HC Deb 28 October 1987 vol 121 cc297-8
17. Mr. Malcolm Bruce

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he last met the directors of (a) Oftel and (b) Ofgas to discuss the level of consumer satisfaction and competition in the relevant industries.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

I expect to meet the Director General of Telecommunications shortly and to discuss a number of subjects of current interest. Meetings with the Director General of Gas Supply are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, I am glad to say.

Mr. Bruce

Will the Minister acknowledge that the current anxieties about consumer interests and competition in both telecommunications and gas show the Government's mistake in privatising those organisations as monopolies and highlights their inability to open them up to effective competition or to regulate them? Will he comment on the fatuous remark of the Secretary of State for Scotland that it was up to British Telecom to promote competition against itself?

Mr. Clarke

With respect, I do not regard either organisation as entirely a monopoly. At present British Telecom is in competition only with Mercury, but we have also liberalised parts of its business and in the longer term I believe that we can look forward to greater competition. British Gas is, of course, in competition with the electricity industry. It is important that these organisations are properly regulated and controlled, in the interest of consumers. In my area of responsibility the Director General of Oftel has all the powers that he requires. I am glad to say that he has initiated a large number of inquiries into the recent performance of the Post Office and British Telecom, and I believe that he is taking steps to protect the consumer interest.

Mr. Sackville

When my right hon. and learned Friend meets the Director General of Oftel, will he point out that I have never had any cause for complaint about the telephone service and have received no complaints from my constituents?— [Interruption.] Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that 99 per cent. of the criticism that we hear is both gratuitous and political?

Mr. Clark

The general view seems to be that my hon. Friend, as ever, is a lucky man in the experience of most of us. Nevertheless, he makes a valid point. We are all aware of public concern about shortcomings in British Telecom's performance. It should be remembered, however, that it has 22 million subscribers, a growing demand for services and increasing technological change in those services. It was also badly damaged by a serious strike earlier this year. Complaints should therefore be kept in proportion and refer both to the management and to the work force.

Mr. Lewis

Will the Minister tell the Director General of Oftel that it is time for a crackdown on the soft porn being peddled by British Telecom on the premium services and that the profit motive should come behind public good taste? I appreciate that the Minister is struggling to find an answer, as he did not expect this to come up today.

Mr. Clarke

I suggest that when next speaking to his constituents the hon. Gentleman should rest his sore throat by using the telephone rather than trying to communicate directly. Most services of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman referred are provided by outside companies using British Telecom facilities and not by British Telecom itself. Nevertheless, there is some cause for complaint. We have set up an independent committee to consider the complaints received and to decide what services are suitable for our telecommunications system.

Forward to