National Audit Office report is a big step forward in tackling rip-off phone rates


A National Audit Office report concluded today that the use of high cost phone lines across government is complex, ineffective, and leaving vulnerable individuals with the highest charges.

After I held a debate on this issue, calling on the Cabinet Office to urgently improve the government’s performance in this area, the NAO has now concluded that government departments should eliminate the use of 084 numbers for services supporting vulnerable individuals, and make major improvements in the overall telephone services system.

The report provides an in-depth analysis of the government’s customer telephone lines, which people use for public enquires, information on taxes, pensions and benefits, and paying for services. The NAO counted at least 365 government customer telephone numbers, 33% of which are high cost. The report reveals that these higher rate (084) numbers are estimated to have cost the public a staggering £56 million in 2012-2013 alone. Nearly half of all high rate lines are used for services that serve vulnerable and low income groups, with the Department of Work and Pensions as one of the worst offenders.

Importantly, the report reveals that switching to alternative lower rate numbers – such as the 03 range and 0800 free phone numbers – will be a cost saving solution for the public. The NAO estimate that switching from high-cost numbers to the cheaper 03 range would save the public £29 million a year and cost the Government £7 million a year, and switching to free phone 0800 numbers would currently save callers £46 million a year and cost the Government £21 million a year.

Along with other Labour MP’s, I have been calling on the Cabinet Office – who are the body responsible for the effective running of government – to end the use of high cost phone lines and establish a clear and coherent system across the Government. So I fully agree with the Cabinet Office conclusion that a clear policy is needed to determine when different phone lines are needed by each department, with stronger central control from the Cabinet Office .This will end the inconsistent and uncoordinated system we have at the moment.

I particularly welcome the conclusion that the Government must protect those on low incomes by fully eliminating high cost numbers for services that vulnerable people rely on. This was a point that I have been pressing Minister’s on, as it is people who don’t have the security of landlines or contract phones – but use pay as you go mobiles and even phone boxes – who need these services most.

I know that the constituents contacting me about this issue – who have been justifiably angry that calling essential government telephone lines leaves them with sky high bills – will welcome this report today. It is a big step forward in tackling this issue, and I hope the Government will act now to end the scandal of rip-off rates.

The NAO report also sets out proposals to improve the transparency and performance of the Government customer telephone system, including recommendations to increase the use of a ‘call back’ system; provide better access to low cost lines; and ensure that information on the costs of calls is clear. You can read the full report here.


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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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