Controversial charges of up to 55p a minute for calls to the universal credit helpline are to be abolished, the Government has announced.

Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke told MPs on the Work and Pensions Committee today that the line will be switched to a free number over the next month.

He also said that all Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) helplines will be free to call by the end of the year.

What is universal credit?

Universal credit is a new form of benefit designed by the Government to support people who have a low (or no) income with basic living expenses and housing costs.

It replaces (or if not yet, soon will replace) six means-tested benefits: income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit.

Currently, everyone making a new claim for benefits will be able to claim universal credit at some point before September 2018. The current plan is that existing benefits claimants will not be moved onto universal credit until at least 2019.

You can apply for universal credit online, but may need to call the helpline on 0345 600 0723 for help when applying.

What does the Government say?

Gauke said the helpline number was not a premium-rate number, and was charged at the local rate and included as a free call in many landline and mobile phone packages. He said the DWP did not make money from it.

He said: "Given the recent attention and concern that this could place a burden on claimants, I have decided that this will change to a freephone number over the next month.

"It has been DWP's longstanding position to operate local line charges for benefit inquiry lines, but having reviewed this matter more widely I will be extending freephone numbers to all DWP phone lines by the end of the year."