UK

Government Announces It Will Scrap Universal Credit Helpline Fees

U-turn will be seen as a victory for Jeremy Corbyn.

18/10/2017 09:38 BST | Updated 18/10/2017 12:22 BST

The government is to scrap fees for the Universal Credit helpline after it was revealed some claimants have been charged up to 55p a minute to access advice and support.

Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke confirmed the move on Wednesday saying the helpline will be free within a month.

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson told HuffPost UK that the decision will eventually affect all public helplines relating to benefits queries.

The issue dominated last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions and the u-turn on the call charges will be seen as a victory for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who challenged Theresa May to “show some humanity” by ending the fees.

HuffPost UK
Calls to the Universal Credit Helpline will be free 'within a month', the government has said

Speaking at PMQs today, Corbyn pounced as May stumbled in her response to his request for her to pause Universal Credit. She said after being interrupted by cheers from Labour: “Yes it is absolutely right that we have announced this morning that we have announced we are going to change [the call fees].

“It think it’s right that we have done this now. I want people to know they can ring in and can get their advice and they can do that without being worried about [cost].”

The government quickly faced calls to refund claimants for the money they’ve spent calling the helpline.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: “About bloody time! They should pay people back for the money they’ve lost too.”

No10′s initial defence of the helpline began to falter after the Commons clash last week.

And the DWP was forced into an embarrassing admission when HuffPost UK confronted officials with detailed accounts of hardship caused by the fees.

Labour welcomed the move, but urged the government to support calls to “pause and fix” the roll out of Universal Credit.

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said: “The Conservatives have finally listened to Labour and scrapped the premium phone helpline for claimants.

“Now they need to listen to the calls of charities and councils and back Labour’s motion today to immediately pause and fix the roll out of Universal Credit, before more people are pushed into rent arrears, poverty and homelessness.”

Empics Entertainment
Labour's Debbie Abrahams has urged the government to 'pause and fix' Universal Credit

The backtrack comes as Labour hopes to use an opposition day debate on Universal Credit to shame the government into halting the next phase of the system.

Abrahams told Sky News earlier in the day: “I am appealing to all MPs to vote with their conscience, this is really, really important.

“We’re concerned that all the reports we are hearing around arrears and evictions are going to have a real impact on people’s lives.

“This isn’t an item we should be playing politics [with].”

She said she was prepared to work with Gauke to overcome “systematic problems” with the system.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Theresa May has been fighting a potential backlash over the issue from her own backbenchers.

Tory MPs who have held reservations over the rollout of Universal Credit, including Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen and Johnny Mercer, met with the PM last night to discuss their concerns.

Universal Credit is a reformed welfare system which combines several benefits into one unified payment. It replaces Job Seeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit as well as in-work benefits like tax credits.

It has been criticised over delays to initial payments, and blamed for an increase in the use of loan sharks and foodbanks in some areas.

Last week, HuffPost revealed the high cost of calling the helpline for some claimants, and the DWP was forced to admit people have no other option but to phone to arrange their initial appointments.

And over the weekend, we found Universal Credit claimants were charged more than tax avoiders to call government helplines.

New figures published on Wednesday showed the number of people on Universal Credit rose by 57,000 last month to a total of 610,000 claimants.

The DWP said all its benefits helplines will be free by the end of the year, beginning with Universal Credit in November.

[Do you or someone you know receive Universal Credit? Or do you work for the DWP at one of its contact centres? Contact our reporter with your experiences on George.Bowden@huffpost.com. Your response can be anonymous.]