Frustration as MPs say calls to government departments are ‘too expensive’

[Picture: This Is Money]

[Picture: This Is Money]

That’s frustration for the Coalition government, not the public (for a change).

If you’ve ever had to telephone a government department, you probably know that it is about as hard as the private company operating the service can make it. This is to enable that company to screw as much money as possible out of you before you have said a single word to a government employee.

The system is set so that there is only a small number of rings before a machine picks up – this is when they start charging you – and a recorded voice lists a series of options, from which you may choose. Then you wait.

And wait.

They provide music for you to… enjoy, but this is interrupted at 20- or 30-second intervals by another recorded voice telling you that all operators are busy but your call is important.

After a non-specific length of time, a human being comes on the line and tells you that they can’t deal with your problem but will put you through to someone who can. Then its back to the music, interrupted by the recorded voice.

I have no idea what happens after that. I do not have the disposable cash to pay through the nose for the privilege of listening to ‘The Four Seasons’ being ruined. If I want to hear classical music, I’ll get Spotify or – Luddite that I am – spin a CD.

Currently, whenever I receive correspondence saying I should telephone a government department, I respond with a letter. Now that Royal Mail is privatised, I suppose I shall have to find another alternative when prices start to rocket.

Fortunately, it seems Margaret Hodge and the Commons Public Accounts Committee have taken note of the problem and action is being proposed, after it was revealed that people have been paying around £56 million to speak to government departments on premium rate phone lines.

How did they find out? Was it brought to their attention because of the high volume of ‘abusive’ messages from clients who had been told their calls were being recorded, but who still ended up screaming that they had been waiting forever, the call had already cost them the national debt of a small developing country and their spouse and family had given up and left them – most probably for a telephone company executive?

Sadly, this isn’t even news. It was reported in December 2012 that calls to HM Revenue and Customs had left customers paying £33 million a year. Somebody calling from a mobile would have spend £1.92 if they waited the average length of time on hold – and that is before anyone dealt with their query.

According to the BBC, the committee found that one-third of Whitehall numbers used by the public were higher-rate – including those for benefit, victim support and tax inquiries.

This higher rate means calls can cost 10.5p per minute. With the average call costing 56p, this means calls from landlines can last around five minutes and 20 seconds and we can deduce from our own experiences that most people are unlikely to have actually spoken to anybody human at all.

It seems possible, therefore, that the government telephone system – certainly that used by the DWP – is designed, not as a service to “customers” (their word), but as a means of keeping them away. Not only that, but it also seems designed to fleece them of as much money as possible while doing so.

“Customers of government services should be able to contact those services easily and cheaply,” the BBC article quotes Mrs Hodge. “Charging customers higher rates… is not acceptable, especially when the customers are often vulnerable people.”

There was also criticism that calls took too long to answer.

In response, the Department for Work and Pensions has said it will offer a choice between 0845 and 0345 numbers, allowing callers to choose the cheapest line. I’m willing to bet it won’t tell callers which line that is. Also, it will be massively over-used, leading to longer queues, so people will end up paying just as much.

You’ll have noted that nothing was said about cutting down waiting times.

Consumer group Which? wants public bodies and companies to provide either freephone or local rate numbers for customer service and complaints lines, saying it is “ridiculous” to force a huge bill on people, especially when they have to wait on hold.

It isn’t ridiculous if the phone service has been contracted out to a private company, though – as seems to be the case with the DWP, at the very least.

In that circumstance, it’s a money-spinner – one that is about to peter out, if Mrs Hodge gets her way. That’s why this is frustrating for the government.

How many Conservative MPs have financial interests in the Telecoms industry?

29 thoughts on “Frustration as MPs say calls to government departments are ‘too expensive’

  1. William

    What you do is go to your nearest Job Centre and use one of their phones. Lunch time usually the best, less people in. All you need to do is to print out details of a job, from a machine, take the slip over to telephone and call your government department. I refuse to pay to phone government

    1. Jonathan Wilson

      Except I’m beginning to see reports (occasional facebook posts) of the phones being removed from JCP’s… however I cant vouch for the veracity of such posts.

      When you then factor in the “oneline” by default that is being introduced without the introduction of UC as a system then the whole thing is getting worse… having to start a new JSA claim via web or phone, then having to go into a JCP center to then confirm the details is just moronic and a total delaying tactic, its no longer possible to start a claim by walking into a JCP… its a fecking farce. but what can you expect from the un-aborted fetus that is IDS.

    2. clouty

      That’s fine if you are a healthy person who is able to walk, what if you’re housebound with a serious illness and been trying to live on £71.70 a week for the past year because the DWP hasn’t got round to assessing you yet?

    1. Jonathan Wilson

      Which doesn’t have listing for most of the DWP numbers (the whole internal system is 0845; there are no alternative numbers)… occasionally however one manages to get given an internal 0845 number that is picked up almost instantly by a real person every time… I’m guessing by mistake, or perhaps by voicing ones fustration at wasting time talking to people who no feck all and can do nothing but pass you on to another “higher up” who is also sutably challenged in the lack of ability to make any informed choice to “help” and so must refer you to someone else… and if you’re lucky then the number is busy and so, by accident, they give you this internal direct 0845 number.

  2. Florence

    Yet again, JV, you hit the nail on the head. I am begrudgingly beginning to admire Hodge (her Labour Administration of Islington was one of the worst in the 1980s) for her determined dissection of those called in front of the committee.

    We are still all waiting of course for the day that IDS can no longer avoid her interrogation.

    These calls, especially those to the DWP and victims Helpline, really must be free. If a person can loose all their benefits UNLESS a call is made, then it is not just important it is imperative they are able to actually complete the call. (I know that this doesn’t always prevent sanctions, but that’s another thread.) The use of phone calls is absolutely mandated by the DWP, so there cannot be any reason to charge except…..yet again, so bored and angry at having to say it again, ……the poorest are being victimised by the government, and used as a cash cow for their privateers. All those pennies and pounds extracted from the poorest, is just another revenue stream from the poor to the rich under these traitors, transferring millions of pounds to their corporate mates.

    1. Mike Sivier

      I’m VP, not JV – he’s just down the corridor at

      It’s Anne Begg who’s waiting to interrogate IDS (or RTU, as we like to call him here).

      Apart from that – spot on!

      1. Florence

        oops – sorry I really do know you’re VP. I got confused with the new reader pane in WordPress. Plus too many pain killers addling the brain. But my intent is clear, at least!

  3. Jim Drummond

    I have had to ring three diferent office to get the correct number for WPA —- the best one is that one that has an answer message (so you are paying). This extols the virtue of the fabulous web site which can, as if by magic, can answer any query then just cuts you off. They have an address to write to but like Lloyds bank your get an acknowledgement which says that you can expect a reply in 8 to 12 weeks. You mean you aren’t so glade to speak to us or write to us —– what a flipin joke. if they try and stop my benefits at any time I will get the utmost pleasure of once a month taking them to the County court. —— if enough people do it it will soone bring them to their knees. Remember in the County court they have to PROOVE that you didn’t meet the conditions for they payments – let battle commence. If any one is interest

    1. Joe smith

      Yeah, you will get hit with court charges, suggest you avoid monthly action. Perhaps, if several hundred issued proceedings in the same week, against the same department preferably the DWP. notifying the local press of the action and why( remembering the locals like articles which adversley affect locals, the nationals don’t give a feck ) the impact on them could be huge and may make IDS cough in his pants. In any event, the DWP simply could not handle such a volume of cases. Their first action would be to apply for adjournments, followed by applications to set aside, tough, most magistrates are very independant. And if the DWP failed to show they lose. Just a thought.

  4. Ulysse

    Ahhhh, Vivaldi – Spring.
    Ruined forever with the government first line in psychological warfare on their own Subjects.
    Remind me again how the Americans soften up enemies under siege, softened up David Koreshi cult?

  5. thelovelywibblywobblyoldlady

    I don’t know how true this is, but someone told me that if you ‘phone a company and are pesented with a menu; (press 1, 2 and so on), if you keep pressing 0, you should get through to a real person.
    One thing I have tried with success (especially for govenment departments) is to use the number they publicise on their website for people ringing from abroad; you just need to drop the 44 prefix.

  6. Ian Cropper

    This has been a disgrace for some time, particularly as often you are ringing up to complain or resolve an error that they have made. Hardly likely to encourage them to improve their performance.

  7. Hugh

    You forgot to mention the “security questions” where after being on hold for 45 minutes you get asked for name, address, postcode, NI number, bank account number and if you manage all that off the top of your head they will then ask for
    your sort code, fail to answer any one of those questions correctly and you have the phone put down on you after being informed you have failed to answer the security questions, one time I got through to a human and was asking if they had received my appeal form, I was asked what date I had submitted it and gave a vague answer because I couldn’t remember exactly, the DWP person attempting to catch me out for something said “that is not the date I have here?” so I asked again “do you have my appeal form then since you are quoting dates that you would only know if you have it?” unable to answer due to the realisation that she had revealed she had the form she then changed tack and asked if there was a
    phone number I could provide so she could phone me back with the information I requested when she found the form that was actually in front of her at the time,

    I just hung up as it was obvious the whole process was just a wind up to annoy harass and piss off claimants and waste your time, this is not a single occurence as much the same happens every time you phone them.

    1. Mike Sivier

      Thank you for that extra information. I didn’t forget to mention it – as stated in the article, I simply haven’t got that far into a telephone call during the lifetime of this Parliament.

  8. Mike Sivier

    Samuel Miller just told me on Twitter: “When Sue Marsh met with then-Employment Minister Mark Hoban, one of my recommendations to her was to discuss with him the possibility of eliminating government premium rate phone lines.

    “Unfortunately, the matter wasn’t broached because of other important issues and time constraints.”

  9. Thomas M

    If it cost the government money every time there was a phone delay, they would deal with the problem very quickly.

  10. mIke T

    Phoned the DWP, after not being paid Child disability premium etc for 8 weeks since August took me three days of calls to various persons cost over £5 in call fees till eventually I was told by a supervisor they no longer deal with Children! that’s child Tax credits Phoned them, more waiting ,more expense, to be told its takes 6 weeks to even look into it and if I dare phone before the 20th of December that wont discuss its progress!!! Funny thing is its their mistake oh the irony!!!!

  11. jim

    I will be phoning one, namely the DWP to tell them where to shove the P45 they have just sent me for the last 10 mths, of my working life ….. just a thought ,,,when all the sick & disabled are forced back to work your evil masters will be laying you off …. nice !!!

  12. Malcolm Burt

    I have to say that i find your articles very informative & interesting Mike,which i`m sure that many people will find beneficial.I have not had many dealings with the D.W.P.thankfully,but i`ve found a similar scenario exists within the H.M.R.C.My concern though,lies with my local council,There is a direct dial & if you want any particular department you simply ask to be transfered through.Not so however,if you are a benefit claimant.Yes the infamous 0845 number is used & is the only number that a benefit claimant can get through on,for housing & council tax.When i queried this back in the summer,not one member of staff could answer it.No one could tell me when the change was made or who made the change.Please be assured though,in the light of this article i have every intention of pursuing the matter with more vigour.

  13. Tommaz

    Any premium rate call line has to be attached to an ordinary line. For example
    0845 ******* would be automatically transferred to say 0191*******

    Tommaz Jay

  14. Veronica

    The Government and the many departments and thousands of workers are our EMPLOYEES, WE ARE NOT THEIR CLIENTS BUT THEIR EMPLOYERS, so, no, we should not be forced to pay through-the-nose to contact them. It is time that they behaved like employees and, perhaps, work for minimum wage.

  15. deborah

    after enjoying….vivaldi for 25 mins on the o8oo number i phoned the 0345 for 10 more minutes before they cut me off ?! i havent even spoken to them yet grrrr -and they told me to ring (on tuesday -they said ring back thursday as it takes 8 days for them to recieve post) i just wanted to say i sent letter (face to face and phone calls dont count apparently) please lift sanction 🙁 but now i have spent so long reading up online that i want to say why have they sanctioned me when apparently the job centre cannot sanction support group of esa ? ??? 15 mins and 44 seconds …of vivaldi spring concerto -in E ? (yes i looked that up too) and counting … omg am i going to get a big phone bill ? :'( i just want some shopping please…. 17mins and 51 seconds ….. thank you for waiting ..please continue to hold and we will answer your call as soon as possible … blah blah we are usually less busy between 8am -9am 20 mins …. yayy! a reply -just explained i sent letter 23rd may -bloke said tuesday it takes 8 days for them to receive it -ring back thursday will defo have some news for me … today … no news … i explained to the lady i was so relieved to hear her voice i’ve gone right off that answering machine (actually she was sympathetic -qand she rang me b ack -i made her promise -i’m too far gone not to beg) if she’d been a jc hitlerite i’dve lost it … apparently its not a sanction as they cant do that as i’m in support group – so its a *suspension* just to sort that out so the great unwashed understand it … its the same as the difference between a duck … one of its legs is both the same … so i explain that i have to have food to take my antibiotic s and they really need to open their mail as i’ve had to cancel major direct debits already and if i dont hav e busfare for next week my consultants gonna go apoplectic as i’ve just been ill and missed app and theyve squeezed me in fast . i have a promise they will call me between 9 and 12 tomoz so i have everything crossed . best of luck to everyone still hanging on the phone -thanks for letting me vent xX

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