Some of the most important matters that MPs discuss in Parliament start with concerns that are raised with us by constituents, as is the case with this debate. People are routinely placed on hold for half an hour when calling the local job centre, or they are charged £40 in a single month for the cost of calls to Departments, when they simply try to report a change in circumstances. Such bills are run up because, as I established through freedom of information requests and parliamentary answers, the Department for Work and Pensions has 148 separate phone lines all using 0845 numbers that can cost up to 10p per minute from a landline and 41p per minute from mobile phones.
People who need to call those numbers are usually on a fixed, low income. They are elderly, vulnerable or unwell, and they are being charged rip-off rates to sort out problems or simply get information about sickness and disability benefits, carers support, jobs, pensions, child support, and even crisis loans.
Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the best way would be not to charge at all for such phone lines, which are used by the elderly, single parents, those on low incomes and those in poverty?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for my argument. He is right that thousands of people in his constituency, in mine and in the Minister’s will be affected by those premium-rate lines and the rip-off call charges that people can suffer. The cost of the call takes a big chunk out of already stretched budgets. That can put people off making calls to get the help they need.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He will know from his time as shadow Health Secretary, which was more than a year ago, that phone lines are a problem not only for the Department for Work and Pensions, but for the health service. Contrary to Department of Health advice, many general practitioner services still have 0845 numbers. Surely the solution is to use geographical or 0300 numbers.
I am glad I gave way and welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He is right, because guidance was issued in 2009—regulations were put in place in 2010, but they have not been enforced.
If it gives the hon. Gentleman any comfort, I ran a campaign in my local area because GP surgeries in Barnsley and Rotherham were using 0845 numbers for people who wanted access to the surgery. I am happy to say that all 16 of those using the numbers in Barnsley have switched to the landlines that the hon. Gentleman advocates, as have 22 out of the 24 GP centres using the numbers in Rotherham. I should tell the Minister, as the hon. Gentleman has, that change is possible and can be done. It requires the will of the Department for Work and Pensions, just as it does the will of the Department of Health and the NHS.
On calls to the Department for Work and Pensions, Mr Roger Clark of Goldthorpe put it to me like this:
“We cannot afford to do this out of our benefits with the cost of gas, electricity, water, food and fuel being so expensive”.
Quite simply, the Department is hitting the people that it is there to help. The situation is getting more serious. Many people now rely on mobiles. One in six people live in homes without landlines. Ninety-two per cent. of adults have a mobile phone, and the number is increasing.
The Secretary of State told me in writing in the summer:
“Jobcentre Plus is subject to the Department’s telephony numbering policy, which is that all calls should be free to our 0800 numbers to claim…State pension…Pension credit…Jobseekers allowance…Employment and support allowance…Emergency payments or crisis loans.”
That is correct, but it is misleading. Those are a small minority of dedicated DWP phone lines. As the Minister confirmed in a parliamentary answer last month, fully 87% of the Department’s phone lines use the 0845 number, including the disability living allowance and attendance allowance helplines; Jobseeker Direct, which helps people to find or make an appointment with Jobcentre Plus; all local jobcentres; Employment Direct, which is used for advertising jobs; the social fund; the winter fuel helpline; and the child maintenance line. The list goes on, and time is limited. In other words, people can pay up to 41p a minute in phone call charges for almost all inquiries to check the progress of applications, to ask for information and advice, to report a mistake or change in circumstances, and to make claims for some benefits and other support payments.
The other day, someone locally who helps others to deal with the problems they face in the benefits and tax credits system said:
“I called the Jobcentre and tax credit office last week for a lady only to find after looking at her itemised” telephone
“bill it had cost her £4.55; and this was only the calls that could be checked as calls under 50p are not itemised.”
“To someone in this lady’s position as a single mum this is the equivalent of her daily food bill.”
This is not just a problem of call rates. We have an excellent welfare rights service, run by Rotherham district council. Staff there told me of a client this week who needed to check on the progress of her employment and support allowance claim. She has debts, as well as mental health difficulties. The advice worker said that
“she needed a great deal of encouragement from the adviser just to use the phone and she simply couldn’t afford to call the DWP. So she used the office landline, and the length of the two calls was over 30 minutes before she was then told she’d have to call back another time, as all the staff were busy.”
There are almost 8,000 people on jobseeker’s allowance in Barnsley, nearly 9,000 in Rotherham, and more than 45,000 across south Yorkshire. A further 38,000 across south Yorkshire receive income support and 37,000 get incapacity benefit. This is a scandal on a massive scale. The Department’s response to my FOI request showed that well over 30 million people call just seven of the DWP’s most commonly used inquiry lines each year—never mind the 141 other lines.
These 0845 numbers are formally called number translation services. The NTS is dialled by a caller and is diverted to its destination. This process can include features such as distributing calls between multiple sites, routeing calls according to the caller’s location and, of course, transmitting recorded announcements. But the key feature of these number translation services is that the call revenue from the customer can be—and normally is—shared between the telecoms company and the organisation receiving the call, the former receiving the access charge component and the latter receiving the service charge or the termination rate as it is known.
“Ofcom continues to recommend that public bodies should not use NTS numbers exclusively…especially when dealing with people on low incomes or other vulnerable groups. The new 03 country-wide numbers, proposed as part of Ofcom’s Numbering Review, would be well suited to the needs of many public bodies currently using chargeable 08 numbers.”
Those 03 numbers were introduced the following year, and Ofcom recommends the use of these numbers, which provide the same additional functionality as 08 numbers but are priced the same as a geographic numbers and—crucially—have no revenue sharing.
The long-standing campaigner and expert David Hickson and the fair telecoms campaign take the same view—that 03 numbers are
“a perfectly acceptable option for normal engagement between citizens and public bodies”.
I go further, and Ministers make three arguments in response to my challenge. First they say that the DWP will ring people back, but too many constituents tell me that this is not offered and does not happen. The FOI figures I have show that hundreds of thousands of callers each week give up on getting through after being kept on hold and charged. More than one in three calls to the employment and support allowance helpline are abandoned before they are answered, but on average more than five minutes after they have been connected. Callers to the incapacity benefit reassessment line wait nearly 13 minutes without being answered before they hang up.
Secondly, Ministers say that there are customer access phones in most—but not all—jobcentres. Let me again quote from a constituent in Goldthorpe in Dearne who says that
“in my case the jobcentre at Goldthorpe the phone is in the corner where everybody who goes in to the office can overhear your conversations not in a sound proof booth so your conversations cannot be overheard.”
Frankly, people are having to give very private, personal and financial information through these phone lines. It is not acceptable to say, “There are these phones in the Jobcentre Plus office in the public space.”
Thirdly, the Department says that it does not benefit from the premium rate charges that people have to pay to ring it, but someone is making money from these calls. If the Government are not sharing the extra revenue and are letting the telecoms companies keep all the extra charges, the 0845 numbers are not just a bad deal for benefits claimants, but for the taxpayer.
Change is possible. I mentioned the changes to GP surgeries and the approach of the Department of Health and the NHS. The Minister might also care to look at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because it ended a consultation on implementing the consumer rights directive, which was agreed by all member states in the EU last year. This will
“prohibit excessive phone charges for consumers contacting traders about existing contracts.”
In other words, all post-contract customer helplines will have to charge the consumer no more than the basic rate for a telephone call. According to the Department, the intention is
“that traders should not use high charges to deter existing customers with legitimate queries, complaints or cancellation requests from contacting them nor derive revenue benefit from such contacts”.
The parallels are clear; the lessons are clear. I hope the Minister and his colleagues in the DWP will learn those lessons. Because things are poised to get much worse now is the time for him to act. I fear that there could be an explosion of inquiries and problems for people because of the current turmoil in the benefit system at the very time the Government are cutting face-to-face service staff and forcing people to use phones instead. The combination of sudden cuts in benefits payments, delays in decisions and the introduction of universal credit next year could lead to chaos and much higher costs for those making calls.
What should the Minister do? Responsibility for running an efficient and equitable system of benefit support lies with the Government. I see contact centres and phone lines for access as part of the running costs of government. Therefore, there is a strong, principled case for making free the phone access that people need if they are to claim and to continue to receive their benefits, tax credits, pensions or child support. I want the Government to make these changes.
After all, the Department makes calls free with the 0800 numbers for new claims for some benefits. With the Ofcom changes to come in shortly, that will apply to all mobile calls, not just landline calls. As a minimum, all lines for all dealings with the DWP should be switched to 03 numbers, so that the cost is never more than calls to a 01 or a 02 number, and they must be part of any inclusive discount schemes in the same way. These numbers were launched five years ago for Government, public bodies, charities and not-for-profit organisations to use. Ofcom has reserved 0345 numbers for each of the equivalent 0845 numbers, so that the switch could be made with minimum cost and minimum confusion.
Finally, I called this debate to expose the extent of the rip-off rates that many of the poorest, most distressed and highly vulnerable are paying to get the welfare support to which they are entitled. I leave the last words to a local man from Barnsley who said:
“You haven’t the money to pay to phone these numbers, and yet you have to phone them. It’s a poor person’s trap.”
It is unfair and unjustifiable, and it must change.
I congratulate John Healey on securing this debate. He focused most of his remarks on 0845 numbers, but they are not the only numbers the Department uses. As I explain, I will give a more balanced picture of the telephone situation than the one he gave in what I thought was a selective presentation of the information.
The Department has set out clear principles for the provision of telephone services. Indeed, they were set out when the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the previous Government in 2008. There are four clear principles. First, calls to claim benefits should be free to the customer. Secondly, there should be a consistent approach across the Department, both for clarity and equity. Thirdly, the approach should make sense from the customer’s point of view, rather than being driven by product lines or organisational structure. Fourthly, it must be sustainable in terms of future business models and changes in the telephony market.
To enact those principles, calls to claim benefit are free and utilise 0800 numbers. The right hon. Gentleman said that crisis loan calls were not free, but they are. Other calls that typically take less time to resolve are made to 0845 numbers. Their use means that the customer is charged the same amount regardless of their geographical location or that of the DWP office they are calling. The exact cost will vary depending on the caller’s phone number and the service provider. I will give more detail on that later.
The Department provides customers with a facility to make a free telephone call to claim the state pension, pension credit, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, crisis loans and other emergency payments. These calls are free of charge from all major landline providers. The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Ofcom changes making it free to call these numbers from a mobile. The Department has already made that change. As a result, eight of the UK’s largest mobile phone operators—O2, Orange, Vodafone, T-Mobile, Hutchison 3G, Tesco Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Cable and Wireless—allow their customers to make those calls for free already.
The Department uses 0800 and 0845 numbers, rather than the geographical 01 and 02 numbers, to enable the operation of a virtual telephony network across the UK. This network has been in place for working-age benefits and crisis loans since 2008, and allows callers to be directed to the next available adviser with the appropriate skills to answer a customer’s inquiry. For example, someone ringing from their home in Rotherham or Barnsley to make a claim for jobseeker’s allowance might be connected to an adviser in Dundee, Derby or Poole. They will be directed to the first adviser available, rather than left hanging on the telephone waiting for the call to be answered in their local benefit or contact centre. Furthermore, should that person wish to make an inquiry about their benefits later on, that call would be answered by the first available adviser in a centre, wherever that centre might be, rather than left waiting for someone in their local centre to answer.
The use of these numbers gives the Department the flexibility to manage the peaks and troughs of the different types of inquiries it receives nationally. Calls can be routed to additional centres, as and when volumes require, and advisers are trained to handle more than one type of inquiry. This method of handling customer calls has proved to be much more efficient than the previous system, under which calls were directed to specific offices without the facility to reroute them to meet customer demands. It is designed to help facilitate and speed up the response to telephone calls. The use of geographic numbers would undermine the ability of the business to manage effectively the significant volume of calls received each year, and would result in a less efficient process.
Let me deal with the issue of costs. Charges for 0845 numbers vary depending on the service provider, personal contract and time of day a call is made. As a result, the costs to consumers are beyond DWP control. About 75% of calls to the DWP originate from landlines. If calls to 0845 numbers fall within the terms of a customer’s call plan, they are free. BT, the largest landline provider, charges 7.95p a minute, plus a 13.1p connection fee, where the call is made outside the inclusive plan. The right hon. Gentleman implied, without really making it explicit, that he thought the Government were benefitting from the cost of 0845 calls. We do not receive the termination payment. Other major landline providers charge between 6.63p and 10.22p a minute—also with connection charges—while the charge varies for calls from mobiles.
The right hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of 03 numbers. Depending on the service provider and the contract or call plan, many customers would currently pay more to contact the DWP if 0845 numbers were simply replaced by 03 numbers, so that would not be an easy solution to the problem. He needs to recognise that the situation is more complex than that.
The caller pays the termination charge, so if the Government do not receive it, and most organisations using the service receive the access charge component, who receives the value of the termination charge?
The people or organisations hosting those 0845 numbers are the ones who earn the components of those calls.
Let me turn to the duration of calls. In line with the departmental principles that I outlined at the outset, calls to claim benefit should be free, because they are longer on average than calls to other numbers. For example, between April and October the average duration of calls by working-age customers to our free 0800 numbers was 25 minutes and 28 seconds, while the average duration of calls to our 0845 numbers was seven minutes and 42 seconds. We have sought to use our resources to ensure that those making the longest calls—mainly to claim benefits—can make them for free. Again, that is an important distinction that we need to recognise. Duration of calls is a factor that we have taken into account for those lines used to make claims, because there can be quite lengthy discussions between DWP claimants and call centre agents.
We have touched on the cost of 0845 calls and what would happen if we replaced them. The estimate is that replacing 0845 numbers with a free service would cost in excess of £12 million, because of changes to contracts and significant migration costs, including changes to branding and marketing. It is unlikely that mobile phone operators would agree to extend the scope of the current agreement for free mobile calls to the DWP’s 0800 numbers to cover such an increase. The right hon.
Gentleman talked about the number of unemployed people in his constituency. Spending £12 million on migrating to 0800 numbers would mean £12 million less to spend on the Department’s other activities. He is a former Treasury Minister and he will know about the priorities and difficult choices that Governments have to make about where money is spent. If we spend more money on free telephone calls, someone else somewhere in the system has to bear that cost. I want to ensure that as much of our taxpayers’ money as possible is spent on getting people into work, rather than looking at further changes to the telephony service, particularly given that the longest calls made by people claiming benefits are to free-phone numbers.
The right hon. Gentleman was slightly dismissive of the mitigation measures we have put in place to help customers. We will offer to terminate a call and ring the customer back if they are concerned about the cost. That service is available, and I think it is well known. I would encourage people who are concerned about the cost to use that service.
We also provide customer access phones in Jobcentre Plus. I suspect that if they were put in a soundproof booth in the corner, the right hon. Gentleman would accuse us of hiding them from claimants. I have known him long enough to suggest that that might be a line of attack that he might take. We ensure that the phones are visible and that they can be used. As part of our strategy, we are also encouraging more people to use online facilities to seek information and guidance. We have launched a new online service for jobseekers this week, which will help to improve the quality of service. We are trying to increase the number of ways in which claimants can contact the DWP without necessarily having to use the telephone service, and as we continue to develop our digital strategy, that will become an important part of how we deliver benefits. It is also a key part of universal credit.
In conclusion, we recognise that the issue about customer waiting times is an important one. That is why we have recruited more staff and trained them on 0845 benefit inquiry lines. The working age and pensions service lines have a central network management team that can move work around the network in real time to bring a balance of service delivery on all service lines. We are also trying to improve our call answering metrics. In line with the principles set out by the previous Government, which we have followed, we have ensured that calls in which people are making claims are free, to 0800 numbers, and that customers know that there are alternatives out there if they feel that the cost of calling an 0845 number is prohibitively expensive. We are taking the right action, and we want to continue to promote such alternatives to our claimants.
Question put and agreed to.