HC Deb 09 February 1988 vol 127 cc329-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Howarth.]

1.21 am
Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

I ought first to explain what Talkabout is. It is a telephone chat line on which adults can telephone a number and up to nine adults can come together for friendly conversation. There is another number which teenagers can telephone and be put together in a single conversation with up to nine teenagers.

I want to draw the attention of the House to the 1986 annual report of Oftel — the Office of Telecommunications—and in particular to the director general's statement in paragraph 1.32 where concern is expressed in regard to the Talkabout chat line. He said: British Telecom responded to the initial complaints about this service by taking measures to bring the cost of the service more clearly to people's attention and by stepping up monitoring arrangements designed to limit abuse of the system. I am waiting to assess customers' reaction to the service in the light of these measures. However I remain concerned about the service and, in particular, about the justification for promoting a special service to people who will not pay the bill — often the teenage children of the bill payer—and which the person who pays the bill would not wish to be provided. British Telecom has created a monster which, like a time bomb, is ticking away in thousands of homes of unsuspecting parents. Very few parents today can be certain beyond reasonable doubt that they will not be blasted by the shock waves of an astronomical phone bill.

It is not good enough for British Telecom to refer to parental control. Talkabout is addictive and parents are not at home all the time. Parental control moves into action, but only when what has happened comes to their knowledge on receipt of a telephone bill which in some cases may exceed £1,000. I have even heard of a phone bill of more than £2,000 for a quarter as against the average of about £40, and these parents are very shocked indeed.

This British Telecom monster has other even more sinister and dangerous claws. Evil adults who prey on innocent children are cunning and devious. Despite so-called monitoring of the Talkabout chat lines, children are now being lured into meetings with potential perverts. I fear for their safety and, in some cases, their lives. There was an incident at the weekend involving three young girls who were lured into a meeting. It so happened that the youngster did not turn up and the children found themselves in a car with a youth and an adult. They were taken to a fair and a house by the man for about 20 hours and their parents were distraught.

I have fought for child protection for many years and never imagined that I would be having to appeal for common sense from the board of British Telecom. The recorded message service is becoming a bit of a rip-off. It is still offensive and, in some cases, is a front for the sale of pornographic videos, despite a code of practice and an independent panel.

I should like to tell the tale of two of my constituents. They are a respectable family, but their lad, aged 16, had played truant since Christmas. He had been spending all day on the Talkabout service, to which he had become addicted. To cover up his misdemeanours, he destroyed the telephone bills and reminders when they came through the post. His parents are good, hard-working people who like to pay their way. Their normal bill was £35 to £45 a quarter.

The parents phoned British Telecom to ask why they had not received a bill. They were told that they had been sent bills, to which they replied that they had not received them and that something must have happened to them. When they asked how much the bill was, the young girl at British Telecom told them that they had better brace themselves because it was very high, more than £1,000 for the quarter.

As British Telecom has introduced a service which the bill payers, the parents, do not want and do not wish their children to use, it should help to pay the bill and alleviate the dreadful worry of my constituents. They hate to get into debt, and they do not have the money to meet such a bill. They are absolutely shocked.

What is the solution to this problem? I appeal to British Telecom to do one of two things — to suspend the service immediately, which is unlikely, or to seek the bill payer's written consent with a fill-in slip on the bill so that parents can sign whether they want their children to be connected to this system. Alternatively, it should start to target industry more vigorously.

I can see great market value for British Telecom in industry. It has Network 9, the audio conference division. Directors, busy engineers and salesmen have to travel to hotels all over the country and their hotel and travel costs are a great expense for their companies. Those expenses could be cut if they met on the telephone, as some, although not enough, already do. I am pleased to publicise this service because it would make British industry more competitive and would take only a small slice of the hotel and travel trade. It would be a good area in which British Telecom could obtain growth, rather than at the expense of children with all the dangers involved.

British Telecom is a first-class company; it is the Rolls-Royce of British industry. It is a world leader in telecommunications and I wish that I had bought shares in it. However, I hope that it will be unnecessary to amend its licence and that the directors will respond to my call to stop, limit or control this nonsense.

In the meantime, I urge the Department of Trade and Industry to hold urgent talks with Oftel in the hope that we can defuse the situation if British Telecom feels that it is unable to respond to public opinion. I hope that it will listen to this call. The public are very worried about the turn of events. I hope that my small contribution this evening will in some way encourage British Telecom to play the game and seek a different angle to its marketing of what could prove to be a very lucrative system.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) have the permission of the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) and the Minister to speak in this debate?

Mr. Dickens

indicated assent.

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

indicated assent.

1.30 am
Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) and the Minister for allowing me to speak in this debate. I did not intend to do so; my brief was merely to listen to what the hon. Gentleman had to say and, more importantly, to what the Minister had to say on this important subject.

You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that a few weeks ago I raised the same issue under the Ten-minute Bill procedure. Events have moved rapidly since then. The cases to which the hon. Gentleman has referred are but two among many that have come to light since that time.

Talkabout is causing problems both for ordinary householders and for small business men. The research that I have carried out during the last three weeks has been costly. During the last few days, I have heard of adults using the teenage Talkabout line. Seven or eight people were using that line, but only three were talking. The others must have been listening. I listened in, purely in order to bring the results of my research to the attention of the House. The others — possibly the perverts to whom the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth referred—were waiting like jackals for the telephone number to slip out so that they could phone the teenagers.

Only today, I heard that Oftel has brought pressure to bear to ensure that subscribers have contracts for this service. I very much doubt whether that will be effective. Young people are very ingenious. They manage to get round many of the constraints that their parents place upon them. Parents have taken the telephone to work, but their children have obtained instruments and locked into the system. Other teenagers have ingeniously tapped out codes to get into the system. If youngsters are that ingenious, I suspect that they are ingenious enough to get round paper work.

Much more could be said about the Talkabout service and many more arguments could be advanced. Many of us — including, I hope, the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth — are committed to continuing the campaign against Talkabout and the other services that British Telecom is obliged to offer. The Department of Trade and Industry bears a very grave responsibility. Those who care deeply about the problems that are brought to their notice will press on with the campaign to have the telephone service cleaned up.

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

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) on securing an Adjournment debate on a topical subject that has recently received a great deal of attention. It is entirely consistent with his continuing campaign to defend the interests of young people and children, and the whole House respects his efforts in that regard.

The hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) has also taken a strong interest in the issue. I am sure that the Director General of Oftel and the directors of BT—by direct invitation from my hon. Friend — will examine carefully the record of the debate and they may wish to make the information and arguments part of their consideration of the problem.

It may help the House if I say something about the background to the Talkabout service. It was launched in 1983 in Bristol. Following a trial run there, the service has been extended to other parts of the country. Talkabout is a service charged at premium rates. In the case of Talkabout, that means that calls are charged at between 11p and 41p for three minutes, depending on the time of day, rather than at the normal rates. Talkabout offers the opportunity to link up to 10 people for casual conversations. It is therefore to be distinguished from such facilities as conference calling, which companies and others may use for a group conversation. I know that the hon. Member for Worsley has already made that distinction, and I understand that some companies are concerned about their employees' running up bills on their behalf for calls that they have not been able to monitor clearly.

Two distinct Talkabout services are offered — a teenage Talkabout for the under-18s and an equivalent adult service. These have separate numbers, and are often separately advertised, although clearly it is difficult, if not impossible, to ensure that under-18s do not use adult Talkabout and vice versa. Talkabout differs from many of the other premium services offered over BT's network, in that it is a "live" interactive service rather than a recorded message. Moreover, it is directly marketed to teenagers, who—as has been observed twice this evening—quite often do not pay the bills.

Both these aspects have caused problems and a lot of criticism. In particular, I know that there have been charges that the service has been used for blind dating, that the language used on the service has been obscene or racist, and that some parents, including single parents, have been faced with huge bills. The Director General of Oftel referred publicly to some of the complaints in January. I quote from the letter that he sent to my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry last month: The main basis for complaint was that teenage children were running up big bills without the knowledge of their parents— one such bill was for over £600 for a quarter, compared to a normal bill for the person concerned of £50. Complaints also mentioned the use of obscene language by participants, girls giving addresses and making blind dates, and even drug trafficking. As a result of the concerns expressed in the first half of 1986, which I and the director general shared, we took these complaints up with BT. BT then agreed to step up the monitoring of the teenage service so that there would be one monitor for each pair of group conversations. These monitors had instructions to stop the giving out of names and addresses, making dates, and the use of obscene language. BT also agreed to play a tape setting out the cost of a call before each caller was connected to the service; and to cut each caller off after 10 minutes. For a time the complaints abated and it was hoped that these precautions might prove sufficient to stop major abuses of the service.

However, following an upsurge in complaints again late last year, Professor Carsberg reported: I arranged for Oftel staff to make a series of calls to Teenage Talkabout earlier this year and report to me on their findings. They found a significant incidence of foul language and successful attempts at dating which the monitoring did not prevent. The director general concluded his letter by saying that he is taking this issue very seriously and is pursuing his investigation with vigour.

I wish to stress at the outset that we share the director general's concern over the continuing problems with the Talkabout service. I can support many of the comments of my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Worsley. The subject of this debate is "Oftel's role in regulating BT's Talkabout service". That is an apt title. It is indeed for the director general and his staff to consider the complaints and initiate action upon them if BT is falling short of the mark. As I have said, Professor Carsberg is taking these representations very seriously indeed. But before taking up the points my hon. Friend has raised and the action the director general has in hand, it may be helpful if I explain briefly the regulatory and legal framework.

British Telecom operates Talkabout under its main public telecommunications operator licence. This was issued by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry using his powers under the Telecommunications Act 1984. BT's licence sets out detailed conditions undet which BT must operate. These conditions relate, for example, to the provision of call boxes, directory inquiries and 999 calls, as well as laying down more wide-ranging conditions on universal service and business practices. This licence was laid before the House in June 1984.

Now that the licence has been issued, policing it becomes the responsibility of the Director General of Telecommunications. Only he, not Ministers, can initiate changes to that licence, including changes governing the way the Talkabout service is operated. Such changes could be made either by agreeing the changes with BT or by referring the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The MMC will make its judgment on the issue on the basis of the duties set out in section 3 of the Telecommunications Act 1984. These include the duty to promote the interests of the consumers. Broadly speaking, if the MMC concludes that any of the matters specified in the reference to it may be expected to operate against the public interest, the director general may then make such modifications to the licence as he considers necessary to tackle them.

What the BT licence does not cover is the content of the services provided, or the messages BT carries. This is because section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984 deals with that. This section makes the improper use of public telecommunications systems a criminal offence. It is an offence to send grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing messages over the public network. There are, therefore, legal powers in place to govern the content of messages. Where a prosecution is brought under section 43, the judgment rests with the courts.

That, however, does not deal with the charge of whether BT should be running a service of this kind if it is likely to give rise to abuse. What about the problem of large bills sprung on an unknowing parent? Did the Government liberalise telecommunications and privatise BT so that such services should start up? Should not BT be concentrating on improving the quality of its everyday services, especially public call boxes?

The liberalisation of telecommunications has provided new business opportunities for a wide range of companies, both large and small. It has also provided a competitive climate to stimulate BT's performance, and led to a rapid growth of valuable services such as electronic data interchange, which has revolutionised the preparation of, for example, trade documents. To take an example close to Talkabout, there are now several conference call services for business, including that run by BT. These enable a business with branches or clients all over the country to get them together without the need for time-consuming and expensive travel, and play a major role in increasing business efficiency.

These examples of the benefits that new technology brings, set against the problems my hon. Friend has drawn attention to, emphasise that technology itself is neither a good nor a bad thing. It can, however, be used for good or bad ends. The use to which technology is put is the important factor.

It can be used, for example, to further the interests of the consumer. In other instances one can think of, it might hold them back. This is one of the reasons that Ministers decided to establish the office of Director General of Telecommunications in 1984. The director general has amongst his statutory duties a duty to promote the interests of consumers and users of telecommunications, to monitor developments and to provide advice to Ministers. The director general is in a position to acquire knowledge in depth about telecommunications and to respond quickly and flexibly to developments. We therefore place great weight on his advice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth and the hon. Member for Worsley have raised some specific cases where young people have been put at risk as a result of using Talkabout. I am aware of some of the cases that have been mentioned, and obviously I share the concern expressed tonight. I know that Oftel has been investigating some alleged incidents and that the director general would welcome any further details that hon. Members can provide him with.

A report of one particular incident was drawn to the attention of my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry earlier this year. This suggested that three girls had put themselves at risk as a result of a contact through the Talkabout service. My right hon. and noble Friend wrote to Professor Bryan Carsberg straight away expressing his concern about this incident and, more generally, about the marketing and operation of the teenage Talkabout service. He asked Professor Carsberg for his urgent advice on this issue and more considered advice by the end of this month.

In his interim reply, the director general has made clear his own concern over possible abuses of the Talkabout service, which he was already discussing actively with BT. As a result, BT had already introduced some safeguards in 1986, as I have mentioned. But my hon. Friend's comments, and indeed those of concerned parents, suggest that BT has not done enough.

Professor Carsberg has said in his reply to my right hon. and noble Friend that he considers the present controls to be inadequate. He has told me how concerned he is about the service and the unfortunate consequences it is having for many telephone subscribers. Over the past few weeks, as the sort of problems to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention began to receive more widespread publicity, the director general has received some very worrying evidence about the way the service is being used and the damage that it is causing.

As I have said, the director general has suggested to BT on a number of occasions that it make changes to the service to eliminate the problems. Some, but not all, of the changes have been made. The director general has told me that he will if necessary seek to make an amendment to the conditions in BT's licence to require BT to make changes.

Such changes might, for example, include an obligation on BT to ensure that Talkabout could only be accessed when the person responsible for paying the bill had specifically agreed to the phone being used in this way. I heard clearly my hon. Friend's comment on that point. Another step might be to insist that Talkabout service charges are identified separately on the bill. This would warn unwary parents of the extent of the use of their phone for this purpose.

Should the service be banned altogether? That is a judgment for the director general to consider. However, the director general does have a duty, given him by this House, to promote the interests of all telephone users. He has, I know, been told that the Talkabout service has a particular value to lonely and isolated people and that it can have a very great benefit to disabled people.

Before the director general can properly take a decision to propose changes that would abolish or restrict this service, he needs to seek evidence about the effect on users as a whole. Were he not to do this, his decision could be open to challenge on the grounds that it was arbitrary. However, I am assured that in considering the views of users the director general intends to give particular weight to those of parents and those who pay the telephone bills.

Oftel has already commissioned an opinion survey in order to obtain these views. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the survey is going on at present. The results will be available in about a week's time. Professor Carsberg has confirmed that he expects to take a decision on further action very quickly once he has the results. He will also, of course, be giving his considered views to my right hon. and noble Friend as well in the next few weeks.

It is difficult for me to say more at this stage. Clearly the problems are recognised and are being actively looked at. I sympathise a great deal with my hon. Friend's concerns. I am sure that Professor Carsberg will study the report of this debate carefully. I expect BT will too. No one is taking this issue lightly. I believe that the director general will shortly have a solution to a good many, if not all, of the concerns that my hon. Friend has expressed.

I thank my hon. Friend again for obtaining this Adjournment debate and for the opportunity for the House to express its views on this issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Two o'clock.