Yesterday the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, released a report on his two week visit to Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and it makes pretty difficult reading.
Philip Alston and his team visited the UK last year to find out more about poverty and human rights in the UK, and we were pleased to meet members of his team, and to share our own thoughts – particularly focussing on how digital can both exacerbate and overcome issues of poverty and exclusion, especially around the UK welfare system.
Within the report, Professor Alston gets stuck into some of the issues we’ve raised about the digital capabilities for Universal Credit claimants to be able to fill out the forms. Highlighting the “digital first” nature of Universal Credit (although he later goes further to claim it is effectively “digital only”), Professor Alston writes “The British welfare state is gradually disappearing behind a webpage and an algorithm, with significant implications for those living in poverty”, and by assuming that all claimants have the digital skills needed to complete the form, the DWP “has built a digital barrier that obstructs access to benefits, and particularly disadvantages women, older people, people who do not speak English and persons with disabilities”
This is something we hear regularly from a lot of the 5,000 Online Centres in Good Things Foundation’s Online Centres Network, who are our hyperlocal community partners that are on the frontline in communities, helping to ensure that people don’t fall through the cracks when they need to apply for Universal Credit. This might be because they don’t have the skills they need, they don’t have access to the internet, or a device that makes filling forms in easy – and this is something that government doesn’t seem to have considered fully when implementing its flagship welfare reform policy
The report confirms this. There are 11.3 million in the UK who don’t have essential digital skills, and these people are the most likely to be socially excluded, with 90% of non-users being classed as disadvantaged. This includes people with poor health or a disability, people in social class DE, and people who left school before the age of 16.
It’s glaringly obvious that the digital first nature of Universal Credit means you need to have basic digital skills, however it is Universal Credit claimants who are least likely to have basic digital skills. This creates issues that just aren’t being adequately addressed.
Although the report references some of the support and funding that is being provided, particularly through Citizens Advice, to support Universal Credit claimants with digital, this is really only scratching the surface. Some of the hyperlocal organisations who are part of Good Things’ Online Centre Network are providing support day in, day out to access Universal Credit, and we know that friendly, familiar places in the community are those most likely to engage those who are digitally excluded. These organisations need supporting and funding fairly, to continue providing the help they have been providing, to those who most need it.
And that in itself is a point that we’ve been making repeatedly since the policy began rolling out – the digital first nature of UC presents a significant opportunity to tackle digital exclusion amongst claimants, and introduce them to the benefits of digital so they can do other things online too, like applying for work, saving money on their bills and learning more about the things that interest them. With the right support, digital welfare has the potential to be a force for good, but the proper digital assistance needs to be available. If not, we risk increasing poverty and reducing quality of life for those most in need of support. However, if proper support is given and we seize this chance to reach some of society’s most digitally excluded people, it could have the opposite effect. The report published as part of our ‘Bridging the Digital Divide’ campaign, shows a significant return on investment in digital skills. Providing everyone in the UK with the essential digital skills they need by 2028 will lead to a benefit of £15 for every £1 invested, and a net present value of £21.9 billion. Of this, the research estimates savings of £313m in employment benefits alone through a fully digital nation.
The UN Special Rapporteur’s report highlights some findings that will stop you dead in your tracks. However, we cannot afford to stop in trying to address the issues raised. If we are to better the life chances of those who are being left further and further behind, then we need to act and we need to act now. Whilst the report has been released during a very busy news week, I hope its blistering findings resonates and becomes the catalyst for the government and other groups to use digital as a ladder to help people climb out of poverty, improve their life chances and foster a more digital inclusive economy and society that isn’t just addressing the problems of today, but is ready for the challenges of tomorrow.