Posted on: June 24th, 2014

Members of Tees Society Forum, created by leading Redcar lawyer Peter Medd to highlight key social issues affecting the Tees Valley community, have expressed concern about the implications of moving benefits claims online.

Made up of leading community figures, the Forum, which is led by Peter Medd, Director of Cygnet Family Law, this month has focused on digital inclusion relating to benefits claims.

Mr Medd said: “Once again, the Forum’s members’ experience and different roles in the community have helped stimulate a wide range of incisive and reasoned opinions in reaction to the question ‘what are the implications of benefits claims going online?’

“There are concerns that further financial pressures may be the result for those on low incomes, who may not have the means and ability to access the internet.  However, at the same time it is acknowledged that being able to use a computer is a vital skill these days for those seeking employment.”

 Iain Sim, Chief Executive of regeneration and housing company Coast & Country,said: “For many on low incomes and families living in poorer areas owning a device which can access the web, and having any form of access is a distant dream. We estimate that over 50 percent of our 10,000 tenants have no direct access, which nationally is estimated to be in the region of four million households.

“We have set up a computer skills “online” centre at our Westfield Farm Community Resource base providing computers for public use, supplying training and guidance on funding and benefits and access to job application sites.”

He added: “Computer skills are a pre-requisite of many jobs these days and we also hope that the computer skills unit will help people enhance their employability skills. My fear is that the move to digital application only, could really disenfranchise, many families, and create further hardship through late or non-payment of benefits when they are due.”

Richinda Taylor, Chief Executive of domestic violence charity Eva, said: “I note there are instructions to contact libraries/job centres to access a computer if claimants do not have their own, but this can be problematic for some people – those who live in isolated areas, for example, and who may have to rely on public transport.

“Nevertheless, we are in the 21st century and it is rare currently to find someone who is unable to use a computer and/or a smartphone. In addition, it places a degree of responsibility on the claimant to use (or learn) the skills necessary and that is something I fully support.

“It remains to be seen how successful the pilots will be, and, I imagine, feedback from claimants will be sought to support the evidence from those processing the claims.  At the very least, this system would, I imagine,   standardise the forms and ensure all mandatory fields are completed, hopefully reducing wasted time spent by staff dealing with incorrect or incomplete forms, thus not delaying claims, which is in turn beneficial for the claimants.”

Rev Rachel Harrison, Vicar at St Peter’s Church, in Redcar, said: “I need to be IT literate for my work, but when trying to access some information for a young man about housing benefit entitlement I became increasingly frustrated. I could not find the information he needed.

“There was plenty of general information, but specific, individual advice was not available and I failed in my quest to help him. He was obliged to go to the Council officers for support.

“I can imagine that there will be many folk who will simply give up, which may lead to deprivation for those who most need benefit support but also accusations of false claims to those who simply ‘get it wrong’ and penalties for those who are late or complete forms incorrectly. One-to-one advice with the support of technology must surely be the only even-handed way to create a caring society.”

John Wall, Teesside District Manager at Darlington Building Society, said: “I can see that the Government should achieve cost savings by trying to place many benefits to an online system, but I do have concerns that many people nowadays do not always get the full level of benefits they are entitled to, and question if any such change would improve that.

“I am fully supportive of any changes, so long as they do not disadvantage anyone who has a valid claim.”

He added: “Rare that it is, what happens to those people who are reliant on the benefits just to get food at a weekend, should the online system go down i.e. on a Friday – what back up plans would be in place ?”

Martin Shutt, Managing Director of estate agents Parker Stag, said: “The implications of moving benefits claims online could be far reaching and cause chaos if not managed incredibly well. As a large Letting Agent, we deal with numerous tenants in receipt of Local Housing Allowance (Housing Benefit) and would say the current system is far from perfect.

“It is also worth noting that some of the benefit claimants in real poverty may not have the access, knowledge or skills to deal online. The main concern I would have is for those that will, inevitably, be lost in the system due to various problems. There simply has to be a way of helping these individuals should these situations occur.”

Councillor David Walsh, of Redcar and Cleveland Council, said: In short, this system will terrify the living daylights out of many people I have dealt with who don’t have access to a computer, have no knowledge of how they work and certainly could not address any problem incurred in using this technology.

“Even once online I can see problems for claimants in terms of phishing from fraudsters purporting to be from the Department of Works and Pensions. Even experienced IT users can get caught – and it will be harder for new users who have come online just to claim Universal Credit.”

For more information on Tees Society Forum, please visit www.teessocietyforum.com

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