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Local authorities must cater for 'digitally excluded'

Local authorities must cater for 'digitally excluded'

Local authorities need to make sure they cater for the needs of those who do not have internet experience, according to a government minister.

A lack of access to the internet, or knowledge of how to use it, was hindering young people doing their homework, preventing the elderly from living independently in their own homes, damaging people's job prospects and stopping council tenants from finding out how to report anti-social behaviour, Wayne David, deputy minister for Digital Inclusion, told delegates at the Socitm 2008 conference in Newport.

Digital exclusion, he said, "doesn't just affect older people, who perhaps never had access to computers during their working life, it affects young people in our most deprived areas too". This was becoming "an increasingly urgent issue" because it had a large impact on government policy on health, education and employment.

The recent creation of ministerial posts related to digital access signalled the government's intention to improve people's use of technology, he said, adding that central government will need to work closely with local authorities to help those who have been excluded.

A digital inclusion action plan will be launched by the government on 24 October at the UKOnline Centres' annual 'Get Online Day', setting out government plans. Socitm members will be invited to contribute to a consultation that will also be launched at the event. The consultation will be available on the Department for Communities and Local Government website from the day of the event.

Winning authorities and finalists in the Digital Challenge Awards 2007 continued to receive support from the Department for Communities and Local Government, and demonstrate good practice on digital inclusion "that can be used by other local authorities across the country", David said.

The national network of more than 6,000 UK online centres that offer access and training is being supported by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, he said. The department is also supporting the UKOnline Centres 'MyGuide' tool, which aims to help people become confident users of online information and services.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families will continue to run the Computers for Pupils scheme, which puts PCs into the homes of the most disadvantaged children, he said. The government was also working to ensure all children have access to the internet at home through the Home Access initiative, and will be making more announcements.

Members of the local government IT management association Socitm gathered in Newport, Wales for the two day conference to hear discussion on digital exclusion.

The comments come the same day as the launch of a survey that found local governments are not doing enough to encourage their citizens to use the Internet for accessing services.

The software company Avocent found that only 8 percent of respondents to the survey had been asked to access council services online, meaning that councils were being hit in the pocket as their citizens were using more expensive ways to access services.

Nine out of ten respondents said they had used government services online, but the survey found a low level of confidence that online queries would get a response. However, 85 percent of respondents said they would use online queries if there was some sort of tracking system in place to log enquiries.

"Survey results indicate Local Government is failing to take advantage of potential savings for taxpayers offered by online self-service," said Ben Grimes, Avocent chief technology officer. "Citizens are enthusiastically accessing information on local Government websites, but are not logging their enquiries and issues online because of lack of confidence that they will receive the same service online as in person or by telephone."

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