Online and digital have their place but as Phil Young argues, don’t forget the vulnerable in the race to go paperless.

    I’ve been helping a mate who fell on bad times recently, who’s slowly getting back on his feet. And when I say bad times, I really mean bad times.

    “There are people with very serious, very pressing needs who can’t just Google the answer and send it to their wireless printer."

    Due to some fairly complicated circumstances,  I told him to go to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to get some advice. Unfortunately, the Bureau near him, which provided invaluable support to him in the past, has been closed down. To find him an alternative (all of which require multiple bus trips) required a fair bit of research online. There is a clear steer to pushing a lot of the support CAB can offer online. This might seem sensible and even inevitable given cuts to public spending, but there’s a fundamental problem. Vulnerable people often don’t have internet access. They don’t necessarily have computers. And they certainly don’t have printers. My friend has a cheap pay-as-you-go phone and there’s a place he can catch a bus to for free internet access a couple of times a week. He doesn’t have the time to wait for that.

    12 months ago I needed to fill in the forms to process my dad’s estate. It was as simple as it could be, no IHT to pay, no joint accounts to fiddle with, but it was still a pain. I did it myself but the only way of doing this was to find the forms online and print them off. The alternative was to pay a solicitor to do it. Worthy of note: the law firm I asked wouldn’t quote an indicative fee (or even state an hourly charge) as they preferred to leave their options open to charge a % of assets once they’ve worked out if there’s enough in the estate to make more money that way. Lovely.

    The typical person faced with filling in unavoidable probate forms is elderly and upset. There were no pointers anywhere as to where to get the forms. No paper versions available, and no signposts to someone other than a solicitor as to where to go for help.

    Go online and help yourself is the modern solution to everything. Whilst we ponder about the best way to help or hinder people looking to  rinse their pension pots, or how we ‘educate’ people on their financial affairs, there are people with very serious, very pressing needs who can’t just Google the answer and send it to their wireless printer.

    We spend a lot of time celebrating how digital services have taken off. However…

    25% of the UK population will suffer some form of mental illness, 20% will suffer from dementia in later life. 16% of adults in England are functionally illiterate. 16% of households don’t have internet access (38% of whom are occupants over 65).

    The constant cry is to get these people online. I say that’s a waste of time. Sometimes people and paper are just necessary. At a time when we are told the need for advice is on the up (we currently have several multi-million pound bureau services for pensions advice, and politics around which one prevails) the number of Citizens Advice Bureaus (note the word Bureau is being dropped from the name and logo) is coming down. Wouldn’t it be better just to spend the money building up one existing organisation with a broader remit?

    How much effort would it be to provide the forms to those who need them when they pick up the death certificate? How much does it cost to keep a small office open for volunteers in some of the less salubrious parts of the UK where they’re needed most? Is the investment in ‘getting everyone online’ an investment more usefully made in people with pens and bits of paper? Could the money taken in fines from banks and payday lenders be used to fund this? It’s worth thinking about it and shutting out the noise about online and digital whilst we do it.

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