Pressure is growing on ministers to make calls to the universal credit helpline free, after it emerged that low-income claimants could be paying up to 55p a minute for calls to fix problems with their claim.
Campaigners want charges dropped as evidence grows that claimants are forced to spend long periods waiting on the phone to resolve issues, and often have to make a number of calls.
There are also concerns that poor training of call centre staff and underlying problems with the complex universal credit system contribute to long waiting times.
The chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, Frank Field MP, called for the universal credit helpline to be moved to an 0800 number. “The country will be flabbergasted that people without any money at all should be expected to pay for a call to try and gain some help,” he said. The government needed to “iron out difficulties with telephone costs before they blast the poor to bits”.
A Department for Work and Pensions employee who spent eight months managing a team of staff answering calls from universal credit claimants in one of the trial areas, said workers struggled to stay on top of the volume of calls, and often failed to answer queries within the required time period, causing claimants to call back to chase problems.
“The work was backing up, and the calls piled up. Sometimes I felt terrified and exasperated for them, sometimes we were shrugging our shoulders. We were doing everything we could, running overtime, trying to break down the outstanding work,” he said.
The employee, who asked not to be named, was concerned about the length of time clients were put on hold. He said this was often because staff had not been properly trained, so were “looking round the systems trying to find the information that could be needed”. “The issue is that there aren’t enough people on the phones who know the system well,” he said.
Campaigners say official guidance supports switching a government helpline to a free 0800 number – which would transfer the cost of the call to the DWP – when callers are likely to be vulnerable and on low incomes.
Cabinet Office guidance published in 2013 states: “‘Free to call’ numbers  can be considered in certain circumstances, for example 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.”
David Hickson of the Fair Telecoms campaign group said the helpline should be offered as an 0800 number for initial claims, in line with other DWP customer phone lines. “Until universal credit has completed its pilot phase and the system is working as smoothly as other benefits, the 0800 number should be available for enquiries at all stages. This is what is demanded by the Cabinet Office guidance, which we campaigned to secure.”
The majority of calls to the current 0345 universal credit helpline will be free because they are covered by inclusive call plans, but callers who have exceeded their monthly call allowance incur charges on a mobile of up to 55p a minute, depending on the network provider.
A survey by Citizen’s Advice in England in the summer found the average waiting time was 39 minutes, and claimants often had to make multiple calls. Almost a third of survey respondents in full service universal credit areas said they made more than 10 calls to the helpline
The DWP said its staff worked hard to answer calls as quickly as possible, and to resolve queries during the first call whenever possible. It said callers could request a call back if they were concerned about the cost. Several claimants told the Guardian that they were not given this option.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, raised the cost of accessing the universal credit helpline at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, calling on Theresa May to “show some humanity” to claimants.
Helpline costs have become an issue because of the difficulties many users have in getting through to officials to fix myriad problems with their claim, including under and over-payments, lost claims, wrongly-cancelled claims, and to report changes in their personal circumstances.
Although universal credit is a digital-by-default service, and claimants are expected to carry out transactions online, many vulnerable or disabled users turn to the helpline because of difficulties in accessing the internet or operating their online journal.
The issue of helpline call charges and waiting times came up frequently in a Guardian investigation into claimants’ experience of universal credit published last week. One claimant reported: “Not only does it cost money to get through, my maximum [call length] has been just shy of an hour. Not great when you can’t buy a tin of beans to keep you alive.”
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