Accessibility of UK government web sites investigated

Note: The content of this page is very much out-of-date and may no longer be relevant or correct. It is kept here for little more than archival purposes. Please bear this in mind before reading on.

Posted on: 30 May 2003

The UK's first e-Minister, Patricia Hewitt, gave a commitment in February 2001 that all new government websites should be accessible. In May 2002 the Office of the e-Envoy published the Guidelines for UK Government Websites handbook, which offers guidance and best practice for the design of Government websites. In the current climate of ensuring accessibility, I decided to do a quick survey of the general standard and accessibility of local government council sites. Despite the commitment over two years ago from the e-Minister, and the published guidelines, UK government sites are a long way from being accessible.


The home page of 466 County, Metropolitan, Borough, and District government sites have been tested for basic accessibility and validity of the markup used. The markup was validated to World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards, using their Validation Service. Accessibility of the pages was tested using Bobby. This survey does not include usability, merely the level of accessibility as determined by Bobby.

The Web Accessibility Initiative

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is an initiative from the W3C that defines standards to ensure a site is accessible. They provide a checklist of points to address through the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and these checkpoints are given a priority rating between 1 and 3, depending on the importance of the checkpoint. For a site to be considered accessible, priority 1 checkpoints must be addressed, priority 2 checkpoints should be addressed, and priority three checkpoints may be addressed.

Conformance to Level "A" means that all priority 1 checkpoints have been addressed, Level "AA" means that priority 1 and 2 checkpoints have been addressed, and Level "AAA" means that priority 1, 2, and 3 checkpoints have been addressed. Accessible sites may carry WCAG 1.0 Conformance Logos.


Claims for conformance are not verified by the W3C. Developers are responsible for ensuring the site meets the level of conformance they are claiming. Several of the government sites listed claim accessibility, and carry a Bobby or WAI logo. In many cases, the claim is not valid. This is not entirely surprising - even if the original site, upon going live, was fully accessible, later changes to the site could easily have damaged the page. However, the point should be that when changes are made, accessibility is one of the tests that should be carried out to ensure conformance has been upheld.

Interpreting the Results

Testing accessibility is quite involved, and the results generated by Bobby include user checks that cannot be checked automatically and need to be checked by the user. None of the sites listed have been manually checked. In the spirit of fairness, if Bobby returns level "A", but further investigations of user checks show that level "A" has not been achieved, the site is still given a level "A" due to the time it would take to check each site manually. For example, several sites that do provide alternate text for links use nonsense for the alt text. Another example of this is with Hampshire County Council. Their site validates to Level "AAA" on Bobby, but uses invalid markup, which is a Checkpoint 3.2 error, so should fail Level "AA".


The general accessibility and standard of markup of the sites is very poor. Nearly 60% of the sites tested failed to use a formal published Document Type Definition, and a few even missed the <html> element! Some of the sites carry pop-ups, and some redirect to a new page, making it difficult to use the back button to return from the site. Scrolling text using the Marquee tag (Internet Explorer only) was also popular on the sites. Encouragingly, a few of the sites listed state that they are embarking on a major overhaul.

Using the WAI criteria for an accessible website, only the London Borough of Redridge could be considered truly accessible. This was by far the best website, which is coded in valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional, and validates to Level "AA".

Creating standards-compliant, accessible websites isn't difficult. In fact, it's far easier to maintain a site that has a strict structure, rather than pages that are bloated with code.


Only 12 of the government sites (2.6%) use valid markup, and 146 (31.3%) pass accessibility tests. The results do not take into account user checks.

Accessibility Conformance Statistics

  • 1 Level "AAA" (0.21%) which did not use valid markup
  • 4 Level "AA" (0.86%) of which 1 used valid markup
  • 141 Level "A" (30.26%) of which 10 used valid markup
  • 320 failed (68.67%) of which 1 used valid markup

Markup Statistics

  • 1 XHTML Strict (0.21%) that was not valid
  • 12 XHTML 1.0 Transitional (2.6%) of which 5 were valid
  • 88 HTML 4.01 Transitional (18.9%) of which 7 were valid
  • 2 HTML 4.0 Strict (0.43%) of which none were valid
  • 61 HTML 4.0 Transitional (13.1%) of which none were valid
  • 9 HTML 3.2 (1.93%) of which none were valid
  • 8 HTML 2.0 (1.7%) of which none were valid
  • 2 HTML 4.01 Frameset (0.43%) of which none were valid
  • 277 failed to use a DOCTYPE (59.4%)
  • 6 denied access (1.3%)

The full survey results can be found here - just be aware that you're downloading a 460 row table!

This article was written by Gez Lemon and Jane Wilcock and originally appeared at their developer's resource site, Juicy Studio ("Our goal is to exceed your expectations"). The site has recently been running a number of accessibility tips, so why not go on over and take a look.