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05 October 2010

An investigation into the market for telephone calls from prisons

Consumer organisations have issued a super-complaint about the cost of telephone calls from prisons, provided by BT in England and Wales and Siemens in Scotland.  

Consumer organisations have issued a super-complaint about the cost of telephone calls from prisons, provided by BT in England and Wales and Siemens in Scotland.  

The complaint is being made to Ofcom under the terms of the Enterprise Act 2002.  It is being brought by the National Consumer Council (NCC), Scottish Consumer Council (SCC) and Welsh Consumer Council (WCC), and is supported by the Prison Reform Trust (PRT).  

The main grounds of the investigation concern the high cost of calls and how these appear unrelated to the cost of provision.  A 30-minute call from a prison to a landline is currently over seven times more expensive than the equivalent call from a public payphone.  The costs are so prohibitive that half of all calls from prisons last under three minutes.

The complaint also questions the persistently high cost of telephone calls from prisons, at a time when costs for other basic telephone services have fallen by 60%.

The terms and conditions of the existing service also explicitly seek to prevent competition, and the contracts themselves remain shrouded in secrecy. 

Philip Cullum, NCC acting chief executive, said: 

We’re extremely concerned by the nature of this market.  Just because the consumers are prisoners it doesn’t mean they should be exploited and pay well over the odds for telephone calls. 

A super-complaint is not a move we take lightly and comes on the back of anxieties raised by other official bodies.  Our analysis indicates that BT and Siemens may be charging prisoners amounts that are way out of line with their actual costs.

Juliet Lyon, director of Prison Reform Trust, said: 

Prisoners staying in touch with their families is known to reduce risk, both of re-offending on release and of suicide and self-harm in prison, so it is in everyone’s interest to enable people to phone home. Prohibitive call charges may make a profit for some but they do nothing to create a safer society.

Research suggests that prisoners are six times less likely to reoffend if they have a supportive family network to return to when they come out, and that almost half of people in prison lose contact with their families during their sentence. 

The recent pressure of overcrowding has also meant prisoners are moved around more, usually increasing their distance from home and reducing the chance of family visits.  

The complaint follows serious criticism of the market by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales and by prison Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs).  There have also been repeated parliamentary questions tabled on the subject with all requests to see the contracts refused.  The NCC also requested to see the contracts under the Freedom of Information Act but was refused on the grounds of commercial sensitivity.

As the relevant regulator, Ofcom is being asked to undertake a full appraisal of whether any feature (or combination of features) of the market is significantly harming consumer interests and, if so, what action should be taken.  Ofcom has 90 days to respond.

The super-complaint proposes a series of reforms, including ensuring the publication of the contracts, and publishing a thorough independent analysis of the relationship between the charges and the costs of providing the services.

To view the full super-complaint please visit


The two prison services involved are HM Prison Service (England and Wales) and the Scottish Prison Service.

Under the Enterprise Act 2002 the Secretary of State granted some consumer bodies the power to make super-complaints to market regulators if they think a market appears to be significantly harming the interests of consumers. A super-complaint must meet criteria set out by Office of Fair Trading (OFT) guidance and legislation before being issued.  

The telephone service in publicly-run prisons in England and Wales is run by BT, under a contract with HM Prison Service first agreed in 1998 and revised in 2003. This contract is due to expire in 2011, and the re-tendering process is understood to start in late 2008. 

Services in Scotland are provided by Siemens Enterprise Communications Ltd under the terms of a contract with the Scottish Prison Service. This contract commenced in September 2003 and expires on the 31 March 2010. 

The call-charging structures are common across all services. 

About the National Consumer Council (NCC)

The NCC makes a practical difference to the lives of consumers around the UK, using its insight into consumer needs to advocate change. We work with public service providers, businesses and regulators, and our relationship with BERR, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – our main funder – gives us a strong connection within government. We conduct rigorous research and policy analysis to investigate key consumer issues, and use this to influence organisations and people that make change happen.