The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mr Mark Hoban): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey)

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on securing this debate. He focused most of his remarks on 0845 numbers, but they are not the only numbers the Department uses. As I explain, I will give a more balanced picture of the telephone situation than the one he gave in what I thought was a selective presentation of the information.

The Department has set out clear principles for the provision of telephone services. Indeed, they were set out when the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the previous Government in 2008. There are four clear principles. First, calls to claim benefits should be free to the customer. Secondly, there should be a consistent approach across the Department, both for clarity and equity. Thirdly, the approach should make sense from the customer’s point of view, rather than being driven by product lines or organisational structure. Fourthly, it must be sustainable in terms of future business models and changes in the telephony market.

To enact those principles, calls to claim benefit are free and utilise 0800 numbers. The right hon. Gentleman said that crisis loan calls were not free, but they are. Other calls that typically take less time to resolve are made to 0845 numbers. Their use means that the customer is charged the same amount regardless of their geographical location or that of the DWP office they are calling. The exact cost will vary depending on the caller’s phone number and the service provider. I will give more detail on that later.

The Department provides customers with a facility to make a free telephone call to claim the state pension, pension credit, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, crisis loans and other emergency payments. These calls are free of charge from all major landline providers. The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Ofcom changes making it free to call these numbers from a mobile. The Department has already made that change. As a result, eight of the UK’s largest mobile phone operators—O2, Orange, Vodafone, T-Mobile, Hutchison 3G, Tesco Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Cable and Wireless—allow their customers to make those calls for free already.

The Department uses 0800 and 0845 numbers, rather than the geographical 01 and 02 numbers, to enable the operation of a virtual telephony network across the UK. This network has been in place for working-age benefits and crisis loans since 2008, and allows callers to be directed to the next available adviser with the appropriate skills to answer a customer’s inquiry. For example, someone ringing from their home in Rotherham or Barnsley to make a claim for jobseeker’s allowance might be connected to an adviser in Dundee, Derby or Poole. They will be directed to the first adviser available, rather than left hanging on the telephone waiting for the call to be answered in their local benefit or contact centre. Furthermore, should that person wish to make an inquiry about their benefits later on, that call would be answered by the first available adviser in a centre, wherever that centre might be, rather than left waiting for someone in their local centre to answer.

The use of these numbers gives the Department the flexibility to manage the peaks and troughs of the different types of inquiries it receives nationally. Calls can be routed to additional centres, as and when volumes require, and advisers are trained to handle more than one type of inquiry. This method of handling customer calls has proved to be much more efficient than the

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previous system, under which calls were directed to specific offices without the facility to reroute them to meet customer demands. It is designed to help facilitate and speed up the response to telephone calls. The use of geographic numbers would undermine the ability of the business to manage effectively the significant volume of calls received each year, and would result in a less efficient process.

Let me deal with the issue of costs. Charges for 0845 numbers vary depending on the service provider, personal contract and time of day a call is made. As a result, the costs to consumers are beyond DWP control. About 75% of calls to the DWP originate from landlines. If calls to 0845 numbers fall within the terms of a customer’s call plan, they are free. BT, the largest landline provider, charges 7.95p a minute, plus a 13.1p connection fee, where the call is made outside the inclusive plan. The right hon. Gentleman implied, without really making it explicit, that he thought the Government were benefiting from the cost of 0845 calls. We do not receive the termination payment. Other major landline providers charge between 6.63p and 10.22p a minute—also with connection charges—while the charge varies for calls from mobiles.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of 03 numbers. Depending on the service provider and the contract or call plan, many customers would currently pay more to contact the DWP if 0845 numbers were simply replaced by 03 numbers, so that would not be an easy solution to the problem. He needs to recognise that the situation is more complex than that.

John Healey: The caller pays the termination charge, so if the Government do not receive it, and most organisations using the service receive the access charge component, who receives the value of the termination charge?

Mr Hoban: The people or organisations hosting those 0845 numbers are the ones who earn the components of those calls.

Let me turn to the duration of calls. In line with the departmental principles that I outlined at the outset, calls to claim benefit should be free, because they are longer on average than calls to other numbers. For example, between April and October the average duration of calls by working-age customers to our free 0800 numbers was 25 minutes and 28 seconds, while the average duration of calls to our 0845 numbers was seven minutes and 42 seconds. We have sought to use our resources to ensure that those making the longest calls—mainly to claim benefits—can make them for free. Again, that is an important distinction that we need to recognise. Duration of calls is a factor that we have taken into account for those lines used to make claims, because there can be quite lengthy discussions between DWP claimants and call centre agents.

We have touched on the cost of 0845 calls and what would happen if we replaced them. The estimate is that replacing 0845 numbers with a free service would cost in excess of £12 million, because of changes to contracts and significant migration costs, including changes to branding and marketing. It is unlikely that mobile phone operators would agree to extend the scope of the current agreement for free mobile calls to the DWP’s 0800 numbers to cover such an increase. The right hon.

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Gentleman talked about the number of unemployed people in his constituency. Spending £12 million on migrating to 0800 numbers would mean £12 million less to spend on the Department’s other activities. He is a former Treasury Minister and he will know about the priorities and difficult choices that Governments have to make about where money is spent. If we spend more money on free telephone calls, someone else somewhere in the system has to bear that cost. I want to ensure that as much of our taxpayers’ money as possible is spent on getting people into work, rather than on looking at further changes to the telephony service, particularly given that the longest calls made by people claiming benefits are to freephone numbers.

The right hon. Gentleman was slightly dismissive of the mitigation measures we have put in place to help customers. We will offer to terminate a call and ring the customer back if they are concerned about the cost. That service is available, and I think it is well known. I would encourage people who are concerned about the cost to use that service.

We also provide customer access phones in Jobcentre Plus. I suspect that if they were put in a soundproof booth in the corner, the right hon. Gentleman would accuse us of hiding them from claimants. I have known him long enough to suggest that that might be a line of attack that he might take. We ensure that the phones are visible and that they can be used. As part of our

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strategy, we are also encouraging more people to use online facilities to seek information and guidance. We have launched a new online service for jobseekers this week, which will help to improve the quality of service. We are trying to increase the number of ways in which claimants can contact the DWP without necessarily having to use the telephone service, and as we continue to develop our digital strategy, that will become an important part of how we deliver benefits. It is also a key part of universal credit.

In conclusion, we recognise that the issue about customer waiting times is an important one. That is why we have recruited more staff and trained them on 0845 benefit inquiry lines. The working age and pensions service lines have a central network management team that can move work around the network in real time to bring a balance of service delivery on all service lines. We are also trying to improve our call answering metrics. In line with the principles set out by the previous Government, which we have followed, we have ensured that calls in which people are making claims are free, to 0800 numbers, and that customers know that there are alternatives out there if they feel that the cost of calling an 0845 number is prohibitively expensive. We are taking the right action, and we want to continue to promote such alternatives to our claimants.

Question put and agreed to.

7.31 pm

House adjourned.

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Deferred Division

Social Security

That this draft Benefit Cap (Housing Benefit) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 16 July, be approved.

The House divided:

Ayes 283, Noes 203.

Division No. 103]


Adams, Nigel

Aldous, Peter

Alexander, rh Danny

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Sir Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Baron, Mr John

Bebb, Guto

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Benyon, Richard

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Brake, rh Tom

Bray, Angie

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brooke, Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burt, Lorely

Byles, Dan

Cameron, rh Mr David

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Cash, Mr William

Chishti, Rehman

Chope, Mr Christopher

Clappison, Mr James

Clark, rh Greg

Clegg, rh Mr Nick

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, Stephen

Crockart, Mike

Crouch, Tracey

Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duddridge, James

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, rh Michael

Farron, Tim

Featherstone, Lynne

Field, Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freer, Mike

Fuller, Richard

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Green, rh Damian

Greening, rh Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Hague, rh Mr William

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hancock, Matthew

Hands, Greg

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Heald, Oliver

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Hermon, Lady

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Huhne, rh Chris

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Hunter, Mark

Huppert, Dr Julian

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kennedy, rh Mr Charles

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Laing, Mrs Eleanor

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Latham, Pauline

Laws, rh Mr David

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Dr Phillip

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Mr Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Lopresti, Jack

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Maude, rh Mr Francis

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

Menzies, Mark

Mercer, Patrick

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, rh Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mulholland, Greg

Mundell, rh David

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Brien, Mr Stephen

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Osborne, rh Mr George

Ottaway, Richard

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Reid, Mr Alan

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Rutley, David

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Shepherd, Mr Richard

Simpson, Mr Keith

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Sir Robert

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Stunell, rh Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Tapsell, rh Sir Peter

Thurso, John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Ward, Mr David

Watkinson, Angela

Weatherley, Mike

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wright, Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Zahawi, Nadhim


Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Ashworth, Jonathan

Bain, Mr William

Banks, Gordon

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Benn, rh Hilary

Berger, Luciana

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Brown, Mr Russell

Bryant, Chris

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Gregory

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Caton, Martin

Chapman, Jenny

Clark, Katy

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Sir Tony

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

Darling, rh Mr Alistair

David, Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobbin, Jim

Docherty, Thomas

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Doughty, Stephen

Dowd, Jim

Doyle, Gemma

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Maria

Efford, Clive

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Esterson, Bill

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flint, rh Caroline

Fovargue, Yvonne

Francis, Dr Hywel

Gapes, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Goggins, rh Paul

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Mr David

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Harris, Mr Tom

Healey, rh John

Hendrick, Mark

Hilling, Julie

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hopkins, Kelvin

Hosie, Stewart

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Jamieson, Cathy

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Susan Elan

Jowell, rh Dame Tessa

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lavery, Ian

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leslie, Chris

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Long, Naomi

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Caroline

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

McCabe, Steve

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McClymont, Gregg

McCrea, Dr William

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonnell, Dr Alasdair

McDonnell, John

McGovern, Jim

McGuire, rh Mrs Anne

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

McKinnell, Catherine

Meacher, rh Mr Michael

Meale, Sir Alan

Mearns, Ian

Miliband, rh Edward

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morrice, Graeme


Mudie, Mr George

Munn, Meg

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Ian

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Owen, Albert

Pearce, Teresa

Perkins, Toby

Pound, Stephen

Powell, Lucy

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reynolds, Emma

Reynolds, Jonathan

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Sarwar, Anas

Sawford, Andrew

Shannon, Jim

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheridan, Jim

Shuker, Gavin

Simpson, David

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Nick

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Teather, Sarah

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Twigg, Derek

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, rh Keith

Walley, Joan

Watson, Mr Tom

Watts, Mr Dave

Weir, Mr Mike

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Williams, Hywel

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Sammy

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Question accordingly agreed to.

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