A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Universal Credit and I promised to talk more about what it meant, and the huge impact it’s going to have on our benefits system.For those of you that don’t know, the simple story is this – Universal Credit is a new benefit that will be introduced next year by the Department for Work and Pensions. It’s the biggest shake up of the benefits system ever, and will mean that six different benefits, provided by two different government departments and lots of local authorities will be brought together into one single benefit – the Universal Credit. There are some other changes too, like the fact that benefits will be paid to the household rather than the individual, and money will be paid monthly rather than a mixture of weekly, fortnightly and monthly payments so the claimant will need to develop strong skills in personal budgeting. So far, so simple? Well, one of the most important things about the Universal Credit is that it will be a fully “digital by default” benefit, meaning people will have to claim for the benefit online. The benefit will first be rolled out in autumn 2013, and people will be gradually moved across to using it over four years.
DWP sees this as far more than just a benefit, and you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m right behind them on this. This is a change programme on a huge scale, and making sure that claimants have the right skills to access the Universal Credit will be fundamental to its success. With the programme hoping to make it more attractive for people to work, and to simplify our complicated benefits system, it’s vital that it’s successful. But I’m not naive to think it will be easy. There needs to be a significant investment in skills – not just digital skills, but other skills such as financial literacy – which is something I’m pushing hard for. I know from visiting our centres, and talking to learners on a regular basis, that transacting online can be scary at times, and not a lot of people feel confident enough to do it, so it’s important that the support is there for everyone who needs it. The Jobcentre Plus Digital Champions initiative is a really great example of how this could work. I’ve talked about it before, but putting champions into Jobcentres, who are enthusiastic about the internet and can build up local partnerships, including with UK online centres, has been a fantastic way to get jobseekers online. This model can, and should, continue to work to support people as we move towards the introduction of Universal Credit. As you might have noticed, I’m quite a positive person, so I can see a really exciting future for Universal Credit. And of course, if people get the support they need to use digital for benefits this will extend to the rest of their lives as well, meaning the introduction of Universal Credit will have a double benefit. There are bound to be teething problems with a change of this kind of scale, and my friends in Social Housing Providers are wary too. But I believe this will be a significant milestone towards the UK becoming a leading digital nation, and I’m looking forward to working on the frontline to help introduce it.