More than two million calls to the Government’s Universal Credit helpline have gone unanswered, an investigation by JPIMedia can reveal.
The service, which was trialled in Wigan, is meant to help those who have run into problems with the controversial benefit, but one in seven people abandon their call before getting through, figures obtained from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show.
And with the second half of Universal Credit’s roll-out now just weeks away from beginning, the number of abandoned calls is growing.
More than half a million callers gave up before getting through in the first three months of this year, a greater number than in the whole of 2017.
Margaret Greenwood, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, said the findings were a “shocking reminder that Universal Credit is clearly failing”.
She said: “It was meant to simplify social security, but instead people face a series of hurdles when making a claim, from the requirement to claim online to the five-week wait for payment.
“It frequently fails to take into account basic realities such as the way people are paid. People should not have to repeatedly face barriers to receiving support.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Since January this year we have answered almost 3.4m calls to the helpline and latest figures show that people wait less than three minutes on average before their call is answered. We regularly review our staffing levels to ensure we have the right number of people available to answer calls and we reallocate resource where necessary.”
The controversial benefit has now been introduced for all new claimants in every part of the UK and its introduction to a further 3m people claiming old-style benefits is to begin with a trial in July.
But it has to be claimed online, a process many people have problems with.
Four-fifths of complaints to the DWP about making a Universal Credit claim mention difficulties with the online process, such as system crashes or lack of access to the internet, we can reveal.
The helpline, which answered 7.8m calls last year, has already had to be changed to a freephone number after pressure from campaigners.
The department has faced repeated criticism for under-staffing the support system behind the controversial benefit. Many claimants of Universal Credit describe bewildering layers of bureaucracy, with frequent mistakes made.
One man told us how, when he rang to query a request for information he had already provided, a staff member told him to falsely claim his income was zero in an effort to get around a glitch in the system.
Resident Garry Byrne refused to do this and complained, sparking an internal investigation.
The DWP later apologised to him, saying they “should not have asked you to input incorrect information”.
Mr Byrne, 54, said if he had complied, he could have left himself open to accusations of benefit fraud.
He said: “It was a work-around for their broken records system. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Here was someone from an official Government department saying to me, ‘You need to lie’.”