Universal Credit helpline 55p-a-minute charge to be scrapped, Government announces

It comes after Jeremy Corbyn first raised the issue at Prime Minister's Question and urged Theresa May to rethink the system

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 18 October 2017 10:54 BST
David Gauke: Universal Credit helpline 55p-a-minute charge to be scrapped

The controversial 55p-a-minute charge for the Universal Credit helpline is to be scrapped next month, the Government has announced.

Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke said the service would be made free, in a move that follows intense criticism from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and will be interpreted as a major concession for Conservative MPs nervous about their party's flagship welfare reform.

Mr Gauke made the announcement within the first few minutes of an evidence session on Universal Credit, telling MPs: “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.

He added: “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 on Universal Credit – merging six existing benefits into one single monthly payment for claimants – 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”.

But it will be seen as a critical victory for Mr Corbyn who last week called on Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions to “show humanity” and scrap the call fees.

“The Prime Minister talks about helping the poorest but the reality is a very, very different story,” the Labour leader added. “Not only are people being driven into poverty but absurdly the Universal Credit helpline, costs claimants 55p per minute for the privilege of trying to get someone to help them claim what they believe they are entitled to.

The annoucement, however, could be viewed as a distraction from the Government ahead of a tough vote in the Commons on a Labour demand for the overhaul of the benefits system to be paused due to concerning reports of delays in payments for claimants.

But on Tuesday evening Ms May invited potential Tory rebels to Downing Street ahead of the Commons vote, including Ms Allen. In a sign there would be no revolt on Wednesday, Johnny Mercer – another MP who met the Prime Minister – tweeted a link to Labour’s motion with the words “no chance”.

Liz Truss struggles to defend the 55p a minute universal credit helpline charge

Speaking after Mr Gauke’s announcement, Debbie Abrahams, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, added: “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 to immediately pause and fix the roll out of Universal Credit, before more people are pushed into rent arrears, poverty and homelessness.”

PMQs: Corbyn calls on May to Universal Credit helpline which costs 55p per minute free

Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, added that the Universal Credit phoneline has been “little short of fining vulnerable people for seeking help”.

He added: "It is shameful it took this long to make the line free. The Government must refund all bills racked up by the phoneline immediately as a first step towards undoing the damage it has inflicted.”

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