Welfare that Works? The Universal Credit information technology system and disabled people
Catherine Easton 
Cite as Easton C., "Welfare that Works? The Universal Credit information technology system and disabled people", (2014) 20(3) Web JCLI.
An important aspect of the Universal Credit benefit reforms is the development of an information technology system to support online claims. While the initial aim that the programme would be "digital by default" has now been scrapped, it is envisaged that the vast majority of claimants will manage their claim through the use of electronic communications. This paper specifically addresses issues relating to disabled people's interaction with this system and the potential for marginalisation. It analyses the development of the Universal Credit information technology system, key potentially problematic aspects of its delivery and the need to provide support to claimants. Drawing on observations at an advice charity, conclusions will be made as to the extent to which the programme's online delivery could exclude disabled people in relation to their interactions with the State.
Published in November 2010, the White Paper "Universal Credit: Welfare that Works"  outlined wide scale reform to the UK's benefit system. These proposals led to the Welfare Reform Act 2012,  which received the Royal Assent on the 8th March 2012. This legislative reform aims to streamline the benefits system while reducing welfare dependency and cost. Due to a number of factors, disabled people are a societal group that can, in particular, be negatively affected by changes in the nature of benefits and how they are delivered.  A fundamental aspect of the Universal Credit reform is the use of information technology to facilitate claims, with the aim of reducing costs and combatting fraud. Each claimant is given an online account and, while there is now some flexibility in the original "digital by default" plans,  it is envisaged that the vast majority of claims will be administrated through an electronic system. Regulations of 2013  make provision as to the use of electronic communications which, apart from in narrow circumstances, "must" be used.  This paper seeks to use a case study approach with a focus on the north-west of England to shed light upon the impact of these technology-based changes on disabled people's ability to access public services, while also analysing the wider impact of the reforms on support organisations.
2. Universal Credit: A Troubled Background
The UK Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government elected in May 2010 indicated at an early point that a key political aim was to carry out a wide-scale restructuring of the benefits system, with a consultation launched in July 2010.  The reforms sought to simplify delivery with the provision of one monthly payment to replace six existing benefits and tax credits. The use of technology was fundamental to the proposed changes, not only due to financial considerations, but also with an aim of giving people the ability to " better manage their claim".  In this way, the use of technology was set out as a method of empowering people to act independently. It was envisaged that the technology used would build upon existing systems available in the public and private sectors. In this way the overarching infrastructure would comprise of one system to interact with claimants and to determine household income, and another which would draw together household income and earnings to calculate the rate of payment. The BACS payment system would be built upon existing technology in place in the Department of Work and Pensions. The plan was to extend current systems to minimise time and expense in developing the required complex technology.
The Major Projects Authority (MPA) was established in 2011 as a collaboration between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, with a remit to oversee major central government projects and support their success. In its first annual report  published in 2013, it gave a statistical analysis of the spending on the 199 projects set for completion in the subsequent 20 years. Of these, the Universal Credit programme was particularly singled out to be assigned as "reset", a category never before applied to a public project. This status is not further defined within the report but the statement is made: " We have undertaken significant work to develop a 'reset plan' to place the roll-out of Universal Credit on a more secure footing, and the 'reset' DCA [Delivery Confidence Assessment] reflects this new status of the project ".  In oral evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee,  John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the MPA specifically highlighted the Universal Credit system as one of the current projects that worried him most. Concerns about the date of the reset, which apparently was applied months before its official announcement in December 2013, added to the Committee's feeling of unease around the decisions made in relation to the project. Questions about the nature of the reset and what this newly created category actually means was answered by Manzoni stating: "we do not invent new categories lightly or willy-nilly" . On further probing, it is suggested that the reset decision was a ministerial one, with Amayas Morse, The Comptroller General, supporting the idea to change the timescale as an unrealistic goal had initially been set.  After questions on the timescale, Manzoni outlined that ten sites for the implementation had been identified, with the north-west highlighted as the area for the early roll out.  The House of Commons Committee on Public Accounts' response  to the MPA report highlights particular concern that the reset decision was "an attempt to keep information secret and prevent scrutiny."
In September 2013 the National Audit Office (NAO) emphasised the Department for Work and Pensions' (DWP) needed to write off £34 million (17%) of its new information technology systems and, in a highly critical report, singled out the Department's repeated failures to respond to concerns that it had no clear blue-print for delivery. It also suggested that the potential write-offs for the system could climb to £140 million. This led to conclusions that there was a lack of transparency and accountability, ineffective oversight of spending on suppliers and a general lack of oversight from the DWP.  These criticisms can be set against a 2012 report of the Committee of Public Accounts which outlined the potential pitfalls of Universal Credit, an ambitious, costly project particularly in the face of increasing cuts to the public spending budget.  The blunt conclusion was drawn that: "There are substantial risks to implementing Universal Credit to a very tight timetable while reducing running costs". 
At the time of writing, the position of the programme as a whole is due to be outlined in a planned follow-up report scheduled to be published in Autumn 2014  which, to date, has not materialised. An April 2014 report of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee  shed further light on the on-going information technology problems, highlighting that the useful life of many of the systems had been downgraded from 15 to five years. Concerns were raised that problems with the technology's developments were not made public until they were revealed in the NAO report outlined above. In terms of technology management, the decision to continue to fund existing systems in an attempt to reach initial deadlines, while also making the move to an open source, web-based system identified as the " end-state" has resulted in significant cost increases. The Committee urged the abandonment of such a twin-track approach and a need for further clarity in relation to costs, both in-house and external.
In November 2012 the Work and Pensions Committee published the report "Universal Credit implementation: meeting the needs of vulnerable claimants " . The report draws together the large amount of written evidence submitted to its enquiry into the impact of the changes and the three sessions it held to hear oral evidence. The publication included input from a wide range of organisations including providers of welfare advice, professional bodies, housing authorities, local authorities, academics and Government Ministers. The report highlights that the information technology system has been identified by witnesses as "one of the biggest areas of risk",  with key concerns being the delays and changes to the system's development. The Local Government Association highlights that large systems which undertake a wide variety of high-level tasks can be more open to fraud, particularly if they are badly managed and rushed.  This is supported by information systems research into the extent and nature of cyber-threats in relation to large governmental and industry projects.  Further worries were raised about the extent to which the system would integrate with existing local authority systems, given the potentially high level of data traffic and the need to update claimants' changes in circumstances. 
The scheme is, at the time of writing, being rolled-out in six areas and by far the largest of this is the north-west of England.  Indeed, the DWP's "experimental official statistics to September 2014"  showed that 80% of the caseload came from this area. According to this research, 16,590 people have been moved on to the Universal Credit system, which is far short of the DWP's prediction of one million by April 2014.  The NAO report  outlines how delays to the rollout will impact upon the predicted societal and financial benefits and will leave a tighter margin of time to deal with any problems.  There is a lack of a specific, detailed plan for what could happen if the system were to be taken down and, furthermore, in the case of smaller scale difficulties, there could be the need for interventions by technical staff which could delay payments and impact upon user trust. 
In the face of these official reports, a growing groundswell of criticisms and frequent changes in project leadership,  Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith remains publicly confident that the full system roll-out will take place in 2015/16.  McManus and Wood-Harper  found that out of the 214 information projects they examined only one in eight could be considered successful, that is, reached completion within budget and timescale, while meeting required standards of quality. They highlighted that in projects with weak leadership, a label that could be placed on the Universal Credit scheme, there is a reliance on project and development methodologies, and that such processes " alone are far from enough to cover the complexity and human aspects of many large projects subject to multiple stakeholders, resource and ethical constraints ." While the Universal Credit information technology system may not be unique in experiencing difficulties, the repeated high-level warnings of a " fortress" culture , lack of direction and vast overspend can potentially have wider negative effects and, indeed, lead to a diminished focus on the ethical constraints of the reality of end user experience.
3. Disabled People and access to information technology
The DWP claims that the Universal Credit initiative will present "an opportunity to improve internet access for people who are currently digitally excluded".  The acceptance that there is potential for digital exclusion in relation to these welfare reforms reflects the concept of the "digital divide". This term relates to the potential for technological developments to worsen pre-existing socio-economic divisions.  The underlying fear is that technological advances could serve to strengthen socio-economic divisions, rather than act as an aid to facilitate equal access to resources.  This gave birth to the political concern that technological equality can only be achieved if policies are put in place to ensure that all citizens are given the opportunity to participate and reap the benefits of technological developments equally. In a DWP report  on the nature of benefit recipients in which 4,315 households were surveyed, long term sickness or disability was given as the most common reason, chosen by 52% of the respondents, why a recipient was not looking for work. These wide-scale changes to the system's delivery will, therefore, have a particular impact on disabled people.
The power provided by the possession of information is only truly effective if the possessor is able to access this information effectively and analyse its worth. In their work "Digital Disability" Goggin and Newell  highlight how the accessible design of technology is often seen as an expensive afterthought rather than being placed at the centre of the procurement and design process. This finding reflects the notion of a disabling society, as identified by the social model of disability, in which, in this particular case, the societal structures surrounding website development are disabling rather than enabling end users' participation.  When theorising around technological exclusion, disability as a category was absent from early research, perhaps due to definitional difficulties.  Although the growth of the Internet came at a time when the social model of disability was an influential discourse of disability, its potential to develop as a truly enabling environment was lost as the established focus on the "normal" was allowed to dominate its design and expansion.  Increasingly, governments are engaging with the use of online communications in the delivery of services.  Geary and Leith  analyse the relationship between technology and welfare reforms, concluding: " the philosophy behind welfare law and the actual implementation of the welfare system are affected by the technology". Importantly, they hold that an assumption is made that citizens and welfare providers are participating equally in the system and this is not true due to an underdeveloped notion of the "end-user". While this was stated in 2001, the analysis below leads to a conclusion that progress has not been made in the subsequent years and that, in relation to disabled people and technology, power inequalities persist. Macdonald and Clayton's 2012 analysis of how the UK's use of technology to engage with citizens could potentially marginalise disabled people found that in one geographical area, issues such as cost, lack of skills and inaccessible services led to on-going exclusion despite the policy rhetoric of "digital inclusion".  They conclude: " with the new Tory-led government and the focus on local cuts to services and benefits, disabled people seemed destined to a new level of exclusion for the foreseeable future ". The move to online welfare claims will only support disabled people's ability to access public services and lead independent lives if it is delivered with inclusion as a priority, addressing the realities of multiple, intersectional factors that can impact upon the end user experience.
4. Disabled people and the Universal Credit system
In 2012 an inquiry led by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thomson supported by Children's Society, Citizens Advice and Disability Rights UK produced a series of reports under the title "Holes in the Safety Net"  which outlined the potential financial impact the Universal Credit benefits changes would have on the lives of disabled people. This included a prediction that " 116,000 disabled people who work will be at risk of losing up to £40 per week". While accepting that the changes are likely to place increased financial burdens on disabled people, a group often found in lower socio-economic categories  and who are more likely to be out of employment,  this paper focuses specifically upon the issues relating to disabled people and access to the Universal Credit information technology system.
Access to information technology for disabled people is a multi-faceted area with many cross-cutting factors.  At a basic level, there is a need to secure access to the computer itself, which can be financially prohibitive, there is then the requirement for the system itself to be designed in a way that supports access, particularly if assistive technology is being employed. A website can support access if it is designed according to certain principles, the most widely accepted of these being the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG) which now form the international standard ISO/IEC 40500:2012 .  However, despite anti-discrimination statutes such as Equality Act 2010  mandating accessible design, levels of accessibility compliance across the EU are low, even in publicly provided services.  This has been highlighted in a Commission press release: " The current situation for public sector web accessibility is dire. Only one third of Europe's 761,000 public sector and government websites are fully accessible, despite the availability of technical solutions, some of which have been developed with EU research funding over the last 15 years. " 
In order to address this, a proposal has been developed for a Directive on the accessibility of public sector websites,  a provision which has been approved by the European Parliament and which includes strict monitoring and enforcement requirements. Furthermore, within the UK, the government is under a particular obligation to provide accessible services due to the Public Equality Duty  when carrying out a public function. While design standards exist, literature  on website accessibility tends to point towards the fundamental importance of wide-ranging end-user testing. This should address a diverse range of needs, the website's performance on a number of browsers and its ability to support a variety of assistive technology systems. The formal evaluation framework relating to the Universal Credit programme includes a section on testing and experimentation.  The options covered highlight "small scale" testing relating to the wider non-technical aspects of the initiative. No record can be found of extensive end user testing for accessibility and due to this, there is a danger of the system not supporting particular end user characteristics and individual claimants being excluded from accessing the service independently.
The original plan for the Universal Credit system was that it would be purely online and "digital by default" defined as " high quality digital services, focused on users" with all transactions being through the use of electronic communications. However, in December 2013 Howard Shiplee, in giving evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee,  admitted that this aim "was an aspiration a little too far at a stage in time"  and that it " went away a long, long time ago."  The DWP has now backtracked from its original plans for a system that was "digital by default" with the statement: " To mitigate the risk that some disabled people may not be able to make claims online, alternative access routes will be offered, predominantly by phone but also face to face for those who really need it. "  This move, while accepting that it came about due to issues in the project's management and overambitious early aims, could potentially mitigate the position of disabled people, who may be excluded due to inaccessible design. Indeed, in the equality impact assessment  for the reforms these issues were addressed with the statement that alternative methods for claiming will be provided for disabled people but that use of these services should be kept to a minimum. These alternate methods of communication are set to be "predominantly by phone but also face to face for those who really need it."  Secondary legislation  supporting the Welfare Reform Act 2012  outline that in restricted circumstances telephone claims can be made but do not refer to any other method of communication. The equality review continued that there " will be some areas, such as online access…where more support may be needed and the Department will continue to look at the best way of delivering that support. " 
Welfare reform minister Lord Freud has indicated that local authorities would be the "natural intermediaries"  in providing this support and the Chairman of the Local Government Association has outlined how local authorities are key partners in service delivery, focusing particularly on the potential long term support required by those with learning impairments.  However, concerns have been raised  that the local authorities who will need to provide these alternative services do not have the budget to do so. Currently local authorities are managing up to 26% of a reduction in their funding and these extra, as yet fully defined, responsibilities could amount to an ineffective support system.  Furthermore, the late inclusion of these plans has led to a situation where their design and implementation needs to be completed within a short timeframe and, therefore, may not be effective in supporting those in need. Questions have been raised about how the DWP will identify those in need of further support . There is the danger that if users are required to attempt to use the system, fail and then take the steps of identifying and accessing a route of further support this may lead to delayed and failed claims. With these issues in mind, while not denying the possibility of alternative routes of support, the following analysis will focus upon an evaluation of concerns around disabled people's first level of interaction with the Universal Credit online system.
5. North-west early roll-out study: Key observations
The move to online claims and its impact on disabled people has been identified as a potentially problematic aspect of the programme as a whole. Given the project's on-going difficulties and the pressure to rollout the system according to a tight schedule, there is a need to highlight key issues relating to how the system operates in practice to determine whether it is having or will have a marginalising effect. This analysis draws upon descriptive case study research  carried out within North Lancashire Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), an organisation providing advice to citizens in the north-west of England. This is in a geographical area in which the Universal Credit implementation has been rolled out within a number of JobCentre Plus districts.  It has not yet been implemented in the North Lancashire CAB region but staff have been involved with observing its impact within the region. The work is undertaken with the key aim of gaining insights into the potential impact on disabled people of the move towards the online claim system.
The Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion's evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee highlights that "maladministration, delays and complexity can significantly undermine claimant confidence and ultimately the willingness to return to work."  It is, therefore, essential that the technology functions effectively from the outset and is designed and delivered in a manner that supports users at every stage of the process. A number of points can be made in relation to interaction with the system itself. The online claim form takes around 40 to 50 minutes to complete. Added to this, surprisingly, the claim form has no save and return function. This is an issue that was also highlighted in a June 2014 report developed by the Highland Housing Register on the early implementation of the system in Inverness.  This report goes further to say: " Public access to the internet is proving to be problematic with some claimants being cut off at the end of their session before the claim is complete ". The lack of this function raises a number of issues in relation to access and fulfils the Chartered Institute of Housing's fears that there would be " risks that the IT system would not be reliable and simple to use".  Firstly, the WCAG 2.0, the guidelines to accessibility outlined above, holds at recommendation 2.2.5 that to achieve the highest level of access there is a need to ensure that: "when an authenticated session expires, the user can continue the activity without loss of data after re-authenticating".  Furthermore, while raising issues for disabled people, particularly those using assistive technology, this lack of functionality raises issues for all claimants, as it makes the process and the effort taken to complete it much more onerous. Strongly linked to this is the nature of the data required to be entered into the form; 41 separate pieces of information are needed to be entered online in order to complete the claim. This, when linked to the lack of a save function, significantly increases the difficulty of completing the form in the required one attempt. Furthermore, for the certain class of case for which electronic communications is not mandatory and a claim is allowed over the telephone, there is a need to, in that call, provide "all the information required to determine the claim and the claim is defective if not so completed" . Again this stipulation requires a high level of planning and organisation to present the information within one constrained time period and could prove onerous for users. Statistically speaking, disabled people are more likely to fall into lower socio-economic groups and are more likely to either be homeless or live transitory lives.  It follows that individuals could experience difficulties in being able to locate all of the required pieces of personal information to be collated and presented in one computer-based session. Related to this, the time it takes to complete the form, linked to the lack of a save function could have particular implications for those with stress and anxiety-related mental impairments.
A further related matter concerns the access to the computer system on which to complete the form itself. As outlined above, disabled people are a group more likely to be unemployed and to fall into lower socio-economic categories.  This makes it less likely that they will have personal access to the relevant hardware and connection needed to access the online system.  Also, due to higher levels of unemployment, disabled people may not have had the workplace training on information technology skills that may be available to others. As part of the DWP's initial digital by default strategy, in a bid to push citizens towards the acquisition of information technology skills, the following statistics were given: " Over 8 million people in the UK don't use a computer, and 38% of these are unemployed".  The advice and support charity Community Links in its evidence to the DWP report on Universal Credit stated: "The majority of the people we see do not have access to a computer; many people do not have a computer at home and rely on public libraries etc."  There is, therefore, a large group of people for whom there will not be the possibility of private access to a computer and it is likely they will have to rely upon computer services provided by public services. At a basic level, direct access to computer services may be difficult to achieve as the Personal Finance Research Centre evidence holds: " public expenditure cuts mean that many libraries operate more restricted hours or are closing altogether and some are now charging for internet access ."  Another option would be accessing computer hardware provided by advice charities and Job Centre Plus offices but these organisations are operating under their own increased pressures. A particular problem for a claimant who needs to and does gain access to a computer provided by a public organisation is that the completion of the form with its 41 pieces of personal information will take place in an environment in which privacy may be limited. This could pose serious issues for disabled people who may need to disclose personal, sensitive information related to health conditions. These issues are exacerbated given the need to access the online system to update any changes in circumstances after the initial claim has been submitted.
Linked back to financial resources and employment, notwithstanding issues of accessibility, disabled people may also have difficulties due to not possessing the requisite levels of information technology skills. In research carried out for North Yorkshire CAB, 39% of respondents who said they would either not be able to arrange support to make an online claim or would not know how to arrange this support online stated that the reason for this was disability or long-term health problems.  This can be a wider, generic issue as the charity Community Links states about its service users: "Many of them are IT illiterate, or have poor IT literacy skills."  As mentioned above, one element of the rationale behind the DWP's original but now varied digital by default strategy was that the delivery of these services online was seen as a way of pushing those who had been out of work towards skills acquisition. They put forward that those without digital skills earned on average 10% less than those with and would miss out on vacant posts at employers who only advertise online. In this way the enforced move towards engagement with information technology would push " claimants to become independent, socially included and productive".  However, such a policy can only be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner if effective, tailored and accessible support is made available.
Another factor that has impacted upon traditional claims for benefits in the past but may be exacerbated by difficulties in the online form's design and length outlined above is the potential lack of nuance in the questions posed. This issue was raised by staff at North Lancashire CAB and relates to the use of questions which appear straightforward but would benefit from the ability to include further elaboration. An example given was the question: Can you feed yourself? An affirmative response could obscure a situation in which a disabled person, while able to feed him or herself, does so with great difficulty. Related to this, research  indicates that in general when asked to describe an impairment respondents tend to understate and need prompting to outline fully its true impact. When this, again, is linked to the issues raised above in relation to the online system, it could lead to increased instances of claimants not providing a true representation of their circumstances, causing potential underpayments and perhaps costly and timely resubmissions.
As outlined above, the DWP has accepted that there will be a need to support claimants to navigate successfully the changes to the universal credit system. North Lancashire CAB's annual report 2013-14 shows that the largest category on which the Bureau gave advice related to "benefits and tax credits".  The voluntary sector is preparing itself to fill in the gaps where this support may be needed, as evidenced by written submissions from a range of 74 charities, user groups and interested parties  presented to the Work and Pensions Committee, which outlines extensive criticisms of the Universal Credit programme. A report produced by York and North Yorkshire Citizens Advice Bureaux  found that 22% of respondents who had previously filed paper claims felt that they would need help with an online submission and that 32% of claimants would access its services for support. These new burdens have presented themselves at a time when the voluntary sector is coming under increased pressure due to changes in government spending. To provide context, the Trussell Trust, a charity that co-ordinates foodbanks nationwide has seen the numbers given three days' worth of emergency food jump almost threefold from 346,992 in 2012-13 to 913,138 in 2013-14.  This follows a general trend of the amount of people at this level of need doubling year on year from 2008-2011. Crucially, a report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger published on the 8th of December 2014 highlighted benefit delays as a key reason for the growth in foodbank use, stating: " We heard extensive evidence suggesting that lengthy delays in the administration, and subsequent receipt, of benefit payments is causing severe hardship for new claimants ."  In relation to the move to online claiming, against this backdrop, many organisations do not have the resources to provide users with, for example, hardware to access the service or the required level of training to support users in skills acquisition. Staff at North Lancashire CAB expressed worries that the number of computers to which they had access was not enough to cope with demand. Furthermore, in certain instances staff support members did not themselves have an adequate level of information technology skills in relation to this new system to support others in their claims. This links into a further key systematic issue in that, while staff at North Lancashire CAB have been involved with observing the system in other local regions, it has been indicated that they will only receive around two weeks' notice of the system going live in the area. This leads to the ability to put key support measures into place being greatly decreased and, furthermore, such a short timescale indicates a general lack of planning and strategic management in the roll-out of the project as a whole.
The nature of the change to online applicants has led to a situation in which disabled people may have to seek out additional help to fulfil an interaction with the State that otherwise could have been carried out independently. In the light of this, a useful lens through which to analyse the initiatives is Nussbaum's capabilities theory. Nussbaum's influential work Frontiers of Justice  attempts to conceptualise the capabilities approach to justice in order to provide a theory which addresses access to justice for disabled people. Her theory puts forward a number of capabilities which all need to be achieved at a minimum level in order to reach a level of basic justice.  The list of capabilities includes the ability to control one's environment which relates to both political and material control.  When the debates on access to technology for disabled people and the digital divide are drawn into the notion of political participation this raises issues in relation to Nussbaum's political control capability. Nussbaum in her example of Sesha, an adult with learning impairments discusses the notion of participation through a proxy stating: " Society should strive to give her as many of the capabilities as possible directly; and where direct empowerment is not possible, society ought to give her the capabilities through a suitable arrangement of guardianship ."  She continues to state that independent participation is preferable to guardianship and agency. However, where this independence is unattainable the key question is: "Has the public political arrangement in which she lives extended to her the social basis of all the capabilities on the list?"  The "public political arrangement" of the move to benefit claiming online purports to be supporting an active engagement with the State but has led to a situation in which disabled people need to seek new types of assistance. Writing about the situation in the Netherlands where public sector cuts have been imposed at the same time as the notion of agency is being put forward as a way of achieving independence, Hilberink and Cardol criticise the manner in which inflexible approaches can potentially further marginalise groups of disabled people.  They state: " Support systems tailored to individual needs and roles are needed to support and/or adequately equip individuals with a disability to ensure agency in all their roles ". The lack of independent face-to-face advice has been criticised  as a key failing in the Universal Credit programme that is likely to have wide-reaching damaging consequences for benefit claimants. The position of local authorities is not fully independent as they have an interest in certain aspects of budgetary planning and this role of support falls heavily on the already overstretched voluntary sector, with potentially far-reaching negative consequences.
The wide-scale changes to the benefits system brought about by the Universal Credit programme have been politically contentious and the development of its information technology system has been and continuous to be problematic at a number of levels. Against this backdrop of an initiative under increasing pressure in terms of its budget and delivery time scale, there is a real danger that ethical considerations, such as those relating to access and support for disabled people, are side-lined. Certain aspects of the system's design and delivery can have a greater negative impact upon disabled people than other societal groups and there is a need to provide specific, tailored support. Due to public spending decisions, this burden is falling upon the voluntary sector and observations at a charity providing advice to citizens leads to conclusions that there are numerous problematic, systematic issues that could lead to delayed and perhaps denied claims. One of the grounds for the digital strategy is to push claimants towards the acquisition of information technology skills to improve job prospects, but this can only be achieved with tailored, well-funded schemes.
On a wider level, the importance of participation in the law making process has been recognised as crucial in the creation of laws and policies that address historic power imbalances. The drafting process of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities involved a true engagement with and participation from groups of disabled people.  Writing in relation to the Universal Credit reforms in general, Garthwaite states: "the likely impacts of ill and disabled people have not been piloted nor consulted on".  The marginalising impacts of the information technology system on disabled people could have been addressed more effectively with strategic input from groups of disabled people in the development of the system, followed by on-going participation in monitoring procedures. The rhetoric on independence and autonomy in the move to online submission requires an acknowledgement that, due to different levels of capability, there is a need for agency and support but this needs to be tailored and effectively funded. The push towards information technology skills acquisition with the aim of improving employment prospects while failing to provide adequate funding for training will leave many disabled claimants struggling. This lack of a focus on the potentially excluding nature of the reforms appears to be a situation such as those identified by Power in which " the focus on social rights is 'relegated' to the needs of the market and economy."  States' engagement with citizens through electronic communications can bring participatory benefits beyond budget and time savings but these can only be achieved in an adequately funded, effectively managed system in the development of which there has been extensive testing with end users and on-going liaison with interest groups. Due to a lack of these strategies in the Universal Credit planning, development and rollout, the voluntary sector is at the front line of supporting claimants, many of whom, due to the intersection of a variety of factors, are increasingly vulnerable.
 Lancaster University. The author would like to acknowledge the assistance and guidance of Austin Staunton, Chief Officer of North Lancashire Citizens Advice Bureau in the development of this work
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