Skip to main content

Jobcentre Plus (Telecoms Charges)

Volume 464: debated on Monday 8 October 2007

5. What recent discussion he has had with Ofcom on the charging policies of telecommunication companies toward the 0845 numbers used by Jobcentre Plus; and if he will make a statement. (156107)

Jobcentre Plus conducted a review, which was completed in July, which investigated the inbound telephone numbering plan that supports the contact centre and benefit delivery centre operations. During the review, Ofcom’s call numbering team was approached on an informal basis for advice on developing the Jobcentre Plus internal numbering strategy, particularly regarding the future tariff structures of the 0845 range.

Some telecoms providers charge higher than normal rates for all 08 numbers, even so-called freephone numbers, which means that some unemployed Jobcentre Plus clients are paying charges that they cannot afford for the advice, information and assistance that they need. Will the Minister tell the House why those people cannot ring a local centre, at lower, local rates? Will she expand the review to which she has referred to include this issue, and reassure us that the Department is not receiving a rake-off from the excess charges generated at the moment?

I am aware that some mobile phone companies charge significantly over the basic rate. We have had discussions with them, but their pricing policies are very much a matter for them. I want to give my hon. Friend some comfort, however. Since 1 August, the cost of an 0845 number on BT lines has fallen from 3p to 2p a minute. When someone calls our helpline, we are careful to make them aware how long the call will take, and to ensure that they are aware of the mobile phone charges that can accrue to the call. We then advise them that they can phone back on a land-line if they want to do so. If they cannot do that, our advisers will call them back. That ensures that nobody is disadvantaged because they cannot afford the price of a telephone call.

Is the Minister aware that many people trying to claim benefits over the phone either cannot get through or are told that they will be called back even though they do not have a phone? The social fund commissioner’s office found that fewer than one in five calls were answered, so will the Minister end the Government’s complacency about the effect of the faceless state on people in real difficulties and ensure that those in particular need can either see a Jobcentre Plus official or have an official make the call on their behalf?

I appreciate the enthusiasm that the hon. Gentleman brings to his post, but we do of course offer face-to-face interviews with Jobcentre Plus advisers in appropriate circumstances. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I can assure him that that is the case. It is very clear in some application processes that a third person can speak on behalf of the applicant. More than 90 per cent. of calls are answered, but we are aware that we have to continue to review matters in order to ensure that the system is made even better. I take great exception to the hon. Gentleman’s comment that this amounts to a “faceless state”. We have a whole range of committed and dedicated benefit advisers across the country whose main job and principal occupation and commitment is to ensure that people get the help that they need at the time that they need it.

The benefit advisers do a very good job, but is it not fairly tacky to use such a system for people to apply for the assistance and help to which they are entitled? Would it not be better simply to ask that no Government Department anywhere in Whitehall continue the growing practice of using 0845 numbers? If people have already paid through their taxes to receive services from Her Majesty’s Government that are of a high standard, no impediment should be placed in their way.

With the utmost respect, may I say to my hon. Friend that we have discovered that contact centres are generally more convenient for customers to access, because they remove the need personally to go to a local jobcentre. On cost comparisons, I have already said that the cost of a land-line telephone call is 2p a minute. Again, with the greatest respect, I have to say that, in comparison with the cost of a bus or train journey to a local office, contact centres are appropriate for most people. Harking back to my response to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), we will ensure that where people want an interview and in some instances a face-to-face application process we will deliver that.