Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith says the Government will explore a 'social housing broadband tariff' to enable those to claim the new Universal Credit online.
From next October, Universal Credit will replace six income-related benefits, including housing benefit, which claimants will apply online for and receive as a single monthly payment.
The Government says it’s committed to providing support for those without online access and has recently selected councils to pilot such support. However, its aspiration is for 80% of Universal Credit claims to be made online by 2017.
Recent estimates suggest nearly half of council and housing association tenants in England do not have access to the internet or have never gone online.
In the Commons yesterday evening, Conservative MP for Rossendale and Darwen Jake Berry asked the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith – the driving force behind Universal Credit – to explore the possibility of a 'social housing broadband tariff'.
He said: “BT does a social housing telephone tariff. Will he explore the possibility of a social housing broadband tariff to enable those who want to claim their benefits online to do so?"
Mr Duncan Smith said this was exactly what the Government was trying to do.
He said: “Absolutely right. That is exactly what we are trying to do, and I will ensure that it is one of the areas we look at. That is the whole process we are engaged in. If we can get more people in social housing online, the net benefit will be phenomenal. We are all desperate for more broadband, but the people who will benefit the most—for shopping and so on—will be older people and others in difficulty on lower incomes. They will benefit massively, if we can begin to get them online. This is a crusade as much as anything else.”
Mr Duncan Smith came under further pressure from MPs last night - following an opposition day debate on Universal Credit surrounding its cost and delivery.
The work and pensions secretary said the implementation of the new system was on time and on budget and that he was taking a "close interest in every single part of the IT development".
He said: "I hold meetings every week and a full meeting every two weeks, and every weekend a full summary of the IT developments and everything to do with policy work is in my box and I am reading it. I take full responsibility and I believe that we are taking the right approach."
Following concerns about online access for those without the internet, he said the vast majority of people claiming benefits today "already use computers and the internet—around 80% of those who claim jobseeker’s allowance use computers".
He said: "Importantly, however, not all of them use their computer for claiming benefits, which they often do on the telephone. Over each month we intend to move more of those people to an online process of claiming—already more than 30% of people have started on that, and we intend to increase that figure first to 50% and eventually to 80%. We know, however, that to do that we may need to help people enormously, so jobcentres will be fitted out—we are doing trials—with computers and telephones that connect people directly to contact centres. My plan is for contact centres to get people on to their computers and work through the process with them. One reason people are worried and do not want to go online is that the present online system is not good. It is notchy and difficult—I have used it myself—and difficult to get through.
"We are developing and designing with claimants, jobcentre staff and local authority staff a front-end system that will be much simpler and easier. I will demonstrate it to colleagues on both sides of the House when we have time—I will do so next week, but on other occasions, too."