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

Calls can cost up to 55p a minute.

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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.