The welfare system is “too important to be a political football” and all politicians should adopt radical changes to restore public faith in the system, says a leading advice charity.
A new report from the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) – Responsive welfare – says politicians should focus on delivering a system that transforms lives and offers value for money.
The report shows how fundamental changes in the labour market have led to a welfare system that fails to keep pace with a changing economy and society.
A third of all problems the CAB help people with are related to welfare, with 1.8 million benefit related issues reported in 2014 alone.
An increase in zero-hours contracts, more people in part-time work and a surge in self employment, all mean the welfare system has become antiquated and incapable of supporting people with a growing array of problems and challenges.
Citizens Advice says welfare needs to be brought into the digital age, with policy makers building responsive digital services which fit around people’s lives.
Self-employed people who want to claim Universal Credit have to report income both annually and monthly. To simplify the system, a mobile phone app could be created to allow self-employed people to track incomings and outgoings, and calculate what figures need to be reported for their Universal Credit claim.
According to the report, Britain’s welfare system is held back by computer systems that are 30 years out of date.
People on the front-line dealing with complex and difficult cases need to be given more flexibility and permitted to use their own initiative, the report recommends. For example, employment support could be based upon the social work or nursing model.
More decisions should also be taken at the local, rather than national level. Citizens Advice says policy-makers should think about welfare in terms of the social and economic development of places, so that local leaders can fix the problems that matter.
Controversially, the CAB suggests varying benefit rates around England – a move being considered by the Labour party – and merging the welfare budgets of some benefits with local public spending.
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:
“The welfare system is too important to be a political football. The state safety net, which supports people when they fall on hard times and helps them back on their feet, should be cherished like the NHS.
“We help with almost two million benefit issues each year and know that this financial help can be a lifeline for those who lose their job or suddenly become ill.
“Politicians of all parties should be looking at how to make the most of the welfare budget and use technology to solve some of the economic and social problems.
“There is real scope to use the expertise of Britain’s technology industry to transform the welfare system. Simple apps to help people find works or manage their income and expenditure could shift an old system towards a modern one.
“This government has introduced huge welfare reforms but a radical next step is needed to ensure that services respond to local need, utilise technology and empower those on the front line.”