I am told that Wigan, one of the pilot areas for the DWP Universal Credit, has followed HMRC (VAT, PAYE reporting et al), DEFRA (Farm Payments) and others in defining Digital by Default as Hobsons Choice, “do it on-line or not at all”. According to an article on the Council website: “From 1st July, new, single, claimants living in WN1 to WN6 postcodes will start to claim Universal Credit for the first time. From this date, claims for Universal Credit will have to be made online, payments will be made through one single monthly payment to each household and claimants will be responsible for paying their household bills including their rent.”
At least in Wigan, unlike a growing number of the Labour feifdoms in London, they still have libraries and other centres where those unable to go on-line themselves, including many of those in most need of benefits, can go for help. In West Norwood, an area which has long had a high proportion of elderly and vulnerable residents, the Library and its linked multi-purpose hall and community centre (with full disabled access) is to be turned into a multi-screen cinema with no parking. The full farcical saga, (from maintenance and booking failures to drive community groups away, through repeated thefts of copper from the roof to eventually leaving the building open to the elements and then “finding asbestos”), would be beyond belief, save that it is Lambeth.
One of my conspiracy theorists alleges that the Wigan interpretation of Digital by Default is to bring the DWP pilot into disrepute. I would be more charitable. The council appears to have offered a choice of locations where supported access is available. It may actually be engaging in the joined-up thinking of which Whitehall appears incapable. However, I note that, one again, the nation’s favourite one-stop-shop for public services, the Post Office, has been left out.
Given the collapse of the Cabinet Office dictated DWP identity strategy, the vulnerability of many benefits claimants to impersonation and the rise of UKIP, the time has come for ministers to order their officials to look at issues from the perspective of voters, not of consultants and technology salesmen. This is particularly important given current publicity for diverting security budgets into cyberwarfare and protecting against state sponsored IP theft and awareness campaigns which have yet to be linked to education, training and victim support, thus stoking up paranoia instead of spreading practical guidance.