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Last Updated: Friday, 18 March, 2005, 16:24 GMT
Directory reform 'cost consumers'
A phone
Consumers are paying more, the official report said
Consumers are paying more to obtain phone numbers than they did prior to abolition of the 192 directory services, an official report says.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has been looking at the replacement, in August 2003, of 192 with more than 100 helplines, all pre-fixed with 118.

Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the public accounts committee, said the public "has lost out" through the changeover.

But Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, said services had recently been improving.

The general public has lost out. Most of us are paying more and do not appear to be getting a better service
Edward Leigh MP, chairman

Public criticism

The NAO, which scrutinises government departments, started looking at deregulation of directory services last year.

At the time, the move attracted widespread public criticism of the quality and accuracy of information.

The NAO report concluded:

  • Residential consumers are paying more for directory enquiry services than under 192
  • Consumers are confused by the array of numbers on offer and as a result use directory services with the most memorable numbers, which may not always offer the best prices
  • Consumers are using directory enquiry services less frequently than they did prior to deregulation
  • It is difficult to be certain whether service quality had changed as a result of deregulation as there were no accurate figures about the performance of the old 192 service.

Mr Leigh was damning in his assessment of the role of Oftel, the forerunner of Ofcom, in deregulation.

"This is an instance where competition was not needed and is not helpful.

This is a young market that has had a tough beginning
Matt Peacock, Ofcom

"Yet Oftel almost had a blind faith that competition was always good and jumped in feet first.

"The general public has lost out. Most of us are paying more and do not appear to be getting a better service."

Young market

Ofcom, which assumed control of telecoms regulation from Oftel at the end of 2003, said it recognised mistakes had been made.

"The information for consumers at the time of deregulation was not good enough," Matt Peacock, Ofcom director of communications, told BBC News.

But Mr Peacock added that its latest market survey showed services had improved.

"The market is beginning to stabilise, we have more accuracy and the range of services available to consumers is far greater than under 192.

"This is a young market that has had a tough beginning but the experience of other countries is that deregulation, once bedded in, is of benefit to consumers."

Name Number Accuracy %
Freedom (Gay-Lo) 118 453 95
Tesco 118 321 95
Directory Enquiries UK 118 800 94
The Number 118 118 94
192.com 118 119 93
Conduit 118 888 92
Telewest 118 180 92
Maureen 118 212 91
NTL 118 878 89
Cable&Wireless 118 099 88
11 88 66 Ltd 118 866 87
One.tel 118 111 86
Yell 118 247 85
BT 118 500 83
Orange 118 000 83
Source: Ofcom mystery shopping research, Nov 2004

The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far.

Never use them. I didn't even know the numbers before. I prefer to use the Internet.
Morris Hughes, Monmouth, UK

Don't know any of the new numbers - could 192 be re-instated simply to get a number for directory enquiries?
Robert, St Helier, Jersey

I've given up on directory enquiries as they just aren't very accurate. I find 192.com is much better, they give you all the matches to your query to choose from... and even a map!
Richard Taylor, UK

I don't even bother anymore, there's too many numbers, the services have been rubbish at best and it's expensive.
Graham MacFarlane, Bristol

It will take time. Gradually, people will learn of the cheaper options. We the public are still getting used to all the numbers. After the initial Shock and Awe advertising campaigns have died down, word of mouth will help us to find the cheaper and better services. Look at Google on the Web, they came from nowhere to dominate. This was by having a good service. That good service spread by word of mouth.
Terry, London, UK

Since the deregulation I have not used the directory service more than twice, I find the 6 digit numbers hard to remember, confusing and expensive. This change has put a lot of people off, and I'm certain people are not using the service as much as before. Now if I need a number and I can't find it, I wait or go on the internet. I can't mess around with all these numbers to get a number, where as before I would just dial 192, it was simple. Why can't you use a system to allow you to select a provider as your main directory inquiry provider just as you can do with your telephone service.
Tuhel Miah, Leeds

As deregulation has clearly been a mistake here, it would make a refreshing change for Ofcom to admit it and revert back to a simple 192 service.
Alasdair Scott, Winchester, UK

I used a non-BT 118 service (either 118118 or 118888 - I can't remember) to find a number in Canterbury and was asked if that was a suburb of Manchester. When I asked the guy if he was South African, due to his accent, he refused to say until I convinced him I was only asking if he was South African, NOT if he was IN South Africa. The total call lasted 3 minutes 34 seconds and I was given the wrong number. I tried BT and was given the correct number within 27 seconds.
Doug Brookes, London, England

I never liked BT and the way they kept changing things so that you could only get two numbers and then instituted the system where the number was read out by a computer and at the end of the second one that was it. However, subsequent to the deregulation, whichever number you rang you got to speak to an idiot who frequently didn't give you the right number and charged you twice what BT charged. Yeah, that's a great deal for the consumer. Thanks Ofcom. Since September 2003 I have not used any one of the new services. I would either use a phone book or the internet or my wap-phone rather than waste my time and money.
Gerard, London, England

They always try to trick you by offering to put you through without telling you that it's very expensive.
Scott, Maidenhead, UK

You forgot to mention that the de-regulation of directory enquiries was a mandate from the European Union, not something invented by the UK government or Ofcom/Oftel. Same as the railways (another EU mandate), de-regulation can screw things up.
Paul M, Cambridgeshire

I use 11 83 83 why is it not listed in the above survey.
Alan Hollinshead, Wirral

Having previously worked in this industry for five years and left my position after deregulation, these figures do not surprise me in the slightest.

Two points to look at are that the public are not themselves aware of who is the best value due to one reason, the public will always go for the easiest option regardless of cost and also how well advertised each service is.

Secondly, although the job does not involve taxing the employees brain (the database only requires the first four letters of the search), the problem is that employees are running this type of contact centre as a battery farm, where you have to ask to leave your seat due to this service being such a money maker, you are expected to answer a call on average every 20 seconds or so and the databases in use are very often not kept up to date as they should be.

This leaves the employees feeling worthless and de-motivated, therefore they start to become lax at their duties and the service suffers all round between the staff and the customers.
Paul, Glasgow, Scotland

My residential number is misquoted on the records of 118 companies databases as the Victims of Crime Trust. Ofcom have told me I have to contact each one to correct it. They must realise there are nearly 100 of these companies now and why is it up to me to contact them when it is not my fault? Would have been easier to keep accurate records with one provider don't you think?
Martin, London

I'm annoyed at paying for a hit and miss service. I wanted Digbeth coach station, and only got it after trying a second Directory Enquiries number. When I complained to the first they said "Well we only have the numbers of companies who choose to register with us". What is the customer to do, keep ringing round hoping to hit lucky?
Rita, Birmingham

Paul M should recognise that deregulating things is only EC policy because our government stampeded the rest into making it so. The rest are definitely not so enthusiastic, and are obviously trying to stave off the self-inflicted wounds that we have suffered as a result of privatisations and PFI deals.
Andrew E, Crewe Cheshire

A complete shambles, yet the nitwit who thought it up has probably been promoted out of his position by now. Serious question though - why are they pressing ahead with exactly the same stupid agenda with the postal service? Answer: It's down to another directive from our common-sense transplant cases in the EU.
Michael, York, UK

Mr Peacock thinks that by better communicating the changes the consumers would get better service, understand the numbers more easily and save money? How bizarre. Perhaps this is indicative of these government departments where your performance isn't taken into consideration, just do and say what you fancy, you're not accountable to anybody. Even when an Audit like this shows mistakes nobody gets the blame and nothing happens.

How much did this waste of time audit cost the taxpayer? I could have told them the results for a fraction of the cost.
Kenny, Edinburgh

You have not mentioned that if you are an NTL customer then one is unable to use many or some of the 118 numbers. Why has Oftel allowed this restriction?
Bazz, Essex.

The services ask if you would like them to put you straight through to the number they've found, but they don't tell you until after you've said 'Yes' that this is at an enhanced call rate. This could cost the infrequent user a significant amount.

There is also no easy way to claim back the charge when, as is often the case, you are given a number completely unrelated to what you've asked for. How can we prove their error - even if we knew who to complain to? Many of these companies are getting away with blue murder simply because people don't know how, or are too busy, to claim.
Jamie, Wendover, UK

Does this mean we can go back to 192?
Paul, Leicester UK

Watchdog hails 118 improvements
18 Jun 04 |  Business
Runner tries to derail 118 advert
09 Mar 04 |  Business
Runner wins ruling against 118118
27 Jan 04 |  Business
New directory services fail test
17 Nov 03 |  Business

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