In a digital age, when increasingly everything in our lives is becoming paperless, it can be easy to forget that not everyone is plugged into the world wide web.
But I’m sure most, if not all of us, have a relative or a friend who doesn’t use the internet. They may not have a computer. Perhaps they’re unable to use one.
It’s not as uncommon as you might at first think. According to the ONS, 6.3 per cent of UK adults have never used the internet. When you look at the statistics for over-75s, nearly 40 per cent have never used the internet.
In a digital age, for those two in five over-75s who have never used the internet, it can become much more difficult to do things that used to be easy and part of their routine. Banks are closing on high streets, for example, with customers told that they can go online to handle their finances. But for some people, who don’t know how to go online, or can’t, or frankly don’t want to, they find themselves unable to access a service that used to be as early as heading to their local branch.
And that’s why you cannot completely digitise democracy. Because when you do, you risk disenfranchising people, and excluding them from parts of the democratic process.
At the moment, there’s a requirement on councils to publish notices of council tax changes in newspapers like this one. But under plans the Welsh Government is consulting on, this requirement would be replaced by a requirement to publish the notices on council websites, and a requirement to put ‘suitable alternative arrangements’ in place for those who have difficulty accessing online facilities.
I believe that removing the requirement to publish council tax notices in papers would exclude many people, particularly older people, from an important part of the democratic process.
Our local newspapers are part of our communities. They’re institutions. They’re sold in local shops, and often in large supermarkets too.
There are few better places to ensure that people in all sections of our communities can access information about council tax changes than in the pages of a well-established and trusted local newspaper.
This is an important part of democracy, accountability and transparency. It may even give councils pause for thought when they’re setting council tax rates, knowing that changes will be in every news stand, rather than on websites which not everyone will know how to access and which can sometimes be clunky and confusing.
As a former council leader, I know that local authorities are not full of people who are trying to dodge transparency. People are doing the best they can for their communities. But by ensuring council tax notices are published in newspapers, we can safeguard voters’ interests, so they are well informed, and so nobody is excluded from the democratic process.