The government has rowed back on its ‘digital-by-default’ stance on universal credit, which expects the vast majority of benefit applicants to make and update claims online, LGC has discovered.
The shift in emphasis has been noted by sources who met Department for Work & Pensions officials last week.
One source said officials employed the term “digital as appropriate” during discussions.
The government had previously insisted the credit would be “digital by default”, and set a target for 80% of claims to be made online by 2017.
The shift comes amid growing concern among senior local government figures about the government-commissioned universal credit IT systems.
A second source from one of the ‘pathfinder’ authorities, which are expected to pioneer the new welfare regime, said the technology was “not “fit for purpose”.
The department appeared to be “in disarray” as it grappled with the scale of change, the source said, and added that such uncertainty was “alarming” for councils which will be expected to offer face-to-face support for claimants.
LGC understands the pathfinders did not gain access to the IT system until March - less than a month before they were to start testing the system.
At the end of last month the DWP announced that three of the four pathfinders would not begin piloting the system until July.
“DWP have got real problems around the ICT solution. The IT is not ready,” one pathfinder said.
“The original [pathfinder] rollout was 29 April and we were still being told at the end of March that it was going ahead [in April],” they added.
Meanwhile, from next week four London boroughs are to test the regime that will set a cap of £26,000 on the total amount of benefit working age households can receive.
Claire Kober (Lab), leader of Haringey LBC - one of the boroughs in question - also voiced concern about the IT system. “We have been raising [concern] with ministers and officials around the ability of a system to respond to changing circumstances of recipients of housing benefit and other benefits,” she said.
Cllr Kober said there had been “a lot of communication between our officers and officers in DWP and the Department for Communities & Local Government also, but that doesn’t necessarily clarify things”.
Cllr Kober also questioned whether the changes would reduce costs or would result in “cost shunting” from central to local government.
“People will lose their home and we have a duty to house them,” she said.
A DWP spokesman said: “Claimants to Universal Credit will engage with the new benefit online, and our digital by default emphasis has not changed. Since the very beginning we’ve known that some people will not be able to manage their claim online, and that’s why they will be able to get help from us over the phone and in person. We have been working with local authorities on the best ways to help people get online and be digitally independent for a number of months now.”
Responding to concerns about IT systems and communication with councils, the DWP spokesman said the “incremental” approach to rolling out universal credit “has widespread support” and the IT systems “are ready as planned for the end of April”.
He added: “We work closely with local authorities and keep them fully updated on developments.”
For an opinion article from Cllr Kober go to: LGCplus.com/5057198.article
The vanguard groups: Road-testing the new welfare system
Universal credit pathfinders
Four north-west authorities began testing the universal credit regime this month ahead of the wider October rollout. Details of how this will take place, geographically or by claimant group, is unclear.
Universal credit pilots
A dozen local authorities have been testing face-to-face support for universal credit claimants since last June. This includes budgeting advice, help with online claims and assistance finding work.
Benefit cap pilots
The benefit cap limits the total amount of benefit working age households can receive. Four London authorities began road-testing this regime this month.