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House of Commons Hansard
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Telephone Calls to the DWP
21 June 2017
Volume 626

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

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It is a pleasure to see you in your place, Mr Speaker. Congratulations to you on your re-election, Sir.

I would first like to thank the voters of Glasgow South West for sending me back to Parliament. They have re-elected a left-wing anti-austerity Member of Parliament, which is what I pledged to be during the election campaign.

There are many divisions in the House of Commons—literal Divisions when we troop through the voting Lobbies, party divisions both between and within, and differences in age, gender, ethnicity and education. However, I am now coming to the view that one of the biggest differences is between those of us who view social security as a right that should be administered with the utmost care for human dignity and those who view it as a privilege that can and should be denied or strictly limited.

I believe that there are two types of MP—those who view “I, Daniel Blake” and see the reality of their casework reflected in the film, and those who refuse to believe that the social security system is rigged and is actively pushing working people into poverty and punishing the most vulnerable in society. I am not suggesting that the only way an MP can gain insight into the failings of the social security service is by dealing with hundreds of Department for Work and Pensions cases, but surely anyone with an ounce of empathy would know that the system is deeply flawed, even if they have had only a handful of distressed people at their surgeries.

In the opening scene of “I, Daniel Blake”, the character is on the phone for more than an hour. I am sure I am not the only Member of Parliament who has had constituents telling them about similar cases. Here are just some of mine: a jobseeker’s allowance claimant who has told me of a phone call that cost £9; an employment and support allowance claimant who has told me of a phone call that cost them £16; and a constituent pursuing a disability living allowance claim on behalf of his daughter who has told me of a phone call that cost him £18. I ask the Minister and the House, is it right that a JSA claimant receiving £73.10 a week needs to make a phone call costing £9 to receive their entitlement? Is it right that an ESA claimant receiving £73.10 a week needs to make a phone call costing £16 to receive their entitlement? Is it right that a DLA claimant receiving a weekly entitlement of £76.90 has to make a phone call costing £18?

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My hon. Friend is talking about the injustice of the amount of money that people have to pay. Does he agree that many people have no money because of broken promises on their payments, which is driving them to food banks as their last resort?

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I do agree. In fact, I would say that food banks have probably been the only growth industry in the United Kingdom in the past seven years, as many Members of Parliament can see.

I believe the answer to the questions that I have just asked the Minister is no. The reason I continue to campaign on this telephone tax is that it adds insult to injury. It is just one more financial kick in the teeth when people are paying for access to information and support. When every penny counts, call charges hit hard, and the lack of clarity as to which lines are free and which ones come with a cost does not help. The Government’s own website states that some telephone calls can cost 55p a minute. Can the Minister confirm whether the gov.uk website provides accurate information on charges for calls to the DWP?

Call charges do not just eat into people’s benefits; I suggest that they actively deter people from calling because they fear incurring charges either from the lines themselves or from a mobile phone provider. As I look deeper into the issue and ask more questions, more disturbing information comes to light. There are serious flaws in the digital-by-design model. Exclusion is built into the system. A written question I tabled just before Dissolution revealed that, in the whole of the Glasgow South West constituency, there are only 16 PCs for thousands of claimants. I am sure the Minister will be happy to know that a few follow-up questions are on the way to him, but today he could answer these: what are the Government going to do to increase computer literacy and access in DWP offices; and does the Department for Work and Pensions agree that those who have received a financial penalty—a sanction—or who have been paid late should have to pay for a telephone call to the DWP to chase up their entitlement? I am calling for free phone calls to access every aspect of the Department for Work and Pensions, but especially for those who have been sanctioned or hit by late payments. Someone paid late should not have to access a chargeable phone line to chase up money they are owed by the state.

Incredibly, there are no telephone lines at all for universal credit claims or inquiries—it is a completely digital service. What about those with no digital access, or who are not computer-literate or even literate? I accept that that is a whole other issue, but we need to recognise that basic literacy skills are not universal, and nor is English everyone’s first language. Will the Government consider a special telephone line for universal credit claimants?

I have already said there are issues with mobiles and price plans. I am calling for the Government to work with mobile and landline providers to improve that. A price plan can determine what someone pays in reality, but if they go over and above those limits, they incur penalty charges and costs increase. Since April, penalty charges on non- inclusive calls have increased dramatically, meaning that someone on a lengthy call to the Department for Work and Pensions will see the cost escalate.

The Government promised a review following the 2016 Social Security Advisory Committee report, which criticised the Government and asked for free phone lines to be put in place. The Government stated that that would cost £7 million, but they also made a number of recommendations, including having a call-back system. Like many a frustrated claimant, we are still waiting. When can we expect the review to be published, and will it include working with mobile and landline providers to reduce, and as far as possible eliminate, costs for DWP claimants? Is £7 million not a small amount of the overall Government budget to ensure that the most vulnerable and those in need do not pay for telephone calls that they cannot afford?

It is bad enough that official helplines hit callers with added costs, but on top of everything else, there is a thriving business in ripping off the vulnerable—the so-called call connections websites, which advertise Government services phone numbers and claim to provide a service. In essence, they are fake premium-rate connection numbers. The Government have described them in a ministerial response to me as unethical but not illegal.

What action is the Department for Work and Pensions taking to eliminate advertised call connection numbers, which are charging premium rates to the most vulnerable in society? Is it not time that we stopped those scammers? The Fair Telecoms campaign has done good work on exposing those scams, and has called for Ofcom and the Phone-paid Services Authority to take the necessary action. However, I would suggest that the Government need to take a lead and work with the authorities to stamp out that practice. Will the Minister commit to doing that and meet the relevant parties to take action?

Failure to act on the concerns raised by me and those who campaign against the telephone tax would indicate that this is not a priority for the Government, and that fairness and social justice do not feature high on their agenda. My concern is that Brexit will skew Government time and attention away from addressing these issues, but I intend to use as much parliamentary time as is available to me to keep this front and centre. Financial penalties and hardship are being inflicted on people every day because the inquiry lines and support services are not fit for purpose.

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My hon. Friend talks about services that are not fit for purpose and mentioned the need for people to access computers in places such as jobcentres. Does he agree that we urgently need clarity on the future of Glasgow’s jobcentres? Precisely for the reasons he outlines, they need to be saved.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. He is correct. It is unacceptable that Glasgow has been asked to close half its jobcentres. Half the jobcentres are under threat in some of the most deprived communities in our city. I hope the Government will reflect what we are told is today’s compassionate conservatism and take a step back from that proposal.

The Government’s own estimate is that there are £292 million of unclaimed pension credits and unclaimed state benefits. I pledged in my election address to work with pensioner groups to improve take-up of these entitlements, for that is exactly what they are: earned benefits, not a Government charity handout to be granted to those deemed sufficiently worthy. I also pledge, along with my SNP colleagues, to fight for justice for the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. I strongly believe that, far from enforcing a brutal sanctions scheme, Department for Work and Pensions staff could be more usefully deployed helping people to claim what they are entitled to, instead of hounding the vulnerable. The impact that has on claimants’ mental health should not be underestimated. I am also chasing up how many staff vacancies are unfilled in the Department for Work and Pensions, whether through budget pressures or high turnover.

In conclusion, I must bring it to House’s attention that today is a highly significant day, and I do not mean because of the delivery of a threadbare Queen’s Speech, devoid of vision. Today, legislation was tabled in Scotland’s Parliament—the Social Security (Scotland) Bill—that will give Ministers the power to deliver 11 benefits, including disability living allowance, personal independence payment, carer’s allowance and winter fuel payments. Jeane Freeman, the Minister for Social Security, said today:

“Dignity and respect is at the heart of our social security policy—a marked contrast to the approach that the current UK Government is taking as their unjust welfare cuts continue to cause misery,”

and

“push more people into poverty”.

The Scottish Government will remove the private sector from disability benefit assessments—a clear demonstration of the fact that when powers are devolved, we use them to bring fairness and tackle injustice. I could wish that all powers were available to enable us to shape Scotland’s future, but where we can, we will act. Indeed, I am happy to confirm an exclusive: under the Scottish Government’s approach to telephone calls, there will be no rigid script but a more holistic approach to those seeking advice and entitlement, and, most important of all, all calls to the Scottish Government’s social security service will be free to those seeking entitlement. That shows once again what is possible if there is the political will. I look forward to the Minister’s response to my many questions.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing this debate on the cost of calling the Department for Work and Pensions. I also thank him for his continued interest in these important matters.

At the DWP we seek to ensure the correct balance between delivering high levels of customer service and experience and balancing the demands on the public purse and therefore protecting the taxpayer. The DWP’s policy is that calls to claim benefit should be free, so it uses 0800 telephone numbers for such calls. The Department uses 0345 telephone numbers where customers call for other reasons. These are calls that typically take less time to resolve. The exception to this is universal credit, as the service is designed to be accessed online and telephony services are used as a fall-back.

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The Minister says that those services are supposed to be online. Does he realise that accessing them online is not always an option for people in rural areas? That is why phone calls are so important for people in rural constituencies, as well as others who cannot access them online.

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Yes, of course I recognise that. I represent a rural constituency myself, and it is important to have other options available where necessary. It is also the case that when we are dealing with people seeking work, for example, being able to get online is vital for that purpose. That is one of the reasons why we also ensure IT provision inside jobcentres.

It would not be an effective use of public money to build universal credit around a freephone telephone number, but where customers need to call DWP regarding their claim, it is through an 0345 number. The costs of calling an 0345 telephone number are set by individual providers, but they are never more than the cost of calling geographic numbers, which have 01 and 02 dialling codes. Calls to 0345 telephone numbers are typically included in any free or inclusive minutes in a caller’s landline or mobile telephone contract. Although there are a multitude of service providers and tariffs, I can confirm that calls to 0345 telephone numbers are included in bundled minutes for mobile services by the biggest providers—EE, 02 and Vodafone—as well as most of the others.

I know that in the past the hon. Gentleman has raised the use of more expensive 0845 telephone numbers. I am pleased to be able to confirm that the DWP does not use 0845 telephone numbers in any of its communication channels. We replaced 0845 numbers with 0345 numbers during 2014 and 2015. That process was completed before the Ofcom changes in call charges came into effect in 2015, making calls to 0845 numbers more expensive. After the DWP 0345 numbers were introduced, customers calling an old DWP 0845 telephone number would receive a recorded message informing them that they should dial the correct 0345 number. There was no charge for the call to the old 0845 telephone number.

I appreciate, of course, that some of the most vulnerable people in society have to contact DWP services, which is why, if callers express concern about the cost of a call, we offer to call them back. The Department provides controlled access to telephones for claimants in jobcentres, when required, to help with any benefit inquiries. It has also expanded its “once and done” service centre approach across its working-age, disability and specialist sites, so that it can meet a claimant’s needs during the first call whenever possible. It continues to review and identify opportunities for integrating telephony and benefit-processing activity further to improve the service it delivers.

The Department is proactive in considering how further to reduce any potential cost impact on customers when they need to transact business. As Members will know, in delivering welfare reform, universal credit is designed to be accessed online, with telephony services used as a back-up. The universal credit experience is delivering an effective channel shift away from the use of telephony, with over 90% of new claims made through digital interfaces and away from the telephone.

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Will the Minister give way?

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If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we will see how the time goes.

A telephony option is always available to people who may not have internet access, or who are experiencing difficulties in accessing the service online.

The DWP is also seeking to exploit new and emerging technology to keep in touch with claimants. We have introduced SMS text messaging for a number of service lines to confirm to customers receipt of their claims, information or documents, or to let them know when they can expect an outcome. Those changes reduce contact from claimants chasing updates, while increasing the overall customer service experience. The service operates for new claims for employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance, and was introduced more recently to acknowledge receipt of fit notes.

The Department is developing a strategy across all the services it delivers, which will allow us to carry out a safe transition of our key telephony platforms and consider how to make best use of new technologies and contact channels. Given the complexity of the services that the Department delivers and the range of customers with whom we interact, it is vital to ensure that we really understand the range of services that citizens need in order to interact with us. I am sure Members appreciate that a “one size fits all” approach would not be successful. The Department has to strike the right balance between the cost to callers and the cost to taxpayers, which is why a mixture of freephone and paid—but never premium-rate—telephone numbers is available to citizens. As the hon. Gentleman said, if the 0800 numbering range were extended to all service lines, it would cost the taxpayer an additional £7 million per year.

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According to the gov.uk website, telephone calls to 0345 numbers can cost up to 55p a minute. Can the Minister confirm that that information is correct?

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I have here the print-out of that page. It lists a number of different telephone number prefixes. Members will be aware that these days there are more telephone number prefixes than when we were growing up. The service on the Government website is to help people to understand what it means if they see an 03, an 0845, or an 07 number. It lists a range of costs for geographic numbers—the numbers we have for our homes; the 01 and 02 numbers—and a range for 03 numbers, which is the same as the range for the geographic numbers. That is what the tariff reflects. I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we have been through that information today. There are a couple of minor points on the gov.uk information site that need to be updated, but they do not relate to any of the number prefixes that are in use at present by the DWP.

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We will take that as a yes, so may I ask the Minister the following? He talked about a range of services and using different telephone lines and numbers for those services. Will he seriously consider setting up a free phone line for those who have received benefit late—for example, someone who should have had money on the Friday and who had to chase that up on the Monday?

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Obviously, we want the system to be as accurate as possible. We want to reduce the requirement for people to be in touch with the Department for those reasons. When they have to, we want that to be done as quickly and as efficiently as possible. I have outlined the Department’s policy. There is a range of 0800 numbers. The rest are 0345 numbers, which are equivalent to a normal, geographic land call. Typically, in a mobile phone contract or bundles on pay as you go, that would be included in the minutes that one has. We think that that is a fair and reasonable approach. There is still the option to request a call-back, too.

I want to come on to some of the other issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. He alluded to the fact that he and I have exchanged correspondence on the issue of third parties seeking to make a profit out of calls to the DWP. As he rightly mentioned, that can happen with other services, too. I would like to take the opportunity of this debate to update Members on that important issue.

I can confirm that my Department does not make any revenue out of calls to our publicised telephone numbers. We know that there is a small number of companies that seek to make money by providing an alternative, and usually more expensive, telephone number that then routes callers through to the Government helplines. Although that practice may be considered unethical, it is not illegal, provided the company does not pretend to be the Government and does not state that it is officially affiliated. The DWP is aware of a small number of sites that advertise that type of service, primarily owned by the same individual.

I strongly encourage internet search-engine providers actively to police and manage advertisers and subscribers who may look to profit from some vulnerable members of our society by advertising expensive or premium rate telephone lines as a route to access DWP services that are accessible directly through either freephone 0800 or local rate 0345 telephone numbers. The specific activity known as vishing, where a voicemail is left for the citizen to call back an unofficial number, is generally not widespread within the DWP— only one occurrence has been identified.

The DWP does everything it can to stop customers being caught out and, in that instance, the same number was identified as appearing as an “infobox” on a search engine for universal credit alongside the genuine UC number. The DWP complained to that search-engine provider and the incorrect entry was removed.

We have covered the question of the gov.uk tariff ranges. The hon. Gentleman also asked about steps being taken to improve access to, and people’s capability and confidence in using, IT equipment. As he will know from his visits to our jobcentres, we provide lobby equipment and encourage people to use it. There is often facility for people to bring their own device and be helped to use that, because we do absolutely see digital capability—digital empowerment—as being vital, not just in the claiming of benefits, but in applying for work, and, of course, when getting into work, as there are few jobs these days that do not require some level of IT literacy.

In conclusion, let me reassure hon. Members that the Department is absolutely committed to ensuring that costs for customers are kept to a minimum and that safeguards are in place for those who need them. The Department is in the process of transforming the way in which citizens interact with us, which I am sure hon. Members can appreciate will take us some time to deliver, given the range of services the Department delivers and the number of people we transact with every day. The hon. Gentleman asked about the Social Security Advisory Committee’s recommendation. These things are technology-dependent. The review of our systems is current and we are committed to looking at that closely.

Our telephony policy will be kept under review throughout this process and the Department will continue to seek to strike the right balance between the cost to citizens and the cost to the taxpayer.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.