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Supporting Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations is the membership organisation for Scotland's charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises. Charity registered in Scotland SC003558. Registered office Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB.

SCVO response to the Social Justice and Social Security Committee's low income and debt problems inquiry

About SCVO

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is the national membership body for Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector. 

We champion the sector, provide services and debate big issues. 

We’re passionate about what the voluntary sector can achieve. Along with our community of 2,000+ members, we believe that charities, social enterprises and voluntary groups make Scotland a better place. 

We lobby government on policy issues, create jobs for young people and support organisations to embrace and promote digital skills. We also help with day-to-day stuff, like affordable office space, discounted training courses, funding opportunities and information and support to help people set up and run their organisations. 

We have a longstanding reputation for delivery of programmes at a national level. As an umbrella organisation supporting charities who work with the most excluded in society, SCVO reaches the most vulnerable communities in Scotland, working through voluntary organisations who are experts in working with individuals and communities. 

Over the past decade we have led work in Scotland to tackle digital exclusion. This programme has included management of Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter and allied funds, development and delivery of Digital Champions training and programmes, and targeted interventions to address digital exclusion in the social housing sector. These activities have allowed us to develop and foster extensive networks of organisations across Scotland, working together to share learning and experiences to improve interventions to address digital inequality. 

This work was significantly scaled up during the pandemic as we took the lead to deliver Connecting Scotland, providing devices, connectivity and support to over 60,000 digitally excluded households during the pandemic. 

Question 1: How does digital exclusion affect people’s experience of debt and seeking money advice?

New technology and the internet continues to radically change how we live, learn and work. Online services have become integral to most of our lives. Research carried out before the pandemic showed that 8 out of 10 people used the internet on a daily basis. However, these top level statistics hid a deeper digital divide, the impact of which was immediately exposed and widely recognised when lockdown began in March 2020.

  • Full digital inclusion is achieved where people have:
  • The confidence and motivation to go online;
  • An affordable internet connection at home and access to the right devices (not just a smartphone); and

The essential digital skills to enable them to realise the social and economic benefits.

The evidence clearly shows digital exclusion exacerbates existing deep routed inequalities.

The older a person is, the more likely they are to be digitally excluded – with a lack of confidence and motivation to go online being a key barrier for older people. However, evidence shows that those from lower socio-economic classes, those with lower educational attainment and people with a disability or long-term health condition are all less likely to be online too.

Affordability of devices and internet connections is a key barrier to those on low incomes. While many of these people and households may have access to the internet, it is often only through a smartphone, which is not an appropriate device to carry out tasks such as applying for jobs or participating in formal education.

The cost of connectivity is also an issue, with ‘data poverty’ being identified as a key barrier, where people are unable to afford sufficient, private and secure mobile or broadband data to meet their essential needs. Ofcom research this year states that 2 million households in the UK struggle to afford their internet bills – equivalent to at least 200,000 households in Scotland.

Safety nets to provide access to devices and connectivity – such devices in libraries and other public spaces – disappeared during the pandemic. These safety nets are also only a very partial solution to the problem of digital exclusion. Internet connectivity at home is now an essential utility and access to the right device is crucial to enable people to fully participate in our digital world.

While the majority of the population may be confident consumers of information online, we know that 19% of people in Scotland don’t have the essential skills to be able use digital technology and the internet confidently and safely. Many people use social media and accessing entertainment online but lack the wider range of essential digital skills needed to complete tasks such as apply for jobs, compare prices and spot scams.

Without internet access in the home, and the skills to make the most of it, individuals have limited access to public services, channels for civic and democratic participation, knowledge and information tools, opportunities for social engagement, the labour market and learning. The lack of internet access also contributes to the poverty premium, as the cheapest goods and services are often only available online.

The ‘Disconnected’ report published by Citizens Advice Scotland, published in 2018, highlights that these issues are particularly acute for those most likely to seek money advice. From their survey of people who engaged with local Citizens Advice Bureaux:

  • 1 in 3 of clients had difficulty or couldn’t use a computer
  • 31% of those seeking benefit advice rarely or never used the internet
  • 40% did not have access to laptop or computer
  • Only 25% could apply online for a benefit with no problems at all
  • The cost of an internet connection at home is a reported a barrier for 20%
  • Around half of people want to improve their digital skills – although there was a digitally resistant core, with 22% of people with no skills unwilling to learn

Digital exclusion also results in clear financial disadvantage. Research by Lloyds Banking Group in 2021 found that manual workers with higher levels of digital skills earned on average £421 more per month, than the least digitally engaged workers in the same roles. Additionally, people with the most digital engagement paid less for important utilities, saving on average £228 per year compared to the least engaged.

More generally, supporting digital inclusion has been shown to lead to a much wider range of improved outcomes for people experiencing disadvantage. For example, research by the Good Things Foundation on projects supporting digital inclusion in health settings found that:

  • Improving digital skills helps beneficiaries feel more confident, in control and ambitious about the future
  • There was strong evidence to show digital skills increases mental wellbeing
  • A positive wider benefits emerged from supporting digital skills in excluded groups, such as being able to cope with benefits payments, moving towards work readiness, and feeling more in control

Question 2: Are there examples of good practice which reduce barriers created by digital exclusion?

From our learning over the past decade working to tackle digital exclusion in Scotland, we have identified a wide range of lessons in how to reduce the barriers created by digital exclusion.

Importantly, we know that we know digital exclusion is not addressed simply by providing someone a device and internet connection, but recognising that digital exclusion and social exclusion go hand-in-hand. Vulnerable people facing social exclusion need support to develop skills and confidence online. That support is best provided within the context of the issues they face and what their own personal motivations and aspirations are. We also knew that the support is best delivered by trusted people who have a relationship and understanding of those individuals.

This approach of ‘embedding’ support within existing services has been at the heart of our approach to tackling digital exclusion in Scotland in recent years.

Prior to the pandemic, we had supported hundreds of projects and trained thousands of front-line staff to act as ‘Digital Champions’ to build the digital confidence and skills of the people they work with.

In the context of the inquiry, one specific case study of this approach comes from Changeworks (an organisation supporting in fuel poverty), which helped people get online and develop the skills, confidence and know-how to get the best tariffs for their household bills. They supported ‘Mrs P’ with some online learning sessions which gave her the confidence and skills to search for a cheaper fuel supplier and switch online. She saved £187 and checked to ensure she would qualify again for the Warm Home Discount with her new supplier and has taken a note to apply again online when applications open for this year.

When the pandemic hit, the £48m investment by the Scottish Government in tackling digital exclusion through Connecting Scotland enabled us to tackle digital exclusion at a scale and scope that was unprecedented. This huge investment enabled people to be provided with a complete package of devices, connectivity and support to get online quickly.

Building our learning of the importance of the ‘embedded’ approach, the programme worked through organisations (particularly local authorities and local third sector organisations) who were already working with the target groups to reach them and provide support.

By the end of December 2021, we had supported 4,917 projects delivered by 1,047 unique partner organisations from across the public and voluntary sector to deliver devices, connectivity and Digital Champion support to over 60,000 household across Scotland.

There are many stories of the impact of this embedded support, but perhaps one of the most striking is the case study of Hanna, who has been supported by One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS). This case study is presented in the recently published Scottish Government’s “Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan”:

“Hanna is a single parent of five children aged between 4 and 15. She has lived in Glasgow from October 2019, when her relationship ended due to domestic abuse, at which point her only income was Child Tax Credits.

Hanna struggles with mental health as a result of domestic abuse and takes prescribed medication - but doesn’t cope well with additional stress or pressure. It wasn’t until May 2021 that she made a claim for Universal Credit following advice from friends. However, this claim was refused as Hanna failed the Habitual Residence Test. This decision also stopped her Tax Credits award, leaving Hanna with no income at all. When Hanna contacted One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS), she was relying solely on Crisis Grants from the Scottish Welfare Fund.

The advisor at OPFS assessed Hanna’s right to reside status and submitted a Mandatory Reconsideration, challenging the Universal Credit (UC) Habitual Residence Test decision, and arranged access to crisis support to help Hanna and her family through this traumatic period. They then conducted a benefit check; identifying entitlements to other support including Child Benefit, Scottish Child Payment and Best Start Grant.

Hanna holds ambitions of working in the future and feels that part time work would help her mental health giving her ‘focus and purpose again’. Through the OPFS Employability service, she received support to progress toward work, including providing a new digital device, digital training, and assistance with connectivity [through Connecting Scotland]. This was crucial to enabling Hanna to stay in contact with OPFS, access her UC claim, and find training and employment opportunities.

Hanna reports feeling more confident of finding work within the hours she is available and is comforted that OPFS employability support would continue to be available to her once she secures further training or employment.

Through the support received from the OPFS Financial Inclusion service Hanna now receives her full benefit entitlement, including backdated entitlement, providing the financial stability she needs to help her focus on the future.”

The total financial benefit to Hanna of this support was over £23,000 in backdated Universal Credit payments alone. Enabling her digital participation wasn’t the sole reason she was able to improve her situation, but was the gateway to be able to access that holistic support and the wider outcomes.

Now we have emerged from the emergency response phase of the pandemic, we are working closely with the Scottish Government to learn lessons from the first phases of Connecting Scotland explore how best to tackle digital exclusion in new ways in future phases.

Our Digital Champion training programme and resources is open to everyone, and we would encourage anyone who is working to tackle poverty and inequality to see how they could get involved in supporting the people they work with to develop their digital confidence and skills.

We have seen a much greater interest from a wider range of organisations since the start of the pandemic in getting involved, as more people have realised how digital inclusion can be an important gateway to unlock other outcomes, from learning to work to improved health and wellbeing.

However, it is important to acknowledge that funding and capacity is often a challenge for organisations tackling poverty and inequality, and long-term solutions must explore how to support these organisations to fulfil their role effectively as well as embedding digital support.

We have also long argued that affordable connectivity is one area that needs further work to identify sustainable solutions from across different sectors to address ‘data poverty’. In particular, we believe housing associations have a key role to play in tackling digital exclusion, including providing low cost internet access to tenants, building on the success of a number of pilot programmes in Scotland.

More evidence and resources on what works in tackling digital exclusion is available on the website for Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter: https://digitalparticipation.scot/resources