The government has earmarked £13m to fund online centres in a bid to close the digital divide and encourage people to use the internet.
The announcement follows Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s plans to migrate some public services to be online only – a move it is hoped will eventually save the government more than £1bn.
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The first wave of services to be digitalised includes student loan applications, which will become online only; the majority of job seekers’ benefits; and accounts filing to Companies House. HM Revenue and Customs will also see VAT registrations go purely online and is working to move other tax functions to this channel.
But Maude said he did not wish to disenfranchise the nine million people who have never used the internet.
“If you cannot use or access the internet we can help you. Technology is crucial to help people have control and exercise choices,” he said.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will provide the UK with online centres to help people access digital services through £13m in funds. In addition, the Post Office will start a test scheme, he said.
“This is not just about better public services, but the potential to change the way the government thinks and organise itself,” he added.
Digital champion Martha Lane Fox said, “The UK is the biggest e-commerce market in the world. We have a vibrant and exciting digital economy and the government can become a world leader in its own right.”
Dane Wright, IT strategy manager at Brent Council, said many local authorities have already started moving to digital services. “Most councils are moving services from face-to-face and telephone to online, so having central government take a definite position about this is helpful to us,” he said.
However, the use of post offices as a key facility to help people access the internet might not work in practice as many of its other services are already oversubscribed, he added.
There is also concern that people without home internet could have fewer digital access points due to the expected closure of many local libraries because of spending cuts.