Minister urged to act on high call costs at Centrelink

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Telstra has announced that it has removed call charges to 1800 numbers from Telstra mobiles.

Traditionally 1800 numbers have only been free-of-charge from landlines.  Calls from mobile phones are generally charged at timed rates.  This has led to many people being saddled with high costs while waiting for considerable periods when calling the Centrelink call network.

The Australian Communications Media Authority (ACMA), the telecommunications regulator, has reached agreements with all carriers that by 1 January 2015 they will offer free calls to 1800 numbers on their networks. That means that Centrelink customers will be able to call an 1800 number even if on a prepaid plan and when they have no credit.  A survey commissioned by ACMA in 2013 found that 85.7 per cent of those on low-incomes had a mobile phone, opposed to only 38.2 per cent who had a fixed landline.

Unfortunately, the main call lines operated by Centrelink are still ‘13’ numbers, which means people will continue to be hit with huge call costs when calling from a mobile phone. The National Welfare Rights Network (NWRN) has urged the Minister for Human Services, Marise Payne, to significantly expand access to 1800 Freecall numbers for people seeking information and services offered by the Department of Human Services.

Problems with 13 call costs remain. Providers plan to introduce so-called “13-Friendly” plans, where calls to 13 or 1300 numbers will be charged from existing call credit and people must “opt in” to new plans. Some may find these arrangements confusing and this approach will not address high cost problems for people waiting on the end of the phone to talk to a Centrelink operator, or using self-service.

High call costs are likely to remain a problem for many because the majority of lines used by DHS customers are still ‘13’ listed numbers. The two main Centrelink Phone Self Service lines, the Self Service line and the Reporting line only offer a ‘13’ option. General inquiry lines for information about payments and services that are most frequently used do not provide callers with a no-cost 1800 option. Included are the telephone lines for Older Australians, Disability, Sickness and Carers, Employment Services, Families and Parents, and Youth and Students.

The NWRN letter to Minister Payne said in part:

 “Contact with Centrelink by telephone in an environment where significant numbers of payment recipients have a heavy reliance on mobile phones, with limited or no access to landlines can be very costly to individuals and families”

“If DHS can provide more 1800 numbers, many people on low incomes will receive some financial relief. This will also deliver some financial relief for our clients as well.”

“With over 40 million calls made to Centrelink in just 11 months, the expansion of Centrelink 1800 services proposed by the NWRN has the potential to reduce call costs for millions of low-income and disadvantaged Australians.”

 “If the Government is actively encouraging people to conduct their business via telephone or online it has a duty to ensure that these channels are affordable.”

Unfortunately, to date the Government has not responded positively to the NWRN’s concerns.  In late November, the Minister for Human Services, Senator Marise Payne responded to NWRN saying that the Government could not afford to provide freecall numbers across its services.

“Given the significant cost involved, the department is not in a position to expand the use of 1800 Freecall numbers,” advised the Minister.

Nevertheless, the NWRN will continue to pursue reforms that don’t leave people out of pocket while hanging on the end of the line to contact Centrelink.