Ill and disabled people here are being charged premium rates to access a government service that is cheaper in the rest of the UK, this newspaper has learned.
People wishing to sign up for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) in Northern Ireland must call 0845 and 0300 numbers, which can cost more than 50p per minute.
The same service in England, Scotland and Wales is covered by the cheaper 0345 option.
ESA is a hugely complicated benefit. What you get depends on your individual circumstances, and those people struggling the most may be able to claim £186.90 a week.
You can apply regardless of whether you are working or unemployed by initially phoning an 0800 freephone number from anywhere in the UK.
However, concerns have been raised for cash-strapped Northern Ireland-based claimants who have found themselves hit with substantial bills after making follow-up phonecalls to numbers promoted on the official government website.
A single mother from Carrickfergus, who asked to remain anonymous, said that she had been charged almost £10 for calling an 0845 number for just a few minutes. “The NI Direct website gives two numbers for general inquiries or to report a change of circumstance — 0845 602 7301 or 0300 123 3012,” she told the Belfast Telegraph.
“I chose the first option and was on hold for several minutes before I finally got through to an operator, although I didn’t think anything of it at the time.
“It was only when I looked at my mobile bill that I noticed I had been charged £9 something for the call, and I was really angry about it.”
A Department for Communities spokeswoman said it had “been gradually phasing out the use of 0845 contact numbers for enquiry lines and moving to services based on 0300 numbers”.
“For older inquiry services where system constraints have not permitted the full replacement of 0845 numbers, the Department for Communities has introduced additional 0300 numbers to mirror these,” the spokeswoman added.
“The department makes every effort to process ESA claims as quickly and effectively as possible via a single 0800 number.
“Processing changes of circumstances and inquiries via separate 0845/0300 numbers avoids new claims being backed up or delayed unnecessarily.”
Citizens Advice said it was time for 0845 numbers to be eradicated. “We were very concerned about the financial cost on the public here from calls to the ESA 0845 number to report a change of circumstances,” said a spokesman.
“As some clients are still using the older high-cost number, we would now welcome further steps from the Government to finally phase out the old 0845 numbers.”
Many organisations across the UK use 03 numbers as an alternative to more expensive 08 numbers. These cost no more than calls to geographic numbers (01 or 02).
Ofcom’s website indicates that 0345 calls from landlines are typically charged at up to 9p per minute, while calls from mobiles typically cost between 3p and 40p per minute.
Regarding 0300 numbers, telephone calls from landlines are typically charged at around 10p a minute, while calls from mobiles again typically cost between 3p and 40p.
The cost of calling 0843, 0844 and 0845 numbers is made up of two parts: an access charge going to your phone company, and a service charge set by the organisation you are calling.
The service charge for calls to 084 numbers is between 0p and 7p a minute, while the access charge is levied by the phone company. Dialling an 08 number while using O2, which is Northern Ireland’s biggest provider, will cost the caller a rate of 45p per minute, for example.