David Hickson's Media Releases

My recent bloggings

Friday, 22 October 2010

HMRC and DWP rip-off telephone numbers attacked by Watchdog

From: David Hickson – Public Services Campaigner

BBC Watchdog yesterday attacked the use of 0845 and other expensive telephone numbers by HMRC and DWP and many companies. (See the text and the clip)

The key point made was that public sector bodies (and commercial companies offering non-premium services) should now be using 03 numbers, which are charged at the rate applicable to calls to ordinary (01/02) numbers on every telephone tariff.

It was announced that both HMRC and DWP claim not to "make any revenue" from use of their 0845 numbers. If this means that they gain no financial advantage, then they would lose nothing in changing to 03, because they are currently being ripped-off by their telephone companies. The only difference for users of 03 numbers is that they lose the subsidy of their telephone systems, which those using 0845 numbers (should) have.

The cost and confusion of number changes could be avoided by simply offering the 0345 equivalent for every 0845 number. Simple announcements to the effect that the "8" could be swapped for a "3" would avoid the heavy cost of changing lots of paperwork and websites.

For example, those calling about the HMRC coding errors would be able to call 0345 3000 627, rather than 0845 3000 627. This call would be free for many mobile callers, much cheaper for others and furthermore it would avoid HMRC having to incur the cost and wasted effort involved in calling back after the caller had waited for their call to be answered - everybody wins!

N.B. The DWP claim quoted in the Watchdog blog entry - 0845 calls are charged at a "standard rate" - is a simple falsehood. The charge is unregulated and is seen to conform to no standard whatsoever. 40p a minute on a mobile, when ordinary calls may be free in a bundle, can hardly be called “standard”.


Thursday, 21 October 2010

Consumer telephone rip-offs - the cost of complaining!

From: David Hickson - Campaigner against Telephone Misuse

Further to the comments quoted below, I can advise that the edition of "Watchdog" to be broadcast this evening will include an item on "the cost of complaining".

This will apparently cover the expensive telephone numbers used by Asda and EasyJet for their Customer Service operations.

I have no idea of how the programme will deal with the issue, as my offer of briefing has been declined.

I have contacted both of the companies and have obtained statements which I believe will be used in the programme. In both cases they are seriously flawed, as I will point out below:

EasyJet claims that an "average" call to its customer service number - 0871 244 2366 - of between 6 and 7 minutes costs 62p.

This is untrue. The advertised rate of 10p per minute applies only to BT landlines, which are uniquely subject to regulation that prohibits BT from making any money itself from the call. With BT, durations are rounded up and a 12p call set-up fee applies. The BT cost is therefore 82p.

All other providers make their own charge in addition to the money that is passed on to EasyJet. A cost of £2.80 is typical for a mobile.

Asda claims that its customer service number - 0844 481 5000 - is charged at "local call rates".

This never was true, not even before 2004, when there were distinct local rates. From BT, calls to local or national geographic numbers (as well as 03 numbers) are covered as inclusive within the customer's Call Plan. The regulated, no profit, rate from BT for the 0844 number, never covered by a call plan, is 5p per minute, plus the 12p call set-up fee.

All other providers make their own charge in addition to the money that is passed on to Asda. A cost of £40p per minute is typical for a mobile.

Asda claims that it will shortly be changing to a "free phone number". This is nonsense - there is no such thing. 080 numbers are free to call from landlines and payphones, but not from mobiles. Many mobile users enjoy inclusive (free) or bundled (some free) calls to geographic and 03 numbers, however 080 calls fall outside these terms (apart from certain very particular exceptions).

As I say, I have no idea about whether these errors will be identified or perhaps compounded in the broadcast. I do however hope that any further coverage of this matter will be properly informed.

It is not only public sector bodies, e.g. HMRC, DWP and NHS Direct, that are involved in the misuse of revenue sharing 084 telephone numbers. There are many private sector bodies which also use expensive telephone numbers in situations where the imposition of an "access fee" is probably not warranted.

It is totally improper for citizens to be required to pay an additional charge when calling a NHS provider, enquiring about benefits from DWP or asking for details of a tax calculation error from HMRC. Some might also think that it is unsatisfactory for a private company to levy a fee on consumers who are making a complaint or enquiry about its products and services.

BBC Watchdog has announced that it will be drawing attention to the issue in two sectors, as an item in the programme to be broadcast this evening. This programme meets its duty to entertain by picking on particular companies. I am anxious to draw attention to the fact that this practice is widespread in these sectors and in many others.

Using the types of telephone numbers listed below causes most callers, notably those calling from mobiles, to incur a premium charge. In all of these cases a 03 number would be more appropriate. Calls to all 03 numbers are charged at the rate, if any, for "normal" (geographic) calls from all telephones.

(With the exception of 0800 and 0870 numbers) in all of the cases of Customer Service lines listed below the call recipient benefits as a result of the premium paid by the caller. This is exactly the same situation as with the numbers used by many public bodies and the very many NHS GPs who use 0844 numbers.





Aldi, Asda:


BMIBaby, Ryanair:


M&S, Morrisons, Tesco:



Aer Lingus, Easyjet, FlyBe, Ryanair:



Co-op / Somerfield, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Waitrose:






BA, Ryanair, BMIBaby:



In all of these cases, the special low rates which apply only to the less than 28% of non-business calls made from BT landlines, are atypical of the cost which callers generally incur. Because BT is uniquely prohibited by regulation from making money from its rates for landline calls to Non-Geographic Call Service numbers, it is absurd to quote a BT rate (commonly omitting the 12p call set-up fee) and then suggesting that "others may vary", when it is BT that is the one exception to the norm.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Government wastes money by charging for public services

Many government departments and public bodies continue to pay for their telephone systems by ripping-off service users. They use “revenue-generating” 084 telephone numbers, when they should be following strong advice to use "cost neutral" 03 numbers.

They then compound, not correct, their error by calling back to those who incur high charges, notably mobile users. This simply wastes time and money, as the caller has already paid at a premium rate to make the call, when in many cases it could have been free. This rip-off and waste of public money must be ended, swiftly, by adopting a simple solution.

Probably the worst, of many, examples are as follows:

HM Revenue and Customs   0845 3000 627   for enquiries about tax over/under -payments
JobCentre Plus   0845 604 3719   to contact any Jobcentre
NHS Direct    0845 4647    for the telephone health advice and information service

To save money for callers, and for all taxpayers, they should immediately adopt the equivalent 03 alternative numbers, e.g. 0345 3000 627 / 0345 604 3719 / 0345 4647.

These are all reserved and available for immediate use under existing arrangements with telephone companies, and will enable use of exactly the same facilities.

03 numbers guarantee that callers pay no more than the cost of an ordinary call (to a 01/02) number. In many cases this is covered by their inclusive package or bundle - i.e. it is free. 0845 calls are generally subject to a premium – e.g. 40p per minute from mobiles.
NHS Direct advises all students to save its 0845 number on their mobile phone!

Radical measures are needed to save money swiftly, as all budgets are now under pressure. Rather than incurring the cost of a change to a completely new 03 number, the 0345 equivalent numbers should simply be made available for use alongside the 0845 numbers. Unnecessary callbacks to those who can call the 0345 number for free must be halted.

Please see the further points below, and contact me for further information and comment.

Further points

The Central Office of Information confirms that the full cost of handling calls to 084 numbers is picked up by the caller, whereas with 03 numbers the caller only pays for their own share of the use of the telephone network. (see the COI statement below)

The COI also advises that revenue-generating numbers, such as 084, should not be used, unless there is a clear reason for doing so.

It is for NHS Direct, HMRC and the DWP agencies to explain their reasons for imposing access fees on service users. The cost to the taxpayer of a callback (after the caller has already paid for the initial call) does not remove this fee, it simply adds greater expense, wiping out the improper benefit that is being obtained.

BT is uniquely prohibited by regulation from making money on landline calls to 084 numbers - all of the charge it levies is passed on the person being called. This only applies to BT landlines, which are used for less than 28% of non-business telephone calls. Mobile callers benefit from relatively cheap rates for calls to ordinary (01/02/03) numbers, in most cases they are covered by bundles and packages, whereas calls to 084 numbers are always charged at a high rate, i.e. 30-40p per minute. Public payphone users pay 60p for a call of up to 30 minutes to an ordinary (01/02/03) number; a 15-minute call to a 0845 number costs £3.40. Other landline callers do not benefit from the regulations which cover only BT subscribers; Virgin Media charges 11p plus 10p per minute for 0845 calls, when calls to ordinary (01/02/03) numbers are included in packages.

Quoting BT landline rates as an example, when they are exceptionally cheap due to unique regulation, is, at best, misleading.

NHS Direct continues to fail to make available the 0345 4647 number which has been set up ready for use for over 2 years now. This failure is seen to be more foolish and insensitive in the context of a recent suggestion – “Students are advised to store NHS Direct’s number – 0845 4647 – in their mobile” (see link below). Most students will have finished their courses before the more limited (free to call) 111 replacement service is available to them. NHS Direct continues to provide a model for the many other NHS service providers who retain their 084 numbers, despite directions and contract revisions which should have brought this improper practice to an end.

When invited to comment on the excessive cost of calling 0845 numbers from mobiles, rather than from BT landlines, NHS Direct said "The cost of calling NHS Direct from a mobile varies between networks, and the mobile phone user can check the cost of 0845 calls with their provider".

As well as declaring ignorance of the actual cost of calling it from a mobile, NHS Direct thinks it relevant to point out that callers only pay its telephone bill; they do not provide it with additional revenue, through a revenue sharing arrangement. (see the NHS Direct statement below.)

Notes and references

1. The Central Office of Information has issued the following statement:

"COI issues Contact Centre guidance which strongly advises that revenue generating tariffs, including 0870, should not be used for government activity unless there is a clear reason for doing so.  Our guidance is available to all departments and public bodies, but while we offer clear advice we cannot enforce against the use of these tariffs.

"Different non geographical number rates are available for government departments and public bodies to use via COI's contract with BT. The cost of calls for the caller depend on the type of number used. For example, the department picks up the full cost of 0800 number calls, the cost is split between the caller and the department for 0300 / 0303 number calls, and the full cost of 0845 /0844 numbers are picked up by the caller.

"The COI contract with BT allows departments to change their number/s and often departments chose to retain the end of their existing number as part of a transfer."

Rhona de la Mer

Senior Press and Marketing Manager
Corporate Communications and Marketing

Central Office of Information
Hercules House, London, SE1 7DU
t:  020 7261 8306

e: rhona.delamer@coi.gsi.gov.uk

w: coi.gov.uk

2. NHS Direct has issued the following statement:

The cost of calling NHS Direct from a mobile varies between networks, and the mobile phone user can check the cost of 0845 calls with their provider. Alongside the telephone service, NHS Direct provides online services which are free to use and, if appropriate, can lead to a call-back from a nurse at no cost to the patient. The purpose of this press release was to remind students of the services we offer, which we know are extremely popular with students.

“NHS Direct does not receive any revenue from calls to our 0845 4647 number. NHS Direct uses BT for provision of its 0845 number under the centrally negotiated COI tariff. This tariff does not make provision for revenue share on 0845 numbers."

Lisa Gaskell

Media and External Affairs Manager

NHS Direct


020 7599 4223

until Wednesday 27 October, contact Safiya Waley on 020 7599 4260

3. The NHS Direct press release including the statement "Students are advised to store NHS Direct’s number – 0845 4647 – in their mobile" is published at http://www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/News/LatestNews/StudentHealthAdvice.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Ofcom continues to Tolerate Silent Calls

Ofcom has today revised its policy on Silent Calls to include a further formal tolerance of Silent Calls - see this press release.

6,600 complaints about Silent Calls in 2009, 6,800 in 2010 and 22 secret investigations recently conducted by Ofcom has led to not one company being found to be practising Persistent Misuse of a Telecommunications Network or Service, under the terms of Ofcom's policy of tolerance.

Ofcom's policy already permits call centres to make as many Silent Calls as they wish, so long as they make enough non-Silent calls on the same day (the "3% rule"). It now says that the Silent Calls which inevitably result from use of obsolete note Answering Machine Detection technology are OK, but must be spread around different people on any one day.

These "new rules" mean that the 2 Million people who Ofcom believe are subject to repeat Silent Calls will now have to wait at least 24 hours after receiving one Silent Call from a company before they receive the next from that company. One Silent Call per day is fine, but two in a day from the same company may cause a penalty of £2 Million pounds to be imposed.

THIS IS COMPLETE NONSENSE. It has nothing to do with Ofcom meeting the expectations of parliament, expressed in 2006 as "we expect you to use your powers to eradicate the nuisance of Silent Calls". In 2010, parliament expressed the wish for more about this matter to be explained to the public.

I ask Ofcom to explain to the public:

·       Why were all of these complaints found not to warrant even a single Notification of Misuse, let alone a penalty?

·       Who are these 22 companies that Ofcom has permitted to continue making Silent Calls under its policy of tolerance?

·       If Ofcom is happy for 2 Million people to continue to suffer Silent Calls caused by failed use of Answering Machine Detection (although now spread out over a longer period), how many suffer Silent Calls as a result of the 3% rule?

·       Can we please have an open debate about why Ofcom thinks that any Silent Calls are "necessary" and should be tolerated?

It is perfectly possible for the call centre industry to continue to be productive and effective without making Silent Calls. By tolerating Silent Calls, Ofcom is not only damaging the interests of citizens, it is also damaging the reputation of an industry on which many people rely for work.

Please contact me for further comment and details of why Silent Calls are not only unacceptable, but also unnecessary.


Ofcom dismisses the argument that we should now recognise mechanical Answering Machines are now less common than use of network based Answering Services. The industry should be encouraged to move over to totally reliable Answering Service  Detection (ASD) in place of AMD. Many leading players have already abandoned AMD becuase they believe that it diminishes their cost effectiveness (as well as inevitably causing Silent Calls).

Yahoo Media Player Instructions

Listening to sound clips

(For a full catalogue of radio and other sound items, visit Radio / Sound Player)

Links to sound clips in blog postings will appear with a play/pause button alongside them in the text.
Click on the button to hear the item.

The player controls will appear at the bottom left corner of the screen.
Explore the options and features.

  • To minimise; click on right hand button.
  • To close after use; click on "x".
  • For details about the item hover the mouse over the title.
  • Help with entering comments

    • All comments are subject to moderation

    • Anonymous comments are unlikely to be published

    • If no "id", use the Name/URL option - the URL is optional

    • A contact email address (entered with the name) will enable private dialogue


    View Blog by Label

    NHS (99) Ofcom (1) Parl (6) PSC (44) SC (29)

    Search This Blog