New evidence has emerged that shows the damage caused by the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) “Digital by Default” systems. An investigation by HuffPost revealed that nearly half a million people needed help with the online application for Universal Credit. It’s shutting out people in desperate need and adding to widespread issues with the controversial benefit. And the implications of this are devastating.
“Digital by Default”
The DWP’s flagship welfare payment, which combines six old means-tested benefits, has been dogged by controversy. Since its launch in 2013, the benefit’s been in chaos and caused misery for thousands of people. As The Canary previously reported, the impact of austerity alongside the rollout of Universal Credit is devastating. From a damning National Audit Office report to its links with increased foodbank use and rising rent arrears, it’s destroying lives.
But in addition, it’s part of the government’s “Digital by Default” system and claims must be made online. This is causing further problems for thousands of people.
A Freedom of Information request by HuffPost revealed that “462,000 people required help from friends, family, the Job Centre or a charity to apply” for Universal Credit. It asked the DWP how many people answered ‘yes’ to the online question: “Did anyone help you make your claim – for example a family member, friend, or someone from the Job Centre or a charity.”
The DWP’s response revealed that this jumped from 2,000 people who said ‘yes’ in December 2016 to 85,000 in 2017, soaring to 375,000 in 2018. As HuffPost reported, these numbers “equate to 22% of the total digital applications for 2017 (380,000) and for 2018 (1.71million)”. So they also reflect the rise of people “claiming Universal Credit as the system roll-out has accelerated”. HuffPost also stated:
The data shows the difficulties some are having with the online-only system and has led to concerns that genuine claimants may be blocked from applying.
And the figures from the HuffPost investigation may just be the tip of the iceberg.
In November, Philip Alston – the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights – concluded an investigation into the impact of austerity and rising levels of poverty in the UK. One of his key areas of criticism was the “Digital by Default” nature of Universal Credit. He warned of the “immense” impact this has “on the human rights of the most vulnerable in the UK”.
Investigations by The Canary also revealed further evidence of the true impact of the online system on people’s lives.
“It’s an absolute nightmare of a system”
On 11 February, even Amber Rudd was forced to admit that Universal Credit delays have pushed up foodbank use.
As 53-year-old John* told The Canary, to even apply, you need an email address. “I’ve never had one of those in my life,” he explained. “You have to learn how to use that,” he continued, “and it’s an absolute nightmare of a system”. He was forced to use a foodbank because of Universal Credit delays:
It took me about four to six weeks to actually apply… because you can only do it online. I don’t have a computer and when I went to school we didn’t learn how to use computers. So in between working six days a week, I’ve had to actually learn how to use the computer and navigate their system – which isn’t the easiest in the world – and then you have to wait weeks before you get any help.
Universal Credit issues mean that 32-year-old Carrie* is now homeless. After missing a job centre appointment because she was unwell, Carrie was sanctioned and had £26 to live on “for a whole month”. She said:
I had a sick note to say I was so unwell I couldn’t move. But they make you hand in your sick note when you’re sick. I didn’t have any way of getting onto the internet. They sanctioned me even before the sick note was finished.
After this, her situation spiralled further into crisis and she lost her home.
“How many more”
The government claimed that its push to online systems makes “them better and cheaper for taxpayers and more effective and efficient for government”. In response to the latest findings, a DWP spokesperson told HuffPost:
Tailored support is an important principle of Universal Credit and these quoted figures include people helped by Job Centre staff. 98% of people claim online and our latest claimant survey showed the majority of people found the process easy. Additional support is also available for those that need it.
But evidence is mounting to show that the impact of these digital systems is devastating for many people. As Rachel Gregory, from debt charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP), said:
The question we ask is: how many more are out there who haven’t completed their applications because they had no help?
So yet again, the government’s flagship benefits policy is causing misery and challenges for those people most in need. It’s quite simply not fit for purpose.
*names were changed
Since you're here ...
We know you don't need a lecture. You wouldn't be here if you didn't care.
Now, more than ever, we need your help to challenge the rightwing press and hold power to account. Please help us survive and thrive.