THOUSANDS of unemployed, disabled and elderly people in South Yorkshire are being forced to use ‘rip-off’ 0845 phone numbers when enquiring about benefits, jobs and pensions.
Wentworth and Dearne Labour MP John Healey has highlighted how 148 of the Department for Work and Pensions’ phone lines - some 87 per cent - are 0845 numbers.
Such lines cost up to 41p a minute from a mobile and 10p a minute from a landline.
Mr Healey has also found hundreds of thousands of callers each week give up on getting through to the department’s expensive helplines after being kept on hold for several minutes.
He obtained figures under the Freedom of Information Act which show more than a third of calls to the Employment and Support Allowance helpline are abandoned and that, on average, callers to the Incapacity Benefit reassessment line wait nearly 13 minutes before they hang up without having been answered.
A 13-minute call to an 0845 number could cost more than £5.
Some 27,000 people in South Yorkshire claim ESA at present. Tens of thousands more claim a raft of other benefits and there are hundreds of thousands of pensioners.
The average call answered by the DWP lasts eight minutes and could cost more than £3.
Mr Healey said: “People needing to call these rip-off numbers will usually be on low and fixed incomes and they may not have a landline.
“If they need to make a claim, ask for information or advice or report a mistake or change in circumstances the cost of the call will take a big chunk out of their already stretched budget.
“The Department is profiting at the expense of the people it is there to help and the high cost is likely to put many off asking for help when they really need it. It is a scandal.”
Mr Healey is now looking to secure a Parliamentary debate on the issue.
He began investigating after a constituent from Goldthorpe complained he was regularly left on hold for more than 20 minutes when phoning his local job centre.
The DWP said: “Calls to 0845 numbers from BT land lines should cost no more than 8p a minute with a 13p call set-up charge. “Customers may pay more if they use another phone company or a mobile phone.”