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LONDON – The government will make the universal credit helpline free, as it bowed to opposition pressure over the scheme.
Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke told the Work and Pensions select committee on Wednesday morning: “I have decided that this will change to a free phone number over the next month.”
Gauke also said that all DWP helplines would be made free by the end of the year, following Labour criticism of the maximum 55p a minute rate the department was charging benefit claimants.
This followed Theresa May attempting to prevent a Tory rebellion over the policy by meeting with backbench MPs, but the government will not change its course.
The prime minister met with Conservative MPs Johnny Mercer, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston in Downing Street on Tuesday evening in order to discuss their concerns about the universal credit rollout, which is leaving claimants facing a six-week delay in receiving benefits.
Sources told the Guardian newspaper that the policy would not be changed, despite the threat of being defeated in the House of Commons on the issue, after Labour tabled a motion to pause the scheme.
Universal credit combines six benefits into one payment, which is paid in arrears to reflect the way wages are paid but has faced fierce opposition over suggestions it leaves claimants in debt and unable to pay rent because of the delay.
Labour has called on MPs from across the House of Commons to support their non-binding motion in an opposition day debate, on which 25 backbench Conservatives are expected to rebel.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams said Conservative MPs should “vote with their conscience,” and the universal credit should “protect people from debt and arrears, not exacerbate their situation.”
Gauke has insisted that the policy will be continued, despite criticism from across parliament and by charities, and that the government will give advance payments to claimants in order to stop them falling into debt.
A government defeat on its flagship benefits programme would prove highly embarrassing for May, and highlight issues the Tories have with the way they treat low-income families, but the vote will be non-binding.
Labour suggested that the government have made more than £50 million from the universal credit helpline, which costs up to 55p a minute after it was shown that it received 31.8 million calls from mobiles last year.
Gauke has previously written to the Work and Pensions committee insisting that it is “safe to proceed” with the scheme, and it is “operating within acceptable parameters.”