/ Health, Parenting, Technology

Soon, calling public services won’t cost the earth

Cartoon of girl on phone

In another win for our Costly Calls campaign, the Cabinet Office has released new guidance for the use of high rate phone numbers by government departments and public services. We’re on a roll…

When the government announced that travel firms would be covered by new rules banning companies from using pricey numbers for customer lines, many of you asked about public bodies.

Bro told us:

‘What about all public sector offices? Taxpayers pay their wages, pensions, expenses, whatever, then are expected to pay yet further when we wait on the line for someone to answer our call.’

New Cabinet Office guidelines

The good news is that on Boxing Day, the Cabinet Office published new guidelines to call on departments to scrap high rate numbers.

The guidelines state that it’s ‘inappropriate for callers to pay substantial charges for accessing core public services, particularly for vulnerable and low income groups’.

This is illustrated by S Elliott’s comment:

‘Five calls to the Department for Work & Pensions last month cost me £27! I might add none of these calls were for myself but it seems that charging the poor, sick and disabled premium rate numbers is a disgrace!’

Government departments are now being tasked with using geographic 01 or 02 numbers. And if they can’t, they should use the non-geographic 03 prefix by default, which costs the same as 01 and 02.

The guidance doesn’t completely ban 0845 numbers, however an 03 alternative must be offered and departments are encouraged to use this as their primary number.

This will give callers a choice of which number is cheaper for them to call, depending on their call package. Departments are also encouraged to present the 03 option as their primary numbers.

Bye, bye costly numbers

So in the future you’ll be able to avoid high rate 08 numbers when you call government department or public service. For example, our research earlier this year found public services including the Jobcentre Plus, Student Loans Company and The Pension Service using high rate 084 or 087 numbers.

If departments don’t abide by these new rules they will have to explain themselves to Cabinet Office ministers. However, no deadline has been set, so we’ll be pushing for the rules to be enforced as soon as possible. You shouldn’t be left out of pocket when calling essential services.

How much have you been charged to call a public service? Are you glad to see them being asked to hang up on high rate numbers?


Cost me over ten pounds for a single phone call to the DWP asking for a copy of a report. Needless to say the report was never sent to me even though they said it would and I couldn’t afford to keep phoning to ask what had happened to it. It’s absolutely disgusting that people who are more often than not on a minimal amount of money can’t afford to phone the very department that’s supposed to be helping them.

Now we need to know who authorised each public service to use only surcharged numbers in the first place. Given that this is considered such an unfair commercial practice that private businesses won’t be allowed to use these numbers from 13th June 2014, those public officials who authorised the use of these numbers should reasonably have known that it was grossly inappropriate for the public sector. Perhaps a Freedom of Information Act request to each public service would uncover the culprits, who can then be named and shamed.

Ian01 says:
27 December 2013

0845 numbers were widely adopted back in the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, these were charged exactly the same as a “local rate” call to a geographic number. Likewise, 0870 calls were charged at “national rate”. At that time, they were “good” numbers. There was no such thing as inclusive calls on landlines. Mobile usage was rising. Gradually, more and more callers were being exposed to extortionate call rates when calling 0845 and 0870 numbers.

The most favourable pricing arrangements for calls to 0845 and 0870 numbers made by BT landline users ended in 2003 when calls to 01 and 02 numbers became inclusive in call allowances. This suddenly left 0845 and 0870 calls as non-inclusive and therefore relatively expensive in comparison. To fix the problem, Ofcom made 03 numbers available in 2007. These are charged at the same rate as calling 01 and 02 numbers and count towards inclusive allowances on landlines and mobiles.

Adaption of 03 numbers was very low. Many users of 0845 and 0870 numbers seemed to be unaware of the very high rates paid by most callers when calling 0845 and 0870 numbers. Most users seemed to only have awareness of what BT users pay, and no idea that those rates are non-standard.

BT call rates for 084 and 087 numbers are capped. BT are not allowed to make profit on call origination for 084 and 087 numbers. BT’s rates for 084 and 087 numbers are always the lowest of all operators. Other operators add their unregulated markup on top. BT is not allowed to add any markup on 084 and 087 calls. During the week, calls to 0845 numbers are charged by BT at 2p/min and all of that money is passed on to the called party as Service Charge.

BT’s rates for calling 01 and 02 numbers are unregulated. On their AnyTime plan, calls to 01, 02 and 03 numbers are inclusive at all times. On other BT call plans, calls to 01, 02 and 03 numbers are charged at an extortionate 9p/min during weekday daytimes.

This creates an unusual situation. During the daytime, on weekdays, “out of plan” calls made at capped rates to 0845 and 0870 numbers on the “BT Weekend” and “BT Evening and Weekend” plans cost LESS than the unregulated call rates charged by BT for calls to 01, 02 and 03 numbers. This is an anomaly that skews the market and confuses callers. It has led to users retaining their 0845 and 0870 numbers for far longer than they should have.

0845 calls are very expensive for all other callers, especially when called from mobile phones. Likewise calls to 0870 numbers are cheap from landlines and very expensive from mobiles. BT accounts for less than 40% of domestic landline calls. Mobiles account for more than 55% of all calls. BT rates are irrelevant for most callers.

Many users misunderstand these things. For these and other reasons, users of 0845 and 0870 numbers have failed to voluntarily make the change to 03 numbers. Many were confused by BT’s regulated call rates for 084 and 087 numbers and assumed they are the normal rates for these calls. In fact, as already explained, they are the exception in the marketplace.

Recent BIS legislation is now forcing the change to 03 numbers on businesses. Cabinet Office policy is now forcing that change on government departments and public services. Action is awaited by the FCA to force the same change within the financial sector.

When users swap to 03 numbers, some will retain their 0845 numbers for a short time in order to cater for the small number of callers on those unusual tariffs where 0845 calls are cheaper than 03 calls. However, it is likely that many of the users on “Weekend” or “Evening and Weekend” tariffs are actually on the wrong call plan. If they are making even a small number of calls on weekdays, it is likely that an “Anytime” call plan, with calls to 01, 02 and 03 numbers inclusive at all times, is likely to be a much better deal. This will become ever more obvious as more and more users change to 03 numbers.

0845 and 0870 numbers are advantageous to a small number of BT callers making calls outside their inclusive call plan. 03 numbers are advantageous to almost all other callers. That fact had to be recognised before the mass swap to 03 numbers could begin. It should have been recognised years ago but no-one was listening.

Gerry says:
28 December 2013

Hmmm… I’ll believe this when it happens ! It’ll be when I never receive any unwanted marketing / fake survey calls, and when no one ever claims that 084/087 calls are Local Rate, National Rate or Lo-Call. Dream on…

I’ll bet that many public services will follow the example of the worst commercial offenders, who won’t even stop making false claims about call costs let alone change all their numbers before the deadline. Could Which? name and shame a few of them now? Here are three suggestions:-

Santander: I submitted a formal complaint that their website provides inaccurate and out of date call cost information (“0845 & 0870 numbers – Calls from some fixed networks cost no more than a national rate call.”) but after eight weeks they refused point blank to correct anything.

Marks & Spencer: They also repeatedly refused to change their website claims: “All 0845 calls are charged at local rate. All 0870 calls are charged at national rate between 6.9p per minute and 8.9p per minute.”

Royal Mail/Post Office: The ASA upheld my complaint a few years ago, but RM still refuse to amend their false claims. Their website still has 60 references that 0845 is “Local Rate”, and four for “Lo-Call”. Similarly, the latest Post Office leaflet (PL8706) claims that “Local call rates apply”.

When the big boys always get away with such deliberate misrepresentation, what chance is there that the small fry will manage to get it right, especially if they wrongly believe that the highly misleading official BT description of 0845 and 0870 as Local Rate and National Rate is true?

Ian01 says:
28 December 2013

Non-geographic call rates are currently related to what BT charges for these calls on a nominal tariff. It’s a load of outdated mumbo-jumbo, and Ofcom is trying very hard to get rid of it. Likewise the removal of the “NTS Condition”.

What Santander said is true. However, it’s unhelpful, and in the wider context, quite misleading, but it isn’t untrue.

Until Ofcom’s “unbundled tariffs” regime is in place, various anomalies with 0845 and 0870 call pricing will persist. Once the new scheme is in place, the picture will be much more clear.

As for M&S and the Post Office, those do need fixing. At some point, they’ll have to stop talking about BT rates and instead declare their Service Charge. However, I hope that time never arrives because they will have abandoned all usage of 084 and 087 numbers and instead swapped to new 03 numbers.

Gerry says:
28 December 2013

Looks like Which? have deleted my post to which you replied ! I wonder what they objected to? All of it was 100% true.

Fact: On its website, Santander are referring to out-of date pricing information which they admit goes all the way back to 1 March 2013. To which networks are they referring when they claim that “Calls from some fixed networks cost no more than a national rate call”? It’s certainly not BT because a 60p call (minimum fee) from a BT payphone buys just 60 seconds on an 0845 call but half an hour on a long distance (National) call. And as it’s clearly not BT then it’s fairly pointless referring to which ever minor network(s) they have in mind.

Fact: Santander claim that the call set up fee on most 0844 numbers is “up to 13p”, but it’s actually 13.87p or 15p depending on your tariff, so once again Santander are misrepresenting the true cost.

Fact: On another page, Santander claim that 0844 “calls could cost up to 10 pence plus up to 6 pence per minute”. That call set up fee is even more out of date, it’s up to 50% more now !

I’m glad that we both agree that M&S and the Post Office’s claims of “Local Rate” for 0845 are incorrect.

Let’s hope that Which? makes a fuss about this misrepresentation by big companies rather than shooting the messenger that points it out.

Ian01 says:
29 December 2013

The post is back. Some sort of glitch?

Less than 40% of residential landline calls originate from a BT landline. More than 55% of all calls originate from mobile phones. Quoting BT call rates is completely useless for ~80% of callers, made worse when the quote hasn’t been updated after a price change.

The sooner businesses using 084, 087 and 09 numbers move over to quoting their Service Charge, the better. The new “unbundled tarriffs” system doesn’t allow connection fees, so that will be one less thing to worry about.

However, for most businesses this will not be an issue simply because they will no longer be using 084, 087 or 09 numbers and will instead be using only 01, 02, 03 or 080 numbers.

Peter M says:
1 February 2014

I was rather shocked yesterday night to find that several Citizens’ Advice Bureau in N W England have 0844 or 0845 numbers. Some have 01xxx numbers, and while I know they have charity status there’s still the principle involved, concerning taking money from those whose last resort may be the CAB.

Fully understand the complaints about “lo-call” and similar wording when firms mention call charges.

I do get the impression even some of the PR firm and organisations getting numbers seem “lost” when it comes to how they display them, for easy use/ memory by users, and it’s no wonder slogans like “Lo-Call” still get used because someone, somewhere, probably in Marketing, remembers getting an 0845 number 15 years ago and they still think it helps the callers.

Even my local council has 0845 numbers (and some 01xxx for some services) but guess what, they primarily show the 0845 numbers…

Peter M says:
1 February 2014

(sorry, Bureaux 🙂 – before someone chips in to correct me!)

Peter M says:
1 February 2014

“The good news is that on Boxing Day, the Cabinet Office published new guidelines to call on departments to scrap high rate numbers.”

Shame that on the Which? web page reached via the link “Cabinet Office published new guidelines” there’s noting linking to any Government document or Press Release that would allow an individual to use when writing to a local councillor, their MP, or MEP.

Surely it’s quite easy when preparing an article (often taking quotes or creating a precis of the original) for your staff to also link to the original web page. It would make life much easier if making a complaint to an organisation, than linking to a Which? site page and saying “Which? says this has been done”.

Westmister council refuses to provide a non-0845 number even after repeated emails … !!!! I dont think we can get rid of 0845 number until these numbers are discontinued by OFCOM!!!

Excerpts of my conversation below:
To: parag
Sent: Wed Oct 8, 2014 12:47 PM
Subject: RE: Premium rate telephone contact number
Capita Secure SMTP Gateway


Thank you for your below e-mail.

As my colleague has previously advised our contact number is 0845-302-3400.

I was unable to open your link.


Miss X
Revenues Officer
Westminster Council Tax

From: parag
Sent: 29 September 2014 13:28
To: Westminster Council Tax 1
Subject: RE: Premium rate telephone contact number


As requested in my original email, please provide a conctact number starting with 01, 02, or 03 and not 0845

Pl refer to this govt guidance https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/268785/hmg-guidance-customer-service-lines.pdf

It is unfortunate that the response below from you doesnt address my original query.



Gerry says:
8 October 2014

Just remind Miss X that Westminster has been breaking the law since 13 June 2014 when the Consumer Contracts: Information, Cancellation and Additional Payments Regulations came into force, and that her refusal to resolve the issue constitutes Maladministration.

For good measure, threaten to take them to Local Government Ombudsman (0300 061 0614). That should concentrate Westminster’s tiny, greedy minds quite wonderfully !

Gerry says:
8 October 2014

If Ofcom really represented consumers rather than just its chums in the industry, it would have instructed all telcos that all 084/087 numbers should always be charged at exactly the same rates as 01 and 02 numbers. That should be quite straightforward; they’ve already done this for the 03 number range.

If any organisation wishes to keep using an expensive number then Ofcom should require them to change to the equivalent 094/097 number. This would end all the confusion by making all expensive numbers easily recognisable.

It’s utterly absurd that rip-off 0870 numbers are allowed to share the same ‘friendly’ number range as the free 0800 and 0808 numbers, but that’s Ofcom’s crazy logic for you !

Ofcom have opted for a simpler and more effective solution.

From 26 June 2015, all users of 084, 087, 09 and 118 numbers are required to declare their Service Charge. For those who are prevented by regulation from levying this charge and for those who are unable to justify this charge, Ofcom made matching 034 and 037 numbers available in 2007.

Ofcom are imposing price transparency on those number ranges. In so doing, usage will fall.

Other bodies have produced regulation and guidance effectively imposing a move away from 084 and 087 numbers over to new 01, 02 or 03 numbers. These include BIS and CO, and they may eventually be joined by the FCA.