Online benefits ‘could close down opportunities’ if not accessible


The government must ensure its websites are accessible to disabled people if it wants more benefits claims dealt with online, a coalition minister has been warned.

Anne McGuire MP, Labour’s former minister for disabled people, told a joint meeting of the all party parliamentary disability group (APPDG) and other disability-themed groups that it was a “government ambition” for 80 per cent of “benefits traffic” to be dealt with online.

But McGuire, the APPDG’s co-chair, said she feared the new system could “close down opportunities for disabled people” if it was not fully accessible.

The coalition plans to simplify the system by replacing a series of benefits with a new “universal credit”, but the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has also proposed £50 civil fines for mistakes made on benefits claim forms.

McGuire asked Ed Vaizey, the Conservative minister for culture, communications and creative industries, if his department had ensured the new system the DWP was creating would be “fully accessible”.

Vaizey said the new benefits system was “a major undertaking”, but he promised to have a “proper sit-down with my opposite number at the DWP and talk to them about progress on this”.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell, the APPDG’s other co-chair, raised concerns about the accessibility of government websites for the thousands of disabled people who use voice-activated software to operate their computers.

Vaizey said he had had meetings with Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude about the need for all government websites to be accessible.

After the meeting, Baroness Campbell said she was concerned that some disabled people who use voice-activated software might make innocent mistakes when making benefits claims, but could still be fined.

She said: “I just want the government to be more ‘voice-activated confident’. I want them to be… aware that more and more disabled people use that method of using computers and navigating the internet and to make sure that the technology is accessible… and that they understand that mistakes can be made.”

Earlier in the meeting, Susan Daniels, chief executive of the National Deaf Children’s Society, called on Vaizey to encourage more communications companies to provide telephone relay services for deaf people.

There is currently only one widely-available national relay service, the text relay service funded and run by BT, but it uses technology that is 30 years old and has been described by campaigners as “slow and cumbersome”.

Daniels asked Vaizey how he would introduce competition into the market for relay services.

Vaizey said he wanted to find “pragmatic solutions”, and that the issue was “the headline this year in terms of my postbag”. He is hosting a “round table” discussion on relay services in September.

Meanwhile, the strength of the APPDG under Baroness Campbell and Anne McGuire has been highlighted by figures which show that its membership has been boosted by 43 new MPs. There are now 29 peers and 111 MPs who are members of the group.

27 June 2011