New data published by the HuffPost UK has revealed the shocking impact that austerity cuts have had on access to computers in public places at a time when the UK government is increasingly moving towards digital-only application models.
Based on information from the House of Common Library and information parliamentary questions, 3,761 computers have been axed from libraries since 2010, with 352 from job centres this year alone. Furthermore, in the last year, 680 computers with internet access were cut from English libraries.
These figures, coupled with the government’s shift towards an online by default model, highlighted by its recent rollout of Universal Credit welfare digital reforms, has raised concerns over the issue of digital exclusion.
Shadow secretary for digital, culture, media and sport, Tom Watson, said: “Public library and job centre closures are causing a crisis of cuts to public computers. This is a digital exclusion double-whammy.
“Two in ten people out of work don’t have access to the internet, and under this Tory government, there are fewer and fewer places for them to turn.
“For people who need to fill in Universal Credit or job applications, access to a computer is essential. Computer cuts are yet another example of the vicious cycle of Tory austerity.”
Commissioned by Labour’s shadow culture team, the research shows that England has suffered the brunt of the losses. In Scotland the number of computers in libraries fell by 6% from 2010-11 to 2017-18, while in Wales it rose by 11%, however, England suffered a drop of 11%.
Data obtained from a written answer by Alok Sharma, secretary of state for work and pensions, revealed that jobcentres had 6,761 computers from 2014 to 2018, but that this number reduced to 6,409 this year.
For those with no access to a home computer or smartphone, this can have a significant impact, leaving them unable to access services or apply for jobs.
Tim Leech, chief executive of the charity WaveLength, which works to alleviate loneliness and poverty through technology, said: “I’ve got people who are walking 10 miles to go and use a computer in a library so they can get their housing and benefits, or get out of a domestic violence refuge. To not have that service available there is just abysmal as far as I’m concerned.”
Leech said that by cutting access to public computers, while simultaneously forcing applications for services online was, in this context, was commensurate to digital exclusion by taking away their point of access.
According to the HuffPost UK, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) plans to move applications for disability benefits to a digital-only system in the near future.
A Freedom of Information request by the publication revealed 462,000 people required help from friends, family, the job centre or a charity to apply for Universal Credit online.
This figure only represents those struggling with online applications, and not those who are prevented entirely due to a lack of access to a computer. A recent study by Lloyds Bank revealed the potential scale of the problem if the government continues to scale back computer access.
Shockingly, the study found that 8% of the UK adult population have zero basic digital skills, meaning 4.3 million adults could be left excluded. Moreover, it found that people with a registered disability are four times more likely to be offline.
The DWP claims that the number of digital users would only increase as the Universal Credit scheme continued to roll out. A DWP spokesman told the HuffPost UK: “All our job centres have free wi-fi, and we’ve got more than 7,000 computers available across the UK which people can use to make their claim or apply for jobs.
“While 98% of Universal Credit claimants make their claim online there is support for people who need extra help. Staff are on-hand to help people to claim and we can give support over the phone or through a home visit where needed.”