§ Mr. Richards
To ask the President of the Board of Trade when he will be making regulations enabling the Director General of Telecommunications to determine billing disputes.
§ Mr. McLoughlin
The Competition and Service (Utilities) Act 1992 included provisions giving my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade the power to make regulations enabling the Director General of Telecommunications to determine disputes about bills for certain telephone services.
However, there have been important developments which have led me to reconsider the need to make the regulations at the present time.
BT sends out some 100 million bills each year. The number of complaints about billing disputes made to the Office of Telecommunications—Oftel—and the Scottish and Welsh telecommunications advisory committees has fallen from 12,778 in 1991 to 6,892 in 1992 and Oftel expects its figure to fall further in 1993. The reduction in complaints involving BT's customers appears to be due to a number of factors, including the modernisation of BT's network, which has resulted in itemised bills now being available on 90 per cent of its lines;call barring, which enables the customer to bar premium rate services and is now available on some 65 per cent. of its lines;a network security study carried out by BT which has resulted in 951W improved security, detection and investigation techniques;the launching by BT of a new customer care service based on freefone numbers—BT is also in the process of agreeing improved procedures for dealing with complaints with the director general under the powers of the Competition and Service (Utilities) Act 1992;BT is also carrying out trials for introducing itemisation for calls below 50p, monthly billing and credit limits on usage.
In addition, BT has recently announced that it will be introducing "opting-in" for adult premium rate services through the use of personal identification numbers from July next year. This welcome action, together with the other measures detailed in my answer, should lead to an even greater reduction in the number of billing disputes.
In the light of the action which BT has taken and in the expectation of further reductions in the level of complaints about telephone bills to Oftel, I have decided not to proceed to make the regulations at the present time. I do, however, attach importance to continued improvements and I will want to look closely at this again in a year's time.