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“It’s disrespectful”: Universal Credit claimants have to pay to call the benefits helpline

Calls can cost up to 55p a minute.

As if there weren’t enough problems with the government’s new welfare system, claimants have to pay to call up about their Universal Credit claims.

During PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn highlighted that claimants have to pay up to 55p a minute to use the helpline that is supposed to help claimants navigate the new system, which began being rolled out last week and has been plagued with problems since its inception in 2012.

“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’re entitled to,” the Labour leader told the House of Commons. “Will the Prime Minister today show some humanity, intervene, and make at least the helpline free?”

Theresa May did not agree to scrap the charges, which can cost up to 55p per minute on mobile and 9p per minute on landline – depending on local rates – to call the 0345 number:

Whether in or out of work, those who need to claim Universal Credit are doing so because they are not receiving the money they need to live without government help. Charging the people who are most in need of money for help with their claims is therefore nonsensical as well as immoral. While the Department for Work & Pensions doesn’t make money from these call charges, it is still imposing unfair costs on claimants – who have nowhere else to go for financial help – by failing to offer a freephone service.

The DWP says claimants are free to request a call-back, and someone from the Department will call them back for free. But that’s only once you’ve called up – incurring charges – to request a call-back.

“Once they’ve requested a call-back, they won’t have to pay for the call-back call,” a spokesperson says, adding that if people do need to call, landline rates are “really cheap” and lots of mobile phone packages come with free calls to 0345 numbers.

The rationale is that “Universal Credit is an online service” (according to the DWP, the majority of Universal Credit claims so far have been made online).

“When people are on UC, they have an online journal, so they can chat to their work coach or caseworker through the online journal if they’ve got questions about their claim,” says a spokesperson for the DWP. “People are encouraged to use their online journal, because one aim of Universal Credit is to help people with their digital skills because that's good for their employability, and all about digital inclusion as well.”

However, according to the Department’s own website, there are instances when you may need to call up the Universal Credit helpline:

The DWP’s message about encouraging online claims has not changed since I pushed it on Universal Credit call charges in February 2016. And as I wrote at the time, treating it as an online service is problematic for society’s most vulnerable:

  • Those who are struggling financially are less likely to have a computer or smartphone of their own or to afford an internet connection. Nine per cent of UK adults have never used the internet. For those aged 75 and over, the proportion of non-users is 41 per cent, according to the Office for National Statistics.
  • People with disabilities are less likely to be able to access the internet if they don’t have access at home; 22 per cent of adults with disabilities have never used the internet.
  • People living in deprived areas will find it harder to access the internet at a local library, due to library cuts.

These are the people who are more likely to have to claim benefits. Last year, the chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee Frank Field MP told me:

“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.”

This still hasn’t changed, and the cost of making calls to the service can be distressing for claimants trying to navigate a system with in-built payment delays.

“If you don’t have money for a call, you’re not likely going to have money for a computer or the internet,” says Camilo, a 21-year-old former Universal Credit claimant, who has been staying at a Centrepoint hostel for nearly two years. “So if you’re broke in one way, you’re probably going to be broke in the other way.”

He tells me that he had no money during a four-month wait for his payments to come through, when he was switched from the old benefit of Income Support to Universal Credit.

In this time, he would use what little money he had to top up his mobile, and find it empty after calls to the helpline. “I’d call on my phone and the credit wasn’t there anymore. I was like what’s going on!” he recalls, adding:

“If you don’t have any credit, how are you meant to call them and find out what’s going on with your application? If you’re actually really broke, you can’t find out what’s going on, you can’t contact anyone, you can’t do anything. So I think it’s a bit disrespectful that they’re actually charging you for phone calls. It should be a free service.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.