Posted: 5 November, 2012 at 11:40 am
Figures obtained by MP John Healey show elderly and vulnerable people are being charged rip-off rates to make claims and enquiries about disabled and sickness benefits, jobs, pensions, crisis loans and child support payments.
In fact 148 (87%) of the Department for Work and Pensions phone lines are 0845 numbers – and these calls cost up to 41p a minute from a mobile and 10p a minute from a landline.
In addition, DWP figures obtained following a Freedom of Information Act request from Mr Healey show that hundreds of thousands of callers each week give up on getting through to the department’s helplines after being kept on hold for several minutes.
For example, figures show that more than a third of calls to the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) helpline are abandoned and that, on average, callers to the Incapacity Benefit reassessment line wait nearly 13 minutes before they hang up without having been answered.
A 13-minute call to an 0845 number could cost more than £5.
27,000 people in South Yorkshire need to claim ESA.
The average call that is answered by the DWP lasts eight minutes and could cost more than £3.
Mr Healey said: “People needing to call these rip-off numbers will usually be on low and fixed incomes and they may not have a landline.
“If they need to make a claim, ask for information or advice or report a mistake or change in circumstances the cost of the call will take a big chunk out of their already stretched budget.
“The Department is profiting at the expense of the people it is there to help and the high cost is likely to put many off asking for help when they really need it. It is a scandal.”
Mr Healey is now looking to secure a Parliamentary debate on the issue.
The Wentworth and Dearne MP recently campaigned for GPs in Rotherham and Barnsley to switch to geographical rate (01) numbers after discovering more than two thirds of practices in Rotherham and a third in Barnsley were using 0844 or 0845.
All 16 Barnsley surgeries have now changed to geographical rate numbers while 22 out of 24 in Rotherham have done so.
Mr Healey began looking into DWP numbers after a constituent from Goldthorpe complained he was regularly left on hold for more than 20 minutes when phoning his local job centre.
Information on the numbers in use was given in a Parliamentary Question tabled by Mr Healey and answered by employment minister Mark Hoban.
Mr Hoban admitted people have to use an 0845 number for help finding a job, to apply for the Social Fund – which can give money for emergency expenses to people on low incomes – and to enquire about Disability Living Allowance, Incapacity Benefit changes, Carers Allowance, winter fuel payments, child maintenance and pensions.
At the same time, the Government is consulting on stopping businesses from using expensive numbers. The department for Business, Innovation and Skills is consulting on the Consumer Rights Directive, which would stop businesses using higher-rate numbers for customer enquiries.