An emergency helpline in South Tyneside is being doubled up after plans to shake up the service crossed a line with council bosses.
Senior councillors feared vulnerable people would be left “hanging on the telephone” – and potentially out of pocket – by a new 0300 welfare advice line.
And they have ordered the new service to have two phone numbers so hard-up and stressed people aren’t charged up to 40p a minute while they listen to a recorded message.
The action has been taken as the council’s Welfare Rights Service merges with South Tyneside Homes’ Welfare Reform Team at the beginning of next month.
The merger has resulted in the loss of eight full-time and one part-time post – achieved through voluntary redundancy – to create the new 18-strong team.
As part of the change people seeking welfare advice were to be asked to call South Tyneside Homes current 0300 1236 633 number – instead of the council’s switchboard on 0191 4277000. But the council’s People’s Select Committee have ordered that both lines should stay open.
The 0300 number initially takes the caller to a recorded message welcoming them to South Tyneside Homes, advising them that someone will be with them soon and informing them the call could be recorded for training purposes.
When the Gazette called the line it twice took over 45 seconds to be connected to an operator, with calls charged at 10p per minute on a landline and up to 40p a minute on a mobile.
That was deemed unacceptable by members of the council’s People Select Committee, who feared vulnerable people waiting for help could be “left hanging on the telephone line”. The committee has told council officers to ensure that both numbers remain accessible – so that callers can still make direct contact with a “real person” from the outset.
Committee member Coun Ernest Gibson said: “There needs to be a direct link. Emotions could be running high for the person making that call. They are ringing about something which directly impacts on their livelihood. They can’t be left hanging on the phone.”
A South Tyneside Council spokeswoman said the new line would make “no difference” to the level of service, and would provide some benefits.
She said: “We can confirm that 0300 numbers are charged at local rate, so are no different to dialling 0191. 0300 numbers also have the benefit of being included in mobile phone operators’ ‘inclusive minutes’ packages.
“The new arrangements will provide an enhanced welfare support service for every resident in South Tyneside.”