Tag Archives: operator

Labour’s rail plan – what we need, rather than what we want?

De-railed: After years of reliance on taxpayers' money, it seems the ride may soon by over for some of the UK's rail privateers [Image: PA].

De-railed: After years of reliance on taxpayers’ money, it seems the ride may soon by over for some of the UK’s rail privateers [Image: PA].

The Labour Party seems to have a real problem with offering the public what the public has demanded.

Faced with demand for the railways to be renationalised, they seem set to announce a plan in which private firms compete with a public service for franchises.

The promise of privatisation had been that the new franchise-holders would keep prices down, and any investment should be made by the companies concerned.

In fact, fares and taxpayer investment have rocketed since the railways were privatised by the last full Conservative government in the early 1990s.

It seems that Labour’s plan, which may be announced next week (the party is being very cagey about it), will mean franchises are awarded based on “a pragmatic choice between the state and private sector based on price, reliability and quality of service” (according to a report in The Guardian).

This, we are told, “will provide a solution that allays commuter frustration, provides a fair deal for the taxpayer and does not amount to a return to British Rail”.

Such a decision will not only anger rail unions, Labour MPs who have been calling for renationalisation, and 70 per cent of the British public, but also the rail industry’s private operators, who say current bids for franchises must not be upset by allowing the state to join the process belatedly.

It has also been claimed that an extra risk would be imported onto the public sector balance sheet if a state-owned company won a franchise.

But this is narrow-minded thinking; the state currently spends much more on the railways than it did before they were privatised – we already have a large risk on the public balance sheet.

If these private firms had done their jobs properly, then the taxpayer would not be shouldering so many of their costs and – perhaps – the Labour Party would not be considering even the partial renationalisation that is on the table at the moment.

None of the UK’s current rail operators have kept their promises and after 20 years, it is far too late for them to bleat about the situation they have created.

It should also be noted that the public sector has been running the East Coast Main Line extremely successfully since the franchise run by National Express failed, making expansion of this management model highly attractive to Labour strategists who need to find ways of trimming the burden on the public purse.

As a group of prospective Labour MPs in marginal constituencies wrote in a letter to The Observer, it would mean “hundreds of millions currently lost in private profit would be available to fully fund a bold offer on rail fares”.

If so, it seems that this halfway-house plan may provide exactly what we need, even if it isn’t what anybody wants.

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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?