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Government must stop using pricey phone lines

Costly calls ‘inappropriate’ for essential services

Woman shouting into a phone handset

Customers calling expensive phone lines for core government services should no longer have to pay high charges, according to new guidance from the Cabinet Office.

The new rules will require departments like the Department for Work and Pensions, which controls people’s benefits, not to use expensive numbers such as those starting 084 and 087 unless there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ or unless they also offer an 03 number as an alternative.

This follows the Which? Costly Calls campaign and an announcement earlier this month that the government will put an end to expensive 084 and 087 numbers when customers complain to airlines, train operators, and major high street and online retailers.

Which? wants costly calls crackdown

The Cabinet Office has said making customers call expensive phone numbers is ‘inappropriate’, especially where callers are vulnerable and from low income groups. In summary the guidance states that: 

  • If there are reasons the department can’t use geographic 01 or 02 numbers, departments should use the non-geographic 03 prefix by default (this costs the same as 01 and 02 numbers and is included in ‘free’ call packages).
  • Although 0845 numbers are still permitted, where higher-rate numbers are used an 03 alternative should also be offered. This will give callers a choice of which number is cheaper for them to call, depending on their call package. It’s encouraged that the 03 option is presented as the main number.

0845 numbers not completely banned

While the Cabinet Office has said calls to pricey premium numbers are ‘inappropriate’, especially where callers are vulnerable and from low income groups, the guidance doesn’t go as far as to completely ban the use of 0845 numbers and no time limit has been set for when departments should offer cheaper alternatives. Where a department chooses not to either offer 01, 02 or 03 number prefixes – as either the only or main number to call – they must write to the Minister for Civil Society to explain their rationale. 

Richard Lloyd, Which? executive director, 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 price of higher rate phone lines

A recent National Audit Office report found higher rate phone numbers, often starting 0845 or 0870, cost callers £56m in 2012.

Calls from landlines to 0845 numbers typically cost between 1p and 11p a minute. From mobiles, it is usually between 14p and 41p per minute.

Departments will have to explain themselves to Cabinet ministers if they fail to follow the rules.

Meanwhile, from 2015 departments will be required to make clear to customers, wherever a number is advertised or presented, how much they will actually be charged.

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