Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.
Universal Credit reached a milestone yesterday – it went live in five towns and cities with all six of the benefits that are eventually intended to be scooped up into the system nationwide.
The vast digital transformation project has already been fraught with technical problems, funding issues and delays.
Now, a digital inclusion charity has called the skills gap for people using the platform a “perfect storm”, while a front-line housing association worker has told NS Tech that many of the key features just don’t work, “forcing people into financial hardship”.
The problems include a lack of funds for training those who can’t use the web and a presumption that people have bank accounts, plus a host of bugs in the platform that are causing missed appointments, delayed payments and even benefit sanctions.
“What the government is doing has some degree of reasonableness – shifting services online and modernising – to make the benefits process easier,” Dr Gail Bradbrook, director of programmes at Citizens Online told NS Tech.
“But the problems of implementation are being outsourced to local authorities, housing associations, as well as the voluntary and community sector, with zero funding for this.”
Universal Credit is soon intended to offer a single, online platform for all benefit claimants, requiring all users to have a bank account to receive their lump sum, which Bradbrook calls a “perfect storm”.
“It’s been trialled with more socially included people and from the results that have been published, which isn’t a lot, we know that’s not gone very well.
“What’s next is people who are likely to already face social exclusion, with often chaotic lives, while also experiencing digital exclusion, no internet access or poor skills, and financial exclusion, no bank account or little experience of budgeting.
“Once the system includes housing benefit – that’ll drag in an increasingly large number of people, particularly the elderly. AgeUK has started to raise its own concerns about what this means for the many older people who aren’t online.”
One of her biggest concerns is around the assumption that someone has to be able to offer ‘assisted digital’ support for people who don’t have access to the internet or don’t have the right online skills.
The latest ONS figures released last week show that just over 10 per cent of the British public -5.3m people – have never used the internet.
The responsibility of helping those people who need to get online but can’t is presumed to fall on third-sector organisations that are already dealing with cuts to funding, she says.
A source from a housing association in one of Universal Credit’s pilot areas said the system is already “forcing people into financial hardship”.
“Claims have been badly managed, there’s poor communication between the Job Centre and Universal Credit and the appointments system still isn’t working properly,” she explains.
“This means people often don’t get the appointments they’re required to attend and then they get sanctioned.”
She explained that Universal Credit won’t currently allow payments to go to a landlord until the tenant is eight weeks in arrears.
“Even if payments to the landlord are agreed, their systems don’t always release it. And the payments system doesn’t yet recognise weekends or bank holidays, so payments are delayed.”
“We can’t currently let tenants on Universal Credit set up a direct debit because of the payment errors. We just can’t guarantee when they’ll get their money.
She also said many claims have simply been “lost in the system” and therefore not awarded.
“The only option in the meantime is food banks, or an advance, which is then taken back at a high rate each month.”
Asked what all this means for more vulnerable groups who aren’t used to using the internet but will increasingly be expected to, she said: “Vulnerable groups are not really considered. Each person has to apply online and search for jobs online 37 hours per week as part of the ‘claimant commitment’.”
Bradbrook says: “There is a missed opportunity here – there’s something that has to happen in communities to help people use technology.
“And these people could get a lot more out of it – like shopping, speaking with friends and family – but now technology is just something horrible that you have to do.
“No matter how beautifully it’s built or how usable it is, there’s the wider issue of social inclusion.
“Right now, local authorities are being asked to support this, but it’s being seen as a poisoned chalice.”
Citizens Online is calling for central government to provide funding to address the skills gap perpetuated by the ‘digital by default’ agenda.
Starting this week, people living in Bath, Newcastle, Bridgwater, Rugby and Lowestoft will now go via Universal Credit if they’re claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support, Employment and Support Allowance, Working Tax Credits, Child Tax Credits or Housing Benefit.