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Pensioners on benefits without the internet face 'postcode lottery’

Pensioners on benefits without the internet face 'postcode lottery’
Matt Browning
Written By:
Matt Browning

Older people without internet access are likely to be missing out on their benefits, a study finds.

The services on offer to those who claim Housing Benefit or Council Tax Reduction were significantly hampered if they did not use a computer, Age UK’s mystery shopper research found.

‘Claimants’ who needed to call the council’s helpline to make a claim were mostly offered the option to progress the claim on the phone or with a paper application.

But, in some cases, callers had to prompt the operator to hear of those choices, while others were told they could get help from the council offices or library.

Occasionally, this would only happen after the caller made that request.

Further, of the 220 calls, there were 16 where no alternative solutions were offered to those people who said they could not use online systems but wanted to apply for the benefits.

‘Intrinsically unfair’ for older benefit claimants

As well as that, four callers were unable to speak to anyone at all, and there were also instances where staff from the same council offered differing advice to separate callers.

The charity described the random nature of help people receive as “intrinsically unfair”.

It is an issue that could impact millions too, as almost a fifth (18%) of people aged over 65 do not use the internet at all.

That proportion rises to nearly half (48%) for people over the age of 75, Age UK research found.

The situation as it is already affecting hundreds of thousands of pensioners who are eligible for the support. Around a fifth of pensioner households (310,000) are missing out on Housing Benefit, according to Government records.

Meanwhile, 38% of pensioners who could claim Council Tax Reduction are estimated to be without it, according to a separate Policy in Practice study.

With a general election around the corner on 4 July, Age UK wants the Government to address the accessibility for pensioners who are finding themselves ‘digitally excluded’.

The charity has called for:

  • Issue binding national guidance to all councils and other public bodies setting out minimum standards that they must meet, in terms of ensuring there is good offline access to their services.
  • Provide local councils with enough funding to offer offline options.
  • Lead on the development of a long-term, fully funded national Digital Inclusion Strategy, to support people of all ages who want to go online to do so.


‘Older people completely fed up’ of digital preferences

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK said: “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, and it is also important to recognise that, in most cases, our mystery shoppers found that the council call handlers were friendly and helpful.

“However, the responses given by different councils were wildly different and, worryingly, in a minority of cases, no offline option was on offer at all.”

Abrahams added: “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 in any event.

“There’s absolutely no problem in giving people the opportunity to access goods and services via the internet – that 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.”

How to claim for Housing Benefit

You can apply for Housing Benefit as part of your Pension Credit application.

Pension Service phone numbers: 

  • Telephone: 0800 99 123
  • Textphone: 0800 169 0133
  • Relay UK (if you cannot hear or speak on the phone): 18001 then 0800 99 1234
    Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm

How to claim for Council Tax Reduction

You can use the online checker tool to see if you are eligible on the Government website. Alternatively, you can call your local council to discuss whether you are eligible.