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Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living

Universal Credit helpline charges scrapped

Date: 18/10/2017
Summary: People will no longer be charged for calling the government's Universal Credit helpline after criticism from MPs and campaigners.

Welfare Secretary David Gauke said the helpline, charged at local call rates which could be up to 55p a minute, would be made free in the coming weeks.

Mr Gauke was being grilled by MPs about the controversial new benefit.

It comes amid claims - denied by ministers - some people are facing destitution because of payment delays.

The government has said anyone in financial distress can apply for advance payments.

Labour is calling for the roll-out to be immediately paused and is holding a Commons debate later to put pressure on the government over the issue.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams said the government had "finally listened to Labour" by scrapping charges for the helpline, which is already free for its Welsh language version.

Mr Gauke told the Commons work and pensions committee the government made no money from the 0345 number, but that "given the recent attention and concern", it would be made a free phone number "over the next month".

All DWP phone lines will be made free by the end of the year, he told the Commons work and pensions committee.

Universal Credit is a single benefit for working-age people, replacing income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit.

It has been introduced in stages to different groups of claimants over the past four years, with about 610,000 people now receiving it.

Much of the criticism of the scheme has focused on the six-week delay to payments, which are made in arrears.

Almost a quarter of all claimants have had to wait more than six weeks to receive their first payment in full because of errors and problems evidencing claims.

This has led to reports of growing numbers of people falling into rent arrears.

BBC Newsnight's political editor Nick Watt said he understood ministers were also giving "serious thought" to cutting the initial waiting period for payments from six to four weeks around the time of next month's Budget.

The idea of universal credit is that no-one faces a situation where they would be better off claiming benefits than working.

There is no limit to the number of hours you can work per week if you get universal credit, but your payment reduces gradually as you earn more.

Under the old system many faced a "cliff edge", where people on a low income would lose all their benefits at once as soon as they started working more than 16 hours. In the new system, benefit payments are reduced at a consistent rate as income and earnings increase.

A six-week wait is built into the system.

Because universal credit is based on how much money you have each month, it is paid in arrears - people claiming the benefit receive money for the last month worked, not for the month ahead.

That means everyone has to wait at least four weeks, and the rest of the time is because of the way the scheme is administered.

Last month it was reported that up to a dozen Conservative MPs wanted the rollout to be put on hold while, ahead of Wednesday's debate, it is understood Prime Minister Theresa May met a group of MPs in Downing Street to discuss the way ahead.

Although the debate is largely symbolic - any vote that is held will not be binding on the government - it has been tabled by Labour to increase pressure on the government.

The Department for Work and Pensions says its latest data, from last month, indicates 81% of new claimants were paid in full and on time at the end of their first assessment while 89% received some payment.

Cases of non-payment, it said, were due to claimants either not signing paperwork, not passing identity checks or facing "verification issues" such as providing details of their earnings, housing costs and childcare costs.

But Labour's Frank Field, an ex-welfare minister who chairs the work and pensions committee, said large numbers of people in his Birkenhead constituency would "not have any money over Christmas" due to the six-week time lag.

"The government cannot honestly stand up and say this is working," he told the BBC.

Source: BBC

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