The digital black hole in Britain’s welfare system

Written by Chi Onwurah on 26 May 2016 in Opinion

The government is not providing the digital skills or the infrastructure needed to make their own Universal Credit programme work, says Chi Onwurah.

I hate to say I told you so, but it is three years since Universal Credit was first rolled out and there remains a glaring problem with it. That is, of course, on top of it leaving millions of working families £1,600 worse off, according to an analysis from the IFS.

When announced, one of the ways Universal Credit claimed to “streamline” Britain’s welfare system was by making it online-only. This move to digital was promised at the time to cut admin costs and reduce fraud, but in reality it is proving to be the flaw that could keep millions from claiming life-line benefits.

As we warned at the time, there is a risk of digital-by-default becoming “digital exclusion by diktat.”

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I have long believed that digital has the potential to transform our public services. But if not done right it can also exclude people without basic computer skills or internet access from public services. This has been known from the beginning, but remains something the government seems determined to ignore.

In the same month as Universal Credit entered its first phase, more than 7 million UK adults (14%) had never accessed the internet. Looking at these 7 million by weekly income, the Office for National Statistics showed that the greatest proportion were in the lowest pay band, less than £200 a week.

Research from the BBC the same year found that 21% of people in the UK did not have basic digital skills. That means they could do not use a search engine, send an email, access information or – crucially – complete an online form. This was not helped by the fact that then culture minister Jeremy Hunt’s plan to make basic broadband connectivity “universal” had been delayed by a year.

Throughout these three years of roll-out, the government has encouraged people to “get ready” for Universal Credit by “getting online”.

“Getting online and building your confidence in using digital services will also help you to access more job vacancies and get into work more quickly,” it went on.

Well said. Those at the Department for Work and Pensions are clearly aware that digital exclusion is an Achilles’ heel – but aside from telling people to get online, what has been done to help this happen?

Most in need

It is also two years since the Cabinet Office published their Digital Inclusion Strategy, setting April 2016 deadlines which have passed without fanfare or indeed any update whatsoever. One of these targets was to reduce the number of people lacking digital capability by 25%. I await their progress report, but in the meantime figures from other sources don’t fill me with hope.

Go ON UK’s Digital Exclusion Heatmap, created with the London School of Economics and the BBC in late 2015, shows that 23% of people in the UK do not possess basic digital skills. This is just 2% more than the BBC found two years previously. Most damning is that part of their definition of basic digital skills is being able to complete a Universal Credit form.

It appears little has changed in getting people confidently online since Universal Credit was first rolled out. However, even if the Digital Inclusion Strategy target had been achieved, this would still have left 9.9 million people out in the cold. Those people are disproportionately likely to be those in social housing, on lower wages, unemployed, with disabilities, older or ex-offenders. In other words, those most likely to be in need of welfare relief.   

Thinkbroadband figures show that more than half a million people still do not have access to a broadband connection faster than 2Mbps. This is something the Department for Culture, Media and Sport promised to end more than three years ago.

Skills shortage

The announcement in the Queen’s speech about “the right for every household to access high speed broadband” should be taken with a pinch of salt.

A little known detail of this plan is that the basic connection would only be provided “on request” and at a standard cost of around £130. Neither is there enough support for public libraries, which have always been the port of call for those with no internet access at home.

The government is providing neither the digital skills nor the infrastructure needed to make their own welfare programme work.

And it’s not just digital skills at the point of use that are lacking. Digital skills are also sorely needed on the delivery end of Universal Credit.

From the beginning the DWP has had to grapple with a shortage in the advanced skills needed to get their welfare system online. This comes from a lack of foresight and years of outsourcing – meaning government departments are bereft of the cutting edge skills that should be driving our democracy forward.

Indeed, ONS figures from May this year show that 7.5% of people in government employment and training programmes have either never used the internet or haven’t done so in the last three months.

We often talk about a “digital divide”, but it’s looking to be more of a digital black hole.

About the author

Chi Onwurah is the shadow minister for culture and the digital economy and MP for Newcastle central.

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