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