One in seven in NI 'have no internet access and could miss out on benefits'
ONE in seven residents in Northern Ireland are in so-called digital poverty as they don't have access to the internet nor possess the skills, motivation and knowledge to navigate the online world.
And that could have profound consequences on them getting access to essential services such as debt support and social security benefits, including the ‘Move to Universal Credit’.
Advice NI is highlighting the urgent need to address the growing issue digital exclusion in the north, which is grappling with the highest rate of non-internet users in the UK at 14.2 per cent.
Its chief executive Bob Stronge, addressing the organisation's annual general meeting, said: "That figure is extremely worrying, compounded with a significant portion of the local 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 one million people across the UK disconnected their broadband in the last year due to financial constraints, with individuals on Universal Credit 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 has voiced concern that digital exclusion could see essential services inaccessible to a large proportion of people across Northern Ireland.
Mr Stronge added: “We already know that low-income households are under immense financial pressure, and despite the recent drop in inflation to 4.6 per cent, 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 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 (www.adviceni.net), which has 65 members and 300 advisers in Northern Ireland, 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.