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Universal Credit algorithm fails people in need, says Human Rights Watch

The human rights charity says the government’s flagship benefits system is “flawed” and that the means-testing algorithm used causes “irrational fluctuations and reductions in how much benefit” claimants receive each month

The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) Universal Credit system is failing people who most need it, according to Human Rights Watch.

A report by the charity found that the algorithm used by the system is “flawed” and that the system inaccurately calculates payments, which leads to claimants struggling to get by.

Benefits are calculated automatically by an algorithm, using data from HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) real-time information (RTI) system, which provides information on whether taxes have been paid and on time, as well as how much an individual or household claiming benefits earns each month.

According to Human Rights Watch, however, the algorithm is failing to correctly calculate payments.  

“If the RTI system is a camera, the assessment period functions like a timer that tells it when to take a photo. The resulting snapshot is the earnings data that UC’s algorithm uses to calculate an individual’s benefit payment for that month,” the report said.

“The problem is that this earnings snapshot is incomplete. The data that the DWP obtains only shows how much an individual is paid and when they were paid, but not the period of work their salary covers. As a result, the DWP might detect that an individual received a £1,000 pay cheque on 30 March and another £1,000 on 29 April, but not that each £1,000 salary is a monthly wage.”

It added that the algorithm “appears to be rule-based” and has been programmed “with a well-defined sequence of rules that tells it exactly how to analyse people’s finances in order to work out their award each month”.

Human Rights Watch said the government needs to ensure that the algorithm does not “deprive people of their benefits on discriminatory grounds”.

In June 2020, the Court of Appeal ordered DWP to fix the design flaw. However, the ruling was limited to those cases where people draw a regular monthly salary. According to the charity, the department has accepted the ruling “but is still figuring out how to implement it”.

The charity also criticised the government’s digital-first approach to the system, saying that many people who “lack digital literacy also cannot afford a computer device or an internet connection”. These concerns have been echoed by previous reports by several bodies, including one by a United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in 2018, who found several significant issues with the digital system.

Verify problems

Human Rights Watch also criticised the Verify online identity system, which is used by claimants to verify their identity when making a claim. DWP was warned as long ago as 2015 that the performance of Verify would be a problem for Universal Credit applications, and since the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, problems increased as the number of claimants rose. Verify was unable to cope with the surge in claims and, as a result, people were placed in queues behind tens of thousands of other applicants, and made to wait hours – in some cases until the next day – to complete the process.

In 2018, Verify was only able to determine the identity of 35% of Universal Credit claimants, which meant about two-thirds of people then had to talk to a DWP call centre to complete their initial claim. However, the latest figures showed that in January 2020, only 20% of new UC claimants were successfully able to verify their identity using the online identity system.  

The charity’s report said the Verify service had “proven unreliable for the majority of people applying for benefits” and that in an interview with the charity, one claimant said the demands of “establishing the required online presence can be daunting”.

“People who are unable to verify their identity online are required to book an in-person interview at their local job centre. This alternative, however, can also prove challenging when the DWP’s computer systems struggle to register complex claims,” the report added.

Although the government does provide support to claimants who struggle with the digital side of Universal Credit, this is mostly outsourced to local government and charities such as Citizens’ Advice.

Another report, by the Economic Affairs Committee, found that the design of Universal Credit is leading to an increase in claimants needing to use food banks and struggling to pay their rent.

One of the issues highlighted is that some people struggle with the mainly digital aspect of the system, and that non-digital services are only available in exceptional circumstances.

Read more about Universal Credit

  • Lords Select Committee finds the design of the Universal Credit system is ‘failing millions of people’, including a ‘significant minority’ who struggle with the digital service.
  • The cost of rolling out Universal Credit continues to rise, while only 20% of new claimants attempt to verify their identity online and digital skills remain an issue, according to the National Audit Office.
  • Online queues in the tens of thousands are hindering emergency applications for Universal Credit, with the Verify identity verification system becoming a particular bottleneck.

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