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Friday, 7 January 2011

Ofcom announcement causes public bodies to come under attack for use of "Business Rate" 084 telephone numbers

Further to my earlier release, Public service providers must immediately cease using "BUSINESS RATE" telephone numbers, I address the situation with HMRC and NHS GPs in particular.


The Low Income Tax Reform Group has renewed its attack on HMRC for its use of what are now called "BUSINESS RATE" 0845 telephone numbers.
See - Telephone call charges – time for HMRC to act.

This announcement refers to a current Ofcom consultation, which confirms what is happening at present as well as proposing long overdue clarification of the position with all non-geographic telephone numbers.

When the Ofcom proposals are implemented, HMRC, in common with many other public sector bodies including DWP agencies and NHS Direct, would have to add the following statement wherever they publish their 0845 telephone numbers:

"Calls to our 0845 numbers are charged at 2p per minute, plus your telephone company's access charge".

This is the current situation, with access charges varying from a 12p fixed charge per call to a surcharge of 38p per minute. (BT is currently exploiting a specific regulatory provision, which requires it alone to cross subsidise these calls through other charges, by covering them in its Call Plan charges. Ofcom proposes to revise this regulation.)

The Ofcom proposal is essentially for the Service Charge levied by HMRC and others to be unbundled from the Access Charge, which each telephone company would have to advise separately. Whilst there would be expected to be adjustments to regularise the Access Charges; it is proposed, and expected, that the Service Charge will remain largely unchanged.

Once this clarity and transparency is achieved it will clearly be intolerable for benefit claimants, NHS patients and citizens seeking help with errors in their tax to be seen to be paying a Service Fee to a public service provider for a telephone enquiry. This is however exactly what is happening at present - it is just not being declared for what it is.

HMRC and other public bodies must now face up to the truth and either declare it, justifying the imposition of a Service Charge on callers, before they are compelled to do so, or move swiftly to use of 03 (Geographic Rate) numbers wherever a geographic number is not suitable.


NHS GPs who use the more expensive “Business Rate” 0844 numbers impose a Service Charge of just over 5p per minute for obtaining NHS Services - the highest charge possible to avoid classification as "Premium Rate". This is in addition to an Access Charge of up to 35p per minute added by the telephone company. This is a clear breach of the principles of a NHS that is funded by taxation.

Recent revisions to their NHS contract give them until 31 March 2011 to cease using these expensive numbers – see clause 29B of the Standard General Medical Services Contract. They could do so by changing their telephone arrangements totally, or more simply by migrating to the equivalent 0344 (Geographic Rate) number, which is permitted by network telephone service providers within the term of a contract for network telephone service.

The GP Committee of the BMA opposes this move (see this briefing). It promotes a policy which states that it is patients who should bear the cost of improved NHS services, according to the quality of the service delivered. Many would see this as being a most disturbing position to be held by this professional body, especially when the government proposes to hand over the local management of the NHS to GPs, “liberated” from central control!

Despite being content with the idea of patients paying service charges, the BMA GPC briefing however encourages members to get around the terms of the revised contract by pretending that there is no Service Charge applied and that patients do not pay any more to call 0844 numbers. One Surgery system provider even claims to be able to give assurances to this effect. The Ofcom paper clearly shows this to be complete nonsense.


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