HC Deb 17 January 1996 vol 269 cc725-6
3. Ms Janet Anderson

To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement on the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on telephone number portability.[7887]

The Minister for Science and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor)

I welcome the conclusions of the MMC's report on number portability, which mean that from this spring customers will be able to keep their telephone number when they change their telephone operator.

Ms Anderson

The Government claim to wish to encourage competition in telecommunications services because that is in the interests of consumers—and we welcome what the Minister has just said—but who is to shoulder the cost for this?

Mr. Taylor

The MMC decided to allocate 65 per cent. of the costs to BT and 35 per cent. to the other telephone operator. The prospect of competition in the telephone industry has been of enormous advantage to customers. The real costs of telephone calls have fallen by 40 per cent. since the privatisation and liberalisation that were originally opposed by Opposition Members. The benefits are to be seen in the investment in the industry, not just by BT but by many other companies, such as Energis, and by the cable industry. Customers have enjoyed enormous improvements in terms of quality and much reduced costs and are now gaining access to the super-highways which will deliver new and exciting multimedia services.

Mr. John Marshall

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the United Kingdom has the most liberal telecommunications regime in western Europe and that other countries will be copying us? That is a tribute to the Government and shows how short-sighted the Opposition were when they opposed privatisation.

Mr. Taylor

I think that the Opposition are beginning slowly to realise that Conservative policies work, which is why they are attempting to adopt them in their speeches. The reality is that the rest of the European Union is also adopting liberalisation policies. I hope that the strict regulatory regime and the encouragement for market entry for new companies will both be factors that other countries in the European Union will adopt as they move towards 1 January 1998—the date for liberalisation.

Mr. Hoon

Is the Minister really saying that the best way to protect telephone consumers is to commission a Monopolies and Mergers Commission report which takes eight months to produce and runs to 213 detailed pages? Does not resorting to such a cumbersome procedure demonstrate the Government's consistent and continuing failure to anticipate the problems involved in the regulation of privatised industries? Is not that failure exactly the same as the Government's failure to anticipate the massive confusion caused by the break-up of our railway network and the belated recognition that two new quangos will have to be established to sort out the mess that the Government have created?

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Member might like to go away and practise that question again as I am not sure whether he means that the Labour party is now not in favour of regulation at all, or whether it is in favour of the regulator having such powers that no commercial company has a right to debate any changes in the licensing in public before those changes are permitted. The purpose of addressing a matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is when an interested party—in this case British Telecom—and the regulator cannot agree on how costs are to be allocated. That is the role of the MMC. It did an excellent job and I have already welcomed its conclusions. The benefit of its conclusions will carry through to customers because if they wish to change to a new operator, they will not have the hassle of losing their telephone number with the change. That is very good news and I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Member will welcome it.