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Charges for customer telephone lines

Government is continuing to make extensive use of higher rate telephone numbers for customer telephone lines, despite efforts by departments to reduce their use, according to the National Audit Office.

Departments had inconsistent approaches towards the replacement of 0845 numbers with lower cost 03 alternatives. The Department of Health is the only major department to rule out the use of numbers costing more than the geographic rate, although these remain in use for some GPs. In 2012-13 the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and HM Revenue and Customs had the highest proportion of higher rate numbers.

The NAO found callers to higher rate lines paid £56 million in call charges in 2012-13. Callers spent a total of 880 million minutes on calls, of which 402 million minutes were spent waiting to speak to an adviser at a cost of £26 million. The NAO estimates the value of callers’ waiting time to be £100 million.

Departments do not offer improved monitoring of services to callers in return for higher charges, according to the NAO. There are 99 lines for which departments have a target for the proportion of calls answered. Of these 78 did not specify a time by which most calls should be answered.  Long waiting times and dropped calls increase the cost of calls and exacerbate the burdens on vulnerable citizens. Although 86 per cent of higher rate lines serving vulnerable groups offer some form of cost mitigation such as call back, there is limited signposting of alternatives by government.

Some departments, however, have taken substantial steps to reduce the burden on callers. Since April 2013, HM Revenue & Customs has introduced 03 numbers for its busiest higher rate telephone lines and will phase out higher rate numbers over time. DWP has negotiated free calls from mobiles to its benefits claim lines on 0800 numbers, which is a considerable saving to callers. The NAO found, however, that departments lack a clear idea of the value of services received in lieu of foregone revenue from higher rate numbers, and do not monitor the revenues that third party providers receive.

The NAO estimates that changing all of government’s higher rate numbers to 03 numbers would save callers £29 million a year, and cost government £7 million a year including loss of implied revenue share. Changing all numbers to 0800 numbers would currently save callers £46 million a year and cost government £21 million a year.

 

“Callers do not receive a better service from higher rate numbers and many callers are put off calling government phone numbers altogether. The most vulnerable callers, such as low-income households, face some of the highest charges. Each department needs to take a clear approach to using higher rate numbers and protecting vulnerable callers, and improve their understanding of how to get the best value from telephone services for both callers and taxpayers.” 

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office

Notes for Editors

365

Customer telephone lines we identified on central government websites

33%

Share of central government telephone lines using more expensive 084 numbers

£56m

Estimated costs of calling  084 numbers in 2012-13

208 million

Calls to central government customer telephone lines in 2012-13

63 per cent

Of central government calls were 084 numbers in 2012-13

4 per cent

Of local authority lines in our sample use 084 numbers

8 per cent

Of GP surgeries in England use 084 numbers

3

Departments have a clear policy on charging and the use of telephone lines, out of eight departments examined

59

Number of higher rate central government telephone lines serve vulnerable or low income groups (49 per cent of 120 higher rate lines)

 

1. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at www.nao.org.uk. Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.

2. Figure 1 of today’s report gives an overview of telephone number ranges used by government.

3. The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Amyas Morse, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 867 staff. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy. Our studies evaluate the value for money of public spending, nationally and locally. Our recommendations and reports on good practice help government improve public services, and our work led to audited savings of almost £1.2 billion in 2012.

PN: 49/13