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Universal Credit ‘Digital by Default’ online-only benefits plan criticised by MPs

Government plans to get everyone applying for Universal Credit online, the ‘Digital by Default’ scheme, have been criticised by MPs. 

The cross-party Science and Technology Committee has written to Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude MP, expressing concern over applicants’ personal data and a lack of confidence that the government has kept up with technological advances. 

Andrew Miller Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston and Committee chair said: 
 
“Public trust is absolutely essential. The government must ensure the integrity and security of data and give people sufficient control over their stored personal information otherwise, the Digital by Default strategy will not succeed.” 

Universal Credit ‘Digital by Default’ online-only benefits plan criticised by MPs
You’ll need to get online to access Universal Credit in the majority of cases

Vice-President of the Royal Academy of Engineering Dr. Martyn Thomas added: 

“The general principle is that, if the information started off as personally identifiable data and post-anonymisation it still contains enough information to be of any use to anybody, by matching it against other existing datasets you can find out who the people are. 

“That has been demonstrated time and time again. Therefore, the notion of useful anonymised personal data is an oxymoron. The idea of releasing personal data about citizens in the country ought to be off the agenda.” 

MPs wants greater emphasis on the degree of control that people have on information about them. Citizens should also be presumed to be correct in the event of any mistakes or disputes and in the event of an error data should be instantly corrected, the Committee argues. 

The letter also criticises the government for not having a firm idea of how much taxpayer’s money will be saved by Digital by Default as well as efforts to promote public awareness of the scheme. 

Pathfinder, the name of the Universal Credit trial, has launched in Greater Manchester and parts of Cheshire. The idea is that benefits claimants will be able to access cash online instead of having to travel into their local Job Centre. Universal Credit aims to be predominantly online-only experience, although provisions will be made for those who can’t get internet access. The Digital Deal initiative has also been launched to help people stuck in the digital divide get online.

While information about Universal Credit is available online, the committee says government reliance on ‘word of mouth’ won’t be enough to get everyone clued up about Digital by Default by October when it’s to roll out across the rest of the UK. 

MPs want a response by then and have threatened to launch a formal review if responses aren’t forthcoming or adequate. 

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