John Healey: The number’s up for phone lines that prey on poorest in their time of need

John Healey.
John Healey.
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John Healey is the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne. He is leading an adjournment debate in the House of Commons today on the misuse of premium-rate 0845 numbers.

BEING routinely on hold for half an hour when calling the job centre.

Being charged £40 in one month calling government departments about a change in circumstances.

Being on a call for several minutes before even getting past the automated messages and menu choices.

These are just some of the experiences I know people in Rotherham, Barnsley and across Yorkshire have had in calling Government helplines.

It’s a scandal.

But the biggest scandal of all this is that people calling these numbers are those making claims and enquiries about disabled and sickness benefits, jobs, pensions, crisis loans and child support payments.

And 148 of these lines run by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – 87 per cent of the total – are high-rate 0845 numbers which cost up to 41p a minute from a mobile and 10p a minute from a landline.

Answering me in Parliament, 
the recently appointed Employment Minister Mark 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.

I began digging deeper into this after a constituent from Goldthorpe told me he was routinely put on hold for 20 minutes trying to get through to Jobcentre Plus. I put his concerns and the cost of these calls directly to the Work and Pensions Secretary.

Iain Duncan Smith’s excuse was that people should go online instead – but he doesn’t get it. Seven million people in Britain have never used the internet, and around one in three homes in South Yorkshire don’t have broadband.

He also said there are phones in Jobcentres that can be used for free – but people can’t use these for private conversations about personal and financial information.

His third excuse was that his Department only uses 0845 numbers when enquiries can typically be resolved quickly – but he’s not listening to the 
tens of thousands of people every day who find their phone calls are very far from quick.

My recent Freedom of Information Act request revealed about 32 million calls are made every year to the Department’s seven most commonly-used 0845 lines – for people needing to ask about Jobseekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Incapacity Benefit and the Social Fund. On average, the calls last 
eight minutes so the cost could top £3.

That means these callers – often elderly and vulnerable, and on low and fixed incomes – are forking out up to £100m a year making necessary calls to these public information lines. Not only this, but hundreds of thousands of callers every week simply give up on getting through to DWP helplines after being on hold for several minutes.

For example, a third of calls to the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) helpline are abandoned. In South Yorkshire, 27,000 people need to claim ESA. Callers to the Incapacity Benefit reassessment line wait, on average, just under 13 minutes before they hang up, unanswered – but still charged.

Many people needing to call these numbers, like one in seven of all households in the country, won’t have a landline and 0845 numbers are usually not included in mobile phone companies’ inclusive call packages.

So 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. It’s likely to put many off asking for help when they really need it.

The fact is, the DWP is profiting at the expense of the people it is there to help.

And I fear there could be an explosion of enquiries and problems for people dealing 
with the system because of the current turmoil in the benefits system.

The combination of sudden cuts in payment, delays in decisions and the new universal credit next year could lead to chaos – and much higher costs for those making the calls.

0845 numbers tend to be revenue-sharing schemes 
which means, while the DWP say they don’t make money from them, they can get discounts on bills. The money callers pay goes to the phone companies and offsets the cost of providing the number.

I’ve secured a Parliamentary debate today to put my 
research in front of Ministers and pressure them to change to cheaper alternatives.

Switching to an 03 number would allow them to keep the extra functionality but would cost callers no more than a geographical rate (01) number.

I recently campaigned for GP practices in Rotherham and Barnsley to use local numbers, after finding out that more 
than two thirds of doctors’ surgeries in Rotherham and a third in Barnsley were using 0844 or 0845. All 16 Barnsley doctors have now changed to geographical rate numbers while 22 out of 24 in Rotherham have done so.

I want the Government to recognise this is a rip-off, and follow their example.