Non-digital access to Universal Credit needs promotion, minister admits

Critics claim much more help is needed to ensure ‘digital-by-default’ system does not exclude claimants

Credit: Adam Peck/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The government has not done enough to promote alternative ways of claiming Universal Credit for people unable to make claims online, work and pensions minister Justin Tomlinson has admitted.

His comments were made in response to an attack on the controversial new benefits scheme by the Labour MP Kate Osamor yesterday.

During a parliamentary debate on Universal Credit, she claimed that the design of the new digital benefits system “is fundamentally flawed” and “systematically disadvantages or excludes the millions of people in the UK without good digital skills”.

Osamor said: “The over-reliance on digitisation has meant more and more people coming to my office because of issues that they face with Universal Credit or that originate in problems with Universal Credit.”

Responding to the criticisms, Justin Tomlinson, work and pensions minister, said: “I have a lot of sympathy with the point about digital by default.”

He added: “We need to improve communication in order to advise about alternatives; claimants can access support via the telephone, face to face, or through home visits. We need to do better at promoting that and it is certainly something that I will continue to push on.”

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This comes amid concern that many people will not be able to make claims online, either because they do not have access to the internet or lack the skills to navigate the online system.

Research commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions revealed that, although 98% of those receiving Universal Credit claimed online, barely half – 54% – were able to do this without help.

“Universal Credit is a digital service, but there is some evidence that claimants struggled with the online claim process and needed more support,” according to the study by IFF Research, which was released last year.

It added: “Of those that had made an online claim, considerable proportions experienced difficulties with the process and would have liked more support. It is quite common for the claim process to take more than one attempt and nearly half of those with experience of claiming other benefits found it more difficult to claim UC.”

Labour MP Danielle Rowley told PublicTechnology: “It’s clear both from casework in my constituency and reports from around the country that the support for UC claimants using digital channels is inadequate. While encouraging people to improve their digital skills is welcome, it isn’t working in practice and there is a risk of those who are not able to access fully digital services simply being left behind.”

Another member of the opposition benches, MP Dan Carden, said that, because many people lack the access to IT or necessary skills, “the insistence on digital by default… has exacerbated the problems caused by Universal Credit’s numerous design flaws”. 

“A local homeless and housing charity, the Whitechapel Centre, report that many service users find the online system impossible to navigate,” he said. “Under this government, the welfare system is so complex and onerous it seems designed to exclude the most vulnerable claimants from receiving the help they need.” 

Carden added: “Universal Credit is a modern-day digital workhouse, effectively punishing people for the crime of being poor. We urgently need to transform our social security system, from one that is demonising towards people out of work to one that is supportive and enabling.”

And a spokesperson for the debt counselling charity Christians Against Poverty said: “The fact that Universal Credit is digital by default has made a really big assumption about the level of digital access amongst potential claimants, and that’s something we’re really concerned about, because we know that one in five of the people we help at CAP aren’t online.”

Support options
Fears that a significant number of people are not able to access Universal Credit online have prompted the government to give £39m to Citizens Advice to provide ‘universal support’ for claimants on the new benefits system. The support will begin in April this year and last for 12 months. Claimants will be able to get help to submit claims and receive their first payments, according to Citizens Advice.

A spokesperson for the organisation told PublicTechnology: “This could include digital support such as setting up emails, the online application, and setting up a government Verify account.”

In a statement to MPs last week, welfare minister Alok Sharma said: “If a claimant needs more intensive or specific support to make their claim, face-to-face and other help is available through our current Universal Support Assisted Digital Service offer, which provides bespoke help, support and skills for claimants to make and maintain their digital account online.”

He added: “All jobcentres across the country have Wi-Fi and computers available for claimants to access the internet. For those that are still unable to access or use digital services, or are not able to travel, assistance to make and maintain their claim is available via the Freephone Universal Credit helpline. In exceptional circumstances, a home visit can be arranged to support a claimant in making and maintaining their claim.”

Roz Davies, a director at the digital inclusion charity the Good Things Foundation, said that the level of funding given to help people claim Universal Credit online “is really only scratching the surface of the issue”.

She said: “One of the problems many people face with Universal Credit is that the service hasn’t been designed with those without basic digital skills in mind, so it presents a number of problems for those who are faced with it for the first time.”

Writing in a blog post last week, Davies added that more than 11 million people in Britain “don’t have the essential basic digital skills they need”.

These people are “most likely to be socially excluded as well – meaning that they’re less well off, come from a poorer educational background, are living in council housing, or aren’t in secure work. Exactly the kind of people who are likely to be claiming Universal Credit.”

Sam Trendall

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