HL Deb 10 September 2003 vol 652 cc290-1

2.45 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider BT's system for answering queries and complaints by way of recorded voices to be in the best interests of the consumers.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, like many companies, BT uses automated call management systems. Companies believe that this is the most efficient way of dealing with incoming calls. Oftel has no powers to control how businesses operate their call management systems and so any complaints should be brought to the attention of senior management within the company concerned—in this case, BT.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that expected reply. However, I cannot think that the Government can absolve themselves from all responsibility for the public service which has been privatised. This Question arose, of course, from personal experience. I arrived home on a Thursday to find that both telephones were not working. After an hour and a half, I got through to an unfortunate man in Cardiff—who, I regret to tell your Lordships, had never heard of Forfar. He assured me, however, that on Monday—this was Thursday—someone would come along to see what was wrong with the line. This duly happened. I found out that the engineer lived half a mile away and could have come on Thursday had he known about the problem. So it is quite obvious that these systems are not working and the Government need to take an interest in the matter. I do not know whether they have a golden share, but I can assure the Minister that they still have some influence.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, if the noble Lord has not drawn this issue to the attention of the senior management of BT, as I advise him to do, he has taken my advice very rapidly indeed through his Question. I am sure that we all sympathise with the difficulties that he faced, which I imagine are not a unique experience in this House. However, BT has been a privatised company for a considerable period of time. Its senior management must answer for the ineffective service that he has identified on this occasion.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

My Lords, could the explanation for the noble Lord's terrible experience be that the call centre operative who said he was in Cardiff was really in Bombay?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, that then presumes that the call centre in Bombay would have understood Forfar rather better than Cardiff. That may not be the case.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, I suggest to the Minister that there is a public issue here; namely, the mental health of the nation, given the number of people ringing up and getting totally frustrated. This is seriously deleterious to the mental health—not to speak of the spiritual health—of the nation. Best practice is for the caller to be told where he is in the queue and how long he has to wait. It is a simple procedure. I do not know whether BT does that, but it helps to lower the aggression level a little.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the whole House clearly appreciates the right reverend Prelate's constructive suggestion. Let us hope that more companies involve themselves in relieving this pressure—although I would counsel the right reverend Prelate against suggesting that our mental health is too fiercely damaged by these trials and terrors, because I fear that we have probably all experienced them.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, perhaps I may remind the House that I was a director of British Telecom for some years. I also carried through the provisions of its denationalisation, which led to better services and lower prices and included a provision for competition. Surely the Minister should have reminded the noble Lord that in a competitive, free-market situation, which there is in telephony in this country, there are enormous choices for consumers. Perhaps he will also intervene on my behalf with the right reverend Prelate to see whether I may be informed as to where I shall be in the queue in having my prayers answered next Sunday when I am on my knees in one of his churches.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, with regard to the first part of the question, the noble Lord is right that there is competition in the provision of such services. But I believe that most of us who have trouble with a company believe that it should be for that company to improve its procedures, not only on our own behalf but on behalf of all its customers, rather than go through the sometimes laborious exercise of transferring our custom elsewhere.

As to the competition between the efficacy of British Telecom management and higher powers, I give way to the noble Lord and his experience in that matter.