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Help service phone victory

HELP centres in Bognor Regis and Chichester have scored a victory in a campaign against a phone charge.


The area’s Citizens’ Advice centres were among those who persuaded the government to hang up on the cost of calling the helpline for the universal credit welfare payment.


Ken Porter, a member of the service’s campaigns and research team, told the service’s annual meeting on Tuesday the charge could be as much as 57p a minute – and he spent up to ten minutes a time the day before waiting to speak to an advisor or hanging up unanswered.


But the government suddenly announced on Wednesday the charge would be scrapped next month.


Mr Porter said: “We are very pleased phone calls to the universal credit helpline are to be made free. It’s just a shame it will take until next month for the charge to be removed.


“It’s great our campaign to scrap the charge has paid off. This will be a significant benefit to the many vulnerable people who have to claim universal credit.


“But we are still concerned about a number of other aspects of universal credit.”


He told the meeting: “That charge has to be dropped. The government assumes that everyone has minutes included with their mobile phone charges but I’m not convinced. I’m sure a lot of people are on pay as you go.”


Announcing the change, government work and pensions secretary David Gauke said: “Our work coaches support everyone who needs help with their online account.


“But we want to make the process as burden free as possible, including for people who use our telephone service. That’s why we are making all our customer phone lines free to us.”


Universal credit is scheduled to go live in the Arun and Chichester area next April. The payment replaces six separate benefits but potential claimants have to wait seven days before they can apply. The initial payments are not made for a further six weeks.


“There will be 26,000-28,000 people in Arun and Chichester on universal credit,” Mr Porter said at the meeting.


“In Hastings, where full universal credit came in last December, our colleagues have reported a 300 per cent increase in the need for food vouchers since then. That is absolutely awful and it is because of the delay in payment.”


Mr Porter highlighted the service’s initial publicity about the payment which he said he had raised awareness.


The Arun and Chichester service, which also has a centre in Littlehampton, saw 13,672 clients in the year to the end of last March on issues such as jobs, housing and benefits. About one in three had ongoing health issues. Nearly 10,000 were white English, with 1,064 eastern Europeans. Some six out of ten were 45 or older.


Chief executive Carol Groves said: “Our work is about empowering people and helping them so they can take control of a situation themselves.”

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