Universal credit: government helpline for welfare claimants ‘more expensive than number for tax avoiders’

Labour accuses government of ‘siding with tax dodgers over hard-working families’

Natasha Salmon
Saturday 14 October 2017 14:17 BST
Women on lower incomes are often worst affected
Women on lower incomes are often worst affected (Getty)

Universal credit claimants who call a government telephone helpline are being charged more than people who call a similar number to discuss avoiding paying tax.

Calls to the dedicated universal credit phone number cost up to 55p per minute while calls to HMRC’s number for self-described tax avoiders costs up to 40p.

The first costly helpline is used by people with queries about their welfare payments while the other is for people wishing to settle their tax after being part of a tax avoidance scheme.

Labour’s shadow treasury chief secretary Peter Dowd told the Huffington Post the government was “on the side of tax dodgers and not hard-working families”.

Last week the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said claimants could manage accounts entirely online, however the following day admitted universal credit claimants did need to call a costly helpline to receive welfare payments.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn urged Theresa May at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions to “show humanity” and scrap the call fees but Downing Street continues to resist.

The price difference between those calling regarding welfare and those admitting tax avoidance is due to the helpline numbers involved.

Those wishing to discuss their tax status can call HMRC on a 0300 number that counts towards inclusive minutes on phone contracts and costs up to 40p per minute.

However the 0345 number needed to be called by welfare claimants does not count as inclusive minutes in phone contracts and costs up to 55p per minute.

Mr Dowd, MP for Bootle, said: “The stark contrast between the amount HMRC charges for tax avoiders calling for advice and families who are struggling to access universal credit is sadly indicative of this out-of-touch Conservative government, which finds itself once again on the side of tax dodgers and not hard-working families.”

In an earlier defence of the call fees, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said that there was an option for a call back “straight away”, however this was found to not be possible when a reporter called due to “data protection rules”.

This was also given as a response after a 12-and-a-half minute wait on the phone line, equating to £7.51. This amount is more than 11 per cent of the weekly allowance given to someone aged under 25 without children.

Claimants have said they are forced to rely on the helpline to set up accounts and make simple changes to appointments.

Speaking to the Huffpost, Donna Plant, 33, from Walsall said: “To do anything, to set up, to make an appointment you have to ring the universal credit line.

“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.”

In a bid to cut costs, many people no longer have landline phones that, although provide cheaper call rates, often require line rental.

The head of the Public and Commercial Services Union, Mark Serwotka, told BBC Radio 4′s World at One that job-centre closures were making matters worse.

“What I am absolutely against is that you make assumptions that everybody can use the technology, or use the telephone lines, often where there are huge delays aside from the cost,” Mr Serwotka said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “Most people claim universal credit online, but for those who want to call us, they are charged at local rates, which are free for many people as part of their call package. People can request a call back at no charge.”

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