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Post Office Closures (Northamptonshire)

10.21 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to present a petition organised by Great Doddington parish council, with more than 600 names.

The petition states:


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0844 Telephone Numbers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Steve McCabe.]

10.21 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I am sure that it is on behalf of the whole House that I say that we send out our sympathy to families suffering from flooding during the past few days. I know that my constituents in Burstwick and the surrounding area are concerned tonight that the Burstwick drain may overflow and cause flooding there.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about an issue of great importance to my constituents and an increasing number of people throughout the country: the use of 0844 telephone numbers in GP surgeries. This matter first came to my attention last year when I was contacted by several constituents. They were upset and angry that almost a dozen GP surgeries in the East Riding of Yorkshire had switched to automated phone systems using 0844 numbers, which are significantly more expensive to use than local calls. After looking into the issue in closer detail, it quickly became obvious that this was causing alarm in other parts of the country too.

According to the service provider Network Europe Group, more than 1,200 GP surgeries—about a fifth of the total number of practices in England—are now using these numbers, and it is believed that more than 300 others have had 0844 or 0845 numbers installed by other companies. In November, I tabled a motion in the House calling for an end to this use of 0844 numbers. Almost 60 MPs, from all over the House, have signed it. The Department of Health has also admitted that it has received more than 100 letters of complaint on the subject since January 2007. This issue has united politicians, residents and patients groups alike—people who can spot an unfair practice when they see one, and who do not like it when the chronically ill, the old, the disabled and those on low incomes are taken advantage of. That is what I believe is currently happening, under the present system, under the present Government.

I would like to talk a little about these numbers in more detail, and then discuss how they came into existence in the first place, before giving my reasons why they should cease to be used in this way. Such numbers are part of a revenue-sharing telephone system. I have corresponded on this subject with various people, including the British Medical Association, which suggests that no one has benefited from it. However, in case anyone is any doubt, I looked on the internet this evening, and I can tell the House that Call Sure business telephone numbers will provide basic 0844 special rate G6 telephone numbers and that they have

If someone installs an 0844 number, the company will ensure that the business concerned earns up to 1.45p per minute. I believe that on the scale that GPs operate, that could be up to 2p per minute—albeit that, I am sure, the money is recycled for the benefit of patients.

The money generated from each individual call is shared between the phone operator and the GP practice in question. Although they are not officially classed as premium-rate numbers, the new numbers are up to 4p per minute more expensive to call from a standard BT
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line and can cost up to 40p a minute from a mobile phone. As I said, 2p of that can be contributed to the GP’s practice.

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): Is my hon. Friend saying that in the NHS, which was set up to be free at the point of delivery, people are now having to pay—on top of the basic cost of their call—to get through to their GP? If so, I find that quite extraordinary. I did not know that before I came to the Chamber just now.

Mr. Stuart: It is a shocking fact that after 10 years of this Labour Government—the principle behind the NHS being that it should be free at the point of delivery—my constituents, as they travel to shift work in Hull from rural Holderness, can find themselves, as they drive along, unsure about whether they will secure an appointment that day, whether they will be at work or whether they will have to ask their boss to allow them to go back and see the doctor, and when the systems open at 8 o’clock, they are on their mobile phones—

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Hands-free.

Mr. Stuart: Yes, using a hands-free kit. They may be being driven by a colleague, in a car-share—I am sure that the green inhabitants of my constituency would be doing that. They call up, and when they are put in a queue, it can cost 40p a minute. Whom will it affect most? The chronically ill. Among the chronically ill, on whom will it impact hardest? Those with the lowest incomes. I cannot believe or accept that the Government and the Minister—who I know is a hard-working campaigner for all the people in our system, and takes a great interest in social care and other matters—are comfortable with that ongoing scandal.

Rob Marris: May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that things are worse than that? If his constituents decide to phone NHS Direct, they use an 0845 number. If they lose their jobs, they might be faced with an 0845 number when claiming jobseeker’s allowance through the Department for Work and Pensions. If they get tax credits, they might have to call an 0845 number. Even worse, if they are fed up with all that and complain to the parliamentary ombudsman, they still have to call an 0845 number.

Mr. Stuart: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I am sure that the House welcomes his intervention.

The system directs patients to services and clinics at their local practice. Network Europe Group claims that it benefits patients because it allows them to be placed in a queue, rather than having to put up with a constant engaged tone. Previously, it says, 92 out of every 100 people who called their local GP surgery were greeted with an engaged tone. Patients groups, and many of my constituents, however, have complained that people are queuing for much longer under the new system, and consequently being left out of pocket. Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association, said:

21 Jan 2008 : Column 1329

This is not the first time that the issue of high call charges to GP practices has been brought to the attention of the wider public. In April 2005, the Department of Health issued guidance over complaints that GPs were using premium-rate 0870 numbers, which are even more expensive than 0844 numbers. A memo sent to all primary care trust chief executives on 11 April of that year advised that the Department was

It went on to say:

The memo warned GPs that they should

The thinking was that Ofcom would come to the rescue and rule out that practice. It tells us that, in addition to the abolition of 0870 numbers, which then cost around 10p per minute from a landline, the Department had recognised that the use of 0844 numbers within the public sector was unacceptable. That was reinforced in 2006, when Ofcom, as a result of the consultation, decided to create a new countrywide number range, “03”, which would be charged to the consumer at the same rate as calling a geographical number and could be included in any inclusive or low-cost call packages offered by landline or mobile phone companies.

In my area, Kingston Communications provides most of the telephone supply, and my constituents could call 03 numbers free of charge within that package. However, the 0844 system means that they are charged a premium rate. The 03 number was to be an attractive alternative for GP surgeries and other public sector bodies. Unfortunately, however, its take-up was not made mandatory. A Department of Health memo, sent to all PCT chief executives in December 2006, stated:

What has happened since is entirely predictable. Once the 0870 numbers were abolished, GP surgeries moved quickly to install the 0844 numbers. That practice has continued unabated. As I said, 1,200 practices across the country are now using the new system, and the Network Europe Group are thought to be installing the lines in up to 40 surgeries every month, while the Under-Secretary simply sits on the Bench.

The Department of Health has failed to take responsibility for the problem. Its December 2006 memo stated that it is for

21 Jan 2008 : Column 1330

It went on to say that individual PCTs should ensure that

That aspiration, which the Government stated, has not been realised. We are here tonight in the hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us that the Government have recognised where they have gone wrong, and will take steps to remedy the problem.

The message was reinforced in October 2007 when the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), stated in a letter to the chair of the East Riding of Yorkshire patient and public involvement forum:

The Government have subsequently said that although they do not expect GPs to break existing contracts with suppliers, they should not enter into new ones that would mean patients being charged more than for a local call. Clearly, with up to 40 surgeries a month choosing to install the new system, that guidance is not being followed.

While the Department has continued to shirk responsibility for the situation, patients have been suffering. One constituent wrote to me, saying:

Another constituent wrote:

For many people, calling their local GP surgery can be stressful and worrying. That is especially true for the poor, the elderly and the disabled. They should not have to put up with high call charges, too. The Department agrees with that assessment. It has said that patients should not pay more than they normally would for a geographical number. Ofcom also agrees. In a written memo sent to me last week, it stated:

Most of us would agree that there are few more vulnerable groups than the sick and the elderly, yet those phone charges disproportionately affect those two groups of people.

Ofcom has made great progress, in issuing more than 13 million 03 numbers, including to the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Society for the Prevention of
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Cruelty to Animals. However, the problem will be resolved only when the usage of 0844 numbers in GP surgeries is outlawed.

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): Will my hon. Friend confirm that one of the difficulties with the current system is that it is so unclear about what charges are made for which numbers? How much it will cost a patient to call his or her surgery is often a mystery, because it is not clearly advertised on the link to the phone number for that surgery.

Mr. Stuart: My hon. Friend is right: the costs are not transparent. Some of the 0845 numbers have a different tariff from the 0844 numbers, but what they have in common is that they are typically not included in the standard call charges covered by a telephone package.

As I was saying, the problem will be resolved only when the use of 0844 numbers in GP surgeries is outlawed. Neither Ofcom nor the local PCTs have the power to dictate which telephone lines are used by GPs. That can be a matter for only one person—the Secretary of State. I urge the Minister to look again at the issue and put an end to this rip-off practice, which is hurting the poor and the vulnerable, and causing a great deal of distress to thousands of people throughout the country.

10.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing this Adjournment debate on an important subject. He has raised the issue in a number of ways over a period of time. He is right to maintain the focus and the pressure on an issue that should concern all hon. Members and that does concern many patients and families in different communities up and down the country.

May I also associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about people facing concerns connected with flooding? I would say to him that, as in the past, this Government—a Government of a state that is on people’s side when they have difficulties—will intervene to support those communities that are most affected by flooding.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman sought to make a major part of his contribution a party political speech, but I should also tell him, very gently, that people in this country were not that long ago not simply waiting for a few minutes in a queue to have their calls answered, but waiting years to have major operations for serious, life-threatening conditions. Let me say one more gentle thing to the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Graham Stuart: This is not gentle!

Mr. Lewis: I will be even more gentle. One of the inconsistencies that presents itself in the Chamber, day in and day out, is when Opposition parties demand a command-and-control approach to public service intervention, but when in their manifestos and public pronouncements about everything that is wrong with public services they say that they would trust the people and devolve power into the hands of front-line professionals and, on occasions, managers. That is one
21 Jan 2008 : Column 1332
of the great tensions—when Opposition Members, on populist issues or an issue of direct concern to their constituents, demand ministerial intervention at every opportunity. I would therefore say to the hon. Gentleman—again, very gently—that there must be some consistency and integrity in the arguments that hon. Members use about the appropriate responsibilities and accountabilities in our public services.

Mr. Stuart: The Minister is absolutely right: consistency is an important quality. However, after the then Secretary of State for Health said in 2005 that

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