Excited as I am to be working with Irene and the Get IT together project, it has taken me about eight weeks to pull this single guest post together, and so I think the blogosphere is safe from my musings for now. I might have considered keeping a Vlog, if the word wasn’t so ugly, but as this is to be my contribution to the internet for 2013, please excuse the indulgent length of this post.
My involvement in the digital inclusion project is driven by my day job as a Money Adviser. Employed by the Citizens Advice Bureau, I am specifically tasked with empowering people to‘make the most of their money.’ In my role I spend time with clients of all ages and backgrounds, helping them make decisions about their finances – be that where they can cut their budget, highlighting ways of increasing income, talking about issues around borrowing money, investing or pensions. Through these meetings I have seen just the extent to which those who are not online are missing out. You cannot make the most of your money without getting digital.
Yearly trawls around comparison websites for cheaper insurance, breakdown cover or phone packages are not the most exciting aspects of modern life. But, when I see the higher insurance costs -for instance - shouldered by clients who have been unable to use these online tools, it’s clear those 15 minutes were well spent. This is just one example of where the digitally excluded are losing out financially. Cutting shopping costs, reducing the costs of utility bills, the higher return on internet savings accounts and accessing expert advice at the click of a button from websites like the Money Advice Service or Money Saving Expert are just some of the reasons that I am pushing my clients towards getting online.
Unfortunately, it is not just the increased opportunities to cut household bills that brought us into partnership with Get IT together. In the last three months we have seen an increase in the amount of people receiving sanctions on their Jobseekers Allowance payments. In the most part these have been because clients have failed to undertake actions outlined in their job seeking plan. Tasks such as checking named job search websites, or applying for certain positions on the government’s shiny new Universal Jobsmatch.
Some of these clients have only £57 per week to live on. Once they have paid for food, heating, water and the essential travel expenses incurred when attending interviews, there is not enough left for a phone line and broadband package, even if they already own a computer or smartphone (and most don’t.) Thus they must find a friend or family member to help them get online, or use a computer at the local library. For someone who is not familiar with the internet, this is often too little computer time to get them up to the stage where they can complete the specific tasks outlined in their jobseekers agreement. Sanctions occur; up to three years of benefit can be sanctioned for repeated failures.
Compounding this misery, many people who have been sick for a long time are being found ‘fit to work,’ via the controversial Work Capability Assessment that guards access to sickness benefits. These clients have not been in the labour market for years, and many will never even have used a computer, yet if they don’t get up to speed with how to set up an email account, create a digital CV, master web browsers, search engines, menus and hyperlinks, they shall find themselves in complete hardship before long. All this before we even get to the ‘digital by default’ Universal Credit that asks for all claimants to make online claims by October of this year.
The partnership between CAB and Get IT Together is so important, for some of our vulnerable clients it will make the difference between them being able to eat and heat their homes, or them not being able to do so. We are grateful for the resources, funding and support that Get IT together is providing to enable us to start digitally including our clients, and for Irene’s enthusiasm driving this partnership – without which we would be unable to provide the practical help that our clients need. And, although the motivation for many of our client group to get online will be the big threatening stick of absolute poverty, I hope that I can coax them with some carrots too. Like reading the newspaper for free online, looking up long lost school friends on Facebook, getting that hard-to-find item on eBay and Googling your medical symptoms so you can tell your GP exactly what’s wrong with you. (I know that medical professionals especially like the last one.)