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Digital access will make or break Universal Credit, say charities and HAs

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Digital access will make or break Universal Credit, say charities and HAs

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Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Universal Credit and also in Central Government, Housing

Digital access will make or break Universal Credit, say charities and HAs Digital access will make or break Universal Credit, say charities and HAs

At a summit discussion organised by Stone Group last week, charities, housing associations and policy consultants revealed their primary concern about Universal Credit to be access to computers and the internet for claimants. But are the other barriers more difficult to solve – and whose responsibility are they?

Applying for and receiving benefits through the new Universal Credit scheme requires access to a secure, internet-enabled computer.

With no outward commitment to funding or supporting this essential part of the change to the benefits system from DWP, charities and housing associations are putting measures into place to help their stakeholders through the anticipated complexity and concern. However, their own funding continues to be slashed by Government, limiting the resources they can promise.

No computer, no claim?
Housing associations such as Affinity Sutton already have programmes of practical and educational support underway. Through its relationship with Stone Group, Affinity is offering its tenants low-cost, recycled PCs and laptops, giving them the ability to get online. This is complimented by its digital and community champions scheme, which sees 94 volunteers and further staff resource dedicated to helping all its stakeholders access and use the internet - not just to get on board with welfare reform changes, but to improve their quality of life.

"Housing associations may suffer as residents will now have to pay directly. So, they need to act fast to ensure their tenants can get online and have devices. This needs to be in place before training on the process can begin,” said Simon Pettit of Stone Group, who opened the summit.

Although many charities and housing associations are rising to the challenge of providing individual support to households, attendees at the summit warned that ignoring the lessons that can be learned from some previous Government digital initiatives would be a mistake.

“Assuming that the only barrier to the success of any digital scheme is internet access and hardware availability is short-sighted,” said Gerald Power of Trapeze Transformation. “Look at the Government’s online Student Loans scheme – considered a failure despite its target demographic being highly skilled web users.”

A time and a place for claims to be made
The group agreed that trust in the online claims system and ‘business as usual’ access to advice and support will help soften the change. Some of the organisations attending, such as the Post Office and Citizens Advice Bureau, suggested that their support would be in transaction enablement – perhaps physically providing space and technical resource within their premises where claimants can receive practical help.

Barbara Bowers of Citizens Advice Bureau pointed out that a crucial role for support organisations will be signposting and providing a conduit for the Universal Credit cohort to the professionals within the Government they need to connect with – effectively similar to the role they already fulfill on many other housing and social issues.

Organisations such as Shelter are seeking to minimise the effect of funding cuts. Shelter is developing its services to ensure it can help as many people as possible, as it is widely anticipated that the need for advice will increase as Universal Credit is introduced.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way?
The group agreed that the public’s appetite for digital inclusion doesn’t appear to match the expectations of the DWP and other Government bodies that all services can be pushed online.

With the average housing benefit form stretching to around 30 pages in print, the summit wondered how a similar form for Universal Credit would look and feel to a nervous digital claimant with no previous experience. Failure to fill in the form correctly could result in financial problems, including a £50 Civil Penalty.

“Moving to an online application requires a huge leap of faith for even the most digitally native of people.” said Anne Faulkner of UK Online Centres. “And as a claimant, failure really matters; it affects the money you have to live on for the foreseeable future.”

Anne Faulkner of UK Online Centres asserted that the DWP’s ‘build it and they will come’ attitude could be a mistake, and that there is potentially a large group of potential claimants who can’t, and won’t ever get online to use the system. It was agreed that this made the hands-support of housing providers and charities an even bigger essential to the success of welfare reform.

Ground-up improvements to infrastructure
The summit concluded with a look at how housing organisations could continue to shape the social change brought about by welfare form. As Simon Pettit of Stone Group said, “Universal Credit could end up being the catalyst to the closure of the digital divide.”

It was suggested that stakeholders should be taking a step back, and looking at household infrastructure – examining housing itself and what social housing should mean to a benefit claimant from a telecoms, hardware and utilities perspective? Should, for example, broadband access become a subsidised utility for housing association tenants? Should a computer be a standard household appliance to aid adoption of digital interaction and enhance the ability of a householder to manage their financial responsibilities?

Where next?
From Stone and Affinity Sutton’s perspective, similar to many other housing associations, they are out of the starting blocks and their tenants are beginning to embrace digital opportunities brought through the availability of appropriate technology.

The summit demonstrated that housing organisations are working hard to ensure that in the case of Universal Credit, the saying ‘a bad workman blames his tools’ will not be applicable to tenants.

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