I was concerned to read John Thurso’s proposals for a “Universal Service Code” for “organisations providing a service to the public”, in particular the suggestion that there must be a commitment to
“Make their customer service phone number free to call from both mobiles and landlines”.This suggests that LibDems do not understand the issues on which I am campaigning. By proposing an excessive response to a genuine issue, it distorts debate by making it too easy to reject the arguments for change. I would propose a commitment to
not impose charges on telephone callers for access to public services(I have subsequently been directed to the relevant policy paper).
Free from mobiles!
There are presently no standard arrangements in place for making calls to customer service lines free to call from mobiles. At present, any organisation wishing to achieve this would have to negotiate some sort of deal with each of mobile companies. A special arrangement exists for mobile companies to waive their charges on calls to clearly defined “helplines”, however this voluntary scheme could not be extended to cover all customer service calls.
The costs of mobile telephony are presently reflected in call charges, rather than line rental. The simplest way to address the problem of these high call charges would be to transfer the costs onto line rental charges, but think of the implications! This proposal suggests that these costs should be carried by customers in general in the private sector and taxpayers in the public sector, rather than those who use mobile phones.
In the absence of any suggestion about how free calls from mobiles could be achieved, it is foolish to suggest that organisations be required to commit to something they would have great difficulty in achieving, even if they were willing to do it and it was the right thing to do.
Who pays for what?
I believe that in most cases it is reasonable for the caller to incur the cost of a “normal” call from their selected telephone service provider when contacting an “organisation serving the public”; I include providers of “free at the point of need” NHS services. Incidental third party costs are invariably incurred when accessing services, e.g. the bus or taxi fare, or cost of parking in a public car park, when attending an appointment, the cost of a broadband service to access an organisation online and the cost of a stamp when writing. Whether or not unlimited “normal” calls are inclusive in one’s telephone package, I see no reason why these costs should invariably be subsidised by taxpayers or other customers.
The issue on which I am campaigning is use of “revenue sharing” 084x telephone numbers. These cause the caller to incur a premium charge (in one way or another) to subsidise the cost of providing the service. I believe that the “neutrality” offered by 03xx or ordinary geographic numbers, whereby the caller incurs only their own incidental costs, is quite appropriate for most cases and that nothing more should be demanded.
The essential point is that callers should not be subject to a charge imposed by the “organisation serving the public” (through use of a revenue sharing number), except where this is a justified and fully explained service fee. That is very different from saying that organisations should pick up the bill for whatever type of telephone service the caller happens to use.