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Digital exclusion is creating a ‘two-tier’ system for people claiming benefits

The online benefits system makes claiming easier for some. But for others, digital exclusion keeps them locked out of support

In association with O2

People on low incomes are at a major disadvantage in the digital age, research has shown – and it’s a problem being exacerbated by the benefits system.

For universal credit claimants in particular, the process of applying for benefits, managing payments and contacting work coaches is an almost entirely digital one. 

But for people on a low enough income to need benefits – who now find themselves on the sharp end of a cost of living crisis – one extra utility can often be out of budget.

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When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK, only 51 per cent of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 had internet access at home, according to Social Mobility Commission data on digital exclusion. That compared to 99 per cent of households with a total income over £40,000. 

People on low incomes who did have internet access at home and were less likely to have the skills to use it. It’s a problem which creates a catch-22, experts say, locking people out of the services they need – like social security – to improve their circumstances. 

While technology was once considered a luxury, it is now a “necessity to get by,” Sara Willcocks, head of external affairs at anti-poverty organisation Turn2us, told The Big Issue. 

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“When it comes to applying for, and managing, your universal credit claim, you need a smartphone and you need access to the internet,” she added, explaining that digital exclusion can be the catalyst for being pushed deeper into poverty. “It is the same for making job applications.” 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said the so-called digital-by-default model meant claimants could “access support without endless form-filling and waiting”. Universal credit applications are made online, but only 54 per cent of claimants were able to submit one unassisted, according to DWP figures from 2018. Around 43 per cent said they needed more support registering their claim.

Some broadband providers offer heavily discounted packages for people receiving benefits, but they are notoriously poorly-publicised – only around 55,000 homes have made use of the deals so far, according to Ofcom figures, of roughly 4.2 million which would be eligible. They also don’t cover the cost of devices, and could prove too far for the reach of many budgets as the cost of living crisis forces people to choose between food and heating.

Yet the internet is a necessity for the millions of people claiming universal credit across the UK. Applications are made online and, once successful, people manage their claims through the online universal credit journal.

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This is where they see how much money they have coming in, stay in touch with their work coach and send messages about their search for a job, if that is part of their conditions to receive social security.

It’s also where claimants can inform the DWP of disabilities or health conditions affecting their ability to work, as well as uploading supporting documentation such as medical letters. Doing so incorrectly – or not being able to do so at all – can, in some cases, result in sanctions which temporarily cut the amount of money a person receives. These have been linked to an increase in rent arrears and higher reliance on food banks. 

The online journal is where a claimant can tell a work coach if they are going to miss a meeting – which can also result in sanctions – or record childcare costs which could impact payments.

“While taking a digital-first approach to designing our social security system might cut overall costs, for many people it makes accessing support impossible,” Willcocks added. “The government must avoid making a two-tier system where people without digital means are not disadvantaged when it comes to them seeking vital financial support.”

Sources told The Big Issue that digital exclusion didn’t just mean struggling to use the technology, but that the lack of a paper trail was impacting people who sought to appeal DWP decisions. When a change is made to a person’s claim, the in-journal interface updates and often shows no record of the claim history. This can mean in some cases only those with the knowledge ability to take screenshots, or photos of their screen, can hold onto evidence of their experience as a claimant.

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While the digital system works well for those who can access it, it makes those who can’t – more likely to be in the deepest poverty, not speak English as a first language, be from a Black or minority ethnic background or be disabled – reliant on outside help to start a claim, manage it and address any issues, researchers found. 

“More than a third of claimants rely on friends, family or external support to navigate the benefits system,” said Dr Daniel Edmiston, lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Leeds. “Many claimants are struggling to make and sustain a claim under the digital-by-default system.”

Edmiston is part of the Welfare at a Social Distance research project, a major national study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council exploring how people accessed benefits and employment support during the pandemic and in its aftermath.

In their latest report, researchers investigating digital exclusion found that, as well as challenges affording data or broadband, people often struggled to make a claim because they didn’t have an email address, struggled to provide identification online or were forced to use insecure internet connections which they worried would put their personal data at risk. 

“Many claimants are struggling under the ‘digital-by-default’ system,” Edmiston said. “Covid-19 and the move towards more remote forms of support made it even harder for those struggling most financially.”

While the digitisation of social security could make the system more responsive to the claimants’ changing circumstances, it currently causes “considerable uncertainty” for people, Edmiston added, as well as placing extra pressure on support services across local authorities.

“Welfare rights advisors, local charities and support organisations are having to shock-absorb the additional work generated by a digital-by-default system,” he said. “Inconsistencies in support across local areas are determining whether and how social security is claimed, received and by whom.”

The burden placed on local support is currently papering over the cracks in benefits accessibility, the researchers concluded. When they succeed in helping people make a benefits claim despite existing barriers like digital exclusion, they obscure the system’s shortcomings instead of highlighting problems which need to be urgently addressed.

But if they fail, the people already at the greatest disadvantage in society bear the brunt – and are likely to be left trying to make ends meet on too low an income.

“Black and minority ethnic communities, the most economically insecure, those with limiting health conditions or disabilities, and migrant populations,” Edmiston said, “are those routinely being left behind.”

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