they provided was very limited - to say the least.
In one instance, they told the caller they could put them on a computer 'unassisted' if they made a visit to the office. In reality, that would be a huge barrier for an elderly person if they have never used a computer before.
Some local councils said their policy was to only accept online claims for certain types of welfare and benefits. In fact, 14% said they did not offer a face-to-face support service for people who had never been online to claim.
So, how is having to claim for benefits online affecting older people - and others in need? The report suggests around four million vulnerable people are at risk of missing out altogether.
The findings also reveal that trying to speak with someone at the council is a challenge for many. Waiting to get information on claiming Council Tax Reduction or Housing Benefit can involve a long wait on the telephone.
Note: Facts show that around 19% of pensioners with an entitlement to Housing Benefit are not actually receiving it.
The mystery shoppers found a series of complex push button menus that could be a barrier for the elderly. It was not uncommon to get cut off - without a valid reason - making it necessary to call them back again.
The general attitudes of the council staff varied a lot once verbal contact got established. Many were very helpful straight away by clarifying the different ways to claim for benefits.
But, others were less loquacious and forthcoming. They placed a huge weight on having to make online claims. In fact, around 41% of councils gave out this wrong advice. Whereas, other options were only mentioned after some prompting by the mystery caller.
Statistics reveal that 1.9 million pensioners are living below the poverty line in the United Kingdom. Figures also show that close to £4 billion in pensioner benefits goes unclaimed each year (including Housing Benefit).
It gets worse, as even more vulnerable people are struggling to make ends meet. Around one million others are living close to the poverty line threshold.
Official figures uncover that 3.8 million people who are 65 or older have never used the internet. This is why the charity is calling for all public bodies to make their services accessible to all. They want offline options available to those who need it the most (e.g. paper forms and telephone claims).
Councils should make their services accessible online and offline - said the charity Age UK. They should also make digital access easy to navigate - especially for people with limited internet skills.
The charity also went on to say: "It is not unacceptable that millions of older people are getting 'screened out' of accessing benefits. The online application methods are becoming the default format in the United Kingdom. But, not being online is screening them from their legal rights to benefits and entitlements.
There is a general acceptance that local councils are under intense financial pressure. Even so, they need to find ways for older people to claim benefits that do not risk depriving them of their rightful due.
There is a national shift for routine transactions and interactions with public bodies to take place online. But, do we need new legal duties to force them into offering alternative methods of access? Or, are the days of face to face meetings and telephone support long gone?
Either way, we need to find a way of protecting the interests of the elderly and the most vulnerable. Facts show up to one in three of the older generation are at risk of exclusion because they do not use a computer.
Age UK has helped hundreds of elderly people to claim Pension Credit across the Lincolnshire area. They are now better off by almost £6m worth of benefits in the 2017/18 financial year.
Almost 40% of pensioners in Great Britain that have entitlement to Pension Credit fail to claim it. But, pensioners expressed their thanks to Age UK Lindsey. The department supported almost 2,000 older folks to claim pension age benefits in the local area.
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Is Having to Claim for Benefits Online Screening Out Older People in the United Kingdom?