The Department of Work and Pensions is under fire for failing to track data on the number of people who make Universal Credit applications without using a computer, HuffPost UK can reveal.
The ambitious roll-out of the new benefits system is the government’s first digital-only service of this scale, and means claimants must apply online.
But there has been widespread concern the tech-based system is leading to digital exclusion for those who do not have access to a computer or are not IT literate.
Critics say some of the most vulnerable benefits claimants – such as older people, those on low incomes, the homeless or people with disabilities – are among the most likely to have difficulties making digital claims.
Now, HuffPost UK can reveal that two years and seven months into the digital implementation of Universal Credit, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says it does not hold any data on the number of claimants attempting to apply offline.
In a freedom of information request HuffPost UK asked the DWP what proportion of the current 1.2 million people receiving Universal Credit had first made claims using methods other than digital – for example by visiting a Job Centre, in person, or by telephone.
The department told HuffPost UK it did not hold this data.
“Following a search of our paper and electronic records, I have established that the information you requested about the current Universal Credit caseload is not held by this department,” an FOI officer said in the DWP’s official response.
The DWP instead sent a report carried out by a research agency called IFF on its behalf, titled Universal Credit Full Service Survey, which found only 54% of claimants were able to make a claim online without help.
While no official government data is publicly available, the Lloyds’ annual report on digital skills in May 2018 found one in five working-age benefit claimants have low or no digital capability.
This and other anecdotal data suggests the level of digital exclusion among the 1.2 million people currently claiming Universal Credit is likely to be significant. But the government has been under fire for failing to source its own more robust data to access the scale of the issue.
Critics say without specific data on the levels of digital exclusion relating directly to Universal Credit it is unlikely the government will be able to accurately allocate funding for support services.
Rachel Gregory, social policy and relationship manager at the debt counselling charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP), told HuffPost UK: “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.”
She continued: “It is a concern that they [the DWP] aren’t monitoring the levels of people who can’t make their claim digitally, but I think even more so the number of people who are then struggling to manage their claim digitally, because that’s also a big part of Universal Credit.”
She said while national data does exist about levels of digital exclusion there is no detailed understanding about levels of exclusion among benefit claimants in particular.
The government has already allocated £39m to the Citizens Advice Bureau to assist people applying for Universal Credit, but it is feared this will not be enough to cover the numbers of new claimants coming into the system this year.
More than 1.2 million were claiming Universal Credit in September 2018 and 10,000 people who are claiming legacy benefits are due to be moved onto the new payment through “managed migration” by the end of 2019.
Universal Credit is the DWP’s flagship benefit reform replacing six working age benefits with one new monthly payment. But it has been beset by criticism it is forcing some of the most vulnerable benefit claimants into hardship.
CAP carried out its own small-scale study looking at the experiences of clients claiming Universal Credit and found digital exclusion was a “significant challenge”.
Among people helped by the charity, 22% did not have access to the internet at home either via a computer or smart phone.
CASE STUDY: Women Forced To Scavenge Bins After Digital Lock-Out
The charity CAP’s research found one client who applied for Universal Credit after her Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claim was closed had to make multiple attempts and was locked out of her online account several times.
She found the online application process very difficult and on her second attempt did not submit the form correctly, but did not realise for several weeks.
This meant she faced a long period without any income.
It subsequently became apparent she had been going through bins at night to find food before CAP stepped in to provide emergency food aid.
“Pretty much everyone we spoke to did not have internet access at home, which meant they either had to go to a library to get online, and actually there were some significant challenges around that,” Gregory said.
“The library could be quite far away and people had to walk there. Also you only got an hour in many libraries to use the internet at one time and because the application form can’t be saved, you have to do it all in one go, so that can be particularly problematic.”
The online application process has also been criticised for being unnecessarily complicated and difficult to complete.
To scrutinise the allegations, HuffPost UK watched a single mum in her 40s complete a Universal Credit application.
The government estimates the process should take 40 minutes. Although the woman we shadowed was digitally literate and had her own home computer, the claim took about one hour and 40 minutes to finish and submit.
The woman was also forced to use our journalist’s iPhone to download an app to verify her identity as she did not have a smart phone. Without this app she could not have completed the application online.
A report by the National Audit Office in June last year found that only 38% of claimants had been able to verify their identity online.
CAP has called on the government to make changes so Universal Credit applications can be saved part-way through, and for the introduction of a non-digital “crib sheet” detailing the information needed to complete an application.
More broadly, it has also demanded an alternative, non-computer based application and claim management system for those who are genuinely digitally excluded.
HuffPost UK contacted DWP for comment about the issues but had not received a response at time of publication.
The department has previously told HuffPost UK: “Citizens Advice are an independent organisation, known for giving professional and trusted advice, and we are confident that they will fully support people, in particular the most vulnerable claimants, as they move onto Universal Credit.”
FACTBOX: Benefits Claimants With Low Digital Capability
The Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2018, published last May, found the following levels of low digital capability among benefit claimants:
Scotland - 20%
North East - 20%
Yorkshire & Humberside - 19%
East Midlands - 19%
North West - 19%
West Midlands - 19%
Wales - 19%
South West - 18%
East England - 16%
South East - 16%
London - 16%SOURCE: Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2018
Northern Ireland - 14%