Removal of helpline charge welcomed but Universal Credit rolls on

telephone-2817221_960_720The UK government has bowed to pressure by agreeing to introduce a free helpline for people seeking information on Universal Credit but has rejected calls to pause the roll-out of the controversial benefit.

Ahead of the roll out of Universal Credit debate at Westminster yesterday, work and pensions secretary David Gauke announced he would change the system which meant that people phoning the helpline Universal Credit were having to pay up to 55p a minute.

Prime Minister Theresa May said she had listened to criticism of the charges and decided it was “right” to drop them.

But despite MPs supporting a Labour motion to “pause and fix” the welfare reform amid fears it is causing hardship, Ms May said Universal Credit was “a simpler system”, that “encourages people to get into the workplace - it is a system that is working because more people are getting into work”.

Up to two dozen Conservative MPs had said they may support the motion but the government whipped its MPs to abstain. In the end, just one Conservative MP, the chair of the health select committee Sarah Wollaston, voted with Labour.

As a result the opposition won the largely symbolic vote by 299 votes to 0.

While the outcome is not binding on the government, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said ministers must “act on the clearly expressed will of Parliament” and halt its roll out.

The Universal Credit hotline will become free to use “over the next month”, the government has said, and that would be followed by all Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) helplines by the end of the year.

SNP MP Chris Stephens, who led months of campaigning against the premium phone line charges, said the decision to end the ‘telephone tax’ is “only putting right something that was completely wrong”.

He added: “The Tories have finally realised the telephone tax is completely indefensible. In spring this year I secured a ten minute rule Bill in parliament to debate this topic – but since then the roll out has hit thousands of people and left many facing real financial hardship.

“The Tories cannot claim it as any kind of victory as it is only putting right something that was completely wrong. For people already facing real financial hardship because of the shameful Universal Credit policy to have to pay for a premium phone service was never acceptable.

“The Tories say Universal Credit is their flagship welfare policy. It has been nothing short of a disaster - and for those it has failed so far in any pilot area - it has been a personal catastrophe.”

Scottish Labour MP Danielle Rowley said: “It’s good that the government has listened to Labour and will stop charging people to use their phone helpline.

“Charging vulnerable people on low incomes for seeking help is simply wrong – we estimated that around £50 million was being spent by families using the helpline.

“However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The evidence suggests that Universal Credit is driving-up debt and rent arrears and forcing people to rely on food banks.

“The government should listen to Labour and others and suspend the workout of Universal Credit until it is deemed fit for purpose.”

Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) also welcomed the Freephone number announcement but has called for the government to halt the rollout of the scheme so that further changes can be made.

CAS chair Rory Mair said: “Citizens Advice Scotland welcomes the announcement that the Universal Credit Helpline will be a Freephone number from November this year. This shows that the government has been listening to the concerns that have been expressed on that issue and is willing to make changes, and we commend them for that.

“In that same spirit, we would hope that they would now consider addressing some of the other problems that we have identified with Universal Credit. These include the six week wait for a first payment and problems with digital access to the system. We would urge the government now to halt the rollout of Universal Credit so that these problems too can be fixed.”

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