UN extreme poverty monitor is critical of Universal Credit ‘digital by default’ service

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights raises significant concerns with Universal Credit, including poor digital literacy among claimants, automation errors and lack of transparency

The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, has raised concerns over Universal Credit (UC) and its digital approach.  

After a two-week visit to the UK, Alston found that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is “taking an experimental ‘test and learn’ approach” to its flagship welfare reform programme.  

In a statement following his visit, Alston said making the service “digital by default” is highly controversial.

“This means that an entitlement claim is made online and that the beneficiary then interacts with authorities mainly through an online portal. One wonders why some of the most vulnerable and those with poor digital literacy had to go first in what amounts to a nationwide digital experiment,” he said.

The UC programme first began in 2010 before a restart in 2014, but the full business case was only submitted for HM Treasury approval earlier this year, due to a variety of reasons, including concerns with the digital service.  

Digital skills

One of the key issues raised by Alston in his statement is that digital approach taken to the service, which aims to replace six benefits and tax systems with one all-singing and dancing system.

“From the outset, the belief within DWP has been that the overwhelming majority of Universal Credit claimants are online and digitally skilled, and confident enough to claim and maintain benefits digitally,” he said.

In 2017, charity Citizens’ Advice called for a pause to the roll-out of UC due to people struggling to make claims successfully.  

“Despite contrary indications from some officials, the relevant documents show DWP’s assumption that most people are at ease and competent online,” Alston said, adding that while overall broadband roll out in the UK is high, many poorer and more vulnerable households “are effectively offline without digital skills”.

“Universal Credit has built a digital barrier that effectively obstructs many individuals’ access to their entitlements. Women, older people, people who do not speak English and the disabled are more likely to be unable to overcome this hurdle,” he said.

While job centres offer online access, Alston found that there is very little digital assistance available “and official policy is to keep ‘face-to-face’ help at a minimum”, again putting the digitally excluded at a disadvantage.

Automation issue

Alston’s statement also highlights problems with the data collection in UC. “The merging of six legacy benefits into one new Universal Credit system aimed at reaching millions of UK citizens is in fact a major automation project,” he added.

“The collection of data via the online application process and interactions with the online journal provide a clear stepping stone for further automation within DWP.”

Benefits are automatically calculated through information DWP receives from HMRC on earnings. However, Alston highlighted the potential for automation errors, which has a huge impact on claimants.

“According to DWP, a team of 50 civil servants work full-time on dealing with the 2% of the millions of monthly transactions that are incorrect,” he said.

“Because the default position of DWP is to give the automated system the benefit of the doubt, claimants often have to wait for weeks to get paid the proper amount, even when they have written proof that the system was wrong.”

He also criticised the UK government for its lack of transparency when it comes to the development of new technologies.

“Even the existence of the automated systems developed by DWP’s Analysis and Intelligence Hub and Risk Intelligent Service is almost unknown,” he said.

“The existence, purpose and basic functioning of these automated government systems remains a mystery in many cases, fuelling misconceptions and anxiety about them.”

He added that artificial intelligence (AI) and other new automation technologies don’t inherently threaten human rights, but that “governments simply seek to operationalise their political preferences through technology”, which can lead to both good and bad outcomes. 

“Without more transparency about the development and use of automated systems, it is impossible to make such an assessment. And by excluding citizens from decision-making in this area, we may set the stage for a future based on an artificial democracy,” he said.

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