The Government has dramatically scaled back the start of the Universal Credit pathfinder pilots. The pilots were all due to commence in April but three of the four areas selected will now operate as pathfinder areas from July (see below). The four local authorities selected to be part of the Universal Credit Pathfinder exercise face a possible unenviable task of acting as guinea pigs for the Governments’ controversial new benefits system. The three phase system begins in April and is outlined as follows;
Phase 1 (Pathfinder): UC starts in the four pathfinder authorities with single jobseekers. (April and July 2013)
Phase 2 (Staged): Extended coverage of UC rolled out, staged across GB. (October 2013 – March 2014)
Phase 3 (General Coverage): UC national implementation due to be completed by end of 2017 (April 2014 – 2017)
The Pathfinder areas are;
Tameside (Ashton under Lyne) April 2013
Oldham July 2013
Wigan July 2013
Warrington July 2013
The four local authorities selected will report on how the system has operated for new claimants (estimated at 1500 claimants per month) who meet certain criteria. These findings according to the DWP will hopefully iron out any problems encountered going forward into phase 2.
The chief executives of the local authorities involved in the pathfinder issued a joint statement “As pathfinder authorities we will use this opportunity to implement the universal credit six months ahead of others to our advantage, but we need to be sure that local people will not be financially disadvantaged.
“It makes sense to become an early adopter as this would give us an opportunity to help shape the scheme and protect local residents. It’s our view that sometimes it’s better to be involved in schemes like this so that we can influence its development, as opposed to sitting back and just accepting what comes our way.”
The DWP has also issued local authorities with the “Local Support Services Framework” which is aimed to support local authorities in the delivery of universal credit and even has a Ministerial forward by Lord Freud in which he describes Universal Credit as “the beginning of an exciting journey” – I must check the dictionary definition of exciting!!
The 28 page document certainly seems to cover many aspects of the universal credit however a worrying part of the framework is covered within a section headed Online Assistance which states;
“Most people claiming UC will be able to navigate the internet. A survey of existing claimants found 78% already use the Internet, although only a small proportion yet use it to make benefit transactions.”
The other 22% are certainly in for an “exciting journey”. The term “most people” seems, from many recent press reports to be overstating things. Barbara Bowers from citizens advice seems to understand internet usage better than the DWP document writer and offered “There is a presumption that if people are online regularly that translates into being able to claim benefits online,” she said, adding that she anticipated it would be a huge leap from surfing the internet or being able to send emails, to being able to fill in an online benefits form. “There is a real glossing over of potential problems.”
Hopefully the new claimants involved in the pathfinder will be given their opportunity to voice any concerns that they encounter during the claim process. We would be pleased to here from any new claimants in the pathfinder area and their experiences of the new universal credit system. We would also like to hear from any front-line staff involved in the pathfinder especially their training experiences leading up to April 2013.