Impact of digital technologies on social protection and human rights

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.

Internet access

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 2016, 63% of households in Scotland with an income of £15,000 or less had home internet access rising to 98% in households with incomes over £40,000 (Scottish Household Survey, 2016). Additionally, only 65% of social housing tenants have home internet access, compared to 88% of home owners or 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.

New technology in the welfare system

The UK and Scottish Government 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.

The ability to make and maintain claims online is central to 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 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.

The digitalisation of public services can simplify and integrate services. However, the people most likely to be supported by public services are also those most likely to be digitally excluded. Online public services must be accessible to all. The varied needs of public services users must be considered with supported by initiatives to ensure that everyone can use and access digital services. Equal access to digital services is essential to reducing inequalities, poverty, meeting the SDGs and fulfilling rights.

Case study Instructions

Colleagues from across the third sector are invited to share specific case studies involving the introduction of digital technologies in national social social systems here. Please consider some of the following :

  • In which part of the social protection system were digital technologies introduced;
  • What kind of digital technologies were introduced;
  • What were the stated objective(s) cited by politicians and government when introducing those technologies, and how did these reflect the broader political context;
  • Were any international organizations involved in the domestic debate about the introduction of digital technologies in the national social protection system;
  • Was there a specific legal basis for the introduction of these digital technologies in the social protection system;
  • Whether any analysis was undertaken by the government, legislative branch or other state institutions of the implications of the introduction of these technologies in the social protection system from the perspective of existing legal frameworks;
  • The extent to which governments relied on the private sector for the design, building and operation of these technologies in the social protection system;
  • The costs involved in the design, building and operation of these technologies in the social protection system;
  • The expected and actual cost-savings realized through the use of these digital technologies in the social protection system;

Case Studies - UK

Case study 1:  Online claims and disabled people:

All Universal Credit claimants, including disabled people, are initially signposted to the self-service online channel, and other channels are used as an exception. Telephone claims can be completed where appropriate but this seems to happen very rarely. All claimants, other than in exceptional circumstances, are also required to maintain their claim online.

Disabled people are the group in society that are least likely to have internet access. As of 2015 over one in three[1] (35%) of disabled people in Scotland did not access or use the internet at all.  This compares to over 90% of the non-disabled population having a connection and using the internet. 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 Scots disabled people 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 benefits.

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%).

1.6. Moreover, it’s not just disabled people who lack internet access who might have difficulty making an online claim. Even those who do occasionally access the internet (perhaps using social media such as Facebook) but who also have learning difficulties; communication difficulties, visual or physical impairments, may still have difficulty in completing lengthy, complex online benefits application forms.

In relatively recent Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) research [2], 45% of participants said that they would need support to claim and manage their claim online. A survey by Glasgow CABs published in 2013 found that over 75% of those using CAB services would require such assistance.  Yet 650,000 Scottish households will require to be migrated to Universal Credit. Where online and telephone claims are not appropriate, the DWP have said that they will provide face-to-face support to complete online forms in “exceptional” circumstances. In practice, very few disabled people receive this support. Even where it is provided DWP staff have little knowledge or understanding of the online access problems faced by disabled people.  That is, it is not usually possible to “train” someone to overcome a learning difficulty simply by showing them how to use a computer.

In consequence of the difficulties disabled people have faced in making online claims (and maintaining them) they have shared with Inclusion Scotland that they suffered significant delays in the payment of Universal Credit and were also subjected to sanctions, causing severe hardship.

[1] Scottish Household Survey 2015

[2] “Work and the welfare system: a survey of benefits and tax credits recipients”, DWP, 2012

Case study 2:  

Case Studies - Scotland

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 digital infrastructure identified as necessary for the delivery of the wave one entitlements was successfully implemented. The Agile approach also ensured systems were tested and adjusted before going live and that those affected by the new systems and the entitlements they delivered were involved in their development, a central aspect of a rights-based approach. It is worth noting, however, that the entitlements yet to be delivered are more complex. SCVO recognise that this was a conscious decision by the Scottish Government to enable the establishment and testing of new delivery systems on entitlements that involved one-off payments and smaller caseloads. The delivery of more complex entitlements is 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 two new forms of assistance: a Young Carer Grant and a Job Grant. 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 the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (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).

Case study 1:  

Case study 2:  

The introduction of digital technologies in UK and Scottish social security systems and human rights concerns

Lessons for the future introductions of digital technologies


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.