HC Deb 19 January 1993 vol 217 cc269-70 3.51 pm
Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a statutory body for the supervision of telephone entertainment services I return again to the issue of filthy phone calls and, most specifically, those which take place in premium-rate services, about which I have spoken to the House many times. Recently, I spoke in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill at great length. Therefore, I have no desire to go into the sordid cases again. Instead, I wish to deal with the detail of how such services are regulated at present under the system of self-regulation.

I welcome the concern expressed by the Leader of the House. He is in his place for the debate, as he promised at business questions last week. That gives me an opportunity to clarify my question to him. I mentioned that, like other right hon. and hon. Members, he had daughters. I felt that that would give right hon. and hon. Members a different perspective on the offences against some young ladies which I have raised in the House over the years and the consequences of allowing the services to continue.

The Leader of the House seemed to be under the impression that I was suggesting that the daughters of Members might have been involved in the lines. I was not. I am worried about the safety of women away from the services that we are discussing—on the street and in public places. I want right hon. and hon. Members who are members of the Government and have powers over such matters to think along those lines. It might be educative and informative for them to speak to their wives and daughters about the issue that I have raised, about which there have been mountains of publicity in the past six or seven years.

When I speak of the need to improve regulation, it is obviously a criticism of the existing system of self-regulation under the so-called Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services. I have long believed that the system is inadequate, and have said so on many occasions in the House. Events in recent weeks and months prove the point that I have made.

The committee is compromised, because it is funded by the industry which it is supposed to police. It is compromised because its chairman is on record as saying that he does not see anything wrong with pornographic conversations between two people. He ignored all the other problems of which Members of Parliament will be well aware.

The premium rate services started in 1985. ICSTIS was set up following growing public disquiet in 1986. What has it achieved? It has achieved one or two good things, but has done so always by the back door, picking away at the periphery and never attacking the heart of the problem. ICSTIS did not deal directly with the huge bills that youngsters were running up for their families or that employees were running up for small businesses. It established a fund, made providers of such services put up a bond of £50,000, appointed a retired High Court judge and established a bureaucracy to vet claims.

My view then, as now, is that, if a service being sold in the marketplace is useful and people want to buy it, there is no need for such a fund. Why try to sanitise something before it is delivered to the marketplace? That process should have been attacked, but that did not happen.

All the chatlines that caused problems with high bills have now gone because the providers of such services would not put up the increased bond, and because I and many other hon. Members encouraged people to apply for compensation from the fund, which killed it. Why go through all that trauma? Why punish families with debt? Why let all that continue without attacking the problem?

The only sanction that ICSTIS can apply is—after tortuous procedures—to recommend to British Telecom that the provider of such a service should be disconnected. I and several newspapers have given evidence to ICSTIS and to other people that the system does not work. As soon as the providers are cut off, they set up somewhere else and usually provide even worse services than before.

In her latest investigation, Denna Allen, a national journalist from The Mail on Sunday, said: British Telecom pulled the plug on Michael Allen's firm EasyBreak last week following revelations that girls were breaking the law by talking dirty. But wealthy Allen has been advertising a new "Best Live One-To-One' sex line called Greetland in The Sport newspapers. So as EasyBreak lines were silenced, Greetland numbers were humming with callers. Both companies share the same Manchester adddress and Allen, whose wife's firm Comtel was originally cut off, is carrying on in business. Comtel was owned by his wife and was closed down three years ago when I was instrumental in getting a BBC journalist into its offices—I had to get her down via a fire escape because things were getting risky, but that is another story.

ICSTIS can demand tapes which are often doctored—as the providers have admitted—and can cut off the providers, who then go somewhere else and perhaps nominate their spouse as the next owner of the business. Such providers still employ people in Dickensian conditions, and they still corrupt and demean which is against section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984.

Parliament cannot touch the people whom I have been complaining about for so long, and there is something sinister, demeaning and wrong about the whole process. I want to bring the subject back into the public arena, so that Parliament can restore its authority over such matters. The Telecommunications Act is ripe for fresh consideration, as people have been able to skirt around section 43 willy-nilly. ICSTIS cannot help, OFTEL will not help and Parliament should reconsider the whole subject and do something about it. As the list of sponsors shows, I have all-party support for the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Terry Lewis, Mr. Don Dixon, Ms. Ann Coffey, Mrs. Ann Winterton, Mr. Roy Beggs, Mr. Peter Hardy, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Mr. Terry Rooney, Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. William Ross and Mr. George Howarth.