Age UK ‘mystery shopping’ exercise finds older people who are on a low income and not online face a massive postcode lottery when seeking help with their housing costs


Age UK ‘mystery shopping’ exercise finds older people who are on a low income and not online face a massive postcode lottery when seeking help with their housing costs

Age UK ‘mystery shopping’ exercise finds older people who are on a low income and not online face a massive postcode lottery when seeking help with their housing costs


Charity says these results mean some older people who are offline are likely to be missing out on benefits they are due

Age UK calls for binding national guidance to level the playing field for older people who are digitally excluded


Results from an Age UK[i] ‘mystery shopping’ exercise, published recently in a new policy report called Help with housing costs – how can you apply if you are not online?[ii], reveal that older people who want to apply for Housing Benefit[iii] and/or Council Tax Reduction[iv] face a huge postcode lottery if they do not use computers.


The Charity says this is intrinsically unfair, and that it also means that some older people on very low incomes, who are badly in need of extra financial help, are likely to be missing out, simply because they are digitally excluded.


Age UK commissioned this mystery shopping after hearing concerns from many older people and their families about their difficulty in accessing services and entitlements if they are offline.  In total, in the research 220 telephone calls were made to 110 councils in England and Wales to find out what options were offered to people who wanted to apply for Housing Benefit and Council Tax Reduction, but who could not use online systems.


The research found that most callers were offered a telephone and/or paper application, though sometimes they had to prompt the council to find out about these. Others were told they could get help at council offices or a library, but again sometimes only after the caller persisted. Worryingly, four callers could not get through to speak to a person at all, and 16 were neither offered a way of applying independently nor any help from the council. There were also instances in which different employees from the same council said different things to the mystery shoppers about their offline options, when more than one call was made.


Nearly 2 million (1.9 million) older people in the UK live in poverty[v] and are often struggling to meet essential costs, yet many are missing out on available financial support. The latest Government estimates indicate that 21% (310,000) pensioner households who are entitled to Housing Benefit are not receiving it[vi].  There are no Government figures for the take-up of Council Tax Reduction, but it is estimated[vii] that among people of all ages, nearly two in five (38%) who are entitled to it are missing out. The Charity worries that being offline or not being comfortable using online systems creates an additional barrier for older people to receive financial help to which they are legally entitled.


Although many older people fully embrace the digital world, digital exclusion increases with age.  Around 1 in 6 (18%) of people aged 65 and over, equivalent to 2.3m[viii] do not use the internet at all and almost half (48%) of these people are aged 75+.


Recent polling carried out for the Charity found that 1 in 9 (11%, equivalent to 1.4 million) over 65s[ix] had tried to improve their digital skills but had given up because they found it too difficult.  And even when older people do use the internet, we know that some only carry out activities such as following Facebook and playing games. This means they may not have the skills and confidence for more complex tasks like populating online forms and uploading supporting documentation, as is required when applying for benefits of various kinds.


Age UK would like local councils to review their public-facing systems to ensure that people are always offered at least one suitable offline option, and preferably a choice of ways to get in touch and seek services. The Charity believes that many councils need to do more to make their offline contact details easier to find, and certainly not rely on publishing them only on their websites, since the digitally excluded may not be able to access them at all.


The same recent Age UK polling with older people that has already been referred to found that a quarter (23%) of over 65s[x] – equivalent to 2.9 million people – said they were forced to depend on others because they couldn’t navigate the online world – such as in situations when contact information is only readily available via a website. Age UK says that older people often say they bitterly resent this, feeling it deprives them of their sense of autonomy, simply because they don’t use computers.


While this mystery shopping exercise focused on the accessibility of benefits offered by councils for those who don’t use the internet, the Charity firmly believes that central Government has a crucial part to play in ensuring that offline options remain available locally, as well as nationally. It is calling on the Government to:


  • Issue binding national guidance to all councils and other public bodies setting out minimum standards which they must meet in terms of ensuring there is good offline access to their services.
  • Provide local councils with enough funding to provide offline options, and
  • Lead on the development of a long-term, fully funded national Digital Inclusion Strategy, to support people of all ages who want to go online to do so.


Caroline Abrahams CBE, Charity Director at Age UK said: “It’s quite wrong that if you are an older person who is offline, your ability to apply for financial support you badly need depends so much on where you happen to live – it is clearly much easier to do in some places, compared to others.


“Some councils are doing a good job in supporting older people who can’t use online systems to apply for help in other ways, and it is also important to recognise that in most cases our mystery shoppers found that the council call handlers were friendly and helpful. However, the responses given by different councils were wildly different and worryingly, in a minority of cases no offline option was on offer at all.


“What would have happened to a ‘real’ older person who had rung up and asked to apply for Housing Benefit or Council Tax Reduction in another way in one of these localities? It seems to us that they would have been unable to do so, unless they had the support of a family member or friend who was au fait with computers, to help them get through the process online.


“Given that we know more than half (54%) of people aged 65+ have paid council tax or other council services online and 4% had not been comfortable doing so[xi], it is unacceptable that there is no guarantee that offline older people will be able to apply for the financial help to which they are entitled, and which could make a valuable difference to their standard of living, without recourse to a computer.    


“Older people often tell us they are completely fed up with the drift towards ‘digital by default’, without enough thought being given to where that leaves the millions who can’t or don’t want to use the internet, or whose digital skills are too limited to use online systems – some of which are not very user-friendly in any event. 


"There's absolutely no problem in giving people the opportunity to access goods and services via the internet, that suits some of us of all ages very well – but this mustn't be at the cost of shutting out those for whom this doesn’t work at all.


“That’s why Age UK is calling on the Government to issue binding national guidance for public bodies, requiring them to offer suitable offline options, and to publicise them too. In addition, the Government needs to give councils enough funding to do this – we know that cost cutting in the face of acute financial pressures is the primary reason why some public services are shifting online. 


"Finally, it’s high time the Government brought forward a funded Digital Inclusion Strategy, to help people of all ages who want to go online, or improve their digital skills, to do so. Age UK already supports many older people to begin to use computers and the internet through our programmes and we would like to do more – but the lack of Government support for this agenda is marked. 


"We hope that the political parties contesting the next General Election will listen and respond – there is no doubt that many older people feel very strongly about this issue, and they are right to do so, as it goes to the heart of their ability to sustain their independence and play a full part in our society.”  


Locally and nationally Age UK works to increase digital engagement for those older people who want to increase their digital skills.  To learn more about getting online and staying safe whilst using the internet, please visit