People who can’t or don’t want to go online should not miss out, says AM

People who can’t, or don’t feel comfortable with accessing the internet should not miss out on essential advice and services, says Rhun ap Iorwerth AM.

Rhun used an individual member’s debate in the Senedd this week to highlight that more and more services are only available online and that this can lead to digital exclusion, and people losing out on deals when it comes to shopping or choosing utility suppliers.

Speaking in the Senedd yesterday, Rhun ap Iorwerth said:

“This isn’t some old-fashioned opinion; we’re not rejecting new technology. I’m more than comfortable, myself, using online services, and like so many people, technology of this kind has certainly made my life easier in very many ways.

“But as more and more services do go online—banking services, postal services, bus pass renewal systems, even the courts—more and more people are at risk of being excluded. And I do see from casework in my own office that this can cause real anxiety for some people, particularly older people.”

He referred to the recent example by Welsh Government of people having to apply to renew their bus passes online. An unwise decision, says Rhun, especially given the target audience for this.

“It became clear very early on by speaking to constituents, that people were deeply concerned about having to do this online, and many didn’t know where to start. And we heard stories about people losing sleep as they were so concerned about how they were going to renew their bus pass because they were so reliant on buses.

“My office therefore offered to help people to make their online application, and since September, my office has dealt with over 300 bus pass renewal applications through the Transport for Wales website. Three hundred people who either didn’t feel comfortable in making the application themselves or didn’t have access to the internet in order to do that had they not come to my office.”

He also referred to banking services and to the many examples across Wales of bank branches closing, forcing people to do their banking online:

“You will hear the bank saying, ‘Well, don’t worry, people can use the branch in the next town’, but then they’ll close that one too. And in addition to that, you have the situation that we saw with Barclays saying, ‘Well, our customers can’t withdraw funds from the post office either.’ I was very pleased that we had managed to put pressure on them to scrap that particular idea. But it does demonstrate the lack of commitment among the major banks to think about their customers, particularly older customers, and specifically in rural areas.

“That’s why I’m calling on Government to speak with banks, businesses, services and other organisations to make sure that customers are not isolated if only online services are offered.”

Responding on behalf of the Government, Deputy Minister for Health and Social Service Julie Morgan:

“Although we recognise that not everyone is comfortable with the internet, we want to support people to make informed choices about how they participate safely in a world that is increasingly digital. So, we do want to encourage people to use the internet, because we know that the advantages are there, but we must provide for those people who don’t want to use the internet or are not able to use the internet. So, we are taking efforts to encourage the use of the internet: Digital Communities Wales’s digital heroes initiative has trained over 5,000 young volunteers to help older people in hospitals and care homes get online, and another innovative project is the Vale tablet loan scheme, which is allowing residents across the Vale of Glamorgan to borrow internet-enabled but secure iPads from local libraries almost as easily as they would a book.

“I think the key principle of all this is that we should design public services around the needs of the end user, and typically this will mean a service that works digitally but also meets the needs of end users who are digitally excluded, and that is what the Welsh Government wants to do.”

Closing the debate, Rhun ap Iorwerth said:

“Technology is racing forward. A huge amount of good comes from changing and developing technology, obviously, but there do come some risks too. One of those risks is that people are, from time to time, left behind. We can’t let that happen. So, as I say, I trust our message has been heard here today and we’ll keep a close eye on firmer Government action on this in months and years to come.”