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Universal Credit, broadband internet access and UK public libraries

Universal Credit, broadband internet access and UK public libraries

UN Special Rapporteur to visit UK

In November the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Professor Philip Alston, will visit the UK on a fact finding mission. There has been a call for background information ahead of the visit and CILIP has taken the opportunity to submit responses to specific questions on how austerity has impacted on public services and the role of public libraries in enabling broadband internet access for those applying for Universal Credit.

The Special Rapporteur also asks what are the potential human rights issues faced by individuals living in poverty as a result of the use of new technologies in the UK welfare system.

Main points in our submission:

  • Austerity measures have had an impact on public libraries. Budget cutting has resulted in declining levels of professionally qualified staff, numbers of books and other resources, reduced opening hours and a reduction in the availability of free broadband internet access
  • Usage figures of the public library service shows that these changes are likely to impact most upon vulnerable groups in our society
  • Pressure on public libraries is likely to increase as full migration of UC is expected in 2019
  • New technologies which could be used to good effect in hard pressed times are being used to further restrict supported access to broadband internet
  • There are still significant differences by age and socio economic groups in the numbers of people online at all and in the level of digital skills required to complete the UC application process

Why CILIP is responding

Libraries help to reduce inequality by providing safe, civic spaces open to all located in urban and rural areas and part of this offer is access to computers and the internet. Communities that have access to timely and relevant information and to the internet are better positioned to eradicate poverty and inequality and support people’s health, culture, research, and innovation.  

Current situation

Universal credit is only 11% complete and there are an estimated 8 million potential applications to be brought online.   Full roll out is expected in 2019 and the impact of this on libraries, already access points for Universal jobsmatch, (it is estimated each year the EU helps 250,000 people find jobs through their public library) will increase.

The offer of free broadband internet access is not universal in UK public libraries. Free (and unlimited) internet access is available via Wi-Fi in most public libraries in England but this only allows people who have their own devices to benefit from this service. According to the latest Lloyds digital consumer index, the population 65+ and C2DEs, the groups with the lowest digital capability, continue to have lower levels of device ownership. The application process for Universal Credit, in its current form, is also not suited to a smart phone or tablet.

The UC application process for people who have a good level of digital skills has been estimated to take over an hour. Many public libraries are now limiting their free broadband internet access to just 30 minutes a day. This is down from a norm of 2 hours of free access a day when the People’s network was first introduced in 2000.

An extension of this time can be given at the library’s discretion but only within the resources available. Supported access, often required by claimants of UC, is limited to staff time. The numbers of professional staff in public libraries and other staff able to offer this support has been falling steadily since 2010.

Summary profile of public library users:

  • 15-24 year olds are the most likely demographic group to use a library and are the most frequent users. It is estimated that every fortnight 536,997 individual young people use library services in England, Scotland and Wales. Findings have been mapped against the index of multiple deprivation and reveal that libraries are really important to young people and their families when access to resources for learning, including computers, can be challenging.
  • Public libraries engage with the most diverse audiences in the arts, culture and heritage sector across ethnicity, disability, socio-economic status and income. DCMS Taking Part 2016 diversity statistics show that uniquely in the arts, culture and heritage sector only libraries:
  • Engage proportionately more of the Black and Minority Ethnic adult population than White adults.
  • Show no difference in engagement between those with a long standing illness or disability and those with no disability.
  • Engaged more people on lower than higher incomes, unlike any other part of the sector.

In households with children aged 11-15 and with relatively low personal incomes £5,000 to £19,999 there is a positive association with library use.  For those on lower incomes “libraries are an accessible product and an enabler of access to books, computers, digital media and social space”.

Impact of funding pressures on public libraries

There has been a continual downward trend in local government funding since 2010. The greatest cuts in percentage terms have been to arts development and there are some stark regional differences, but within this sector “public libraries have suffered the most in real terms”. 

  • Funding to Local Government has fallen by 49%, a real-terms drop of 28% in their spending power of local Councils in less than six years.
  • There was a 10.3% reduction in the number of public library service points from 2010-11 to 2016-17
  • Between 2010 and 2017 the number of qualified librarians has reduced by a quarter (8,000 jobs lost).
  • The European benchmark for library service provision is one service point for 13,000 people. In the UK, this has fallen to around 1:20,000 and some Local Authorities are implementing spending cuts which would reduce this to as little as one library per 40- 50,000 people. [Analysis by CILIP of Eblida EU library statistics].

New technologies in the welfare system and the role of public libraries

New technologies can be a means for Councils to benefit from a “digital dividend” and provide a way of squaring increased demand with continuing austerity. In the UK the public library service has the biggest network of trusted, physical and digitally connected spaces of any public service.

But austerity has impacted upon the public library service’s potential to be an active agent in delivering better outcomes for people.

Lower levels of internet use are linked to financial disadvantage and disability (at all ages) and the proportion of older people who do not use the internet is likely to be even higher among those entitled to benefits.

Digital inclusion delivery models and pilots carried out by 16 library services across England, funded by Tinder Foundation [now Good Things Foundation], allowed library services to support 1,600 people. Potential channel shift cost savings for government services of £800k per annum across the 16 library service areas was identified - £7.5m per year if rolled out nationally across all 151 authorities.

“Prosperity for all”, the national strategy for Wales to target poverty, particularly child poverty, regards public libraries as a delivery agent to help with this agenda. There is no comparable national strategy for England.

Austerity is not just associated with a reduction in income for libraries but with the developments that local authorities look to as a way of providing their statutory services. Open+ technology which offers opportunities to increase opening hours through the use of swipe cards has in some instances been used to replace staffed opening hours.

Restrictions on the use of these unstaffed libraries differ between the local authorities who have introduced them, but in some cases under 16’s (and sometimes under 18’s) have to be accompanied by an adult in order to access the library’s resources. These restrictions are more likely to impact upon those less resourced households and the children from these households in particular.

Universal Credit and digital skills

The impact of Universal Credit being a “digital only benefit” relates to access to broadband internet but also to the level of digital skills of potential claimants.

There has been a call for digital literacy to be seen as the fourth pillar in education (alongside STEM subjects) but this is not yet happening in our schools. The level of Basic Digital Skills in the UK amongst the adult population has remained at 79%. But the latest comprehensive annual report on media use and attitudes from Ofcom shows there are still “significant differences” by age and socio-economic group in the numbers of people online at all and the extent to which those online have the critical skills to understand and negotiate the online world.

To conclude

We will follow Professor Alston’s visit with interest. In the meantime if you have any evidence, case studies or experiences of UC applications and public libraries then we would encourage you to post them to:

Deadline Friday 14 September at 18:00 GMT.



Published: 3 September 2018

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