Council Phone System Defeats Elderly

Age Uk say automatic system not user-friendly for older generation


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Nearly half the senior citizens in the borough experience major difficulties when attempting to contact Hounslow Council according to Age UK, an organization that aims to improve the standard of living for older people.

Complaints about contacting the council from elderly residents of Hounslow (LBH) have become more frequent, said a spokeswoman for the organization. Primarily they concern the disadvantages of the self-serve automated function used by LBH as dial telephones are unable to make use of this.

But even when using touch-dial telephones, the majority of the older generation prefer to speak directly to an operator rather than listening to a machine. This is frustrating for them and often means that they cannot get through to the council, as the options are repeated if no number is chosen.

This is unlike many other professional systems (including BT's 100 system) that automatically redirect callers to an operator if no option is chosen.

A spokeswoman for Age UK said that it is “very difficult to communicate with the machine” and “very rarely do you get a response, even if you leave a message.”

Hounslow Council claim that no other complaints have been made. Hounslow's Head of Customer Services, Robert Della-Sala, said in response to a complaint from a Chiswick resident.

"To date, this is the first time I have had a complaint regarding someone who does not have a touch dial phone. The introduction was discussed with the Disability Community Forum and they have been updated since - last time being in the summer of this year. You would be correct in stating that someone without a touch dial phone would not be able to access us by telephone. However, given the system has been in place thus long, I believe that the risk is minimal".

But the problem remains that the people with complaints have been unable to complain as they are unable to speak to anybody directly on the phone. The only way this would be possible would be to visit the council in person, which causes difficulties for the housebound who would usually rely on a functional telephone system.

For some issues including paying council tax, the council have provided another option rather than by telephone; paying by direct debit. This is a fairly new system that much of the older generation may find difficult to understand or may not particularly want. Many elderly residents preferred paying in cash at a pay-in desk.

Since the pay-in desk in Hounslow was closed, strain has been put on organizations like Age UK that are required to make more home visits to aid elderly residents in paying council tax or helping with rent issues.

Emma Baigey

December 7, 2011