Thursday, 2 January 2014

Which? calls for action on premium rate lines

From the current issue of the Big Issue in the North magazine 

Which? is calling on the government to get its act together over premium rate phone lines after a crackdown on expensive calls to GP surgeries was delayed until next year.
The consumer campaigning charity spoke out after GP practices were given extra time to fall in line with guidance originally issued in 2011 by the Department of Health to help end the costly numbers.
Gaps in the guidance
The government has also recently issued proposals to force companies to offer customers who call to complain normal landline prices. However, they do not cover the government’s own departments or the finance and transport sectors.
Which? wants the government to drop its own premium rate lines and to force all companies to provide cheaper phone numbers for customers.
Premium rate numbers were introduced in 1998. Today, the 084 and 087 numbers can cost up to 41 pence a minute and nearly £2 billion annually is spent by consumers on them.
Benefit claimants in particular are badly affected by the charges. For example, crisis loans to people on low incomes are only accessible through an 0845 number.
Last year, there were 130 million calls to government departments that charged premium rates. Telephone giant Cable and Wireless made a £1 million profit in 2012 by providing 0845 lines to HM Revenue and Customs.
Growing anger at the costly charges forced the government to promise action in 2011.
“All reasonable steps”
Now, GP practices have been told they must take “all reasonable steps” to end their use of premium
rate numbers within a year. Currently, one in 12 practices continue to force their patients to use 084 numbers when making an appointment.
Under the new guidelines, patients will be offered cheaper geographical rates.
Jo Swinson, the consumer minister, has also issued draft proposals to force major companies to offer customers who wish to complain normal landline prices. But the Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire excluded government departments as well as the finance and transport sectors from the proposals.
Most banks, building societies and credit card companies use premium rate lines, although both RBS and Barclays have recently announced that they will stop doing so.
Which? has persuaded more than 60,000 people to sign its Costly Calls campaign petition calling on the government to ban premium rate lines for customer and complaint lines and it wants all companies to provide customers with cheaper phone numbers.

A Which? spokesperson said: “This practice has been costing cash-strapped customers millions. The Cabinet Office should lead by example by acting quickly to end premium rate calls to the government and public bodies and then revise their proposals to ensure the law bans costly calls to companies.

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