The government has been forced into an embarrassing backtrack after admitting Universal Credit claimants need to call a costly helpline to receive welfare payments.
The confession came just a day after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said claimants could manage accounts entirely online, and only after HuffPost UK confronted officials with detailed accounts of hardship caused by phone fees.
The 55p a minute charge prompted a Commons showdown and was described as a “mass injustice” and “grim beyond belief” by an influential Labour MP.
“Justice calls for a freephone number to be introduced as a matter of urgency,” Frank Field, chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, told HuffPost.
The PM’s spokesperson later said most people claim Universal Credit online and so avoid the charges, while the DWP suggested people had a choice. “[F]or those who want to call us, they are charged at local rates,” it said.
However, claimants told HuffPost they are forced to use the 0345 helpline to set up their Universal Credit account in the first place - meaning all recipients are effectively required to use the service.
Claimant Donna Plant told HuffPost on Thursday that along with using the helpline to set up her account, she is forced to use it every time she wants to re-arrange an appointment or meeting.
“To do anything, to set up, to make an appointment you have to ring the Universal Credit line,” the 33-year-old from Walsall, West Midlands, said.
“If you can’t attend an appointment you have to ring the helpline. The job centre don’t really do anything any more. There is no other option.”
Plant shared a letter with HuffPost which reveals claimants are told in writing to call the 0345 helpline number to re-arrange missed meetings and appointments.
And Plant is not alone. Other people contacted HuffPost to share their accounts of using the helpline either themselves or on the behalf of others.
‘30 to 40 minutes on hold’
“I was calling on behalf of a friend who because of [Universal Credit] and DWP errors nearly got evicted last year,” one person who did not wish to be named said.
“On average the time spent on hold of late has been around 30 to 40 minutes, no matter what time or day you call. For those on low incomes trying to get through it is an awfully high amount [to pay].”
One person helped by Citizens Advice said: “Since being on Universal Credit I have spent hours on the phone and have wasted so much money making these calls.
“Every month they deduct money from my payment so I have to call, explain the situation and then they send it back to me.
“It’s really inconvenient and on occasions when my payments have been on a weekend I have been left short and unable to pay my rent and other bills.”
‘How do they think that I can afford to pay 55p a minute?’
“How do they think that I can afford to pay 55p a minute to call Universal Credit?” Plant added.
“I’ve had to call twice this month so far, I needed to see if I could get a budgeting loan. I’m going to have call them again because an advisor hasn’t got back to me about my budget.”
In fact, after HuffPost shared the accounts with the DWP, it conceded in a statement that Universal Credit applicants are required to arrange an initial appointment over the phone.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman told HuffPost on Thursday: “Nine out of ten people are applying for Universal Credit online. Once they complete the online process, they are asked to arrange their first Work Coach appointment over the phone.
“After that point, they can re-arrange appointments and contact their Work Coach via their online journal, or by email.”
Stephen Lloyd, the Lib Dem DWP spokesperson, told HuffPost: “I am not surprised in the slightest that the DWP have had to come back and admit all new UC recipients have to phone the helpline initially, despite saying earlier they did not and that it could be done online.”
And Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, added: “The public will be knocked sideways by this mass injustice.
“The Government clearly looks as though it is kicking large numbers of people while they’re down; people without any money are required to pay for these essential calls just to try and establish a source of income.
“It’s grim beyond belief. Justice calls for a freephone number to be introduced as a matter of urgency, to prevent people sliding into destitution.”
Figures released under freedom of information laws show 55,000 people a week called the Universal Credit helpline during August.
HuffPost revealed on Wednesday that callers to the helpline are not given the option of being called back “straight away” due to data protection rules.
Our reporter spent 12 and a half minutes on hold before their request for a call back was denied by a call handler.
The call would have cost some people on mobiles £7.51, the equivalent of more than 11 percent of the weekly allowance for some claimants.
Criticism of the new welfare policy, which has led to delays in some payments and a reported increase in the use of loan sharks and foodbanks, has mounted as a nationwide rollout nears.
[Do you or someone you know receive Universal Credit? Contact our reporter with your experiences on George.Bowden@huffpost.com]