TAXPAYERS have forked out more than £500,000 to call county council helplines, it has emerged.

Essex County Council uses 0845 numbers which charg e people 5p a minute to call.

The National Audit Office has advised public bodies not to use the lines, but the council still uses the numbers for people to report child protection issues and highways issues , including potholes .

County Hall has also confirmed none of the money made out of the phone lines is put back into services, as i t goes to the number providers .

Campaigner Lesley ScottBoutell found out the information in a Freedom of Information Act request.

She said: “If Essex County Council isn’t profiting from its use of extortionate 5p per minute 0845 numbers, it beg s the question why they ar e using them at all? Instead of investing that money, taken from some of the most vulnerable people in our community, it seems it’s lining the pockets of a private phone company."

She decided to contact the council about the numbers after becoming frustrated wit h the amount of money she wa s spending reporting dangerous potholes on roads and pave - ments .

She discovered the council has received 17,333,341 minutes of calls since the 0845 numbers were first used in 2006.

Up until July this year, they were charged at an extra 2p per minute and now they ar e charged at 5p per minute .

Including abandoned calls , it means taxpayers have paid about £516,633.

A spokesman for the council, as part of the FOI request, admitted: “Essex County Council has never earned an y revenue from our service provider for using 0845 numbers, nor do we receive any discount from our service provider and this will not change in the future.”

Kevin Bentley, acting leader of Essex County Council, said: “We aim to have the best and fastest possible service for residents to contact us.

“Having non-geographic phone numbers allows us to provide a better service and ensure we are always availabl e to the public .

“When our contact centr e was set up in 2005, these numbers were charged at a low-call rate, however this has changed with the significant changes seen in the telephone industry .

“We are now moving all main telephone numbers to 03 numbers which are all charged at low call rates.”

Mrs Scott-Boutell added: “I have advised people that they may find it more cost effective to use the local number 01245 430430 until Essex County Council sorts this out.”