The government is charging the poorest people in Brighton and Hove premium phone rates for calling many vital services.
Job centre appointments, child support advice and help with pensions, bereavements, student loans and the national minimum wage all involved calling 0845 numbers at charges of up to 41p a minute.
And a critical report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee – a cross-party group of MPs – found that too many callers were kept on hold for too long.
One MP complained that a constituent had spent £30 just to make an appointment with a doctor for her disabled son.
The Public Accounts Committee report, published today (Monday 11 November), said that government departments were “continuing to make extensive use of higher rate phone numbers for customer telephone lines despite the fact that many people are put off calling as a result”.
The report, entitled Charges for customer telephone lines, said: “The most vulnerable callers, on the lowest incomes, face some of the highest charges.
“Costs to callers are even higher because the caller has to endure long waiting times and poor customer service.
“We welcome the Cabinet Office’s acknowledgement that it was ‘inappropriate’ for vulnerable citizens to pay a substantial charge to access public services and its commitment to establish best practice in this field and ensure it is followed across government.
“In 2012-13 central government handled at least 208 million telephone calls.
“Some 63 per cent of calls to central government were to higher rate telephone numbers.
“The estimated cost to callers of these calls in 2012-13 was £56 million.
“Callers to higher rate lines paid £26 million in call charges while waiting to speak to an adviser.
“Costs of phone calls using 0845 or other higher rate phone numbers hit the poorest the hardest, particularly because they are most likely to be using mobile phones where the charges are even higher.”
The report said that a snapshot had showed that 120 of the 365 customer telephone lines across central government – or almost a third – used higher rate numbers.
Some 205 used less expensive geographic or equivalent numbers and just 40 were freephone numbers.
The report added: “The Department for Work and Pensions is the only department that consistently uses automated messages to warn callers to higher rate lines serving vulnerable groups of the cost of calls.
“The Cabinet Office recognises that the current situation is unacceptable and told us that it had recently established a working group that would prepare new principles for telephone use within six to eight weeks of our hearing.”
Only one doctor’s surgery in Brighton appears to be using a premium-rate number, the Ridgeway Surgery in Wodingdean, run by Jeremy Baker and Dodie Fahmy. It uses an 0844 number.
The Pensions Regulator, which is based in Trafalgar Street, Brighton, uses 0845 numbers for some callers including whistleblowers.