by Kyle Scott, CAS Strong Communities team.
This article was first published in the Herald on 30 December 2023.
I wonder how often you’ve used the internet today. You may be reading this column online now. Maybe some or all of your Christmas presents were bought online. Perhaps you work from home and are all too familiar with Zoom and Teams, or maybe you learn through the Open University, or use the internet to access aspects of the welfare state, like say Universal Credit.
Perhaps you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to find a new career and log onto job websites.
Maybe you’re in need of advice about something and will be checking the Citizens Advice online advice pages. Or maybe you’ve sent some pictures of your Christmas to family and friends on the other side of the world.
My point is that, as we get ready to enter 2024, online access is an essential utility. Most of us regard It as fundamental to how we live, learn and work.
Yet despite this, digital exclusion remains a real problem in Scotland and across the UK. Some people lack the skills and literacy to navigate the equipment, others simply can’t afford it.
We are living through the worst cost of living crisis in memory. When people need to pay for the essentials that often means their rent, their food and their heating. In that aspect, online access is something many may be going without.
And yet, there is a solution out there. Over the past few years we have seen a welcome growth in the amount of telecoms providers offering a social tariff.
A social tariff is a cheaper deal available to people receiving social security payments like Universal Credit. CAS has been campaigning for some time on more of them in the market and we now have 26 providers throughout the UK offering a social tariff, with at least 11 available in Scotland.
Despite this welcome increase, take up is dismally low. The telecoms regulator Ofcom estimates that 8.3 per cent of people eligible for these deals take them up across the UK.
If that figure was mirrored in Scotland it would mean that nearly 400,000 people on Universal Credit in Scotland could be missing out on cheaper deals.
Clearly providers are not doing enough to ensure that those who would benefit from such tariffs are aware of them. Our research shows that of the 24% of consumers who are aware of social tariffs, only 7% are aware because their provider had publicised it or recommended it.
A good New Year’s resolution from these companies would be to redouble their efforts to get these deals in front of consumers who would benefit from them.
Further to that, eligibility for these tariffs should be extended to other vulnerable groups This is something the public supports: polling by YouGov has found that 57 per cent of consumers in Scotland support widening the eligibility criteria of social tariffs to include disabled people, and 53 per cent support extending it to people fleeing domestic violence.
The thing about this cost of living crisis is it hasn’t happened in a vacuum. It feels like the cost of everything has gone up while incomes have stayed flat or fallen in relevant terms. Any tool we have to reduce people’s outgoings is welcome, and social tariffs can be a key part of that.