The ‘digital by default’ design of the universal credit benefit is leaving huge numbers of people struggling to make claims, new figures show.
Almost half a million people have needed help to apply for the controversial benefit online – prompting fears that countless others are missing out altogether.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was asked how many people had answered “yes” to a question on the online application form asking: “Did anyone help you make your claim - for example a family member, friend or someone from the jobcentre or a charity.”
Figures obtained by the HuffPost UK website showed that 2,000 people answered yes in December 2016, 85,000 a year later and 375,000 in 2018 - taking the total to 462,000.
The numbers equate to 22% of the total digital applications for 2017 (380,000) and for 2018 (1.71 million).
In an experiment, a universal credit claimant took two hours to fill in the online forms, far longer than the DWP’s estimated 40 minutes – and only did so thanks to the loan of a smartphone to download an app needed to verify her identity.
The charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP), said the results confirmed its own experience from working with claimants across the country.
“Digital exclusion is a significant challenge for many people helped by us,” said Rachel Gregory, a spokeswoman for the charity. “In our own research we found that 22% said they do not have access to the internet at home, on a computer or smart phone.
“As universal credit is designed to be ‘digital by default’, difficulties making a claim online featured strongly amongst our clients.”
Gregory added: “The question we ask is: how many more are out there who haven’t completed their applications because they had no help?”
Margaret Greenwood, Labour’s work and pensions spokesperson, added: “Nobody should lose out because they find it difficult to use IT or don’t have easy access to it, especially with the widespread closures of libraries and jobcentres.”
The roll out of universal credit, which merges six working age benefits into one monthly payment, has been dogged by problems and delays. The steep increase in IT help from 2016-18 reflects the increasing numbers of people claiming universal credit, as the system has been extended to more areas.
However, plans to bring around 3 million more within the system have been shelved and the department finally admitted problems had forced people to go to food banks.
The DWP defended its record, saying face-to-face support was available until April while jobcentres had free WiFi and more than 8,000 computers available for people who need help making a digital claim.
A spokeswoman told HuffPost UK: “Tailored support is an important principle of universal credit and these quoted figures include people helped by jobcentre staff.
“98% of people claim online and our latest claimant survey showed the majority of people found the process easy. Additional support is also available for those that need it.”
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