CHARGES of up to 55p a minute for calls to a Universal Credit helpline are to be scrapped, David Gauke, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has announced.

He told the Commons Work and Pensions Committee that the line would be switched to a freephone number over the next month and that all departmental helplines would be free of charge by the end of the year.

The announcement came as Mr Gauke braced himself for a tough vote in the Commons on a Labour demand for the roll-out of the Universal Credit to be paused.

Amid reports that up to 25 Tory MPs could be willing to rebel over criticism that people are waiting six weeks for any money and getting into debt, Labour will call on ministers to "pause and fix" the flagship benefit reform.

The Secretary of State told the committee that the 0345 number for the UC hotline was charged at local rate and was included as a free call in many landline and mobile phone packages. The number was not a premium-rate number and DWP made no money from it, he explained.

But Mr Gauke added: "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."

His announcement was welcomed by Conservative MP Heidi Allen - a member of the cross-party committee and a leading critic of the 55p charge - as "really, really great news".

The backbencher was among potential rebels invited to Downing Street for talks with Theresa May on Tuesday ahead of the potential Commons vote.

In a sign there would be no revolt, Johnny Mercer - another MP who met the Prime Minister - tweeted a link to Labour's motion with the words "no chance".

Last month, Labour received backing from the Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up the minority Government, in Opposition day votes on NHS pay and tuition fee increases, which forced the Tories to abstain on the non-binding motions.

In a possible sign the same tactic could be followed for the Universal Credit vote, Douglas Ross, the Tory MP for Moray, is not even expected to be in the Commons for the proceedings - because he will be an assistant referee in a Champions League football match in Barcelona.

His absence has been condemned by Labour and the SNP, which branded him a part-time MP.

Mr Gauke also told MPs it would be possible to reduce the six-week delay in first payments to five weeks by removing a seven-day "waiting period" before assessment of claimants begins, but warned the committee this would have "a cost implication".

"That's an area where we could make a change, but there are a number of priorities for public money," he said.

The minister said he was "keen" for more claimants to apply for cash advances which are available to cover the waiting period.

The proportion of claimants receiving advances had risen to 52 per cent by July, he noted, adding: "I would anticipate it will rise and that is, in a way, what I want to happen because I want to make sure there is nobody in hardship, nobody not able to access support if they need it.

“There clearly have been cases where people should have had an advance and for one reason or another haven't had an advance. I am keen to correct that," he added.

But Ms Allen said the number of claims suggested advance payments were "papering over the fact that the six-week wait just doesn't work".

DWP figures show that 610,000 people were on Universal Credit in September, up four per cent on the previous month.

Labour’s Debbie Abrahams said: "The increase in the number of people on Universal Credit is worrying given the Government's chaotic handling of its roll-out.

"The Conservatives have finally listened to Labour and scrapped the premium phone helpline for claimants; now they need to listen to the calls of charities and councils and back Labour's motion today to immediately pause and fix the roll-out of Universal Credit, before more people are pushed into rent arrears, poverty and homelessness," added the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary.

Mr Gauke told the committee 81 per cent of UC claimants were now receiving their benefits in full within six weeks and 96 per cent within 10 weeks.

He said he was aware of only one case of people being evicted from social housing because of rent arrears which built up during the waiting period, and said guidance had been given to judges that it was not acceptable for evictions to be sought on this basis.

But committee member Neil Coyle told him he knew of at least two cases in his Bermondsey and Old Southwark constituency alone and he said the London Borough of Southwark had 1,242 UC claimants with eviction-level rent arrears, between them owing the council £5 million.

Frank Field, the committee chairman, told Mr Gauke that food banks in his own Birkenhead constituency were trying to amass 15 additional tonnes of supplies for the Christmas period to cover the roll-out of UC in the area, and asked if the minister thought they were "alarmist" to do so.

"You can't guarantee that there won't be a surge in food bank use in areas where the roll-out is occurring, such as Birkenhead," said Mr Field.

Mr Gauke said he would not offer advice to food banks but added: "We do think that a system whereby payment timeliness is improving - which it is - and payment of advances is increasing - which it is - is likely to mean that those people who have undoubtedly faced pressures in the period before their first payment are not likely to see those pressures being as great in future."

The Work and Pensions Secretary rejected Labour's call for a pause in UC roll-out, telling the committee that it would "delay us making progress towards...providing help to large numbers of our citizens".

Stephen Lloyd for the Liberal Democrats welcomed the scrapping of hotline charges but said it was "no compensation to the those on the breadline who have already been fleeced".

He urged the Government to pause the programme "before it is too late and tens if not hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable are broken on the ideological wheel of a deeply flawed and cruel new benefits initiative".