THE plan to reduce the welfare budget by £18 billion will have significant implications for the Citizens Advice service and the thousands of individuals who seek our help each year.
One of the big challenges for Citizens Advice Edinburgh is the UK government’s mission not only to significantly reduce the benefits bill, but to get up to 80 per cent of benefits applications submitted online.
This leaves Citizens Advice with the difficult issue of whether to stick to the provision of advice or to go further and actively help those struggling to submit electronic applications.
The question is framed by several competing pressures; demand for existing CAB services exceeds supply, our core competency is the delivery of advice rather than IT training or support and there are practical issues such as security and confidentiality. These challenges come into sharp focus though, when so many of those who are offline – because they don’t have access to a laptop or PC or iPad, or they lack IT skills – seek our help as a well known and well trusted advice provider.
Many of our clients are digitally excluded and are facing worsening social and economic exclusion as a result. From accessing information and training, to applying for jobs and networking, the starting point is increasingly online. The digital gap is rapidly becoming a digital gulf and this growing inequality is compounded by the need to go online in order to apply for a job or a loan or even basic benefits.
The key point is that we don’t have to go and find these people and attempt to direct them to libraries or schools or community centres. They come to us anyway – so shouldn’t we try and help them to participate in the digital world and reap the wider benefits of being online, rather than offer tactical advice on how to survive it? It’s a bit like giving the hungry the choice between food, or food and the means to produce it.
As Citizens Advice Scotland has strongly asserted, the negative implications from the reduction in benefits will be increased poverty and inequality. This will lead to increased need for benefits advice and advocacy services, money management and debt advice, access to credit, food banks, furniture initiatives, and increased demand on health, social work, housing and homelessness services and, in turn, reductions in council income.
The creation of a Universal Credit and the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance by Personal Independence Payments, cuts to housing benefit, a cap on the overall level of benefit which can be received, more stringent eligibility conditions, and stronger sanctions will lead to an upsurge in demand for advice services by those struggling on low incomes. Many will be the same people who have limited access to computers and limited or non-existent computing skills or confidence in the digital arena. Changes to the welfare system will have a direct impact on our local economies, with lower incomes also predicted to impact on local authority council tax and rent revenues.
The City of Edinburgh Council has taken a lead in not penalising its citizens where the issue is a lack of IT skills or access or affordability and is actively looking at ways to support more people to get online. As part of this initiative, Citizens Advice Edinburgh and the Council are developing services to support those who want to get online.
We are currently planning a joint initiative to provide for both detailed benefits advice and access to practical help to complete online benefits applications. This project, planned for early 2014, will link the advice work of our volunteers with access to appointments at a dedicated IT suite based in our Leith premises.
We believe it is important not only to highlight the implications which the transition to an online world inevitably has for those who are least able to participate in it, but to do whatever we can, as a mainstream charity, to help identify and deliver practical services which help close the digital gap and tackle this growing inequality head on.
• Stuart Gibson is a Trustee and Treasurer of Citizens Advice Edinburgh and is a member of the OFCOM Advisory Committee for Scotland www.citizensadviceedinburgh.co.uk