Work and Pensions Committee - Universal Credit implementation: meeting the needs of vulnerable claimantsWritten evidence submitted by Lasa

Summary

Lasa has concerns that the proposed arrangements for online claiming and information reporting could exclude the most vulnerable claimants from universal credit. Lasa has models of online support and a long track record of utilising technology to deliver welfare benefits information to advisers. Lasa is concerned that the Real Time Information system for PAYE (Pay as You Earn) may not be progressing as claimed, nor able to deliver as expected. Lasa is aiming to do a quick piece of analysis, in partnership with Child Poverty Action Group, of the responses of a sample of London local authorities to the challenges presented by welfare reform.

1. Whilst Lasa supports the idea of thinking digital first, we also recognise it is important for us and other charities who work with the most disadvantaged groups in society not to exacerbate the problem of digital exclusion. We all need to accept that digital cannot be the only channel for delivering information and services and there is plenty of evidence to support this view.

2. The Low Income Tax Reform Group report on Digital Exclusion highlighted the prevalence of “digital exclusion” amongst charity and SME organisations. They recommend an inclusive and non-mandatory approach to “digital by default”. We would strongly recommend that a similar approach must be taken to the online claiming approach of Universal Credit.

3. Talking at an Institute of Technology conference, Sharon Cooper highlighted that 80% of online services are used by 20% of people, and that the people who most need to access services such as the Department for Work and Pensions are those that are the most digitally excluded. The challenge is to meet the needs of this section of the population, particularly older people, who are the worst affected.

4. The government is looking at how this can be done through libraries and Jobcentres. It is important that this provides not just internet access but crucially, access to other people who can help. Yet, we also need to consider the needs of many people who cannot get out to these places. We must look to find ways of taking services to them or otherwise helping them to access services so they are not further disadvantaged. This is backed up by research commissioned by the Welsh Government that shows that giving people access to computers is not enough.

5. Similarly, in a Shelter policy briefing, Shifting channels: Housing advice and the growth of digitisation, it is reported:

“An analysis of Shelter’s own web services reveals that we have more visits from those less likely to be vulnerable. This suggests that rather than shifting clients from one channel to another, we may be simply reaching into a new audience. As such, this may even be increasing the demand for face to face services, rather than reducing it. Shelter believes that a multi-channel approach will be needed beyond the short term.”

6. Lasa’s own forum www.rightsnet.org.uk is a good model of online peer support for welfare benefits advisers, through its discussion forum primarily, but also news, legislation, case-law and much more. We believe that the government should be looking to work with organisations such as Lasa to understand our experience in developing such innovative and aware-winning websites, to ensure that vulnerable claimants are able to access independent advice and assistance to resolve problems of either online claiming or entitlement issues.

7. We would also raise concerns about the perceived progress of the RTI system for PAYE taxation. As noted in our recent blog piece, Storing up problems, there have been a series of contradictory reports and news stories over the past 12 months, and in particular, the most recent report from the All Party Parliamentary Taxation Group notes RTI as undoubtedly the biggest change to PAYE since 1944 and expresses concern this is being driven by universal credit policy rather than a sound business case.

8. It is clear from early findings that local authorities in London are responding in a variety of ways to the challenges of preparing for Universal Credit, as well as Local Housing Allowance and the localisation of Council Tax Benefit and Social Fund payments. The most coherent responses, we would contend, are coming from those authorities who are working in partnership with local advice services such as Citizens Advice Bureau and Law Centres to prepare for the reforms. There is a clear and pressing need for sharing of best practice and information resources in this area, to ensure local residents properly understand what will be taking place.

16 August 2012

Prepared 21st November 2012