Written evidence from the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre BPI0046


About the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre

The Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit) is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council to investigate how digital technologies are changing work and the implications for employers, workers, job seekers and governments.  It is co-led by the University of Sussex and the University of Leeds Business Schools.  A key part of our research programme focuses on digital exclusion, its causes, and consequences for employment-seeking, including in relation to the digitalisation of public services.  This evidence draws on more than 70 research interviews with those experiencing poverty at various stages of the life course, jobseekers and benefit claimants, experts in government, business and the third sector.  It includes findings from our related EU Horizon 2020 funded EUROSHIP research project which examines minimum income schemes across European countries and their capacity to prevent poverty and social exclusion.


1 Adequacy and design

1.1 In our research, interviewees routinely described being caught in a benefit system that doesn’t allow them to move on, improve or better their life experiences. The most significant barriers, which were inadequately mitigated by Universal Credit, related to the excessive costs of childcare and housing, poor quality and precarious job opportunities.

1.2 Parents described the high costs of childcare and requirement to pay upfront. One participant said:

I did actually get so low I told them right I'm going to have to leave my job because I can't afford my child care’.

Others highlighted limited flexibility from their work coach in recognition of commitments such as school pick up. They expressed frustration at having to work long hours in poorly paid work and missing out on family time.

1.3 The inadequacy of the housing component not keeping pace with the market was described as redoubling the impact of the insecure private rental housing market most claimants found themselves in. Interviewees described feeling unable to complain about poor housing conditions (such as no heating and ill-fitting windows) for fear their rent would rise.

1.4 Interviewees also described the catastrophic impact of ‘smaller shocks magnifying’. One participant described how a cracked windscreen made travelling to their role as a care worker impossible. Another described not having a fridge for the last 2 years since it broke down. Poor credit ratings often result in the use of private debt repayment agencies. All unexpected bills or additional costs were described as a problem. One participant said:

‘I didn’t eat for a week when I had to buy [school] uniforms’. (Benefit claimant)

Interviewees also flagged the impacts of the waiting period and reclaiming of the advance as precursors to a cycle of debt from which it was very difficult to recover.

1.5 Our research also clearly shows how the inadequacy of benefit levels is compounded by intersectional inequalities relating to disability, ethnicity, age, socio economic and regional difference. The factors interviewees described, such as escalating housing costs, underemployment, stagnant wage growth and the high costs of childcare, have made some more at risk than others (BITC, 2022; Daniel, 2022; Hughes & Garner-Ford, 2020). Even in relatively prosperous parts of the UK, like the south of England, one interviewee described the public health consequences that disadvantaged groups are now facing:


They [government] really need to be thinking in terms of a 1930s welfare mentality: rickets, malnutrition, people not taking medication, heating not being on in the house, damp, batteries not being put in smoke alarms and house fires. They’re trying to work as if 2022 is a natural progression from 2019—in a public health sense it’s really not’ (Citizen’s Advice employee).


1.6 In the context of these challenges, benefit levels need to take account of the costs of connectivity and the need for digital access and literacy. For example, the online commitments with the work coach were raised in terms of the cost of connectivity. To illustrate, one participant described needing to visit family in order to use their Wi-fi. One participant vented frustration with the UC online system and missing notifications in her journal. She cannot afford to have internet at home and they have suggested she go to the library to keep up to date:


‘I have to go to the library and they expect you to do everything on there [online]. I mean I have a phone which was given to me. I don’t have a rolling contract. So they expect me to top up my phone with the £32 a month that I’m left with so I can get onto universal credit [journal] so they won’t sanction me!’(Benefit claimant)


1.7 The most recent data on affordability of communications services from OFCOM showed that one in three (32%) households surveyed had difficulty affording a communication service. This figure is likely to increase given recent announcements of price rises of up to 14% for mobile and broadband contracts in April. Our recent research highlights the vicious circle of digital poverty. It is not only that the cost of access and devices can put economic pressure on people, but that being digitally excluded can make life more expensive.


1.8 Our interviews with third sector organisations, telecoms firms and citizens experiencing poverty also reveal that accessing reduced cost tariffs is beset with problems. The costs remain prohibitive. There is low awareness amongst target communities: only 3% of eligible households have signed up and almost 70% are not aware they exist. Eligibility criteria are too narrow and the time taken to confirm eligibility is too long. Analysis by Ofcom has shown that 84% of those eligible were unaware of these tariffs while only 1.2% of UC claimants were receiving a social tariff  (Ofcom, 2022a, p.2). To compound the problem the download speeds offered at these cheaper price points may not be sufficient. For instance, Virgin Media’s Essential broadband package at 15 Mbps may not be enough if there is more than one internet user in the household.  To illustrate the importance of local digital networks, Digital Brighton and Hove use their regular meetings to spread awareness of these tariffs and promote the support that is available.

1.9 Alternative approaches are available. In discussing the importance of cost Helen Milner CEO of the Good Things Foundation, a charity supporting digital adoption for the socially excluded, has highlighted the system used in Australia. Designed with the principle of social equity in mind NBN was established in 2009 to ensure all citizens have access to fast affordable broadband. It provides a wholesale only approach for all end users, ensuring affordability while operating as a commercial business. In the United States, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) provides eligible households $30 per month off their internet bills. ACP-eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet. 

1.10 As connectivity develops, there is a further risk of exclusion for those who are using incompatible older devices. UK Mobile operators are planning to switch off 3g networks over the next couple of years requiring citizens to upgrade devices or potentially finding themselves unable to connect (Ofcom, 2022b). Those affected are likely to come from low-income households, have low levels of digital confidence and be prominent in rural areas.


2 Work incentives

2.1 During the March budget, Jeremy Hunt announced the government intention to reintroduce a tougher stance on sanctions. However, research commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions has shown sanctions are largely ineffective in getting people into work. The DWP report finds:

a sanction leads the average claimant to exit less quickly into PAYE earnings and to earn less upon exiting’.  (DWP, 2023)

2.2 Our research compliments these findings with participants describing the deleterious impacts of how the current system incentivises work. Increased work search requirements for parents, again outlined in the March budget, will further erode the lack of agency already described by many.  One interviewee described being sanctioned once as she was late for an appointment with her work coach, due to being at her paid employment. She described being ‘smart’ enough to appeal it successfully, though angry that she was put in that situation. Expert interviewees from third sector organisations described the sanctions system as “appalling”. Another noted, “it clearly can’t be a functioning system when you have these very, very high rates of sanctioning”.

2.3 Participants described feeling trapped in the benefit system that doesn’t allow them to find and pursue work that is meaningful to them. The current system deems engagement with the labour market as the only marker of success. This gives no opportunity for claimants to develop their interests, skills and qualifications and pursue a career. For example, one interviewee who had trained as a chef described losing his job in the pandemic when the industry closed. Once the hospitality industry opened up again, he described frustration at being forced to work in fast food outlets. Having previously lived in tied accommodation for hotel restaurants, he found himself unable to afford rent on his low income and became homeless. Others, such as migrant workers, reiterated this lack of agency, forcing them into low pay roles with no opportunity to pursue highly skilled roles for which they had trained and worked elsewhere. Employers are equally critical of job search requirements and conditionality (Jones & Carson, 2023).


3 Accessibility and administration: digital by default

3.1 As outlined above, digital by default service delivery of Universal Credit and other benefits imposes additional costs on claimants and existing support is inadequate to support those with limited digital literacy and access.   Digital connectivity is now essential and can positively impact on employment, employability, ability to manage money, access to cheaper bills, health and general wellbeing (DCMS, 2017, p.4). However, the unemployed are twice as likely to lack digital skills (Lloyds, 2022b). Those with an impairment are two and a half times more likely to lack foundation level digital skills (Lloyds, 2022a). Whilst people can apply for Universal Credit over the phone or arrange for someone to visit them at home in a limited set of circumstances, these exemptions are neither widely known nor used (Citizens Advice, 2022). Unemployed people and those in precarious work or on low incomes are therefore spending up 8% of their monthly disposable income or more on paying to be able to access essential financial support

3.2 Our research illustrates the range of third sector organisations helping to counter these gaps and the problems that remain. An employment support worker working in a deprived area of Brighton felt that the Government had not fulfilled their responsibilities to help people such as him support digital by default policies.

"…and to follow through on their digital by default which led to UC being online – follow through that. They have a responsibility to fulfil their own policy of digital by default."


Citizen’s Advice centres provide help to go online and fill in the required forms, alongside a service centre to establish the best means of support. However, transport to these locations; the growing instance of disability and mental health issues that make the process alienating and difficult for many people; and the underlying driver to push claimants to apply online. In interviews, NGO experts also highlighted how third sector organisations had to pivot their services to meet demand both when UC was introduced and again in response to the immediate need presented by the pandemic. These pressures have meant they have had to shift resources away from other areas impacting the remit of their work and stretching their capacity.


4 Policy recommendations arising from our research

  1. Independent experts should be regularly consulted on benefit levels. Our expert interviewees described what they perceived as a lack of Government engagement with NGO’s / charities on welfare policy. However, our findings show the importance of independent experts in calculating the reference budget to be used, and the need for regular updates and indexation.
  2. There is a need for certainty to enable claimants to move beyond living hand to mouth. Temporary one off changes, such as free school meals campaigns and the temporary Covid uplift, while welcome, do nothing to alleviate the very real consequences of the current system (Lekarski, 2022; Varley, 2020).
  3. The application and payment process should be reviewed to take full account of intersectional needs, including digital access and literacy.
  4. Person centred pathways should enable claimants to pursue skills, and develop their own capabilities in the labour market, recognising the importance of ‘good work’ and not just ‘any work’.
  5. Recognise the essential nature, and associated costs, of connectivity, including for access to employment support.  This presents an ongoing challenge of digitalisation in terms of cost of devices, connectivity and the skills needed to use them.



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May 2023