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CAS submission to UN on digital technologies in social protection systems

The impact of increasing reliance on digital technologies in social protection systems.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, is preparing a thematic report to the UN General Assembly on the human rights impacts, especially on those living in poverty, of the introduction of digital technologies in the implementation of national social protection systems. CAS has responded to the call for submissions on this theme. 

This submission focuses on social protection systems within the UK. In particular, the “digital-by-default” nature of Universal Credit, and the social protection powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament in 2016. In addition, we have also provided an appendix detailing previous CAS publications on broader digital access issues. Many of these explore how digital technologies interact with inequalities more generally but we would still consider them relevant to the Special Rapporteur’s investigation.

The submission is based on qualitative and quantitative evidence from the Citizens Advice network in Scotland. 

In summary, CAB evidence suggests that some people will never be able to independently exercise their rights using digital technologies. Suitable offline alternatives must be retained in social protection systems in order to maximise positive human rights outcomes. For those able and willing to engage with social protection systems using digital technologies, ability and will alone may not be enough to fully exercise their rights. Governments should support access to affordable, suitable connections, devices and skills training.Public service providers should take account of the range of digital access – we have moved beyond an offline/online binary to a broad diversity of devices, connection speeds/consistency, and proficiency.

Our recommendations to maximise positive human rights outcomes are:

  • Alternative, suitably supported offline options to make and maintain social security claims (such as telephony, face-to-face support and home visits) should be available and actively promoted to all claimants. Those with health conditions, disabilities or other complex needs should be specifically targeted for support.
  • In line with the above recommendation, CAS would support an end to conditionality regimes that are not sensitive to people’s level of digital skills and access. More broadly, there should be a fundamental review of the purpose and efficacy of the sanctions regime in the UK and the impact it has on people and services.
  • While it may never be appropriate for some people to use digital technologies to access social protection systems, there should be support for those who are willing and able to do so but face skill/access/cost barriers. This could be in the form of financial support (for connection and device costs), training and/or more public provision of connection points and devices. This support should be targeted at the aforementioned groups where digital proficiency and access is lowest.
  • Considering the increasing proportion of those who are online but only via a smartphone, the digital elements of relevant social protection services should be designed “mobile first” – this is already the standard in the commercial digital design world, but has not been universally adopted by public service providers.
  • Phone lines should be Freephone numbers, and escalation routes should be provided for intermediaries to contact decision makers in social protection systems on the claimant’s behalf.


Social Policy Team
Publication date
May 2019
Publication type