Impact of digital technologies on social protection and human rights
From Civil society Scotland Wiki
The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, is preparing a thematic report to the UN General Assembly on the human rights impacts, especially on those living in poverty, of the introduction of digital technologies in the implementation of national social protection systems. The report will be presented to the General Assembly in New York in October 2019.
To prepare for his report the Special Rapporteur invited written submissions. In particular, the Special Rapporteur has expressed an interest in specific case studies involving the introduction of digital technologies in national social protection systems.
Colleagues from across the third sector and from the SDGs network are invited to share their case studies and examples here. This page will form the basis of the SCVO submission to the UN Special Rapporteur. Please share any case studies and contributions by Thursday the 9th of May 2019.
The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), our members, and the wider third sector welcome the exploration by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, into the human rights impacts, especially on those living in poverty, of the introduction of digital technologies in the implementation of national social protection systems.
Our response has been developed openly with input from the Scottish third sector:
Key concerns include:
- The deeply flawed Universal Credit system which pushes people into poverty, debt, and crisis
- The digital divide which can be a barrier to those accessing social security systems
SCVO, would welcome the opportunity to arrange a webinar between the Rapporteur and our members to discuss these concerns, the wider concerns of the sector, and to share how the many communities the third sector work with experience digital exclusion and poverty and the impact of this upon their human rights.
In 2016 the UN declared access to broadband to be a basic right. Without internet access in the home individuals have limited access to public services, channels for civic and democratic participation, knowledge and information tools, opportunities for social engagement, the labour market, and learning opportunities. Despite this, many individuals and households in Scotland and the UK cannot afford the devices and connections needed to benefit from the advantages the internet offers.
Home internet access varies considerably by household income. In 2017, 66% of households in Scotland with an income of £15,000 or less had home internet access rising to 99% in households with incomes over £40,000 (Scottish Household Survey, 2017). Additionally, only 71% of social housing tenants have home internet access, compared to 90% of home owners and 88% of private rented tenants. Older people, those with disabilities, and those in social housing or on low incomes are all more likely to be digitally excluded. While there is limited gender-disaggregated data for barriers to internet access in Scotland, Engender highlight that there is a clear correlation between low online participation and other areas of deprivation which are highly gendered. Women, for example, are the majority of older people, working-age people living in poverty, and lone parents. Women are also twice as dependent on social security as men, with 20% of women’s income coming from the benefits and tax credit system, compared with 10% of men’s. Individuals with lower levels of literacy, poor digital skills, or for whom English is not there first language also face additional barriers. The people and communities most likely to be supported by public services are therefore also those most likely to be digitally excluded. Despite this, both the UK and Scottish Governments' are increasingly moving services online. The Department for Work and Pensions, for example, planned for 80% of Universal Credit applications to be completed online by 2017 as part of a transition towards digital only services.
SCVO, Mydex, Engender, Inclusion Scotland, CPAG Scotland and others across the Scottish third sector recognise that the digitalisation of public services can simplify and integrate services. Public services, however, must be accessible to all. To achieve this the varied needs of public services users must be central to the development of social security protections and supported by initiatives to ensure that everyone can use and access their right to social security. Equal access to digital services is essential to reduce inequalities and poverty and ensure both SDG and human rights commitments are fulfilled. Both the UK and Scottish Governments' therefore have a duty to overcome any digital, legal, financial, or administrative challenges that fail to fulfil the right to social security.
In 2010 the UK's Department for Work & Pensions introduced Universal Credit (UC) to replace six means-tested benefits for working-age households. Universal Credit aimed to: improve the incentive to work; make entitlements simpler; reduce fraud and error; and reduce the costs of administering entitlements. The original completion date for UC was October 2017, however, after considerable technical challenges in implementing UC, including problems managing the programme and developing the necessary technology, this date has been moved back repeatedly. It is currently anticipated that when Full Service rollout is complete in 2023, 652,500 people in Scotland will be claim their entitlement to Universal Credit.
The Department continues to expect an additional 200,000 people to move into work because of UC, saving £99 million a year in the administration of entitlements (National Audit Office, 2018). A reduction in fraud and error is expected to save £1.3 billion a year (National Audit Office, 2018). These savings largely rely upon the Department moving away from costly ways of administering claims—such as telephone and in-person support—towards a single digital claim service and digital channels of communication. By June 2018, the National Audit Office found that the Department had invested £1.3 billion creating Universal Credit while spending £600 million on running costs. Currently, the cost of administering each UC claim is £699 and while it is forecast that this will fall to £173 per claim by 2024/2025, the National Audit Office highlight that planned efficiency savings are uncertain. Similarly, the extent to which UC has and will reduce fraud and error is unknown and measuring the increase in people in work as a result of the entitlement difficult.
The entitlement has, however, resulted in an increase in rent arrears for local authorities, housing associations and landlords; and late payments for one in five claimants. While a five week wait for the first payment of the entitlement is built into the system and UC is limited to the first two children in each family.
SCVO, CPAG Scotland, Inclusion Scotland, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA), Scottish Women's Aid, and members of the Scottish Campaign for Welfare Reform (SCoWR), and many others across the third sector and civil society believe that UC has and will have far reaching consequences for people’s economic and social rights, worsening poverty for many. UC can and should protect people from and poverty its consequences. To achieve this there is an urgent need to listen to those claiming UC and redesign elements that simply aren't working.
Case study 1: Online claims and disabled people:
Individuals claiming UC, including disabled people, are initially signposted to the self-service online channel, other channels are used as an exception. While telephone claims can be completed where appropriate Inclusion Scotland has found that this happens very rarely. All claimants are also required to maintain their claim online, other than in exceptional circumstances. These changes have impacted people and communities across Scottish society and disabled people are particularly vulnerable to the requirements of digital by default services.
Disabled people are the group in society that are least likely to have internet access. The 2015 Scottish Household Survey found that over one in three (35%) of disabled people in Scotland did not access or use the internet at all. In comparison, over 90% of the non-disabled population have and use an internet connection. People without qualifications, with low levels of literacy and/or living on low incomes (47%) are least likely to have internet access and disabled people are over-represented in each of those groups. Those who are out of work are also less likely than those in work to have internet access and over half (57%) of disabled people in Scotland are workless. People without qualifications, with low levels of literacy and on a low income are also those most likely to be without work and claiming entitlements.
Similarly, those with learning difficulties, both congenital and acquired (e.g. through brain injury, oxygen deprivation at birth, etc.) and those with learning impairments (such as dyslexia) are amongst those most likely to have no qualifications. But even those disabled people with physical/sensory impairments and no learning difficulties are more likely to leave school with no qualifications. In Scotland, disabled people are more than twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no qualifications (26% as opposed to 10%).
However, it is not just disabled people who lack internet access who might have difficulty making and maintaining a claim online. Inclusion Scotland highlight that even those who do occasionally access the internet (perhaps using social media) but who also have learning difficulties; communication difficulties, visual or physical impairments, may still have difficulty in completing lengthy, complex online entitlement application forms.
In a survey of benefits and tax credits recipients, 45% of participants said that they would need support to claim and manage their claim online (DWP, 2012). Similarly a survey by Glasgow Citizens Advice Bureaux published in 2015 found that over 75% of those using CAB services would require such assistance. The DWP Universal Support offer, to be delivered by Citizens Advice from 2019–20, includes a single session of digital support for each claimant, intended to help them to claim their entitlement online. The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee conclude in there report on Universal Support that this is insufficient to address the challenges that many claimants face in using UC’s digital systems. DWP have said that they will provide face-to-face support to complete online forms in “exceptional” circumstances. Inclusion Scotland have found that in practice, very few disabled people receive such support and DWP staff have little knowledge or understanding of the online access problems faced by disabled people. For example, it is not possible to “train” someone to overcome a learning difficulty simply by showing them how to use a computer.
Inclusion Scotland have found that as a consequence of these issues disabled people have experienced significant delays in UC payments and, in some cases, been subjected to sanctions, causing severe hardship undermining the right to access social security and an adequate standard of living.
Scottish Household Survey (2015)
Scottish Household Survey (2017). https://www.gov.scot/publications/scotlands-people-annual-report-results-2017-scottish-household-survey/pages/8/
Work and the welfare system: a survey of benefits and tax credits recipients (2012) DWP http://research.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd5/rports2011-2012/rrep800.pdf
Internet Access in Deprived areas (2015). Citizens Advice Bureau. https://www.cas.org.uk/publications/internet-access-glasgows-deprived-areas
Rolling out Universal Credit (2018). National Audit Office, https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Rolling-out-Universal-Credit-Summary.pdf
Universal Support (2018). House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmworpen/1667/1667.pdf
Case study 2: UC an individual case
As has been discussed, the ability to make and maintain claims online is a central element of Universal Credit. Individuals with limited access to online facilities or who find new technology challenging are at a significant disadvantage. UC can also provide help with housing costs and a landlord portal is being distributed to social landlords. Evidence suggests, however, that the current DWP systems are not adequately developed. In particular, there is no alignment between deductions from UC and housing costs. This can lead to arrears and threaten tenancy sustainment and thus the right to housing. The below case-study from Melville Housing Association is one of many that demonstrates the impacts of these issues upon an individual claiming their right to social security.
From Here to Uncertainty
A single man in his 50’s who was previously homeless was allocated a flat by a registered social landlord. He had problems with alcohol and substance abuse, as well as suffering from poor mental health. He was receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Personal Independence Payment (PIP), and, once allocated the property, claimed Housing Benefit (HB) and Council Tax Reduction (CTR).
Following a Department for Works and Pensions (DWP) health assessment he was found fit for work and therefore had to claim Universal Credit via the online system. He had no email address, no digital skills and limited access to online facilities and support.
When his ESA ended, it also stopped his HB leaving him with no idea what benefits to claim or how to claim them. With help from a tenancy support worker he got in touch with a welfare benefits adviser, provided by his landlord, who helped him challenge the ESA decision as well as make a claim for UC.
The process was not easy for him. He had limited identity documents, only a shared phone and a chaotic lifestyle which made it difficult to receive notifications and attend appointments. The local GP surgery was reluctant to let him register and he then faced difficulties contacting them to make appointments. The local Job Centre refused to see him as he was noted as aggressive and had to be seen behind a screen. This was only available at an alternative Job Centre that was several miles away and difficult for him to get to.
Without help to claim he would not have had any money to live on or to pay his rent and keep his flat. He has struggled continuously to maintain the UC claim. There were problems with the UC payments which were incorrectly calculated and he needed considerable help to access the journal and correct the mistakes.
He has recently lost his login details and phone and has been unable to maintain contact with the UC centre. He is at risk of suspension. He needs to travel to the alternative Job Centre to get help with this problem.
The need to login regularly has been a barrier in this case; he needs a great deal of support to maintain the claim and this is difficult due to the nature of the online process, especially the restrictive access and explicit consent requirements.
He has subsequently been found unfit for work, but must now remain on UC and will have to wait for the transitional protection rules to be introduced to receive full compensation (Severe Disability Premium).
Moving forward he is at serious risk of falling through the benefits safety net. His lack of digital skills and the restrictions placed on him by his local Job Centre mean that he is struggling to engage with the DWP. After finally finding a home following years of homelessness, he is now, once again at risk of losing the secure roof over his head.
Case study 3: UC and gender
There is limited gender-disaggregated data for barriers to internet access in Scotland, Engender highlight that there is a clear correlation between low online participation and other areas of deprivation which are highly gendered. Women, for example, are the majority of older people, working-age people living in poverty, and lone parents. Women are also twice as dependent on social security as men, with 20% of women’s income coming from the benefits and tax credit system, compared with 10% of men’s.
Online security is also an issue for women experiencing domestic abuse. Engender highlights that the online management of Universal Credit allows both members of a couple to access information about payments, appointments and other personal details, this will be extremely dangerous for some women. The issue of security must be thoroughly explored from this angle to prevent any unintended consequences. Whilst mindful of this, women at an Engender focus groups felt that greater online flexibilities would be useful, especially with regards to reducing complexity and confusion. An online profile, which would only be accessible by the applicant, with all information in one place was proposed as a potentially useful tool.
The Scottish Social Security system
The Scottish Parliament passed the Social Security (Scotland) Act in April 2018. To deliver the new entitlements devolved from Westminster to Holyrood the Scottish Government establish a new agency, Social Security Scotland.
To create the digital infrastructure necessary to deliver the newly devolved entitlements the Scottish Government have followed the principles of Scotland’s digital strategy which promotes the reuse of existing solutions, rather than building of new bespoke systems (Audit Scotland, May 2019). Through utilising these principles alongside an Agile approach to design, the Scottish Government successfully identified and implemented the digital infrastructure necessary for wave one entitlements. The Agile approach also ensured systems were tested and adjusted before going live and that those affected by entitlements delivered by new systems were involved in their development, a central aspect of a rights-based approach. SCVO welcomes this approach and recognises that it addresses the failures of many previous major IT projects. SCVO also recognises the decision by Scottish Government to test new delivery systems on entitlements that involved one-off payments and smaller caseloads as a sensible one. The delivery of more complex entitlements is, however, likely to be a significant challenge.
The Scottish Government have stressed that the safe and secure transition of existing entitlements is their priority for the initial transition of entitlements from Westminster to Holyrood. While SCVO and colleagues across the third sector appreciate the need to ensure a smooth transition many colleagues across the sector share concerns that this has had an impact on the extent to which a rights-based approach has been implemented and transformatory change achieved.
The Scottish Government have the power to create new entitlements and to top-up existing entitlements. This power has been utilised to pay a Carers Allowance Supplement to carers living in Scotland and in receipt of Carer's Allowance to 77,000 people in 2018/19 (Audit Scotland, May 2019). The Scottish Government has also committed to delivering new forms of assistance including, a Young Carer Grant, a Job Grant, a more generous Best Start grant, and an Income Supplement. The implementation of the more complex new, Income Supplement, is still to take place and will not be introduced until 2022 at the earliest. SCVO and organisations across Scotland's third sector recognise that delivering these new entitlements is a significant additional undertaking. The latest figures show, however, that 20%, or over one million, people in Scotland lived in poverty after housing costs in 2015/18 (Poverty and income inequality in Scotland: 2015-2018). Organisations across the sector, including SCVO, the Poverty Alliance, and other members of the Scottish Campaign for Welfare Reform therefore stress that there is an urgent need to top- up the incomes of Scotland's poorest people, families and communities to fulfil their right to an adequate standard of living.
SCVO appreciate that to deliver on this commitment policies, processes, and systems, must be introduced. Digital technologies will be central to the development and delivery. However, the extent to which there has or will be detailed options appraisals and contingency plans for interim and long-term information technology (IT) components necessary for these entitlements is unclear. Audit Scotland, has raised these concerns and questioned the extent to which an Agile approach is compatible with more complex entitlements (Audit Scotland, May 2019).
Audit Scotland (2019) http://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/uploads/docs/report/2019/nr_190502_social_security.pdf
Poverty and income inequality in Scotland: 2015-2018 (2019) https://www.gov.scot/publications/poverty-income-inequality-scotland-2015-18/pages/3/
Case study 1:
Case study 2:
Lessons and solutions
As has been discussed, poorly designed and badly governed digital technologies within social protection system can have severe consequences for people and communities dependant on social security nets, particularly those in poverty. However, as Mydex CIC highlight in their response, the application of digital technologies to social protection and other services can bring many benefits including cost savings, automation of processes, error reduction, and reduction in re-work. There is also potential for improved service provision, for example by creating digital service histories that inform decision-making, and collecting additional data over time that can enrich insights into the needs of individuals. Too often, however, systems and platforms are sold to the public sector and others, with the promise of these benefits and instead exacerbate existing problems while also creating new issues.
Mydex suggest that many of these issues arise because data is collected, stored and used in an organisation-centric way. An alternative system design where each individual has a personal data store (PDS), and all key data relating to the services they access and use is stored independently in this store, and where individuals can re-use and share this data when dealing with different organisations, would allow individuals to control their own data and ‘design out’ the duplication of effort for individuals who rely upon several social security service providers, such as the DWP, Social Security Scotland and local councils.
SCVO and Mydex suggest there is a needed for an IT infrastructure which empowers individuals dealing with service providers to access and use information in ways which streamline the process for the individual, reducing friction, effort, risk and cost.
The causes of poverty are diverse and multifaceted. However, currently in both the UK and Scotland unequal access to the internet and digital devices... undermine rights and economic security. A co-ordinated vision to tackle poverty and inequality, realise rights and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is urgently needed. Central to this vision is a truly rights-based social security system in both Scotland and the UK, initiatives to address the digital divide, and an understanding of the impact that digital technologies within both Scottish and the UK social security systems can have on people and communities and their rights.