From: David Hickson – campaigner for the NHS, and on public service issues
Calls to 0800 numbers from mobile phones are NOT FREE. Whilst some mobile companies waive their charges on calls to registered “helplines” on 080 numbers, under a scheme arranged by the Telephone Helplines Association, this does not cover the 0800 benefit claims lines used by DWP agencies.
Although BT is required by regulation to offer cheap rates for calls to 0845 numbers, this does not apply to other providers who charge a premium. DWP agencies make extensive use of 0845 numbers, allowing the interests of those who have service from BT to override those of callers who do not.
At last, this problem is recognised, and starts to be addressed
In giving evidence before the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee on Monday 9 November, Jeremy Groombridge CB of the DWP, was invited by the Minister, Jonathan Shaw MP, to explain what DWP agencies are doing to start to address this problem.
See this extracted recording of the relevant comments.
It has been taken from this item on Parliament Live TV (around 01:27:000), as the written transcript of the evidence is not yet published.
I can be quoted as commenting: “The worthwhile measure of proactively offering to call back all mobile callers to 0800 and 0845 numbers represents a necessary acknowledgement of the issue and a significant first step on the road to properly addressing it.”
This also shows that at least one major government department understands the problem, whilst others (notably the Department of Health) appear to totally misunderstand it.
Further action is needed
The following further steps, as alluded to in the comments, that are required to follow are:
· Arranging for calls to 0800 numbers used by the DWP to be free to all callers, including those from mobiles - the necessary special arrangement with the mobile providers would probably end up being cheaper for the Department, as well as being more effective, than the present interim measure.
· Replacing all 0845 numbers with numbers from the 03xx range - this would ensure that callers from all networks paid no more than the cost of a call to an ordinary (01 /02) number and benefitted from inclusion in call packages where these apply.
1. The Department for Work and Pensions has now overtaken the Department of Health in understanding this issue. The Department of Health is still content for NHS providers to use 0845 and the more expensive 0844 numbers, even though some patients will undoubtedly be calling from mobiles. The DH should note what the DWP has learned and adjust its present misconceived proposals accordingly – would NHS Direct or GP surgeries consider calling back to callers from mobiles? – there is no need; NHS Direct has a 03 number sitting waiting to be offered as an alternative, GPs on 0844 could readily switch to 0344 numbers!
2. We look forward to hearing of the next steps in this process by the DWP. We also await similar steps by all other public bodies, notably HMRC.
3. This welcome step only represents an interim measure. It is important to note that those who withhold their number cannot recognised as mobile callers and those unwilling to provide it cannot be called back. It does not address the problem of paying a premium rate whilst waiting in a queue before speaking with an agent.
The problem of those paying a premium to call 0845 numbers from Virgin Media and other landline providers is not addressed.
The process is also costly in time to both the agency and the caller as it requires a, hopefully brief, conversation about the telephone call itself as well as that taking up in dialling and receiving the return call.
It is possible that it would cost the department considerably less to pay the full cost of receiving calls on 0800 numbers from mobiles and in using 03xx numbers, rather than 0845, than it does to return calls.
4. All calls to 084 numbers cause the revenue paid to the originating telephone company to be shared with that terminating the call. The recipient of the call should therefore benefit in some way (unless it is happy for its telephone company to profit at the expense of its callers).
This cost is reflected in the charge to the caller. This may be disguised within a package fee. In the case of BT, the amount that it can retain is regulated to be well below the amount that it normally retains on non-revenue sharing calls. We now have the bizarre situation where BT’s wholly retained charge for ordinary calls, when outside the terms of a package, at 5.25p per minute is greater than the highest charge for calls to a revenue sharing 084 number at 4.89p per minute.
5. Ofcom clearly intends for all public bodies to move from the 084 to the 03 range, on which revenue sharing is prohibited. Revenue sharing is obviously improper for public services, except where a service charge is proper and declared. BT customers outside the terms of their package could however benefit from the 0845 rates imposed by regulation, because BT’s unregulated normal rates are higher. This poses a problem to which there is a simple answer.
Use of the neutral 03xx numbers should now be the norm. There is no reason why any service provider that wishes to do so could not offer a series of special alternative numbers to enable users of particular telephone services to benefit from special discounts: 0845 for BT, “own network” numbers for each of the mobile providers etc.
6. All BT customers pay the premium to cover the revenue share on 0845 numbers, because these are now included in packages. This cost appears modest because the amount that BT is allowed to retain on these calls is kept artificially low by regulation.
Whilst it would suit the beneficiaries of revenue sharing to have their costs subsidised by all telephone users, rather than just their callers, getting 084 calls included in packages is in no sense a proper way for this situation to be resolved.