Set deadline call to end ‘phone tax’

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A YORKSHIRE MP has called on Government departments to set a deadline for the scrapping of premium rate telephone lines to access information and advice.

John Healey will press for the move after new Whitehall guidelines said it was “inappropriate” for members of the public to be hit with high charges.

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) earlier this year found that callers, including, crime victims and the bereaved, spent £56m on expensive Government numbers last year.

The report followed a long-
running campaign on the issue by Mr Healey, the MP for Wentworth and Dearne, who has criticised Government departments and agencies for making people ring premium rate numbers to access public services.

He said: “This is a telephone tax that has to be paid by often the poorest people who have to use these lines to get the information or support they need, such as minimum wage enforcement, they are entitled to receive.

“When Parliament is back I will be tabling questions to every department asking for a deadline by which they will end the use of these lines.

“This all started from constituents complaining to me about running up huge phone bills trying to get through to their doctor’s surgery and Government advice lines so it’s a great example of people working through their elected MP to get things that are wrong changed.”

Calls from landlines to 084 numbers typically cost between 1p and 11p a minute. From mobiles, it is usually between 14p and 41p per minute.

The new guidelines issued by the Cabinet Office state: “It is inappropriate for callers to pay substantial charges for accessing core public services, particularly for vulnerable and low income groups.

“01, 02 and 03 numbers are all charged at standard geographic rates and are always included in available minutes within call packages.

“Departments should therefore first consider whether a non-geographic number is required, and if not, use a 01 or 02 prefix.

“Where a non-geographic number is needed, departments should treat the use of the 03 prefix as a default policy position for the provision of key public services.”

When 0845 numbers continue to be used, an 03 alternative should also be offered, according to the document.

Departments will have to explain themselves to Cabinet 
Office Ministers if they do not abide by the rules and provide numbers with 01, 02 or 03 prefixes.

Richard Lloyd, executive 
director of consumer group Which?, said: “This guidance is a step in the right direction but it’s disappointing no deadline has been set and public bodies will still be able to use expensive 0845 numbers.

“People should not be left out of pocket when calling essential services so we need to see these new rules brought in as soon as possible, so that every government department plays fair.”

The NAO report earlier this year found a third of the Government’s customer service helplines were 084 numbers including 59, such as the Redundancy Service payments helpline, serving groups described as “low income” or “vulnerable”.

It highlighted the fact that people with low incomes were more likely to have pay-as-you-go mobile telephone packages with high charges for calling freephone and 084 numbers.

Government departments were also criticised for not doing more to ensure that calls were answered promptly to minimise the amount callers pay.

james.reed@ypn.co.uk

Comment: Page 14.