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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.

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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.”

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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.”