The phone line to claim Iain Duncan Smith’s new benefits system will cost callers trying to get assistance as much as 45p a minute, it has been confirmed.
The Department for Work and Pensions said it would not set up an 0800 freephone landline for Universal Credit and said people should claim online.
The benefits helpline will be an 0345 number – meaning calls from mobiles will cost up to 45p and landlines 12p a minute.
The DWP had pledged to phase out full-rate numbers altogether after an outcry over a similar existing service in 2013.
Mr Duncan Smith’s department however has however decided to charge a full-rate rate for the new service rather than a freephone.
Rates per minute are particularly high for 'Pay as You Go' mobile phones used by people who cannot afford contracts.
A typical 40 minute call at 45p a minute costs £18 – about a third of the youth rate of Jobseekers’ Allowance supposed, which is supposed to last a whole week.
Junior DWP minister Justin Tomlinson said: “All benefit new claims lines have 0800 numbers and are therefore free whether claimants call from mobile phones or landlines – with the exception of Universal Credit, which has an 0345 number as the expectation is that claims are made online.”
Frank Field, the chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, criticised the move.
“There is something really disturbing about the idea of people on their uppers having to incur a hefty phone bill just to talk to somebody about their benefit claim,” he said.
New benefit claims are lengthy calls that involve reading and spelling out significant amounts of information over the telephone.
Care must be taken that the information is correct because any errors can cause long delays in benefits claim processing and even led to a claim being denied.
The cash flow problems caused by the waiting period for benefit claims has previously been blamed for a large proportion of food bank use.
A DWP spokesperson said it would be possible to avoid the charges on the new line by arranging a call-back.
“People who are unable to claim online and need to use the telephone service can request a call back to avoid call charges,” the spokesperson said.
“Most vacancies are now advertised over the internet and claimants are encouraged to apply online to help them prepare for the world of work.”
The typical charges for 0345 numbers across networks can be found here.
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