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I Shouldn't Have To Help My Constituents Call The Universal Credit Helpline - The Government Must Make It Free

12/10/2017 17:49 | Updated 13 October 2017
Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

People who need to phone a helpline because they have no money are being charged money to use that helpline. Is this a sick joke, or a misinformed decision that shows a lack of understanding and rubs salt in the wounds of the people that the Government are supposed to be helping?

Universal Credit has been a nightmare for many people in my constituency, and across the UK. So I was delighted that Jeremy challenged Theresa May on this at PMQs on Wednesday. I want so much more from the Government than just simply removing the charge applied to the Universal Credit helpline - but even small steps would be a step in the right direction.

I want the Government to accept that to date the roll out of this new benefit system has been misguided and detrimental to thousands of people across the UK. They have rolled this out on a test and learn basis, but I don't see much learning happening.

Since becoming an MP I have been dealing with some of the most desperate and scared people I have come across so far in my working life. People have come into my office, embarrassed, asking for foodbank vouchers because they are having to wait six weeks for their first credit payment. When I raised these concerns at a meeting with a DWP representative I was told 'when people start a new job, there is often a delay in getting paid and that the delay in paying out Universal Credit is no different'.

I was shocked at this comment and it gave me an insight into the total lack of understanding from the DWP of how people relying on Universal Credit live.

People in receipt of this are all too often claiming in a state of crisis. They might have had their hours reduced, their housing situation might have changed, or they may have been made redundant. Claimants of this new benefit need paid immediately to avoid making worse already difficult circumstances. Many charities and agencies such as Citizens Advice have spoken out about the damaging effect of the six-week wait, but with no budge from the Government.

Since day one of being elected I have made myself available to help people struggling with welfare issues. My staff and I have all used our personal phones to contact government agencies for constituents whilst we waited for our phone lines to be installed. Because when people are in such desperate situations, they don't have a few weeks to wait.

I've opened several channels of communication to struggling constituents to contact my office, which highlights another issue of Universal Credit. The system is completely digital; which some older constituents have told me they find very difficult. This was perfectly highlighted in the film I, Daniel Blake. One constituent said when he saw the film people laughed when Daniel rolled the mouse up the screen, but he didn't see why - because that's what he would have done. He also told me that he hasn't had the help and support promised from the Job Centre and he can't log in to his account, which has caused a lot of stress and anxiety for him, with fear of his benefits being stopped.

After PMQs yesterday I took to Twitter to remind people that they can use my office to seek help, and got a much bigger response than I expected!

I am aware that some people prefer to contact the agency directly rather than telling me or my staff deeply personal information about themselves, and for those people I offer my phone and a private space to talk through their issues on the helpline.

I came out of the chamber after PMQ's angry and frustrated that the Government won't be changing the rigid and unforgiving process of claiming this new benefit. If Theresa May and her Government won't fix the issues my constituents are facing with Universal Credit, the very least they could do is make the helpline free of charge.

The simple act of offering my phone to constituents is politics on the front line, and I won't turn anyone away who needs help and support. The Governments' refusal to scrap this charge shows their lack of understanding of the everyday lives and hardships of those who are struggling on their new benefit service.

I hope that elected representatives across the country can do the same as I have and offer their phone up for free to contact the Universal Credit helpline. If Theresa May won't make seeking help free, then until we make her change her mind on this, and on Universal Credit in general, we should do what little things we can to help people in need.

Danielle Rowley is the Labour MP for Midlothian

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