Calls to government departments 'too expensive', say MPs

 
Man making phone call MPs are unhappy about how much the public are having to pay and average waiting times

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More than 100 million calls by the public to government departments were charged at a premium rate, costing people an estimated £56m, MPs said.

The Public Accounts Committee report found a third of Whitehall numbers used by the public last year were higher-rate, including those for victim support, benefit and tax enquiries.

Labour MP Margaret Hodge said their continued use was "not acceptable".

The government acknowledged a "more consistent" approach was needed.

According to the cross-party committee, which has been looking into the issue, of the 208 million calls made to government departments in 2012/13, about 63% were made to higher-rate numbers.

Target 'poorest'

Half of the lines in Whitehall which charge premium rates "serve the poorest" in society, it said, and there ought to be "low-cost alternatives" for vulnerable people.

There was also criticism that calls to government departments took too long to answer.

"Customers of government services should be able to contact those services easily and cheaply," Mrs Hodge, who chairs the committee, said.

MPs taking evidence from civil servants on the issue in September

"Charging customers higher rates by making them use 0845 or other high-rate numbers is not acceptable, especially when the customers are often vulnerable people.

"Customers spent an estimated £56m on calls using higher rate numbers, from the lines run by the Department for Work and Pensions, to helplines for victim support and the Bereavement Service and the inquiries and complaints line of the Student Loans Company."

According to the communications regulator Ofcom, 0843 and 0844 calls cost between 1p and 13p a minute from landlines and, typically, between 15p and 41p a minute from mobile phones.

Calls to 0845 numbers cost between 1p and 10.5p a minute from landlines, and from 12p to 41p from mobiles while for 0870 codes, the rates are 2p to 10p and 21p to 41p.

The Department for Work and Pensions, which gets more than a 100 million calls from the public a year, has said it will offer a choice between 0845 and 0345 numbers to enable callers to choose the line which is cheaper for them.

Waiting times

Appearing before the committee in September, head of the Cabinet Office Richard Heaton said his officials would work on guidance and principles for Whitehall departments to ensure people were not "ripped off".

TYPES OF NUMBERS

Ofcom is planning to reduce the categories of numbers used in an effort to make prices clearer. Its suggestions are:

01, 02 and 03: Geographic rates

07: Mobile rates

0800: Free from landlines

0843/4/5 and 0871/2/3: Business rate, lower cost

090/091/098: Premium rate, higher cost.

In its report, the committee also said calls to government departments took too long to answer, with callers to Revenue and Customs in the first quarter of 2013 having to wait an average of seven minutes.

According to the committee, Revenue and Customs only answered 16% of calls made to its tax credit helpline on July 31, the deadline day for notifying change of circumstances.

Mrs Hodge said the performance of some departments was "astonishingly bad".

"Callers must be informed of the costs involved in calling a particular number. Costs to callers can be even higher when they are left waiting to speak to someone," she added.

"The industry benchmark is to answer 80% of calls in 20 seconds but most departments do not have such a target and their performance falls wide of accepted industry standards."

'Bumper bill'

The Cabinet Office said many people now preferred to use the internet to access government services.

"We agree that it is inappropriate for vulnerable people to pay high charges for accessing vital public services and we are clear that a more consistent approach is needed," a spokesman said.

"The Cabinet Office now runs a cross-departmental group to consider customer telephone lines. This group has made good progress in drafting guidance on prefix number selection and establishing best practice.

"We will publish this guidance and have a standing remit to ensure it is kept up to date."

Consumer group Which? called on all public bodies and companies to provide either freephone or local rate numbers for their customer service and complaints lines.

"It is ridiculous that people face a bumper bill to call a public body, especially when they have to wait on hold," said its executive director Richard Lloyd.

"The Cabinet Office must now act fast to ensure the government and public bodies lead by example and put an end to costly calls."

 

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 110.

    As per other posts here, avoid calling and email Gov, or use something like Gov.UK website to find your answer (if it's not specifically about you I mean, as in seeking info). If people want calls answered more quickly, ask the Gov to employ more staff - oh hang on, that'll cost too... I used to work in Gov, but now back in private sector. I'd had enough of constant team reductions!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 109.

    HYS about energy pricing please!!!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 108.

    When STD codes meant that we paid either local or national rates there may have been some justification, but nowadays most phone packages include "free minutes" to STD codes.

    There is no justification for any 08 codes to public bodies. Even my local council use it. Just another rip off devised by the managers to boost revenue.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 107.

    I'm not too sure what to make of this, but for those who say 'Calls to Government should be free', nothing is ever 'free' in this respect. If the caller doesn't pay for their call, then someone else will have to fund it - i.e. the taxpayer. It's the same when people say 'the Government should pay for xyz' - again, that means us. It would be better if calls were answered more quickly by Gov depts.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 106.

    Government is too expensive , full stop
    Too few in the public sector with real world experience and with heads well and truly up their nether regions

 

Comments 5 of 110

 

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    James Landale says most voters won't be too bothered by the negative stories emerging about Amjad Bashir, the former UKIP MEP who has defected to the Tories. He says: "As ever with defections, they are never as clean as political parties would like. The problem for UKIP is that most voters are less aware of the detail that goes on underneath."

     
  81.  
    @nedsimons 12:03: Ned Simons, Huffington Post UK assistant political editor

    Tweets: Can't wait for Miliband and Cameron to shout NHS statistics at each other for ten minutes. #PMQs

     
  82.  
    12:01: Miliband's only PMQs option: The NHS James Landale Deputy Political Editor, BBC News

    James Landale on the Daily Politics says he thinks the Labour leader will focus all six of his questions on the NHS. "I would be amazed if Ed Miliband doesn't go on health - that's his subject of the week, he has to go on it. "

     
  83.  
    12:00: Immigration target Daily Politics Live on BBC Two

    Earlier on Daily Politics David Willetts was pressed by Andrew Neil to accept that the Conservatives have failed on immigration. Ministers had sought to cut net migration below 100,000. Mr Willetts suggested a Tory-only government might have made more progress, saying: "We had a commitment in our manifesto which was not part of the coalition agreement and therefore not the basis on which the government was to act."

     
  84.  
    12:00: NHS England BBC News Channel

    Dr Barbara Hakin, national director of commissioning operations for NHS England, says: "Local hospitals continue to have responsibility for deciding whether to declare major incidents, but before doing so best practice dictates that they take account of the wider impacts on other parts of the NHS so that patient safety in the round is protected. That's why NHS England's local area team in the West Midlands decided to issue these guidelines. This was not a decision of the Department of Health."

     
  85.  
    12:00: Major NHS incidents BBC Radio 5 live

    John Pienaar tells 5Live that Guidance to NHS Trusts on declaring a major incident will surely feature during PMQs

     
  86.  
    11:57: EU-US trade deal

    Trade minister Lord Livingston is facing questioning about the EU-US trade deal which many fear could reduce Britain's control over the NHS. Around 150,000 people responded to a recent EU consultation on the issue voicing their concerns, most of them negative. But Lord Livingston, a strong supporter of the deal, is not concerned. "Ninety-seven per cent of the responses were standard," he says. "I'm not entirely sure that represents the totality of everyone's views. However, it's important we recognise everyone's concerns."

     
  87.  
    11:55: 'No-go areas' Daily Politics Live on BBC Two

    Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail sketchwriter, is on BBC Two's Daily Politics talking about the issues the political parties would rather steer clear of. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour want to discuss Trident, he claims, while the Liberal Democrats are keen to avoid talking about anything connected with tuition fees. "There are issues that are of great interest to the voters, and yet the politicians are shying away from it," Letts says. "It's totally unsustainable, particularly with such a long election campaign."

     
  88.  
    11:52: 'Responsibility of the government' House of Commons Parliament

    Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis cautions MPs on the government side about "believing everything that you read in the Sun" concerning alleged contacts between Labour and Sinn Fein.

    Conservative Andrew Robathan had suggested that Labour should speak to Sinn Fein about security in Northern Ireland.

    Mr Lewis says that Conservatives are asking that "the Labour party take responsibility for things that are clearly the responsibility of the government".

     
  89.  
    11:46: Daily Politics line-up

    Joining Andrew Neil and Jo Coburn on Daily Politics are ex-Conservative minister David Willetts and Labour's shadow minister Caroline Flint. They are discussing the suggestion that up to 100 Conservative MPs might oppose the plan to bring in standardised (plain) cigarette packaging.

    Daily Politics
     
  90.  
    11:42: Labour and Sinn Fein House of Commons Parliament

    Conservative MP Andrew Robathan asks about a story, reported in the Sun, that "the Labour party have been talking to Sinn Fein about a possible link-up after the election".

    A cry of "absolute rubbish!" is heard from the Labour benches.

     
  91.  
    11:38: Northern Ireland questions House of Commons Parliament

    Northern Ireland questions have begun in the Commons. The first question is from Labour MP Tom Greatrex, about the the security situation in Northern Ireland. NI Secretary Theresa Villiers tells him the threat level remains "severe" but there have been "a number of significant arrests, charges and convictions".

     
  92.  
    @EmmaReynoldsMP 11:32: Emma Reynolds, shadow housing minister

    tweets: Since 2010 we have been building 356 fewer homes than we need - Gov't is presiding over the lowest level of house building since 1920s.

     
  93.  
    11:24: 'Trojan horse' plot

    Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw has called on the Department for Education to do more to help schools involved in the alleged "Trojan horse" plot in Birmingham to recruit more good staff. "There are big problems about leadership and staffing, in recruiting people," Sir Michael says.

    Sir Michael Wilshaw
     
  94.  
    11:23: Commons questions House of Commons Parliament

    MPs will meet in the House of Commons in a few minutes' time.

    Prime Minister's Questions is at noon and Labour's urgent question on the NHS will follow.

    First, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers will take questions from MPs. That's from 11:30 GMT.

     
  95.  
    11:14: Ambulance times 'worst on record'

    Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's tweets refer to the story emerging from Wales today that its ambulance response times are the worst ever. Just 42.6% of call-outs met the eight-minute target time in December, well below the 65% target. Tracy Myhill, interim chief executive at the Welsh Ambulance Service, has conceded the figures are "unacceptable" - but also points out the 40,000 calls received that month are a record high.

    Ambulances at a hospital The Welsh Ambulance Service has said it was working to address underlying issues
     
  96.  
    11:11: Urgent question

    We'll be hearing plenty more about hospitals' "major incidents" in the House of Commons today. Labour's Andy Burnham has just been granted an urgent question on today's developments, which will follow PMQs. Will Ed Miliband choose the same subject for his clash with David Cameron?

     
  97.  
    11:10: Strike news

    The PCS union says workers at the National Gallery in London are to stage a five-day strike in a row over the privatisation of services.

    National Gallery staff protest
     
  98.  
    11:04: Hunt hits back

    More from Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has responded to Labour criticism over revised guidance on when some hospitals can call a "major incident". In a series of tweets, he says a local decision taken in the West Midlands has been "cynically exploited" by Labour's Andy Burnham and criticises the NHS in Wales, for which Labour is responsible.

    Jeremy Hunt tweets
     
  99.  
    Sebastian Payne, The Spectator

    tweets: I'm going to be covering #GE2015 for @spectator in a Mini. Track my progress at http://specc.ie/1CcLE4b #MiniElection

    Sebastian Payne
     
  100.  
    10:55: Trident staying put

    A Ministry of Defence spokesman denies a report in the Daily Mail that officials are examining plans to move the Trident nuclear fleet from Scotland to Wales.

    The spokesman says: "The Ministry of Defence is not doing any work on this. There are no plans to move the deterrent."

    Trident
     

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