MP calls debate to expose Government’s “rip-off rate” phone lines

MP John Healey called a debate last night to expose the “rip-off rates” many poor, vulnerable and distressed people are having to pay to phone Government helplines.

The MP for Wentworth and Dearne is campaigning for the Department for Work and Pensions to switch to cheaper alternatives to 0845 numbers.

He found the Department has 148 such numbers – 87% of the total – which cost up to 10p a minute from a landline and 41p a minute from a mobile.

He told the Commons yesterday: “Well over 30 million people call just seven of the DWP’s most commonly used inquiry lines each year—never mind the 141 other lines.

“People who need to call those numbers are usually on a fixed, low income.

“They are elderly, vulnerable or unwell, and they are being charged rip-off rates to sort out problems or simply get information about sickness and disability benefits, carers support, jobs, pensions, child support and even crisis loans.

“The cost of the call takes a big chunk out of already stretched budgets. That can put people off making calls to get the help they need.

“Quite simply, the Department is hitting the people that it is there to help.

“It is unfair and unjustifiable, and it must change.”

People have to use 0845 lines 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.

Mr Healey said his Freedom of Information request revealed hundreds of thousands of callers each week give up on getting through after being kept on hold and charged.

“More than one in three calls to the employment and support allowance helpline are abandoned before they are answered, but on average more than five minutes after they have been connected. Callers to the incapacity benefit reassessment line wait nearly 13 minutes without being answered before they hang up,” he said.

Mr Healey launched a campaign in January 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.

He began looking into the use of 0845 numbers by DWP after he was contacted by a Goldthorpe constituent concerned that he was routinely left on hold to his local job centre for more than half an hour. All job centres have 0845 numbers.

Several other local people have also got in touch to describe similar experiences and high phone bills – in one case £40 in one month calling Government departments to report a change in circumstances.

Mr Healey said a key feature of 0845 numbers was that a “termination rate” of up to 2p a minute is levied on each call which goes to the company or organisation receiving the call and/or its telephone provider.

Mr Healey said calls should be made free or the Government should switch to 03, which cost the same as 01 or 02 numbers and must be part of inclusive call packages.

He told the Commons it was time for the Government to act: “Someone is making money from these calls. If the Government are not sharing the extra revenue and letting the telecoms companies keep all the extra charges, the 0845 numbers are not just a bad deal for benefits claimants, but for the taxpayer.

“Things are poised to get much worse. I fear there could be an explosion of enquiries and problems for people because of the current turmoil in the benefit system at the very time the Government are cutting face-to-face service staff and forcing people to use phones instead.

“The combination of sudden cuts in benefits payments, delays in decisions and the introduction of universal credit next year could lead to chaos and much higher costs for those making calls.”

Responding, employment minister Mark Hoban said calls to claim benefit were free and 0845 numbers were used for enquiries that typically took less time to resolve.

He said the Government do not receive the termination payment and that switching to 0800 would cost £12m while changing to 03 would result in some customers paying more.

Mr Hoban added: “We are encouraging more people to use online facilities to seek information and guidance. We are trying to increase the number of ways in which claimants can contact the DWP without necessarily having to use the telephone service.”