18/10/2017 17:22 BST

May Rejects Calls To Halt Universal Credit Roll-Out As Helpline Charges Scrapped

Theresa May has again rejected calls to pause the roll-out of Universal Credit as ministers announced that controversial charges of up to 55p a minute to call a helpline were to be scrapped.

Appearing before a Commons committee, Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke said the line would be switched to a freephone number over the next month.

But at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mrs May insisted that the overall system was working and she dismissed a call by Jeremy Corbyn for a delay to “fix” the problems.

The Labour leader, who highlighted the helpline charges in the House last week, told her: “The fundamental problems of Universal Credit remain. The six-week wait, rising indebtedness, rent arrears and evictions.”

However, Mrs May said: “It is a simpler system. It is a system that encourages people to get into the workplace. It is a system that is working because more people are getting into work.”

(PA Graphics)

(PA Graphics)

The exchanges came as Labour sought to highlight concerns among Tory MPs over the roll-out of Universal Credit with an opposition day debate on the issue.

Earlier, Mr Gauke told the Work and Pensions Committee that all Department for Work and Pensions’ helplines would be free of charge by the end of the year.

He said the 0345 number for the UC hotline was charged at local rate and was included as a free call in many landline and mobile phone packages. The number was not a premium-rate number and DWP made no money from it, he said.

David Gauke said the helpline would be switched to a freephone number over the next month (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

But he added: “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.

“It has been 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.”

His announcement was welcomed by Conservative MP Heidi Allen – a member of the cross-party committee and a leading critic of the 55p charge – as “really, really great news”.

Ms Allen was among a group of potential rebels invited to Downing Street for talks with the Prime Minister on Tuesday ahead of the Commons vote.

But in a sign there would be no revolt, Johnny Mercer, another MP who met the Prime Minister, tweeted a link to Labour’s motion with the words “no chance”.

Last month, Labour received backing from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is propping up the minority Government, in opposition day votes on NHS pay and tuition fee increases, which forced the Tories to abstain on the non-binding motions.

In a hint the same tactic could be followed for the Universal Credit vote, Tory MP Douglas Ross is not even expected to be in the Commons for the proceedings – because he will be an assistant referee in a Champions League football match in Barcelona.

The Moray MP’s absence has been condemned by Labour and the SNP.