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 provide for maximum waiting times for customers who are contacting providers of utilities and certain other services by telephone; to require such companies to ensure that customers can speak to a person within that maximum waiting time; to restrict the use of automated menus on telephone services offered by such companies; to provide for financial penalties for companies that fail to meet these standards; and for connected purposes.
I would first like to say how pleased I am to have worked with the Daily Mail and Money Mail, specifically Helena Kelly and Tilly Armstrong, to support the Money Mail “Pick Up or Pay Up” campaign.
How often do we hear the dreaded phrase, “Sorry, we’re rather busy right now, but your call is important to us. Please hold the line”? How often do we have to wait 15, 20, 30 or 40-plus minutes on the phone to get through, after spending the first five minutes being asked to press 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6? How often do we wait all that time to get through and then get cut off, so that we have to start the whole horrific process all over again?
Utility companies, big multinationals with chief executives earning huge salaries, have created a Kafkaesque torture chamber of customer service. That is now happening every day across the United Kingdom, and has been for some time now, as families all over Britain try to contact their utility and service providers. Customer service standards plummeted during the pandemic, as companies grappled with the new work guidelines, but they still have not recovered and, worse still, some companies use that as an excuse, despite most workplaces having returned to normal.
According to Citizens Advice, customer service ratings for energy firms, for example, are the worst they have been since 2017, with the highest-performing suppliers scoring less than 60% for customer satisfaction. Those ratings, as the suppliers admit, are due to these egregiously long waiting times, yet seemingly no action has been taken to rectify that terrible quality of service for essential needs. In fact, consumer-facing service providers seem to be finding any way to avoid blame or accountability, to the point that NOW TV, talking to a member of my office, claimed that the death of Her late Majesty the Queen was the reason for any potential waiting times. As the saying goes, you couldn’t make it up.
Often, once we have surpassed such messages and clicked all the right buttons, we are then told by an automated voice that in fact the best route is via an online portal or text chat, despite having already been on hold for 20 minutes—and that is if we are even lucky enough to find the necessary contact details. Money Mail and the Daily Mail discovered that telecoms giants and energy suppliers are burying their telephone numbers on obscure pages of their websites to deter customers from calling for help.
That is unacceptable, and it does not even take into account vulnerable or elderly customers who either do not have access to a computer or simply do not have the tools to use one. One 80-year-old reader told the Daily Mail that they do not have a smartphone and hence are frustrated when making calls to providers when an automated voice asks them questions that they cannot answer with their phone.
My office colleague, who I mentioned earlier, tried to purchase a NOW broadband package, still did not have their broadband connected after two months. They were told, incredibly, that their complaint about the delay had in fact caused a further delay to their service. Yet there are no consequences for increasingly anxious and frustrated consumers across Britain.
That is why we need to have financial penalties for large utility and service providers, much like the precedent that has been set in Spain. New Spanish consumer laws will force big companies and utility firms to answer calls within three minutes or face fines of up to £85,000. Consumers will also have the right to be put through to a human on the phone, rather than having to deal with an automated system.
We need a similar law in the UK to ensure, first, that no one would have to wait longer than 10 minutes on the phone—even that is pretty generous—secondly, that every customer would get through to a real human being, as opposed to an automated machine or robot, and thirdly, that companies would remove the “1, 2, 3” options, which are all about trying to get customers off the phone instead of talking to them. Should businesses fail to meet those standards, they will be fined heavily and the money paid back to the customer through rebates.
We are in a cost of living crisis. Consumers need easy and accessible customer service from their energy and utility providers. Companies such as SSE, which supplies energy, phone and broadband to UK homes, should not be allowed to leave people waiting for up to 50 minutes. Utility and service providers have a duty to their consumers, and currently, practices are not good enough with telephone services aiming to get people off the phone, rather than on it. That needs to change, which is why this Consumer Telephone Service Standards Bill is so vital to making large providers accountable. As the Daily Mail says, “Pick Up or Pay Up.”
Question put and agreed to.
That Robert Halfon, Margaret Ferrier, Dame Caroline Dinenage, Sir Roger Gale, Peter Aldous, Daisy Cooper, Kevin Hollinrake, Mr Louie French, Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck, Lucy Allan, Stephen Metcalfe and Jim Shannon present the Bill.
Robert Halfon accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 March 2023, and to be printed (Bill 176).