Government reliance on online and phone services during the switch to Universal Credit is unwise, a union has warned.
Unison believes the government has underestimated the number of benefit claimants who will need face-to-face assistance when the Universal Credit replaces existing benefits next year.
The warning comes after civil servants urged councils to keep capacity in their revenues and benefits departments as they reduced overall staffing levels. Recruiters have also blamed an increase in interim contracts on the “huge amount of work” faced by councils.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said the cabinet was “stuffed full of millionaires with gadgets galore” who were “totally out of touch” with the reality that people on low incomes were the least likely to have a computer.
Peter Challis, Unison’s national officer for local government, housing and benefits, said Office for National Statistics showed that “as you go down the income scale the likelihood of not being able to use the internet rises”.
Councils are set to provide face to face support for those claimants not using the telephone and online service after the Department for Work & Pensions agreed to select four councils to pilot the work from June.
The DWP aims to have 80% of Universal Credit claimants accessing the benefit online by October 2007 and Mr Challis said “there is still some way to go” in getting people online with only 26% of people claiming job seekers allowance online or by phone currently.
The department is currently considering how much funding councils will require to support Universal Credit claimants, and estimates of online and phone users are likely to factor in any calculation.
Councils are already spending ahead of welfare reforms which also include localisation of council tax benefit. Jonathan Rayfield, associate director of local government at recruiters Badenoch & Clark said an increase in interim specialist vacancies last month was due to “the pending welfare reforms creating a huge amount of work for local authorities”.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are keen to work with councils in the development of Universal Credit to ensure that their local expertise continues to support people. We are now working with the LGA on the development of local authority pilots to look at the role councils would play in delivering Universal Credit.”