A Government minister has suggested hard-pressed families visit a job centre to avoid a controversial 55p-a-minute charge for advice on a major benefits reform, sparking questions over Theresa May’s party being out-of-touch.
Liz Truss was appearing on the BBC’s Daily Politics in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn urging May to “show some humanity” and make it free to call the Universal Credit helpline during feisty exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Universal Credit, which combines six welfare payments, is being rolled out nationally but has been blighted with problems and concerns people are unable to pay bills or buy food.
In an awkward interview, the suggestion by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that households could seek face-to-face help was derided by presenter Andrew Neil, who pointed out families “can’t afford nannies” and an increasing number of people don’t have a landline to avoid a rental charge.
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.
Here is the full exchange:
Neil: “You call on a mobile phone, you are charging 55p a minute.”
Truss: “Well, I’d encourage people to visit the job centre, go in and get the advice.”
Neil: “Right, but these people have got kids to look after, they can’t afford nannies or help to look after them. Phoning might be the only way. They’ve got people visiting, the plumber, whatever, just the normal things of life, so getting on the phone is quite important.
“If it’s a landline, it is cheaper but many people don’t have landlines. If you’re counting the pennies, you save the rental from a landline, and get as cheap as possible a landline deal. And you are charging them 55p a minute! Why are you doing it?
Truss: (Pause) ... “This is what I’m saying. We are moving to a new way of supporting people. It is much more interventionist, much more about helping people get into work...”
Neil: “By charging them 55p a minute? Why are you charging them 55p a minute to call up and try and get their Universal Credit payments fixed?”
Truss: “I don’t know the details of the call line and, as you’ve said, it is more affordable if you ring up the landline...”
Neil: “Lots of people don’t have landlines ...”
Truss: ... “The fundamental model is that people go into their Job Centre, get that advice and support, and they can receive those additional payments, if that is what is needed. That is what people want...”
Neil: “I’m not arguing about the principle, that is another debate. You wonder if the government knows what it is doing sometimes. It is charging students who are paying back loans over 6%. Nobody else is paying 6% interest these days when the basic rate is 0.5%, and now you are charging people on welfare 55p a minute!”
Watch longer clip here:
Andrew Gwynne, a Labour MP and Shadow Cabinet minister, pointed out the Government had been closing job centres.
In July, it was announced 68 centres would close this year in the latest round of cuts.
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.”