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The Universal Credit Helpline Is Free, But Nothing Else Has Changed

October 19, 2017

In the latest development around universal credit the work and pensions secretary, David Gauke, announced this morning that all Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) helplines will be free from the end of the year.

It’s remarkable how much pressure it took to achieve this concession. Indeed, from the beginning, the response to news that universal credit claimants are being charged up to 55p a minute to call the government helpline has had an air of “let them eat cake” about it.

New figures suggest that benefit recipients could be spending over £50m a year calling the DWP helpline but until Gauke’s announcement the prime minister’s spokesman had simply stated that anyone worried about the cost could ask for a call back. Some commentators, meanwhile, point out that a call costs only 9p a minute on a landline.

That many families struggling on low incomes can’t afford to have a landline in the first place has been widely ignored (government figures show the helpline received 31.8m calls from mobiles last year). So has the fact that people relying on benefits – at the mercy of the DWP – have little power to get a government worker to call them back.

At a time when policies continue to target the most marginalised members of society, we are seeing this attitude more and more. It’s the same thinking that responds to a mum scraping by on poverty wages as a zero-hours cleaner by asking: why can’t you just get another job? Or that points to hardship payment as a solution to a Parkinson’s patient having his benefit sanctioned but ignores the fact that, without his benefits, he can’t afford the bus fare to the jobcentre to fill out the forms.

It’s inequality washed out – a version of current events told from a position of blissful ignorance. This outlook fails to recognise that the most basic things – being believed by someone in authority, or having enough change for a phone call and a meal for your kids – come from a place of privilege.

It projects the standards of that privilege on to people – the working class, ethnic minorities, benefit claimants – who have never had it. It assumes that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the game is fair for every player. In fact, what we have is a system that pushes people into debt through a faulty benefits system and then charges them to ask for help.

The politicians cutting social security by billions have not filled out a 42-page form for a disability benefit that they need to keep the heating topped up. The media commentators downplaying concern over the UC phone charges have never been looked down at by jobcentre staff nor expected to wait for six weeks for their only income.

This is where the effects of the narrowness of the British political class – white, wealthy, non-disabled and male – come home to roost. Experiencing a situation first-hand isn’t a prerequisite for empathy, of course, and there are many diligent journalists and politicians. But overall, the disconnect is striking: the very people responsible for shaping social and economic policy in this country often have no understanding of what it is to live at the sharp end of it.

This doesn’t only lead to a failure to comprehend the impact of something like universal credit; it creates a state of disbelief around the reality experienced by certain sections of society. Disabled people, for example, have been reporting grave problems with benefit assessors for years, but it’s only this month MPs are launching an inquiry into alleged widespread dishonesty in the system.

In a different way, the mocking of Laura Pidcock MP – still going on, weeks after her comments about viewing Tories as “the enemy” – has the unpleasant undertone of rounding on the outsider; belittling a working-class, northern woman who articulated a solidarity with her community that those untouched by austerity can’t understand.

It’s in part why support for current Labour party policies, or the radical extension of universal services, is often greeted with bewilderment – despite the fact they chime with the British public’s support for greater levels of state intervention. It’s easy to dismiss hopes for change as “far-fetched” when you’ve never struggled to find your next meal or pay the rent.

The appointment of Marsha De Cordova as the new shadow disabilities minister – a former disability charity and union worker who is registered blind – is a small sign of what it means to have a representative politics: where, say, in contrast to paternalism from non-disabled ministers, someone in power can speak about the impact of disability cuts from experience. This has to be the way forward. As social security cuts, squeezed wages, and Brexit uncertainty hit, it’s the poorest and disabled citizens who are going to be in the firing line. The need for a political class that grasps the damage being done has never been greater.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Maggie Wallace permalink
    October 19, 2017 5:04 pm

    Once upon a time I thought I lived in a civilised country. I now know I don’t. I feel ashamed to be English these days. I read so many dreadful stories from people who are in desperate need and want to weep. I’ve had my own battle over PIP, but it’s as nothing compared to people who are literally starving and having to rely on food banks.

  2. October 19, 2017 6:13 pm

    >”of course, and there are many diligent journalists”

    Really? Where?

    How come this (yet another) Guardian journalist still hasn’t heard of anything a simple as The Fraud Act, Vulnerable Adult Abuse, Misconduct in Public Office… or ‘The Police’??? ffs.

    Those PC spouting lowlife just shed a few fake crocodile tears in support of their worthless, reality free, political BS.

    Any of those “diligent journalists” going to report that their Labour party criminals EMPLOY ATOS murdering, torturing, abusing fraudsters ? –

    Or that their LABOUR PARTY RUN BENT COPS cover up DWP HATE CRIME –

    Even whilst being starved to death (now 44Kg) by DWP criminals (Labour supporting PCS union members) I can do the above…

    But it’s those class, race, sex, PC obsessed political hacks who have the nerve to call themselves “journalists”.
    F***ing posers.

  3. October 20, 2017 10:27 am

    Reblogged this on campertess.

  4. November 1, 2017 12:21 am

    Reblogged this on michaelsnaith.


  1. Vote to pause Universal Credit passes as Tory MPs don’t even bother to take part | Govt Newspeak
  2. Theresa May might be scrapping helpline charges, but the battle to reform Universal Credit goes on | Govt Newspeak
  3. Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people | Govt Newspeak

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