Universal Credit helpline call charges abolished after huge criticism

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks

People will no longer be charged for calling the Universal Credit helpline, the government has announced, following huge criticism from MPs and campaigners.

Abolishment of the helpline charges - which cost claimants up to 55p a minute - marks a victory for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who first challenged Theresa May over the issue at last week's Prime Minister's Questions.

Universal Credit, which merges six benefit payments into one, has been plagued by criticism since it was created by the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

Critics claim flaws in the scheme - in particular the six-week wait for initial payment - are leaving people destitute, forcing vulnerable families to food banks and facing the threat of eviction.

In another victory for Labour, albeit a symbolic one over Mrs May's minority Government, MPs backed a motion to pause Universal Credit in a House of Commons vote by 299 to 0.

A vote on the Labour-led motion was forced in the Commons against the backdrop of the Conservatives whipping their MPs to abstain, a move criticised by senior Tory Sarah Wollaston who voted in favour of Labour's motion.

Dr Wollaston was the only Tory MP to do so, according to the division list.

The non-binding result of the vote came after more than five hours of debate which saw fierce criticism of Universal Credit's roll-out from the Opposition benches, including claims it has been a "shambles" and "idiotic".

While welcoming the scrapping of call charges to the Universal Credit hotline, Mr Corbyn said "the fundamental problems of universal credit remain: the six-week wait, rising indebtedness, rent arrears and evictions".

The Prime Minister hit back, arguing the "simpler system" was encouraging more people back into employment.

Mrs May, however, had been forced to quell a rebellion within her own party over the issue.

Heidi Allen, one of those who met with the prime minister on Tuesday to discuss her concerns, said the scrapping of helpline charges was a "great start to the day".

Before Prime Minister's Questions, David Gauke, the welfare secretary, announced that the Universal Credit helpline would be free from November and that all of his departments helplines would carry no cost by the end of the year.

“Given the recent attention and concern that this could place a burden on claimants, I have decided that this will change to a freephone number over the next month,” Mr Gauke said, as he appeared before the work and pensions committee.

Challenged by committee members on the roll-out, he claimed the process had been "steady" and that advance loans were available to anyone struggling during the waiting period.

Frank Field, the Labour MP who chairs the work and pensions committee, said food banks in his own Birkenhead constituency were attempting to gather 15 tonnes of extra supplies for the Christmas period to cover the roll-out of Universal Credit in the area.

Asked whether this was "alarmist", Mr Gauke said he would not offer advice to food banks.

He rejected calls to delay the roll-out, saying a pause would "delay us making progress towards... providing help to large numbers of our citizens".

Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman Stephen Lloyd said the introduction of a free phone helpline was "no compensation to the those on the breadline who have already been fleeced".

He urged the government to pause the programme "before it is too late".