HL Deb 07 June 1989 vol 508 cc848-51

2.49 p.m.

Lord St. John of Fawsley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in view of the failure of British Telecom to provide telephone directories which assist the public to find numbers they are looking for, they will provide them themselves.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Lord Young of Graffham)

My Lords, British Telecom supplies a free telephone directory regularly to every residential and business subscriber covering the local telephone area. In addition, both BT and Mercury make available free of charge a directory inquiry service to assist any of their customers or member of the public seeking information about telephone numbers. I am sure they will welcome suggestions which my noble friend or indeed any noble Lord may wish to make for improving their service.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that reply, is he aware that the arbitrary division of entries into two categories, business and residential, makes it extremely difficult to find urgent numbers such as those of doctors? Is he further aware that worse is to come in that directory inquiries is apparently to be computerised into a metallic voice so that inaccuracy in name or address will mean that the inquirer will not find the number?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that I have not found that mistakes are confined to computerised voices. It is possible for humans to make mistakes. British Telecom's market research on the customer reaction to their changed format reveals that 71 per cent. of the public are satisfied with the new format of the directory and only 2 per cent. were dissatisfied, while some 19 per cent. had no preference. I do not know what we should do further on that. What has become obvious is that such has been the growth of the usage of telephones in the London area that it was necessary for BT to look at different ways of dividing up the directory.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, will my noble friend make representations to British Telecom about the weight of these new books which have been published within the London area? Some of us do not have very large or strong hands. I believe that the 2 per cent. who were dissatisfied could well have been women who do not have very strong hands and who find the weight of the books enormous.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, one of the effects of dividing the book up between residential and business subscribers means that the directories are lighter and smaller. If they were put back again into one book, by necessity they would be larger and heavier.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, can the noble Lord encourage British Telecom to see that their directories are available in public telephones? I had to go to three different telephone boxes half a mile apart the other day to obtain a number.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, the last survey on public telephone call boxes showed that no less than 96 per cent. were in working order. Over the past months we have seen a continuing increase in the number of call boxes which are in working order and I suspect that the noble Lord was rather unlucky.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, the point was not that the telephone was out of order but that there was no directory there.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, books are no longer kept in telephone boxes for a very good reason; that is, that they were consistently vandalised and set alight. Part of the policy of British Telecom, in order to ensure that telephone boxes are in working order, is to take out the telephone books and to make available a directory inquiry service. I suspect that it is better in the long run for that to happen.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the more difficult it is to find a number and to find the right book before you find the right number, the greater will be the load put on directory inquiries? Is it not true that that service has coped extremely well and has improved its service markedly in recent years? However, has consideration been given to the French system where they have done away with telephone books altogether and subscribers are supplied free of charge with a very small visual display unit and dial their own inquiry and, therefore, save on manpower? That is infinitely adaptable and can be very conveniently kept up to date. There would seem to be considerable merit in that system, which has prospered in France.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that Minitel, of whatever is the name' of the particular receiver system, may be free to the subscriber but it is expensive to the taxpayer. That system is very expensive. The fullness of time will show whether that is a good bargain for the French taxpayer. The present system is far more competitive and efficient.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I am among the 71 per cent. and that the noble Lord, Lord St. John, is among the 2 per cent., and that that is a situation which I hope will be sustained in the future over a wide area?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, as long as we confine that wide area to British Telecom, I am content.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, is my noble friend aware how unsatisfactory the computerised system is for the countryside because, where an addressee is not within a definite town—that is, he is within a country area—it is almost impossible for the computer to find the number?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I doubt whether any system could be perfect but I shall ensure—and I know that this will happen in any event—that the Chairman of British Telecom will read what your Lordships have said this afternoon and he will no doubt take that into account.

Lord Peston

My Lords, will the Minister reflect again on his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing? Does he not agree that the telephone directory, as we know it, is obsolete and is economically harmful? Goodness knows how many forests are cut down every year in order to provide all those telephone directories. Would it not be much more sensible if we had a computerised on-line direct dial system for telephone numbers? I do not see that that should place any burden on the taxpayer. The real point is: would it not be advantageous to encourage British Telecom to provide precisely such a system?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, if it were economic to do so then I suspect that British Telecom would take that quite seriously. However, from the figures I have seen, the cost to the French Government and French Telecom in providing that system is out of all proportion to the utility.

Lord Morris

My Lords, with reference to a previous answer of my noble friend where he quoted the survey and said that 2 per cent. of the population did not like the new format, 17 per cent. had no view and 71 per cent. preferred the new format, can he tell what the balance of 10 per cent. felt?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, 19 per cent. had no preference and the balance of 8 per cent. had no opinion.