Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 380 - 399)



  380. I am finding this very unclear. Does this mean that of the 500 special needs payphones that we understand Oftel told you to install you have only been able to install 130 out of 500 since 1997?
  (Mr Green) That is correct.

  381. That is correct? Only 130 out of the 500?
  (Mr Green) Yes, and it is up to 500. That was a cap on the obligation.

  382. It is three years to do it because of technical difficulties?
  (Mr Green) No technical difficulties. If a request comes in for one it is measured against the criteria that we agreed with Oftel and if it satisfies the criteria we put one in.

  383. It is not because people have not requested them?
  (Mr Green) I was going to say there have not been more than 130 requests for special needs payphones that have met those criteria. This is an important aspect of—

  384. It is the public's fault?
  (Mr Green) No. This is an important aspect of our social obligation and we do put them in.

  385. How many have you refused?
  (Mr Green) Probably about two-thirds have not met the criteria. That is either because there is another payphone within a short distance or we cannot get the necessary permission to put them in.

  386. Are you satisfied with the idea of 130 out of the 500, Sir Peter?
  (Sir Peter Bonfield) I am satisfied with our position overall with our payphone obligations, yes. I must admit I find it is quite difficult to determine the difference between a social need and some of the other needs in terms of the payphone criteria, that is why I passed it over to my colleague here. In terms of discharging our obligation, the number of payphones going up, the working of the payphones going up in terms of percentage is good, and by and large we have had a good response in terms of the social obligations. We are now rolling out the new ones for people who have other disabilities, hard of hearing and that sort of thing.

  387. How long did it take you from a request to having the thing installed for the 130 that you have managed to get in in the last three years?
  (Mr Green) I will have to come back to you on that.

  388. Do you have targets?
  (Mr Green) We would have to give you an average. Pardon?

  389. Do you have targets?
  (Mr Green) Yes. We meet those requests as quickly as we can. What we have to do is to look at—

  390. I am asking you how quickly you can.
  (Mr Green) I cannot give you the answer on that because it depends on the location, it depends on what permissions we need, what way leaves and what planning permission.

  391. Can you give me an indication of what is the average length of time, or even what is your target?
  (Mr Green) I will have to write to you on that one, I am afraid, I do not know the average time.

  392. It is very important for people to be able to get early access. One of my colleagues did say earlier that BT are not particularly good at repairing phones, for example, and one of the occasions when you do need to use a public telephone is on those many occasions, I am afraid, when constituents cannot get—
  (Sir Peter Bonfield) We can get back to you on that particular issue. In terms of how we are approaching our payphone business, the United Kingdom is extensively payphoned compared with just about any other country in Europe. We think that it is a good thing to do, it is part of our obligation and we run it as a business. We will try to make sure that we give you the specific analysis of the timescale.

  393. Can I also ask you about support for elderly and disabled customers. We all have concerns about the length of time it might take to remedy a fault on a line because people have need of telephones more and more in the modern world, but people with disabilities, and elderly people in particular, can be extremely dependent on the performance of a telephone company. I am afraid that in my experience BT have not been particularly good in this area, and it is a critical area for people.
  (Sir Peter Bonfield) I agree. I am disappointed if you feel that way. We have a scheme where people with that sort of issue or social concern do get priority in terms of repair. We have trained all of our community engineers to be on the lookout for customers with those types of concerns and issues. We do take those obligations very seriously indeed. If you have got a particular issue of concern, if you can let me have that I will follow it up very hard. We have got the specific programme in place to mitigate exactly that problem.

  394. I understand you have a programme in place but, in fact, one of my concerns is that you are not necessarily demonstrating the ability to get people on to the scheme. I had an example quite recently when after a number of telephone calls made on behalf of a 98 year old lady who had been visited by the telephone engineers after her phone had been disconnected, and after her relatives had made a number of calls on every occasion saying "this lady is 98 years old", when I actually made a phone call she had not been put on.
  (Sir Peter Bonfield) Really? Well, I apologise for that.

  395. I had to explain to your managers that you had this system. It should not be MPs who are telling them that, it should be the managers who know and it should be the people answering the phones who actually make that connection for people. 98 year old ladies do not understand how your systems work but your managers should.
  (Sir Peter Bonfield) No, I agree mea culpa. If that is your experience we will have to make sure that we redouble our efforts. Thanks for that input.


  396. Do you think that the policing, for want of a better expression, of your universal service obligation is satisfactory? Maybe this is the wrong way to put it, but do you feel that you have to mind your Ps and Qs when it comes to the universal service obligation? The impression I get is that nobody really has any responsibility for making sure that you fulfil it.
  (Sir Peter Bonfield) Certainly we treat it very seriously indeed.

  397. I realise you do but we kind of got the impression from the Regulator that it was none of his business, guv, and, therefore, he was not interested in it unduly. When we spoke to him about the payphone business, "it is nothing to do with me". He is very good at telling us what is not his job. We are of the view that perhaps we ought to reframe legislation beyond the next election, as it will have to be.
  (Sir Peter Bonfield) I think we just need to be a bit careful about loading regulation on a business that I personally think is too much overloaded with regulation. How do we make sure we discharge it?
  (Mr Green) Every year we have to give a certificate to Oftel that our Board has looked at our investments and our plans and they are satisfied we will be able to continue to comply with our licence obligations. Oftel are entitled to require that to be audited. Very specifically, Oftel have obligations to ensure that we comply with our licence. We take them seriously because these are our customers, but Oftel has an obligation to enforce them if for some reason we do not.
  (Sir Peter Bonfield) We prefer to make sure that we have that obligation on us and, as Colin said, it is audited rather than additional regulation put on us. This is now an extremely competitive industry and an extremely competitive marketplace in which we operate and I think we ought to be looking at ways in which we can reduce regulation, not increase it.

  398. But the fact is you are still the biggest single player in the British telecommunications business and you are there because you are the old nationalised industry that has been privatised. You did not break sweat initially over the unbundling of the local loop. Your shareholders would have complained if you had done because until you had to there was no obligation on you to do it. You are not running a charitable institution, are you?
  (Sir Peter Bonfield) No.

  399. Therefore, you ought to be subject to some kind of watchdog facility in that sense.
  (Sir Peter Bonfield) Chairman, I am not saying that this is not a regulated industry, it clearly is a regulated industry. All I am saying is that as more and more competition comes in then my general feeling is that regulation should reduce. In terms of the competition in the United Kingdom now in communications we are a large player but there are a number of players now, some of them very large in the FTSE 100. In terms of regulation, it has increased since BT was privatised at the same time as competition has increased. That is my only point. As competition increases it becomes a more competitive market place and my feeling is that regulation should be reduced. I am not saying it should be totally removed.

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