Premium rate Whitehall helplines hit poor hardest - with half the cost coming from being on hold

 

Grieving relatives and crime victims are among millions of people forced to pay premium rates to ring government helplines, a parliamentary committee reported today.

Users spent around £56m last year making more than 130 million calls to higher-rate numbers run by Whitehall; almost half the costs were incurred while waiting for calls to be answered. Nearly two-thirds of Whitehall’s helpline numbers are charged at higher rates, according to the Public Accounts Committee.

The PAC has condemned the practice, saying that the victims hit hardest are “often vulnerable people”, as they are more dependent on advice and are more likely to use mobiles, which charge even higher rates than landlines.

Among the services which attract higher-rate charges via their 0845 prefix are the Bereavement Service helpline, which takes calls from relatives seeking advice on whether they are eligible for help with funeral costs. It is one of the 35 higher-rate lines operated by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Higher rates are also charged on government-run numbers for the victims of crime and for complaints and queries about student loan payments.

The committee warned that: “Higher-rate telephone lines have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable and low-income groups.”

Last year, 208 million calls were made to government numbers, including 100 million to the DWP and 68 million to HM Revenue and Customs. About 63 per cent of the calls – equivalent to 131 million – attracted higher-rate charges.

Margaret Hodge, the committee’s chairman, said last night: “Customers of government services should be able to contact those services easily and cheaply.

“Charging customers higher rates by making them use 0845 numbers is not acceptable, especially when the customers are often vulnerable people.”

Welcoming a commitment by the DWP to phase out the use of 0845 numbers, she said: “There should be low-cost alternatives for all services used by a lot of vulnerable people.”

The departments do not receive the revenue, but the committee report criticised them for not knowing how much cash the lines raised.

The MPs were also fiercely critical of the amount of time it takes for calls to the helplines to be picked up, usually falling well short of the “benchmark” in call centres of 80 per cent being answered within 20 seconds. “Performance by departments varies but is often astonishingly bad,” the report said.

HMRC had an average waiting time of about seven minutes. The report added: “Astonishingly, the department only managed to answer 16 per cent of the calls it received to its tax credits helpline on 31 July 2013, the deadline-day for notifying changes of circumstances.”

The DWP said 54 per cent of calls were picked up within 20 seconds, but the average wait for a response was 104 seconds. Matthew Sinclair, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Premium rate lines not only cost a fortune to use but hit those on low incomes particularly hard.

“It’s time ministers scrapped these rip-off charges, as we pay enough for government bureaucracy already without a stealth telephone tax.”

A DWP spokesman said: “The DWP does not earn any revenue from 0845 numbers. All claimants who need to use an 0845 number can do so free at their local Jobcentre, or can request a call-back from an adviser.”

News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art

The Sistine Chapel is set to be illuminated with thousands of LEDs

News
people
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Sport
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teacher

£36000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: Experienced SEN Teacher n...

Volunteer Mentor for people who have offended

This is an unpaid volunteer role. : Belong: We are looking for volunteers who ...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: Experienced TA's urgently...

Business StudiesTeacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Supply Business Studies Teacher...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?