All benefit call charges, including universal credit helpline, to be scrapped

Aubrey Allegretti, Political Reporter

All call charges for people ringing the universal credit helpline will be scrapped from next month, the Government has announced.

Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke made the announcement on Wednesday after criticism over call fees of up to 55p a minute incurred by some claimants.

The DWP announced that all benefit claim and helplines would change from 0345 and 0845 to freephone numbers.

A spokeswoman told Sky News the move would happen "by the end of next month".

Heidi Allen, who is thought to be leading a group of Tory MPs prepared to rebel over a vote on the latest roll-out of universal credit later on Wednesday, hailed the announcement as "a great start to the day".

But she accused Mr Gauke of "papering over" other concerns.

The South Cambridgeshire MP was invited to Downing Street on Tuesday afternoon for a meeting with Mr Gauke and Prime Minister Theresa May to express concerns and head off a damaging defeat for the Government.

Mr Gauke's announcement came within minutes of the release of figures showing 610,000 people are now on universal Credit - up 4% from August.

Labour, who called for the call charge to be scrapped, responded: "The increase in the number of people on universal credit is worrying given the Government's chaotic handling of its roll-out.

"The Conservatives have finally listened to Labour and scrapped the premium phone helpline for claimants.

"Now they need to listen to the calls of charities and councils and back Labour's motion today to immediately pause and fix the roll-out of universal credit, before more people are pushed into rent arrears, poverty and homelessness."

Labour is leading a debate on halting the roll-out later, but accused the Tories of "dirty tricks" after a statement on the "regulation of property agents" was added to the order of business - limiting its length.

The Government's flagship welfare programme has been beset with problems since its roll-out began in the North West in 2013.

Tory and Labour MPs have raised concerns over a seven-day wait for claims to be processed, and up to a six-week delay for payment.

Some claimants have reportedly fallen into rent arrears or been forced to use food banks as a result.

Communities Secretary Sajid Javid admitted the programme could be improved but told Sky News: "Where universal credit has been rolled out, it has helped more and more people accept work.

"You'll be hard pushed to find anyone that says universal credit as a system is the wrong system."

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