Benefits: Online system could see vulnerable lose out

A survey revealed 76 per cent said they would struggle to apply for benefits online. Picture: Getty
A survey revealed 76 per cent said they would struggle to apply for benefits online. Picture: Getty
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OVER three quarters of vulnerable Scots could lose out on benefits because they are struggling with new rules forcing them to apply for help online, according to research released by Citizens Advice Scotland today.

A survey of 1,200 people claiming benefits who approached Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) for advice revealed 76 per cent said they would struggle to apply for benefits online, including 39 per cent who said they could not apply online at all because of poor or non-existent internet skills.

The Offline and Left Behind report comes as the UK government’s “digital strategy” aims to get 80 per cent of claims completed online by 2017.

CAS conducted the research after a number of charities raised concerns that many people are unable to use the internet, meaning they could not get the help they were entitled to.

Christina McKelvie, SNP MSP for Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse who is to hold a debate on the issue tonight in the Scottish Parliament, called on the Westminster government to show “compassion and common sense”.

Thirty-six per cent of respondents in the survey said they never used the internet and just 55 per cent had a home computer.

CAB clients in the youngest age group (16-24) were the most likely to use the internet often (65 per cent), compared with the oldest group (75+) where 75 per cent said they never used it.

Sarah Beattie-Smith, spokeswoman for CAS, said while the internet could have a positive impact in terms of improving people’s access to benefits, jobs, leisure and consumer opportunities, many did not have the skill to use it.

“In principle we support moves to help get people online and encourage them to open up their lives.

“However, we are aware that many Scots are unable to use the internet – either because of lack of access, lack of training and skills, or having a disability. These people already face a disadvantage, which is now being compounded by the UK government’s drive to move access to benefits and jobsearch facilities online.”

Ms Beattie-Smith added: “We call on the government to recognise the reality that huge numbers of people are not prepared for this change, and need support. Moves to empower people through greater use of the internet are welcome, but they must be based on encouragement and support, not on compulsion. And, nobody should lose their benefit income because they are unable to use the internet.”

Ms McKelvie said: “I think there needs to be a bit of sensible planning in how this digital strategy is rolled out. It is all very rushed and robotic and there doesn’t seem to be any compassion or feeling behind it or the acknowledgement that every case involves a real human being.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions, said: “We’ve always recognised that some people will need extra support to access the internet and so in preparing for Universal Credit, we are working with local authorities and local services to determine who will need this extra help – be it money advice services, face to face support or help to get online – and how best to deliver it.”