John calls for probe into ‘telephone tax’

MP John Healey has accused the government of imposing a ‘telephone tax’ on the public and called for a full investigation.

He has provided public spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) with a dossier of evidence detailing the scale of use of rip-off phone numbers across government.

The Wentworth and Dearne MP has been campaigning against the use of 0844 and 0845 numbers by GPs and government departments – especially the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – for the last year-and-a-half.

Now he has found nearly two thirds of department and agency phone lines are 084. These calls cost up to 41p per minute.

Mr Healey said: “We make millions of calls every year to government departments and agencies.

“People have no choice but to make these calls – to get information and help, change details, make claims – but they are being charged rip-off rates to do so.

“Members of the public are subsidising the government’s phone bills to the tune of millions of pounds and phone companies are making a fortune.

“Living costs are high enough already without the government hiking up phone bills through this telephone tax.”

Last year, Mr Healey’s Parliamentary Questions and Freedom of Information requests revealed more than 80 per cent of the DWP’s helplines – used by the sick, elderly and vulnerable usually on fixed, low incomes – were 0845.

The Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has since confirmed the helplines for new benefits – Personal Independence Payment and Universal Credit – will also be 0845.

Mr Healey’s new research, which has been compiled in an eight-page report, looked at 16 government departments and their agencies. Through answers to Parliamentary Questions he found that 61% were high cost and 39% free or geographic rate.

The MP also discovered the Department for Transport, which includes the DVLA, had made £2.5m from these calls and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had pocketed £10,000.

Other departments say they don’t make money from 084 calls directly but there is evidence they have received lower phone bills or additional, free services worth millions of pounds. Phone companies are also making millions.

Based on evidence previously provided by Mr Healey, the NAO has already begun scoping work with a view to a potential review of the use of 084 numbers across government.

Download a copy of Mr Healey’s report here.