By 2023, seven million Britons are expected to be on Universal Credit, which is replacing six “legacy benefits” into one supposedly simple monthly payment. They include people such as those who would have been on housing benefit or income support.
Universal Credit has received a lion’s share of negative press but its two fundamental issues can be boiled down to this: it is a massive welfare cut for some of society’s most vulnerable, including parents and households in disability benefit. It is also overly complicated.
This stems in large part due to the government’s “digital by default” agenda. Universal Credit is essentially online only: The “how to claim” page of the Universal Credit site states clearly that you “need to apply for Universal Credit online,” including having an e-mail address. This has led to people who do not have access to the internet at home, are not computer literate or struggle with English to struggle.
The public library is promoted by the DWP as a port of call for such people. However, when you consider that last year 127 public libraries were closed, 712 full-employees lost their jobs and over the past six years £200 million in funding has been cut, this advice seems like a shirking of responsibility.
Lorensbergs, the company that provides most of our public libraries’ computer booking systems, says that half of public libraries are seeing an increase in users asking for help with digital skills. A recent survey they conducted also found that less than 20 per cent of these libraries are meeting this demand without the use of volunteers.
Nick Poole, the CEO of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, makes the point that “libraries were always about access to information.” That access used to be via books, but now it is through the internet.
When asked whether libraries could be expected to help the extra two million people who will join the new system (due to a new circumstance) this year, Poole sighs, “we’re beyond capacity for this. We’re struggling to keep with the levels of demand we’re seeing now.”
“There aren’t enough computers and there aren’t enough staff hours to help people.”
Poole also notes the significance of the public library to rural communities that still have very slow to no access to the internet. Bus routes he says have primarily been cut from these communities, often in the North, and access to libraries has been made even more difficult.
A DWP spokesperson tells me that all their job-centres have free Wi-Fi and more than 8000 computers to help assist claims, and that the majority of those who apply online found the process easy. They also say that home-visits can be organised and that claims can be made over the phone.
Do enough people know that these options exist? How well-developed are they?
Emma Owens, Head of Customer Accounts at the Bath Housing Association, Curo-Group, says that she’s found in rural communities it has taken the DWP up to eight weeks to organise a home visit for people with ill health.
Nevertheless, she says for 80 per cent of claimants, the online-online system works perfectly fine—barring accidents. Her biggest issue with the agenda is the fact the government have taken away the choice of people to either apply face-to-face or over the phone.
The Citizens’ Advice Bureau tells its users that “there is no paper form,” and that those who need to apply by in phone or in person will “need to tell the DWP why you can’t apply online, for example if you have problems reading or writing.”
Owens says her housing association go into people’s homes to help them fill out their forms. “We’ve had to do that to protect our income streams. But we also want to serve our communities. It’s the right thing to do.”
When I ask Owens whether she believes the infrastructure is in place for the several million people who will join the system, she says that at their local service centre, those who work on DWP claims have gone from 150 cases per service manager to nearer 600.
The online nature of Universal Credit is supposed to mean that any queries can be asked and answered on the website. However, Sandra Mitchell, a mature student and mother who is claiming Universal Credit, tells me that “messages [online] can go left unanswered for days and weeks.”
Owens explains that this is because responding to queries is understandably the last priority, especially when you have so many cases to deal with. DWP want to prioritise issues blocking payments.
Maybe this analogy is silly, but one of my friends made it and it has stuck with me. Remember a few years ago, when supermarkets were initially trialling self-service checkouts, and we all got annoyed that it wouldn’t recognise the banana that we wanted to buy? We still had the option to talk to someone at the counter. We didn’t have to go looking for it. It was right there.
If the DWP is expecting libraries and local authorities to pick up the slack, then far more support needs to be given. Until then: give people the option of buying a banana at the counter.