Mobile call charges to benefit claim lines scrapped (…mostly)

// 19 January 2010

Sorry, another post about welfare benefits. I seem to have become The F-Word’s DWP correspondent. Let me just explain why I’m excited about this…

When I first moved to Manchester, I was unemployed, living in a single rented room in Cheetham Hill, and basically penniless. I was very lucky that a friend was able to lend me some money for my housing deposit and for food. By the time I’d bought the essentials – Granny Smiths, tea, soya milk, a packet of biscuits and about twelve packets of noodles – all I had left was change. I needed a job, and fast.

When I schlepped up Cheetham Hill Road to the Jobcentre, I was dismayed to be handed a ‘phone number for claiming JSA (0800 055 6688, if you need it) and told to go away and call it. Don’t get me wrong, the callcentre staff were brilliantly helpful, and I got everything I needed in the post the next day. But the call used up all my precious ‘phone credit (call costs from mobiles obviously vary, but half an hour on hold to the JC+ can cost you up to twelve quid). This meant it was back up the hill to use the Jobcentre’s ‘phone every time I wanted to call a prospective employer.

For me that was a one-off pain in the arse – for thousands, perhaps disproportionately women, it’s a daily barrier and a big deal. The 2008 Nations and Regions Communications Market Report by Ofcom showed that the poorest people are the most likely to rely on a mobile, especially in the North. Those in temporary accommodation – like those recently granted refugee status, or those fleeing domestic violence – are unlikely to have access to a landline, certainly for a confidential conversation. Meanwhile, public telephones are completely impractical for anyone with caring responsibilities.

Leeds CAB published a report last summer on the mobile-related barriers facing people who want to claim benefits, or change their benefits, or check that their benefits are still being paid, or find out why a payment has been missed…or, of course, to try and find a job. A West Yorkshire CAB reported:

“Charlotte was on her own after her violent partner was excluded from the home with an injunction. She needed to get her benefits directed to her and her children. She only has a mobile phone and was short of credit. Charlotte later returned and said she had run out of credit and could not ring JCP to continue her claim. She could not stand at a

phone box with two young children for 45 minutes.”

Thankfully, this is about to – partially – change. Yvette Cooper, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has announced that from this week, O2, Orange, Vodafone, Tesco Mobile, T-Mobile will no longer charge customers for calls to benefit claim lines at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Lizzie Iron, Citizens Advice Head of Welfare Policy said:

“We are very pleased to welcome the announcement by the DWP that calls to most of their 0800 numbers will be free to many more customers, thanks to an agreement between the Department and six of the biggest mobile phone operators.

“For many years, we have been concerned about the cost of calling government to access basic services such as benefits and crisis loans. Successive Citizens Advice reports, from Not Getting Through in 2007, to Hung-UP published by Leeds CAB in summer 2009, have highlighted the prohibitive costs for people who do not have a landline, and depend on a mobile phone. In the last two years, DWP has introduced several 0800 numbers to ensure that calls are free from a landline, but these calls can still be expensive from mobile phones.

“It will mean that people on the lowest incomes will no longer be spending money they can’t afford, simply to claim the benefits that might keep them out of poverty. We particularly welcome the fact that it will now be free of charge to claim a crisis loan – which is critical for people in the most urgent need of a financial safety net.

“Other government departments may not have the same opportunity to negotiate with the phone companies, but it is vital that they continue to look at other ways to reduce the cost of calling government, and therefore keep more money in the pockets of those who need it most.

“However we are particularly disappointed that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs haven’t made more progress on this issue. Anyone with a problem over income tax, child benefit or tax credits could still be paying several pounds to call HMRC from a mobile phone. Today’s National Audit Office report is critical of HMRC’s handling of telephone enquiries, and we hope their recommendations are implemented as a matter of urgency by HMRC.”

This is a really rather annoying example of non-joined-up government. Time to email MPs about the HMRC, methinks – and maybe drop in a word about the non-participating mobile networks, too. Isn’t it meant to be good to talk?

Comments From You

Sian // Posted 21 January 2010 at 2:32 pm

I’m glad this change has been made. You should have been able to use the Jobcentre’s phone to do the initial interview though-they really should have mentioned that to you at the time. This is better though-you can get it done quietly at home with fewer distractions. This article reminds me that another thing I’d like to see in the jobcentre is some help for parents with children-if the children had somewhere to play while the parents got on with a jobsearch in peace I’m sure that would work wonders.

polly // Posted 24 January 2010 at 2:01 pm

People claming benefit are treated as subhuman. I remember once when I went to sign on, asking if I could use the toilet and was told there weren’t any. I had to speak to one of the women at the counter and tell her I HAD to use the loo urgently as I was having a very heavy period (maybe I should have just bled all over the carpet instead). She let me use the staff loo, but told me not to say anything as she’d get into trouble.

Congratulations to Leeds CAB for getting this changed, now we just need, as Sian said to get some other basic facilities in jobcentres.

Grace Fletcher-Hackwood // Posted 24 January 2010 at 2:08 pm

@ Sian – yeah, I realised later that they should’ve let me use their ‘phone. A big part of the problem is inconsistency and some JC+ staff ignoring the rules to suit themselves.

You’ve got a great point there about provision for children. Maybe they should introduce job-search facilities at Sure Start centres, or even let people sign on there…

earwicga // Posted 24 January 2010 at 3:51 pm

Or maybe they should realise that having children means already having a job and therefore they are not unemployed and are not required to sign on.

Grace Fletcher-Hackwood // Posted 24 January 2010 at 4:02 pm

Well, obviously you’re not required to sign on for Income Support, but conceivably some parents of young children might want to look for a job outside the home…

earwicga // Posted 24 January 2010 at 7:21 pm

I know one is not required to sign-on for income support. But there are mandatory work-focused interviews during the time income support is available.

I am sure you know, the age of the child is dependent on whether a single parent is eligible for IS or JSA, and this age is dropping.

Sign on times are non-negotiable, whereas a parent looking for work could find it easier to fit this in when alternative childcare may be available.

earwicga // Posted 24 January 2010 at 7:21 pm

By the way, Sure Start Centres are for parents with children under 5. This age range is still covered by Income Support, so your suggestion for signing on at Sure Start centres is nonsensical.

earwicga // Posted 24 January 2010 at 7:22 pm

When I first read this post I wondered why you felt the need to apologise for writing about welfare benefits again.

I understand it now – you know very little about welfare benefits so an prefacing apology is appropriate.

earwicga // Posted 24 January 2010 at 7:28 pm

Another thing about forcing single parents from IS to JSA means that the claimant is unable to undertake any education or training which would increase their attractiveness to employers, and would also increase the sole wage within a single parent household.

As a single parent it is near impossible to go out in the evening to do anything, letalone to undertake education or training.

Obviously the government should do all they can to enable single parents to access paid work, but transfering us from IS to JSA is hideous and punitive, which is the ultimate reason for doing it.

Kez // Posted 24 January 2010 at 7:57 pm

I do agree with Polly that people claiming benefits can be treated as subhuman – at least, that was my experience, and it’s a long time ago now, but I can vividly recall the frustration and humiliation. The incident I remember most clearly – though not the only one – is queueing for hours, eight months pregnant, to find out what was happening (nothing, apparently) with my Maternity Allowance claim. There was no reason for the delay in processing the claim, as far as I could see – it was perfectly straightforward, it wasn’t a means-tested benefit, I knew I was entitled to it, and I needed the money. Finally reaching the front of the queue, I was again met with a wall of indifference and unhelpfulness from the person behind the window. I wasn’t rude, or aggressive, but I was persistent, because I needed the money, or at least some kind of idea when I was likely to get it. Her response was to pull down the screen at the window and walk off, leaving me standing there feeling completely helpless, humiliated, frustrated and with no idea what to do next. Join the incredibly long queues at the neighbouring counters and go through the whole thing again? At that point, I could understand why some people resort to aggression and violence. Of course I didn’t – I walked out of the building, and burst into tears. And the next day, still furious, I marched down to my local MP’s surgery and told him the story… thanks to his intervention (cheers, Terry Rooney), my claim, which had been outstanding for weeks, was miraculously processed the same day. Who’d’a thought it?!

Phew, I’ve been waiting to get that off my chest for eighteen years :) I hope things have changed since. But I’m not convinced they have, much, at least not in terms of the attitudes of some members of DWP (DSS at that time) staff, although I think some of the offices are slightly less austere now…

Nothing to do with phone charges, sorry for the derail.

Mother of several // Posted 24 January 2010 at 8:03 pm

As a single parent who was on benefits for many years I feel well-qualified to comment. When a child reaches 7, there is nothing wrong with working 16 hours a week – if a parent is healthy it is easily manageable and potentially beneficial. Also, signing times ARE negotiable (days may not be).

Grace Fletcher-Hackwood // Posted 24 January 2010 at 8:16 pm

The age your child has to be in order for a parent to qualify for IS is indeed dropping to 7 in October. Still school-age, but it’d be good to see some childcare provision in Jobcentres for people signing on in the school holidays, parents with younger children who want to search for jobs, and so on. Or job-search facilities in Sure Start centres for the same reason.

I completely agree that no-one should be forced from IS to JSA without the opportunity to undertake training. There was a great project in part of Walsall over the past couple of years, funded by the Deprived Area Fund, where people who’d been out of work for a long time were assigned individual caseworkers to help them access training, plus funding for childcare while they were doing it. A lot of single mothers in particular were given support to start courses and even to start their own businesses. Unfortunately as the name of the fund indicates this sort pf help tends to be targeted at the places it’s most needed rather than being universal.

Grace Fletcher-Hackwood // Posted 24 January 2010 at 8:20 pm

@ Kez – Getting in touch with your MP is still often the best way to sort out unreasonable delays with a benefit claim – we’ve especially found them helpful with child benefit claims for people who’ve recently come into the country, which for some reason take AGES!

Kez // Posted 24 January 2010 at 8:22 pm

Mother of several – it’s only “easily manageable” if you are lucky enough to be able to find a job which fits in with school hours, or pays enough to pay for the additional childcare necessary.

I did go back to college when my child was 5, and subsequently worked. But I didn’t find it easy.

Mother of several // Posted 24 January 2010 at 9:05 pm

Hi Kez,

OK- easily manageable is posibly too optimistic!

What I meant was – if you CAN firstly get a job it’s easier than the 30 hours I work and with 5 children it is a challenge, but do-able – and better than being on Income Support!

Kerry // Posted 18 April 2010 at 7:14 pm

Unfortunatly the only line to DWP free is the one where you make the intial claim all others are 0845 eg if you want to discuss your claim,chase them up or anything else also you used to be able to make a local call to my job centre but now it is the 0845 DWP call centre hopeless as always busy

The Job Centre i go to is in another town so cant easily use that phone

I too am a Mum desperate to find a job thats fits in with the kids had no luck I work already for 12 hours a week I fill in a b7 each time I signon the rare occasion I worked more its immediatly taken off my benefit the following pay day however my hours have dropped and they still havent sorted it after a month despite letters from me my boss and 2 b7s

Utterly useless,

Kez

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