Although last week’s PMQs challenge over the “55p per minute” Universal Credit helpline is only a small part of the story of this policy’s rollout, it shows how this government is willing to treat those wholly or partly reliant on benefits: or alternatively, that group of “just about managing” people suffering the “burning injustices” that Theresa May loves to talk about.
The Government’s own cabinet Office guidelines suggest that freephone numbers “can be considered where a department provides a service to callers who are likely to be part of a vulnerable or low income group, particularly when the typical call duration is long and could result in substantial charges”. I don’t need to spell out how this applies, nor how the most vulnerable would not have landlines and would be on the “pay as you go” mobile contracts that would attract the 55p per minute rate.
Even if this guidance had somehow been missed by Government, a report by Citizens’ Advice titled “Fixing Universal Credit” would not have been. One of its recommendations was to “make the Universal Credit helpline free of charge, at least until the roll out is complete”. What is notable about this report is: one, it was produced by the foremost body in this domain which has unparalleled primary evidence to draw on; and two, it was released at the start of July this year! It would have been placed on minister’s desks, and ministers/officials will have met with Citizens’ Advice top brass to discuss its contents and recommendations.
So a conscious decision will have been made to ignore this recommendation and continue to place the cost-burden of the helpline on the shoulders of benefit claimants. A cruel and unfair decision on any analysis.
It is the unwillingness to see matters from the claimants’ perspective which is most disturbing. Very soon many areas will be reverting to a “full digital service” for new claimants of Universal Credit (i.e. anyone who would previously have claimed Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income-related Employment & Support Allowance, Income Support, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit or Housing Benefit).
This means nearly all applicants will have to make an application online. Loughborough will be subject to this system from March 2018. It seems that any Government properly reflecting on this policy from a claimant’s perspective would anticipate the errors and injustices that will occur as a result of unequal web access/web literacy, lack of availability of accurate information (for example up-to-date rent levels), the changes in how rent will be paid to landlords, the switch to payment in arrears, difficulty some will have in accessing a Job-Centre Plus (e.g. those having to travel from outside Loughborough into town) and myriad other complications and errors. A tidal wave of debt, rent arrears and evictions is foreseen.
Although Government claims to be addressing these risks, its approach in relation to the helpline clearly shows that this rollout is not being conducted with claimants’ best interests in mind. If it was, then stories of serious anguish, like those in this recent Guardian article, could only lead to the Government stopping this rollout until its serious shortcomings are addressed.