A Tory Cabinet Minister's defence of the 55p per minute Universal Credit helpline is horrendous

Joe Vesey-Byrne
Thursday 12 October 2017 16:00
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Liz Truss, the Tory minister who thought Britain's level of cheese imports was a 'disgrace', had a paltry answer when it came to charging welfare claimants 55p per minute to call the government helpline.

During Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pointed out that the benefits helpline for questions about Universal Credit charged callers as much as 55p per minute.

According to the government's own list of call charges, numbers beginning 03 and 0345 cost up to 9p per minute from landlines, and up to 55p per minute from a mobile phone.

The 0345 rate is the rate for UK-wide numbers and is not set by the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP). The government also encourages claimants to get advice from their Work Coach through their Universal Credit online account, and online work journal.

A spokesperson for the DWP told indy100

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. If someone is concerned about the cost, they can request a free call back.

Universal Credit is the one size fits all benefit payment, brought in under David Cameron and George Osborne to replace the different forms of welfare that previously existed, such as Job Seekers' Allowance, income support, and, housing benefit.

Corbyn asked if Theresa May would 'show some humanity' and intervene to make the helpline free.

May did not address the cost of the helpline.

Liz Truss was demoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury from her old post as Secretary of State for Justice.

The Chief Secretary is responsible for each public expenditure, and therefore was sent out to defend the Universal Credit scheme, which is allegedly a cost saving measure with the intention of reducing the size of the welfare bill.

Appearing on the Daily Politics, Truss suggested families seeking Universal Credit should visit a Job Centre to avoid being charged the potential 55p per minute helpline call.

Well, I’d encourage people to visit the job centre, go in and get the advice.

Host Andrew Neill pointed out the practical difficulties of this solution for claimants, such as child care, and the fact that the cheaper landline option is not available to all people, especially those who are trying to spend less on expensive items such as line rental.

Asked by Andrew Neill 'Why are you charging them 55 pence a minute to call up and try and get their Universal Credit payments fixed?'

Truss responded:

I don't know the details of the call line and as you've said it's more affordable if you ring up the landline.

See the full exchange between Truss and Neill here:

Job Centre closures:

In January the DWP announced it would be reducing its estate by 20 per cent which included 'divesting' several walk-in Job Centres, meaning they be merged with an existing job centre.

A list of 94 Job Centres in the UK were on a proposal list to be 'divested', and a further 50 are to be relocated into existing local authority office space.

In July The Mirror reported that 68 centres were to be merged, and four would close permanently, leading to up to 750 job losses.

So there will be even fewer places for a Universal Credit claimant to physically visit, even if they wanted to do so.

indy100 contacted the DWP to ask if they thought the merging of Job Centres would make it more difficult to take Liz Truss' advice to visit a Job Centre.

A spokesperson for the department declined to comment on the remarks made by Liz Truss.

HT Huffington Post, The Mirror

Update: This piece has been updated to include comments sent to indy100 by the Department for Work & Pensions. (16.10.17)

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