Watchdog probe into ‘telephone tax’

The head of Britain’s public spending watchdog has confirmed his office is carrying out a full review into government use of high-cost phone numbers.

It comes after John Healey provided the National Audit Office 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.

Mr Healey’s recent report ‘The Telephone Tax’ revealed nearly two thirds of department and agency phone lines are 084. These calls cost up to 41p per minute.

In a letter to the MP, Comptroller and Auditor General Amyas Morse said the focus of the review will be the benefits and drawbacks, for the government and callers, of the use of higher-rate, geographic rate and free-phone telephone numbers.

He went on: “The study will report on the reasons why different numbers are used, the benefits and burdens, and plans for the future.

“We will assess why higher rate numbers are preferred to geographic-rate or free-phone numbers, and the extent to which departments achieve their share of financial and other benefits from higher rate lines.”

Mr Morse said Mr Healey’s report would be considered as part of the review, alongside data collected from across government.

The NAO expect to publish the report in July.

Mr Healey said: “I am pleased the NAO is carrying out a thorough investigation and look forward to their findings.

“So far the government have shown no understanding of how unfair this practice is or the problems they are creating for people on low incomes.

“People have no choice about making these calls – to get information and help, change details, make claims – but are charged rip-off rates to do so and end up with big phone bills they can’t afford.

“We already make millions of calls to government departments and things are set to get worse. Upheaval and turmoil in the benefits system will bring an explosion of inquiries and problems. The government could make things easier for people but, instead, they’ve set up their new helplines as costly 0845 numbers.

“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 in the last three years 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.