David Hickson's Media Releases

My recent bloggings

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Doctors face regulation as providers of "Premium Rate Phone services"

Premium rate phone service regulator PhonePay Plus has invited over 1,400 NHS GPs and other users of 084x telephone numbers, including NHS Direct, HMRC and the DWP agencies, to present their views on the prospect of having to pay it a fee and submit to its regulation - see this news release.

Ofcom will be consulting on use of PhonePay Plus as a potential enforcer for its revised regulation of 084 numbers, in the New Year. Ofcom will need to apply an effective means of compelling those who benefit from the revenue sharing mechanism to declare the Service Charge which is indirectly paid to them by callers. This applies to all users of 084 numbers, who generally apply the financial benefit to offset the cost of their telephone service, rather than taking it as a cash payment.

PhonePay Plus explains its regulatory role in its consultation document - Call for inputs around the extension of PhonePay Plus regulation to remaining revenue-sharing ranges. This covers services delivered by telephone "which are charged above standard rate to a consumer’s phone bill and/or pre-pay account", including downloading ringtones, voting on TV shows, directory enquiry services and chat-lines.

It explains how its regulatory framework is well suited to deal with those who benefit, on a lesser scale, but in exactly the same way as those who provide the services listed above.

GPs who have evaded the ban in their contracts on use of 084 numbers may wish to comment on the prospect of being regulated in the same way as providers of "adult" chat-lines.

HMRC may wish to express a view on having to pay a levy of perhaps 0.35% of its revenue share from telephone calls to a regulator of its activities.

JobCentre Plus and the Pensions Service may not be wholly content to be classed as members of the same industry as the producers of "the X factor" and "Strictly".

For myself, I hope that as the reality of what is involved with 084 numbers is finally recognised, we will find that all providers of taxation-funded public services at last cease using them. The 03 range of numbers is available for them to utilise geographic anonymity and certain advanced functions, with the option of easy migration to the equivalent 034 number. Calls to 03 numbers are invariably charged at no greater rate than calls to 01 or 02 numbers, under all tariffs, and use of the revenue sharing mechanism is prohibited.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Will Talk Talk be fined for Silent Calls - and what about undermining the NHS?

An article by a Mail on Sunday reporter - TalkTalk facing new Ofcom fine over silent calls – suggests that I may have been wrong to make the assumption headlined in a previous release.

It is claimed that sources now suggest that Ofcom will not follow the same approach with Talk Talk as it recently did with Homeserve and nPower.

Although Ofcom issued Notifications of Misuse to both companies, neither was subject to a penalty nor an enforceable obligation to cease the practice.

Ofcom treats many millions of Silent Calls as not being misuse at all; it applies a percentage tolerance and recently introduced a “one a day is OK” rule.

We know that Ofcom “has issues” with Talk Talk, having previously taken action against it on another matter.

I too “have issues” - it is expensive Talk Talk telephone numbers that are being used by many NHS GPs to subsidise the cost of their telephone systems at the expense of patients and in breach of their NHS contracts. I have published a list of 1,115 NHS surgeries using expensive Talk Talk numbers (80% of the total of such cases).

If Talk Talk were, exceptionally, to be subjected to a financial penalty for persistent misuse, this could appear to be spite by Ofcom, as many other Silent Callers do not even have their known Silent Calling brought to public attention. Furthermore, as Ofcom is in the habit of not publishing details of the scale of the misuse, we will have no idea about whether or not the penalty is proportionate.

Neither Talk Talk, nor its agent, can be fined for undermining the NHS. It is the GPs who may follow their guidance who are actually breaching their NHS contracts by using expensive telephone numbers. Talk Talk is however a major part of the problem – it could become a major part of the solution.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Daisy Group endorses "co-funding" for access to NHS services

The government argues that through the reforms to the NHS, its principles will remain intact. Suggestions that increased commercial involvement may lead to hidden charges and disguised co-funding arrangements have been denied. But is this assurance a little shallow and too late ...

The Surgery Line telephone system, allegedly used by up to 20% of doctor's surgeries in England, is claimed to be "The revolutionary co-funded enhanced telephony service, designed specifically for GP surgeries".

Daisy Group, led by Chief Executive Matthew Riley, featured as a business guru on "The Apprentice", bought the company behind the product last year and now presents it under its own name as Daisy Surgery Line.

Daisy may be one of many commercial providers of services used for the NHS, who would argue that patients should pay through co-funding arrangements. The BMA, representing those who will lead Clinical Commissioning Groups, supports this argument.

I believe that this issue has to be nailed now, before we are talking about paying thousands of pounds for "NHS" treatment, rather than a few pounds to book an appointment with a NHS GP.

The arguments

I have sought to engage with Mr Riley, in the hope of persuading him that co-funding is not currently acceptable for access to NHS services. I have tried to explain that the benefits of Enhanced Telephony can only be used by NHS providers via a 03 number, so that callers do not incur a premium charge.

Things may change in future for the NHS, but the principles of universal equal access and "free at the point of need" remain in the NHS Constitution at present. Proponents of the co-funding of telephone access to NHS services have argued their point strongly in responses to recent public consultations, but their view has been rejected.

Despite the ban on use of numbers that cost more, Daisy Group continues to maintain that use of 084 telephone numbers to co-fund the Surgery Line system at the expense of callers is acceptable in the NHS. It appears to defend this by leaning on the fact that some BT callers incur penalty charges for calling geographic numbers outside the terms of their Call Plan, which are greater than the premium charged for calling 084 numbers.

This increasingly rare and wholly anomalous situation cannot be exploited to provide a justification for "co-funding", when NHS providers have to consider all whom they serve.

Daisy Group seems to ignore the fact that those subscribed to the most used BT tariff (Unlimited Anytime), and its social tariff (BT Basic), pay nothing to call geographic rate numbers (including 03), whereas they pay a call setup fee plus 4p or 5p per minute to call the numbers used for Surgery Line.
Daisy Group seems to regard as irrelevant the fact that all mobile and public payphone callers pay more, often amounting to many pounds more for a call, despite a ministerial statement regarding the relevant terms of the NHS GP contract - "It is absolutely clear that there is no distinction between landlines, mobiles or payphones".

The public debate

Statements of fact from Daisy Group, The BMA, Ofcom and many others are covered in this blogging - Daisy Surgery Line and "Enhanced Telephony".

Daisy Group has declared itself ready to participate in factual public debate on these issues. I am delighted to engage. In particular, I would be delighted to read that Daisy Group and the BMA no longer hold the positions referred to above, despite them being fairly derived from existing published material.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Virgin Media STILL overcharging callers trying to avoid Tesco Business Rate numbers | Ofcom does nothing (no news there!)

Further to my release of 22 September, Virgin Media overcharging callers trying to avoid Tesco Business Rate numbers, I understand the problem is still continuing. Virgin Media has not refunded the historic overcharges and some callers to Tesco geographic numbers are being charged for operator connected calls to MOBILE, as well as 0845, numbers.

I have been in direct contact to confirm the detail of cases that continue to be reported on the SayNoTo0870 and MoneySavingExpert forums (Links available here).

Virgin Media and Tesco need to get the situation sorted and issue public apologies for what is clearly a mistake.

Ofcom should get involved in cases like this, which are obviously having a serious impact on many people, without waiting for every victim to come forward and register a formal complaint with it.

When Ofcom is seen to be ineffective and reluctant to act – why would people bother to raise individual complaints?

We have the right to expect Ofcom to act with intelligence, not shuffle papers, collect statistics and deliberately discourage receipt of the information which would cause it to act.

There is an echo of the way in which Ofcom deals with my other focus of attention – Silent Calls – see my Silent Calls Victim blog.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust - poor patient services and charges for access to the NHS

I quote a Department of Health Media Release today:

"Health Secretary Andrew Lansley today said that the standard of patient services provided by Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust must improve substantially."

I endorse this view. “BHR” is one of a number of NHS bodies which continue to use 084 telephone numbers, so as to obtain subsidy for their costs at the expense of patients. (See this briefing.) This is despite clear Directions issued by Mr Lansley's Department in December 2009, demanding compliance by December 2010.

I hope that Mr Lansley will ensure that this is amongst the issues which this rogue Trust will have to address, albeit nearly two years late.

It is vital that NHS Bodies cease use of telephone numbers that cause patients to incur a premium charge, primarily to follow the principle that the NHS does not levy charges on patients.

This is also important so as to demonstrate to GPs, contracted providers of NHS services, that they too need to comply with the terms of their contracts by ceasing use of 084 numbers.

Friday, 21 October 2011

At last - HMRC responds to the call to adopt 0345 telephone numbers !!

I wrote to David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary, on 7 June 2010 asking him to review the use of 0845 telephone numbers by HMRC and consider the need to move to 03xx numbers. (See Ministerial briefing - Fees for access to public services by telephone)

Around 18 months later, the necessary action starts. Mr Gauke announced on Wednesday 19 October, in a written answer, that

"HMRC expect that they will, by the end of the year be able to offer an 0345 number for those customers calling its tax credit helpline (which last year accounted for around 40% of the total calls handled by its contact centre network).

"The provision of a 0345 number is expected to result in significant cost savings for the majority of callers to the line."

This long overdue admission that use of 03xx numbers is not only more equitable, but that it does indeed result in cost savings for the majority of callers, is a most satisfying result.

We now look to the DWP agencies, NHS Direct and other misusers of 084x numbers for the provision of public services (not least NHS GPs) to follow this fine example by immediately adopting 034x alternatives for their primary numbers. There are indeed many others (from the 60%) which HMRC should be addressing immediately.

Points of detail

My specific proposal to use the option of 034x equivalent alternatives to 084x numbers has been widely promoted. See the following items for extended coverage of the arguments:

•    My proposal for those using 084x numbers for the delivery of public services - September 11, 2010.

•    Coverage of the issue by "BBC Five Live Investigates" - September 12, 2010.

•    My evidence to the Commons Treasury Committee investigating HMRC - November 2010.

This matter has been under review by HMRC at least since the time when I was invited to join a working group addressing the matter in August 2010. Representatives of a number of organisations also serving on this group, who themselves use 084 numbers to obtain subsidy from callers, urged HMRC not to change at that time!

HMRC (and others) are not bound to await a new telephony contract to utilise the simple option of migration to the 0345 equivalent of any 0845 number. Any delay is simply playing for time and extending the period during which service users will continue to subsidise the cost of providing the service. All providers of network telephone service permit migration from 084 to 034 equivalent numbers at any time within the term of a contract without penalty.

The only callers who would not enjoy a cost saving on a total move from 0845 to 0345 are those who incur penalty charges from their telephone service provider, generally BT, for calling geographic rate (01/02/03) numbers outside the terms of their selected Call Plan. If it wished, HMRC could retain a 0845 number, as an alternative, for the benefit of those in this perverse position.

A set-back in the position of DWP was reflected in a written answer this week – see DWP allows Work Programme providers to "charge" participants

Thursday, 20 October 2011

DWP allows Work Programme providers to "charge" participants

(See the exchange and the additional information provided by my annotation at this item on TheyWorkForYou)


The current scandal of imposing potentially modest charges for access to public services through use of telephone numbers where the charge paid includes "a revenue sharing component" is rife.

The fact that such charges are collected indirectly, often received only as a subsidy to offset costs and sometimes lost amongst the complexity of telephone tariffs makes it easy for them to be hidden.

This applies to all use of 0843, 0844, 0845, 0871, 0872 and 0873 numbers, which are now classified by Ofcom as " Business Rate". New regulations covering their use are expected to be announced by Ofcom early in 2012.

The benefit derived is (roughly) between 2p and 10p per call minute,
whereas the additional cost (over that of a call to a 01/02/03 number) can be over 40p per minute.

There is not even a direct proportionality; calls to 0845 numbers yielding 2p per minute can incur an additional cost (e.g. for T-Mobile contract customers) of 41p per minute.

My campaigning focus, for this issue, is on HMRC, the DWP agencies, NHS Direct, a number of other NHS Bodies and the large number of NHS GPs who are now in breach of their NHS contracts, by using numbers that cost more than the cost of "equivalent calls to a geographical number". These are perhaps the most important cases, but there are many others.


The government's position on the issue of charging for access to public services is neatly summarised in a written answer from Chris Grayling, Minister of State - DWP, to a question about whether Work Programme providers are permitted to use 084 / 087 numbers. See Hansard 17 October c644W.

Mr Grayling confirms that, so long as they meet the minimal requirements on call cost declaration (which currently permit the denial of there being any financial benefit to the user of the number), Work Programme providers are permitted to levy a charge on those seeking to move from benefits to work in this way.

My comment

This scandal will continue until the government - probably through the Cabinet Office - gets to grips with the issue. It must clearly determine where it is appropriate to charge users for access to public services and demand that the existence of this charge be declared (notwithstanding the perversity of telephone tariffs, which are outside the control of users).

I await acceptance of my offer to place my understanding and knowledge of this issue at the disposal of the government.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Talk Talk joins the list of Silent Callers not likely to receive a £2 Million fine

Ofcom has today announced (see Consumer Bulletin) that Talk Talk has been served with a formal Notification of Persistent Misuse of the Telephone Network on account of making an excessive number of Silent Calls.

It is important to note that Ofcom regards a number of Silent Calls that is proportionately small as being acceptable, even if the number is very large in absolute terms.

This is of particular interest to me in the context of my other campaigning role - Talk Talk is the company behind the vast majority of the expensive telephone numbers being used by NHS GPs (see below for the NHS related aspect of this story).

No use of the increased maximum penalty

This follows two other recent cases of Notifications of Misuse by making Silent Calls - against Homeserve and nPower. In both cases Ofcom has decided, after receipt of representations, not to impose the financial penalty, of up to £2 Million, which it recently claimed was necessary.

Ofcom sought, and the government has granted, an increase to the previous maximum penalty of £50,000, because it was not thought large enough to address the misuse by large companies. (see the government announcement and my comment at the time.)

We now see these cases of companies which are amongst the largest in their respective sector, and therefore likely to be making very many automated calls, where Ofcom has decided that it does not even need to impose a penalty of up to £50,000. This increased penalty is thereby seen neither to be necessary, nor effective as a deterrent.

No requirement to cease the practice

Whilst the financial penalty is available to deal with past misuse that Ofcom has failed to address, Ofcom also has the power to impose a specific requirement for a company not to make Silent Calls. Neither Homeserve nor nPower have been made subject to an "Enforcement Notification" requiring them to cease the practice of making Silent Calls.

Ofcom's statutory duty "to further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters" would best be fulfilled by preventing Silent Calls from being made, not by leaping in with penalties to cover events that occurred many months ago and publishing meaningless over-complex and unenforceable pseudo-regulations.

Not one company is currently subject to a specific regulatory requirement not to make Silent Calls, even though Ofcom has always held the power to impose such a requirement and to have it enforced through an injunction, if necessary.

No publication of the misuse

Some time after the issuing of a Notification, Ofcom publishes a redacted copy of the Notification that has been served. In the case of Homeserve this was nearly 2 months later, that for nPower is still not published after more than 3 months.

Viewing the published copy of the Notification on Homeserve, one sees that all of the information detailing the scale of the misuse has been redacted.

We therefore have no way of knowing the seriousness of the Misuse undertaken by Homeserve (or any other offender) nor the proportionality of Ofcom's decision not to impose a penalty.

I have long held the view that Ofcom is persistently misusing its Persistent Misuse powers

Talk Talk is alleged to prevent application of the principles of the NHS by GPs

Perhaps now is a good time to draw attention to the fact that Talk Talk is the provider to 1,114 (80%) of the 1,401 cases of NHS GPs using expensive telephone numbers - in England and Wales this is in breach of their contracts.
[see my tables - including the "Top 20" summaries]

To retain the technical benefits available from a non-geographic number without causing callers to incur any additional cost, it is standard practice for telephone companies to allow customers to migrate from a 084 to a 03 number, at any point during their contract and without penalty. All calls to 03 numbers are charged on the same basis as those to 01/02 "geographic" numbers. The option to change only the second digit of the number is guaranteed to be available, e.g. 0844 477 1799 to 0344 477 1799. This provides the obvious route open to NHS GPs who are required to vary the terms of their arrangements to avoid patients paying a premium to call them.

The BMA however advises that "many GP practices have signed multi-year contracts with telephone services providers which cannot be varied, renegotiated or terminated without substantial financial penalty". It suggests that this provides a valid basis for a practice claiming that migration to a 03 number would be "unreasonable".

If the BMA is correct, as many practices claim, then this would imply that Talk Talk is preventing GPs from being able to comply with the principles of the NHS. Talk Talk receives a revenue share of roughly 4-5 pence per minute on calls to the 0844 numbers used by GPs. This is paid by the call originating telephone company, which obviously passes this cost on in its call charges. Talk Talk does pass some of this benefit on to the GP directly, however it is claimed that this cannot be more than 2p per call minute.

GPs obviously benefit by the full value of the 4-5p per minute, because they do not have to pay Talk Talk for their line and the facilities deployed, nor for the lease on the equipment provided to support their system. Talk Talk must however have some questions to answer if, as is alleged, it is exceptionally preventing GPs from giving up this improper subsidy of their costs at the expense of patients.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Premium telephone numbers still being used by NHS GPs - 18 months on from the ban and 6 months after the deadline for necessary changes

Please see the briefing issued to MPs, quoted below. Those copied are found, along with the relevant details, on this "league table".

The key story is that, six months after the deadline, little or no action has been taken to enforce the contractual requirement for NHS GPs to cease funding their surgeries at the expense of their patients.

The NHS is owned by us all. It is only through our MPs that we can apply pressure on the Government to, in turn, provide the assistance necessary to officers of the NHS who have the power and duty to enforce its principles. (Clear eyes are needed to watch the speed at which the buck is passed around on this issue!)

If, as is alleged by the BMA, it is the surgery telephone system providers who are, unnecessarily, blocking the action that needs to be taken, then this needs to be brought into the open so that they may account for their unwarranted interference in the operation of the NHS, in public. At present I have no reason to believe that this is the case.

To: All MPs with constituents who are not being properly served by the NHS

Further to previous briefings on this topic ...

There are NHS GPs in your constituency in breach of their NHS contracts

... according to NHS Choices, they are continuing to use 084 telephone numbers 6 months after the deadline (31 March 2011) for their removal has passed. In some cases, these numbers have been freshly adopted up to 18 months after such adoption was prohibited (April 2010).

Please find your place on this "league table" and review the relevant list for details, or view this map. Other presentations of my list of NHS GPs funded their surgeries at the expense of NHS patients are indexed here.

The problem

Parliament approved the variations to the NHS GP contracts which are being breached [see SI 2010/578: GMS / PMS]. Responsibility to enforce compliance rests exclusively with the 50 Chief Executives of the clustered Primary Care Trusts.

Many PCTs have failed to act in the interests of the patients they serve, because they claim to have had difficulty in understanding the clearly and explicitly drafted regulations. They are seen to have commonly relied on guidance issued by the BMA GPC - representing the (conflicting) interests of the GP contractors – which offers a very particular interpretation.

At the beginning of this guidance, the BMA declares its continuing opposition to the purpose of the regulations, repeating its proposal that patients should pay more to subsidise the costs incurred by GPs with improved telephone systems (contrary to the principles of the NHS)! This proposal was specifically rejected. The Guidance goes on to outline a wholly unsatisfactory approach to application of the new requirements - use of a meaningless and demonstrably mistaken assurance about call costs from a highly interested but unaccountable party as representing proof of compliance. (Some may say that it would be natural to seek to undermine effective implementation of a measure which one openly opposes!)

Since spring of this year, PCTs have been seeking assistance from the Department of Health, but this has not been provided, despite a request to the Minister from Andrew Love [Hansard 12 July 2011 Col 150].

The unequivocal statement of clarification, given only to the House in response, is seen to have been ignored by PCTs. It may be noted that the BMA immediately issued a statement suggesting that the Minister's statement was untrue [see "Guidance for practices using 084 numbers" on p7 of this BMA GPC newsletter].

Action to resolve the matter

For the sake of the integrity of the NHS and in the interests of your constituents, I must suggest that you urge your local PCT to address this matter properly, by enforcing the terms of the contracts as drafted, not as interpreted by the BMA and others.

I also believe that it would be of benefit to urge the Secretary of State for Health, and / or whichever Minister now holds the relevant brief, to instruct Department of Health officials to ensure that PCTs have all of the assistance that they need to use their powers to enforce the existing contracts, and to require officials to ensure that this is being done.

The Department of Health may not be able to direct PCTs, however it should be able to respond to requests for assistance. It should also be able to deny false assertions that have been made about its own position, including alleged endorsement of a particular system - unless the allegations are true [see this copy of a widely used letter]. The system in question is proudly "co-funded" by patients [see references to co-funding, as well as "co-founding", on this site]. Many PCTs have been provided with copies of this letter and may be inclined to treat it in good faith!

Ministers may be asked to report to parliament on the successful (or otherwise) implementation of measures approved by parliament. The principle of "free at the point of need" is far from secure in the NHS, as a loosening of control is proposed.

(I note that the ministerial team will be answering Oral Questions on Tuesday 18 October.)

The resistance by GPs

Some practices claim that patients do not pay more to call their 084 number than to make an equivalent call to a geographic number. This claim is based on the absurd assumption that all patients have a landline phone and subscribe to a particular BT Call Plan, which BT now declares is no longer even its most popular.

Such a claim is clearly false (except where evidence has been produced to show that all patients of a practice do indeed subscribe to one particular unusual telephone tariff and never call the surgery from mobiles, payphones or under the terms of other landline tariffs, including that which is most popular for BT customers).

Other practices claim that they cannot vary their existing arrangement for telephone service, because this would allegedly cause them to incur “unreasonable” penalty charges. Those who are contractually committed to maintain a system which requires a non-geographic number may readily comply by migrating to a 03 number. It is standard practice for network telephone service providers to allow such migration at any time and without penalty. I have been assured by the leading provider of surgery telephone systems that it would not deviate from this principle by blocking a request to migrate from 084 to 03.

There is no evidence to show that some network telephone service providers fail to follow industry standard policy, by not permitting migration to 03 without penalty. If such evidence were to be produced, then the provider in question would need to be subjected to some very serious questions, as it would be seen to be responsible for impeding proper application of the principles of the NHS.

Despite my repeated briefings to PCTs on this subject, they appear to be more ready to follow the guidance offered by the BMA, as the representative of those holding the contracts which are being breached, than to make their own determinations. As an analogy, I am inclined to think of a branch office of a major firm following national guidance on employment policy that is presented by a trades union - the "head office of the firm" must act directly to address this!

I would be delighted to provide all necessary further references, additional explanation, examples of specific cases and information on points of detail. There are a number of relevant briefings on my "NHS Patient" blog.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Virgin Media overcharging callers trying to avoid Tesco Business Rate numbers

Virgin Media has acknowledged a systemic billing error, which involved charging callers who dialled local geographic numbers as if they had made an "Operator Connected" call to a 0845 number!

The error has been corrected and I am told that all overcharges will be refunded.

The problem

Tesco recently introduced Business Rate 0845 telephone numbers, at any additional cost of up to 41p per minute, for calls to its local stores.
(This decision warrants comment and attention in itself.)

The website www.SayNoTo0870.com publishes the original local geographic numbers as alternatives for the 0845's, because these are found to be still working.

A member of the SayNoTo0870 discussion forum reported that Virgin Media had mischarged them for a call to one of these local numbers - others reported identical experiences.

Virgin Media billing representatives maintained the charges, claiming that they were correct and proper. They even suggested that SayNoTo0870 and Tesco were responsible for misrepresenting the charges for calling geographic numbers!

Achieving the resolution

I made a test call, dialling a 0121 number on my Virgin Media line when such a call should have cost me nothing.
I was charged £4.87, for an "Operator Connected" call to a 0845 number! This reflected the experience reported by others.

I had discussed my intention to make this call with Virgin Media before doing so and followed up when I saw the incorrect charge being levied. After initial resistance - "the call was charged at the correct destination rate", Virgin Media agreed to investigate this matter properly, as that statement was clearly untrue.

The outcome of this investigation was a determination that all calls such as mine had been billed incorrectly.

I am told that the error has been corrected and that all overcharges will be refunded.
(I understand that Virgin Media has prepared a statement giving full details.)

Tesco is not alone

Although its main competitors appear to retain local numbers for their stores, Tesco is not alone in choosing to use Business Rate 0845 numbers for callers who are making enquiries by telephone.
Her Majesties Revenue and Customs, the Department for Work and Pensions agencies, NHS Direct and NHS 24 do the same.

They could all readily use 03 (Geographic Rate) numbers to support the complex telephone technology used, without causing callers to pay to subsidise it. Although 0845 numbers provide a subsidy of around 2p per minute from every call, the premium cost to the caller can be as great as an additional 41p per minute.

(Some telephone providers, not Virgin Media, include calls to 0845 numbers in packages - so that all customers are compelled to fund the premium, whether or not they actually call these numbers.)

I Comment

All those who wish to add a "Service Charge" to what we each pay our own provider for a telephone call should declare the level of the charge and justify its imposition. This applies to Tesco, but even more so to the public bodies listed above. They may not be responsible for the level of the "Access Charge" added by the telephone service provider, but it is the imposition of the "Service Charge", from which they benefit, which causes premium charges to be applied to these calls.

Those who simply want to take advantage of the additional features available with "non-geographic numbers", without imposing the cost of these features on callers, must now be using 03 numbers. These are charged at "Geographic Rate"(i.e. no more than the cost of a call to a 01/02 number) from all types of telephone and all types of contract - if 01/02 calls are free of a call charge, as is now generally the case, so are 03. Migration to 03 is assisted by the equivalent 034 number for every 084 number being reserved for the purpose of migration.

I cannot see how HRMC, DWP and NHS bodies can possibly justify their imposition of a service charge on callers. Tesco may struggle, but that is its business.

Whilst I am pleased to have been able to assist Virgin Media in getting this particular problem resolved, I am concerned that others who raised the issue were batted away. My call was purely for test purposes, whereas others had genuinely called these numbers, which are still published in various places.


I have published a summary of calling costs for various types of numbers under commonly used arrangements - this includes links to the published tariff tables.

"Business Rate" is the term now used by Ofcom to describe numbers which have a lower level of "Service Charge" (up to 10p per minute) than "Premium Rate". The principle is exactly the same, although the regulation is different.
Virgin Media has prepared a statement - contact their Senior PR Manager, Joanna Smith, for details.
Tesco has declined my invitation to comment. The claim on its website (see How to contact us), that a call to a 0845 number "costs 6p, plus up to 2p per minute for BT Calling Plans", is completely wrong and totally misleading.
The discussion thread in the SayNoTo0870 forum is found at this link. (I use the forum nickname "Silent Calls Victim")
To find the list of numbers involved enter "Tesco" at this link
Whilst Virgin Media was imposing and enforcing these charges, it stood in breach of its duties under the regulatory "General Conditions". I have therefore formally notified Ofcom. It will be for Ofcom to decide whether or not to investigate this matter and consider imposing a financial penalty on Virgin Media.
I campaign primarily against improper use of 084 numbers by public bodies - in general, and in particular in the NHS. I am however engaged in other issues relating to home telephones and call centres.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Calling Citizens Advice for advice? - best to use a mobile and check SayNoTo0870 first

The website SayNoTo0870.com has revealed a telephone scam being practised by Citizens Advice. See this posting in its discussion forum.

From next April, Citizens Advice will take over the function of providing consumer advice by telephone on behalf of the government, as the present "Consumer Direct" service is withdrawn.

Citizens Advice is starting to roll out a new national advice line telephone number for England - 08444 111 444. (Like all such 0844 numbers, the revenue share that it passed on to the called party causes it to be charged at a premium when called from landlines, mobiles and payphones and excluded from call inclusive packages.)

SayNoTo0870 has discovered that there is an alternative number available - 0300 330 0650. (Like all 03 numbers, this is charged at the same rate as calls to geographic numbers, i.e. included in calling packages free of any call charge for most contract mobiles and landlines.)

There are however two catches for this alternative number:

It is only available to callers from mobiles. Those with both a landline and a contract mobile phone are best advised to call using the latter. Payphone users must recognise that they have been overlooked.
It is not publicised by Citizens Advice. One assumes that mobile callers are expected to pay to call the expensive number first, in order to be told the number that they should have dialled. Even then, they are offered the opportunity to continue with the call at premium rates! Those who would expect a landline call to be cheaper are not made aware that this is probably untrue.

This causes concern in two ways:

Citizens Advice declares a principle that "The service provides free, independent, confidential and impartial advice to everyone on their rights and responsibilities".
The 5p per minute subsidy which it earns from calls to the 0844 number, at the expense of callers and without being declared, directly contradicts that principle.
In its consultation on the arrangements for the transfer of responsibility for the Consumer Direct advice function to Citizens Advice, the government states "For consumers to be empowered it is essential that they have information about goods and services which they can use to exercise choice"
By understating the cost of calling from a landline and withholding details of the alternative option, Citizens Advice places itself in direct contradiction of this principle.

Government-funded consumer advice already comes at a price, as the present Consumer Direct service uses 08454 04 05 06. Calls to this number include a "Service Charge" of 2p per minute, plus an "Access Charge" of up to 39p per minute. Calls to 08444 111 444 invariably include a "Service Charge" of 5p per minute, plus an "Access Charge" of up to 36p per minute.

Although some landline callers pay the service charge on 0845 calls through their package subscription, there is little difference between 0845 and 0844 – both are now classed by Ofcom as "Business Rate".

From April 2013, Citizens Advice will also take on the role of Consumer Advocacy currently being undertaken by Consumer Focus and a variety of other bodies.

Citizens Advice advocates use of 0845 numbers by HMRC and DWP agencies. It also advocates 080 helpline providers losing the benefit of calls from mobiles being at no greater cost to them, whilst callers incur no charge.

With this position on advocacy, charging for a “free” service without saying so and failing to give sound advice to its service users so that they may make the appropriate choice to call its alternative (mobile only) number, the suitability of Citizens Advice to take on the role that it has been granted by the government must be called into question.

David Hickson said:

"I have long been involved with Citizens Advice, myself advising it on ways that it could dig itself out of a terrible problem it had got into with the funding of its telephone service. As a strong supporter of Citizens Advice, I am deeply disappointed at the decision that has now been put into effect.

"I can understand some of the reasons, however it cannot be acceptable for Citizens Advice to behave in this underhand way. The danger of reputational damage in the light of the forthcoming larger role for the charity means that this foolish decision must be urgently reviewed.

"To charge for advice services is contrary to the stated Principles of Citizens Advice and offensive to the volunteers who make up a sizeable proportion of its workforce. To withhold information and misrepresent the costs incurred is an intolerable breach of what Citizens Advice stands for.

"The advocacy position taken by Citizens Advice is clearly weak and ill considered. I cannot say how far this is influenced by the need to defend its own improper policy on use of telephone numbers, but one must fear that it feels unable to expect others to achieve higher standards than those which it sets for itself."

The information worth up to 41p per listen

Click to hear the announcement that is played to those who pay up to 41p to call 08444 111 444 from a mobile.

N.B. The information about the cost of calling from a landline is false. All landline callers pay more than 5p per minute to call the 0844 number. 5p per minute is the (VAT inclusive) value of the subsidy provided to Citizens Advice through its telephone company. Originating telephone companies do take some revenue for themselves from these calls, whether from landlines, mobiles or payphones.

Additional Information

For comment from SayNoTo0870 – please contact Dave Lindsay
The service is announced on this web page.
An explanation of why a non-geographic (e.g. 03) number is required for the service is given here.
Any "review of the telecommunications market" which failed to identify that 03 numbers provide exactly the same facilties for "systems that increase our capacity for answering calls", whilst being charged at no more than the cost of call to a geographic number for ALL people, would be unworthy of a body with the capacity to represent the consumer interest. It is for Citizens Advice to say whether it misunderstands or is deliberately withholding relevant information.
(It is true that SOME people incur a penalty charge for calling geographic numbers outside the agreed terms of their package which is greater than the premium charge incurred when calling 0844 numbers. This is however totally irrelevant to the point at issue and should not be conflated with it.
I do not believe that Citizens Advice would advocate consumers selecting the wrong telephone Call Plan, so as to incur the penalty charges which make 0844 and 0845 calls appear "cheaper" in some cases. If it did, then this could provide a reason for "Why we use 0844/ 0845 numbers) ". Again, it is for Citizens Advice to explain.
An article on Page 10 of this CAB newsletter explains that the AdviceLine service is funded by a publicly owned body – RBS. It may be argued that a 0844 number has had to be used because the funding offered by RBS was insufficient to avoid clients having to also contribute towards the cost of the service. RBS may care to comment on this point.
The Communications Consumer Panel, which Citizens Advice will be replacing in the role of Consumer Advocacy on telecommunications issues, has no stated position on the issue of expensive telephone numbers. It neither engaged in nor mentioned the recent extensive Ofcom consultation on this topic in its publications. To the CCP, this is not an issue of "current consumer concern"!

Monday, 22 August 2011

NHS Bodies undermine attempts to end the GP telephone number rip-off

Whilst efforts to enforce the ban on use of expensive telephone numbers by NHS GPs in England continue, they are undermined by NHS bodies doing the same.

NHS bodies in breach

I have picked out a list of 20 significant cases, where Directions issued by the Department of Health in December 2009 to NHS bodies in England have been disregarded. (See my blog.)

The most notable examples however are the NHS Direct Health Advice and Information service for England (0845 4647) - shortly to be withdrawn, NHS Direct Wales (0845 4647) and NHS 24 for Scotland (08454 24 24 24).

By their "approved" use of revenue sharing telephone numbers it may be seen that the principle of "co-payment" - i.e. subsidy from patients through payments made as they access NHS services - is sanctioned by the respective governments, although not by the respective parliaments.

GPs in breach

Not only are cases like this seen to breach the very principles of the NHS, they also make it more difficult for independent contracted providers of NHS services to be brought in line with those principles.

My database of officially listed cases of use of expensive telephone numbers by NHS GPs, currently shows the following total numbers of cases:

Northern Ireland22

Failure by Governments

Following a public consultation, the then Minister of State (Health Services) said on 14 September 2009:

"We want to reassure the public that when they contact their local GP or hospital, the cost of their call will be no more expensive than if they had dialled a normal landline number."

As we approach the second anniversary of that statement, it can be seen that both the previous and the current UK government have failed to deliver that reassurance. The governments holding devolved authority are in no different position, indeed that have not even declared the intention.

By proposing reform that does not address the problem of the projected massively increased costs of publicly provided health services, indeed by loosening the mechanisms that may hold back their scope to within the bounds of public affordability, the UK government clearly intends that payment for access will become necessary in England.

With England having thereby opted-out from the NHS, can we be sure that it will continue in the remainder of the UK?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

NHS Dentists warned of the danger of being misled about the cost of calling 084 telephone numbers

Like their colleagues in General Practice, NHS Dentists are committed to upholding the principles of the NHS as they deliver NHS services to patients.

This article, by practice consultants PSDS, warns that practices can be misled when choosing a telephone system.

The article refers to a particular un-named company providing systems for Dentists and GPs, which requires practices to adopt a 0844 telephone number. All 0844 telephone numbers are "revenue sharing" which means that a premium payment by callers is used to subsidise the cost of the system to the user.

This could be a reference to "the original and still best telephony solution in the UK for dentists", which is described as being a "revolutionary co-funded telephone systems solution , designed specifically for dentists".

The same company also offers "the original and still best telephony solution in the UK for GP’s", which is described as being a "revolutionary co-funded enhanced telephony systems service designed specifically for GP surgery and general practice".

One could reasonably assume that "co-funded" means that part of the cost of the system is paid for by patients, as is the case when 0844 telephone numbers are used.

There is however a further extraordinary claim made about the telephone numbers used to part-fund these particular systems, as they allegedly defy the standard charges levied by all telephone call service providers. It is claimed that the 084 numbers used are "not more expensive to call than using an ordinary number".

I must urge those able to identify the provider of these systems to obtain a clear and accurate understanding of how the systems are "co-funded" and accurate details of how exceptional charges are applied by all telephone call service providers for calls to these numbers.

I see it as most important that inaccurate information about this company and the services it provides is not placed in the public domain. It is vital that the issues raised are discussed with total respect for accuracy by all parties.

NHS Contracts

The contractual terms which apply to delivery of both NHS GP and Dentistry services make it clear that any payment by patients to the benefit to the practice (or a third party, e.g. a telephone system provider) can only be those on standard scales approved by parliament and with exemptions applied as defined. (See GMS contract clause 483 and GDS contract clause 241.)

As this principle had been widely abused, general regulations about telephone numbers have now been applied to GP contracts (see GMS contract clause 29B). It has not yet been seen to be necessary to apply similar general conditions to NHS Dentists.

In 2005, specific regulations regarding only some particular types of telephone number were applied to both. (See GMS contract clause 29A and GDS contract clause 70.) Unfortunately in 2005, the government had itself been misled about the cost of calling 084 numbers, as it made the extraordinary and inaccurate claim that these "offer patients a guaranteed low call rate" (see this media release).

Enhanced telephony

The "enhanced telephony" facilities available on 0844 numbers are equally available on 03 numbers, and may be available on some 01/02 numbers. (Identical facilities are available on all non-geographic numbers: 03, 070, 080, 084, 087 and 09 ranges.)

Calls to 03 numbers are charged on the same basis as calls to geographic numbers for all callers. Use of 03 numbers is therefore fully compliant with the principles of the NHS.

Those offering NHS services, paid for only through NHS payments to the practice and specifically stated and authorised charges, cannot use 0844 (or indeed 0843 or 0845) numbers. Use of 070, 080, 087 and 09 numbers is also prohibited (except where exceptional arrangements are made in the case of 080).

Returning to compliance

The PSDS article fails to indicate that it is not necessary to terminate the entire contract to move into compliance with the principles of the NHS.

Provision of network telephone service is only part of the contract, which is primarily a leasing agreement covering the provision of locally installed equipment. Whilst the revenue sharing financial benefits are derived from use of a 084 number, the enhanced telephony features are available on other numbers.

Any practice which wishes, or has already chosen, to invest in "enhanced telephony" for the benefit of its patients can adopt or migrate to a 03 number at any time - the equivalent 0344 number is reserved for this specific purpose.

It is standard practice in the telephone industry to allow migration from one type of non-geographic number to another at any point in the term of a contract, without penalty. There is no good reason why any system provider would wish to impede a move from 0844 to 0344, as this would do nothing more than shift the on-going cost of the system from the patient to the Dentist / GP.

Any system provider that sought to prevent its clients from complying with the principles of the NHS (and the terms of their NHS contracts), when this involved no compromise of its own interests, would be taking a most extraordinary position. I hope that nobody would suggest that any company is behaving in this way without first verifying the accuracy of such a claim.

It may be noted that the BMA makes such a claim about provider(s) to GPs - "many GP practices have signed multi-year contracts with telephone services providers which cannot be varied, renegotiated or terminated without substantial financial penalty" (I quote from comments on this specific issue in the latest BMA Guidance).

"The leading provider of enhanced telephony to the health sector"

Many would assume that the comments made above all relate to a company which describes itself as "the leading provider of enhanced telephony to the health sector".

My concern is that only accurate information about this company is placed in the public domain. There are concerns about inaccurate information having been published, which have been heightened as a result of its new owner having chosen to take a prominent public position, through the broadcast media.

Ofcom shows why public service providers must cease using 0845 telephone numbers, initially providing 0345 alternatives

Some interesting figures emerge from the Ofcom Communications Market Report 2011 - published on 4 August 2011. See Conclusion.

It is well known that, due to special regulations which apply only to it alone, BT is able to offer calls to 0845 numbers without charging a premium over the cost of an ordinary call. (BT does however charge a premium for 0845 calls made by those who subscribe to its "social tariff" - BT Basic.)

All call originating telephone companies have to pay on a revenue share of around 2p per minute to the call recipient on 0845 calls. Except when under the conditions which apply to BT, they may pass this on directly to the caller as a premium over the charge for a call to a geographic number. Most commonly they exclude these calls from discounted and call inclusive arrangements, thereby effectively applying a much greater premium. This is seen most clearly in the mobile market where intense competition causes the cost of calls to ordinary landline numbers to be kept very low. Calls to 0845 numbers from public payphones are charged at 30 times the rate of calls to ordinary numbers.

It is common to refer to BT Call Plans (which provide free calls to geographic and 0845 numbers) as if these applied to an overwhelming majority of callers, with the dismissive comment that "others may vary".

The figures shown below indicate the proportion of the population who are being dismissed in this way by public service providers.

I refer, in particular, to NHS Direct, HMRC and the various DWP agencies - all of whom primarily use 0845 numbers for enquiries.

Public service providers must consider the whole of the population they are serving, not some selective group, nor what may be (perhaps wrongly) thought to be a majority.

Those requiring "non-geographic" telephone numbers must move away from 0845 numbers and IMMEDIATELY OFFER THE 03 EQUIVALENT AS AN ALTERNATIVE.

Citizens who cannot afford a telephone, choose Virgin Media as their telephone provider, find a mobile phone best for their needs or subscribe to BT Basic, should not be required to suffer a premium charge for contacting public services providers.

The Cabinet Office sets the standard for all public services, through Guidance or Direction. I note that an e-petition to the Cabinet Office, on this very point, has just been started.

I refer below to data from Section 5 - Telecoms and Networks of the Ofcom Communications Market Report 2011 - published on 4 August 2011.

Shares of non-business call origination

Calls from Landlines

The report notes on page 286 - "BT’s share of retail residential UK voice call volumes falls below 40%".

The most recent, and fully inclusive, figure (from Table 8 of the Telecommunications market data tables for the three months to March 2011) is 39.9%.

This means that significantly less than half of all residential landline calls are made under the specially regulated terms which apply only to BT.

Share of all Calls

By breaking down the respective totals for Business and Non-Business calls (see note) it may be seen that only 61.4% of non-business calls are made from landlines.

This shows a BT percentage of total call volumes at (39.9% x 61.4% =) 24.5%.

Less than a quarter of all non-business calls are made under the specially regulated terms which apply only to BT.

Household availability of landlines

Where important services are provided by telephone, one must have regard to those households which are unable to access these from a landline, and would therefore use a mobile or public payphone.

The Ofcom report publishes (on page 319) the proportions of households, categorised in various ways, which DO NOT have a landline telephone:

Total Population: 16%

Socio-economic groups DE: 27%

Households aged 16-24: 32%

Households aged 25-34: 23%

Over a quarter of households both of the socially disadvantaged, and of younger families, do not have a landline.


BT may be the largest single provider of telephone call services, however its charges for calls to 084 numbers are wholly atypical due to unique regulation. Attempts to justify use of revenue sharing 084 numbers on the basis of BT charges are thereby fundamentally invalid.

The figures given above indicate the proportions of the population who are being subjected to improper premium charges when required to access pubic services through a 0845 number.

Where non-geographic numbers are required, 03 numbers offer the only equitable option - * Callers pay only the cost of a normal telephone call. * Providers meet the cost of their telephone operations, unsubsidised.

Migration to 03 numbers – initially parallel operation of the 0345 equivalent of every 0845 number, as an alternative – is not only vital, but conveniently and inexpensively achieved.

The Cabinet Office, which initially pressed for the introduction of 03 numbers, must sieze this issue as a way of demonstrating the government’s commitment to equity.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Department of Health decides to roll out 111 nationally - without knowing the cost

In a letter published today, demanding plans for implementation of the 111 telephone service throughout England, it is announced that the roll out will happen. This decision has been taken before the planned evaluation of the pilots which was scheduled for the Autumn. Most disturbingly, it has been taken before any of the costing figures from the pilots have been assembled.

Cost was a primary motivation behind the decision to abandon the nationally managed NHS Direct health advice and information service, in favour of the locally run 111 service.

The modest subsidy which NHS Direct derives from its use of a 0845 telephone number (at much greater premium cost to callers, e.g. 1.7p per minute vs. 41p per minute) goes little way towards offsetting the considerable costs it incurs in providing a comprehensive health advice and information service by telephone.

The 111 service was said to be ONLY for URGENT, but non-emergency, calls. The evidence from the few pilots that are currently running shows that many non-urgent calls are being received and handled. This is not identified as an issue that needs to be addressed.

The NHS Direct NHS Trust has been awarded the position of being the default provider of the 111 service, despite its poor record for economy. The idea that each locality could address the needs of its people in the most suitable manner has been abandoned. A needless rush will, most likely, simply transfer the same costly NHS Direct service from one number to another, whilst also adding further costs.

Rather than benefitting from a fraction of the premium rates paid by patients to call the 0845 number, calls to the 111 service will be at no charge to the caller. Even if the caller would have been able to call a local or 03 number at no cost, the NHS will pay every telephone company for every call to 111. When the figures are assembled and released we will know how much that amounts to.

At a time when great care is being taken with public spending, it is extraordinary to see such recklessness. I am not opposed to spending money on the NHS, nor to the concept of the 111 service. I am however disturbed to see so much money being spent on ill-justified reorganisations and unproved projects at a time when resources are under pressure.

There are some who think that the present NHS re-organisation (which will be simply rubber-stamped when the Health Bill is passed) is just phase 1 of something bolder. Some think that the NHS is being deliberately fattened up with cash denied to others.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

**** disrespecting the NHS

On 3 August I published a news release in which I referred to Daisy Group Plc.

I now understand that this may contain material which is misleading and inaccurate.

I must ask that anyone who has read this item contact Daisy Group Plc before using any of this material to ensure that only accurate information about this company is published.

Please accept my apologies if you have been misled in any way.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The telephone rip-off for aspiring university students is here again

As results day approaches, UCAS has apparently doubled the number of staff ready to take calls on its PREMIUM RATE TELEPHONE LINE. (See The Independent - 1 August 2011.)

UCAS advises that calls to its (Phonepay Plus-regulated) premium rate number 0871 468 0 468 "will cost no more than 9p per minute" from a UK BT landline. This statement is false.

The facts

Those looking to study mathematics may be able to work out that after paying a call setup fee of 12.5p and a rate per minute of 9.19p, with the total call cost rounded up to the nearest penny, those using a BT landline will be paying more than 9p per minute. For example, a 7 minute call will cost 77p, 11p per minute. Students of the law may however recognise that such deception is not explicitly prohibited under Phonepay Plus regulations.

Budding economists or students of commerce will perhaps be aware that nearly all of the 9.19p per minute BT charge (including VAT) is passed over to the provider of telephone service to UCAS (Cable & Wireless) as a subsidy towards the cost of its telephone system - at the expense of callers.

Historians will perhaps understand that this unique regulation on BT is a legacy from when it was the monopoly provider. Other telephone companies are able to add their own charges to the rate amount paid to UCAS.

BT charges vary from the rest

UCAS declares that "Calls from mobiles and other networks may vary".

Pedantic logicians may argue that because BT alone is prohibited from adding its own charge - it is BT that varies from the norm by having unusually low charges for these calls.

Virgin Media, for example, charges a call connection fee of 13.24p plus 10.22p per minute for these calls.

Calls from Mobiles

Many 6th form students will have mobile phones loaded with packages and bundles to offer text messages and / or calls to normal landline numbers and other mobiles at relatively low rates. None of these bundles cover calls to Premium Rate numbers.

All of the major mobile providers charge between 35p and 41p per minute for calls to the UCAS premium rate number. Excluding VAT, only around 7.5p per minute of this benefits UCAS - the rest is simply revenue for the mobile companies.

UCAS may argue that this is a fair "service charge" for use of its Customer Services Unit, including the time spent waiting to be connected to an advisor. This does not however seem to be a particularly effective way of collecting such a charge, when the "agent" (the telephone company) takes so great a premium over its normal call charges.

Budding philosophers will note that this may be a valuable lesson for those starting an independent life. If they cannot secure a place in higher education and call their local job centre; the number is 0845 6060 234. This yields Job Centre Plus only around 2p per minute in subsidy, but the per minute charge rates to call this number from Virgin Media and the Mobile Providers are exactly the same as for the premium rate UCAS number.

The same is true for tax or tax credit enquiries of HMRC - 0845 300 0627 / 0845 300 3900, and even for NHS Direct - 0845 4647.


The modest subsidies which these public bodies achieve from use of these expensive telephone numbers are dwarfed by the additional cost incurred by callers. If they need the benefits of a non-geographic number, these are fully available on 03 numbers.

All calls to 03 numbers are charged on the same basis as a call to a geographic number - in many cases this means that they are covered by an inclusive call package.

Gradual and highly cost-effective migration to 03 is possible by introducing the 03 equivalents of the 08 numbers as alternatives. In every case the equivalent number is reserved for the very purpose and may be very readily put in place, as a replacement or an alternative; i.e.

0371 468 0 468, 0345 6060 234, 0345 300 0627 / 0345 300 3900 and 0345 4647.

If one or more public service providers were simply to advise callers that they could get through at much lesser cost by swapping the second digit "8" for a "3" on any published 084 or 087 number, then this disgraceful and unnecessary rip-off could be ended very easily and swiftly.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Parliamentary Committee urges HMRC to stop using "premium charge" 0845 telephone numbers

In its report on "The Administration and effectiveness of HM Revenue and Customs", the Treasury Select Committee calls on HMRC to "investigate alternatives to 0845 numbers, including 0345".

This falls short of my demand that HMRC immediately make available the 0345 equivalent for every one of its 0845 numbers.

This pragmatic and easily adopted solution could enable callers to save up to 41p per minute in premium charges. By simply allowing the second digit of any published HMRC number to be swapped from a "8" to a "3", the cost and confusion of lots of individual number changes could be avoided. Furthermore, such a measure could be adopted immediately, without waiting for a new telephone service contract.

The loss of the modest subsidy which HMRC derives from its use of 0845 numbers would be more than offset by the saving to callers. In most cases calls to 03 numbers are included in call packages, whereas 0845 numbers are subject to a premium charge. The one exception to this rule is BT, which originates around 25% of non-business calls. BT includes both 0845 and 03 numbers in its call packages and is prevented by regulation from adding its own charge to the money it has to pay to HMRC on 0845 calls.

I have demanded that the same approach of providing 0345 equivalent numbers be adopted by DWP agencies, NHS Direct, NHS 24 and all other public bodies (including BBC local radio stations) currently using 0845 numbers. When circumstances permit, or number rationalisation is being undertaken, then proper changes to 03 numbers can occur.

If Ofcom goes ahead with its proposals for revised regulation of non-geographic numbers, HMRC (and others) will shortly be required to always advise the "Service Charge" of around 2p per minute which is imposed on callers to 0845 numbers, to its benefit. Telephone companies will also be required to publish their associated "Access Charge". When this long overdue transparency is applied to this murky area, HMRC will not be able to hide from the need to justify its Service Charge, which is presently hidden within "bundled" telephone call charges.

All 03 numbers are classified as “Geographic Rate” as calls must be charged at no greater rate than that for a geographic number. Service Charges and Access Charges do not apply to calls to geographic or 03 numbers.


1.The Report is summarised here - note the first listed Recommendation.
2.The Conclusions and recommendations are listed here - see item 27.
3.The relevant item in the report is found here - see sections 112 / 113.
4.My evidence to the committee is published here.
5.Details of the effect of Ofcom's proposals and further comments are found here.

Yahoo Media Player Instructions

Listening to sound clips

(For a full catalogue of radio and other sound items, visit Radio / Sound Player)

Links to sound clips in blog postings will appear with a play/pause button alongside them in the text.
Click on the button to hear the item.

The player controls will appear at the bottom left corner of the screen.
Explore the options and features.

  • To minimise; click on right hand button.
  • To close after use; click on "x".
  • For details about the item hover the mouse over the title.
  • Help with entering comments

    • All comments are subject to moderation

    • Anonymous comments are unlikely to be published

    • If no "id", use the Name/URL option - the URL is optional

    • A contact email address (entered with the name) will enable private dialogue


    Blog Archive by Date

    View Blog by Label

    NHS (99) Ofcom (1) Parl (6) PSC (44) SC (29)

    Search This Blog