Monday, 30 November 2009
Relevant portions are in the clip shown below:
The campaign led by Guy Mayhew is worthy of greater support and coverage now that his e-petition has concluded.
I offer the following points of clarification and update on the matters covered.
The public has recognised that the Department of Health announcement of 14 September was NOT a ban on the rip off, and breach of the fundamental principles of the NHS, caused by use of 084 numbers. The figure of 37,000 signatures on Guy Mayhew’s e-petition to the Prime Minister grew to over 51,000 in the few weeks since that announcement, and the making of this programme.
Gareth Davies of Ofcom was correct in saying that Ofcom cannot demand use of 03 numbers by public bodies. The appalling lack of public recognition of 03 confirms Ofcom’s failure to effectively promote their use, which it has both the powers and the duty to do. This is seen particularly in the case of the NHS where every present user of a 084 number could readily transfer to the equivalent 034 number so as to continue to provide the same service, but funded properly. This point has not been recognised by the Department of Health, which has allowed use of 084 numbers to continue. It has even failed to permit use of 0345 4647 as an alternative number for NHS Direct during the remaining months of its life, despite the fact that this number has been set up ready for use for over 12 months.
Unless BT and 3 are simply trying to retain a bigger share of the pot of money spent on calls to mobiles, or to put their competitors out of business, their one-way “Terminate the Rate” campaign will simply put more upward pressure on the costs of calls from mobile networks to landlines. This is a commercial dispute which has cleverly engaged the support of some who have been persuaded that it is in the consumer interest. What business would not allege that its competitors are engaged in a rip off to some degree?
It is the same concept of a “termination rate” which is the basis of the revenue sharing on 084 and Premium Rate Service numbers, as used by many FSB members (and also Citizens Advice Bureaux). That is what is causing the particular rip off being suffered by Louise and David Mason. All telephone calls, like other utilities, have to be paid for somehow; it is not always the utility provider that is to blame if the cost burden is unfairly distributed.
Sunday, 29 November 2009
From: David Hickson - public services campaigner
In the first of a series of programmes on “Rip Off Britain”, to be broadcast on BBC 1 tomorrow (Monday 30 November) at 9:15 am, three “Rottweilers” get their teeth into the rip off behind 084 telephone numbers.
Veteran reporters Angela Rippon, Gloria Hunniford and Jennie Bond present the series. This episode will expose the subsidy obtained by both commercial and public service providers at the expense of their users who pay premium rates to call 084 telephone numbers, although they are not honoured with the classification of being a “Premium Rate Service”. Where no fee is advised as being levied for the service, callers are being ripped off by the provider, the organisation they are calling, not by their telephone company.
Contributors, including myself, highlight the impropriety of this means of funding public services. Most notable is “our NHS”, which we proudly proclaim to be “free at the point of need”, funded exclusively through progressive taxation. This rip off will continue, despite a recent government announcement. This declared a ban on use of “expensive” telephone numbers to contact the NHS, but inexplicably excludes 084 numbers from its provisions. This is despite a total of 51,367 signature on a e-petition to the Prime Minister demanding a ban.
The fact that some (generally more wealthy) users benefit from perversely reduced rates for calling these numbers (because the non-premium element is made minimal by regulation) is not only a red herring, it actually highlights the unfairness, because the cost burden falls heavily on the less wealthy. Unlike other more contentious cases that are raised in the series, this is one rip off that it clearly wrong, affects almost all of us (not least because we “own” the NHS) and could be ended swiftly and effectively.
Please contact me for further comment and information.
Thursday, 26 November 2009
Transport for London ready to launch new premium rate telephone service for London Travel Information
Transport for London requires a “non-geographic” telephone number for a new Travel Information service which will ultimately replace that offered on 020 7222 1234. Ignoring Ofcom advice and the practice now being followed by many public bodies it has not selected a 03xx number, which would be charged to all callers on exactly the same basis, but has gone for a number that provides it with a subsidy, at the expense of callers.
All 084x numbers are “revenue sharing”, which means that the recipient of the call benefits (through their telephone service provider) from the premium rates charged to callers.
The number selected by TfL , 0843 222 1234, is from the group (call type “g6”) that is the most expensive to call, and thereby most generous in revenue share income to the user, short of those which are formally classified as being used for Premium Rate Services. The premium rate that is charged for calls to this number is not quite sufficient to warrant the acknowledgement that a genuine “Premium Rate Service” is provided.
Over two years ago, Ofcom introduced the 03 range for those, especially public service providers, who need the benefits of non-geographic numbers but find it inappropriate or undesirable for callers to incur more than the cost of an “ordinary” call to a 01/02 number, which may be included in a package. By regulation, calls to 03 numbers must be charged on the same, or better, terms. For this reason the Metropolitan Police chose a 03 number for its new London-wide non-emergency contact service around a year ago. I was pleased to welcome this, and the example it set for others, on BBC TV
– see this clip.
BBC Breakfast 17 October 2008
The effect of partial regulation on BT’s charges causes perverse effects for some of its customers during the working day, however it is generally true to say that all callers will pay a premium over what they pay for an “ordinary” call to call this 0843 number.
The higher cost of calling is due to the fact that a revenue share of around 4p per minute is paid over from the originating to the terminating telephone company on calls to numbers of this type. This means that callers incur a premium rate as well as a connection fee in some cases and are denied the benefits of competitive prices for ordinary calls. This loss of benefit is seen in exclusion from packages and in some mobile callers paying a premium of 100%, e.g. 40p per minute, rather than 20p, for Orange PAYG. The benefit gained by TfL may not be seen in a fat monthly cheque, but one hopes that it is reflected in the price it will pay for its telephone service. If not, then TfL is allowing its telephone service provider to simply profiteer. One may dress this up in various ways and refer to peripheral issues, however choice of a 084 number means that TfL is charging its users for its service.
I would never suggest that TfL should meet the costs of callers by offering a “freephone” service, however if it is to impose an indirect charge on callers then it is right that this be acknowledged, declared and justified. If TFL is ready to provide a proper acknowledgement of the situation, a proper declaration of the costs to callers (other than quoting the exceptionally regulated prices perversely available to some BT customers) and its justification for the introduction of a charge for a previously free service (so far as TfL is concerned) then I would be ready to join in proper debate of the issue. The argument that a non-geographic number is needed fails to address the relevant issues, given that 03 is available.
I hope that it is not too late for the option of using a 03 number to be reconsidered. Whilst some undoubtedly call TfL from BT lines, it is important to understand that it is BT’s charging structure that is unusual, because it alone is regulated in its charges for calls to 084 numbers. It is BT that varies from the general pattern, not the other way around.
As a renowned campaigner on these issues, I will be delighted to assist TfL and anyone else in gaining a proper and complete understanding of the issues and in ensuring that the right decision is taken.
Friday, 13 November 2009
From: David Hickson – campaigner for the NHS
Quoted below is a most helpful reply I have received from the Department of Health. The relevant section is highlighted. I quote it here:
The restriction on charging applies only to the provision of services
and does not extend to ways in which services are accessed,
including for example charges relating to telephone calls to access services.
This confirms that NHS providers are free to levy “access charges” in connection with NHS services, although not for the services themselves.
As “access” is what happens “at the point of need”, then the statement “free at the point of need” has no meaning.
This finally confirms why the Department decided not to ban use of 084 telephone numbers in the NHS, although seeking to pretend that it had.
All calls to 084 numbers earn money for the person called, through their telephone service provider. This cost is normally passed on in a premium charge to the caller.
The Health Act 2009 has now been granted Royal Assent. The status of the NHS Constitution and this interpretation of the first of the rights that it declares will have to be tested in court.
This statement declares the following. All NHS services accessed by telephone, e.g. the NHS Direct advice and information service, the Choose and Book appointments line and any other service with an appointment making service operated by telephone may be subject to a charge at the discretion of, and to the financial benefit of, the provider. We are not talking about the charge imposed by a telephone company for a normal telephone call, but the surcharge applied to fund a share to the recipient.
It implies that other “access charges” are acceptable also. This could include an appointment booking fee applied to all patients and charges for the services of hospital porters and ambulance drivers who only provide access to services. There could also be a vehicle access charge for those who use ambulances or taxis or get lifts to hospitals in order to avoid car park charges (which are themselves fully cleared by this statement).
“Our beloved NHS” has been stolen by the government currently in power – see Theft of the NHS. We will have to go to court to see if parliament has truly sanctioned this in legislation.
Thursday, 12 November 2009
From: David Hickson – campaigner for the NHS, and on public service issues
Calls to 0800 numbers from mobile phones are NOT FREE. Whilst some mobile companies waive their charges on calls to registered “helplines” on 080 numbers, under a scheme arranged by the Telephone Helplines Association, this does not cover the 0800 benefit claims lines used by DWP agencies.
Although BT is required by regulation to offer cheap rates for calls to 0845 numbers, this does not apply to other providers who charge a premium. DWP agencies make extensive use of 0845 numbers, allowing the interests of those who have service from BT to override those of callers who do not.
At last, this problem is recognised, and starts to be addressed
In giving evidence before the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee on Monday 9 November, Jeremy Groombridge CB of the DWP, was invited by the Minister, Jonathan Shaw MP, to explain what DWP agencies are doing to start to address this problem.
See this extracted recording of the relevant comments.
It has been taken from this item on Parliament Live TV (around 01:27:000), as the written transcript of the evidence is not yet published.
I can be quoted as commenting: “The worthwhile measure of proactively offering to call back all mobile callers to 0800 and 0845 numbers represents a necessary acknowledgement of the issue and a significant first step on the road to properly addressing it.”
This also shows that at least one major government department understands the problem, whilst others (notably the Department of Health) appear to totally misunderstand it.
Further action is needed
The following further steps, as alluded to in the comments, that are required to follow are:
· Arranging for calls to 0800 numbers used by the DWP to be free to all callers, including those from mobiles - the necessary special arrangement with the mobile providers would probably end up being cheaper for the Department, as well as being more effective, than the present interim measure.
· Replacing all 0845 numbers with numbers from the 03xx range - this would ensure that callers from all networks paid no more than the cost of a call to an ordinary (01 /02) number and benefitted from inclusion in call packages where these apply.
1. The Department for Work and Pensions has now overtaken the Department of Health in understanding this issue. The Department of Health is still content for NHS providers to use 0845 and the more expensive 0844 numbers, even though some patients will undoubtedly be calling from mobiles. The DH should note what the DWP has learned and adjust its present misconceived proposals accordingly – would NHS Direct or GP surgeries consider calling back to callers from mobiles? – there is no need; NHS Direct has a 03 number sitting waiting to be offered as an alternative, GPs on 0844 could readily switch to 0344 numbers!
2. We look forward to hearing of the next steps in this process by the DWP. We also await similar steps by all other public bodies, notably HMRC.
3. This welcome step only represents an interim measure. It is important to note that those who withhold their number cannot recognised as mobile callers and those unwilling to provide it cannot be called back. It does not address the problem of paying a premium rate whilst waiting in a queue before speaking with an agent.
The problem of those paying a premium to call 0845 numbers from Virgin Media and other landline providers is not addressed.
The process is also costly in time to both the agency and the caller as it requires a, hopefully brief, conversation about the telephone call itself as well as that taking up in dialling and receiving the return call.
It is possible that it would cost the department considerably less to pay the full cost of receiving calls on 0800 numbers from mobiles and in using 03xx numbers, rather than 0845, than it does to return calls.
4. All calls to 084 numbers cause the revenue paid to the originating telephone company to be shared with that terminating the call. The recipient of the call should therefore benefit in some way (unless it is happy for its telephone company to profit at the expense of its callers).
This cost is reflected in the charge to the caller. This may be disguised within a package fee. In the case of BT, the amount that it can retain is regulated to be well below the amount that it normally retains on non-revenue sharing calls. We now have the bizarre situation where BT’s wholly retained charge for ordinary calls, when outside the terms of a package, at 5.25p per minute is greater than the highest charge for calls to a revenue sharing 084 number at 4.89p per minute.
5. Ofcom clearly intends for all public bodies to move from the 084 to the 03 range, on which revenue sharing is prohibited. Revenue sharing is obviously improper for public services, except where a service charge is proper and declared. BT customers outside the terms of their package could however benefit from the 0845 rates imposed by regulation, because BT’s unregulated normal rates are higher. This poses a problem to which there is a simple answer.
Use of the neutral 03xx numbers should now be the norm. There is no reason why any service provider that wishes to do so could not offer a series of special alternative numbers to enable users of particular telephone services to benefit from special discounts: 0845 for BT, “own network” numbers for each of the mobile providers etc.
6. All BT customers pay the premium to cover the revenue share on 0845 numbers, because these are now included in packages. This cost appears modest because the amount that BT is allowed to retain on these calls is kept artificially low by regulation.
Whilst it would suit the beneficiaries of revenue sharing to have their costs subsidised by all telephone users, rather than just their callers, getting 084 calls included in packages is in no sense a proper way for this situation to be resolved.
Monday, 9 November 2009
This clip is to accompany my release - Rip-off Telephone Numbers - The Department of Work and Pensions starts to get a grip
Thursday, 5 November 2009
Under the terms of the "ban", use of 0844 and 0845 numbers is tolerated on the basis that all telephone companies will remove their premium charges from calling these numbers and will add them into the call-inclusive package used by any NHS patient.
I have now confirmed that the major landline providers, e.g. BT, Virgin Media and Talk Talk, have no such plans; the same applies to all of the mobile and payphone providers. Whilst they continue to have to pay over a share of their revenue to the "terminating" provider it is reasonable that they continue to pass this cost on to the caller.
This year? / Next year? / Sometime? / NEVER
The Department of Health has said that the "ban" will come into effect "early in the new year". It has not however yet issued the directions to NHS bodies referred to in the 14 September announcement. Formal negotiations on the revisions to the NHS/GP contract, which include a three month consultation period, have not yet begun.
It is therefore not too late to get the Department of Health to correct the appalling error it has made in allowing wholly unreasonable assumptions about forthcoming changes to telephone tariffs to be an essential feature of what it proposes. On recognition of the truth of the situation, its plans must be changed to effect a ban on use of all 084 numbers until such time as they cease to yield revenue share and consequently cause the imposition of premium rates. (Ofcom may be considering such a change to perhaps start for some 084 numbers in around 2-3 years time.)
The Prime Minister will have to comment shortly
The e-petition to the Prime Minister, calling for an effective ban, has just three more weeks to run. The many signatures added since 14 September demonstrate that there is no confidence in the announcement made that day. We await the response from the Prime Minister, over 47,000 emails, which are due to be sent out shortly after 28 November.
- I have been in private conversation with a number of telephone companies and am confident of the comments I make. As a private citizen, I have not been able to secure the issuing of a public statement.
- I would urge formal enquiries about the timing of the "ban" to be made of the Department of Health, to confirm suggestions in a letter to me and to a number of MPs. The telephone companies will then be ready to confirm what changes they will guarantee to have in place by that time.
- As explained previously, BT is in an odd position because some of its rates are regulated, whereas others are not. This confuses the situation and also leads to some perverse effects. I can explain this in detail if necessary. It is sufficient to say that the BT rates for those who do not benefit from the terms of an inclusive package are atypical of the general position and therefore misleading, even though they are commonly used as examples.
- I am totally confident that we will find the present proposals never to deliver the ban that many were quick to announce.
Wednesday, 4 November 2009
Following media coverage of the trick referred to in my release "Ofcom's Halloween trick, a treat for Silent Callers", Ofcom denies the suggestion that its new rules will mean more Silent Calls.
See these contradictory items –
'Silent calls' to increase after Ofcom changes rules - Telegraph
A change to Ofcom rules should further reduce the amount of silent calls suffered by consumers - Ofcom
Arguments about whether Silent Callers will make "more" or "less" Silent Calls are not really the key issue. Ofcom should be focussed exclusively on stopping the practice altogether. As it has chosen to try to tweak around with the rules that allow up to 3% of the total number made being Silent Calls, I am however prepared to engage on this point.
I maintain that the rule change will lead to an increase in the number of unnecessary Silent Calls for the following reasons:
- Answering Machine Detection technology (AMD) is an inevitable cause of Silent Calls.
Many in the contact centre industry refuse to use it, and join me in campaigning for its use to be banned, for this reason. (I can provide contacts and references.) Whatever its merits, any tolerance of AMD is a tolerance of Silent Calls.
- Increasing the time before an agent is connected means more Silent Calls.
The delay before a message has to be played when no agent is available obviously applies to every call, including those where an agent is available to speak to a live person.
This makes every call potentially sound like a Silent Call. The longer the delay, the more likely this is.
- When AMD is used the first two seconds of the recipient's greeting are now guaranteed not to be heard by the calling agent.
Failure to respond promptly to the greeting not only damages the quality of the conversation that may follow.
It is likely to lead to the (correct) assumption that there is nobody listening at the other end – a Silent Call.
- When AMD is not used callers still have two seconds in which to connect an agent (or message).
That time is considered sufficient for 1) obtaining an adequate sound sample, 2) processing it and 3) completing the appropriate connection.
It must be far more than is necessary for those not using AMD, who only have to perform the third of these steps.
Ofcom's statutory duty is to prevent and penalise "persistent misuse of the telephone network" (habitually making Silent Calls), whenever it is made aware of it.
It is not only wrong for Ofcom to seek to get Silent Calls to reduce the number of Silent Calls that they make by regulation, it has no authority to impose and enforce general regulations on users of the telephone anyway. The powers can only be applied in particular cases.
It is now more than 12 months since anyone was made subject to use of the powers.
Ofcom shows no sign of being ready to fulfil its duty to parliament – expressed when the previous increase to the maximum penalty was granted (on 28 March 2006) as follows -
Until Ofcom is ready to obey "rules" made by parliament, parliament must not grant it another increase to the penalty used against those who fail to follow its "rules".
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