(30 July 2020)
Age Action, Ireland’s leading advocacy organisation on ageing and older people is calling for Budget 2021 to include a digital allowance in the form of a €2.50 increase to the Telephone Support Allowance and a broadening of the eligibility criteria to support older people to access digital technology.
Paddy Connolly, CEO Age Action said ‘Digital exclusion is a reality for at least 33% of people over the age of 65 with the associated cost being one of the barriers to access for older people. We know that communication costs have increased during COVID-19 as people became more reliant on digital communications as a means of communicating with family, health professionals, arranging essential services and addressing social isolation. In the context of an increasing reliance on telehealth measures and public health advice, Age Action urges the Government to increase the Telephone Support Allowance, introduced in June 2018 at a weekly rate of €2.50, to €5 and for a broadening of the eligibility criteria which is narrowly confined to those getting the Living Alone Allowance who are also eligible for the Fuel Allowance.’
Government services now actively prefer transactions to be digital under a “Digital First”approach, encouraging people to carry out their tax returns, and apply to r enew their driving licences and passports online. The Public Service ICT Strategy prioritises the digitisation of ‘the main existing citizen and business transactional services across Public Services’. There is an increasing reliance on digital channels to provide information by both the public and private sector which undermines people’s ability to access information which was very evident during the height of the pandemic. In a recent CSO survey of households of those over 60 and not online, the second greatest challenge to people who said they needed access to broadband, after lack of digital skills, was the perceived prohibitive cost.
‘Older people are being left behind because they do not have adequate access or skills to engage with digital services or participate in the digital economy; providing a digital allowance as well as investing in one-to-one digital literacy training that meets the needs of older people, is critical to bridging the digital divide. The new National Digital Skills Strategy committed to under the Programme for Government will have budgetary implications; Budget 2021 should begin to support older people to keep up’ Connolly said.
Addressing the Cost of Ageing
Latest EU SILC statistics poverty data showed us that those aged over 65 were showing the slowest recovery still from the Recession with an extra 20,000 people being at risk of poverty year-on-year. There was an increased number of people aged over 65 either at work or looking for work to support their income, with similar increases for those in the labour market aged 60-64 and 55-59. The latest official poverty statistics from the CSO indicate that 11.4% of people aged 65 years and over were ‘at risk’ of poverty in 2018. At the beginning of March 2020 pre-pandemic, the State pension had not kept pace with the cost of living in recent years: Budget 2020 saw no change to the State pension, a small increase to the Living Alone Increase and an overall increase of €1.08-€6.08 to the weekly income of older people in receipt of all main benefits, eroding gains in the previous Budgets.
It is in this context that Age Action, in its pre-budget submission to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, called for the Government to commission a study on the cost of ageing.
‘In the absence of a detailed analysis of the cost of ageing, questions remain about whether welfare supports through the annual budgetary process are adequate to meet people’s needs. Age Action urges the Government to commission research on the cost of ageing to inform Ireland’s policy development to meet the needs of an ageing population’ said Connolly.
Seeking an increase the weekly State Pension by €5 per week to build towards achieving the Government's commitment in the Roadmap for Pensions Reform 2018-2023 for a State Pension set at 34% of average weekly earnings is required in Budget 2021 Paddy Connolly said ‘Many of those who rely solely on the State pension and secondary supports did not have the financial bandwidth during COVID-19 to meet the hidden costs of self-isolation, care costs and additional costs. The challenge is in this period of uncertainty is to ensure that the social protection net meets its aim of protecting the most vulnerable - when they need it and to provide the necessary supports to help people age in place. Budget 2021 has to increase the State Pension, as well as widen and increase access to secondary benefits in order to begin to address existing inequalities experienced by older people.’