BY definition, people applying for benefits such as Jobseeker's Allowance and Employment Support Allowance are living on very little money.
Even if they had a device that gave them access to the internet before becoming unemployed, they will be unlikely to be able to afford continued broadband access. Yet they are now expected to make benefits claims online and those unable to do so are experiencing considerable difficulties.
Citizens' Advice Bureaux (CAB) throughout Scotland have increasing numbers of clients seeking help to make online claims because they have been directed to the charity by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff who refuse to help them at Jobcentres. A particularly callous example was a man with hearing difficulties who was told to apply by phone. But a typical case was an 18-year-old with no computer who lives a long distance from a library who was told he could only apply for JSA online or by phone but was thwarted because the number would not accept a call from a public phone.
There are obvious savings to be gained from a largely online system, including a reduction in the cost and physical storage of paper forms and a saving of time and cost involved in sending documents by post. But there is no advantage to be gained if, in the process, the system is made inaccessible to the people it is intended to provide for. Inevitably, those losing out are the most vulnerable. If it is not the duty of Jobcentre and other DWP staff to ensure that claimants can access the system, whose responsibility is it?
The CAB is the only hope for many claimants condemned to a Kafkaesque maze of blind alleys. But it is difficult to see the DWP's approach as anything other than a rather blatant attempt to reduce its own budget while shifting the burden of providing advice and assistance to other agencies, particularly when they direct claimants to their nearest CAB. But the bureaux are dependent on funding from local authorities and charitable trusts and in these straitened times, grants have been squeezed. Yet the workload of CAB staff (who include volunteers) is increasing as a result of benefits changes and high unemployment and rising costs.
Modernisation is most likely to succeed if it recognises the reality of the current situation and accommodates areas of particular need. Scotland, where one-third of households do not have internet access, should be recognised as one. The problem is particularly acute in Glasgow, where only some one-third of people aged 45-64 have broadband, less than half the UK average.
As the DWP's move towards 80% of benefits applications being completed online by 2017 coincides with the complex benefit changes resulting from Universal Credit, which will affect 700,000 Scottish households by 2017, the situation will become acute. The DWP would appear to accept both that some people need additional help and that their staff are unable to provide it. With its own research showing 45% of claimants believe they will need help with their claim for Universal Credit, it is heading for disaster unless it trains staff to assist them or provides the CAB with adequate resources to fill the gap.