Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 49

Memorandum submitted by the Northern Ireland Advisory Committee on Telecommunications (NIACT)

BACKGROUND

  1.  Oftel is the independent body set up under the Telecommunications Act 1984 to regulate telecommunications in the UK. NIACT is one of the six Advisory Committees on telecommunications (ACTs) in the UK established under the same Act. The Chairman and committee members are appointed by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to advise the Director General of Telecommunications on any matter concerning regulation of the telecommunications industry in Northern Ireland.

  2.  NIACT's overall focus is on consumer issues, particularly those which affect telecommunications users in Northern Ireland. However, we have attempted to consider all issues raised in the Draft Bill as far as possible, but our main emphasis is on the structure of the proposed Consumer Panel.

INTRODUCTION

  3.  NIACT is pleased that steps are being taken to rationalise the different regulatory bodies for communications. It has been clear for some time that with the advent of convergence of telecommunications, television and internet, this would eventually become a necessity. We support the broad thrust of the Draft Communications Bill, but there are a few points on which we feel that we must comment.

OFCOM'S REMIT AND GENERAL DUTIES, PARAGRAPH 3(1)

  4.  NIACT agrees with the seven duties of OFCOM, but it is our opinion that the single most important of these is the first, and this should be awarded some form of priority. The others, while important, are not so pressing that their absence would render OFCOM ineffective.

  5.  We feel that some attention should be given to whom exactly OFCOM should represent; not only the contracted users of the communications services, but also all citizens, who may access the services though they are not contracted to any company for them.

OFCOM AND DEVOLUTION

  6.  NIACT's focus is naturally on issues affecting Northern Ireland, and we feel that there are several very important issues which, unless Northern Ireland is properly represented under OFCOM, will not be addressed properly.

  7.  Northern Ireland faces unique issues due to the land border with the Republic of Ireland, including:

  8.  Mobile telephones in border areas and along the north coast of NI roaming to networks in the Republic of Ireland and hence consumers being charged for local calls at international rates and subjected to roaming charges when receiving calls. This issue, which has been highlighted most recently in a Study of Obstacles to Mobility published by the North South Ministerial Council (November 2001), has not been tackled effectively under the existing Oftel arrangements.

  9.  Evidence that high international tariffs for broadband services have led to inward investment being lost to Northern Ireland.

  10.  A demand from many consumers in Northern Ireland to receive TV and radio stations broadcasting from the Republic.

  11.  Conversely, the Channel 3 provider with a remit to serve Northern Ireland is the one which is most commonly available in the Republic. This certainly has an impact on the advertising carried and is increasingly also influencing editorial content.

  12.  Difficulties in addressing the issue of pirate radio stations broadcasting from the Republic for a Northern Ireland audience and impacting adversely on legitimate broadcasters.

  13.  Distinctive political arrangements, including a different party system from that in the rest of the UK.

  14.  The sensitivities associated with broadcasting to a region with a divided society emerging from conflict, which can however still flare up at times.

  15.  The Belfast Agreement commitment for the UK Government to:

  16.  "explore urgently with the relevant British authorities, and in co-operation with the Irish broadcasting authorities, the scope for achieving more widespread availability of Teilifis na Gaeilige [the Irish-medium television station based in the Republic of Ireland, now known as TG4] in Northern Ireland".

  17.  And the broader commitments in the Agreement in relation to the Irish language and Ulster-Scots. Also the implications of the European Charter for regional or Minority Languages.

  18.  The statutory equality duties which apply to public authorities under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and which will require the new body to be sensitive to, and tapped into, local equality interests.

  19.  Many families are split across the border—therefore it is vital for consumers to ensure that OFCOM and ODTR both fully understand the issues of social inclusion and economic development throughout the island.

  20.  We feel that there are areas in the Bill where OFCOM would not be able to meet these needs without advice and support from a Committee based in Northern Ireland.

  21.  It is not sufficient merely for the Bill to state that Northern Ireland's consumers and citizens should be represented on the Panel "where practicable". Indeed, referring once more to Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, there must be a much more solid and representative structure to represent Northern Ireland.

  22.  NIACT believes that this legislation insists upon a Northern Ireland member of the Consumer Panel, who actually resides in the Province, as well as a Northern Ireland Committee drawn from all sections of the community to support him/her. This way there is a body within Northern Ireland which is ideally placed, as NIACT is now, to consult all relevant groups about any decisions being made by OFCOM before submitting to the Consumer Panel.

  23.  This Committee support structure, as well as offices in Northern Ireland, should be laid down in statute to ensure that it is unaffected by cost cutting, as has happened in the past.

  24.  Scotland, England and Wales each has several areas for which they require individual representation, and as the White Paper had stated its intentions to co-operate with and work with the devolved assemblies and parliament, NIACT feels that there is no other option than to lay down in statute provision for regional representative committees in all four countries.


POWERS AND REMIT OF THE CONSUMER PANEL

  NIACT welcomes the establishment of the Consumer Panel, but there are some areas of the legislation where we have some very grave concerns.

  It seems unnecessary to establish a prescriptive list of the Consumer Panel's areas of interest. Paragraph 96(2) should simply allow the Panel to advise OFCOM about the interests of all small-to-medium sized business and domestic consumers and citizens in relation to any communications consumer issue. Restricting its activities to a list undermines its powers somewhat.

  It is stated that the Consumer Panel should carry out research "at the request of OFCOM". This should not preclude any research that the Panel wishes to carry out separately, and should not restrict the Panel's activities in any way. We do welcome, however, the obligation on OFCOM to have regard to the Panel's advice, and the obligation on OFCOM to state publicly the reasons why it ignores such advice.

  It is concerning that in paragraph 96(5) and 96(6) there are restrictions made on the information the Panel may have access to, and that OFCOM may decide on what information should be made available to them. Doubtless, the members of the Consumer Panel will be bound by the Official Secrets Act and the Data Protection Act; therefore, there is no need to restrict what information is given on the basis of sensitivity. This restriction should be removed, and the Panel should have access to whatever information it feels is relevant to consumer issues.

INDEPENDENCE AND MEMBERSHIP OF THE CONSUMER PANEL

  NIACT's membership and Chairman are all appointed by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and can only be removed by the Secretary of State. In our experience, this provides for a completely independent and impartial advisory body.

  While we appreciate the compromise position attempted in the Draft Bill, where the Secretary of State approves appointments made by OFCOM, NIACT feels that the Bill should go one step further and ensure independence by stating that members of the Panel are appointed by the Secretary of State without the involvement of OFCOM.

  OFCOM should have no input into the Panel's agenda or which issues it chooses to address; neither should it choose which issues to consult the Panel on. The Consumer Panel should be consulted on all decisions that OFCOM wishes to make, and then the Panel can decide which ones it is appropriate to respond to. Equally, there should be an obligation on the Consumer Panel to keep OFCOM informed of the progress of anf final report from any work undertaken.

  NIACT welcomes the directive that the Panel should take account of the views of various special needs groups such as small businesses and the disabled and elderly. However, we cannot see how one representative from each group can possibly represent all of the views of each sector, and we are concerned to note that there is no mention of minority race groups, which face a completely different variety of problems compared with the other groups, and have a different variety of needs.

  After all, the needs of a visually impaired person differ greatly from those of someone with mental illness, or someone with mobility impairments. One person on the Consumer Panel with an interest in one of these disabilities will not be able to represent this group effectively unless he/she is supported by a committee with a wide range of disability interests.

  Since 90 per cent of businesses in the UK employ fewer than 10 staff, perhaps the definition of small business should be reconsidered—the needs of a micro-business such as these will be markedly different to one employing 50 staff. But we do feel that all businesses, not just small ones, should be able to avail of this representation.

  NIACT would propose that there is a statutory committee to represent each of these special groups, as well as one for each region, and that each committee is represented on the Consumer Panel. We would also point out that each special needs committee should seek representatives from each of the regions.

June 2002


 
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