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Whitehall call charges ‘hit the poorest hardest’ – MPs


A third of Whitehall numbers used by the public last year were higher-rate call, with over 100 million calls made costing an estimated £56m, a new report suggests.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) investigated charges for customer telephone lines and warned that high charges hit the poorest hardest, as they were most likely to be using mobile phones. The phone lines included victim support and benefit and tax enquiries.

Calls also took too long to answer, MPs found. A “piecemeal” approach has led to a “confusing and inconsistent” system for charging callers, the report added.

The committee has called on the government to provide access to low-cost alternatives, and for lines serving vulnerable and low-income groups to never be charged above the geographic rate.

Committee chair Margaret Hodge MP said: “Charging customers higher rates by making them use 0845 or other high rate numbers is not acceptable, especially when the customers are often vulnerable people.

“We found that one third of customer telephone lines across central government used higher rate numbers. Half of those lines serve the poorest people.

“The Cabinet Office has not played a role in establishing clear principles for charging. There should be low cost alternatives for all services used by a lot of vulnerable people.

“Callers must be informed of the costs involved in calling a particular number. Costs to callers can be even higher when they are left waiting to speak to someone. Performance by departments varies but is often astonishingly bad.”

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “We agree that it is inappropriate for vulnerable people to pay high charges for accessing vital public services and we are clear that a more consistent approach is needed.

“The Cabinet Office now runs a cross-departmental group to consider customer telephone lines. This group has made good progress in drafting guidance on prefix number selection and establishing best practice. We will publish this guidance and have a standing remit to ensure it is kept up to date.”

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