HL Deb 09 June 2003 vol 649 cc4-6

2.45 p.m.

Lord Ezra

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that the replacement of the current three-digit telephone number for directory inquiries with 16 six-digit numbers with varying charges and providing varying services represents an improvement for customers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, numbering is the responsibility of Oftel. Competition for directory inquiry services was introduced by Oftel in December 2002, so it is too early to judge the success of the scheme. Where competition has been introduced in other markets, such as Germany and the Republic of Ireland, consumers have tended to benefit from lower prices, higher quality of service and a wider range of services.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, is this form of competition not unrealistic, as all the new providers will have to use the BT database, for which they will have to pay BT a fixed annual fee plus a charge per inquiry? All that the new providers will offer is a complexity of tariffs that are very difficult to compare, as some will be based on a charge per minute, some on a fixed charge, and some on a combination of the two. Furthermore, would the noble Lord not agree that there are hidden traps in the new system? If the providers offer to connect the inquirer to the number that they want, they could be charged anything up to 30p a minute for their connection, whereas the BT standard rate for local calls is 3p.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the interesting part of the Question is the response of BT to competition. We have already seen early indications that there will be competition on price, quality and type of service. Of course, one service has already offered a lower price, and BT has now provided exactly the same services offered by the competitor. I have found again and again in my business experience that monopoly providers will not innovate or provide new services, claiming that they are not wanted by the customers or are too difficult to do, but as soon as competition emerges they suddenly become possible. This is a classic example where a monopoly provider has not innovated or made new services available. Competition has been introduced, and we now see proper regard paid to the customer.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, does the Minister agree that that is a classic example, to use his words, of a large corporation caring not a jot for its customers but following the example that the Government so persistently set in terms of a love of complexity and complication and eschewing the simple solution?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I do not totally agree. There is no very simple solution. Three-digit numbers cannot be used because those have very largely been taken up, so six-digit numbers have to be used. However, they are not insuperably difficult numbers to remember. They are numbers such as 118 118 and 118 000, and there are very simple ways to remember them.

Lord Acton

My Lords, two or three years ago, when I was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I had occasion to try to find the code for Italy. It took me 11 telephone calls, including two to my wife to complain about the United States, before I got the number. Is that not an awful warning of the higher qualities of service that my noble friend expects?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am not totally clear about the issue raised. I very much sympathise with the noble Lord's difficulty in getting the number for Italy, but I do not think that wholly relevant to what is really quite a small change in the numbering system for directory inquiries in this country.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, is not the serious point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that if the competitor says, "Would you like us to connect you?", there is no indication to the customer that it may charge up to 10 times more than BT would charge for that same call? Surely that is highly unsatisfactory and very damaging to the consumer.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, if there are different pricing systems, it is inevitable that they are slightly more complicated to understand than if there is one. Again, that is in the nature of competition. It is very clear that the services and their pricing structure have to be made known, with the services monitored by an independent body to make certain that they are properly marketed.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many people would like to access the telephone numbers they require via the Internet but unless there is some regulation of the fees charged by BT they will not get them any cheaper? Under the Communications Bill, does Ofcom have the power to regulate the amounts charged by BT for the use of its database?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the great advantage of the system is that there is competition and that cheaper services are already being provided.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, if the Answer given by my noble friend to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, on competition is true, why is it that Onetel offers national telephone calls at one-third of the price of BT and BT refuses to respond in any way?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, presumably, in due course BT will have to respond because customers will go elsewhere.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that Oftel always acts in the consumer interest? I point out in particular that twice most weeks and certainly once every week I receive an expensive press release from Oftel. When I have asked about the cost of them—they always come beautifully presented in quality envelopes—I have been told, "Don't worry. It's nothing to you, it's all paid for by the telephone industry". That seems to overlook the fact that we, the public, are paying for the telephone industry.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, presumably if there were no press releases, Oftel would be accused of failing to communicate with the public. The question of the paper that they do it on is, I am afraid, not covered by brief. It is probably not a major overhead to the system.

Lord Carter

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the new service will continue to provide the discounted services that are currently available for disabled customers?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, a specific number—the 195 service—is for customers who are unable to use a conventional telephone book because of disablement. That will remain completely unchanged.