Advice NI is highlighting the urgent need to address the growing issue of digital poverty and digital exclusion. Against the backdrop of increased digitalisation, Northern Ireland is grappling with the highest rate of non-internet users within the UK at 14.2 per cent of residents, which could have profound consequences on access to essential services such as debt support and social security benefits including the ‘Move to Universal Credit’.
The issue was addressed by Advice NI at its Annual General Meeting (AGM) which took place today and emphasised that digital inclusion is not just about having access to the internet, but possessing the skills, motivation, and knowledge to navigate the online world too.
The alarming trend is leading to essential services becoming increasingly out of reach for a significant portion of the population, according to Bob Stronge, CEO at Advice NI.
Speaking at today’s AGM event Bob said, “It’s extremely worrying that Northern Ireland currently has the highest rate of non-internet users within the UK, and this is compounded with a significant portion of the population lacking a reliable internet connection in rural areas.
“Whilst the digitalisation of services promises efficiency and convenience, it’s crucial to evaluate whether these changes are working for everyone and ensure equal access to online services, whether they be debt advice, benefits, or navigating the transition to universal credit. The current cost of living crisis is having a severe impact on those with the lowest incomes who find themselves disproportionately affected having endured a decade of austerity with freezes and cuts to social security benefits and in-work support.”
Recent statistics have also revealed that a staggering one million people across the UK disconnected their broadband in the last year due to financial constraints and notably, individuals on Universal Credit were more than six times as likely to face disconnection.
The ‘Move to Universal Credit’ refers to the UK government’s plan to move legacy benefit claimants on to universal credit. Legacy benefits, available to those of working age and means-tested, will be replaced by universal credit, including tax credits, housing benefit, income support, income-based jobseekers’ allowance, income-related employment, and support allowance. As the move to universal credit progresses Advice NI expresses concern that digital exclusion could see essential services inaccessible to a large proportion of people across Northern Ireland.
Bob adds, “We already know that low-income households are under immense financial pressure and despite the recent drop in inflation to 4.6 per cent ahead of next week’s autumn statement, goods and services are far from affordable and will lead to little to no respite for those that are struggling financially. We’re calling on the government to end this uncertainty and commit to benefit uprating in line with inflation. Failure to provide substantial support may result in a situation where the most economically vulnerable bear the brunt of the crisis, while potential tax cuts for the well-off are being considered.”
Advice NI is urging households and businesses facing financial difficulties to proactively seek support and get in touch with its free, impartial and confidential Debt & Money Service. Advice NI and the Independent Advice Network have 65 members and 300 advisers across Northern Ireland, get in touch by calling 0800 915 4604 or by emailing [email protected]. to speak directly with an adviser between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday or visit https://www.adviceni.net/