The UK broadband ISP and phone division of the Post Office has today been fined £175,000 after the national telecoms regulator, Ofcom, found that they had overcharged customers, specifically those people with hearing or speech impairments who made telephone calls using a relay service.
Text relay services enable those with hearing and / or speech impairments to communicate with others through telephone or textphone equipment. The regulator’s rules (General Condition 5.9) oblige providers to charge customers no more than the cost of a standard call for using relay services, and to apply a special tariff scheme to these calls in order to compensate those customers for the additional time required to complete the call.
The current case began last January 2019 after the Post Office informed Ofcom, of its own accord, about a situation where a “small number of customers” (spokesperson’s comment) who made text relay calls had not been charged at a discounted rate. The regulator followed this notification in March 2019 by launching a related investigation (here).
The investigation has now concluded and issued a report on its findings, which noted that the Post Office had failed to apply the special tariff to relay calls for “at least five years” (between at least 31st August 2013 and 28th November 2018), resulting in up to 126 people each year being overcharged. “It also took over two years between Post Office becoming aware of the problem and it being fixed,” said Ofcom.
We consider that several factors made this a serious breach:
- the potential vulnerability of those consumers affected;
- the length of time in which Post Office contravened (and, for a period, knowingly contravened) the GC; and
- the absence of any significant compliance function prior to 2018 which likely contributed to the breach occurring and/or delayed its identification.
In light of the seriousness of this case, the Confirmation Decision imposes a financial penalty of £175,000 on Post Office. The penalty also includes a 30% discount from the penalty that Ofcom would otherwise have imposed. That discount reflects resource savings achieved by Ofcom as a result of Post Office’s admissions of liability and its agreement to enter into a settlement.
The penalty includes a 30% discount in recognition that Post Office has admitted its failings and agreed to settle the case. The money raised from this fine, which must be paid to Ofcom within 20 working days, will be passed on to HM Treasury. The Post Office has already said that they’re “very sorry” to those customers who have been affected and are “doing everything we can to reach them and offer them a full refund for the calls.”
The Post Office has issued the following comment.
Meredith Sharples, PO Director of Telecoms, said:
“The Post Office apologises to any of our customers who made text relay calls using our service and did not receive the discount that they were entitled to. Up to 126 customers a year were affected and where possible we have refunded customers the full cost of any calls made. We now no longer apply any charge to calls made using this service.
The Post Office has always provided text relay services and we recognise the important role they play for anyone who may have hearing or speech impediments. We reported this over charging matter to Ofcom in January 2019 and have co-operated fully with their investigation.
We have already acted upon the remedial steps required by Ofcom and have put in place robust processes to ensure this kind of error does not happen again, by significantly increasing our Telecoms Regulation and Compliance teams.”