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Monday, 13 September 2010

0845 telephone numbers - the truth; the way forward is revealed

I am delighted to have appeared on BBC "5Live investigates" on Sunday evening to reveal some facts about the use of 0845 numbers by HMRC and other public bodies (notably DWP and the NHS). I have also proposed a way forward to save money for both callers and all those who use these numbers.

The broadcast item can be heard at this link. My points are summarised below.

The facts

1.0845 numbers provide subsidy towards the costs of the advanced telephony features deployed by those who use them, but cause most callers to incur much greater surcharges.
2.The 31.4% of callers who call from BT landlines are protected from these surcharges by legacy regulations, which apply to BT alone.
3.Public bodies should now be using 03xx numbers, which neither provide a subsidy nor cause a surcharge, whilst enabling use of the same advanced telephony features.
4.Examples of the cost of calling a 0845, rather than a 03xx, number for a 10-minute call are as follows:
From a public payphone: £2.40 vs. £0.60
From a PAYG mobile - £4.15 vs. £1.65
5.HMRC is ready to call back to anyone who cannot afford (or is unwilling) to pay a premium charge. All DWP agencies and some other public bodies follow a similar policy.

The way forward

5.HMRC is ready to call back to anyone who cannot afford (or is unwilling) to pay a premium charge. All DWP agencies and some other public bodies follow a similar policy.
6.03xx numbers can readily be made available by simply switching on the corresponding 0345 alternative that is reserved for every 0845 number.
Advising callers that they can simply swap 0345 for 0845 when dialling would avoid the cost and inconvenience of lots of individual number changes.
7.Although the (improper) subsidy would be lost when 0345 numbers were used, far more would be saved by avoiding the unproductive agent time and direct cost of call-backs.
It would be interesting to hear from HMRC, DWP and others about whether the 70% of callers who are entitled to call-backs receive them, and how many refuse the offer. This is an unsatisfactory solution anyway, because the call-back is not offered until after callers have waited in a queue paying the premium.
It would be far better and cheaper all round to drop the automatic call-back idea and simply enable the 0345 numbers. Until this has been done however, it is vital that all callers are made aware that the call-back option is available.
8.If it is thought proper to levy a charge for access to public services by telephone, as suggested by HMRC, then this must be done in an equitable manner. It cannot be described as equitable to cause some to incur a surcharge (£1.80 for a public payphone user, £3.50 for a PAYG mobile user, on a 10-minute call), whilst a BT landline user pays nothing or benefits from a discount of £0.45. If a service fee is to be charged, then it must be properly notified, and the scale of charges published.
Is HMRC seriously suggesting that those who have suffered under or over payments as a result of coding errors should have to carry a disproportionate share of the burden of its costs in running a telephone system, because they have to call to enquire about the error? This seems to be the essence of the point being made in response to my argument. Maybe somebody would like to listen closely to what was said and confirm that this is indeed the HMRC position – we may be able to get another apology!
Perhaps HMRC would also like to suggest that every overpayment should have the administrative cost of identifying the error and processing the refund deducted! For me, that would be taking the popular idea of “personalising” public services too far.

Please contact me for more information and comment on this matter.

I highlight points which I believe demand follow-up by the media.


  1. As far as I know, customers pay the same as calling a local telephone number when calling 03XX number.While customers pay a local rate to contact 0845 number

  2. To be precise Hailey, we should refer to "geographic rate" as local and national rate are the same in all but very few odd cases.

    The rate for 03xx calls is same as that for geographic, by regulation it can be no greater. This includes the terms of inclusive packages and applies to all landlines, mobiles and payphones.

    0845 used to be tied to local rate for BT; that is now a very long time ago. With BT, 0845 is now generally inclusive, otherwise cheaper than geographic rates. With everyone else the rate is unregulated; because there is a revenue share to pay it is generally much more expensive than geographic rate and not included in packages. There are some who discount 0845 calls so as to compete with BT, but most could not afford to do it.

    I hope this helps. Do check out some tariffs and please let me know if you find anything different.


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