Citizens Advice has called for the Department for Work and Pension (DWP) to halt the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) as people struggle to make claims successfully.
A report by the charity found problems with the UC digital service, including citizens struggling to verify their identity online and lacking the digital skills to use the system.
DWP has been rolling out Universal Credit in stages. By the end of 2015, DWP rolled out a limited version of the system, referred to as the “live service” but only targeting the simplest of claims and using an IT system run by external providers which is rarely updated. The department began deploying the “full service” country-wide in May last year, which covers the entire complexity of the scheme to replace six different in-work welfare benefits with a single payment.
The roll-out of the full service – meaning that all new benefit claims will be handled through Universal Credit, is ongoing, with a project completion date for the entire programme set for 2022. The government plans to ramp up deployment of the new system this autumn, but Citizens Advice wants the roll-out to be put on hold until issues are addressed.
“One of the big changes under Universal Credit was the switch to a ‘digital’ benefit. For the first time with the full digital service, claimants both apply for and manage their UC claim online. The intention behind this change is to encourage UC claimants to develop their digital skills,” the report said.
Citizens Advice believes that being online could make it easier for people to find and secure work, and access information.
“A digitally-delivered benefit system also has the potential to become more efficient, allowing claimants to better manage their payments and any changes of circumstances,” it said, but added that rolling out a fully digital Universal Credit requires “significant support”.
Skills gap issues
One in five adults in the UK lack basic digital skills and one in seven don’t have access to the internet at home.
“These people are disproportionately likely to be disabled or have a long-term health condition, and to be unemployed or on low incomes. These are also the groups most likely to be making a claim for UC,” the report said.
“A survey of our UC clients in full service areas found nearly half (45%) had difficulty accessing or using the internet – or both.”
This makes it difficult for citizens applying for benefits to do so online. In fact, 52% of the people surveyed by Citizens Advice said they found the online application difficult and felt that the support they needed was not available. Most people have also not been informed that there are other options than applying online.
“Without accessible facilities and support, there is a risk that the significant minority of claimants who lack digital literacy or internet access will experience additional delays and errors in their initial claim,” the report said.
Read more about Universal Credit
- Institute for Government report reveals that during the 2013 “reset” of Universal Credit, the Department for Work and Pensions pointed fingers at suppliers.
- Public Accounts Committee report slates lack of transparency around Universal Credit and calls for specific plans for the roll out of the digital service to be made public.
Citizens Advice added that the organisation supports the aim of equipping claimants with basic digital skills, but that to avoid delays and hardships for people unable to make claims successfully, the “obstacles faced by those who currently lack these skills need to be addressed”.
Another issue is that when claimants face issues, they are told to call the Universal credit helpline, which costs up to 55p per minute from a mobile. With long waiting times, a single call could cost up to £20. Citizens Advice is calling for the helpline to be free of charge “during the test and learn phase before roll-out is completed”.
“This will ensure early claimants can easily receive help with the types of problems and glitches associated with the roll-out period,” the report said.
Universal Credit is one of the government services currently using Gov.uk Verify, the identity assurance platform created by the Government Digital Service (GDS), which aims to be the standard way for citizens to prove who they are when accessing government services.
However, one of the problems Citizens Advice see most frequently, is citizens struggling to verify evidence. This can then delay or reduce payments for the 57% of claimants who said they find it difficult to use the Verify process.
“To apply for UC, claimants must first create a Verify account online which proves their identity. While this account is useful for accessing a range of government services, it can create challenges for some of those claiming UC,” the report said.
“In certain cases, this will be difficulty accessing or providing items such as a passport, driving license or payslip at short notice; for others it will be the need to submit evidence on an online platform.”
A failing system
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said that while the charity supports the principles of Universal Credit, the system is failing “too many people, pushing them into debt and leaving them without the means to make ends meet”.
“The current flaws with the system also undermine the very reasons Universal Credit was introduced: to simplify the benefits system and make sure every hour of work pays. As things stand, too many people are finding Universal Credit very complicated, and problems such as long wait for payments or difficulties getting help with an application mean they are less able to focus on getting into work or increasing their hours,” Guy said.
“The government needs to pause plans to accelerate the roll out of full service Universal Credit this Autumn and devote the time and resource needed to tackle the key problems which mean the system is not working.”