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Sorry, another post about welfare benefits. I seem to have become The F-Word’s DWP correspondent. Let me just explain why I’m excited about this…

When I first moved to Manchester, I was unemployed, living in a single rented room in Cheetham Hill, and basically penniless. I was very lucky that a friend was able to lend me some money for my housing deposit and for food. By the time I’d bought the essentials – Granny Smiths, tea, soya milk, a packet of biscuits and about twelve packets of noodles – all I had left was change. I needed a job, and fast.

When I schlepped up Cheetham Hill Road to the Jobcentre, I was dismayed to be handed a ‘phone number for claiming JSA (0800 055 6688, if you need it) and told to go away and call it. Don’t get me wrong, the callcentre staff were brilliantly helpful, and I got everything I needed in the post the next day. But the call used up all my precious ‘phone credit (call costs from mobiles obviously vary, but half an hour on hold to the JC+ can cost you up to twelve quid). This meant it was back up the hill to use the Jobcentre’s ‘phone every time I wanted to call a prospective employer.

For me that was a one-off pain in the arse – for thousands, perhaps disproportionately women, it’s a daily barrier and a big deal. The 2008 Nations and Regions Communications Market Report by Ofcom showed that the poorest people are the most likely to rely on a mobile, especially in the North. Those in temporary accommodation – like those recently granted refugee status, or those fleeing domestic violence – are unlikely to have access to a landline, certainly for a confidential conversation. Meanwhile, public telephones are completely impractical for anyone with caring responsibilities.

Leeds CAB published a report last summer on the mobile-related barriers facing people who want to claim benefits, or change their benefits, or check that their benefits are still being paid, or find out why a payment has been missed…or, of course, to try and find a job. A West Yorkshire CAB reported:

“Charlotte was on her own after her violent partner was excluded from the home with an injunction. She needed to get her benefits directed to her and her children. She only has a mobile phone and was short of credit. Charlotte later returned and said she had run out of credit and could not ring JCP to continue her claim. She could not stand at a

phone box with two young children for 45 minutes.”

Thankfully, this is about to – partially – change. Yvette Cooper, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has announced that from this week, O2, Orange, Vodafone, Tesco Mobile, T-Mobile will no longer charge customers for calls to benefit claim lines at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Lizzie Iron, Citizens Advice Head of Welfare Policy said:

“We are very pleased to welcome the announcement by the DWP that calls to most of their 0800 numbers will be free to many more customers, thanks to an agreement between the Department and six of the biggest mobile phone operators.

“For many years, we have been concerned about the cost of calling government to access basic services such as benefits and crisis loans. Successive Citizens Advice reports, from Not Getting Through in 2007, to Hung-UP published by Leeds CAB in summer 2009, have highlighted the prohibitive costs for people who do not have a landline, and depend on a mobile phone. In the last two years, DWP has introduced several 0800 numbers to ensure that calls are free from a landline, but these calls can still be expensive from mobile phones.

“It will mean that people on the lowest incomes will no longer be spending money they can’t afford, simply to claim the benefits that might keep them out of poverty. We particularly welcome the fact that it will now be free of charge to claim a crisis loan – which is critical for people in the most urgent need of a financial safety net.

“Other government departments may not have the same opportunity to negotiate with the phone companies, but it is vital that they continue to look at other ways to reduce the cost of calling government, and therefore keep more money in the pockets of those who need it most.

“However we are particularly disappointed that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs haven’t made more progress on this issue. Anyone with a problem over income tax, child benefit or tax credits could still be paying several pounds to call HMRC from a mobile phone. Today’s National Audit Office report is critical of HMRC’s handling of telephone enquiries, and we hope their recommendations are implemented as a matter of urgency by HMRC.”

This is a really rather annoying example of non-joined-up government. Time to email MPs about the HMRC, methinks – and maybe drop in a word about the non-participating mobile networks, too. Isn’t it meant to be good to talk?