David Hickson's Media Releases

My recent bloggings

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.

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