UK's poorest families still avoiding the Net

The very people who need government services the most are not interested in getting online, according to new research, prompting the creation of a Digital Inclusion Panel to help close Britain's digital divide

Only a small fraction of Britain's poorest families have a Web connection at home, according to a report published this week that shows income is still the major factor determining use of the Internet.

Latest figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that just 13 percent of households in the bottom fifth for gross income can access the Internet at home, compared to over 80 percent of homes in the top fifth. Overall, 47 percent of homes are now online -- virtually all using a PC, rather than a digital television. This equates to nearly 12 million households, five times as many as were connected five years ago.

Earlier this week, the government vowed that every home in Britain will have access to online services within the next five years. This is on top of its existing target of providing Internet access to everyone who wants it by 2005.

The government, which is committed to putting all its services online by 2005, is trying to build its Web offerings around the needs of citizens, but if those who need them most are not online, then take-up is likely to remain disappointing. According to the government, only half the Internet population has visited a government site in the past 12 months.

The ONS report on Internet access indicates that a sizeable part of the UK population has little interest in joining the online revolution. Over a third of the people interviewed by the ONS in October 2003 had never been on the Web. Only 58 percent had used it in the last three months. "While individual use of the Internet still seems to be increasing, the rate of increase seems to be slowing down," warned the ONS, which also found that just 16 percent of those aged over 65 had used the Internet in the last quarter.

Over half of people who have never been online say that they don't need to and have no interest in doing so, and 39 percent said they didn't have the knowledge or confidence to do so. Cost was an issue for 10 percent of people, the same proportion who were scared off by security worries. Interviewees were allowed to give more than one reason for not being online.

On Monday, e-minister Patricia Hewitt announced the creation of a Digital Inclusion Panel. It will work with government on bringing the benefits of online access -- through computers, TV and even mobile phones -- to the whole of Britain by 2008. "While it is great news that so many people have access to the internet, we must continue to bridge the digital divide," she said.

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