Universal Credit concerns remain

Sinn Fein Councillor Colly Kelly.
Sinn Fein Councillor Colly Kelly.

Confirmation that fees for calling a new Universal Credit helpline are to be scrapped has been welcomed, but a local councillor has warned that serious concerns over the new benefit remain.

Sinn Fein Councillor Colly Kelly was speaking after the Department for Communities confirmed that it was planning to end the charges in line with the British Government’s announcement, while also confirming the call charges here could be as high as around 40p a minute.

The Tory party had come under mounting pressure to get rid of the charges, and was also hit with a successful motion on Wednesday calling for the roll out of the new benefit change to be halted amid widespread concerns, including the six week delay in people getting their first payment.

Universal Credit combines six current benefits for working age people into a single payment. Limavady was the first area in the North to have it phased in, with Derry claimants to transfer in February.

Colr. Kelly said it was only through mounting pressure that the phone charges were scrapped. “This is welcome but there have been a number of other concerns and more so than anything its the confusion around this. There remain serious issues with Universal Credit and it is scary.

“The delays are affecting people already on the breadline. It takes six weeks to process the application but it can be up to 11 weeks. And if you make a mistake you have to go through it all again. And there’s no back pay. If you are a new claimant you need a lot of information including a bank statement or evidence from the Credit Union, an e-mail address and not everyone is computer literate.”

A Department for Communities spokesperson said: “Currently the Universal Credit helpline has a ‘0300’ number. The cost of calls to the Service Centre will depend on the caller’s phone provider and whether they use a landline or a mobile. Calls from landlines will be approximately up to 10p a minute, and from mobiles approximately 3p to 40p per minute. However, local calls may be included in inclusive minutes. Callers can request a call back if required.

“In line with this week’s announcement by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), we will review the cost of calls to all benefit helplines with a view to moving to freephone telephone numbers as soon as possible. This ensures there is a consistent approach across the UK. The Universal Credit helpline will be the first to move to a freephone telephone number with this expected to be available in the coming weeks.”

She added: “Currently the Department is funding the Freephone Independent Welfare Changes Helpline (0808 802 0020) being provided by the Advice Sector.

“Universal Credit is a digital service. Each claimant has their own online account which enables them to communicate with their Work Coach and Case Manager via their online journal. The Department for Communities has also invested additional resources to ensure claimants can avail of face to face support throughout our network of local offices.”