This weekend, I’ve been keenly following news of the Universal Credit Select Committee, and so ahead of tomorrow’s Commons debate (which I’ll also be keeping an eye on) I thought I’d have my say too.
One of the main concerns presented before the Select Committee, and one that will no doubt be debated tomorrow, is the fact that the Universal Credit will be built to be ‘digital by default’ – it will be designed for online channels, and will be managed and run online. Concerns have been raised about the 8 million offline people in the UK, and the 14.5 million who don’t have adequate skills, and the risks that they’ll fall through the cracks without the support they need to claim their benefits or keep their details up-to-date online.
It’s a bold move to build a flagship benefit service as digital by default, and so I can understand why people are concerned, but I think it’s the right approach. I talk all the time about how the internet can really open up lives, and by hook or by crook I’m determined to encourage as many people as possible to use it – and use it more. Building online services that people need to use is a great way of introducing people to the internet, and helping them to gain skills that will positively impact on other areas of their lives too. We released some research back in January that revealed that 73% of employers wouldn’t even interview those without computer and internet skills, so not only will people who are unemployed be gaining new skills by claiming benefits online, but they will also be making themselves more employable.
We know that community centres and public libraries (thousands of whom are our partners) can provide a local and low cost range of solutions. For those who need support – whether they’ve never been online before, want some help with their first claim or want ongoing help to gain more confidence with using online tools. For those who need access if they don’t have a computer at home. Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, said that recently she had been unable to find a broadband service for her own flat at less than £30 a month: “On the kind of income that many people on benefit have, that is completely out of the scope that they can afford,” she said. Getting online at home is of course the ideal, but UK online centres do exist as a local alternative when access at home isn’t a possibility.
Universal Credit is brave and ambitious and difficult, but I believe driving this new service to be digital by default is the right thing to do. We should be brave and ambitious too about improving the lives of people on welfare by giving them the digital skills they need to take part in a 21st century where it is inevitable that having digital skills will be as essential as reading and numeracy.