Hundreds of thousands of benefits claimants could be unable to register for the new Universal Credit (UC) digital service because of problems using the government’s online identity system Gov.uk Verify, according to new figures that show barely a third of UC users successfully use Verify.
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The Universal Credit (UC) digital system, which is due to be introduced at all Jobcentres by the end of 2018, works on the basis that people applying for benefits will set up an account online and prove their identity electronically using Gov.uk Verify – either on their own computer or with assistance from Jobcentre staff.
But the Government Digital Service (GDS), which develops Verify, has revealed research showing that while 35% of UC users can set up a Verify account online, 30% are not able to, and the remaining 35% could use Verify, but do not.
“Further research at a job centre showed that out of 91 users, 48 needed help with the process,” according to the latest minutes from GDS meetings with the Privacy & Consumer Advisory Group (PCAG), a panel of independent identity experts who advise on Gov.uk Verify issues.
Further tests at the London Borough of Croydon showed that, even when claimants are given one-to-one support to help create a Verify user account, only one in five were able to successfully prove their identity online using the system.
“This highlighted two areas of concern – making people go to a venue where they were still unlikely to verify their identity, and the costs of the scheme,” said the minutes of the November 2017 PCAG meeting.
Verify uses publicly available data, such as passports, driving licences and credit histories, to prove that online users are who they say they are. However, since the system went live in June 2016, the majority of people attempting to register with Verify found they were unable to set up an account.
Benefits claimants tend to have less of a digital footprint than people in employment, who are more likely to have mortgages or credit cards, and as a result Verify finds it harder to gather enough data to prove their identity. The new GDS research is the first time Verify figures have been published that are specific to the UC digital service.
Most of the 1.2 million UC claimants so far have used the original “Pathfinder” system, which handles only a limited number of benefit types and does not rely so heavily on Verify. It is being replaced by the digital service – now known as UC Full Service – which is being rolled out across the country and will be used for all new UC claims by the end of the year.
In the month to 14 December 2017, 77,000 people applied for Universal Credit, according to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). With the UC Full Service being introduced at, on average, 50 Jobcentres a month this year, hundreds of thousands of new claimants will soon be expected to use Verify as part of the application process. Based on the latest GDS figures, at least three in 10 people will not be able to do so and many more will struggle.
A telephone helpline is available to help apply for UC, and Jobcentre staff can also assist, but the expansion of UC Full Service assumes that the majority of claimants will prove their identity using Verify. If many thousands of people are unable to successfully use Verify to submit a claim, it is likely to cause significant extra work for Jobcentre staff.
A government spokesperson said: “GDS is constantly working to improve Gov.uk Verify to ensure it delivers the best possible service. We partner with teams from across government, such as DWP’s Universal Credit delivery team, jobcentre staff and user researchers, to find the most effective way to support with the use of Verify.”
A report from Citizens Advice in July last year warned that UC claimants were struggling to verify their identity online and lacked the digital skills to use the system. The charity called for UC roll-out to be delayed to resolve the problems it identified with the Full Service process.
“To apply for UC, claimants must first create a Verify account online, which proves their identity. While this account is useful for accessing a range of government services, it can create challenges for those claiming UC,” said the report.
UC is not the only service where Verify has been struggling. The Verify completion rate has been below 50% for most of its live use since June 2016 – meaning that less than half of all people who attempted to set up a Verify user were able to do so. The current success rate at the time of writing is only 54%.
Even for those users who manage to create a Verify account, only 48% are subsequently able to access the online public service they wish to use, according to GDS figures up to 14 January 2018.
The Labour Party has also called for the government to rethink its approach to using Verify. Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said in October last year that the Verify programme was “being handled appallingly”.
“Not only is it inefficient and clearly failing, it also brings into question the security of citizens and the accountability of public services,” he added.
GDS hopes the private sector will adopt Verify to establish it as a UK-wide standard for online identity assurance, but concerns have been raised about GDS delays in publishing commercial rules that would allow companies to create Verify accounts and accept users that first registered to use government digital services.
GDS is also working to make Verify conform with EU digital identity standards so it can be accepted for use across Europe.
Universal Credit has also had a chequered history with its IT systems. The controversial welfare reform initiative suffered huge IT problems before the project was “reset” in 2013. A report at the time from the National Audit Office revealed that as much as £130m of IT work would be scrapped by the time the system was due to go live.