HC Deb 09 April 1984 vol 58 cc118-27

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 3, line 2, after second "services" insert "directory information services,"

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. John Butcher)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 9, 11, 12, 30, 31, 33 and 170.

Mr. Butcher

All the amendments are concerned with the directory inquiry service. They have been tabled in response to the worries expressed in another place and elsewhere. The amendments will write clearly into the Bill two firm safeguards. One safeguard will ensure that the directory inquiry service will continue and the other safeguard will protect the blind and others who through disability cannot use printed directories if charges are ever introduced for the service. Those who were members of the Committee which considered the Bill late last year will remember that these two issues were discussed in Committee. At that time we took the view that the Bill as drafted and the draft licence for BT provided sufficient safeguards. However, on reflection we have decided that it is desirable to put clear safeguards in the Bill, and that is what the amendments will achieve.

Amendment No. 1 adds directory information services to the list of services in clause 3(1)(a), which imposes a paramount duty on the Secretary of State and director to exercise their functions so as to secure the provision of the services listed in the subsection. The main way in which this duty will be fulfilled is through the inclusion of conditions in the licence to be granted to operators of telecommunications systems. Most important in this respect is the licence to be granted to BT. This will include, as does the draft licence in condition 3, a condition requiring BT to provide directory information over the telephone. Directory information services are defined in clause 4(2)(b). As a result of the inclusion of amendment No. 1, some minor drafting changes are necessary and these are achieved by amendments Nos. 9, 11 and 12.

Amendments Nos. 30, 31, 33 and 170 provide protection in respect of charges for directory inquiries for the blind and others who through disability cannot use the alternative of printed directories. We fully understand the concern that has been expressed, and we implemented such a safeguard in condition 34 of the draft licence. However, we agree that it is desirable to have the safeguard written into the Bill, and that is what amendment No. 30 does. The broad effect of the new subsection (1A) is to ensure that before the operators of the major systems providing voice telephony to the public— which are BT, Mercury and Hull—can be designated as PTOs under clause 9, their licences must include a condition requiring them to provide without charge for subscribers who are blind or otherwise disabled such directory information services as are appropriate to meet the needs of those subscribers.

The new subsection (1A) clarifies the precise information service that is to be required. It must be information for the purpose of facilitating the use of a voice telephony service. This covers telephone numbers and other information such as STD codes that are essential for making telephone calls but which sometimes have to be obtained from a different source. Subsection (1B) clarifies exactly to whom subsection (1A) applies as those "blind or otherwise disabled" persons who are unable to use a telephone directory". That includes the blind, the acutely dyslexic and others who are so physically disabled that they cannot pick up or leaf through a telephone book.

Amendments Nos. 31. 33 and 170 are consequential. Amendments Nos. 31 and 33 are simply drafting consequentials, and amendment No. 170 adds to the list of definitions in clause 94 a reference to directory inquiry services.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

The Opposition accept the amendments as improvements to the Bill on its return from another place, and we are grateful for them. It is a pity that nowhere in the Bill is there a reference to operator services, although it is true that there is a reference to directory services.

The definition of "blind or otherwise disabled" will be left to the Director General of OFTEL. It is possible that the definition will be drawn too tightly. For example, does blind include the partially sighted? The Minister must agree that there is a danger that some people whom both he and I would want included in the definition may be excluded.

There is a strong case for the Government to lay down the definition for the Director General. The House should discuss the definition so that we know how widely or how tightly it will be drawn. I am sure the House agrees that an illiterate person is disabled. Such a person cannot read a telephone directory. We take for granted our ability to read and write and forget the vast numbers of people who cannot do so. I hope that the definition of "blind or otherwise disabled" will include the illiterate.

To a certain extent, old age is a disability. A whole host of the elderly become confused. They suffer from dementia and various other afflictions. It is a growing problem as the number of elderly people increases. There is a strong case for the House debating the drawing of the definition of "blind or otherwise disabled".

I hope that the Minister will tell us how he envisages the Director General carrying out the responsibilities laid on him under the terms of the licences issued to Hull, Mercury and BT plc. As the Minister appreciates, it is an important matter. There is no doubt on either side of the House that as soon as BT becomes BT plc and Mercury comes into operation, they will charge for certain services. BT has been trying to charge for those services during the past 18 months to two years. Only the political storm that blew up stopped it from charging for the directory inquiry and other operator services. I want to hear the Minister explain to the House how he envisages the system working.

I am sure the Minister will concede that there is a strong possibility of BT and Mercury charging for those services. Will the blind or otherwise disabled be charged and then given a rebate? If so, the administrative problems will be monumental. Although the Opposition welcome the Bill's improvement, we are anxious to ensure that we do not need to return to this matter frequently on discovering pitfalls.

For those reasons, I have put those points as constructively as I can. I hope that I have helped the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, but it is more important that we help the blind, the other disabled and the old who become confused. I hope that we shall help also the illiterate who cannot read directories but who must use operator services to a greater degree than many hon. Members appreciate.

10.30 pm
Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Does the legislation deal satisfactorily with the position of those who can read a telephone directory, but, because of Parkinson's disease or another disease, cannot dial a number. They use the telephone exchange a great deal to call eight and 10 digit numbers.

Mr. Ewing

The hon. Gentleman draws out another example, as I am sure every other hon. Member can. I am anxious that the definition of "blind or otherwise disabled" is drawn as widely as possible. It should not be a restrictive definition that would exclude people such as those to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

In the past 18 months to two years British Telecom has been balancing its tariff increases to load the cost of operator services on to those who use them most. The largest percentage tariff increase has been in operator-connected telephone calls. That brings out the point made by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon). The increase in charges for operator-connected calls from a private telephone or call box has been much greater than the increase for direct dialling calls from the same source. An attempt is being made to balance the tariffs and load the cost of operator-connected services on to the people who use them most.

This is my first opportunity to ask the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State a particular question. We must bear in mind that the local telephone directory is the only directory issued to a subscriber free of charge. A person in Cornwall wishing to dial a number in Aberdeen would first think of ringing directory inquiries. Recently, the operator has been asking whether the inquiry is coming from a private of business telephone or another source.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will enlighten the House with the reasons for conducting a survey into charges. There must be a survey to decide the level of charge that British Telecom plc, and subsequently Mercury, will impose to finance the cost of operator-connected services.

I end where I began: we welcome the improvement. As constructively as possible I have put forward the difficulties ahead, which we hope can be surmounted by the widest possible definition of "blind or otherwise disabled". I hope that we shall hear an equally constructive response from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Neither the amendment nor the Bill refers to operator services. The amendment refers only to directory information services and does not include operator services. That is a serious omission, because handicapped people and the elderly rely on operator services and they will face serious problems.

The amendment will provide that the Secretary of State and the Director General will be obliged to provide directory information services. Clause 4, as it will be amended by amendment No. 11, defines such services as: consisting in the provision by means of a telecommunication system of directory information". The clause defines a telecommunication system as a system: for the conveyance, through the agency of electric, magnetic, electro-magnetic, electro-chemical or electro-mechanical energy and so on, but it does not refer to flesh and blood and I infer that the Government do not intend to include operator services.

The amendment is unsuitable, because the handicapped, dyslectic and illiterate need to use operator services. The amendment has serious shortcomings.

Most people do not have problems in using telephone directories. We can cope with the books, except when we want to ring people outside our local area. Then we have to use the operator services. We should regard directory services as a sub-set of operator services.

As technology becomes more complex, the requirement for operator services will increase. How many Conservative Members can use all the facilities on the House's telephone system? How many can find their way through the House's hopeless directory? We have to rely on directory services.

Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that new technology will mean less man-intervention in our affairs and that machines will take over and give us a 24-hour a day service that will be more effective? Surely the hon. Gentleman is going down the wrong path.

Mr. Randall

The hon. Gentleman does not understand the complexity of man-machine interfaces. There will have to be years of development of software systems to ensure that the human being can communicate effectively with the new technology.

For the elderly and the handicapped, the problems will be even more complex. As the new technology is introduced, the problems involved in communication for the handicapped will become even more immense.

The Bill eliminates the option of providing operators services, simply by making no reference to such services. That is one of the results of the privatisation of BT. There will be other such developments.

We know why the Government have taken this line, and we understand why BT supports the Government. Operator services are expensive. They are bound to be expensive because they involve people, and people tend to be expensive these days. The Labour party believes that the priority is wrong. People should come before profits: it is as simple as that. We believe that we should pay for the services, to make sure that the old, the infirm and the handicapped are properly cared for.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) rightly pointed out, BT is re-balancing its tariffs, and those who have the greatest need for such services will have to carry the cost. The cost of operator-connected calls in the forthcoming year, during the cheap rate period on a private telephone, will increase by up to 30 per cent. If one uses a call box, the increase will be up to 25 per cent. Those figures must be compared with an average increase in the cost of service of only 2.7 per cent. That shows how those who need the services are being discriminated against.

As we know, BT hopes very much to charge for directory services. It has tried to do so in the past. I believe that after privatisation one will have to pay for directory calls. Although in amendment No. 30 the Government promise to provide services for the handicapped and the blind, it is crucially important to define precisely what that means. If the Government are to charge everyone for directory services—including the blind, the handicapped and the elderly—and then provide a rebate, the costs of administration will be phenomenal. There will be pressure to provide services just for the registered blind, and all the other people, such as the dyslexic and the illiterate, will be cast aside. They will not be entitled to use the telephone services. That will be a serious disadvantage to those who should be entitled to use the services.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

It is remarkable that in the course of a four-hour debate we have to deal with 277 amendments. That being so, I shall be brief. However, it is worth reminding the Government that we face a multitude of amendments on a deeply flawed Bill and that we have been asked to encompass a broad area in a short space of time.

I welcome this group of amendments, especially Nos. 1 and 30, as I know that they were pressed hard in another place by noble Lords in the alliance parties. Amendment No. 1 on directories will be welcome to Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran who pressed the Minister in another place on this matter. Although amendment No. 1 is worth supporting, it should be pointed out that it is a cosmetic measure that does not go nearly as far as we would like.

Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

How many Lords who are members of the Social Democratic party have supported it?

Mr. Ashdown

Is the hon. Gentleman referring to amendment No. 1? The alliance has supported it, as it appears to improve the Bill.

The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) made an important point about operator services. Emergency and directory services are secured, but they are not secured free. The Government claim that that matter is reflected in the licence agreement, but that agreement can be changed by agreement between the Director General of Oftel and the licensee, perhaps with the inclusion of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The free directory and emergency services can be made not free without the licence being brought back before Parliament. That is a significant weakness.

10.45 pm

Amendment No. 30 deals with the maintenance of a free service for the blind and the disabled. The key issue is how those groups will be defined and how the scheme will operate. The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) mentioned the illiterate. Are they included? The Minister has said that the illiterate and the dyslexic will be included. The Minister should clarify how he defines those people and the blind. We understand that implementation of the free service will lie with the Director General of Oftel. How will we provide a service for a disabled person who is married to a sighted person? The possible removal of the free service will be a withdrawal of a significant right. We need clarification about how those rights will be defined and applied.

We can agree with this group of amendments, as they are an improvement, but that is not to say that we are satisfied that they go far enough in terms of safeguards of the definitions that the Minister has given about how they will operate and to whom they will apply.

Mr. Golding

Can the Minister say whether the further safeguards will be spelt out in the licence? Obviously it is impossible to change the Bill now, but will he assure the House that all the points raised tonight will be taken into account and that the licence will spell out all the safeguards for which hon. Members on both sides of the House have asked?

Mr. Butcher

With the permission of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply to the debate. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) used the word "cosmetic". The Government reject that accusation because it does not bear examination. I can only assume that the hon. Gentleman is indulging in the habit of Liberal and SDP Members of speaking widely early in the debate, knowing that they need an early night, and wishing to get in very general points on specific amendments.

Mr. Ashdown

I hope that the Minister will not seek to answer my points by insults. I asked for definitions. I asked him in particular whether the licence could be changed to remove free directory and emergency services without that matter returning to the House. He should answer those points in a more general way, and not throw insults.

Mr. Butcher

The hon. Gentleman should not insult the House by betraying the fact that he and other members of his party have not read the Bill. If he examines amendment No. 30 carefully, he will see that "blind or otherwise disabled" means so blind or otherwise disabled as to be unable to use a telephone directory. This amendment relates to the blind and to directory inquiry services. The Director General can draw that definition as wide as he wishes. For example, it might be rather dangerous to say that only the registered disabled should be treated in that way, because that might impose the restrictions that the hon. Gentleman fears. We have given the Director General a form of words which allows him adequately to fulfil this service.

Furthermore, the definitions are subject to guidance from the disablement advisory group which the Bill states should be set up. Even when we move to the licence conditions mentioned by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), who was right to say that the licence conditions can be amended on the advice of that advisory group and others, the provisions will allow the Director General to meet the representations that might be made in that regard. The Director General will be guided by experts in such matters.

Mr. Ashdown

The Minister mentioned those who are too blind to use telephone directories. What about those who are too blind or disabled to use telephones?

Mr. Butcher

As I said to the hon. Gentleman earlier, if he reads on he will find that the more general question is dealt with in the next amendment. This amendment deals specifically with the blind and those who cannot use a telephone directory. I will not hazard a guess on the Floor of the House tonight as to how one draws a distinction between those who fall into this category, the illiterate and dyslexic. However, I agree that there are those with a genuine illness who cannot read to the required standard. I cannot say tonight that only they should be included in the provisions of the Bill, because that is the sort of definition that we shall require from those who advise the Director General.

The way in which this condition will be implemented will not be decided until or unless British Telecom concludes that it wishes to levy charges for the generality of directory inquiry services. If it does—this meets the point made by the hon. Member for Newcastle-underLyme—that licence conditions will be drafted so that BT must agree with the Director General how the subscribers covered by subsection (1A) are to be identified before it can introduce charges. I have no doubt that the Director General's special advisory group on matters affecting the disabled will play a valuable role in this respect.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) made a specific point about those who are unable to dial. That, too, will be taken into consideration. However, as the information technology aficionado of his party, perhaps he will know about the developments in technology which allow people with limited speech ability access to repertory dialling. This facility is becoming more prevalent, and my own Department has special information technology schemes for the disabled which allow them to take advantage of this kind of facility.

We are saying that there will be a directory inquiry service for those who are disabled in the manner so described should there be charges for such services. Elsewhere we deal with the old and the handicapped. However, in no circumstances can this amendment be seen to have any relevance to the future decisions of BT and other operators on whether they will always continue to supervise and implement the current level of operator services. I am unable to offer any reassurance in that regard in the context of this amendment.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords Amendment: No. 2, in page 3, line 14, after "disabled" insert "or of pensionable age".

Mr. Kenneth Baker

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

With this we may take Lords amendments Nos. 127, 128, 130 and 133.

Mr. Baker

This group of amendments, as with the group that we have just discussed, is designed to strengthen the protection in the Bill for particular groups. In the last group we were concerned with a special category of people—those who through disability cannot use printed telephone directories, although hon. Members also mentioned other disabilities.

In these amendments we are concerned with all disabled persons, with the elderly—or, strictly, persons of pensionable age as defined in the amendments—and with small businesses. In another place, concern was expressed that though the Bill as drafted covered these groups, and explicitly so in the case of the disabled, there was a risk that their interests could be overlooked by the director, and that therefore a special mention of these groups on the face of the Bill was desirable. We agreed with this, and these amendments are the result.

I should like, first, to explain amendments Nos. 127, 128, 130 and 133. Amendment No. 127 is purely a paving amendment, but the effect of amendment No. 128 is to require the Director — as opposed to the permissive provision in the Bill as it stands—to set up two special advisory bodies, one for matters affecting small businesses and one for matters affecting persons who are disabled or of pensionable age. In appointing members to these bodies, the director must, by amendment No. 130, have regard to the desirability of having members who are familiar with the special requirements and circumstances of small businesses or persons who are disabled or of pensionable age, as the case may be.

The establishment of these two bodies, whose members will be experts in their appropriate fields, will ensure not only that the director has specialist advice at his disposal but also that he is kept fully informed of the needs and requirements—and, indeed, any changes to them—of small businesses, the disabled and the elderly.

These advisory bodies will be required to make annual reports to the director which will be published in his own annual report. In addition, amendment No. 133 gives a further strengthening by requiring the director himself to include in his own report a review of developments and activities in telecommunications in so far as they affect small businesses, the disabled and persons of pensionable age.

Amendment No. 2 simply follows the wording in the other amendments where we refer to the disabled and elderly together. Amendment No. 2, therefore, inserts a reference to the latter in clause 3(2)(a)—an important clause—so that the Secretary of State and the director will have a positive duty to promote the interests of all consumers and so on, including in particular those who are disabled and of pensionable age. These amendments will provide substantial reassurance to those affected, and I hope that they will be welcomed.

The House, and those who have followed the Bill, will appreciate that in several respects the Bill significantly improves the position of the disabled in relation to telecommunications. There are provisions in the general clause 3(2)(a) that the Secretary of State and the Director have to take the disabled into account, and now we have added the elderly. Then there are the two special additional advisory bodies.

11 pm.

In clause 83 the Secretary of State has powers to pay money to develop equipment which could, for example, ensure that electronic PABXs could continue to be operated by blind telephone operators — it is an important source of employment for blind people—and to pay money for the adjustment of other equipment to help the disabled. Those obligations are reflected in the licence conditions at lines 31 to 34.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Everyone has a great deal of good will and sympathy towards people of pensionable age, but what is it physically about such people that merits their having special consideration in the way suggested? I hate to give a personal example, but I have a grannie of 90 who has been of pensionable age for 30 years. I do not think that either now or during the past 30 years has she required any special telephone apparatus or any special consideration from the telephone authorities. Will my right hon. Friend explain why people of pensionable age are being specially treated?

Mr. Baker

The proposal emanated from the other House, where some of the Members may be closer to pensionable age than the Members of this House. Several Members in the other place expressed the view that the elderly are often hard of hearing and have various other difficulties which do not qualify them as being disabled but none the less have a bearing on the telecommunication services provided throughout the country. So it was felt —I think correctly—that there should be an advisory body dealing specifically with their present requirements and their changing requirements. I do not see anything against that. I think it would be helpful for the Director to draw advice from a group concerned with the ailments that come upon people as they grow older.

One of the other advisory bodies to be set up is to advise the Director on small businesses. That is very important, because he will have an independent source of advice to him about how the telecommunications regime operates in that respect. We want to see a proliferation of small competing businesses in the provision of apparatus and services, and that would again be a definite improvement. I think that the Bill has been improved by the amendments which have come from the other place.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

In his intervention my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) mentioned a person of 90 who is quite capable of handling ordinary telephone equipment. My right hon. Friend will, I am sure, be aware that people age differently and at different ages. It is a well-known medical problem. I am much involved in health questions, and I hope that he will be sensitive to the matter. There are some persons in the mid-60s who cannot use a dial telephone because of alzheimer's disease or something of that sort, and find a push-button set much easier to use. Will my right hon. Friend take that thought into consideration?

Mr. Baker

I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) has mentioned that point, because I know that his remarks will be read by the managers and chairman of BT. I think that BT is rightly proud of the range of ancillary equipment that it has designed specifically for the disabled. It is an impressive range of equipment and does not just include inductive couplers for the hard of hearing, the deaf or the very deaf; it includes a range of equipment to help people who have physical disabilities in coping with the electronic equipment. I accept the point that for many people the push-button telephone is often easier to operate than the dial telephone.

Those are the sorts of points that will be brought to the attention of the director, should he overlook them, by the advisory body that the amendments seek to set up.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 5, in page 3, line 46, after "10(3)" insert or (7A) or (Power to give assistance in relation to certain proceedings)

Mr. Butcher

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 37 to 39, 41 to 46, 70 and 122.

Mr. Butcher

These amendments cover related subjects in the steps which the Government will take in licensing operators to use the powers of the telecommunications code to ensure that the environment is protected. Apart from amendment No. 38, which was an Opposition amendment which the Government accepted, these amendments were introduced in the other place in recognition of the genuine concern that was expressed that there must be adequate safeguards in this area. The Government are committed to the proposition that there——

It being three quarters of an hour after the commencement of proceedings on the motion relating to the Telecommunications Bill (Allocation of Time), MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to the order this day, to put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Lords amendment No. 5 agreed to.

Mr. Golding

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it not be for the convenience of the House, at the end of each guillotine stage, unless hon. Members have informed you, to the contrary, to put together the Questions on all the amendments, so that we can vote on them together?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is what will happen. We had already disposed of the first four amendments, and only amendments Nos. 1 to 5 were to be dealt with in the first three quarters of an hour.

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