The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-05676, in the name of Christina McKelvie, on “Voices from the frontline ... Digital by default”. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.
That the Parliament notes the recent report from Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), Voices From the Frontline, Digital by Default, which was published in response to the UK Government’s digital strategy; notes CAS’s concerns that moves toward services being applied online only could exclude those in society who are vulnerable and marginalised from receiving the benefits that they rely on to survive; understands that the digital strategy admits to not covering local government services or the NHS and does not consider ways to increase the digital capability of citizens; believes that a citizen’s advice bureau in West Scotland has reported that a client, a 60-year-old ex-labourer with dyslexia with limited computer literacy or access to a computer, was penalised for failing to apply for jobs online, and notes calls for more work to be carried out to ensure that any moves toward online applications are implemented in an open manner that is fully mindful of the needs of those who do not have internet access or are less able to use it to apply for benefits or jobs.
Before I go into the detail of the debate, I pay special tribute to Citizens Advice Scotland and thank it very much for the valuable work that it does in informing us in our role, and the work that it does day in and day out in our communities. I make special mention of Hamilton Citizens Advice Bureau, which has been absolutely fantastic in supporting me in what I do and in supporting my constituents. I also thank the members who signed the motion and allowed it to be debated as members’ business.
“This is not just politics. This is people’s lives.”
That is what Tracey, a neighbour of Stephanie Bottrill in Solihull, the grandmother who threw herself in front of a lorry on the M6 on Saturday, said about her tragic death. She added that Stephanie would not be the last to die as a result of the bedroom tax. As some newspapers reported, Mrs Bottrill killed herself because she said that she could not afford to live. Her two adult children had left home to set up their own family lives, and she was assessed and told that she must pay £20 a week for her underoccupied home. She had lived in the £320-a-month house for 18 years, but there was no way that she could find the extra £80 a month out of her limited income. Stephanie suffered from a debilitating condition called myasthenia gravis and was far too weak to work.
That painful reality is a testament to Westminster’s uncaring Government and to the conviction that is held by David Cameron and George Osborne that if we pull the carpet from under vulnerable people’s feet they will bounce up and join the workforce. It is simply discrimination; it victimises those who do not have the advantages that Messrs Cameron and Osborne have enjoyed. I have to tell Mr Cameron that life in Scotland—or, indeed, in most parts of England and Wales away from the cushy constituencies of the south-east—is not like that.
Citizens Advice Scotland’s recent report “Voices from the frontline ... Digital by default” and its follow-up “Offline and left behind: Digital exclusion amongst Scotland's CAB clients”, which was published today, highlight a wide range of real-life suffering that is a direct result of the so-called welfare reform policy. Those real people have, like Mrs Bottrill, been pushed and shoved to the edge because they do not meet the Government’s neatly streamlined criteria. They are already at a disadvantage because of their health outlook, prosperity, career prospects and vulnerability to, for example, drug and alcohol abuse, so the outcome of this Westminster policy is to push them to the limit.
Perhaps the hope is that, like the internet, the approach will change lives. Many of us sit on the train tapping into our BlackBerrys and smart phones, checking up on the breaking news, firing off emails or reading information about an event that evening. When we return to our offices, we can access a huge wealth of information and stay up to date with 24-hour news.
Citizens Advice Scotland has found that its clients’ personal experiences reveal a technological disadvantage in addition to all the other disadvantages that benefits claimants already endure. Only 53 per cent of Citizens Advice Scotland clients use the internet, just 24 per cent said that they would be able to apply for a benefit on their own with no problem, and a total of 76 per cent said that they would struggle to apply for a benefit online, including 39 per cent who said that they could not apply online at all. Moreover, 72 per cent said that they would struggle to apply for a job online. Perhaps that is not surprising, given that just 55 per cent of Citizens Advice Scotland clients have a computer at home.
The internet is by no means a universal service that is available to everyone. The report details evidence that shows how people are already being denied benefits to which they are entitled or are having benefits taken away from them because they cannot access or use the internet. It says:
“The UK Government must ensure that citizens are fully supported to access the benefits to which they are entitled in a way which suits their needs, resources and capabilities. In addition, benefit claimants who do not have access to the internet or who are less able to use it to apply for benefits or jobs” online
“must not be penalised for this. Rather, we believe that Jobcentres have a key role to play in supporting people to gain skills and find work and that Government more broadly has a duty to support the roll out of internet access.”
In November 2012, the UK Government launched its Government digital strategy, which sets out how the Government will transform the way it delivers services to citizens, including moving services online—a change in ethos to what is known as “digital by default”. The strategy came along at the same time as the unprecedented changes to the welfare system which, coupled with at least £18 billion of cuts to the welfare budget, will cause significant upheaval for those who are in receipt of benefits.
Citizens Advice Scotland says that it is concerned that a digital-by-default approach to welfare benefits could exclude some of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society from accessing the very services on which they rely. A more cynical person might suggest that that is yet another useful Westminster mechanism to cut down on the volume and backlog of applications. However, it is a perfect example of the bizarre way in which the Westminster Government looks at its electorate. I am reminded of Nelson looking down his telescope with his blind eye and saying, “I see nothing.”
The digital issue is a microcosm that reveals Westminster’s attitude. Only with independence can we give people back their dignity, help and encourage them to access the benefits to which they have a right, and support those who really need that intervention.
The wider implications of the so-called benefits reforms are well known to the Parliament, but Citizens Advice Scotland’s report on the matter shows that about £2.5 billion will be taken out of the Scottish economy in the Westminster Government’s lifetime. Invariably, it is the most vulnerable people who will suffer most heavily; for example, disabled people in Scotland stand to lose more than £1 billion, which equates to a 29 per cent cut.
Successive British Governments have pushed vulnerable people to the edge in Scotland. With independence, we can do something much better. As we are already doing within our limited powers, we can work to build more within communities instead of slapping on a depersonalised solution for all from above. If we are to make a more equal society a reality in Scotland, we need to do it independently. London solutions might or might not work in London; they do not work in Scotland and they certainly do not work in Solihull.
I congratulate Christina McKelvie on securing the debate and, of course, Citizens Advice Scotland on its “Voices from the frontline” reports. CAS has produced several such reports, but the one that is highlighted in the motion is “Voices from the frontline ... Digital by default” so I will concentrate on that, plus the one that has, by chance, come out today, which is called “Offline and left behind: Digital exclusion amongst Scotland’s CAB clients”. Both reports deal with the same theme.
I agree with most of what Christina McKelvie said about welfare reform, apart from the constitutional context in which she placed what she said. Today’s debate is particularly about the digital issue. In the report that was published today, “Offline and left behind”, we are reminded that a total of 76 per cent of CAB clients said that they would struggle to apply for a benefit online, and that almost three quarters of CAB clients said that they would struggle to apply for a job online. Those are the basic facts that underlie today’s debate.
Some of that is about training and skills, but there is also a fundamental issue around access. Today’s report also tells us that only 54 per cent of CAB clients have an internet connection at home. That should not really surprise us, because those of us who were working on that issue quite recently will remember that the Office of Communications “Communications Market Report” highlighted that only 50 per cent of the whole adult population of Glasgow has fixed broadband. There are clearly issues of training and access: although the aim of getting more people online is a good one, the UK Government’s target of moving 80 per cent of benefit applications online in a short time is worrying and—to be frank—misguided and wrong.
It is not just the accessibility to benefit claims that is at stake; it is the way in which unemployed people apply for new positions. We are, in effect, seeing penalisation of people who have not been given the ability to navigate a relatively complex online system, and it is being done in a way that undermines their efforts and reinforces the notion that they have been left out of society altogether. Where is the justice or fairness in that?
The extent of the penalisation of employment prospects through the shift towards digital is underlined in the “Digital by default” report that is highlighted in the motion. CAS cites a body of evidence that
“showed instances of people being penalised at the Jobcentre for not applying for jobs online. This was even found to have happened when people had applied for jobs in writing or by phone due to their inability to use a computer.”
Organisations that provide information and advice for concerned claimants will undoubtedly have a great deal more to deal with during the coming period of transition to the new online system. It is therefore essential that bodies such as Citizens Advice Scotland be supported and properly equipped to cope with the change. The Department for Work and Pensions has stated that it will provide face-to-face contact with claimants completing a form in exceptional circumstances, but it still needs to be made absolutely clear to the public what those circumstances will be, and they must be defined realistically and sensitively. As Christina McKelvie did, I pay tribute to the work of all the citizens advice bureaux in Edinburgh and Leith. I know that several people who work in them have been involved in the reports and I pay particular tribute to them.
Libraries are often cited as a place where people can go, but there are issues about availability of libraries, with 200 public libraries closing across the UK last year—although I am not sure how many of those were in Scotland.
We must ensure that changes are implemented with respect to individual circumstances and we must argue for a framework of provision that is digital by design rather than by digital by default, and we must work to tackle issues of accessibility rather than simply ignoring the immense challenges that are faced by those who lack computer skills, who do not have access to a computer, or both.
In conclusion, we should consider the case of the 60-year-old client who was sanctioned for two weeks on the basis that he had left no digital trace of his job search, but who had been applying in person and over the phone. When he asked how he would eat for two weeks, the adviser told him that that was not the jobcentre’s problem. That cannot become standard practice when budgets and human resources are increasingly stretched. We have a duty to make sure that all those who are experiencing difficulty are treated with consideration and respect.
I thank Christina McKelvie for lodging the motion on an issue that is so important at present, and I welcome the opportunity to debate it in the chamber.
Having read through the report, “Voices from the frontline ... Digital by default” by Citizens Advice Scotland, I share the views that are expressed and the concerns that have been raised by Inclusion Scotland and Citizens Advice Scotland that those people who are already facing barriers will find it even more difficult to get online.
Looking deeper into the issue, I examined research from the Carnegie UK Trust, which had a fantastic case study on digital exclusion in Glasgow and why Glasgow has such a low broadband uptake. The figure from that particular case study that struck me was that more than 90 per cent of people in some specific groups are offline. Groups including older people, social housing tenants and people who are unemployed are the least likely to be online.
That finding, coupled with the fact that those groups also include people who are already facing difficulties in day-to-day life through disability, proves how out of touch the Westminster Government truly is, not only with the people of Scotland but with people throughout the rest of the UK.
The extent to which the Westminster Government is out of touch is highlighted by its action over the bedroom tax. It wants 90,000 people to move house in a year, but in my 36 years of service as a local authority councillor in North Lanarkshire Council l managed to help only 5,000 people to move. How can the Westminster Government suggest that 90,000 people can move in a year?
The facts are more damning. Studies have shown that disabled people are significantly less likely to live in households with access to the internet than non-disabled people. In 2010, 58 per cent of disabled people in the UK lived in households with internet access compared with 84 per cent of non-disabled people. That is according to the 2010 British social attitudes survey and runs in line with the review by the Scottish Government entitled “Digital Participation in Scotland: A Review of the Evidence”.
The reasons that were outlined in the review for the low internet access figures for those with a disability are twofold: first, because of impairment as a result of the disability; and secondly, because of a lower income. An example of such impairment is of people with visual impairments who face practical difficulties in using the internet. They have particular problems in reading what is displayed and in finding their way around many websites as a result of the websites not being fully accessible, to name but two of the issues.
There is a natural correlation that those who have a higher income are more likely to have internet access at home. Currently, only 52 per cent of people in the 15 per cent most deprived communities have internet access in their homes, with disabled people being one of the groups most likely to be living on a lower income. In turn, therefore, disabled people are most likely to be living on a low income and thus have a need to claim benefits, but they are least likely to have internet access. That is why the Westminster Government plans for digital by default are poorly thought out and show a lack of concern for the most vulnerable in our society.
I urge the Westminster Government to look again at its policy on the bedroom tax. It is causing significant worry and despair and, as Christina McKelvie has already said, it has caused a regrettable suicide of a young woman. It is a policy that is even worse than the poll tax, and the only conclusion that I can draw is that we as a country here in Scotland can rid ourselves of such unfair and undemocratic policies only through the powers of an independent Scotland. I again thank Christina McKelvie for lodging the motion to defend the people that Westminster has forgotten.
I start with the same words that Christina McKelvie used in the opening of her speech: this is not about politics; this is about people’s lives. When we deal with the issues that surround welfare reform, we all have to accept that we have a responsibility to ensure that assistance is given wherever it can be and that people understand the availability of assistance. It is therefore important that I pay tribute to Citizens Advice Scotland for the work that it does and continues to do to support vulnerable people through these difficult times as we change the welfare system substantially.
The fundamental purpose of the welfare reform is to ensure that resources go to those who need them most and that the resources available are targeted to where they can be most effective and provide the best support for those in need. However, there is an in-built inertia in any system, and we must not be trapped into allowing resistance to change to become the centre of policy.
On the issue of digital by default, the UK Government’s decision to go for the target that 80 per cent of applications should be made online has stirred up a degree of controversy, but a couple of things must be said. First, the information that has been made available by Citizens Advice Scotland is based on CAS’s client group, which even a cursory examination of the figures will show is not statistically similar to the broader society as a whole. Consequently, the Citizens Advice Scotland figures do not necessarily include those who are able to make applications by digital means—they are excluded from the figures.
Indeed, in evidence to the Welfare Reform Committee only this morning, Department for Work and Pensions officials suggested that, across the country as a whole, 50 per cent of applications are now made online. In some areas in Scotland, such as Orkney, the 80 per cent online target has already been achieved, so there is an indication that the target is achievable.
Furthermore, the DWP officials made it clear that the target is 80 per cent—not 100 per cent—and there is a deep understanding of the fact that some individuals will find it difficult to apply online. As a consequence, money has been made available to support the activities of Citizens Advice Scotland so that it can contribute towards assisting such people. In addition, jobcentre staff should be in a position to assist individuals in making online applications. I am aware that there is no shortage of individual stories about situations in which that has not happened and difficulties have been experienced, but it is our duty as politicians to highlight those stories to ensure that the necessary support is provided in future and that individuals are not exposed to similar difficulties.
As many members know, I am fully supportive of the need for welfare reform and I will continue to support the UK Government to achieve that objective. However, that does not mean to say that it is not the duty of everyone in this chamber to ensure that we protect individuals from difficulties that have been identified and highlight the problems so that they can be solved as part of the implementation process. We all have that duty, and we should all work together to ensure that we do not just complain but actually make this thing work for the benefit of Scotland’s people.
Like others, I thank Christina McKelvie for bringing this important debate to the chamber this evening.
From listening to Alex Johnstone, it appears that he is looking for excuses to excuse the inexcusable. However, the more remote and rural areas of Scotland do not always provide the connectivity to enable people to apply online. Perhaps that is why the Westminster Government set the target at 80 per cent, but I must ask: did the DWP carry out a mapping exercise to establish which areas of Scotland do not have the necessary connectivity to enable people to make their applications online?
When I asked some searching questions at a DWP briefing just the other week, the answer to many of the questions was that the officials would need to come back with an answer later. Despite what Mr Johnstone said, I think that the Citizens Advice Scotland figures are an accurate representation of the customers that go through its doors—and the number of those customers is ever increasing due to the welfare reforms that we are now experiencing. My questions were fairly basic. For example, are people able to make an online application? If the answer to that is no, who will be there to support them?
Mr Johnstone said that the DWP will ensure that people have the face-to-face assistance that they require. How many staff will the DWP employ who have the appropriate skills to enable that assessment and completion of the forms? What provision will the DWP make for the mileage and time that are involved in visiting people in remote and rural areas? How long will it be before people can apply for the benefits to which they are entitled? Will they have to wait two weeks, four weeks or six months before the face-to-face contact happens? For how long will people have to be penalised because they have no access to the online facility?
There is an assumption that people could perhaps mobilise themselves and get into towns where they could use libraries or other places with internet facilities. However, many people with disabilities do not have the mobility or freedom to do that. Often, transport is not available to enable people in some of our remote and rural areas to get into town, complete an application and get back—it just does not happen. The DWP needs to take a hard look at the issue, map out the exercise and ask itself searching questions about why some people will be unable to complete the online application.
We have heard that, in places such as Glasgow, nearly half of people do not have internet access. Not all of them are in Citizens Advice Scotland’s customer group. It is just a fact that some people do not have internet access and that, even if they did, they might not have the ability to complete the application.
I support the advance of technology and I use technology every day. I think that I am a fairly competent user of the technology that is available to me. However, I have difficulty completing many online forms and I quite often have to ask for assistance. Some forms that are deemed to be accessible are not useable with the software that I use. The software that many people would have to install on their computers is extremely costly. People who are on a low income do not have the finances to install that software.
We need to congratulate Citizens Advice Scotland on all the work that it does to try to alleviate some of the hardships for many people in trying to come to terms with the welfare reform that the Westminster Government has imposed on us. It is incumbent on all members of the Scottish Parliament to ensure that we do what we can to try to alleviate some of the hardships for the people who come to us. I say to Mr Johnstone: live in this world or in the world of many of our constituents, not in the world that Westminster paints.
I am grateful to be called to speak in the debate, and I thank Christina McKelvie for enabling us to have it. I also thank Citizens Advice Scotland for the “Voices from the Frontline” reports that it has produced over the past year and a half or so. They have been extremely useful and, no doubt, they will continue to be so.
I live in the G20 postcode area in Glasgow, which is probably one of the postcode areas in the city with the widest disparities, as it extends north from Great Western Road up to Maryhill Road and then further north. In thinking about online services, I am always conscious of the number of constituents who contact me to complain about the lack of such services. For example, I commonly receive complaints that various services that Glasgow City Council offers are not available online. Some people, particularly at the southern end of that postcode area, will be extremely outraged by that.
There is hidden discrimination, and it has many elements. Christina McKelvie is absolutely right that we have a discriminatory situation around digital inclusion. People might be discriminated against because, for age reasons, they have no experience of using some of the technology. For others, their disability might mean that using technology does not come easily. The issue might be a lack of infrastructure in their area—whether because of rurality or something else—or their economic means and inability to afford the regular direct debit to a broadband provider that most of us have, which we either forget about or pay little attention to. However, such discrimination is real for people who live in the G20 postcode, for example, who will be completely cut out of the move by public services to online delivery.
Malcolm Chisholm and Dennis Robertson are right to say that we all support that move if it saves money and is easier for people. There are a range of reasons why we do not want to produce more and more paper for benefit applications. The problem is when the process becomes digital by default rather than digital by design. If the DWP is going to make such a change, it is really not helpful for it to suggest a target of having 80 per cent of benefit applications made online when it is completely impractical for that to happen. There is almost an irony in the Government driving forward information technology advances when we know how poor the Government itself is at IT.
There is a punishment for misclaiming. If someone makes an error in the process, which might be because they are not used to using digital provision or because it is not available for them, the system will punish them. To be frank, that is ridiculous.
There is an issue with how we support people. Of course we want libraries to assist people to make applications online, but we cannot put librarians in the position of being amateur welfare rights officers, aware that any errors might lead to money being claimed back from the person who is trying to apply for the benefit.
I agree with most members on the Government benches on the matter—obviously, I disagree on the constitutional point and I will not get into that. When such situations happen, we have a responsibility always to think about what we can do about them. We can do much more on training, skills and supporting people to be digital. We should be conscious of some of the money that has been lost from that and of the fact that many computer skills are now described simply as hobby skills.
St Charles’ primary school in the G20 postcode is round the corner from where I live. I do not know whether it has been able to achieve this yet, but I discussed with the headteacher there some of the issues and how they affect the kids. She said that if some of the parents could come in at half past 3—or whenever they pick up their kids—they could use the school’s computers. She would be really keen to try that. That was an example of someone not just saying, “Something bad is happening. It’s not my responsibility to do anything about it,” but thinking about the practical steps that she could take to intervene. It is not practical to suggest that schools should open themselves up to all people who are in need of a computer to make a benefit application, but that is a small example of the practical steps that we could all think about taking.
I refer to my entry in the register of members’ interests and my long past association with Citizens Advice Scotland.
I thank Christina McKelvie for bringing this important issue to the chamber as a members’ business debate.
I commend Citizens Advice Scotland for another excellent “Voices from the frontline” report. CAS is doing a superb job highlighting some of the issues that people face as a result of the UK Government’s welfare reforms. The report that it published this morning—“Offline and left behind: Digital exclusion amongst Scotland’s CAB clients”—is more powerful evidence of the same.
From what has been said so far, there are very few members with whom I would disagree. Digital delivery of benefits clearly concerns many members—and not only those who are present, as it has been raised on a number of occasions in the chamber. What concerns me most is the way that the DWP is choosing to deliver benefits through the digital channel.
Digital provision in itself is not the problem. I hope that digital is the future. In the future, and increasingly now, many of us expect and demand efficient and responsive public services that are delivered online. However, some of the stories in the “Voices from the frontline” report are quite shocking, and I hope that they are not an indication of how universal credit will be delivered.
As I have said before in the chamber both as a back-bench member and as a minister, when the DWP changed the delivery of benefits from paper to telephone applications, it was a shambles. People were sent from pillar to post. They were not allowed to make their applications using phones in the job centre but were sent to other agencies and, in some instances, to public phone boxes. I am disappointed to see that something similar is happening with digital applications. People have been rejected by the job centre and sent to the citizens advice bureau or another service to make their application. Therefore, I am not as confident as Alex Johnstone. I saw what happened in the past, and I have argued strongly for the situation to be changed. The emerging evidence is saying something different, and I will certainly be keeping an eye on it.
The research that the Scottish Government published last year shows a similar situation to that shown in the Citizens Advice Scotland research. We found that the people who are more unlikely to go online are those who, as we have heard, have a low income, live in deprived areas, have a disability or a long-term health condition and have numeracy or literacy difficulties. In other words, they are the same people who need the welfare state to be there for them—and CAS identified the same groups of people.
I also take issue with Alex Johnstone’s view that the CAS report simply looks at its customers. Its customers are the people who need and use the welfare system. They are the ones who have been pushed into making applications, including job applications, online. We need to acknowledge that. Of course they will make up a bigger percentage, because they are the very people who need the services. That must be taken into account.
I say to the DWP that those people deserve a benefits system that meets their needs, rather than one that only meets the needs of the 80 per cent—an arbitrary target—who make claims online. I know that the figure, which is highlighted in the CAS report, has caused some concern.
In simple terms, we can think of three groups of people who claim benefits. There is a group of people whose circumstances are difficult and complex. I expect and sincerely hope that the people in that group would be in the 20 per cent who cannot use digital, but who will get support in other ways. We all recognise that there is another group who will want or be able to manage their claim online. They will be in the 80 per cent, and there needs to be a good service for them.
There is also a group in that 80 per cent who might not yet have the skills or the access to the technology, but whom the DWP still expects to get online. That could put people at risk of making a claim that is late or, if they are not confident on a computer, of making mistakes, which could result in delays in receiving payment or, potentially, benefit sanctions.
It was clear from the stories that Christina McKelvie told—other members have highlighted this—that we are talking about real people. If they do not get their income at the time they need it or it is late, they have no other source of or access to money. They are stuck in a position that they should not be in. Forcing people to do something in a way that they have no access to or do not have the skills to use is simply unfair and discriminatory. “Voices from the frontline” tells us about the 18-year-old claimant whose health suffers because although they can use a computer, they cannot access one. People in that group will be most affected by digital by default: people who perhaps can do it, just not quite yet. They need to be given the skills and the support.
It is because of that challenge—this might be a response to Drew Smith’s comments—that a number of local authority pilot projects funded by the Scottish Government are looking at digital issues. There are specific barriers in rural areas, as Dennis Robertson highlighted. We have given funding to a project in Aberdeenshire to look at rural issues.
There are also issues in urban areas. We have heard about the low take-up of broadband in Glasgow, Clyde and Lanarkshire, which is much lower than the Scottish or UK average. A project in South Lanarkshire is testing one approach through one-stop-shop council advice centres. We also recently announced funding of £170,000 for a new two-year project in Glasgow to help people get online.
I also confirm that the making advice work fund can support projects to help people claim online. Stream 1 of the fund is designed specifically for the transition to the new benefit system and to help people access welfare benefits. I encourage all interested advice organisations to make a bid for that funding.
A further stream of funding has been ring fenced for social landlords, to help them deal with digital by default. That is some recognition from the DWP, although it is not enough.
I do not question the necessity of the digital delivery of public services, including benefits, but it is simply not good enough to introduce digital by default without providing the support and resources to ensure that those services are accessible to everyone.
The Scottish Government will continue to raise our concerns with the DWP about the implementation of digital by default and about the intent of the welfare reforms that are behind it.
Meeting closed at 17:40.