MP John Healey has relaunched his campaign against rip-off benefit helpline numbers, after it emerged the poorest people are still facing high phone charges.
At yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn highlighted how calls to the Universal Credit helpline cost up to 55p a minute.
After an 18-month campaign, Mr Healey scored a big win in 2013 when the government bowed to pressure and switched its expensive 0845 numbers to 0345. This meant calls would cost the same as phoning a local landline, making them cheaper for most people.
But the MP said at the time that he wanted the government to go further, making calls to public services free across the board, starting with helplines for those likely to be under the most pressure.
Now he’s written to the Prime Minister and Work and Pensions Secretary calling on them to make the Universal Credit helpline free to phone, and to make this change before the scheme’s national roll-out over the next years. Rotherham is due to get full Universal Credit in April 2018.
He said: “Finally switching to 0345 numbers was a welcome step and made calls free or considerably cheaper for people with call plans.
“But the poorest and most vulnerable households usually rely on pay-as-you-go mobiles, and they’re still facing rip-off charges just to make a call about help they’re entitled to.
“They simply can’t afford to spend a big chunk of their tight budget making a call about bungled benefits – and they shouldn’t be stung by this telephone tax.
“Now 0800 calls are free from mobiles, I want the government to go further and make helplines free – starting with Universal Credit.”
The government is failing to pay a quarter of new Universal Credit claims in full within their own six-week target. Labour is calling for a pause in the rollout, because it is leading to more debt, rent arrears and homelessness.
Mr Healey’s campaign against 0845 numbers, which started in 2012, found that more than 80 per cent of the Department for Work and Pensions’ phone lines – used by the sick, elderly and vulnerable – were 0845. Across government, two thirds of the principal departments and agencies used 084 numbers.
His report, ‘The Telephone Tax’, persuaded the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee to launch inquiries.
The NAO’s report in July 2013 said the government should “eliminate higher rate numbers for services that support vulnerable households … and move to low cost or free alternatives.”