DIGITAL aspects of universal credit (UC) routinely lead to wrong amounts being awarded to claimants – often the most vulnerable – and to breaches of rule-of-law principles, new Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) research finds.

The three-year study found that while the digital nature of the benefit has some advantages for UC claimants, the way the digital systems have been designed also leads to people being left without money they are entitled to and information they need in order to challenge DWP decisions.

In the worst cases, claimants are forced into acute hardship because the programming and operation of this digital- by-design benefit does not align with social security legislation. The charity’s report catalogues numerous injustices and breaches of rule-of-law principles in the operation of digital UC systems and reveals the extent to which its workings are opaque for claimants and researchers.

Problems uncovered by CPAG’s research include people missing out on additional support they are entitled to because the online claims process does not identify their need, families going without their entitlements for all children because verification paperwork is pending for one child, and care leavers unable to submit a digital claim in advance of their 18th birthday, even though DWP guidance enables this.

Worryingly, the research found that in the year ending February 2023, approximately one-third of the 2.9 million registrations for UC did not result in a claim being submitted at all, yet there appears to be no DWP information in the public domain on why the drop-out rate is so high. CPAG’s research suggests that aspects of the digital claim form that make it difficult for some claimants to complete the form and establish their entitlement may explain at least some of these abandoned claims.

Digital claim form does not ask all the right questions

Some claimants are entitled to extra amounts of UC or exemptions from the standard rules of UC because of their particular circumstances (for example if they have a health condition, are escaping domestic violence, are carers or care leavers). But the digital claim form does not always ask claimants if they meet any of the conditions for these extra amounts or exemptions. As a result, claimants – who are not experts on the complex UC rules – do not always get a fair chance to establish their entitlement. In the worst cases, vulnerable people go without extra money or exemptions they should have.

For example, while UC claimants under the age of 35 renting in the private sector will receive the shared accommodation rate of the Local Housing Allowance (LHA), there are exceptions to this for claimants with certain rates of disability benefits, and for claimants who have lived in homeless accommodation for three months or more while receiving specific support. These claimants are entitled to the higher one-bedroom rate of LHA.

However, the online claims process does not ask claimants if they meet any of these conditions. Instead, the DWP expects claimants to understand the complexities of the housing cost element regulations and self-identify as having the specific circumstances and characteristics that exempt them from the shared accommodation rate.

This breaches the rule-of-law principle of procedural fairness and is a failure of the duty to make reasonable enquiries. What is more, by failing to ask all the relevant questions, the UC system systematically discriminates against groups entitled to additional support – the very same groups who by definition are often the most vulnerable and at risk of discrimination because of their extra needs.

Nor does the digital claim form ask claimants what date they want to claim from even though backdating by up to one month is possible if a claimant ‘could not reasonably be expected to make the claim earlier’ for reasons including having a disability, or a system failure. Claimants can request a revision of their claim so that it has an earlier start date, but the DWP does not establish in each case when a claimant wishes their claim to start from, thereby putting the onus on claimants to self-identify that a backdate is possible. This leaves some claimants who are eligible for backdating – mostly people with health conditions or disabilities – without money they are entitled to. CPAG wants claim forms amended to ask all claimants if they require backdating or want to claim from an earlier date.

All children in a family deprived of support if one child cannot be verified

The UC digital system is unable to accept the verification of individual children independently of other children in a household. This has resulted in families missing out on their legal entitlement to the child element of UC for all of their children if there is a problem with providing evidence to verify just one child in a family – in effect the computer system clashes with social security regulations which entitle the children to support.

Digital system cannot accept advance claims despite regulations permitting them

DWP guidance enables advance claims of up to one month for prisoners who are about to be released from custody and care leavers in advance of their 18th birthday. These claimants cannot receive benefits while they are the responsibility of the local authority or are in prison but the legislation enables them to make a claim while support structures are in place. In practice however, the digital UC system does not accept advance claims.

One adviser told the CPAG research team: “… the law allows care leavers to make an advanced claim… It doesn’t mean you’ll get your money earlier… But what it does allow, which is very important for that group of people, is… about four weeks before they turn 18 … the social worker can go out, get their ID together, and explain what the process is. You press submit, sit back. They turn 18….. And in five weeks’ time the money comes.

“That’s the way it should work… [But in reality the DWP] say you can do something called advanced preparation of a claim, but you can’t do an advanced claim… If you press submit it all b…..s up. What we find with our young people is, they quite often don’t want to, on the morning of their 18th birthday, go through a claim… it can be two or three weeks, sometimes longer, before they’ll come back to engage with the social worker…”

Claimants lose access to information they need:

When a decision on a UC award is revised or superseded (changed) with effect from an earlier date, it can generate an overpayment (if the amount of the award after the change is less than was previously awarded) or an underpayment (if the amount of the award after the change is more than was previously awarded). But when the award is changed from an earlier date, claimants can no longer see the original decision because their payment statement in their online account is automatically updated to display only the new decision. Without being able to compare the original with the new payment decision, claimants have insufficient information to identify whether any overpayments or underpayments have been calculated correctly.

Similarly, claimants who previously received UC and then make a new claim lose all access to their previous online journal because it is overwritten by a new one. This is a problem for claimants who want to challenge a termination of their award and for those looking to resolve outstanding issues on the original award. Claimants in this position can only access their previous online journal information by querying the information available via the UC helpline, applying for a subject access request or waiting for the information to be reproduced in the paperwork prepared for a challenge of the decision at Tribunal.

Design of the UC system is opaque:

CPAG sees the same mistakes in UC decision making and administration time and again but the lack of transparency on its design makes it difficult or impossible to interrogate whether errors are automated or clerical, and if clerical, the reasons why those aspects of the system have not been automated.

To make UC more transparent at an operational level, the DWP must:

  • Make information on the system’s design available.
  • Explain how officials interact with the digital systems and
    publish its guidance for officials, and information on how it is applied.
  • At a system-wide level, make the source code for UC publicly available, as is required by the Government Digital Service’s service standards. The Department has committed to publishing the code for personal independence payment and pension credit but not for UC.

Child Poverty Action Group’s head of policy and research Sophie Howes said: “At its best, digitised universal credit makes it easier to claim. But at worst, it rides roughshod over rule-of-law principles and leaves claimants without enough money to live on. Try telling a mother of three that the computer says No to support for all of her children just because there’s a bureaucratic delay in the paperwork for one child.

“The DWP must take the wraps off UC so that its workings are transparent. There are low-cost changes the department can make to ensure digitalisation improves UC so that it’s fair, in line with regulations and capable of getting correct payments to all claimants. Almost half of children will be in households claiming UC when it’s fully rolled out, so getting it right is imperative.”

* Read: You reap what you code: universal credit, digitalisation and the rule of law here.

* Source: Child Poverty Action Group