Universal Credit claimants face 'disaster' as helpline shuts for most of Christmas

Daily Mirror - 29 Nov 2017

Universal Credit claimants face 'disaster' this Christmas as their helpline opens fully for just two days out of 10, an MP has warned.

It comes despite charities and Labour warning delays under the all-in-one benefit leave people facing hunger and eviction.

Frank Field, chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, has written to Theresa May urging her to open the phone hotline for longer.

Warning claimants 'risk being exposed to destitution over Christmas', he told the Prime Minister: "The thought of the chaos this will cause to the lives of some of my poorest constituents, and those across the country, is a hugely troubling one."

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He begged her to 'consider averting this disaster' by taking 'immediate steps' to ensure the helpline is open and available to all claimants.

Jeremy Corbyn

DWP officials insisted the Christmas opening hours were no different to those in previous years, and many millions of pounds in payments would be brought forward in time for Christmas Day.

But comparing the apparent lack of action to the Second World War, Mr Field told the Mirror: "We're fighting here against hunger. Imagine a Churchill government fighting a war effort saying 'we can't do anything over Christmas.'

"It's inconceivable."

The government hotline will only be fully-functional on December 28 and 29 between 8am and 6pm, ministers confirmed.

Apart from an urgent-only service on December 27, it will shut down for the rest of the stretch between December 23 and New Year's Day inclusive. Mr Field said other organisations set up emergency staffing over Christmas, and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should do the same.

Neil Bradbury, chief executive of Citizens Advice County Durham, said it was a 'shame' the hotline would be closed.

He added: "The number of clients over Christmas is lower than normal "But the people who do come to you are real heartbreakers. They're without money or have real, urgent problems."

A Tory outcry over UC forced Chancellor Philip Hammond to cut the six-week wait for first payments to five weeks.

But none of the £1.5bn package of measures he revealed in last week's Budget will be in place until at least January.

Mr Field warned he will be pushing for more reforms to the benefit.

He said: "This announcement is the beginning of a long-term engagement, guerrilla war with the government to give this benefit a human face."

A DWP spokesman said: "There's no reason for people to be without money over Christmas because advance payments are widely available.

"Our Work Coaches routinely tell people about the maximum advance they can get.

"To ensure everyone entitled is paid before the two festive breaks, every year the DWP brings forward over 20 million payments worth more than £4billion to benefit claimants.

"Last December over 400,000 people were claiming Universal Credit and all payments were made."

Dan Bloom, Daily Mirror