29 March 2006

So far, it's a silent revolution. It's gone unannounced by the government and unnoticed by all the major benefits organisations.

For some claimants, advice agencies and disability charities it will be a great step forward: some disabled clients will get better awards and some agencies will win extra funding and cooperate more effectively. But some claimants will lose out through lack of knowledge and some advice agencies and disability charities will lose funding as neighbours and rivals poach first their clients and then their welfare benefits funding.

Government Gateway Accounts for citizens, a whole new way of claiming six different benefits online, have arrived. Ever vigilant, Benefits and Work has now tested the system repeatedly and - on the whole - we actually think it's a big step forward! (Though we have our reservations, of course). We've created a 14 page members guide to claiming DLA online and we're also offering in-house training for organisations that want to get ahead of the crowd in using a system that we believe is going to be very important indeed in the future.

So how does it all work?
In itself, claiming online is not new - it's been possible to claim Carer's Allowance online for some time now. But the Government Gateway Account for citizens is a very different, and much more flexible, system.

Opening a GGA takes just a few seconds - all that you are required to give is a surname, first name and a password and you can open an account - in any name. Though 'account' is a rather misleading term as there's no money involved, it's just a place that claimants can complete and store claim packs. Where appropriate, there doesn't appear to be any reason why advice agencies can't open accounts for their clients, with their permission obviously.

Having opened an account you can select from a range of claim packs. At the moment the choice is:

Disability living allowance (children and adults)
Attendance allowance
Child maintenance
State pension
Income support
Incapacity benefit
Jobseekers allowance

The last three benefits, the Jobcentre Plus benefits, can currently only be claimed online in a limited number of postcode areas.

Having opened a claim pack, you can then complete it all in one go or save it and do it a bit at a time. Information can be copied and pasted into the form from, for example, Word documents. The pack doesn't have to be signed as such - the claimants simply has to type their name into the Declaration box - but it must be the claimant or their appointee who does this, not an advisor.

Online DLA claims will still be dealt with at the claimant's local Disability Benefits Centre - except for renewal claims which will still go to Blackpool - and supporting evidence, such as medical evidence, can still be sent by post.

Three big advantages
For DLA claims there are three major advantages to a GGA.

First, you get a full six weeks to complete the pack - no waiting for it to be posted out to you or posting it back several days before the deadline. In fact, at the moment, due to a programming error claimants actually get six weeks and one day to return the pack. This gives claimants and advisers much more time to work on the pack.

Second, as well as saving your pack online, you can also save it on your own computer as a .pdf (Adobe Acrobat) file and print out a hard copy if you wish. Claimants don't have to worry that the DWP will have shredded their pack if they want to refer to it for a renewal claim and advice agencies will save all those resources currently used to photocopy and store claim packs.

But thirdly and by far the most importantly, claimants can give their User ID and password to a trusted individual or organisation, such as a CAB or a disability group dealing with their particular condition. A knowledgeable adviser can then read, discuss and amend the evidence in the claim pack with the claimant - though both can't access the pack at the same moment - before it's sent to the DWP. So there is now the possibility of disabled claimants completing most of their pack themselves before getting first class advice from a welfare rights worker or specialist ME advisor, for example, and then sending the pack in within the time limit. And all this can be done without the claimant having to travel to an advice centre or having to have a home visit at considerable cost to the agency.

Napoleon and Blair deleted
There are some major problems with the new system.

For example, it's scarily easy to delete an entire claim pack simply by accidentally clicking on the Delete button - which is right next to the Edit button used for opening a partially completed pack. You don't get any warning message asking you if you really want to go ahead and delete your pack - it just goes. It's an appalling bit of design by software giants Siebel. We've already made a complaint about this - having accidentally deleted the whole of Napoleon Bonaparte's really rather detailed DLA claim pack and then done the same to Tony Blair's just to make sure we weren't mistaken - and we can only hope that the delete function will become a two stage one in the near future.

Lack of space
In addition, the scrolling text boxes for entering information could be larger. For example, for information about the problems you have with each activity - such as eating and drinking - you get 1,200 characters, including spaces, per activity. This is around about 200 -230 words. This may be adequate for some claimants and not nearly enough for others. However, there is always the option of sending additional information by post if you run out of room on the form.

Hidden tips
The paper claim pack contains lots of tips about what you need to think about before saying you don't have any problems with a particular activity. At first glance these appear to have been removed from the online pack. In fact, they're still there. But you have to click on the link in the initial question in order for the prompts to appear in a separate window.

This is fine so long as claimants realise that the prompts are there. But the fact that they are hidden will undoubtedly lead to some claimants not realising what kind of information they need to give and missing out as a result.

The likelihood is that for DLA claimants who get no advice or information, the online system will lead to hastily completed packs with no supporting evidence and little chance of success. But for claimants who know enough to know that they need support, the online system could allow them to access that support much more easily.

Advice in cyberspace
How it all pans out for both claimants and agencies will depend on the speed and effectiveness with which advice and disability organisations begin working with the new system.

It's easy to see how a small agency in, say one part of Bristol or Glasgow, could seek funding for a pilot project working with online DLA claimants. As it's all done online there's no need to restrict their operation to just the small sector of the city they normally work in, they could cover the whole city. They could also aim to form partnerships with disability charities with expert knowledge of specific, and harder to claim for conditions, such as ME and OCD. Together they could hugely improve the quality of evidence given by individual claimants.

As online claiming becomes more and more prevalent, their share of advice provision and of funding may rise, whilst agencies who have remained resolutely paper based may see their share shrinking. Where local authorities are looking to consolidate advice provision there's little doubt which agency will have the advantage.

Alternatively a disability charity working with, say claimants with bowel disease, could seek funding for a pilot project assisting claimants with bowel disease anywhere in the UK with online DLA claim form completion. Again, where more than one charity covers the same condition, the first one in is likely to get any funding going. In some cases it may not even be the national body which takes the initiative, but an autonomous local group, because size and location matter a great deal less when you are working solely in cyberspace. (As the existence of Benefits and Work itself clearly demonstrates).

The future
The DWP isn't publicising the new system yet, they're quietly testing it out and trying to remove the bugs. But the department needs to make massive savings to meet government targets. There's no doubt that encouraging online claiming will save the DWP a great deal of money in printing, postage and storage costs. This will particularly be the case when the DWP stop printing out online packs for decisions to be made in local offices and switches to doing the whole job onscreen in one location - a change that seems inevitable.

The Government Gateway for businesses has existed for some time, for dealing with transactions such as VAT and employers PAYE. It is also already in use for for child benefit, carers allowance and income tax self assessment. It is established technology. In addition, a £5 million advertising campaign is about to be launched to encourage individuals to use e-services such as the Gateway to pay council tax and other bills online.

It isn't hard to imagine that in five years time paper based benefits claims will be all but unheard of - everything will be done online or via call centres. For many claimants with access to the internet, online transactions will be preferable to telephone conversations. For welfare benefits advice providers, the choice may be between offering support to people doing business with government departments online or watching their funding dry up.

There is still, of course, the issue of fraud, which sank the online tax credit claiming system. The major problem there, however, seemed to be the government's eagerness to get money into people's pockets fast, taking it back later if necessary. Speedy payment has never been on the agenda for benefits, however, and there is nothing to prevent the same checks being made for online claims as are made for paper claims.


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