HL Deb 20 November 1990 vol 523 cc622-5

3.3 p.m.

Lord Monson asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will use their best endeavours to ensure that charges for directory inquiries are not imposed until such time as up-to-date telephone directories are issued free of charge annually to every subscriber.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, British Telecom's introduction of charges for its directory inquiry service from April 1991 is primarily a matter for Sir Bryan Carsberg, the Director General of Telecommunications. However, I understand that he is satisfied that BT's proposals are consistent with its licence obligations. British Telecom will continue to supply a free telephone directory regularly to every residential and business subscriber covering the local telephone area.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for his reply, although I venture to suggest that all monopolies, even when privatised, must to a considerable extent remain the responsibility of government. Does he agree, first, that while it is reasonable to charge for directory inquiry calls people who are too lazy to look up the correct number themselves, it is unreasonable to do so if they have not first been supplied with an up-to-date telephone directory in which to look up the correct number? Secondly, does he agree that the new scheme discriminates against the elderly and those with knee injuries, for example, who, unlike younger or fitter people, cannot walk several hundred yards to a public telephone box to obtain directory inquiries free of charge?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, British Telecom is not obliged to supply telephone directories under the terms of its PTO licence, which requires only the provision of a directory inquiry facility. However, new telephone directories are supplied to subscribers approximately every 18 months. British Telecom's research has shown that approximately 10 per cent. of the population is on the move at any one time. The 18-month cycle for producing and distributing revised directories is considered the best period to reflect the population movement. As regards the second part of the noble Lord's question, directory inquiry calls by blind and disabled people will remain free, as will calls from pay phones.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, while the Government may not have power to instruct BT, could they not advise it along the lines of the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, which seems to have a great deal in its favour as being the fair way to deal with the transitional period?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the benefit of the new system is that calls will be cheaper as a result of the introduction of the charges. It will not lead to any increase in BT's revenue. The average domestic subscriber will save £4 on calls. Those who use the directory inquiry service will now have to pay for it. Marketing companies which now make most use of the service will have to pay, and residential customers who generally make few directory inquiry calls will be better off, saving 4.5 per cent. on the unit charge and an average of 7.3 per cent. on trunk calls.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the House was told that what is now happening could never occur? Who now is in charge —the British Government or British Telecom? Will the Minister draw this debate to BT's attention, and will he ensure that when people ask for a telephone number over the telephone they will not be charged, because they never were in the past?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the running of BT is primarily the responsibility of the company. However, I will make the noble Lord's views known to it.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the noble Viscount ensure that after the new charge is introduced, when one gives the girl with the computer more information than she gives when she fails to turn up a number, there is a girl in the background with a set of directories who can look up the number?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, BT's latest quality of service report published on 5th November showed that about 90 per cent. of directory inquiry calls get through on the first attempt, and seven out of eight of those calls are answered within 15 seconds. The quality of the service has improved over the past 12 months, despite a 20 per cent. increase in the use of the service.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, perhaps my noble friend will allow me to congratulate him on answering his maiden Question, and to tell him that he has picked up a complete banana. Is he aware that your Lordships are privileged in that we have two sets of telephone directories because the present computerised directory inquiries system is inadequate? Perhaps through my noble friend I can ask the noble Lord, Lord Monson, to put this forward in an Unstarred Question so that we can go into it thoroughly before BT introduces the charges.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind remarks. I note what he said.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, while the Government use their best endeavours and discuss free calls, will they include in that discussion the possibility of providing free calls for servicemen serving in the Gulf when making calls to their loved ones at home, in line with facilities allowed to their counterparts serving in similar forces?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, that question is rather different from the Question on the Order Paper.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, how will BT know whether someone is disabled or blind? I am sure that blind and disabled people will be glad to hear the news that the noble Viscount has given, but it is sometimes difficult to define such people.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for asking that question. I understand that blind and disabled people are registered with BT.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, before the Government privatise undertakings will they explain t o people that this type of consequence may flow when public services, which should be publicly administered and publicly accountable, fall into the hands of shareholders who understandably are interested only in profits?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the charges are not designed to make more money for BT. As I said before, the new system will bring down the cost of calls for the average user. BT's record shows that prices are down by over 20 per cent. in real terms since 1984; 96 per cent. of public call boxes now work; and 70 per cent. of BT's customers are now served by modern digital exchanges giving faster and better connections, clearer lines and fewer call failures.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, my noble friend could go on answering questions on this matter, as he has done, almost ad infinitum. I suggest that after 33 minutes we should take the next question of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, and call it a day.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, like the noble Lord on the other side of the House, I wish to congratulate the noble Viscount on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. He has acquitted himself very well. Perhaps I may ask him whether the Government intend to take any steps whatsoever to encourage the extension of free directory inquiry calls to pensioners.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, again I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. I do not know the specific answer to his question. However, telephone directories are supplied everywhere and it is not thought that there are any places where they are not regularly supplied by contractors.