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Success for Labour and local MP over “unacceptable” Universal Credit helpline costs

Sefton Central Labour MP Bill Esterson played a key role in forcing the Government to abandon an expensive benefits helpline number which was costing up to 55p a minute to call. The MP wrote to the Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke in September to criticise the use of the 0345 number after hearing from constituents who had paid up to £20 a time to enquire about universal credit. A fortnight later (October 11), Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn raised the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions, forcing Theresa May to defend the use of the phone line. Bill Esterson kept up the pressure on October 13 with a further question in the House of Commons when he asked the Government to scrap the charges for calling the helpline. On Wednesday (October 18), at a Work and Pensions Committee hearing, Government Minister Mr Gauke announced the phone line was to be replaced with a free phone number. Mr Esterson said: “The Government was defending the indefensible with this help line and I was delighted to see this small step taken to help universal credit claimants. There are many reasons why people cannot use the internet, and many other reasons why they may consider telephoning preferable or even necessary. “To insist on charging for this was not only unnecessary but deeply unfair to those people who are generally on the lowest incomes. “This is a small but significant step and Labour will continue to fight on behalf of universal credit claimants and push for fairness in this system which currently seems designed to be as punitive as possible. But ending charges for the helpline is only a small part of the problem as people up and down the country are having to wait for many weeks to receive payments because of the chaos caused the government's incompetence.”

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