Universal credit will fail unless the government can get more people online

Universal credit will fail unless the government can get more people online, a Department for Work and Pensions official has warned.

Mike Shakespeare, who works in stakeholder engagement at the department, told a seminar organised by skills body Digital Unite and social landlord Affinity Sutton last week that digital inclusion work will be vital for the government’s flagship welfare reform policy.

‘If we can’t get people online it will fail,’ he said. ‘No matter what other problems we encounter with this benefit, and I think we will encounter one or two, if we can’t get people online it will fall at the first hurdle.’

Under universal credit a range of existing benefits, including housing benefit, will be combined into a single monthly payment. This government’s intention is that the service will be ‘digital by default’, with users managing accounts through an online system.

The Cabinet Office’s digital strategy for the government, published last November, stated the DWP would be one of the departments leading the way on the digital by default agenda, with universal credit as a key project.

Emma Solomon, managing director of Digital Unite, told the seminar: ‘Because universal credit is one of the early services the timetable is now. We have still got a massive amount of people who aren’t going to be able to use these services.

‘For housing I do think the digital by default agenda is a carrot as well as a stick. It is a bit scary, it is going to be a bit of a problem, but it could also be an opportunity for you.’

Mr Shakespeare was more sanguine about the timetable, saying that although universal credit is being phased in for new claimants from October, the gradual way it is being introduced means many benefit recipients will not have to use the online service until 2017.

‘We can’t afford the system we have at the moment,’ he said. ‘Even if we could afford it, it is not a fair system, it is not helping people.

‘We want to get people online, and that is why digital literacy is a huge part of the welfare reform agenda.’

Earlier this week three councils piloting universal credit support services in Scotland warned the digital approach is creating huge problems and the department should ‘go back to the drawing board’ to re-examine its approach.