Charities criticised over use of premium-rate phone lines

18 Sep 2019 News

The fair telecoms campaign has criticised 29 charities and voluntary organisations that are using premium numbers which can charge callers up to 72p.

The campaign published a briefing last week saying that the charities earn comparatively little from the calls, with the large majority going to the phone companies.

The charities listed were benefiting by no more than 7p a minute through a service charge, but up to 65p a minute from the access charge was going to the phone companies. So callers could be charged 72p a minute, or £7.20 for a ten-minute conversation.

The level of the access charge is fixed for each user’s telephone tariff and applies to all 084, 087, 09 and 118 calls.

David Hickson, who leads the campaign, said these levels of access charge may be proportionate for expensive premium rate services, but are a “ridiculous overhead” for 084 and 087 numbers, which cannot impose a service charge of more than 13p per minute (including VAT).

The charity lines listed as charging premium rates include St John Ambulance’s enquiry line and the Salvation Army's line for clothes bank donations. Many others were helpline services run by smaller charities.

St John Ambulance has since said it will end the use of these numbers.

'Undermines the concept of charity'

Hickson said that charities were effectively “passing costs on to customers”, which “undermines the whole concept of services being charitable and free”.

He said “it is great that people are volunteering their time”, but that charities should not be offering “free” helplines if they have not got the funds.

The campaign argues that although users of 084 / 087 numbers have no control over the level of the access charge, it is their decision to choose a number to which it applies.

It said that by choosing a geographic or 03 number, most callers will pay nothing to call, because most telephone users cover all of their calls with an inclusive call plans.

Hickson said other organisations which previously charged their callers have now adopted “geographic rate” or “free” helpline numbers.

Funding pressures

One of the organisations listed in the report told Civil Society News that  certain helpline numbers, such as an 0844 number for callers, allow it to transfer the line to voluntary advisers around the country.

It said that using premium rate numbers was the most cost-effective way to provide the service, especially where it is difficult to raise funding. 

A spokesperson for The Salvation Army said: “As a Christian church and charity which has been fighting against social inequality and transforming lives for over 150 years we do our best to keep costs for people getting in touch to an absolute minimum. 

“The majority of The Salvation Army’s contact numbers use local dialling codes or 0300 numbers, these include our fundraising department, our family tracing service and our confidential 24-hour anti-human trafficking help line. 

“On the occasions where 0845 numbers are used, as in the case of our clothing banks operated by The Salvation Army Trading Company, the costs of calling the lines are clearly displayed on our banks and website. The costs are minimal and we do not make a profit from call charges.” 

Helplines Partnership: We encourage charities to opt for low-cost options

Paula Ojok, chief executive at Helplines Partnership, said: “We recognise that many charities face funding difficulties and that a freephone number represents an additional cost for the organisation.

“However, as the membership body for organisations that provide information, support or advice via phone, email, text or online, we would encourage all helplines to access a freephone or low-cost number such as the Helpline Freephone Range (HFR).

“The HFR scheme is a group of 10,000 freephone numbers reserved exclusively for helplines supporting vulnerable people which guarantee a low incoming call rate for the helpline.

“Having an HFR number provides confidentiality to vulnerable callers and removes cost barriers that could prevent them from accessing much needed support, advice or information from helplines.”

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