Benefits claimants to lose out due to UK Govt digital strategy

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   By a Newsnet reporter

The SNP’s Christina McKelvie MSP has held a debate in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday evening calling on Westminster to “halt their callous attack” on vulnerable Scots who claim benefits but who could lose out because of new rules forcing them to apply online.

Research by Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) published on Tuesday revealed that 76% of benefit claimants will struggle to apply for benefits online, in response to the UK government’s digital strategy, which will enforce this.

To assess the extent of this problem, Citizens Advice Scotland undertook a major survey in March, surveying 1,200 people who came to the CAB with a benefits enquiry, asking them about their ability to use the internet. 

46% of benefit claimants questioned by CAS said that they do not have an Internet connection at home.  39% said that they would be completely unable to apply for benefits or make a job application online, saying that they lacked the necessary computer skills, or lived with a physical disability or mental health problem which would make an online application impossible.

Older people are the least likely to have the computer skills necessary to make online applications.  Concerns have been raised that benefit claimants are already being penalised if they cannot use a computer to apply for jobs or benefits. 

A CAS office in Glasgow recently reported that a 60 year old ex-labourer with dyslexia who had no computer at home was penalised for failing to apply for a new job online.

Publishing the figures, CAS spokesperson Sarah Beattie-Smith says,

“The UK Government’s ‘digital by default’ strategy includes an expectation that 80% of benefits applications will be completed online by 2017.  This comes at the same time as the Government’s unprecedented changes to the welfare system which, coupled with at least £18 billion of cuts to the welfare budget, will cause significant upheaval for people who are currently reliant on benefits. 

“Our concern is that this strategy does not take into account the reality that many people are currently unable to use the internet, because they don’t have access or they have not had the support or encouragement to develop those skills. To force such people to apply for benefits and jobs online will exclude some of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society from accessing the very services they rely upon.  

“We call on the government to recognise the reality that huge numbers of people are not prepared for this change, and need support. Moves to empower people through greater use of the internet are welcome, but they must be based on encouragement and support, not on compulsion. And above all, nobody should lose their benefit income because they are unable to use the internet.”

Ms McKelvie’s motion notes that the UK Government’s digital strategy does not make any provision to improve Internet access for benefits claimants, and calls on the Scottish Parliament to press the UK Government to ensure that moves toward online applications are implemented in an open manner that “is fully mindful of the needs of those who do not have internet access or are less able to use it to apply for benefits or jobs”.

Ms McKelvie said:

“This callous attack on Scotland’s needy is yet another Westminster mechanism to cut down on the volume of applications, and in doing so will strip the most vulnerable and needy of their dignity.

“The CAS’s report shows that around £2.5 billion will be taken out of the Scottish economy in the lifetime of the Westminster government.

“Inevitably, it is the most vulnerable who suffer most heavily. Disabled people in Scotland stand to lose over £1billion in benefits, equating to 29 per cent of the total cuts in spending affecting the 8% of the population who are disabled.

“Westminster isn’t working. In Scotland, with independence Scotland’s future will be in Scotland’s hands – enabling us to build our communities and create a wealthier and fairer society.”