Today I accused the Department for Work and Pensions of failing to prepare people in the most deprived areas of Lancaster for the switch to Universal Credit, which will become fully digitised this month.
As of July, all new claimants in Lancaster will have to go online to sign-on. Face-to-face applications will only be allowed in exceptional circumstances, and claimants will need to spend dozens of hours hunting for jobs online to avoid losing their benefits.
Nearly 16% of adults in Lancaster have never used the internet and 23% do not possess basic digital skills, including being able to complete an online Universal Credit form. This is according to research which was developed by Doteveryone with the BBC, the London School of Economics and the Local Government Association.
Last month a report from the Science and Technology Committee warns that the UK is facing a “digital skills crisis”, judging that the skills gap costs the economy around £63bn a year in lost income.
Hundreds of people being unable to log-on and sign-on is likely to mean further pressure on food banks and greater debt. This comes as fresh evidence revealed last month that the minimum 42-day waiting-period faced by those waiting for their benefits to transfer to Universal Credit causes “serious detriment” for the most vulnerable people. The further delay caused by this lack of access for those who are not online will likely add to this hardship.
Digital exclusion is not simply a barrier to signing-on. Once receiving Universal Credit, failure to apply for a minimum number of jobs a week might see your payments cut through sanctions. As more and more recruitment is done online, being unable to access a computer or to fill in an online form could have real and serious consequences.
Digitally excluded people are most likely to be in social housing, on lower wages, unemployed, with disabilities, older or ex-offenders, and therefore more likely to be in need of welfare relief. This is according to the Government’s own Digital Inclusion Strategy 2014, whose April 2016 deadlines to reduce digital exclusion have come and gone in complete silence.
Ministers have done nothing to address digital exclusion. It’s those who can’t get online who will pay the price for that failure. Universal credit can be a lifeline for job seekers and those who are unable to work in Lancaster. More inaction from Ministers will just be another obstacle for people who are often amongst the most vulnerable in our community. This is a shameful betrayal by those who are supposed to be helping the vulnerable in our society.