A million callers to universal credit helpline get no answer - The Times

Universal credit was also at the centre of controversy when users were charged 55p a minute to use the helpline

More than a million calls to a helpline for the government’s universal credit benefit scheme were abandoned without being answered, new figures have shown.

A Labour MP suggested that many claimants were giving up and going without the means-tested welfare payments because staff were unable to cope with the volume of calls.

Almost one in eight calls to the helpline ended without the caller receiving an answer. Some claimants may have called several times.

The Department for Work and Pensions, which administers the benefits system, rejected criticism of the helpline and said calls were answered within five minutes.

Universal credit is replacing six means-tested benefits, including jobseeker’s allowance, income support, housing benefit and working tax and child tax credits, with a single payment. It is being introduced for new claimants on a phased geographical basis in different local authority areas.

Jim McMahon, the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton, obtained the figures in response to a written parliamentary question after being told that some callers were being forced to wait for long periods and that helpline staff were struggling to deal with the high volume of calls.

A minister at the department told him that 1.3 million calls were abandoned between September 2016 and October last year, which was about 12 per cent of all calls to the helpline. In the three months between August and October last year, some 120,000 calls a month were terminated without an answer.

Mr McMahon said: “Everything we hear about universal credit suggests that it is failing in its purpose to provide help and support to vulnerable and low income claimants.”

He added: “I worry that at this busy time of year, people needing help to make ends meet — many of whom are hard-working people — won’t get the support they need from the government.”

The universal credit helpline was the subject of controversy last year after callers using mobile phones were charged 55p a minute because of its 0345 dialling code. Ministers backed down and scrapped the charges in October.

The government says that 95 per cent of people claiming universal credit do so online and more than 80 per cent who want to report changes to their circumstances, which can affect their payments, also use the internet. However, Mr McMahon said there was no evidence that people who called the helpline and were unable to get through subsequently made a successful claim online.

The Department for Work and Pensions said that in December calls to the universal credit helpline were answered on average within five minutes and the ratio of calls per claim for full universal credit had fallen from 2.7 calls in April 2016 to 1 by October last year.

A spokeswoman said: “These claims are disingenuous. There are a number of reasons why someone might end their call, and calls to our UC service lines are being answered within five minutes.”

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