The number of benefit claimants using an online service has fallen in the last month while paper applications have risen, according to one of the councils piloting Universal Credit for the government.
Data from Dumfries & Galloway Council showing online applications dropped by 6% in one month will raise further questions about the government’s emphasis on “digital by default” as it introduces Universal Credit in the next few months.
According to Department for Work & Pensions documents detailing the progress of 12 local authority UC pilots Dumfries & Galloway was “analysing findings to determine the contributory causes”.
The government has said it wants as many claimants as possible to claim benefits online but progress reports from other pilot areas show the success of getting claimants online varies from area to area.
While Birmingham City Council reported that “80% of new tenants are applying for their [housing benefit/council tax] online”, Caerphilly CBC said just “17% of new [housing benefit] claims were completed online” following the introduction of an online form.
Rural areas in particular are expected to have particular trouble in ensuring claims are made online. The latest update from North Dorset DC’s pilot reported that the “main issues for claimants are not having access to a PC or broadband”. The council added: “North Dorset is very rural and broadband access in some areas is limited or non-existent.”
Joyce Guest, North Dorset’s general manager and lead officer for the council’s pilot, said councils in Dorset had secured government funding for the installation of broadband infrastructure but this would not reach all areas.
“It is just not commercially viable for some places – a hamlet with just two or three properties - to be hooked up to broadband,” she said.
North Dorset are working with partner organisations including the county library service, community groups and town councils to provide access points for claimants without computer access and “everyone is pulling together”, according to Ms Guest.
The authority is also set to trial home visits with a laptop set up with mobile broadband, however Ms Guest said it was uncertain whether the service would be good enough to complete a form which takes three quarters of an hour to fill in even for the computer literate.
“My fear is that [the service] is not going to work very well,” she said. “If you are in the middle of completing a complex form [and the connection is lost] you can see it is going to be a bit traumatic.”
There have been long running concerns about the government’s insistence that the majority of benefit claimants will be able to access the services online.
At the end of last month, Sevenoaks DC leader and District Councils Network welfare lead Peter Fleming (Con) told the LGA executive he was concerned the DWP was “peddling the message that 70% [of claimants] will be able to do it online, when we know it’s not true”.
Rural pilot councils are set to present their findings and work so far to welfare minister Lord Freud this week.