The technology behind Universal Credit must undergo a “comprehensive redesign”, say human rights campaigners, amid warnings that the algorithm which calculates how much people receive is causing people to go hungry, fall into debt and experience psychological distress.
Campaign group Human Rights Watch also accuses the government of failing to fully address inequalities in access to online services, where people apply for and manage their benefits, in a new report titled report “Automated Hardship: How the Tech-Driven Overhaul of the UK’s Benefits System Worsens Poverty”.
“The government’s bid to automate the benefits system – no matter the human cost – is pushing people to the brink of poverty,” said Amos Toh, senior artificial intelligence and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“Making sure the benefits system protects people’s rights is ultimately a job for humans, not an algorithm.”
Universal Credit has proven to be a vital lifeline for many in the face of job losses and redundancies during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Around 3.4 million people turned to the benefit during the coronavirus lockdown between March and June 2020.
The report comes six weeks after the government U-turn on A-level exam results which initially saw tens of thousands of students have their predicted grades demoted by an algorithm.
Universal Credit has been a lifeline for millions in this crisis, but it doesn’t always fit with the reality of people’s lives
Toh continued: “Benefits are designed to help people, not kick them when they’re down. A human-centred approach to benefits automation will ensure the UK government is helping the people who need it most.”
Based on interviews with 35 people carried out between March and July this year, including 14 claiming the controversial benefit, HRW concluded that the means-tested algorithm behind Universal Credit is flawed.
The system is supposed to adjust how much people are entitled to on a monthly basis based on changes in their earnings.
But HRW discovered that the government data only reflects the wages people receive within a calendar month without taking into account how frequently people are paid. Therefore, people who receive multiple payments in one month can see their earnings overestimated and their Universal Credit payment fall as a result.
A spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) told The Big Issue that the monthly assessment was designed to “mirror the world of work”, a policy in place since the system was first launched in 2013.
It is common for people in irregular or low-paid jobs to receive multiple wages in one month and Universal Credit must reflect “the reality of people’s lives”, says Citizens Advice chief executive Dame Gillian Guy in response to the report.
“Universal Credit has been a lifeline for millions in this crisis, but it doesn’t always fit with the reality of people’s lives,” she said.
“Those in irregular work can find themselves struggling to budget from month to month, while new claimants risk facing hardship or debt while they wait for a first payment.
“With the potential for a fresh avalanche of job losses this winter, it’s critical the government further strengthens the safety net. That means turning advance payments into grants to help people weather the five-week wait and ensuring the system can respond flexibly to people’s circumstances.”
Fixing the problem
A 31-year-old father of three who spoke to the authors said his October 2019 benefit was reduced by nearly £600, and he had to borrow money from his parents and rely on food donations.
“I’ve worked all my life and I am resorting to using the food bank today because of benefits that I am receiving,” the man, whose name is not given, is quoted as saying in the report. “It’s not really a benefit is it, if I’m having to use this service?”
But HRW says the government has failed to act to solve the problem, despite being ordered to do more to rectify the effect on people who receive a regular monthly salary by the UK Appeal Court in June.
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) accepted the ruling but is still figuring out how to implement the changes.
HRW suggested the government could switch to shorter income assessment periods, or use averaged earnings over long periods to smooth out the fluctuations in pay from month-to month.
Making sure the benefits system protects people’s rights is ultimately a job for humans, not an algorithm
There also remains a problem with the “digital by default” nature of applying for and managing Universal Credit.
The government has increased funding to support people applying but demand for support outstrips supply according to HRW, particularly as austerity has hit digital services at libraries and community centres.
The UK government’s international human rights obligations require it to secure everyone’s rights to social security and a decent standard of living, write the authors. But they say the UK has failed to put these rights into domestic law and to give those whose rights are violated an effective remedy.
The DWP spokesperson said: “Universal Credit was designed to mirror the world of work, where the majority of employees receive wages monthly, and to help people get back into employment as soon as possible. The monthly assessment and adjustment period reflects this, and ensures that if a claimant’s income falls, they won’t have to wait several months for a rise in their Universal Credit.
“Urgent advances are available for those who need them, and we have taken steps to make debt repayments easier.”