Unlikely as it sounds, a recent 153 page legal decision about VAT returns could prove to be a turning point in the campaign to get recognition of the needs of many older people when it comes to using online services.
In what’s being hailed as a significant and closely watched decision, a judge has upheld the right of three small business owners not to file their VAT returns on line. Two of those who brought the court case have disabilities. The other lives in a remote part of the country without reliable broadband access.
In her ruling, the judge said it is a breach of the human rights act to require VAT forms to be filed online without exemption for older people, those with disabilities or who live in isolated parts of the country.
For Age UK, the decision is very welcome. Equal access to services not just for older people but everyone, has long been one of our core campaigning goals.
As the Government and local authorities increasingly digitise access to services, it’s more important than ever that the needs of those who are unable to go online are taken into account so that they are not excluded from society.
Age UK recognises, of course, that the internet is an extremely valuable tool and runs online training courses for older people around the country which have enabled tens of thousands to take advantage of being online. The Government will be able to make considerable cost-savings by transferring service from paper to internet. But it is unrealistic to assume that everyone will be able or willing to get online.
According to the latest figures, eight million people in the UK have never been on the internet. Nearly two-thirds of those – five million of them – are aged 65 and over. For many the internet remains out of bounds because of cost, disability, or lack of training. It is unacceptable that these people should be excluded from vital services whether it’s filing taxes, contacting their local authority or even banking because of physical or geographical limitations over which generally they have little control. This is all the more important while the Government steams ahead with its digital by default policy because it is not yet putting sufficient resources into ensuring that appropriate programmes are in place to encourage older people to realise the personal benefits of being online and to access local support to develop the online skills required.
The case is also interesting because of its widening of the use of human rights legislation in cases relating to older people. Hitherto it has been largely used to assert older peoples’ rights to good quality, dignified care in hospitals and care homes.
Hopefully, this marks the beginning of a wider recognition that the Human Rights act has an important role to play in ensuring that older people are not locked out of the day to day running of our society because of technological developments which they can not access.