AN important issue is being raised in Parliament next week by my MP colleague Chris Stephens, who is presenting a Ten-Minute Rule Bill which aims to restrict the cost of phoning various government departments.

Although the Department for Work and Pensions claims the average charge for telephone calls is about £5, the same department estimates that the average call lasts for 12 minutes and 56 seconds, which could result in charges as high as £9. It’s not just the DWP that is guilty of this, the Home Office Spousal Visa helpline charges £1.37 per minute over and above network rates. In contrast, there is a UK Government helpline for the High Net Worth Unit – which investigates the tax affairs of the UK’s wealthiest individuals – is a cheap-rate 03000 number.

In the case of the DWP, you also have to remember these calls are usually made by people on benefits, who are often trying to find out why their benefit is reduced or even delayed. The Tory Government doesn’t think twice about using this as an opportunity to raise money from those with very limited resources, while high earners are allowed cheap calls! The continuing cuts to public services across the UK have resulted in many public bodies moving to a “digital by default” approach to dealing with their customers. It’s a lot cheaper to answer an email than it is to talk to someone either by telephone or face to face. Although there may be advantages to moving to internet- based communication, it isn’t a solution for everyone. There are many people who either can’t afford or can’t use online technologies and they are gradually being left behind by public services as the shift to digital by default increases and support for those “offline” starts to dwindle.

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In my own constituency, my local council – Renfrewshire – has reduced the opening hours of its customer contact centre by more than 10 hours per week, making it more difficult for residents to contact council officers either by telephone or face-to-face.

This is despite regular reports highlighting long queues on the phone lines as calls continue to be unanswered or left on hold. Surely there was a better solution to this than simply reducing the limited hours the centre is open to the public?

The reduction in access to public services to those left behind in the move to digital by default was highlighted in a report by Age UK, which showed a clear link between internet use, socio-economic group and age. This report provided evidence that, unsurprisingly, it is the poorest, older people who are most likely to be offline.

This is significant as many of the poorest older people are already reluctant to claim support they are entitled to. Age UK estimates that as much as £3.7 billion of pension credit and housing benefit alone could be going unclaimed simply because these people don’t realise they are entitled to it, are too proud or embarrassed to claim, or simply think the process for claims is too complicated. Removing their access to help via face-to-face conversations, or even by telephone, means it is unlikely that this figure will decrease significantly. Yet too often many government departments and public services try to force claimants to use the internet.

Age UK’s findings were also in line with more recent research by the Carnegie Trust which found that households without access to the internet were also likely to be deprived in other ways. Based on information from the Scottish Household Survey, the Trust found a high degree of overlap between digital exclusion and common measures of deprivation.

It seems that digital technology is actually exacerbating rather than bridging long-standing inequalities in society. The move to digital by default is leaving behind those who are most in need of support. Not enough is being done to support those who rely on face-to-face meetings or telephone calls. In particular, the use of premium-rate call charges will have severe impacts on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

All public bodies should be looking at how to tackle this growing digital divide, but premium rate phone calls are not the answer. Of course, while constituents have to wait in long queues when phoning UK Government departments, and pay excessive charges for their calls – this isn’t the same for MPs. If MPs – or their staff – are after information from a UK Government department, then there are no premium phone numbers, and every call is answered quickly. It’s simply not fair that taxpayers are getting a shoddy treatment by the DWP (and others) when it doesn’t seem to be a problem when an MP (or their office staff) gets in touch.

The shift to digital by default may promise a transformation of how the public interact with the UK Government and other public services but that’s no use if a significant number of people, especially those who require the most support, are left behind.

This means that telephone services should be as affordable as possible, including calls made from mobiles as more and more people do away with landlines.

If the UK Government can provide a cheap phoneline for the richest in our society when chasing up their tax returns, then a similar offer should be in place for the most vulnerable in society.