Business

Firms charge for free government information

picture of phone
Image caption It could cost £30 to listen to child benefit advice

Commercial websites are charging up to £1.50 per minute to access information which is provided for free by the government.

An investigation by Radio 4's Money Box programme found that one website was providing a number giving child benefit advice that would cost nearly £30 if listened to in full.

Digital Select Ltd also charges £11.69 to apply for child benefit.

The company says it offers advice and that its charges are clearly stated.

But Michael Fallon, Conservative MP for Sevenoaks and currently the only candidate to be the new chairman of the government's Treasury Select Committee, told the programme that action should be taken against what he called "rip-off" sites.

"I think there is a role for the regulator and for the Cabinet Office to look at these unscrupulous websites and do something about them," he said.

'Confusing'

One of the Digital Select Ltd websites offered advice on child benefit using a premium rate 0911 number but the pre-recorded information can be found for free at www.direct.gov.uk.

The phoneline provides no facility to skip to the specific information required and only provides the official number for the Child Benefit Office at the end of the message. It would cost the listener nearly £30 to listen to the message in full.

"The service was created due to HMRC information on child benefit being difficult to obtain, not very clear and frequently confusing," the company's managing director, Shaun Freeman, told the programme.

Another one of his companies' websites provides an 0844 number, which it says is for HMRC Child Benefit Office.

Using this number is more expensive than calling the official HMRC helpline but it just connects the caller to the official line.

Dialling the 0844 number costs 5p per minute, which is substantially more than HMRC's own 0845 number, which costs between 0.5p and 2p per minute.

"The website does not display HMRC's 0845 number due to disaster recovery reasons," Mr Freeman said.

"Should HMRC suffer a problem with their 0845 numbers then callers would not be connected."

But an HMRC spokesperson dismissed this suggestion and said that it had contingency measures in place so that the line would be diverted to another department should it encounter any problems. Mr Freeman admitted that HMRC's number had never suffered problems preventing callers from getting through.

Mr Fallon said: "In this particular case he's quite clearly taking advantage of people who can easily access this information for free. They may be quite vulnerable, they may need the child benefit quite quickly and they may be people in most need of it."

'Undermining confidence'

In response, Mr Freeman said: "The website clearly states what the service provides, the cost of the service and that the service is not affiliated to HMRC. In addition, the website does state that applicants can claim for free by going direct to HMRC with contact details provided."

But in July 2009 the phone regulator PhonepayPlus fined Digital Select Ltd £50,000 for serious breaches of its code.

In its ruling the regulator said: "There was material consumer harm as the service had the likely effect of undermining consumer confidence in official government websites."

Digital Select Ltd is currently on a number refusal list which means it will not be allocated any further 070, 087 or 09 numbers. Although it is still allowed to use 09 numbers it was given prior to the ban.

Mr Freeman disputed the ruling and says the websites run by his company are now fully compliant with the code.

The websites also offer a facility to apply for child benefit online, and charge £9.95 plus VAT for the privilege. The user enters details into the appropriate fields and is then sent the completed form, which he or she is told to forward on to HMRC.

Users of the websites are told they are responsible for all the accuracy of all the information they provide as the company admitted it had no way of verifying the information was correct.

A spokesperson for HMRC said: "We would encourage people looking for official information or wanting to complete online transactions to use our website, www.direct.gov.uk as their starting point."

BBC Radio 4's Money Box is broadcast on Saturdays at 1200 BST and repeated on Sundays at 2100 BST.

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