Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 160 - 174)



  160. We do not even know if there are fewer call boxes now than there were three years ago. This is part of the Universal Service Obligation that a big utility like BT is supposed to fulfil. One cannot blame BT if you cannot police them or require them to provide decent information and make sure that they are doing something in the time they say they will do it.
  (Mr Edmonds) Sir, I have a huge number of complaints, letters, both from Members of Parliament and members of the public. The provision of public call boxes does not figure in terms of an anxiety that is put to me. If you have an anxiety, Members of this Committee have anxieties, it has not been an issue in my three years at Oftel. That is giving you an honest answer.

  161. The fact is they dominate the market.
  (Mr Edmonds) Yes.

  162. They have doubled the price.
  (Mr Edmonds) Yes.

  163. They have reduced their service, for example.
  (Mr Edmonds) Yes.

  164. Are you aware, for example, that you now have to pay for a directory enquiry?
  (Mr Edmonds) Yes, I am. That was part of the package they introduced.

  Chairman: There is no telephone directory in a call box necessarily or at one of these phones. Do you not think that is part of the Universal Service Obligation? If you are caught short you have to make a phone call, you do not have the number and you have to pay twice as much to even get the number you want.

  Helen Southworth: Also it is very disconcerting for people with visual impairment who are one of the main users of that service and now have no access to it. I cannot see how that is meeting Universal Service Agreements if it excludes those people.


  165. I find it very strange, Mr Edmonds, that at a time when most of the other regulators are embracing the social obligations you seem to be allowing BT to walk away from them.
  (Mr Edmonds) I gave you the correct answer to the question. I have no power to stop BT putting up their charges in their call boxes. I have no power to stop BT introducing a charge for directory inquiries.

  166. You have a power to protect the Universal Service Obligations.
  (Mr Edmonds) Indeed.

  167. In a way which makes the service appropriate for the public's needs.
  (Mr Edmonds) I have no evidence that the service is not appropriate to the public needs. If that evidence is put to me I will clearly consider it but in this context, as I have said to you, Sir, the Universal Service and public call boxes has not been an issue during my period at Oftel.

Mr Chope

  168. The Treasury have commissioned WS Atkins to investigate the steeply rising costs of Regulation. I wonder if you could tell us what your dealings have been with WS Atkins during their inquiry into this?
  (Mr Edmonds) Yes. I have worked very closely with WS Atkins who are a firm who are currently looking at the efficiency relativities of the utility regulators. We have provided WS Atkins with a huge amount of material about what our costs are, what our cost drivers are, where we feel that we are under resourced, and we are waiting eagerly for the report that they make to the Treasury.

  169. Could you share some of the information you have given to them with us?
  (Mr Edmonds) Surely. What we have talked to them about is where our costs are, what our manpower is, the fact is manpower in Oftel has risen over the last two or three years. We have given them the costs of the various services that we provide. We have told them about the dramatic increase in the amount of correspondence that we have had, the dramatic increase in the telephone communications that we have had. We are waiting for them to draw some conclusions about our performance compared with those of other regulators.

  170. Are those conclusions going to be publicised, as you understand, or are they going to be kept secret?
  (Mr Edmonds) I do not know. It is a report which has been commissioned by the Treasury. The Treasury wanted to know what efficiency looked like in order to be better able to satisfy themselves but each year I go to them and ask for resources and say they are going into an organisation that is competently and professionally run. Whether the report is going to be published is a question for the Treasury rather than for me.

  171. You are expecting that you are going to get more resources from the Treasury rather than fewer, are you not?
  (Mr Edmonds) Yes, to be honest. I think that the challenges and demands that Oftel face, the demands that we have risen to over the last few years, do require a greater resource input, yes. It may not be hugely greater but I think that we are very stretched to carry out the work that we carry out.

  172. Your budget has already nearly doubled?
  (Mr Edmonds) No, no, no, no. My budget is about £12 million at present. It has gone up by, I think, 12 per cent in the last year. That is not a doubling.

  173. Not in the last year. How do you answer the charge that the more you spend, the more you increase your staff budget and the less effective you become? What response have you given to this chap, Olly Rehn, the head of Commissioner Liikanen's Cabinet, who said in September: "The UK has relegated itself from the premier league (of European telecoms Regulation) to the relegation zone of the second division". Did you give him a strong blast?
  (Mr Edmonds) I gave him a very strong blast and I gave a very strong blast to Robert Verrue, who is the Director-General of the Telecommunications Directorate in Brussels. I think it was totally and absolutely unfounded and I think if you were to look at media coverage subsequently you would have found that the Commission retracted totally the allegations made by that apparatchik. I think it was a very ill-judged remark for him to make and I think it was totally unfounded in terms of both the performance of Oftel and in terms of the performance of the UK sector generally.

  174. Have they apologised?
  (Mr Edmonds) I have had a profuse apology from Robert Verrue, yes.

  Chairman: On that happy note then, Mr Edmonds, can I say thank you for the evidence you have given us this morning. We will want, obviously, to pursue it and we will get some written information from you as well. Can I just make the point that we will be hearing evidence from BT and other operators and service providers we intend before Christmas. We probably, I think, I know I have got one organised, and I think probably some of my colleagues would like to visit one of the local exchanges to appreciate for ourselves the various options and how they are being addressed. We would like to see perhaps some of the exchanges chosen within the bow wave and it may well be that these are the easiest ones to organise because they are the least busy, but that is another thing we shall have to see. Anyway, if we have difficulty with BT we may well come to you and say "Can you help us to put this lot into line?" Having said that, thank you very much for coming this morning.

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