Universal Credit 'telephone tax' scrapped following pressure from SNP and Labour

The controversial charges for using the Universal Credit helpline will end next month

THE UNIVERSAL CREDIT HELPLINE will no longer charge callers 55p per minute and will be made free from next month, following criticism of the charge from the SNP and Labour.

All DWP phones lines will be switched to freephone by the end of the year.

During an evidence session on the UK Government’s controversial Universal Credit welfare reform, Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke told MPs: “Given the recent attention and concern that this could place a burden on claimants, I have decided that this will change to a freephone number over the next month.

“I will be extending freephone numbers to all DWP phone-lines by the end of the year.” Works and Pensions Secretary David Gauke

“It has been the DWP’s longstanding position to operate local line charges for benefit inquiry lines, but having reviewed this matter more widely I will be extending freephone numbers to all DWP phone-lines by the end of the year.”

This change in DWP policy follows Jeremy Corbyn’s call during Prime Minister’s Questions last week for Prime Minister Theresa May to “show humanity” and end the call charges.

Following PMQs last week, a Downing Street source quoted in the Daily Mirror initially rebuffed suggestions that the 55p charge be ended, saying: “As I understand it, most of the issues can be resolved online.

“But if there are issues where people feel they need to call the hotline and they are concerned about the cost, they can say straight away and the DWP will ring them back so there is no cost.”

These comments did not appear to take into account the often lengthy periods that callers can spend on hold while they wait to speak to a Universal Credit advisor. Universal Credit does not reimburse money spent by claimants calling their helpline.

“The stark contrast between the amount HMRC charges for tax avoiders calling for advice and families who are struggling to access universal credit is sadly indicative of this out-of-touch Conservative government.” Labour MP Peter Dowd

Further pressure was applied following Corbyn’s remarks when it was highlighted that the charge for calling HMRC on an 0300 number to discuss tax status – which costs up to 40p per minute - was lower than the 0345 number called by Universal Credit claimants.

Labour’s shadow treasury chief secretary and MP for Bottle Peter Dowd told the Huffington Post: “The stark contrast between the amount HMRC charges for tax avoiders calling for advice and families who are struggling to access universal credit is sadly indicative of this out-of-touch Conservative government, which finds itself once again on the side of tax dodgers and not hard-working families.”

Wider attention was also brought these phone charges by Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake, in which the title character is forced to spend over an hour on the phone to a benefit claimant helpline.

 

 

The issue was first raised at Westminster by MP for Glasgow South West and SNP spokesperson on trade unions and workers’ rights Chris Stephens, who challenged the prime minister on the issue at a PMQs in November 2016.

“Exclusion is built into the system.” SNP MP Chris Stephens

Stephens, who has campaigned against the phone charges since then, said in a parliamentary debate on the matter in June of this year: “It is just one more financial kick in the teeth when people are paying for access to information and support. When every penny counts, call charges hit hard, and the lack of clarity as to which lines are free and which ones come with a cost does not help.

“Call charges do not just eat into people’s benefits; I suggest that they actively deter people from calling for because they fear incurring charges either from the lines themselves or from a mobile phone provider.

“As I look deeper into the issue and ask more questions, more disturbing information comes to light. There are serious flaws in the digital-by-design model. Exclusion is built into the system.”

“Charging vulnerable people on low incomes for seeking help is simply wrong.” Labour MP Danielle Rowley

Responding to the announcement from David Gauke, Labour MP for Midlothian Danielle Rowley implied that the decision had been made in response to Labour pressure, saying: “It’s good that the government has listened to Labour and will stop charging people to use their phone helpline.

“Charging vulnerable people on low incomes for seeking help is simply wrong – we estimated that around £50 million was being spent by families using the helpline. 

“However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The evidence suggests that Universal Credit is driving-up debt and rent arrears and forcing people to rely on food banks. 

“The government should listen to Labour and others and suspend the workout of Universal Credit until it is deemed fit for purpose.”

Picture courtesy of Julian Carvajal

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