The telephone tax. Government use of high-cost public phone lines May A report by John Healey MP

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1 The telephone tax Government use of high-cost public phone lines May 2013 A report by John Healey MP

2 Introduction John Healey MP Britons make millions of calls every year to government departments and agencies. From benefits and tax credits to driving licences to livestock vaccinations, government departments and their agencies provide a service that professionals and the public have to use. But the government are exacerbating the rising cost of living by charging rip-off rates to make these necessary calls. 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. It s a telephone tax. High-cost phone lines are used across central government. My initial Parliamentary Questions and FoI requests last year revealed more than 80% of the Department for Work and Pensions phone lines are 0845 as will be the new lines coming on stream for Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment. These numbers cost callers up to 41p per minute. In December 2012, the National Audit Office heavily criticised HM Revenue and Customs for costing callers tens of millions of pounds in higher phone bills. i But until now the full scale of the use of high-cost phone lines across government has not been known. This new research, with detailed information gained through Parliamentary Questions to Ministers, has exposed the widespread use of phone lines charging rip-off rates. Six in ten government phone lines are high-cost Almost two-thirds of the principal departments and agencies across government use 084 numbers or similar which charge callers up to 41p per minute. The league table of departments below shows the main offenders. DWP dealing with the sick, elderly and vulnerable usually on fixed, low incomes uses more high-cost lines than any other department. Two government departments admitted directly making money from high-cost lines Since 2010, the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs has made over 10,000 by charging callers using high-cost phone lines. The Department for Transport has received almost 2.5m of revenue from this type of calls. The public are paying the price for government departments to keep their phone bills down Departments saying they don t make money directly from calls are likely to have still received benefits in-kind. Additional services provided for free or lower outbound call charges add up to the same thing: phone bills lowered by millions of pounds and members of the public picking up the tab. The NAO report into HMRC s use of phone lines found that their phone provider Cable and Wireless gave additional services for free, effectively knocking 4.7m off HMRC s bill in exchange over 400 million minutes to 0845 numbers. ii DWP have admitted their outbound tariff-charges were cut by phone provider BT after revenue-sharing was scrapped in

3 Phone companies are cashing in Irrespective of whether government departments are making money from high-cost phone lines, phone companies certainly are. The lack of transparency means that callers might not know they re being charged rip-off rates until their phone bill lands on the door mat. The same NAO report into HMRC s use of phone lines found that Cable and Wireless are making 1 million a year, from just this one agency. Action needs to be taken Living costs are high enough already without government departments hiking up phone bills through this telephone tax. I ve written to the National Audit Office to ask them to investigate, and am calling for a probe into the use of high-cost phone lines across government, to assess the extent to which callers are being ripped off. The Government provides public services and contact numbers should be free. Departments must be more transparent about how much money they re pocketing while the public pay over the odds. 3

4 Context Some examples of government services which charge rip-off 0845 rates for people who have to use the phone to give information to government, or who are seeking help and advice: Disability Living Allowance Carers Allowance Jobcentres Social Fund (help for people on low incomes facing emergency expenses) Pensions Service Insolvency Service Rural Payments Agency Skills Funding Agency (houses the National Apprenticeship Service, tasked with increasing apprenticeships) Definitions High-cost numbers phone lines that are defined by Ofcom as either chargeable 08 business rate numbers or premium numbers (09 numbers). Chargeable 08 business rate numbers (0844 or 0845) cost up to 13p a minute from a landline and up to 41p a minute from a mobile. Premium rate numbers are much more expensive; up to 2.60 a minute from landlines and 2.55 from a mobile. More information on telephone charges is available from Ofcom. iii Freephone numbers 0800 and 0808 numbers. Calls are normally free from a landline but may cost up to 31p a minute from a mobile. Geographic numbers 01 and 02 numbers relating to a specific location in the UK. Cost up to 10p a minute from landlines and 40p a minute from mobiles. Inclusive call packages allow free calls to these numbers at certain times of the day. Most people make most calls within the terms of their call bundle. UK-wide non-geographic numbers start with 03 and cost up to 10p a minute from landlines and up to 40p a minute from mobiles. These numbers must be included in landline and mobile free call packages. Why are high-cost numbers more expensive? The telecoms market is complex and confusing. The charge for ringing a particular type of number can depend on where the caller is calling from, their telephone provider, the specifics of their calls package and the time of day. However, we know that some types of numbers are generally more expensive than others. Freephone numbers are usually without charge, although 080 numbers are not always free from mobiles, at least for the time being Ofcom changes next year will make 080 numbers free from mobiles too. iv At the other end of the spectrum, 09 premium rate numbers are almost always the most expensive numbers. 4

5 The range of costs for calling geographic and UK-wide non-geographic numbers (01, 02, 03) appears similar to that for high-cost chargeable business rate numbers (084 and 087). However, there are two reasons why, in most cases, calls to the second category of numbers costs more than to the first: (i) unlike geographic numbers, callers to 08 business rate pay a service charge (as well as a per-minute rate) which normally goes to the company or organisation receiving the call. In this way such calls allow revenue sharing, whereby the business or public body taking the call can receive revenue either directly or in-kind; (ii) free calls to local (geographic) and non-geographic numbers are included in most call packages for landlines and mobiles; calls to 084 and 087 numbers are usually excluded. 5

6 The picture across government We asked 16 government departments to provide information about the principal access numbers operated by them and their executive agencies. Six in ten government phone lines are high-cost lines 39% High-cost 61% Free or geographic rates Two government departments receive direct financial benefit from high-cost lines... others receive millions from in-kind benefits The Department for Transport received almost 2.5m in revenue from 2010/11 to 2012/13, for lines operated by the DVLA for businesses in the motor trade. The Department for Environment and Rural Affairs retained 10,000 in revenue from lines operated by the Rural Payments Agency for farmers and others. Cable & Wireless gives HMRC 4.7m worth of additional services for free. BT has reduced the cost of DWP s outbound calls. Other departments won t say how they benefit or say they don t know. 6

7 The worst offenders: government department league table Department No. of phone lines operated No. of high-cost lines High-cost lines as % of total lines operated Home Office % Department for Work and Pensions Department for Environment and Rural Affairs Department for Business, Innovation and Skills % % % Ministry of Defence % HM Treasury % Department for Transport % Department for Energy and Climate Change Department for International Development % % Department for Education % Department of Health % Cabinet Office 1 0 0% Department for Communities and Local Government Department for Culture, Media and Sport 3 0 0% 1 0 0% Foreign and Commonwealth 6 0 0% Office Ministry of Justice % Notes: (i) no. of phone lines operated includes lines operated by agencies falling under the named department; (ii) the table reflects information returned in answer to Parliamentary Questions and so does not include agencies which Departments refused to return information for; (iii) DWP states that it has not shared in the revenue for its high-cost numbers since 2007; (iv) HM Treasury runs a non-geographic line in parallel with each of its high-cost lines. 7

8 The phone companies The top phone companies, by number of government phone lines provided BT Level 3 Colt Technology Cable and Wireless Serco Talk Talk Phone provider No. of phone lines operated BT 195 Level 3 50 Colt Technology 17 Cable and Wireless 12 Serco 10 Talk Talk 10 Alternative Networks 8 Virgin Media 7 Maintel 6 Others 6 i National Audit Office, HM Revenue and Customs: customer service performance, December Available at: (pdf). ii Public Accounts Committee, HMRC: customer service, March Available at: (pdf). iii See Ofcom s Number crunching: how much does a phone call really cost for more details. Available at: (pdf). iv Ofcom is planning to implement sweeping changes to the telephony charging system in November or December This will include all 0800 numbers being free to call from both landlines and mobiles. 8

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