Petition demands action to combat digital illiteracy among universal credit claimants

Community leaders called for more action from Wandsworth Council after research from Wandsworth Foodbank revealed that one in three people who visit do not have access to the internet via broadband or mobile phone.

This places claimants for universal credit, a social security benefit introduced in 2013 to replace six means-tested benefits and tax credits, at a significant disadvantage, given that the process for making claims and subsequent communications is all online.

Katherine Low Settlement, a charity based in Wandsworth, started a petition in association with others including Wandsworth Foodbank, South West London Law Centres and Citizens advice Wandsworth, demanding the council do more to combat digital illiteracy and the resultant risks of rising debt and homelessness that poorer residents face.

Fleur Anderson, 47, head of community services at Katherine Low Settlement, said: “The council should work with others, including charities, to put in place short term infrastructure to help.

“They should provide more computers and work with local organisations to train volunteers who can work with people.”

Ms Anderson also highlighted how the job centres were unable to provide the time and resources to effectively tackle digital illiteracy, with her own charity under increasing pressure.

She said: “We are overstretched.”

Sarah Chapman, 44, Co-Founder of Wandsworth Foodbank also felt that the issue of digital illiteracy was being overlooked by many.

Ms Chapman said: “Vulnerable people are being asked to complete forms really well online, in order to guarantee their incomes, but some of our guests don’t know how to do it.”

It is a concern shared by other organisations who work with poor and disadvantaged adults.

Roni Marsh, 44, debt team leader at South West London Law Centres highlighted how people who struggle to use computers faced significant problems.

Ms Marsh said: “I know of people who have filled in their forms wrong, either not putting the right amount of rent they pay and not understanding questions.”

Ms Marsh suggested that the council identify those who struggle with digital illiteracy at point of claim and identify who needs training.

For some the lack of internet access and digital illiteracy has meant life changing consequences.

Ms Chapman highlighted the case of how one man was only able to use the internet via his mobile phone, but when his phone broke he was unable to verify his ID online.

It took him a total of three weeks before he was in the financial position to get his phone fixed, meaning only then was he able to submit a claim, increasing the wait for his payments significantly as well as his debt, as he had to rely on advance payments.

A further example highlighted by the Foodbank included a dyslexic lady who found operating computers particularly difficult, and upon filling in a form incorrectly, had her benefits stopped.

This example was described as one of many where individuals are now frightened of making mistakes, adding to their worries.

The three groups contacted all urged the council to do more to prevent people from falling into higher levels of debt and the risk of homelessness.

The council did not respond to request for comment.

Basit Mahmood

Freelance Journalist and blogger