Watchdog probes cost of phone calls to hospital patients

House price inflation slows; card firms attacked over penalties; HSBC opens customer records up to credit-rating agencies
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High charges for telephone calls from family and friends to hospital patients are to be investigated by Ofcom.

The telecoms regulator will focus on two companies, Patientline and Premier, and whether call prices of up to 49p a minute to phone special consoles next to patients' beds are "excessive".

More than 30 consumer complaints about the call costs have been lodged, the regulator said.

Its investigation will examine the deals struck by the two companies with NHS trusts to see if they are anti-competitive.

The bedside consoles - which also let patients make calls out, watch TV and even email and surf the internet - have been rolled out in most large UK hospitals.

They are a key part of the NHS's Patient Power plan, devised in 2002 to bring greater independence to patients during their hospital stay.

However, the cost of introducing the scheme has been borne by private companies without financial help from the Government - and the high prices represent an attempt to recoup the outlay.

As well as the 49p-a-minute cost to outside callers, other charges - to the patient, this time - include £3.60 a day to use the internet, 10p a minute for making calls and up to £3.50 a day for watching TV.

Property 'softens'

House price inflation is running at 2.6 per cent - its lowest rate for more than nine years, according to new research from Nationwide building society.

This month, property prices have risen by just 0.2 per cent, its survey reveals; the average house now costs £158,348.

"The overall picture is one of a gently softening market," said Fionnuala Earley, Nationwide's group economist.

There are also signs that stubborn sellers, who have previously refused to drop their asking prices, are now changing their minds.

"This could be the start of some unwinding of the stalemate between buyers and sellers - and see some liquidity [back] in the market," adds Ms Earley. A cut in interest rates this week - a move widely anticipated by industry analysts - would also deliver some "stimulus".

Nationwide also reports that the 2.6 per cent rate for house price inflation is lower than that for wage inflation - the first time it has been so since 1996.

Meanwhile, there has been another rise in home repossessions and mortgage arrears.

The number of properties taken back by lenders in the first six months of this year rose to 4,640 - up by more than 50 per cent on the second half of 2004, according to figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders.

But this level is still historically low, the CML has stressed. "A rerun of the early 1990s is certainly not on the cards," said Peter Williams, its deputy director-general. Some 39,000 properties were repossessed in the second half of 1991, when the UK was sliding into recession.

In the first half of 2005, the number of borrowers in "serious arrears" - those at least 12 months behind on their mortgage payments - stood at 12,380. That's up from 11,480 in the second half of 2004.

Plastic punishment

Penalties for credit card customers who make late payments or exceed their limit are too high, the Office of Fair Trading has ruled. It has written to eight "major card companies" including Barclaycard and MBNA to express concern over what it calls "the disproportionately high" charges - and wants the fines cut.

Most lenders levy penalties of £20 to £25 for late payments, the exceeding of a credit limit, or a punctual payment by cheque or direct debit that is subsequently not honoured by the customer's bank.

The OFT believes that these charges are more than a genuine reflection of the loss to a lender each time a customer breaches its rules.

Consumer body Which? has welcomed the OFT's action. In January, it calculated that consumers spent £427m on these charges.

But there are other fears that, if made to act, lenders would simply try to claw back the lost income from customers in other ways.

The OFT has given the lenders three months to address the problem; if no agreement is reached, it has the power to enforce its ruling.

Bank shares your data

HSBC is to share details of its customers' records with the UK's three credit-rating agencies, to encourage responsible lending.

Every customer with a credit product - from current accounts to unsecured personal loans - bought since 2002 will now have a record of all their behaviour, good and bad, open to scrutiny by Experian, Callcredit and Equifax. As a result, other lenders will now be able to get a fuller picture of a potential customer's credit standing.

However, like its rivals, HSBC still cannot give details of loans and other credit agreements taken out before the 1998 Data Protection Act came into force, ushering in industry consent for data sharing.

Both the Government and the financial services sector are working on how to address this issue.