Pensioners who don’t access the internet are at high risk of being excluded from claiming the benefits they are due, research from Age UK has found.
According to the charity, which mystery shopped 100 local councils in England, two-fifths of these (41 per cent) said housing benefit and council tax reduction - two key benefits to which older people may be entitled - can only be claimed online.
According to data from the Office for National Statistics, 3.8 million people aged 65 and over have never used the internet.
The responses from the councils were mixed, but the local government authorities overwhelmingly pushed people towards claiming via the internet, even when it was clear they were not themselves compute users, the charity said.
While councils often told the mystery shoppers that they could provide help, in some cases this was very limited.
One said the caller could come to the office “where they will put her on a computer by herself” – useless to someone who has never used a computer before, Age UK said.
Around one in seven (14) local councils said they would only accept online claims and did not offer a face-to-face service that would enable someone who had never been online to claim.
This leaves older people in need at risk of missing out altogether on financial help which they could really do with and to which they are legally entitled, the charity argued.
Currently, there is an estimated £3.8bn in pensioner benefits including housing benefit goes unclaimed each year, and there are still 1.9m pensioners living below the poverty line, with around a million more just above this threshold who are struggling to make ends meet.
According to Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, it is “totally unacceptable that millions of older people who are not online are effectively being screened out of accessing benefits to which they are legally entitled, and often badly need, because they cannot use the online application methods that are increasingly the default”.
She added: “Age UK is fully aware of the intense financial pressures on councils, but this can be no excuse for working in ways that risk depriving older people of their due.”
Baroness Ros Altmann, former pensions minister, said that the charities research is “a stark reminder that many older people face damaging discrimination”.
She said: “Government must make sure that those who have been left behind by online advances are not marginalised or unfairly penalised just because they grew up in an earlier age.”
Baroness Altmann explained that many elderly people have never learned to handle technology, are often living alone and with a disability, which means they cannot complete online application forms and may never be able to claim.
She argued that many of these individuals live for another 20 or more years, which means “proper and fair arrangements for claiming non-digitally - by post, on the phone or face to face - are urgently needed to allow them to receive their entitlements now and for the future”.