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Government Services (Telecommunication Charges)

Volume 621: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2017

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrict charges for using telecommunications to contact certain government advice services; and for connected purposes.

The Bill that I am proposing would regulate the provision of telecommunications advice lines by all Government Departments so that call charges to citizens would be restricted or, for the most vulnerable, eliminated. It would ask Government Departments to conduct an assessment for each local authority area of the provision of public computer equipment capable of being used by Department for Work and Pensions claimants, for example, and to publish the results. If that assessment were to demonstrates that the total number of units of public computer equipment was less than one for every 20 claimants, all Secretaries of States would have to make provision for a dedicated telephone number that could be accessed at zero cost, including without having to use coins or cards at a public telephone. I also propose that if Departments were unable to take a call within a reasonable period, such as five minutes, the caller should be given a regularly updated estimate of the likely waiting time, with the offer of an immediate call-back facility. That is an essential courtesy.

MPs often encounter examples of unfairness and injustice when, through no fault of their own, people seem to be punished for finding themselves in need, and where rules and regulations actively harm, not help, the average citizen who is simply seeking what they are entitled to. A key part of the role of an elected Member is to help people to navigate their way through the system, but since being elected, I have been shocked by the in-built unfairness and the costs of claiming.

Take the Department for Work and Pensions. Although an initial inquiry to the DWP is free, follow-up inquiries about a claim, queries about benefits sanctions, or even reporting that a benefit has not been paid on time all come with call charges. Constituents have told me that those calls can be very expensive—as much as £9 or £16 a time—and that long waiting times to speak to an adviser bump up that cost even further.

Other examples of services that charge for access are the child maintenance helpline and the Home Office helpline for inquiries about spousal visas, which costs £1.37 a minute over and above network charges. There can be no justification for the Home Office imposing charges on anyone for a genuine inquiry service. Dealing with telephone inquiries must be treated as a valid overhead cost that is covered by the fees levied for the application process itself.

Telephone network charges vary and, again, they can be seen to discriminate against the least well-off. All providers include 03 numbers in their inclusive call packages, but calls to such numbers are often presented as if they are available only to those who are well off. That even applies to pay-as-you-go arrangements, which are more likely to be used by low-income households. They may be unaware of the bundles that enable calls to be made at no more than 7p a minute, rather than the range of 10p a minute to 55p a minute suggested on the Government website, as updated on 7 February.

I thank David Hickson of the fair telecoms campaign for providing me with information as I prepared this Bill. David tells me that the campaign fully supports the use of 0800 numbers, and the consequent bonanza for telephone companies, in cases when it is essential that nobody pays for a call. He is, however, concerned that greater use of 0800 numbers would do nothing to help constituents who get ripped off when calling friends, or their MP, on ordinary numbers. There is therefore a strong case for us all to push the point that it is essential to ensure that everybody chooses the most appropriate telephone call plan for their needs. Those of us who are well-off, smart consumers do that anyway, but there is a need for greater assistance and guidance to be given to all.

Last July, the Social Security Advisory Committee recommended that all telephone calls to the DWP should be free via 0800 numbers. The Government’s response was that that would cost £7 million, which is not a lot in the context of the overall budget. The roll-out of universal credit threatens to extend call times and costs to claimants due to the nature of the new benefit, which will require frequent contact from claimants to update the DWP on their circumstances. A ministerial written answer last year revealed that the average length of a call to the universal credit helpline is seven minutes and 29 seconds, which is equivalent to £4.40 at one major phone operator’s rates. Universal credit is a replacement for jobseeker’s allowance, and the weekly equivalent is £73.34, so claimants will already have less to live on than they are allocated simply for calling a helpline.

The push over the edge into poverty should not be administered by the DWP and other Government Departments through charging for inquiry lines. When the safety net becomes a trap, it is time to ask what sort of Government boost telephone company profits on the backs of the poor.

Far from working to create a society that is fair for all, the Government have not responded positively so far to the campaign to remove telephone helpline charges, which can be up to 55p a minute. When I have queried the cost of calling, the ministerial response has inevitably mentioned the alternative of online access for inquiries and claims. That is fine for those who are digitally literate, who can afford broadband and who live in an area with good connectivity, but it is not so great otherwise and a further in-built barrier that stops people from accessing the support to which they are entitled. Although there has been some funding for public access terminals and digital learning, if all the people who seek advice on claims were to switch from phoning to the use of public internet access terminals, libraries and community centres would be unable to cope with the demand.

When I was researching this issue, I was particularly struck by a DWP spokesperson’s response to the telephone tax campaign last year, which was that online access is widely available through the network of jobcentres. I pause for a moment as we reflect on the proposed closure programme for the DWP estate. It should not be too difficult to conduct an audit, in conjunction with local authorities, to identify the availability of free online access terminals to our constituents, or the lack thereof. In fact, I am inclined to conduct one in my constituency of Glasgow South West and to compare that with the claimant count. I strongly suspect that that would reveal a mismatch.

The other stock ministerial response to questions about phone charges for inquirers is the use of a call-back, but it is rather difficult for an inquirer who is on hold if a call-back is not offered routinely. A call-back also requires the caller to self-identify as vulnerable. That in-built humiliation within the system is familiar to those of us who have watched “I, Daniel Blake”.

Ministers have promised a review of telephone charges, but I ask the Government to act on the recommendations of the 2016 Social Security Advisory Committee report “Telephony in DWP and HMRC: an update” as part of the review, introduce a more effective call-back system for vulnerable customers, and bring in an information system that advises customers of possible wait times.  That should be adopted across all Government services as best practice. The need for reform is pressing with regard to benefit claims, but over-the-top charging for information, through a lack of recognition of the least well-off’s limited access to the range of phone packages available and a lack of digital inclusion, excludes and discriminates against far too many of our citizens.

As Mr David McAuley from the Trussell Trust put it:

“When incomes are extremely tight, we could see people being forced to choose between phoning to make a…claim and buying essential food supplies”.

Unless people have been in that position, or have a case load from a constituency like mine, it might be difficult for them to understand how disempowering or discriminatory the system can be, and that every penny spent on a phone call ramps up stress and anxiety for people who simply want access to information, support and the benefits to which they are entitled. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Chris Stephens, Mhairi Black, Jonathan Edwards, Neil Gray, Dr Philippa Whitford, Drew Hendry, Ms Margaret Ritchie, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Ian Blackford, Mr Jim Cunningham, Grahame M. Morris and Mark Durkan present the Bill.

Chris Stephens accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 141).