Steps are being taken to protect consumers against some organisations who use 0800 and 084 telephone numbers and which can result in higher costs for people telephoning them. The moves are a major advance on last September when The Independent highlighted the problem but the authorities were less advanced in their strategic thinking.
The phones and communications regulator, Ofcom, is taking forward proposals which would see calls to 0800 numbers become free from both mobile and landlines. Meanwhile, the Department of Health is writing to GP surgeries to remind them that they are in breach of their NHS contracts if they use 084 numbers.
Like 0800s, the 084s can cost 20p a minute on mobiles.
The Department of Health is also rolling out a free 111 number which will be in place for all of England by April next year, as a medical equivalent to 999 but which could also be used for non-emergencies such as contacting out-of-hours GP services.
MPs have been aware for years about these problems.
"I've had people ringing me saying that this is rife and very worrying," says Bob Ainsworth, MP for Coventry North East and a former Defence Secretary, talking about the GP practices.
But phone costs are something of an invisible issue.
"Mobile phones aren't the presenting problem," says the Leeds-based debt adviser Jonathan Chesterman of the Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS). As a result, advisers tend not to keep count of statistics in this area.
The National Debtline is an exception, however. In 2011, more than 14,000 of the people who contacted it cited telephone debts as part of their problem. This represents over 7 per cent of its callers. Back in 2006, by comparison, under 3 per cent of callers had telephone debts.
"More and more people are getting smartphones," says spokesman Paul Crayston. "The contract prices are much higher than they were before and the contracts are longer. They often last for two years."
In a recent debate on the use of 084 number in GP practices, Strangford MP Jim Shannon gave examples: "A call to a doctor can cost £4, and some of my constituents' tariffs have run out while they were on the phone."
The magazine Which? found evidence last year that 8 per cent of English GP surgeries were still using 084 numbers after the April ban on charging more than normal geographic rates came into place. The Department of Health is now writing to GPs to remind them of their obligations under their general medical service contracts.
Mr Ainsworth, however, is unsure that a reminder letter from the Department will be enough. Primary Care Trusts are the enforcing bodies which could force GPs to make changes such as offering local telephone numbers which would be charged at the lower cost geographic rate.
"There is a principle with regards to the NHS, that there should be free and equal access," he says.
Louise Hanson, head of campaigns at Which?, says: "Patients who need to contact their GP to make an appointment or get advice should not have to pay over the odds for a phone call. The Government needs to enforce its own rules to stop GPs using these expensive 084 numbers."
Mr Ainsworth is worried that many of the poorest groups have no option but to use a mobile. Government statistics show that a quarter of households are reliant on mobiles, having no landline. This rises to a third among the under-25s. In 2011, the UK arrived at a significant landmark: for the first time, more call minutes were attributable to mobile than landline calls.
On 0800 numbers, Mary Glindon, MP for North Tyneside, has campaigned for them to be free on mobiles.
"I strongly welcome news that the regulator Ofcom recommends that freephone numbers should be free on mobile phones," she says. "It was an anomaly that they weren't and this decision reflects the fact that mobiles are increasingly taking over from static landlines."
Ofcom is now beginning a consultation with the mobile industry which is intended, according to the Communications minister, Ed Vaizey, to overhaul the regulation of "non-geographic calls. "Ofcom's proposals include the recommendation that 0800 should be free from all phones (fixed and mobile)," said the minister in a recent debate.
Further details are due from Ofcom when it launches its consultation, probably next month. Ofcom is expected to announce the final plan in September this year, with implementation coming in 2013 and early 2014. While it clearly wishes to make 0800 numbers free, it needs to check first that the law of unintended consequences does not prohibit such a move in such a complicated technological area.
Other aims Ofcom will bring forward include making the charging structure for calls more transparent.
Over the past few years progress has been made in some areas. Last year, the Department of Work and Pensions reached agreement with most of the main mobile companies over 0800 numbers, through which calls to its helplines became free on their networks. HM Revenue & Customs still uses 084 numbers but has promised to review this when Ofcom clarifies its intentions. Some phone companies are co-operating with charities and government departments.
"Quite a lot of those numbers are free on our network," says a Vodafone spokeswoman, citing calls to JobCentre Plus as an example.
Many organisations have lobbied Ofcom on the issue, including Citizens Advice, which provided numerous examples of people on benefits and with disabilities paying £10 or more to contact government departments or local authorities on their mobiles.
Minister Ed Vaizey says that there is "evidence of significant consumer disadvantage" among vulnerable groups.
Whatever the nature of reforms in the area of mobile charges, it is likely to stay a live issue. Technology and competition tends to develop faster than regulation.
Monitoring the issue is like playing "hit the monster" at a fairground, according to Mr Ainsworth, where, each time one monster is hit with a hammer, another one springs up.
"It's ineffective regulation at the end of the day," he says.
Case study: For a better deal on mobiles, steer clear of long contracts
A self-employed entrepreneur in the cleaning sector, Patrick needs to keep close to his clients.
For this reason, he has to have reliable and flexible mobile phones.
"For me it's important not to get caught in a contract when I need flexibility," he says. "If I notice a good new deal I want to be able to hop to it fairly quickly."
So he avoids long contracts.
"The technology moves so quickly that all you are doing if you sign up is generating profits for the suppliers," he says.
Instead he buys handsets off the online marketplace eBay and shops around for SIM-only deals.
"I periodically jump on to eBay and see what is around," he continues. "Often there are intelligent phones that you can buy for under £100.
Right now he is using an HTC phone, with internet and emails. If he bought a new model through one of the main suppliers, he could be paying nearly £500 for the phone or getting it "free" through a monthly contract costing £25 or more for 24 months.
One issue about buying handsets on their own is that they need to be "unlocked" in order to be usable on all the different networks. Many phones are sold "unlocked" but there are also phone shops around which offer this service, usually for about £10 or £15.
At the moment, Patrick pays £25 a month for a SIM-only deal, but he knows he can end that arrangement with just one month's notice if something better comes on offer.
He has opted for unlimited internet use, 500 free texts and 900 minutes of calls in each month. He is quite careful not to buy more than he needs and spends time working out what his likely usage is each month.
If he were going to buy a new smartphone, rather than the year-old models he gets online, he would look at deals in the shops but then phone the company numbers themselves and try to do better. Staff at the central numbers have more room to offer small discounts than those in the shops, many of which are franchises.
Mobiles have become so widespread that smartphones and mobile phone applications were included last year in the baskets of goods used to measure the RPI and CPI inflation figures.
Setting up a long-term contract is a dangerous step for people who could have debt problems.
Some deals now cost upwards of £65-a-month, and can last 24 months (so costing at least £1,560 in total).
A common move by debt advisers is to recommend that people stop using the contract, negotiate with the mobile company on the outstanding debt and get a cheap deal instead.
For Patrick, a 24-month contract is obviously a no-no. One specific reason is that the UK is well on the way to switching to 4G (fourth generation) mobile technology.
Major steps will take place this year, including the auctioning to providers of the spectrum space.
"The costs will probably come down considerably," he says.
More than that, 4G could offer far more services and flexibility. Video streaming through a mobile, for instance, could become commonplace.
Citizens Advice: http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk
National Debtline: http://www.nationaldebtline.co.uk and 0808 808 4000
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