Thousands of elderly people miss out on crucial benefits due to digital barriers, finds Age UK

A pension-age couple working out their finances
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A charity has sounded the alarm that a significant number of older individuals on low incomes are not receiving the financial support they're entitled to due to digital exclusion. Many are missing out on benefits they qualify for because they lack the knowledge to apply online.

According to government data, approximately 310,000 pensioner households eligible for Housing Benefit are not claiming it. For those elderly people who need to apply for housing benefit and/or council tax reduction but who aren't tech-savvy, their success varies greatly depending on where they live.

Age UK's report points out that it is predominantly those with lower incomes who are most at risk of losing out, branding this as "intrinsically unfair". Around 1.9 million elderly people in the UK are living in poverty.

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The report follows complaints by older people and their relatives, over the difficulties faced when trying to access services and benefits without internet access, reports Birmingham Live.

The study involved conducting 220 telephone inquiries to 110 local authorities in England and Wales to assess the options available for people unable to apply for housing benefit and council tax reduction online. The investigation revealed that callers were often only informed about assistance available at council offices or libraries after persistent questioning.

In a concerning revelation, four individuals were unable to reach anyone by phone, and 16 received no offer of independent application methods or any help from the council. There were also cases where council staff provided inconsistent information about offline options, leading to a "massive postcode lottery".

As people get older, digital exclusion rates increase. About 2.3 million over 65s do not use the internet at all, and nearly half (48 per cent) of these individuals are aged 75 or above.

Age UK is calling on councils to ensure there is at least one appropriate offline option for those who cannot use online services and to make their offline contact details more accessible. It also believes that the central government has a vital role in maintaining the availability of offline options both locally and nationally.

Caroline Abrahams CBE, Charity Director at Age UK, commented: "It's quite wrong that if you are an older person who is offline, your ability to apply for financial support you badly need depends so much on where you happen to live it is clearly much easier to do in some places, compared to others."

"Some councils are doing a good job in supporting older people who can't use online systems to apply for help in other ways. However, in a minority of cases, no offline option was on offer at all.

"What would have happened to a 'real' older person who had called and asked to apply for housing benefit or council tax reduction in another way in one of these localities? It seems to us that they would have been unable to do so, unless they had the support of a family member or friend who was au fait with computers, to help them get through the process online.

"Given that, we know more than half (54 per cent) of people aged 65+ have paid council tax or for other council services online and four per cent had not been comfortable doing so, it is unacceptable that there is no guarantee that offline older people will be able to apply for the financial help to which they are entitled, and which could make a valuable difference to their standard of living, without recourse to a computer.

"Older people often tell us they are completely fed up with the drift towards 'digital by default', without enough thought being given to where that leaves the millions who can't or don't want to use the internet, or whose digital skills are too limited to use online systems, some of which are not very user-friendly.

"There's absolutely no problem in giving people the opportunity to access goods and services via the internet, which suits some of us of all ages very well, but this mustn't be at the cost of shutting out those for whom this doesn't work at all".