Jeremy Corbyn has told Theresa May to “show some humanity” and make it free to call the Universal Credit helpline.
Speaking during prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, the Labour leader said people were being “driven into poverty” by the new benefits system.
Calls to the Universal Credit helpline can cost up to 9p a minute from a landline, or between 3p and 55p a minute from a mobile. In Wales the calls are free.
“The prime minister talks about helping the poorest, but the reality is a very different story,” he said. “Will the prime minister today show some humanity intervene and make at least he helpline free?”
A spokesperson for the prime minister said people concerned about the cost of the helpline can ask to be called back straight away to avoid being charged.
“Most of the issues can be resolved online. But if there are issues where people feel they need to call a hotline and are concerned about cost, they can say straight away and DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] will ring them straight back at no cost. So there is a call-back option which people can use,” the spokesperson said.
But a Labour source dismissed the government’s defence of its helpline. “The No.10 line that you can ask for a ‘call back’ is a joke as they’ve cut so many staff you can’t get through and are held in a queue.”
During PMQs, May avoided the question about the helpline and defended the benefit changes. “It is working because more people are getting into work on Universal Credit than were job seekers allowance.
“I have made very clear we continue to look at how we are dealing with this and ensuring we get this system out in a way that is working for people.”
Universal Credit, the brainchild of Iain Duncan Smith, combines six of the main welfare benefits into a single payment. It has been slowly rolled out across the country and is expected to be fully in place by 2022. Once complete, more than seven million households will receive it.
The government has been under pressure from backbench Tory MPs to pause the rollout amid concerns a six week wait for benefit payments is leaving people unable to pay bills or buy food.
Claimants are able to request an advance payment on their benefits to deal with the delay.
Heidi Allen, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, used her question at PMQs today to press the prime minister to look again at the wait.
“We have to get it right,” she said. “Many of us on this [Conservative] side of the House that feel more people taking those advances must surely mean the inbuilt six week wait doesn’t work.”
Yesterday Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke refused to “guarantee” that no family will go hungry this Christmas due to benefit delays.