Hold the phone . . talking clock costs council £2200

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COUNCIL workers have been blasted for spending more than £2200 a year on phoning the speaking clock.

Employees racked up an annual bill of more than 2,200 by dialling the speaking clock and at least 850 went towards dialling various premium-rate lines.

An estimated 14,000 worth of calls were also made to directory enquiries. And several thousands of pounds went towards alarm calls after employees got stuck in council lifts.

The figures were revealed in a stern e-mail from bosses to staff which called to reduce a 2000-a-month bill. Bosses wrote to all Edinburgh council employees asking them to surf the internet for information such as the time instead of calling the costly numbers. They threatened to start tracking individual calls if the 2000-a-month bill does not drop in the near future. The monthly cost for calls to the speaking clock was at least 185.

The e-mail to council staff read: "Each month, calls to the speaking clock, premium rate phone lines and directory enquiry services cost the council approximately 2000.

"If usage is not significantly reduced then calls may be traced, with departments being asked to cover the costs of these types of calls made from their department."

Councillor and ex-city leader Ewan Aitken today slammed the expenditure as "strange" and "unnecessary".

He said: "It seems a strange thing to have to spend time finding out the time. A clock on the wall would have done.

"As for the premium lines, the internet tends to be cheaper and more efficient if there are things you need to find out. It's unnecessary."

One insider said: "It is a bit of a joke. Who needs to call the speaking clock nowadays? If people are phoning 123 rather than looking at their computer screens, that is bone idle. You can get so much info online now, there's no real need to call directory enquiries. If people are calling porn lines or something like that, that would mean instant dismissal."

Another council worker pointed out, however, that there was a genuine need to call the speaking clock or directory enquiries in some circumstances. They said that workers sometimes needed to double-check times on CCTV footage to ensure that evidence is recorded accurately.

Cllr Phil Wheeler, convener of the finance and resources committee, said the council was dedicated to reducing these costs.

He said: "When the council retendered our telephone service a couple of years ago, we saved 500,000 per year. It is essential that we continue to drive costs down further, which is why we continue to review telephone use. An example of this is several staff messages linked to information on the council's intranet have been sent out in recent months to raise awareness of costly unnecessary telephone use.

"Steps have already been taken to limit access to the speaking clock. We will continue to monitor the impact of our internal communications campaign and limit access to telephone numbers where appropriate."

A spokeswoman pointed out that some workers would have been calling premium phone lines such as the DVLA and UK Passport numbers. She said some phone numbers were barred, but could not comment on whether employees had been phoning chat lines, psychic hotlines or horoscopes.