22 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 in the SCVO wiki . For ease, the wiki page content from the time of submission is also available in full in the appendix.

Our position

Governments have a duty to overcome digital, legal, financial, or administrative barriers that prevent or complicate access to the right to social security. SCVO believe that access to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living is frustrated by:

Unequal access to the internet and digital devices and a lack of essential digital skills;

A failure to understand the many challenges digital access and skills present to different people and communities across society;

Automated decision-making which can be unreliable and lacks transparency; and

A failure to create an IT infrastructure that allows individuals and service providers to use information in ways which streamline the process for the individual, reducing friction, effort, risk and cost.

Social security must be accessible for all. To realise this we must recognise that digital by default is not and will not be appropriate for all individuals. An accessible, transparent, rights-based social security system is central to tackling poverty and inequality, realising rights, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

SCVO would welcome the opportunity to arrange a webinar between the Rapporteur and our members to discuss these concerns, the wider concerns of civil society, and to share how our sector works with the many people and communities who experience digital exclusion and poverty, and the impact of this on their human rights.

Our response

Internet access and social security

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. Opportunities essential to the fulfilment of both civil and political and economic and social rights.

Despite this, 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). In Scotland one-in-five adults also lack basic digital skills (UK Consumer Digital Index 2018). Older people, those with disabilities, and those in social housing including younger people are all more likely to be digitally excluded. While gender-disaggregated data for barriers to internet access in Scotland is limited, Engender highlight that deprivation is highly gendered; women are the majority of older people, working-age people living in poverty, and lone parents and are also twice as dependent on social security as men, with 20% of women’s income coming from entitlements. 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 (DWP), 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, Engender, Inclusion Scotland, CPAG Scotland, Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) 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 service users must be central to the development of social security and supported by initiatives to ensure that everyone can access social security. Both the UK and Scottish Governments have a duty to overcome digital, legal, financial, or administrative challenges that fail to fulfil the right to social security.

Universal Credit

In 2010 the DWP introduced Universal Credit (UC) to replace six means-tested benefits for working-age households. UC aimed to: improve the incentive to work; simplify entitlements; reduce fraud and error; and reduce administration costs. The programme has, however, faced considerable technical challenges including delays, spiralling costs, and a number of fundamental flaws that affect both the system and how it is administered. A more detailed summary of the background of UC is available here.

It is anticipated that when full service rollout is completed in 2023, 652,500 people in Scotland will access UC. SCVO, CPAG, Inclusion Scotland, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA), Scottish Women’s Aid, One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS), and many others across the third sector believe that UC has had 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 redesign elements that aren’t working. This would include urgently addressing:

  • the increase in rent arrears for local authorities, housing associations, and landlords which has arisen, in part, because there is no alignment between deductions from UC and housing costs
  • late payments for one in five claimants
  • the five week wait for the first payment of the entitlement which up to a fifth of new claimants do not receive in full
  • the reliance on automated decision-making for financial support calculations which has resulted in errors in decision-making and adds a layer of complexity for individuals trying to understand their payments
  • the lack of accessible information people accessing their entitlement receive
  • the drive to make and maintain claims online which puts individuals with limited access to online facilities, or who find technology challenging, at a significant disadvantage

Case study 1:  Online claims and disabled people  

The digital by default aspirations of UC impact people and communities across society, however, disabled people are particularly vulnerable to the requirements of digital by default services. This case study highlights the many barriers disabled people may experience when trying to access UC and thus their right to social security.

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 and undermining the right to access social security and an adequate standard of living.

Case study 2:  UC an individual case – Melville Housing Association

As has been discussed, the ability to make and maintain claims online is a central element of UC. 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. This case-study from Melville Housing Association demonstrates the impacts of these issues upon an individual claiming their right to social security.

The previous UK Work Programme

Problems with introducing new technologies into social security at a UK level are not unique to UC. The DWP Work Programme, a scheme to help long-term unemployed people to find and keep jobs, had similar challenges. A summary of some of the challenges faced by this programme is available here. Despite these issues, this system was later used to deliver UC.

The new Scottish Social Security system

The Scottish Parliament passed the Social Security (Scotland) Act in April 2018. To create the digital infrastructure necessary to deliver the new entitlements devolved from Westminster to Holyrood, the Scottish Government followed the principles of Scotland’s Digital Strategy, which promotes the reuse of existing solutions, rather than the building of new bespoke systems (Audit Scotland, May 2019). By 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 the people and communities who would be affected by the entitlements were involved in the development of systems and processes, 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 recognise the decision by the Scottish Government to test new systems on entitlements which 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 and the focus on the safe and secure transition of existing entitlements has limited the extent to which a more ambitious rights-based approach has been implemented and transformative change achieved.

Lessons and solutions

Poorly designed and badly governed digital technologies within social protection systems can have severe consequences for the people and communities who rely on social security, particularly those experiencing poverty. That these processes and procedures are within digital systems exacerbates the issues.

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. As social security increasingly relies upon new technologies both the Scottish and the UK Governments have a duty to ensure individuals do not give up some civil and political rights, such as the right to privacy, to exercise socio-economic rights, such as the right to social security.  A number of risks and solutions have been highlighted in our wiki.

Conclusion

The causes of poverty are diverse and multifaceted. However, as public services increasingly move online, unequal access to the internet and digital devices and a lack of digital skills undermine the right to social security for the people and communities most likely to need access to support. The digital by default approach to UC lacks the flexibility and resources to make a distinction between the different needs of individuals accessing the entitlement.

To realise the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living governments, and the contractors they work with, have a duty to ensure social security is accessible for all. Digital by default is not and will not, be appropriate for all individuals. The digital divide is complex and there is a need to understand the many challenges digital access and skills present to different people and communities across society. Similarly, to fulfil the right to social security there is a need to ensure that automated decision-making process are transparent and reliable. An accessible, transparent rights-based social security system is central to tackling poverty and inequality, realising rights, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Governments also have a duty to overcome other challenges that undermine both the right to social security, and other rights, such as the right to privacy. As new technologies are increasingly implemented within social security and other public services, there is a need to streamline processes to avoid duplication of effort by both the individual and the state, while also empowering individuals to control their own data and access to it.

About us

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is the national body representing the third sector.Supporting 45,000 third sector organisations, 2,000+ members, 100,000+ staff and one million volunteers. View the latest sector stats

SCVO’s policy works to ensure that the needs and concerns of the third sector in Scotland are represented in the Scottish, United Kingdom and European Parliaments.

By acting as an authoritative and trusted voice for the sector, SCVO’s policy and research output is delivered through a strong evidence base and an engaged membership.

Further details about SCVO’s policy and research can be found at https://scvo.org.uk/policy-research

Contact

Sheghley Ogilvie, Public Affairs Engagement Officer

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB

Email: policy@scvo.org.uk

Tel: 0131 474 8000

Web: www.scvo.org.uk

Appendix

For ease, please find below the contents of the SCVO wiki page on 20 May 2019 complete with links to relevant sources.