Vulnerable and low income claimants will continue to pay up to 45p a minute to make calls about their benefits, the DWP announced last week. The revelation was made in response to the Social Security Advisory Committee’s (SSAC) call for free 0800 numbers to be used by the DWP. The department also revealed that “cost incentives” are part of a deliberate ploy to try to force claimants to manage their claims them online.
Last July SSAC published the latest in a series of reports about DWP telephony. Amongst other things, it called on the DWP to “introduce 0800 numbers on those enquiry lines used by vulnerable or low income customers”.
SSAC noted that many low income claimants do not have a landline and that calls to 0345 numbers, such as the PIP enquiry line, cost from 3p to 45p a minute from mobile phones.
SSAC also highlighted the random way in which Freephone numbers seem to be allocated. To make a fresh claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) a claimant can call a free 0800 number. But “if your benefit payment is stopped, and you don’t have enough money to live on” you have to call an 0345 number.
In their response, published last week, the DWP declined to switch to 0800 numbers on the grounds that it would cost around £7 million to do so.
They also revealed that, in relation to universal credit, their policy is to “redirect people to digital channels through cost incentives”. In other words, they want claimants to manage their claim online and they will punish those who are unable to do so by making them pay for expensive phone lines.
The DWP, not surprisingly, refuse to publish figures on how long people are kept on hold when calling them.
However, they told the Public Accounts Committee several years ago that In the first quarter of 2013-14 they answered 54% of calls to 0845 numbers in 20 seconds and that the average waiting time on hold was 1 minute and 44 seconds.
The truth is rather different. Whilst the PIP enquiry line on 0345 850 3322 is answered immediately, the recorded message lasts for 1 minute and 12 seconds before you can even choose an option. How long you are kept on hold after that depends on the time of day and the volume of calls. We have certainly heard from members who have given up after spending 20 minutes on hold. If you are on the most expensive pay as you go mobile, that will be close to £10 spent to not even get an answer.
In answer to a parliamentary written question last week, Penny Mordaunt – a minister at the DWP – claimed that the average time taken to answer a call on the PIP enquiry line from May to October 2016 was 6 minutes and 25 seconds.
We’d be very interested to hear from you about your experience of trying to get through to the DWP.
You can download the SSAC report here.