Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
18 February 2016updated 06 Aug 2021 2:42pm

Universal credit’s costly helpline exposes the inequality of an online-focused benefits system

Universally challenged.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Another nanosecond, another disaster for Iain Duncan Smith’s universally challenged welfare “revolution”, universal credit.

Following the programme being massively behind schedule, over budget, wasting millions, lacking in leadership, and accusations that claimants will be worse off and not incentivised to save, another scandal has hit.

This time, the Work & Pensions Secretary is refusing to set up a freephone service for claimants who have to file for their benefits under the universal credit system over the phone. This means that claimants will have to pay 45p a minute from mobile, or 12p a minute from landline, to make a claim over the phone.

There are numerous problems with this. First, it’s immoral. Those claiming universal credit will be doing so because they are not well-off and rely on the state for financial support. To make them pay for this is tasteless at best. Secondly, it is contradictory of the Department for Work and Pensions, which pledged in 2013 that claimants would be able to make calls regarding benefits free of charge.

But most worryingly, this ludicrous development is a symptom of a damaging flaw in the universal credit system: its reliance on claims being made online.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday - from the New Statesman. Sign up directly at The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. Sign up directly at Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

A DWP spokesperson is quoted in the Guardian defending the lack of a freephone number for universal credit. Their argument is essentially that it would be easier for claimants to apply online:

“People who are unable to claim online and need to use the telephone service can request a call back to avoid call charges. Most vacancies are now advertised over the internet, and claimants are encouraged to apply online to help them prepare for the world of work.”

Content from our partners
How to empower your employees to stay cyber secure
<strong>The energy sector reform the UK needs</strong>
Why we urgently need a social care workforce plan

The only problem here is that lots of people – particularly people with disabilities, and people who live in more deprived areas  don’t have access to the internet. The latest data on UK internet users from the Office for National Statistics finds 11 per cent of adults (that’s 5.9m people) have never used the internet. And the proportion of adults who were recent internet users is lower for those who are disabled (68 per cent), compared with those who are not disabled (92 per cent).

If you don’t have access to the internet, or are unable to use it frequently and the only phone number provided by the Department is an 0345 one – you may end up failing to claim your benefits. When I recently visited Easterhouse, where Duncan Smith was said to have his “epiphany” about inequality, this was one of the main concerns of the local poverty charity FARE about the universal credit system. The lack of access to the internet, they told me, could stop many Easterhouse estate residents being able to make use of the new system  particularly the disabled, elderly and vulnerable.

The Labour MP and chair of the Work & Pensions Select Committee Frank Field has concerns about relying on online claims:

‘As laudable as the government’s intentions might be – to enable everybody to manage their benefit claim online – there will always be the need for an accessible freephone number that people can call when they’re on their uppers. It is mainly poorer households who are least likely to have access to the internet, so the high cost of calling up about universal credit is likely to hit them hardest.”