David Hickson's Media Releases

My recent bloggings

Friday, 24 September 2010

Most Silent Callers will NOT be fined £2M from tomorrow

I refer to a BIS Department news release stating – “Firms which pester consumers with silent and abandoned calls will be fined up to £2million from tomorrow under new Government legislation".

This is untrue. Ofcom only takes action against those who breach its "rules". These rules allow up to 3% of all calls made to be Silent. Anyone making enough calls in total can cause as much of this type of nuisance as they wish.

For example, the Conservative Party made "over a million" calls in the run up to the General Election. Over 30,000 of these could have been abandoned in silence with no fear of action from Ofcom. Ed Vaizey has told parliament that he is "happy to accept" this.

Despite receiving many thousands of complaints since 2007, Ofcom has not found one company to have broken its rules since then. All of this nuisance must therefore have Ofcom's approval. 22 unnamed companies have been secretly investigated, but not one has even received a Notification of Persistent Misuse - the first stage of Ofcom's powers, which must precede imposition of a financial penalty.

I ask: "What difference will a greater penalty make, when the power to "name and shame" has always existed, but not been used in respect of any Silent Call made since 2007?"

Most, if not all, of those who make Silent Calls will continue to enjoy Ofcom's approval. They will not even be named and shamed, let alone subjected to any penalty."

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

At last, the call centre industry wants to stop making Silent Calls - but a government minister says they are OK

Stop Silent Calls campaigner David Hickson has offered his strong support for the "Love the Beep" campaign launched by Richard Woollaston of Altitude Software, call centre technology provider, at www.lovethebeep.org.uk.

This campaign aims to replace the obsolete and ineffective Answering Machine Detection technology (AMD), which is probably the major cause of Silent Calls, with Answering Service Detection (ASD) technology. The campaign proposes that callers who only wish to speak to a person should use a detectable beep provided by answering services as the basis for deciding whether or not to hang up. This is so much better than the present method used by many call centres, which involves inviting the recipient to provide a brief sample of their voice to a piece of technology, which will guess as to whether it is live or recorded before decided whether to connect an agent or hang up in silence. (The invitation is not generally announced and consent is assumed.)

Ofcom continues to approve and support the use of this old technology which was designed to detect the clicks and whirrs of mechanical answering machines. This inevitably mistakes real people for answering services and subjects them to Silent Calls. Ofcom describes this as being innovative, and in the public interest, and will therefore be shortly changing its "rules" on Silent Calls to explicitly permit one a day from each caller to each victim.

David Hickson comments: "I have always wondered why the call centre industry has not been looking for an effective way of detecting Answering Services. I cannot understand why it persists in focussing on Answering Machines, which are never used on mobiles and rarely now on landlines. I am delighted that it has at last made progress and look forward to hearing which companies will now stop making Silent Calls using the old technology, despite having acquired Ofcom's approval.

"I fully support this campaign and want to identify which answering service providers, call centres and users of 'outbound' services do not. Perhaps Ofcom will eventually change its mind and stop approving of Silent Calls, and started treating them as the ‘persistent misuse of a telecommunications network or service’ which most of us think them to be. ...

Government minister says 30,000 Silent Calls from a political party is OK

"I wonder if making 'a million calls in the run up' to the General Election using Altitude systems (as reported at this link) resulted in many Silent Calls. Compliance with the Ofcom policy would have allowed up to 30,000."

It may be of significance that during a recent debate in parliament, a government minister confirmed that he agreed with the Ofcom tolerance of 3% of calls resulting in silence. (Refer to Clip2 at this link.) Apparently he would have been happy for a political party to have recently made 30,000 Silent Calls, with no fear of action by Ofcom.

Monday, 20 September 2010

BBC and NHS Direct - Victories for the campaign against rip-off telephone numbers - an example to follow

Longstanding defenders of expensive telephone numbers are now relenting
Two major examples have been moved to "03" numbers, but there is more to do.

Unlike revenue sharing and premium rate 08 numbers, all 03xx calls are charged as for an ordinary "geographic" (01/02) number, and included in packages on the same basis. (This applies to landlines, mobiles and payphones from every provider.)

·       BBC "Question Time" announced its new audience application number 0330 123 99 88, on Thursday. This replaced 0871 626 99 88.

·       The NHS Direct NHS Trust now uses 0345 60 88888 for The (Choose and Book) Appointments Line, in place of 0845 60 88888.

·       The direct equivalent 0345 number is available for every 0845 number. It may be adopted as an alternative or replacement at any time, with minimal cost and confusion.

David Hickson, campaigner for equity in access to public services, commented:

"Both the BBC and the NHS Direct NHS Trust are to be congratulated, as campaigners who have fought them for years over these numbers now celebrate. They and other public service providers do however have much more work to do in moving 0845 numbers onto 0345. This saves money for them and their callers.

Callers pay up to 25p per minute extra to call 0845, rather than 0345, numbers. NHS Direct must know this, because of the change it has made.

The cost of a complete number change for the core NHS Direct service on 0845 4647 is inappropriate. It has been announced that this service will be withdrawn altogether if and when 111 is implemented fully. 0345 4647 should be simply switched on now to work in parallel for the 3 or more years that the core NHS Direct service will continue to operate.

Other 0845 users, notably HRMC (using 0845 3000 627 for enquiries about tax code errors) and the DWP (using 0845 604 3719 for jobseekers and 0845 606 0265 for pensioners) should follow this example.

The BBC must address the 0845 numbers used by many local BBC services.”


1.            There is lots more information in my blogs. Specific comment on the items mentioned above are available at these links:
          BBC Question Time          The Appointments Line          NHS Direct         HMRC          DWP

2.            The modest benefit acquired from revenue sharing on 0845 numbers is more than offset by the additional cost to callers. The DWP and other 0845 users always offer to call back, because these numbers are expensive for most callers. The cost of callbacks to every caller who suffers a surcharge far exceeds any possible loss of revenue sharing benefit. Both public service users and the exchequer benefit from a switch from 0845 to 0345.

3.            The BBC stations listed below all use 0845 numbers for phone-ins and enquiries. I have a list of 19 others which do not.

  • BBC Radio Bristol
  • BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
  • BBC Coventry & Warwickshire
  • BBC Radio Cumbria
  • BBC Radio Derby
  • BBC Devon
  • BBC Radio Essex
  • BBC Hereford & Worcester
  • BBC Radio Kent News
  • BBC Radio Lancashire
  • BBC Radio Leeds
  • BBC Radio Oxford
  • BBC Radio Solent
  • BBC Radio Somerset
  • BBC Radio Suffolk
  • BBC Radio Sussex
  • BBC Radio Three Counties
  • BBC Radio Wiltshire
  • BBC Radio WM

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Parliament approves £2M fine for Silent Calls

After attending, and then reviewing, the ‘Silent Calls‘ debate in parliament on Monday 13 September, veteran Stop Silent Calls Campaigner David Hickson commented,

"This is a complete disgrace. All of the Silent Calls we are suffering at present are approved by Ofcom. Since 2007, nobody has been found to have exceeded the allowance which Ofcom grants. Ofcom is currently proposing to further loosen its rules to formally allow one Silent Call per caller per victim per day.

"An increase to the maximum possible penalty is the most transparent of empty gestures. I am most disappointed that parliament has granted Ofcom's request and failed to take this opportunity to expose its failure. Ofcom has a duty to use its statutory powers to act against the 'persistent misuse' of the telephone system which is represented by anyone engaging in the habitual practice of hanging up in Silence when calls are answered.

"The first stage of Ofcom's powers is to issue a public Notification that an activity represents 'persistent misuse'; an enforceable requirement to cease and a penalty may follow. Ofcom has apparently recently identified 22 companies making Silent Calls, some of whom were exceeding Ofcom's absurd and improper allowance of 'acceptable Silent Calls'. Not one of these companies was even subjected to a Notification. I believe that Ofcom should tell us who they are, so that we can at least know not to waste time complaining about them!

"In the spirit of the 'Big Society', I have offered to help set up a 'Citizens body' to take over administration of the persistent misuse powers, which Ofcom seems to be unwilling to use properly. My offer has been formally rejected."


1. The Hansard record of the debate is published here - http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmgeneral/deleg2/100913/100913s01.htm.

2. The official video recording of the debate is published here - http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=6600.

3. My commentary on the debate (with sound clips) is published here - http://scvictim.blogspot.com/2010/09/parliament-debates-silent-calls-13.html.

4. My feed of information covering this topic is available for view and subscription here - http://homepage.ntlworld.com/davidhickson/DHMG/index_files/Feeds.htm?DH_Camp_SC.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Parliament demands better consumer information about "acceptable" Silent Calls

I have recently returned from the meeting of the parliamentary committee that has granted Ofcom's request for an increase to the maximum penalty it can impose on those who break its rules covering Silent Calls. (The official record of proceedings is published herewill be published tomorrow.)

The minister, Ed Vaizey, will be meeting with Ed Richards, Chief Executive of Ofcom, tomorrow to discuss the points raised. Mr Vaizey has promised to report back on the outcome of this meeting.

Two major points emerged from the debate:

·       The Committee agreed that Ofcom should continue to tolerate Silent Calls being made. The Minister is happy with the currently tolerated levels, although some members urged him to discuss the possibility of lowering them a little.

·       Many members agreed that victims of Silent Calls should be given more information about what is allowed, and what is being done.

There are very many complaints made about Silent Calls, however they are generally invalid because Ofcom allows callers to hang up in Silence. They only have to a) make lots of calls to other people when they speak, and b) wait a day or more before repeating the nuisance. If they comply with these rules, then Ofcom will not take action against them.

The committee was told that since it last used its powers, Ofcom has secretly investigated 22 companies making Silent Calls. Not one of these was found to be practising "persistent misuse", so as to require use of the powers. The powers begin with a simple Notification of misuse, which can be followed by an enforceable requirement to cease the practice and the possibility of a financial penalty. Every complaint about Silent Calls made to Ofcom since 2007 has been effectively invalid, because it has not led to a determination of “persistent misuse”.

One member of the committee suggested that Ofcom should have a consumer website showing the names of companies. These would need to be the companies who are allowed to make Silent Calls, because they comply with Ofcom's rules. This would be of great assistance to their victims who would know not to waste time complaining about them.

Because all Silent Calls sound the same, it is not easy for victims to know whether or not the rules are being breached. Ofcom could certainly help citizens by advising how they can tell whether the inconvenience, annoyance or anxiety that they experience is "necessary" and when it is "unnecessary". As Ofcom wishes for the number of complaints about Silent Calls to diminish, it needs to take up this idea so as to prevent the many complaints it receives about necessary “acceptable Silent Calls”.

I have always argued that it is neither acceptable nor necessary to hang up in silence as a matter of habit. I am disappointed that Ofcom and all of the main parties represented on this committee do not share my view and create a distinction between unacceptable and acceptable Silent Calls. I reject this distinction totally – no Silent Call is necessary. There are perfectly good ways of avoiding making them whilst still running an effective and efficient call centre operation. Issues with telemarketing in general are quite separate.

In due course we may be able to turn our attention back to having the persistent misuse powers used to stop the nuisance of Silent Calls. My proposal to set up a citizen's agency to use the powers which Ofcom prefers not to use has, for now, been rejected by BIS.

Silent Calls - Ofcom awaits parliamentary endorsement this afternoon

At 4:30 this afternoon a committee of MPs will decide whether Ofcom is to be given a much wanted gift. Ofcom is seeking approval of its current failed policy to use its statutory powers against the nuisance of Silent Telephone Calls. This gift will be delivered by granting its request for an increase to its power to impose penalties on those making Silent Calls.

The present maximum penalty is £50,000. The MPs will be considering a proposal from Dr Vince Cable to increase this to £2 Million.

Some would question why this increase is necessary. Ofcom has not used its powers since completing a handful of investigations begun in April 2007. It would appear that nobody has breached Ofcom's rules since then. As a penalty of £30,000 was considered sufficient for Santander, one wonders who it is who could warrant a penalty of £2 Million.

It took Ofcom 2 years to get round to penalising Silent Calls made by Barclaycard. That is perhaps why it became the first, and only, company to incur the current maximum penalty of £50,000. Perhaps Ofcom intends to wait even longer in future, so that it can impose even bigger penalties.

After having delivered extensive briefings to the members of the committee, I will be attending the sitting. It will be interesting to see if the inevitable approval of the proposed increase is accompanied by any critical comment.

Tomorrow's news will doubtless be of Ofcom's tougher action against Silent Callers with a bigger penalty. This is however all a bluff because the rules that Ofcom will enforce using the penalty allow unlimited numbers of Silent Calls to be made, so long as enough (possibly annoying) calls where someone speaks are made by the same caller on the same day.

Ofcom currently proposes a formal tolerance of one Silent Call per person per caller per day, under the guise of a new ban on "repeat Silent Calls" that will perhaps be introduced next year. Many would have thought that all Silent Calls were already banned - it must come as a shock to some that "repeat Silent Calls" have not yet been banned.

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.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

0845 telephone numbers and public bodies (DWP, HMRC, NHS)

I have just published an updated briefing on this issue. Please refer there for detail and links.

This includes a pre-announcement of the launch of a specific timely campaign aimed at all public bodies (especially DWP, HRMC and the NHS) using 0845 telephone numbers.

The cost of calling 0845

0845 numbers are expensive to call because they are subject to revenue sharing. Part of the call charge (all of it in the special case of BT) is passed on to subsidise use of special telephony facilities by the user of the number.

Public bodies should not be using these numbers. The same special facilities are available with 03xx numbers, on which revenue sharing is prohibited. Calls to 03xx numbers must be charged on exactly the same basis as calls to ordinary "geographic" numbers. Very few public bodies have carried out the plan for them all to switch from 0845 to 03xx.

I have provided a briefing in response to an unanswered ministerial question from Caroline Lucas MP- "what does it cost claimants to call 0845 numbers used by the DWP?"

·       On average - £1.24 per 10-minute daytime call vs. £0.51 for the same call to a 03xx or geographic number.

·       From a public payphone - £2.40 vs. £0.60

·       From a PAYG mobile - £4.15 vs. £1.65

·       From a contract mobile - £2.00 vs. 0

·       From a Virgin Media landline - £1.12 vs. 0

My proposal

With the CSR in prospect, the expense involved in carefully planned renumbering exercises is out of the question, so I propose a simple solution.

The 0345 equivalent for every 0845 number is available for use as an alternative. Public bodies which use 0845 numbers should therefore simply bring the 0345 equivalents into use as "alternatives", announcing -

"All telephone services can be accessed by replacing the 0845 code with 0345 and dialling the remaining digits as stated".

This will save the expense of re-printing literature and the confusion of giving two different individual numbers, which has always been the obstacle.

The loss of subsidy will be more than covered by the saving in time and direct cost gained by avoiding the need to make unnecessary call-backs. A return call is currently offered to all those who cannot afford (or are reluctant to pay) the premium involved in calling 0845 numbers.

I strongly commend use of the call back policy by everyone who does not benefit from the uniquely regulated, exceptionally low, rates charged by BT for calls to 0845 numbers. Providing the 0345 alternatives would however be a much cheaper option for the public bodies (and therefore all of us as taxpayers), as well as stopping the absurd situation where callers have to pay at a premium rate whilst waiting to get through to ask for a call back!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

HMRC Rip-off - Wrong code and Number - taxpayers over-charged - on telephone enquiries

Not only does HMRC have to be ashamed at over-/under- charging millions of people, it compounds its error by publishing an expensive 0845 telephone number for those affected to call with enquiries.

0845 3000 627 is a revenue sharing number. This earns HMRC around 2p per minute as subsidy towards the cost of providing the service.

Callers therefore incur additional charges - a premium over the rate for calling a normal telephone number - from most telephones.

Because BT is regulated, preventing it from itself earning money from these calls, it charges rates that may even be lower than normal, but this regulation is unique to BT.


Typical examples of the premiums incurred when calling a 0845 number are as follows:

£       Virgin media landline (normal calls inclusive) - 11p per call + 10p per minute

£       Contract mobile (landline calls inclusive) - 20p per minute

£       PAYG Mobile - 25p per minute (40p rather than 15p)

£       Public Payphone - around 20p per minute (20p for 1 minute rather than 20p for 30 minutes)

By continuing to use 0845, rather than 03, numbers, HMRC is also helping fund the telecoms industry, or is it helping to encourage people to subscribe to BT even though BT does not directly make money on these calls! It is certainly leaving callers with a sizeable bill, well in excess of the amount by which it benefits!

Alternative number!

The www.SayNoTo0870.com website collects alternative (geographic) numbers which people have found to work in place of numbers that are expensive from some landlines or mobiles - i.e. 084/087/0800 numbers.

It lists one alternative for 0845 3000 627. I have called the 01506 47??66 number given and been told that the agent answering could deal with my enquiry about a P800 just as if I had called the 0845 number.

Anyone is free to go to http://www.saynoto0870.com/search.php, enter 0845 3000 627 in the "Enter Number Here" box, click "Search" and call the complete number given there. Wide publication of alternatives may disrupt HMRC and it may be that there is a limited queuing capability on the alternative number. Given the extent of the difference per minute, potentially multiplied many times whilst queuing, it is not difficult to understand why many people will try anything to enable them to get through at a reasonable cost.

My objective

My personal campaigning objective is for HMRC (and all other public service providers) to immediately start adopting 03 numbers in place of 084. These can be called at the same cost as any 01/02 number, from all types of line and if 01/02 numbers are inclusive then 03 will be also. There is no revenue sharing benefit.

The process of transition to 03 is starting, but very slowly. In these times when all are under financial pressure, public bodies must do without these little subsidies that come at enormous cost to many citizens, generally the least well off, who are less likely to benefit from the lower premiums incurred with landlines.

Millions Fail to Get Through to Local GPs - Millions Pay their NHS GP for Telephone Access

Network Europe Group has just released research "Millions Fail to Get Through to Local GPs" (pdf) which suggests that 20 Million patient calls to GPs receive engaged tone, whilst 5 Million always join a queue as a result of calling the expensive 0844 numbers it uses for its "Surgery Line" system.

Because 0844 numbers are "revenue sharing", "revolutionary co-funded" is the term preferred by NEG, the additional cost of the queuing facility is indirectly paid for by callers, through the additional (premium) rate that their telephone company charges them for these calls. note 1

Under their revised NHS contracts, GPs are required, by 31 March 2011, to only use numbers that "cost no more than equivalent calls to a geographic number" (see clause 29B). 0844 numbers cannot possibly meet this requirement. note 2

03 numbers offer all the same enhanced facilities available with 0844 numbers. Users can migrate from a 0844 number to the equivalent 0344 number within the term of their contract for telephone service. note 3

03 numbers are required by regulation to be (indeed, they are in practice) charged at the same rate as equivalent calls to a geographic number. This applies to calls from all landlines, mobiles and payphones, including the terms of inclusive packages.

NEG and Talk Talk have less than 7 months left in which to assist their customers in migrating from 0844 to 0344 numbers.

If NEG believes that patients, rather than GPs (funded by the NHS), should continue to pay for enhanced telephone facilities in GP surgeries, then it is free to oppose the position of the government, which maintains that the NHS should remain “free at the point of need”. It must however declare its commercial interest if it wishes to participate in this type of political debate. It would also be helpful if NEG ceased commenting on the charges levied by telephone companies over which it has no control and of which it apparently has little knowledge.

Additional points

I have to thank EHI Primary Care for drawing my attention to the NEG announcement – see “Call to add 0345 to NHS Direct-111 mix”. This wide-ranging article also highlights my involvement in the broader aspects of this issue, i.e. NHS bodies as well as contractors.

There are many figures in the NEG release which are not fully explained, are misleading and are therefore difficult to counter. I will not attempt to engage with unsubstantiated assertions for which I have no contrary evidence, no matter how bizarre (e.g. the implied assertion that 93% of calls to GP surgeries without Surgery Line result in an engaged tone). I can however state with confidence that the assertion of the “Surgery Line” system meeting the requirement of calls being no more costly than equivalent calls to a geographic number is simply nonsense. It is the telephone number, not the system, which is at issue. If, as is the case with Surgery Line, a 0844 number is used, then calls are more costly for at least some callers, so the requirement is not met. note 2

NEG has no control over how originating telephone companies obtain the money to provide the revenue share from which it and its customers benefit by using 0844 numbers. They naturally raise it from their customers through premium charges. Even though BT alone is regulated in what it can charge, it cannot afford to include 0844 calls in Call Plans. The ignorance of telephone charges demonstrated by NEG is quite disturbing. It appears even to be unaware that its own partner Talk Talk invariably charges its customers more to call the 0844 numbers that it uses, than for equivalent calls to geographic numbers.


I suggest other possible sources of comment [in red].

1.     It is important to understand that not only do Surgery Line callers pay whilst queuing; the whole call is subject to an additional charge to pay for the provision of the queuing facility. The revenue share also subsidises many other aspects of the surgery telephone facility, including the switchboard, handsets etc. [NEG will doubtless be happy to explain the statement “With your own 084 number, you keep about 2p from every call to re-invest in your practice”, which appears throughout its marketing literature. (The total value of the revenue share is around 4p per minute.)]

2.     BT alone is regulated in what it may charge for calls to 0844 numbers, so these are relatively cheap for those without a BT call plan (from which they are excluded). All other telephone users incur the cost of the subsidy from which the GP using a 0844 number benefits. NEG has issued an assurance about call costs, however this applies only to GPs who only serve patients without mobiles, without landline service from anyone other than BT, without a BT call plan and who never use public payphones. I have no figures, but I doubt that there are many GPs in this position. [The Department of Health appears to believe that there are many such GPs, as it leaves them to determine whether or not patients will pay more to call 084 numbers. It may wish to offer evidence to support this assertion.]

3.     Equivalent 034 numbers were reserved for users of 084 numbers when they were introduced. Telephone service providers will be happy to confirm that they support migration and that this may be achieved within the term of an existing service contract. [The Talk Talk Group, which provides the telephone service used by NEG customers will doubtless confirm that it shares this industry-wide policy. I suspect that, given its longstanding involvement in this scandal and its public reputation, Talk Talk will be especially keen to do all it can to assist its NHS customers.]

4.     NEG and the GP Committee of the BMA are at one on this issue. The latter states its policy as being that patients should pay providers for access to NHS services according to the quality of the service provided (see its Guidance Note, which also contains some misleading information). [The BMA may wish to confirm its policy on NHS charges, given proposals for GPs to have a more central role in managing NHS services.]

5.     In its recent media release, NEG urges the government, in effect, to compel NHS GPs to introduce charges for access to their services by telephone. Whilst this source of NHS funding may be attractive to the government, it has not yet presented any such proposal for sanction by parliament (as required under the NHS Constitution), nor is the topic even mentioned in the Health White Paper. [The Government may wish to confirm that it has no plans to reverse current regulations, so as to allow NHS providers to indirectly charge patients for access to NHS services through use of revenue sharing or premium rate telephone numbers.]

6.     Call queuing (to a reasonable level) does not necessarily require use of the enhanced facilities available on non-geographic numbers. If these expensive facilities are required (as in the case of Surgery Line), then they must be provided using 03 numbers, unless the cost of the extra facilities should properly be carried by the caller. [Many telephone service providers offer systems to GPs which enable queuing of calls at busy times without requiring the expense of the highly advanced features available on non-geographic numbers.]

7.     I hope that NEG will now openly declare its position regarding who should pay for the enhanced facilities that it commends. The NEG release would have had more credibility if it had made reference to how it is assisting its customers to comply with the current revisions to their contract. An explanation of why this was being left to the last minute, given the approach of the March 2011 deadline, would have perhaps been informative. [NEG may wish to comment on this omission, or perhaps on its efforts to get the new government to remove the requirement to cease using expensive numbers before its customers fall into a breach of their NHS contracts.]

Sunday, 5 September 2010

NHS Direct abandons one of its expensive 0845 telephone numbers

Further to my previous release and briefing - NHS Direct - a telephone rip-off (also HMRC and Ofgem) – I can now announce that:
The NHS Choose and Book Appointments Line (TAL) has changed its telephone number from
0845 60 88888 to 0345 60 88888.

Campaigners in the war against use of expensive telephone numbers to access public services are celebrating victory in this modest, but significant and indicative, battle.

Callers pay a premium to call 0845 numbers, except when they benefit from the exceptional low rates (or free calls) offered on BT landlines, as a result of BT being uniquely subject to regulation of its call charges. For an average duration call to NHS Direct (528 seconds) this premium is typically £1.01 from a Virgin Media landline, £1.60 from a payphone or £2.25 from a PAYG mobile. Only 23% of telephone calls are made through BT, 28% of socio-economic group DE households do not have a landline.

It seems that the NHS Direct NHS Trust, which operates TAL, has bowed to pressure from callers who run out of coins or credit. Campaigners have long been arguing that patients should not pay for (“free at the point of need”) NHS services as they access them through use of “revenue sharing” 084 telephone numbers. It has been estimated that NHS Direct should be benefiting from revenue sharing by £1 Million per annum.

Calls to all 03xx numbers are charged at no higher rate than that for equivalent calls to geographic numbers and cannot be subject to “revenue sharing”. This applies to calls from landlines, mobiles and payphones, and also covers the terms of inclusive packages. Use of 03 numbers, as an alternative to 084 numbers, was recommended by Ofcom when a public consultation on banning the use of expensive telephone numbers in the NHS was launched in December 2008 – “The 03 Alternative” (published by Ofcom 16/12/08).

The outcome of the consultation was a Direction to NHS Bodies that they should not use numbers which require patients to "pay more to make relevant calls to the NHS body than they would to make equivalent calls to a geographic number". NHS Bodies have until 21 December 2010 to comply. NHS GPs are subject to a similar requirement through an amendment to their NHS contract; they have until 31 March 2011. We await action in respect of other contracted NHS service providers, e.g. dentists, ophthalmologists and pharmacists.

The 0845 number for TAL will remain in use for now, as it has been widely publicised. The new number is now shown on the Choose and Book web site and in letters to patients.

NHS Direct now needs to do the same with 0845 4647 and the many other 0845 numbers that it will continue to operate for many years, until after national adoption of 111 is completed. 0345 4647 is already set up and ready for use. Other NHS Bodies and NHS service providers need to follow this good example set by NHS Direct.

To avoid possible confusion, given the ongoing switchover to 111, I have always recommended that 0845 4647 remains in use. 0345 4647 is however ready to go and should be made available immediately as an officially acknowledged alternative number. The full cost of publicity and reprinting of material for a complete number change would not be appropriate in this particular case and at this particular time.

Even though money would be lost by giving up the financial benefits of using revenue sharing 084 numbers, this would probably be more than offset by the savings made through avoiding the need to regularly make very costly callbacks.

It is important to note that a switch from a 084 number to the equivalent 034 number is guaranteed and can be undertaken at any time within the term of a contract for supply of telephone service (with the same provider). Those committed to long contracts or with inconvenient renewal dates cannot use this as an excuse for failing to comply with the principles of the NHS, as reflected in the Directions and GP Contract revisions.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

NHS Direct - a telephone rip-off (also HMRC and Ofgem)


·       The, as yet un-covered, news story revealing that the NHS Direct NHS Trust gifts over £1 million pounds per annum to BT Wholesale, as alleged by the organisation itself, may warrant confirmation and inclusion in the current debate about its future.

·       The fact that the NHS Direct telephone service is configured for use only by those with BT landlines may also have a place in current discussion. Regulation ensures that only other telephone callers pay a premium over their “normal” rate to call 084 numbers. (Ofcom provides assistance to those who may wish to draw social conclusions.)

·       I seek support and publicity for my demand that alternative "03" numbers (non-premium rate from all types of telephone, free in many cases) be immediately made available to enable equitable access to public services, with no indirect charge on service users. NHS Direct has such a number set up and ready for use.

·       The government may wish to comment on whether it intends to continue the strategy of subsidising the cost of public services provided by telephone, through use of expensive "revenue sharing" numbers. (e.g. £2.20 rather than 60p for an average call to NHS Direct from a payphone; £3.60 rather than £1.35 from a PAYG Mobile.)

Many of my points apply equally to other public services using 084 numbers, including HMRC, DWP agencies and even the Consumer Direct number 08454 040506 currently being used and publicised by Ofgem.

(Numbered annotations 0 refer to linked notes and links at the foot of this message.)

Some of us look forward to celebrating the end of the expensive 0845 4647 number being used for NHS services, but we may well have for up to 5 years to wait before 111 is adopted throughout England. Given that there will be many other re-organisations going on, it will take some time for new local NHS commissioning bodies to get their act together and to find the money necessary for the 111 service. It is highly unlikely that they will be able to afford to extend the service to provide on demand call-backs from nurses to give medical advice by telephone, as this was never part of the plan for 111, whatever dreams of further empire building Nick Chapman may have 1.

Unless 111 is adopted there also, NHS Patients in Wales will continue to call 0845 4647 and in Scotland 08454 242424. The Choose and Book Appointment Line 0845 608 8888 will remain, as will 60 other 0845 numbers operated by the NHS Direct NHS Trust in England 2.

All 0844 and 0845 numbers are revenue-sharing, yielding a subsidy to the user (or its telephone company) at the expense of the caller's telephone company. The NHS Direct NHS Trust has proudly confirmed to me that it does not accept the benefit of over £1 Million per year which it should be receiving from the revenue share on its 0845 numbers. The same point is made clearly and explicitly in a written ministerial answer 3.

If the NHS Direct NHS Trust is being honest in stating that it allows its telephone service provider (BT) to keep this money, then it is allowing both patients and the taxpayer to be ripped-off. This is just one example of why this particular organisation is far too costly in the way it provides services, which may be valuable and appreciated.

BT is uniquely prohibited by regulation from making money on placing calls to 0845 numbers from landlines, so it gives them away cheap or for free. Apart from this exceptional case of calls from BT Landlines (less than 25% of calls made in the UK), call originating telephone companies charge a premium, to recover the money that is passed on through revenue share, when any 084 number is called.

Some typical examples of the relative cost of calling a 0845 number:

The average duration of a call to NHS Direct is 528 seconds 3; this is used to give the typical call cost in brackets. (These typical examples are extracted from a more comprehensive analysis 4.)

·       Virgin Media landline: normal calls - inclusive; 0845 calls - 11p + 10p per minute. [0 vs. £1.01]

·       Orange Racoon (pay monthly): normal calls - inclusive; 0845 calls - 20p per minute. [0 vs. £1.80]

·       Orange Racoon (pay as you go): normal calls - 15p per minute; 0845 calls - 40p per minute. [£1.35 vs. £3.60]

·       BT Public Payphone: normal calls - 30 minutes for 60p; 0845 calls - 1 minute for 60p, then 20p per minute. [60p vs. £2.20]

N.B. "normal calls" includes calls to all 03 numbers, which must be provided on the same terms as calls to "geographic" (01/02) numbers.

Calls to 0845 numbers from mobile phones are invariably more expensive than equivalent calls to "normal" numbers. A recent Ofcom report confirms that 26% of socio-economic group DE households rely entirely on mobiles, 2% on public payphones 5.

NHS Direct has an alternative number available

0345 4647 is already set up and available for use as an alternative to 0845 4647 6. It is however withheld from use.

This must now be immediately introduced to work in parallel through the lengthy period whilst 0845 4647 will remain in use. This needs formal acknowledgement, but there is no need to incur the expense of extensive publicity and reprinting of the mass of literature carrying 0845 4647. All those who do not benefit from the regulated cheap rates available to BT landline subscribers should be encouraged to use the alternative 0345 number.

Similar arrangements need to be made for all other 0845 numbers used by NHS Direct.

The December deadline is approaching

All NHS Bodies have been directed that they must cease use of telephone numbers that are more expensive to call than a geographic number, before 21 December 2010 7. There are many 2 which have so far failed to take the necessary action. (NHS GPs have until 31 March 2011 to do the same, but they are also failing to comply.)

The NHS Direct NHS Trust is explicitly exempted from this requirement - the Department of Health expressly permits the NHS Direct NHS Trust to use expensive telephone numbers. There is however no good reason why the NHS Direct NHS Trust should not itself give a lead as the primary provider of NHS service by telephone. One notes its declared desire to continue to serve the NHS when more power is devolved to local commissioning bodies 1. Its continuing failure to adhere to the first principle of the NHS (“free at the point of need”), even securing an exemption from having to comply with that principle, does not leave it well placed to take on this role.

Offering alternative numbers is a relatively weak move, because most callers have no idea about which numbers are cheaper to call, but it does go some way to remove accusations that public bodies such as NHS Direct (as well as HMRC and the DWP agencies, which also use 0845 numbers) are deliberately securing funding from service users. Using 0845 telephone numbers is a particularly nasty way of subsidising the cost of providing a service, because the greatest financial burden falls on those least able to bear it. Continuing to raise money in this underhand manner may help to relieve the public spending deficit, as it has the added “benefit” of discouraging the poor from accessing public services at all, thus saving even more money. This may not be the intention, however I would be very interested to hear comment on the fact that it undoubtedly has this effect.


1. See letter from Nick Chapman, Chief Executive of the NHS Direct NHS Trust, published here.

2. A list of expensive telephone numbers used by NHS bodies is found here.

3. Written answers provided 19 January 2009 Column 1200W (comment at foot) and 3 Feb 2009 Column 1109W.

4. See a more extensive discussion of the issue, published here.

5. The relevant numbers are found in figure 5.68 and the preceding text on page “338” (62/81 in Acrobat reader) of this document.

6. Details of the introduction of 0345 4647 are found here.

7. The Directions to NHS Bodies in England are published here.

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