Exploring the Impacts and Implications of a Changing UK Welfare State under Digitalisation and Austerity: the Case of Leeds

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Hodkinson, S ; Turner, A ; Essen, C (2016)
  • Publisher: University of Leeds

This report details the main findings from a pilot project funded by RCUK’s Digital Economy programme exploring the impacts and implications of a digitally transformed UK welfare system in the city of Leeds. This report updates our interim report (Hodkinson et al, 2014). \ud \ud The pilot study was commissioned in December 2013 against the background of the 2010-2015 UK Coalition Government’s programme of austerity-driven spending cuts and reformsto public services, voluntary bodies and welfare provision. Digitalisation is a key aspect of Welfare Reform and central to the new Universal Credit (UC) system being rolled out gradually across the country with an original target of 80% of claimants making and managing their UC benefit claims online by 2017. \ud \ud This research focused on three specific communities of interest: public administrators of welfare; frontline welfare law advisors; and welfare claimants. Our research questions explored the potential impacts of an austerity-driven digital welfare system on these different communities, and on the everyday relationships between claimants and welfare providers. \ud \ud The Key Findings can be summarised as follows: \ud First, as public and voluntary sector welfare administrators and advisors increasingly move their welfare claiming and advice services to digital forms of provision as a result of Universal Credit, there are dangers that this will: \ud • further transform welfare into a more punitive, sanctions-based welfare system based on conditionality and surveillance; \ud • generate digital exclusion and destitution for particular groups of claimants; and • pose major organisational challenges to advice service providers. \ud Second, although the socio-spatial impacts of welfare reform are complex and still uncertain, we found evidence that: \ud • the overall geography and demography of housing benefit (HB) claimants in Leeds remains broadly unchanged but there are specific areas and groups within the city experiencing greater housing, neighbourhood and tenure instability; and \ud • this instability is particularly pronounced for HB claimants affected by specific welfare reforms such as those in the social rented sector affected by the Under-Occupancy charge known as the Bedroom Tax. \ud \ud Our main policy recommendations are: \ud • all welfare providers and advice services should avoid introducing ‘digital by default’ systems of welfare claiming and advice; and \ud • welfare providers, advice services and local authorities can do more to evidence the effects of welfare reform and austerity on their local citizens by exploiting the rich administrative datasets at their disposal.
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