Government must stop using rip-off 0845 phone lines

AN influential committee of MPs has published a report today calling on the Government to stop using rip-off rate phone lines, especially for services used by the vulnerable and poor.

The conclusion of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) marks a victory for MP John Healey, who has fought the use of expensive 0845 numbers by GPs and government departments.

He found 87% of the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) helplines were 0845, which cost up to 41p a minute.

His report, The Telephone Tax, published in May, revealed that across government nearly two thirds of phone lines were 0845, including for Disability Living Allowance, Carers Allowance, Victim Support, the Bereavement Service and Student Loans Company. The report prompted inquiries by the National Audit Office and PAC.

The Wentworth & Dearne MP launched his campaign after constituents complained and he said the win proves people can work through their MP to make real changes at a national level.

Mr Healey said: “This is a victory for all who are put off from seeking the help they need and are entitled to because they can’t afford to spend a big chunk of their tight budget making the call.

“The Government’s widespread use of 0845 numbers is a telephone tax on millions of hard-pressed people who have to use high cost lines to contact public agencies.

“At the PAC hearing two months ago, the Government promised an end to high-cost lines that rip-off the most vulnerable and poorest – but we are still waiting.

“I want to see these numbers changed quickly before more people are faced with phone bills they can’t afford.”

The PAC report today follows a hearing on 3 September, when DWP permanent secretary Robert Devereux said they would bring in 0345 numbers where they currently have 0845. This would make calls free or cheaper for most people, costing no more than a local landline rate.

It was a U-turn and humiliating climb-down for Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith who, just a few months ago, dismissed Mr Healey’s arguments and said the costs to customers were “beyond DWP control.” Mr Duncan Smith insisted on pressing ahead with high-cost lines, even making new numbers for Personal Independence Payment and Universal Credit 0845.

PAC chair Margaret Hodge told the hearing Mr Healey had been a “great campaigner” on the issue, and added: “Well done to John Healey in winning this campaign. It is a brilliant example of what a campaigning MP can do through Parliament to get real change which will make a big difference to the everyday costs for millions of ordinary people.”

The PAC has recommended that:

• The Cabinet Office urgently establish clear principles on charging for telephone calls, providing access to low cost alternatives to high rate numbers particularly for services accessed by vulnerable people and informing callers of the costs involved.

• The Cabinet Office should mandate that telephone lines serving vulnerable and low-income groups should never be charged above the geographic rate and ensure that 03 numbers are available for all government telephone lines within 6 to 12 months, prioritising any which predominantly serve vulnerable and low-income groups.