caller

It may seem like it takes forever for someone to pick up the phone when you ring a government helpline. It doesn't quite take forever: it takes an astonishing 7,600 years. That's the total length of time Brits spent queuing on government helplines last year.

And it's costing us a fortune.


The figures were revealed to the Public Accounts Committee. The Daily Mail reported that Fiona Mactaggart, MP for Slough, revealed the statistics in a hearing discussing the government's use of premium rate phone numbers.

She added that as a test, staff in her office had called HMRC, and it took 25 minutes to answer the call. It also emerged that nine out of ten calls to a government phone line on a tax deadline day were not answered.

The hearing came as a result of the National Audit Office's findings on the phone lines in July. As we reported, it revealed that callers spent more than £80 million ringing government premium rate phone numbers last year - £26 of it while they were waiting to be connected. The government raked in £56 million as a result.

They found that a third of government lines charged premium rates, but they were responsible for 63% of all calls to the government.

They highlighted that it was often the most vulnerable people, calling about benefits or NHS treatment, who were subjected to eye-watering costs.

Response

The good news is that the revelations and debates are finally triggering some action. The BBC reported that senior civil servant Richard Heaton told the committee that in light of the findings the government would review its use of premium rate phone numbers. He said the new approach would be put together in 6-8 weeks.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the new rules will be binding and have any teeth, or will be some woolly voluntary guidelines.

The DWP meanwhile said it would offer a choice between 0845 and 0345 numbers - so people could choose whatever was cheapest for their phone contract. They emphasised that benefit lines would remain 0800 numbers.

The National Audit Office has estimated that all government departments switching to 0345 numbers would save consumers £29 million a year - while switching to 0800 numbers would save £46 million a year.

Average landline call costs to 03 numbers cost around 3.4p per minute and 1.1p from mobile phones, which usually offer free minutes on contracts. Average 0844 numbers cost 5.6p from landlines and 17.1p from a mobile. Freephone numbers cost mobile users an average of 16.2p per minute.

What can you do?

In the interim, there is a small step you can make. Part of the cost of being left on hold is waiting for a disembodied voice to run through a huge series of menus for you to choose from.

The website pleasepress1.com has compiled a list of the menu options, so you don't have to wait and you can bypass the process. For example, if you have an income tax enquiry for HMRC you could spend 4 minutes and 35 seconds on the 0845 number getting through 74 options on the menus. Or you could dial 1-hold-1-3-2-2.

So before you call the government, it's worth checking out the codes, to see if you can cut the length of your call and save money.