The DWP has released a report on local authority led pilots for Universal Credit. It’s pretty feeble stuff. Some local authorities report that only 50-60% of claimants have access to the internet. The local authorities have tried out several ways of extending coverage, including sticking a logo on paper forms saying ‘Don’t stand in line, do it on-line’, hosting job fairs or offering digital training in job clubs. This is supposed to lay the foundations for a system serving eight and a half million people. It has to be accessible to every one of them, it has to work first time and every time, and it has to be accessed every month. And the need is urgent: while the scheme is behind schedule, it was supposed to be open to new claimants in less than three months from now.
There is a role for local authorities, but to meet it they are going to need to think in much grander terms. The kind of model I think we need is something like the French Centre communal d’action sociale (CCAS), a local authority office where some benefits are administered but more importantly claimants get help preparing their claims. They are going to need computers, scanners, printers and advice and access to microphones or phone lines, because the system will not work without these things. They will need proofs of identity, correspondence addresses and bank registrations. Forget the little projects that the pilots have been footling around with. This is at least as big a job as when councils took on the responsibility for Housing Benefit in the 1980s – possibly bigger. It can’t be done by trying to spot areas of high demand, because that excludes the rest. Local authorities have to prepare to serve every citizen who needs to claim – that could be a third of all households. They need to be ready to deal with thousands of claimants every day. The outlook is grim; if nothing is done, it will be grimmer still.