I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”. Whether or not you feel the same way about the economic situation as the fictional TV newsreader Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch in an Oscar-winning performance in the 1976 film Network) the biggest reform ever to take place to the welfare system is upon us. Citizens Advice is committed to continue to monitor the effects of these reforms and whenever possible to do what it can to lessen the impact on the most vulnerable in society.
Perhaps the single biggest change is the introduction of Universal Credit. The new system will involve a number of changes for claimants – including the provision that making and managing benefit claims will be made online. The government has indicated that help will be provided for those who cannot use the Internet. The Framework Support document published by the DWP says,
A survey of existing claimants found 78% already use the Internet, although only a small proportion yet use it to make benefit transactions. However, we recognise that some will need help.
In order to ascertain the extent to which Citizens Advice might be called upon to provide this support locally Citizens Advice Waverley led an initiative among bureaux across West Surrey to estimate the proportion of people who are not able to access online services without assistance. People calling or visiting bureaux were asked to complete a short questionnaire during February of this year. The results are based on 637 completed questionnaires.
The survey found that 17% of those who took part had never used the Internet. This compares with up 16.1% nationally in the first quarter of 2012 as reported by the Office of National Statistics. Nothing new there then. However, how many people who use the Internet have the skills and confidence to fill in application forms on line? The survey findings were used to provide an Internet capability rating for each respondent based on frequency of use and confidence in their own ability. 21% were rated as “low” capability.
What about people claiming benefits?
- 42% of respondents were Benefits claimants. 27.4% of these Benefits claimants had never used the Internet (compared with the 22% assessed by the government – see above.) However the proportion of benefits claimants with a low Internet ability rating was 32.7%
- According to the ONS 2012 national survey, Internet use is age sensitive – the older you are the less likely you are to have used the Internet and our survey showed a similar trend. Perhaps most notably the highest proportion of benefits claimants with low Internet ability rating was in the 55-64 age group (7.5%) – the most difficult age group for those seeking work to find employment
- there is a significant number of Internet users in West Surrey who have a low Internet ability rating and would still require assistance in filling out benefit claim forms
- the scale of the effort which will be required to support the transition to Universal Credit in terms of Internet use alone is much higher than the government had anticipated. Support will also be required in terms of money advice to claimants unused to receiving monthly payments and the survey does not scratch the surface in relation to difficulties for claimants with literacy or mental health issues.
Citizens Advice Waverley is using the results of the survey to campaign for adequate services to be provided to support the transition to Universal Credit.