HL Deb 11 May 1989 vol 507 cc747-8

3.7 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

What has been the average change in the cost of telephone charges since British Telecom was privatised in 1984.

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

My Lords, in the case of directly dialled inland services, which are the ones most commonly used, the cost of those services controlled under BT's licence has fallen by 16 per cent. in real terms since BT was privatised in November 1984, or by nearly 4 per cent. a year on average.

There is no simple measure of the average change in the cost of all of the charges by BT, although one clear indication of a more cost-effective service is that residential customers have seen a fall in overall prices of 10 per cent. in real terms since privatisation.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that very encouraging reply. Perhaps I may refer to a new development and ask my noble friend whether he will take the same deregulatory lines in the development of phones on the move. What safeguards can he promise to ensure that, given that there is overcrowding with the present system of mobile telephones, which have benefited most of us, there will not be the same overcrowding with the new system?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, cellular telephones, which were the first system licensed in about 1984, have proved to be immensely popular. My department's original estimate was that by 1990 there would be 100,000 users, whereas the figure already exceeds 550,000 and is still climbing. In those circumstances there has from time to time been a certain amount of overcrowding, but recently, with the co-operation of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence, we were able to make 400 more ETACS lines available within the M.25. I hope that within a matter of weeks the overcrowding will be greatly eased.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, will the Secretary of State bring his influence to bear, in so far as he has influence over the chairman of British Telecom, to ensure that the metering of telephone calls is accurate and that bills to customers reflect the calls which customers have made?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I have considerable influence with the chairman of British Telecom since when I receive my bills I realise I am a very good customer. I shall use my influence to do that. I am told by BT that by the end of next year half of its customers will have itemised billing, and I suspect that that is the best way to ensure that doubts about charges are satisfied.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me what other measures, apart from price, have been improved; for example, coin boxes?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, it is not so long ago—perhaps some 15 or 18 months—that coin boxes were a matter of great public concern. Since that time the improvement of coin boxes has been dramatic. Latest figures show that over 96 per cent. of call boxes are working at any one time, and over that selfsame period the number has increased from 77,000 to 83,000; that is since privatisation. I believe that BT is to be congratulated on the service it provides at present as regards call boxes.