Digital by default

Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and Christiaan van Veen, a special advisor on new technologies and human rights, have written an article for The Guardian dated the 27th June 2019 and titled ‘How Britain’s welfare state has been taken over by shadowy tech consultants’.

The pioneering postwar British welfare state is rapidly being replaced by what we term a “digital welfare state”. This is presented by the government as an apolitical and technocratic fix aimed at making government more efficient and cost-effective. But in some respects it is also a politicised effort to undermine the social rights of the poorest members of British society, while making it ever more difficult to legally challenge adverse decisions. …

Universal credit is the first major government service in the UK to become ‘digital by default’. That means that the application and most subsequent communication with the authorities take place online. But this approach has been deeply problematic for many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in receipt of benefits. Only 47% of those living on a low income use broadband internet at home, making it much more difficult to maintain a claim online. In addition, one in five people in the UK is not digitally literate, and nearly half of all universal credit claimants need assistance to apply for their benefits online. Universal credit is building a digital barrier between some individuals and their social rights.

‘Digital by default’ is a problem because the Department for Work and Pensions needs to know a substantial amount of information about someone before any payment of benefit can be made, and asking people to provide the required information by digital methods that are either not available to them or are difficult to use is to discourage people from making a claim for benefits and so is to deepen their poverty.

Would any of this be a problem for a Citizen’s Basic Income? No, it would not. Once a Citizen’s Basic Income had been turned on, at whatever age was decided, it would keep on coming, automatically adjusted as the individual’s age changes, until it was finally turned off when the recipient had died. The situation is of course not quite so simple. Active administration would be required if someone changed their contact details or bank account, left the country, arrived in the country, or went into prison: but such occasional administrative effort would constitute a very small proportion of the administration required to manage means-tested and household-based benefits systems. Families still on retained means tested benefits would not experience the wished for administrative simplicity, but anyone taken off their means-tested benefits by their Citizen’s Basic Income would find themselves facing radical administrative simplicity; and any household still on means-tested benefits would be more motivated to seek employment in order to be able to leave means-tested benefits behind and experience the administrative simplicity provided by Citizen’s Basic Income being the only benefits system to which they were expected to relate.

If a Citizen’s Basic Income were ever to be implemented, then it would matter little whether or not someone had a computer and wifi access. Individuals might decide to become digital-literate, but there would be no compulsion to do so, and it would not matter very much if they did not.